I’ll be honest. I do not get the criticism of “Time’s Arrow” and “Time’s Arrow, Part II” at all.
As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the most solid and effective stories, two-part or otherwise, Star Trek: The Next Generation has done on TV in a very long time. This makes me doubly happy, as “Time’s Arrow” and “Time’s Arrow, Part II” together also make up one of the most iconic stories in the series to me and a personal favourite, and I was delighted to see it completely lived up to my memories. As I get further and further entrenched in the process of coming to terms with how much I’ve projected onto Star Trek: The Next Generation over the course of doing this project, it’s nice to get the occasional reminder that there really is genuinely something about Star Trek, and this version of Star Trek in particular, that stuck with me and inspired me to project my imagination in the first place.
For me, part 1 was more about mortality, with Data’s predetermined death being treated as a touching metaphor for terminal illness. There’s a sense of always wanting to live in the moment, and mortality returns as a theme here when Captain Picard is temporarily stranded alone in 19th century San Francisco after the rest of the crew chase the Devidian hunter back to the 24th century. Part 2 shifts the narrative focus a bit, however: One thing it does do is double down on the time travel mechanics and bootstrap paradox plot points introduced in the first part. I suppose you could read this as overly self-indulgent and gimmicky Hard SF speculative trickery that has little to offer beyond its own cleverness. I think there’s more you could tease out of the story than that though: Although a stable time loop is by definition anticlimactic (as all Star Trek time travel at this point must by necessity be, although even now forces that lie beyond the pale outside of history conspire to change all of that), the time travel in this story seems to exist more for the purpose of avoiding material death.
For time is not, in fact, an arrow, even in this story: It’s a circle (as Guinan said in the last part, things have come “full circle”), perhaps even a spiral or a Möbius strip. Materially, this manifests itself in the text’s own existence: “Time’s Arrow” and “Time’s Arrow, Part II” came about as a direct result of a perceived ontological threat in the material realm of production, namely, the existence of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. With the new show’s premier officially slated for January, 1993, there were widespread and persistent rumours that Star Trek: The Next Generation would end in June, 1992. So the producers commissioned a cliffhanger finale, even though one wasn’t originally planned, to reassure audiences that this wasn’t the case. So in effect, the “Time’s Arrow” two parter becomes partially a performance about Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s longevity and continued lasting influence in the face of an expected slide into irrelevance.
A fear, if you will, of history coming full circle and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine consigning Star Trek: The Next Generation to history as Star Trek: The Next Generation had just recently done to Star Trek in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But within the paratext of “Time’s Arrow” lies the unspoken truth that things are going to be different this time, that these are heroes and stories strong enough to last by design. No more shall we have oldsters clashing with young upstarts: This time we will be as sisters; equals travelling and growing together.
And this is just one level on which the scene between Mark Twain and Deanna Troi during their tour of the Enterprise is so defining and important. Twain, the archetypal United States satirist (living in what will become the cradle of the Federation to wit), is offering a direct challenge to Deanna, the Enterprise crew’s ambassador, anthropologist and empath. His challenge to her is, in so many words, to at once prove and justify the existence of her utopia. And thus is the spirit of Q invoked, or more accurately, that of “Encounter at Farpoint”: Star Trek: The Next Generation returns to its most primordial state to once again define itself for us. But where “Encounter at Farpoint” was cosmic and mythical, “Time’s Arrow” is shaped by a post-Michael Piller and Ronald D. Moore sense of materialism, doubling down on the diegetic political critique Q offered of humanity’s ability to grow-It might be interesting to note how the crux of Deanna’s response involves the elimination of poverty.
Q was a god, Mark Twain was a writer. Q wanted evidence humanity was capable of improving itself while Mark Twain needs proof that it has, and will continue to do so. Q placed the Enterprise on probation and warned the trial is not over, but Mark Twain’s visit to the Enterprise (must I bring up the shamanic and otherworld themes again, especially given Twain is a writer, and thus a shaman, with a working class background?) heals him through the power of utopian thought.
One way in which people can find inner peace is through identifying with their particular place or calling in the universe. “Time’s Arrow” helps demonstrate this by being an incredibly strong ensemble piece, with each and every major character getting to showcase their specific talents and skillsets and everyone working together as a team and a family to solve the problem and look out for each other. Back in her role as life sciences mystery solver, Doctor Crusher is instrumental in uncovering the Devidians’ plot, while Geordi and Data apply their technical skills in their own unique ways: Data uses his knowledge of human psychology to bluff his way into various positions of influence, while Geordi can see the counterfactual and helps literally rebuild his friend’s sense of self-identity. Deanna’s ability to empathize and delegate between different positionalities legitimizes the Enterprise before someone who could stand in equally for the audience, the writers and Star Trek’s own conscience, Worf is a pragmatist, Will Riker works with everyone and Captain Picard switches between a working class electrical repairman and a working class theatre troupe leader.
In many ways this is Guinan’s story, though not necessarily in the way it presents itself. Supposedly we learn a great deal about her mysterious backstory here, with fanwanky details very clearly meant to explain away previously tantalizing lines like “long ago a bald man was very kind to me” and “an old man helped me once when I was in serious trouble”. And yet, do they really? I’ve never read “Time’s Arrow” as being the story that depicts those events. Perhaps it does for the context of the episode, but remember Guinan is a consummate philosophical interlocutor and performer. Like Captain Picard and Ro Laren, she will adapt whatever persona or perspective she needs to, and she’ll even make sure she calls our attention to it. Even diegetically, Guinan is being obfuscating and evasive: Taking on a specific identity in San Francisco (a writer, no less) and deliberately withholding information from Captain Picard and Commander Riker at points. Unable to share with us the raw experience of being one with the forces of time, Guinan does the only thing a magician can do: Make art about it.
Here then we see Star Trek: The Next Generation at its purest and most unbound…Or as close to that as we can possibly get. A story that pleads a case for immortality, that no matter how compromised our art may be there is real power to it. To exist in the constantly unfolding present is to let go of the egoistic Self and to know that we are all changing and becoming. And to know this is to transcend the permanence of death.