“Blink of an Eye”
Star Trek: Voyager – Season 6, Episode 12
Compared to the other Star Trek series, Voyager swung for the fences a bit more in its sci-fi concepts. In this way, it bears a lot of similarity to The Original Series – both shows relied heavily on the episode of the week format and featured many strong sci-fi hooks. “Blink of an Eye” is a standout story because it utilizes one of the most intriguing concepts in any Trek episode and carries it through with a thoughtful and ambitious execution. Although it’s not an episode that shines a light on a fundamental aspect of the human condition (except perhaps: The Passage of Time! It’s Crazy, Amright?), it’s still a fun and fascinating adventure.
The concept is a very simple one (which bolsters its appeal) – what if a planet was out of temporal sync with the rest of the universe, spinning in a blur so fast that years passed like minutes to an outsider observer? Trek has dabbled many, many times in shifting, slowed down, or compressed time (The Next Generation’s “Timescape” is probably the most notable example), but nothing on this scale has ever been seen. What’s especially tickling to me about the story is that it has a huge Choose Your Own Adventure vibe. I devoured many CYOA books as a youngster, and I always gravitated towards the science fiction themed ones (You Are Microscopic was a favorite). CYOA books similarly relied on easy-to-grasp but tantalizing ideas that spiraled out of control as you flipped the pages and got deeper into the story, and this episode would have fit right in.
There’s also a very old school sci-fi appeal to this story, and there are variations on this theme in classic shows like The Outer Limits (I kept thinking about the astronaut who finds the tiny civilization that can build stuff super fast). There’s not really any of that exploration of social issues Trek is known for; it’s more of a simpler “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” story type, but that’s totally fine (and fun!). “Blink of an Eye” makes me wish that Trek stepped out of its own head a bit more often to tell simpler but effective stories like this.
Voyager approaches the aforementioned spinning planet, observing that it rotates 58 times per minute, making each second of our time equal to about a day of the planet’s time, relatively. The ship inadvertently gets pulled into orbit and launches a chain of events that shapes a civilization. Years before the film Interstellar depicted the quirks (and horrors) of gravity-based time dilation, “Blink of an Eye” similarly shows the unintended consequences of a more fanciful type of time slippage.
Unable to move away from the planet, Voyager is in low enough orbit to appear to the primitive inhabitants of the surface – at night it’s visible as the brightest star in the sky and even during the day it’s hard to miss. Unfortunately, its presence also causes continual earthquakes. The episode really commits to its concept and we see the progressing advancement of the planet’s culture – in their garb and technology, as well in how they conceive and think about this glowing object in their sky.
Cultural pollution of a less advanced civilization has been a persistent theme throughout Trek, and “Blink” depicts perhaps the largest scale version of this idea we’ve seen. TNG’s “Who Watches the Watchers” illustrated the repercussions of unintended influence and how a religion began to develop from a series of arbitrary superstitions. Similarly, here we see a primitive stone age society first seeing Voyager in the sky and a simultaneous earthquake that causes them to believe that a certain type of fruit they were placing in an altar was undesirable by this new deity. The episode fast forwards to a medieval version of the society centuries later where the same fruit is casually considered bad luck to eat. It’s smart.
The episode introduces several time period vignettes of the planet in the same hillside location with a new set of players each time. The characterization of each scene is quick but efficient and gets the job done in establishing some personality to the aliens. The aliens’ culture is a curious one and they are fixated on understanding and communicating with Voyager. Kids are raised on entertainment (and action figures!) built around the mythology of the “sky ship.” They regard Voyager with awed reverence but also a twinge of frustration, since they know it’s causing the continual tremors that shake their planet.
Now at a 20th century level of technology, the aliens have built cities and skyscrapers, but have to use an excessive amount of iron in order to withstand all the earthquakes. A couple of weary astronomers in an observatory who seem to have dedicated their careers to studying (and making contact with) the sky ship transmit radio messages towards it. Voyager receives a voice transmission at a super high pitch (because of the time differential), but slow it down enough to actually hear the aliens’ words for the first time. By the time the senior staff meets and listens to the message, the guy who sent it has already been dead for a long time. It’s a bit haunting but also frustrating – people are living and dying in a blur below, and the situation is evolving and shifting so quickly that it’s difficult to intercede or even wrap one’s head around.
In order to learn more about the planet’s forces that are keeping Voyager stuck in orbit, the crew sends the Doctor down to the surface. He’s the only one that can survive the transition, and they allow him to reconfigure his appearance to match the aliens’. Intending to only keep him there for three seconds of our time/a few days of theirs, they lose his signal and the Doctor ends up spending several years living on the planet. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see any of that, but he appears to have had an interesting time when he gets beamed back up – having lived through a war, had a career in opera, as well as a relationship with a woman. But he committed several centuries of data to memory and passes it on the crew to try and make an attempt to break free.
Unfortunately, the ship is unable to escape and ends up causing even more earthquakes during the attempt, so they stop. By this point, the aliens are entering into their space race phase and a manned mission makes contact with Voyager. Two astronauts are able to board Voyager and find that the crew is frozen in place. Apparently the time differential doesn’t immediately wear off, but eventually it catches up with them and they appear on the bridge, having passed out from the transition.
Only one of them survives, Gotana-Retz (a charming Daniel Dae Kim). He comes to understand the bizarre nature of the situation – Voyager hasn’t been watching them for centuries; they just got here. In an emotional scene with Janeway he recalls the toys of the sky ship from his youth and a song prayer dedicated to it. He really emotes the feelings of someone who is sitting among a revered, fantastical place he’s dreamed of his whole life. He agrees to try and help them interpret the Doctor’s data to help Voyager break free.
But the aliens continue to develop their technology, and soon Voyager is bombarded with antimatter warheads. They’re being launched every few weeks and increasing in power each time, which translates to a constant barrage that make quick work of the ship’s shields. Fuck the sky ship now, I guess? Gotana-Retz leaves in his ship to land and try to reason with his people. The Doctor sees him off and they have a brief but cute convo about the planet’s sports teams (which the Doctor is still quite passionate about). Also, the Doctor apparently had a (now long dead) son he asks Gotana-Retz to follow up on, and it’s really unfortunate we don’t get any more information about that.
Gotana-Retz re-enters his planet’s atmosphere and is met with hard-edged refusal to land over the radio. His own culture appears to have changed a lot and along with the attacking weapons, we get an instant impression of how much more aggressive and militaristic they are now. But he goes into boss mode, lands his ship anyway, and the firing soon stops. Two advanced starships launched from the surface intercept Voyager. Using tractor beams, they pull the ship away from the planet. Gotana-Retz beams onto the bridge, wearing a special temporal device that allows him to briefly visit their time without leaving his. Unsure of how his people will be able to reconcile their time frame with the rest of the universe’s, he says a final goodbye to Janeway and the crew of Voyager.
Voyager finally breaks orbit and moves on. Gotana-Retz, now an old man sitting in the same hillside glimpsed throughout the episode, watches as the centuries-long guiding light of his people fades away. Although the conclusion is a bit abrupt, it’s an evocative moment that lingers. The episode is absolutely filled to the brim with ideas and potential – like, hundreds (if not thousands) of years worth, so any summation would be woefully inadequate at quenching our intellectual thirst. But it works.
“Blink of an Eye” contains possibly the most fascinating sci-fi concept in all of Star Trek, and it fleshes it out with remarkable efficiency in a single hour. That it’s so tantalizing and seems to pass quickly is so appropriate that the story itself is almost a clever pun. But like the best of Trek, it manages to center its head/planet-spinning larger-than-life ideas with the human moments we’ve come to expect from this smart and thoughtful franchise. In depicting an alien civilization that reveres the fantastical and yearns to reach beyond, it touches upon the same hopeful spirit of adventure that compels every Star Trek fan to tune in.
- So like, in a few weeks this alien civilization would pretty much be the most advanced one ever, right? And then in a few weeks after that it would pretty much ascend to godhood and be able to manipulate all of reality itself? It’s kind of scary to think about. If Voyager had encountered the planet a month earlier (or later) they probably would have completely missed them. Good timing, I guess.
- If the episode has a flaw, I guess it’s that what’s happening on the planet is so interesting that the scenes on Voyager comparatively drag. It doesn’t really have a protagonist on the ship to carry the story. It tries to insert Chakotay since he’s the anthropology guy or whatever (random interest Chakotay!), but then it also introduces the Doctor’s adventures, as well as Janeway’s interactions with Gotana-Retz. And even a little scene with Naomi Wildman. A lot of this probably could have been streamlined to make room for more of the fireworks factory.
- Sending the Doctor down to the planet to try and figure out what’s keeping the ship stuck is odd. What’s he going to discover walking around the streets that the ship’s sensors can’t detect?
- Seriously, the Doctor had a kid. This is literally never brought up again. The episode is reminiscent of many previous Trek plotlines, and this portion borrows from TNG’s “The Inner Light,” but takes a comparatively flippant attitude towards the Doctor’s whole life he had down there he’ll never be able to revisit.
- I don’t really buy that the two astronauts could dock with Voyager, board it, and then walk around for a while before succumbing to the time difference. Literally none of that makes sense.
- If you spent about 15 minutes reading this, then that would be about two years on this planet! What the hell are you doing with your life??? 😀