this star trek time-travel episode makes you remember what they’re forgetting (which is memorable)

One the nice things about my minor obsession with time-travel movies is that there are so many of them to compare and so many manners of temporal discombobulation in fiction to consider. Almost any variant of time-travel can be found in some movie somewhere, so potential parallels abound, even among movies and shows whose only similarity is a questionable use of physics.

Which leads me to my comparison du jour, between last summer’s would-be blockbuster, Edge of Tomorrow, a Tom Cruise action vehicle, and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect.”

The connections are obvious if you know both: Edge of Tomorrow is about Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), who experiences one day on repeat, ending each iteration with his death. Upon dying, he awakes at the beginning of that same day, except with the knowledge of every pass-through he’s done before. Similarly, “Cause and Effect” reiterates a single (roughly) 24-hour period, each time ending with the destruction of the Enterprise and everybody aboard.

The most obvious contrast between the two is that the Next Generation crew doesn’t remember anything directly from repetition to repetition, only carrying forward a vague sense of deja vu. I want to say, though, that it’s not this distinction that is so important — rather, much more significant are the radically different structures of the film and the show.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, Edge of Tomorrow feels more like a traditionally dramatic story, despite its sci-fi premise. I can think of a couple of strategies it uses to achieve this. First, as I noted before, the movie often works like a long montage built out of isolated moments, each ripped out of the single day it belongs to and repurposed to serve as one step in a sequence bridging multiple iterations. The example that comes to mind is when Cage has to role under a truck, which squashes him on his first try. Without a beat’s wait, the movie shows him doing it again, expertly. In this way, Cage learns rapidly over a short amount of screen time, and these quick progressions make the movie feel like a normal drama on a human time scale.

The other way the movie fosters this feeling — the feeling we’re in a plain ol’ temporally linear movie — is that sometimes E of T just skips over the daily grind of doing the same thing 100 times and gets right to the consequence. When Cage and his ally, Rita, need to talk the gruff General Brigham into helping them, we only see one of the many iterations they try, the first successful one. Cage responds to the phone ringing and the secretary at the door as they happen, a neat trick that lets us skip over endless scenes of repetition and gives him a super-natural air.

In other words, the movie lets us forget what it really is, a point I made (possibly to less effect) when I wrote about it before. Whether Edge of Tomorrow cuts over and over to the same scene or just demonstrates that Cage has already mastered a particular scenario, the movie ends up showing us a seamless, continuous narrative, not the endless circle Cage is actually trapped in; Edge of Tomorrow works largely because it manages to make you forget its central conceit.

“Cause and Effect,” on the other hand, is built more like four (oddly short) Trek episodes laid out end-to-end. Each recurrence of the day is shown as a beginning, middle and end, standing on its own. It doesn’t feel at all continuous — it feels as unnatural as the endless repetition of the same day should. This is partly a matter of identification: Edge of Tomorrow implicitly weds us to Cage’s perspective, whereas no one in the Trek episode can explicitly remember the “past” we’ve just seen, which puts us at an odd remove from them. Superficially, it would seem that we take on the experience of Beverly Crusher, who is the first to suspect something seriously wrong is afoot; she and Data eventually change the ship’s fate, true, but neither of them are ever completely sure what’s going on. Because we always know more than Crusher and Data, we can never really feel as they do and fully identify with them.

Instead, Star Trek winds up giving us another perspective entirely, a perspective none of the actual characters have and one that feels alien to our natural sense of narrative. This tale is told again and again, not ending when it’s supposed to end and beginning again in the middle. In this way, “C and E” feels much less like a blockbuster and a bit more like an art film earnestly exploring an abstract idea. Where Edge of Tomorrow is about Cage and his experience, “Cause and Effect” is almost about your experience as the viewer.

Consider: The episode opens with the Enterprise in crisis, and it blows up before the opening credits. And then, following the credits, a familiar establishing shot — almost like a warm blanket — shows the Enterprise humming through space as though nothing were wrong while Jean-Luc Picard’s dulcet tones deliver the opening exposition.

It happens again each time after the ship is destroyed and the cycle ends: The next shot is of the Enterprise, with Picard’s same intro repeated. These first cuts in each segment might be my favorite parts of the episode, in a way, because they almost say to the audience, “Yes…this AGAIN.” In form it’s like every other TNG opening, but in this context, it takes on a bizarre new meaning, showing the audience even with the conventions of the show how closely one day will imitate the previous one.

time loop = tape hiss

Of course, this art-film experiment might not be the most entertaining 45 minutes of TV you’ve ever sat through, and, moreover, allowing the Enterprise to truly repeat the same exact day ad infinitum would never allow Picard et al. a way out of their loop.

The only small glimmer of hope for the crew — the only change from iteration to iteration that might help the Enterprise alter its course — are bouts of deja vu among the officers and, more significantly, some barely-detectable echoes of previous iterations in the form of whispery voices. For whatever reason, it’s only Dr. Crusher that notices the voices and brings them to everyone’s attention.

(This is just more evidence for my theory that Dr. Crusher is the true eminence grise pulling strings behind the scenes on the Enterprise. Picard is obviously just a puppet, as any kindergartner could tell you from even a cursory viewing.)

These voices seem to be the audio echo of “past” successions of this day, accumulated into a mass of indecipherable mumbles. I have come to think of these voices as the distorted noise you get when copying from cassette tape to cassette tape over several generations; this notion of a series of copies gradually degenerating is fascinating to me.

What’s even more satisfying is that you can quite plausibly argue that the idea is reflected in the cinematography. To wit: take the opening scene, the first of the four run-throughs of the day. Crusher, Riker, Worf and Data are playing cards. Riker and Worf are shown in similar views:

15-03-27 Round-1 Ryker

15-03-27 Round-1 worf

The second time around, though, Riker and Worf are framed a little differently, with Data conspicuously in the very foreground:

15-03-27 Round-2 Worf and Ryker

By the third run-through, Riker and Worf are shown yet another third way:

15-03-27 Round-3 Ryker and Worf

These aren’t just isolated shots: These framings are used multiple times in each scene, and, maybe more importantly, with a minimal amount of Internet research I’ve found some info on Memory Alpha to substantiate the idea that this was intentional. Paraphrasing Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages:

To ensure that the episode was not misinterpreted as a clip show, Rick Berman instructed director Jonathan Frakes not to reuse any footage and ensure every loop was filmed in a different way. As such, some of the scenes in this episode were shot using multiple cameras in order to prevent having to shoot the same shot twice at different angles.

It shows. And yet I notice that the angle and framing for Crusher stay the same. These shots are from the first, second, and third rounds, respectively:
15-03-27 Round-1 crusher

15-03-27 Round-2 crusher - similar

15-03-27 Round-3 Crusher - similar

I could show you pretty much the same thing for Data — his shots are each from the same angle as well. Note that it’s Crusher and Data that are the key personnel of this episode, the ones whose actions eventually allow the Enterprise to break the circle. Is that why they get to have the same framing from iteration to iteration? Or is that just coincidence?

In any event, the really clever use of the camera comes on the fourth go-round, which is the last one, the one where the Enterprise is ultimately able to change its fate. The camera approaches and moves across behind Riker’s back, then back around, in one very long shot that lasts the length of the scene:

15-03-27 Round-4 a whole new view

15-03-27 Round-4 another new view - other side of line

15-03-27 Round-4 another new view

This time, the poker scene is shot not just with different framing of the characters, but in a completely different style. Where pretty much every shot in the previous three iterations was from a static perspective somewhere between Data and Crusher, this camera is set free and takes new angles. The camera is telling us something, just as the plot is (not to mention the dwindling number of minutes the episode has to go): This iteration will completely break from the fixed loops of before.

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