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.