Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 3, Episode 15
Directed by: David Carson
Story by: Trent Christopher Ganino and Eric A. Stillwell
Teleplay by: Ira Steven Behr, Richard Manning, Hans Beimler, Ronald D. Moore
Original air date: 19th February 1990
This is the episode I credit for my love of both Star Trek and time travel. It first aired in the UK in January 1992, almost two years after it aired in the US, so I would’ve been six years old. It quickly became a favourite of my dad’s, and was one of the episodes he got me to watch when he was introducing me to Star Trek. I remember being captivated by the time-wimey story and alternate Tasha Yar’s dilemma, shocked by the gruesome shrapnel-in-the-head death of Captain Rachel Garrett, and on the edge of my seat when Riker got his neck all sliced up and the Enterprise burned around Picard. It was all very exciting and dramatic stuff for a six-year-old.
Of course, Yesterday’s Enterprise is a favourite for a lot of people, and that’s because it’s the one of the best Star Trek episodes ever produced. An instant classic when it aired, I’d actually call it the best Next Generation episode, above even The Best of Both Worlds.
A surprise, too, given how many people were involved in writing it. That two people came up with the story and then five different people had a hand in the teleplay (head writer Michael Piller also worked on it, but agreed to go uncredited) could easily have turned this episode into a complete mess. Indeed, story elements were changing constantly during the writing process as a result of all the people involved. For instance, the time travel was originally going to involve the Guardian of Forever, the time portal from the TOS and TAS episodes The City on the Edge of Forever and Yesteryear. An alternate timeline was created, in which Tasha Yar was still alive, after a team of Vulcans went through the Guardian and killed the founder of Vulcan logic, Surak. In the end it was decided that the Vulcans and the Guardian would be dropped and that this story would be merged with another, about the Enterprise-C coming forwards in time. There was also a Yar/Data love story (glad that was scrapped!) and no Guinan; originally an alien probe was going to be the thing that told the Enterprise-D crew that the timeline had changed.
Fortunately, too many cooks didn’t spoil the broth so much as make it bloody delicious.
The Enterprise-D encounters a rift in space and time that really disturbs Guinan. It’s not actually clear why she responds with “No,” when she first sees it through the window, but her reaction, coupled with the dark and moody score, suggests that this phenomenon is baaaad news. A ship comes through the rift and everything aboard the Enterprise-D changes. Worf and Troi disappear, the bridge transforms, and Tasha Yar—who was killed back in Season 1—is alive again. We then get that beautifully acted and again brilliantly scored moment when Tasha reveals the mysterious ship’s registry: “NCC-1701… C. USS Enterprise.” At which point Picard and Riker are like “Whaaat?”
Only Guinan knows that the timeline has changed. The Federation is now at war with the Klingons (hence the absence of Worf) and Guinan has to convince Picard that all this is to do with the Enterprise-C’s arrival. Basically, the Enterprise-C and its gallant crew were supposed to die saving a Klingon outpost, Narendra III, from a Romulan attack. When the rift caused them to slip forwards in time mid-battle, lasting peace with the Klingons never happened.
We get some powerful exchanges between Guinan and Picard, with excellent acting from Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg. The best of their exchanges is the following:
“I will not ask them to die.”
“Forty billion people have already died! This war’s not supposed to be happening! You’ve got to send those people back to correct this.”
“And what is to guarantee that if they go back they will succeed? Every instinct is telling me this is wrong, it is dangerous, it is futile!”
“We’ve known each other a long time. You have never known me to impose myself on anyone or take a stance based on trivial or whimsical perceptions. This timeline must not be allowed to continue. Now, I’ve told you what you must do. You have only your trust in me to help you decide to do it.”
It’s situations like this that make time travel so damned compelling. It’s a genuine dilemma when a change to the past creates a future that was never supposed to happen. Changing things back means erasing that future, and all the lives lived in it. Now, as far as we and Guinan can see, this new future’s a pretty bloody awful one. However, for one person, it’s been significantly better: Lieutenant Natasha Yar. She’s continued to serve as chief tactical officer on the Enterprise-D instead of dying an “empty” death, zapped by a puddle of black goo for shits and giggles.
This creates an interesting predicament for Picard and Tasha, with fascinating and thought-provoking implications. After the Enterprise-C’s captain gets killed during a battle with the Klingons, Tasha transfers to the Enterprise-C to help them return to the past and fight the Romulans, so that her death can “count for something”. It’s really powerful storytelling and character work, setting up interesting possibilities for future stories. Indeed, the Next Generation writers didn’t forget what they’d done here. Alternate Tasha, after getting captured by Romulans, ended up birthing a half-Romulan daughter, Sela, who showed up to cause problems for Picard and co in Redemption and again in Unification. (It would’ve been great if they’d kept Alternate Tasha alive, or brought Sela back a few more times, but hey, there’s still time and I know from interviews that Denise Crosby would come back in a heartbeat if she was asked.)
I refer to the time travel in Yesterday’s Enterprise a lot, partly because it sets a lot of precedents for how time travel is handled in the Trek universe. I referred to it when arguing that the writers of Star Trek (2009) effectively deleted every Star Trek series set after Enterprise thanks to Nero’s time travelling, and that it was absurd that Future Spock wouldn’t try and undo Nero’s actions just as Guinan was so determined to do in this episode. (The writers of the 2009 movie said that they were following the many-worlds interpretation of time travel, but that is not how Star Trek ever dealt with time travel before, the first example being this episode.)
In addition, when writers of both Trek and other time travel series and films try to incorporate the ‘disappearing rule’, i.e. the idea that when your future is erased, you disappear, I say, well, Tasha didn’t! The original timeline is restored at the end of Yesterday’s Enterprise and the alternate timeline deleted, but alternate Tasha continues to exist, as makes the most sense when you unpick any disappearing in any time travel tale. Basically, Yesterday’s Enterprise is responsible for creating a lot of time travel rules that hadn’t been yet established in Trek up to this point, and being such a famous episode, it’s a bit silly when future Trek writers go and trample on them.
Another great thing about Yesterday’s Enterprise is that its most important characters are women. This is the best Tasha Yar-centric episode there is (she barely got any decent material in Season 1, although there wasn’t exactly an abundance of decent material to go around). Rachel Garrett was the first female Star Trek captain to have more than a tiny bit part and the strong impression she makes here only adds to the shock of her death. And of course, all the key decisions in this episode—both Picard’s and Yar’s—are driven by Guinan.
In fact, Guinan and her mysterious beyond-linear-time perceptions in Yesterday’s Enterprise were my inspiration for a character in the Million Eyes universe, Rachel Evans. Rachel features in the stories Rachel Can See and Rachel Can Still See in the free-to-download short story collection Million Eyes: Extra Time, and if you read those stories, you’ll see the influence that Yesterday’s Enterprise has had, and continues to have, on my writing. Rachel’s also referenced in the novels and people with similar abilities to hers are set to become very important in future short stories and in the third novel in the trilogy.
There isn’t really anything I can criticise about Yesterday’s Enterprise, to be honest. It’s a flawless piece of work. Even the romance between Yar and the Enterprise-C’s helmsman, Richard Castillo, works. And that’s mainly because it feels natural rather than shoehorned in, and doesn’t draw attention to itself. (By contrast, Kirk’s forced “I’m in love with Edith Keeler” subplot in The City on the Edge of Forever is there solely to make Kirk’s decision to let Keeler die more difficult, and Keeler’s death more tragic.)
It would’ve been interesting if they’d gone with their original plan for the ending, which would’ve seen Data electrocuted and Wesley’s head blown off (I mean, who doesn’t want to see Wesley Crusher’s head blown off?!) Unfortunately, budget and time constraints permitted only Riker’s death. That said, I’m not sure six-year-old me would’ve coped with that. Garrett’s death had already chilled me to my core.