“The sensation you are doing something you have done before”: Cause and Effect
It’s almost the hardest to write about the stories that are my very favourites. Doubly so when they’re so consummately made. How many ways can I say “Cause and Effect” is a work of genius without sounding like I’m just pointlessly gushing? How much can I go into my personal connection with stories like this without regressing to the point of being an utterly, hopelessly, self-indulgent bore? And yet this is a turning point: Whenever Star Trek: The Next Generation is mentioned in passing or I’m casually reminded of it in my day-to-day existence, this is one of the stories I think about. This, and the kinds of stories “Cause and Effect” sets the stage for.
Is it “iconic”, either in the fandom or television history more generally? Not exactly, or at least not the the extent of something like “The Best of Both Worlds”, “Unification” or “Unification II” (although many fans do consider “Cause and Effect” to be a classic too). Is it sweepingly moving, emotional and dramatic? No, not really. It’s not “Transfigurations”, “Darmok” or “The Inner Light”. Indeed, like “Power Play” before it, you might, at first glace, even get the impression “Cause and Effect” is a little too “clever” for its own good: A little too fixated on its science fiction concept to do much of anything else. This is certainly the criticism that’s often laid at the feet of Brannon Braga, a writer known for increasingly clever and complex science fiction inspired stories. But also like “Power Play”, this is not your typical masturbatory Hard SF story that doesn’t care about narrative technique, and there’s way more going on here then this reading would afford.
Although it was certainly a concern in the writers’ room. Even though Braga himself is rightly keen on this episode, he talks about how much of a gamble an episode this experimental and unorthodox was at the time (and would gently like to remind us that “Cause and Effect” was made *before* Groundhog Day, which famously also dealt with a causal time loop). Producer Herb Wright pointed out how a viewer’s first “temptation” upon witnessing something like this might be to “jam the button on the remote”. Rick Berman was even afraid audiences might think there was something wrong with their TV set or the broadcast feed, or worse, think this episode was a clip show. So he instructed the director to make sure every iteration of the loop looked and played out ever-so-slightly differently to assure them it wasn’t and to keep them guessing. That director happened to be Jonathan Frakes, who, upon first getting Braga’s script, initially thought the writers were trying to pull one over on him.
Naturally they weren’t, and Frakes immediately rose to the challenge and then some. I’d actually go so far as to cite “Cause and Effect” as Frakes’ defining moment as a director, because what he pulls off here is nothing short of a technical masterpiece. We don’t talk about directors anywhere near enough in television discourse, and it’s episodes like this that demonstrate the unique artistry they can bring to the medium, and on such short notice. While the loop repeats itself several times and the sequence of events plays out ever-so-slightly differently each time, a lot of the major scenes (the captain’s log entry, parts of the poker game and the final disaster most notably) have identical lines of dialog with the actors delivering identical intonations. And while some of the scenes were re-recorded, some of them weren’t. So what Frakes does is do one set of takes, but films every shot from five separate anglesat once. It’s something the average viewer isn’t necessarily going to notice unless they’re actively looking for it, but this means each and every loop just *feels* a little different each time.
(This is a trick the VFX department picks up on in a very cheeky and clever way too: You might have noticed each time the Enterprise blows up, it looks a little different. That’s because there were actually four different kitbash models built for each time the explosion was going to happen, and again, each one is shot from a different angle. And notice how in the final sequence, the one where the crew break themselves out of the loop, the captain’s log entry is delivered over a different flyby of the four-foot model from all the previous loops, foreshadowing to us that the crew is going to succeed this time.)
It helps of course that Jonathan Frakes and the VFX team both have such a stellar script to work from. Brannon Braga’s scripts are not known for their heavy-handed introspection because that’s not what he’s good at, but he doesn’t need to be. “Cause and Effect” shines for different reasons. It’s firstoff an absolutely killer techno-thriller mystery, opening with and ending every act on what Braga has correctly called the “ultimate teaser and cliffhanger”. Even if you know going in that the crew is stuck in a causal time loop, that doesn’t diminish at all the profound surrealist joy you get of watching the same series of events repeat themselves and following along as each successive iteration of the crew tries to think themselves out of their predicament, slowly learning more and more each time. There’s also the extremely subtle, yet undeniable, hints even in the first loop we get to see play out that something feels a bit off to the crew: Gates McFadden and Jonathan Frakes in particular deserve special praise for so expertly delivering them through visual and body language cues so naturalistic you’d miss them if you blinked wrong. It’s as strong a testament to how otherwordly talented this acting troupe is.
Along those lines, I also love how the perspective viewpoint character changes slightly at certain points between the acts, roughly from Beverly (and how appropriate is it that she be the one who drives so much of the plot here and pieces together so much of the mystery herself?) to Jean-Luc to Data to Geordi (who can, naturally, literally see the counterfactual). There are a number of scenes with compliments during which we see what one character was doing during a point in time we’ve just spent with another, like how in one act we see Beverly calling Jean-Luc in the middle of the night to talk about her insomnia, but in the next act we see Jean-Luc reading in his room before being paged by Beverly. Or how in the climax we don’t get to see the final time Beverly’s glass breaks, but we can hear it over Geordi’s comm badge.
And yet it’s crucial to point out how, as fascinating and captivating as the mystery might be, that’s not all “Cause and Effect” is about. In fact apart from that, and discounting for the moment the fact the Enterprise blows up four times, this is a story of quiet and cozy intimacy the likes of which gives “Data’s Day” a run for its money. Actually, I daresay it handily beats it on those grounds: As of this writing I’m having a hard time remembering another story that’s this low-stakes and gets us this close to the daily lives of our heroes, apart from perhaps “Timescape” (another episode I consider an unmitigated masterpiece and that, not coincidentally, bears a striking number of similarities with “Cause and Effect”). The poker game has always been one of my favourite motifs in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and this episode is practically all about it. Jean-Luc reading his book alone or talking about insomnia and late-night thoughts with Beverly over tea is unforgettable. I could complain about wishing to see more of Laren apart from her broken record moments on the bridge or how it might have been nice to see Miles and Keiko O’Brien have a scene or two to themselves, but the episode is so jam-packed with perfectly wonderful fluff in amongst its ambitious sci-fi trappings it could well have been just too much to squeeze in.
This is the episode where Brannon Braga truly arrives in full as a creative force and is the archetypal example of the signature style that will define so much of the rest of his career and Star Trek: The Next Generation in general. “Cause and Effect” isn’t just a sci-fi thriller mystery or a slice of life tale-It’s both at the same time and it weaves its two halves together flawlessly. More than anything else, this is what I remember Star Trek: The Next Generation feeling and acting like, and this is the point where it finally becomes the show’s standard operating procedure. In fact, not only does “Cause and Effect” bring this all into focus, I daresay I might even go so far as to call it the show’s definitive story.
July 28, 2015 @ 11:50 pm
I'm so glad you like this because I love it. I remember watching this for the first time and, even then, thinking it a vindication of the idea that attention to continuity details can be wonderfully effective dramatically as long as they're there for that purpose rather than just being there for the sake of it. I found this a very moving story, for some reason. I think there's something about the idea of slowly, painfully awakening from a kind of hypnosis induced by doing the same things over and over again, and fighting to get oneself to a point where one can break out of that continuum… I also love the moments of the uncanny when Beverly demonstrates foreknowledge, and the foreknowledge seems to spread throughout the group around the table. The sense of shared, communal fright combined with growing realistion is very powerful to me somehow. A perfect example of how something that is superficially very conceptual can reach out and touch the emotions, both political and interpersonal. The sort of thing that really only TNG was in a position to do at the time, and which Frakes aces owing to his attention to detail.
July 29, 2015 @ 7:06 am
It is a little 'clever', but I really think Cause and Effect might be the most accessible bit of 'clever sci-fi' ever done. Frakes' mastery of minutia is obvious from the very beginning of the second loop. It's a strong episode for him, though a bit more of a "pretty good" Riker episode.
But this thing is all about Crusher. And I was pleasantly surprised because I hadn't remembered it as such. I remembered very well that it does pass the torch here and there and show us the other experiential points of view. But it always comes back Beverly and she's in almost full science explorer mode here, making a great case for why we don't always need Data over-analyzing everything for us. Not only that, but this is an episode where she and Geordi once again get to solve a mystery together and they're rapidly proving to be the most fun duo on the program. Probably precisely because of the lack of testosterone involved.
But Dorn and Stewart really low-play their bits, too. When Worf catches up he Dorn puts some nice subtle concern into the usually stoic and kind of gruff Worf. Picard's Aunt Adele stories continue wonderfully in a scene so resonant that I still to this day am trying to perfect my own steamed milk recipe. Laren is underserved, and so is Deanna, though Sirtis does something interesting with Deanna's reactions the closer they get to the anomaly.
One huge thing with this episode, though … the general lack of Guinan is really, really noticeable. Their on-board fate witch whose extrasensory ability to detect changes in the fourth-dimension far exceeds their own, is very conspicuously missing, and it ends up being up to the Enterprisers themselves with their limited human senses to figure out the mystery.
Somebody probably quite obviously thought while writing; "well, if Guinan's there she's just going to explain the mystery immediately."
July 29, 2015 @ 3:17 pm
One thing I feel now that I'm older and more literate is that this episode, in its structure and style, kinda feels more like a take on Rashomon than a Groundhog Day sort of time loop. In fact, it kinda feels more like Rashomon than the one that's straight-up doing Rashomon on the holodeck.
July 30, 2015 @ 12:01 am
I was, of course, waiting for you to get to this one!
Kinda surprised you resisted doing a 'gonzo' entry for it 🙂 Maybe one where each draft of your review is then repeated, a little more nuanced and tight each time…
I remember watching this episode with my family in a motel on some holiday as a kid. We tuned in for the teaser, and 60 seconds later, when the Enterprise has exploded and we go to credits, we were all looking at each other in feverish, excited, baffled shock! Terrific memory.
So, I'll be the one to say it. Resolution involving number of pips on Riker's jacket… bit lame? Could it not have been something a bit more meaningful that got them out? Kinda love it in a Dadaist way, of course!
July 30, 2015 @ 2:52 am
Or hiding threes throughout the post, that would've been a nice low-key bit of gonzo.
July 30, 2015 @ 2:54 am
Gahhh how much do I love that one poker scene, where they're calling the cards just before they're dealt? Classic unheimlich, just this mounting sense of worrying otherness from such a tiny thing…
July 30, 2015 @ 3:19 am
It took me a long time to get on board with the solution too. I'm still not hugely satisfied with the resolution hinging on the idea that "3" was a good way to communicate the key piece of information. The best I can make of it is to presume that, given just how limited his bandwidth was, Data reckoned that he had to be cryptic enough that he wouldn't be able to act on the information until the key moment, because he didn't want to risk the timeline diverging early, since that might invalidate his solution. So his message is essentially the answer to, "What was I looking at when the thing I need to do different happened?"
July 30, 2015 @ 6:59 am
July 30, 2015 @ 7:06 am
Of course a big reason why I didn't do a "gonzo" essay for this episode is because the structure would have been obvious: I either repeat the core argument five times a little different each time or put references to the number 3 everywhere. That would have been expected, and thus boring and predictable. I try not to be boring and predictable.
Another reason, however, is that I'm still burned out after the essay on "Darmok" that kept me up all night for a week. That's probably as "gonzo" as I'm going to get on this blog for a long time. Though there is an essay with an unorthodox structure on the docket for next season.
July 31, 2015 @ 11:36 pm
This is one of the episodes I remember very clearly. For me at least, it hit the balance between timey-wimey cleverness and emotional engagement much better than, say, Doctor Who's The Big Bang, which I kind of admired in a puzzle-box fashion but couldn't really relate to (until the end section with the wedding, after most of the twists were done).
Fascinating that it was done multi-camera – I always assumed they'd just redone the scenes very carefully. There was a time when Doctor Who was considered behind the times for shooting multi-camera…
Because of my "casual viewer" status when I was watching these, I never picked up on who did what in production. But I certainly appreciated the direction in this one! Well done, Mr. Frakes.
August 31, 2015 @ 9:53 am
You knocked it on the head Jack, my feelings exactly and well worded.
August 31, 2015 @ 9:57 am
"Even if you know going in that the crew is stuck in a causal time loop, that doesn't diminish at all the profound surrealist joy you get of watching the same series of events repeat themselves"
This is one that I can watch again and again, a perfect balance of the strange and the intimate with some great shooting from Frakes and memorable image and character moments. Lovely stuff.