The rapidity with which Star Trek Phase II went from “fannish love letter” to “pseudo-official Star Trek” is somewhat astonishing. Between the release of “Come What May” in January, 2004 and “In Harm’s Way” in October, the show picked up an endorsement from Eugene Roddenberry, Jr. (who also signed on as “consulting producer”) and Doug Drexler, who not only came aboard as producer, make-up artist, casting director, editor and VFX artist, but also co-wrote the latter episode as well. “In Harm’s Way also boasts a veritable cavalcade of former Star Trek acting alumni, such as Barbara Luna, Malachi Throne and William Windom, who reprises his role of Commodore Matt Decker from “The Doomsday Machine”, the story from which this episode draws the majority of its source material.
With a pedigree like that, one would expect “In Harm’s Way” to be one of those grandiose epics that franchises like Star Trek enjoy doing every once in awhile, and one would be correct. This time around, Star Trek Phase II feels like it’s trying to pick up any perceived slack from “Come What May” and doing the proper, blockbuster series premier that’s expected of it. Indeed, the official episode listings go so far as to list this as the “actual” first episode of Star Trek Phase II, granting “Come What May” an episode number of zero, thus somehow managing to make it even less canon then it already was.
And “In Harm’s Way” certainly delivers on that expectation, serving up an impossibly complex and detailed alternate universe time travel plot where the Planet Killer from “The Doomsday Machine” runs into the Enterprise fourteen years early under the command of Captain Pike thanks to some dodgy chronitons, vaporizing it in one shot. This leads to an alternate timeline where Kirk is in command of the USS Farragut, with the majority of his regular crew, with the notable exception of Spock, who was on the Guardian of Forever’s planet at the time and was spared the time shift. In his place on the Farragut bridge is Klingon science officer Kargh, as apparently in this timeline the Klingons and the Federation formed a shaky alliance to combat the Planet Killer and its brethren (it would seem there’s more than one of them now, and the galaxy has been at war with them ever since).
After summoning the Farragut to the Guardian’s planet by way of a Priority 1 order, Spock explains how the timeline has been altered and has to be corrected. This is actually my favourite part of the episode, as it explains, for the first time I think in the history of the franchise why the timeline needs to be restored, as there’s an actual value judgment made: In the current timeline, billions upon billions of people have died in the so-called Doomsday War, which wouldn’t have happened had history not been altered (a similar argument, I suppose, to the one Guinan makes in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, though I like the bluntness of the argument here better). After tracing the source of the chroniton disturbances back to the 1960s on Earth, Kirk, Spock and McCoy jump through the Guardian, but find they’ve miscalculated and have wound up in 2006 instead.
There they meet a woman named Veronica (Barbara Luna) who was expecting them. It seems Commodore Decker was transported back in time somehow and returned to Earth, where he lived out the remainder of his days in the late 20th and early 21st century (this is all revealed through a VHS tape Decker left behind-Windom in a show-stealing performance as an elderly Decker full of life, yet near the end of his days). Realising Decker’s displacement wasn’t enough to change history, the landing party returns to the present where Kirk and DeSalle make the somewhat ludicrous decision to fly the Farragut through a giant Guardian discovered beneath the planet’s surface back to fourteen years ago, where they hope they can team up with Pike’s Enterprise to defeat the Planet Killer there and avert the Doomsday War.
The rest of the episode is essentially one giant action scene, as the two starships buzz about the Planet Killer taking pot shots and dodging its antiproton cannon or whatever. It is admittedly a very good action scene, with a lot of dynamic starship action-This is helped a lot by this show’s VFX, which are even more fun here than they were last time. That said, this does also mark “In Harm’s Way” as very much a post-Dominion War story, with a significant focus on epic space battle action and heady dramatic themes about honour, valour and sacrifice. This is about as good as Star Trek gets at this sort of thing, as not only are the VFX tight, exciting and fun to watch, but the character moments last only as long as they need to to get the point across and the show doesn’t wallow in its own angst as it was so frequently wont to do in the late 1990s (perhaps another conceit “In Harm’s Way” lifts from “The Doomsday Machine”), but the fact remains if you, like me, are not especially drawn to this mode of Star Trek storytelling this is going to come across as less satisfying than it perhaps could have.
(What I find amusing is that a focus on epic and dramatic space war themes is precisely the sort of thing Enterprise was being crucified for supposedly succumbing to at this exact point in time.)
Not that “In Harm’s Way” doesn’t manage to pull one more trick out of its sleeve: During the climactic battle, Kirk leaps ahead in time once again to chase the Planet Killer to the first season of the Original Series, where he meets Pike in command of the cadet ship where he’ll have the accident depicted in “The Menagerie”. There, Kirk attempts to recreate the “heroic sacrificial run down the maw” thing Decker tried, but is suddenly stopped when another starship comes flying out of a time warp: The USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A, under the command of Admiral James T. Kirk-The *real* Star Trek Phase II ship. Naturally, the Admiral is here to stop his past self from throwing the Farragut at the Planet Killer as, just as was the case in “The Doomsday Machine”, it won’t be enough to stop it or the war from happening.
Interestingly, this Enterprise is supposedly from 2373: Well into the timeframe of Star Trek Voyager and the Dominion War and, more interestingly, after the combined power of the three starships destroys the Planet Killer, Admiral Kirk does not go back to being dead when the rest of the timeline corrects itself, implying that “In Harm’s Way” has either canonized “The Return” (or a similar series of events) or retconned Star Trek Generations: A potential future that never came to be returns to a shared past to give itself a second chance at life. A better future asserts itself by simply tweaking a few small things about history.
This is perhaps even made textually overt, as one of the motivations for Admiral Kirk and Ambassador Spock to take the Enterprise-A back in time to the Original Series is to save Pike from his accident. This is also where the episode goes off the rails for me though, because once Captain Kirk on the Farragut figures out what his future self is up to, he tries to convince his counterparts to let Pike sacrifice himself because, apparently, “that’s part of the timeline” they’re hoping to restore. This actually doesn’t make any sense to me, because we’ve already been screwing around with history enough to bring both Decker and Kirk back from the dead, so why not make it three for three and save Pike too? Especially since, the way it’s depicted here, it wouldn’t have made any difference had Pike been there or not, so long as his ship explodes and the cadets were saved, which is something that the Yorktown, Enterprise or Enterprise-A could just have easily helped with.
(Ambassador Spock even comes to visit wheelchair-bound Pike during “The Menagerie” right before his past self, Kirk and McCoy do, encouraging him to go along with younger Spock’s plan so that he might continue to live life to the fullest and with dignity. Well, Mr. Ambassador, you could have helped him with that by simply getting everyone off that cadet ship before it got flooded with Delta radiation thus keeping him from being disabled to begin with, thereby saving yourself the trouble of cooking up that hair-brained scheme with the Talosians and sparing us “The Menagerie” in the process.)
That’s I guess my takeaway from this one. The thing about this kind of plot is because writers are writing from a perspective where Western-style time travel doesn’t exist and the past has already happened (an a conceit to keep their fictional universe roughly comparable to our own) it becomes impossible to do a story where historical events in living memory of the people writing are altered, despite the blindingly obvious ethical reasons why you might want to. If you knew for a fact changing an event or series of events would make the world a better place in the future and you had the capability to do so, you’d be criminally remiss not to change history. “In Harm’s Way” even admits this itself, with Spock’s line about how in the altered timeline billions have died who wouldn’t have otherwise and the mere presence of Commodore Decker and Admiral Kirk, who have been able to live out rich, full lives they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. But, because “The Menagerie” is a “canon” episode and thus not as fungible as something like what happens to Kirk after Star Trek Generations, Pike doesn’t get to enjoy the benefits of the better future.
If you had the power to reshape history, why wouldn’t you make the best future you could?