“Time Squared”
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 2, Episode 13
Directed by: Joseph L. Scanlan

Story by: Kurt Michael Bensmiller
Teleplay by: Maurice Hurley
Original air date: 3rd April 1989

Time Squared is a big step up from the dull-as-an-empty-box We’ll Always Have Paris. Overall I’d call it okay. Not great, just okay. Although the plot is intriguing, it doesn’t go far enough to be truly compelling, and the pacing is a tad off.

The beginning is good. After a mildly amusing scene wherein Riker cooks omelettes for his shipmates, the Enterprise encounters a shuttlecraft floating in space and tractors it aboard. I like the scene where Riker and Worf go to the shuttlebay to inspect the shuttle and realise that it’s the exact same shuttle as the one sitting next to it. And inside, to their continued bewilderment, sits a duplicate of Picard.

Worf (Michael Dorn), Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Pulaski (Diana Muldaur) discover a dupicate of Picard (Patrick Stewart)

Dr Pulaski examines Picard’s double and says his brainwaves are strange and ‘out of phase’. Similarly, Data and La Forge can’t get the duplicate shuttle working because, oddly, its circuits aren’t compatible with its own mothership. Eventually able to restore power with some technobabble, they see that the stardate on the shuttle’s chronometer is six hours in the future. The shuttle—and the duplicate Picard—have come back in time.

Geordi (LeVar Burton) and Data (Brent Spiner) encounter problems with the shuttlecraft’s circuitry

There’s an atmospheric, well-written and well-acted scene in the conference room where the senior staff review the shuttle’s logs and discover that Picard alone managed to escape the Enterprise’s destruction in an energy vortex. They discuss what to do to avoid this course of events, but theorise that they may well have got themselves caught in a time loop from which there is no escape. The dialogue here is strong, particularly Picard’s reference to how this might not be as simple as seeing a rock on a trail up ahead and going around it, and Worf’s reference to the Moebuis, a hypothetical twist in the fabric of space in which time becomes a loop. (This ‘Moebuis’ theory is sadly never brought up again in Trek, which is a shame because there are dozens more time loop episodes to come after this one, and this would’ve been a nice thing to explore.)

The scenes in sickbay are, shall we say, less good, and an example of the pacing issues I mentioned. Pulaski revives the duplicate Picard but he’s disoriented and distressed and can’t speak. She later reveals that as they move closer in time to when he left the Enterprise, his internal body clock is realigning. This is an interesting concept, although we’ve never seen it before and nor do we see it again in Star Trek’s many examples of time travel. The sickbay scenes start to become slow and uninteresting mainly because Future Picard doesn’t do a lot except frown and look upset. Troi’s psychobabble about the feelings she senses from him don’t add anything (as per usual). And Present Picard’s reluctance to accept that Future Picard is really him is just meh. Although I get it because Picard doesn’t understand why he’d abandon his post, it could’ve been a much more insightful exploration of his guilt than what’s presented here. His little outburst is also followed by a totally pointless scene between Troi and Pulaski. Troi says how well he’s doing given the stress of the situation, and Pulaski warns that she might have to step in if Picard gets a bit too emotional. The conversation comes to nothing, so really doesn’t deserve to be there.

I liked the conversation between Picard and Riker in Picard’s ready room. They discuss how the shuttle may have travelled back in time, referencing the slingshot manoeuvre seen in The Original Series. They also name-drop the Traveller, seen in Where No One Has Gone Before. He was able to move through time using his mind (although Where No One Has Gone Before was not a time-themed episode, hence why I’ve not covered it here). They also mention Manheim’s experiments from We’ll Always Have Paris. Even though I hated that episode, I appreciate continuity references like this, particularly when characters are using past events to try and figure out what is going on.

The Enterprise is pulled into a mysterious vortex in space

The tension accelerates when the Enterprise gets stuck in the vortex we know will destroy it, and Picard starts getting zapped by the vortex while on the bridge. It appears to be targeting him personally. He theorises that if he leaves the ship, the vortex may go after him and leave the Enterprise alone. But of course, that’s the mistake.

An intelligence within the void singles out Picard for attack

The climactic scenes have Picard and his future counterpart (now compos mentis) facing off. The writing and special effects work well (apart from one moment when one Picard looks at the other and the eyeline’s all wrong). It’s an exciting moment when Picard realises his future self is unable to break the cycle, so does it for him with a phaser.

As soon as his counterpart is killed, Picard orders the Enterprise to stop trying to escape from the vortex and fly into the centre of it instead. They break away and both Future Picard and the duplicate shuttle disappear.

Ah, the disappearing rule. Have a read of my previous article about why this doesn’t work in movies like Back to the Future and Looper. It doesn’t work here either. By killing him, Picard has erased the future his duplicate came from. But that doesn’t mean the duplicate should disappear. Author Orson Scott Card once said:

“If you go back in time, you can make any changes you want in the past and you’ll continue to exist, because the very act of traveling in time takes you outside the timestream and removes you from the effects of changes in history.”

In most Star Trek time travel episodes, time travellers themselves aren’t affected by changes to the timeline—even if their own future has been erased. In the episode I’ll be covering next, Yesterday’s Enterprise, the future Tasha Yar comes from gets erased, but she doesn’t disappear. She endures and gives birth to the half-Romulan Sela. By the same token, the duplicate Picard and shuttle should endure.

Picard determines he must shoot his duplicate to break the cycle and “change” results in the future

We sadly never find out what the vortex was, whether it was alive (although it certainly displayed intelligent behaviour), why it was attacking Picard personally, or even the biggest question of all—how and why Picard got thrown six hours back in time. This is a shame because it feels like the writers just never worked it out. Another review I read called the episode’s contentedness to let a mystery be a mystery one of its greatest strengths. I disagree. You can leave a few threads hanging to allow a viewer to speculate, but if you fail to answer the main questions everyone’s asking, it’s just unsatisfying and lazy. The whole point of a mystery is to resolve it. If you don’t, it’s like watching a whodunit and never finding out who the killer is.

Overall, leaving those questions unresolved renders Time Squared just not interesting enough. I was fascinated to read that the episode was originally going to be a lead-in to Q Who (one of my faves), and Q was going to be the one responsible for the vortex and Picard’s time-travelling. Writer Maurice Hurley was disappointed when Gene Roddenberry vetoed the idea as he said it made the ending confusing. “Why would going into the vortex’s centre save you?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. But it does if Q is pulling the strings.”

I’m not sure I would’ve much liked Q as the explanation (being a bit of a hokey concept in himself), but it’s better than no explanation at all.

Previous: We’ll Always Have Paris
Next: Yesterday’s Enterprise
C.R. Berry
C.R. Berry is a Grindstone Literary shortlisted novelist and author of the time travel conspiracy thriller series, "Million Eyes", which he describes as "Doctor Who" meets "The Da Vinci Code". The first book in the "Million Eyes" trilogy was released in early 2020 by Elsewhen Press and is available from bit.ly/Million-Eyes. An accompanying short story collection, "Million Eyes: Extra Time", was released in late 2019 and is available for free download from bit.ly/Million-Eyes-Extra-Time. On his website he writes articles about conspiracy theories and urban legends, and his top "Star Trek" episodes are the ones where time gets screwy and Captain Janeway's grumbling about "godforsaken paradoxes".
C.R. Berry