You Talking Trek to Me? – “Yesterday’s Enterprise”

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 3, Episode 15

The “reset button” is a handy sci-fi plot device that has been used by Star Trek many times across its various series, and usually to potent effect. In many cases these episodes prove to be especially powerful, and even the best the series has to offer. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” was the first time in the Trek franchise that this idea was used and it makes for a stupendous and unforgettable episode.

“Yesterday’s” is a genius outing because it confidently marries several story sub-types and produces something much, much greater than the sum of its parts that’s uniquely Trek. Various episodes of The Original Series offered contributing DNA to the story – “City on the Edge of Forever” (another series best) depicted the accidental obliteration of the Federation as we know it due to meddling with the timeline. “Mirror, Mirror” showed us a dark and unpleasant alternate universe far removed from the moral and upstanding one we’re used to. And “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” focused on the ruinous and self-destructive effects of uncontrolled war and hostilities. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” feels vaguely reminiscent of all these stories while being its own awesome animal.

In addition to showing a dark alternate timeline for humanity and highlighting the self-sacrificing heroism of its crew, the episode does triple duty by giving a proper send-off to Tasha Yar. Very little of TNG’s Season 1 went right, and every single character was goofy and awkwardly written. Yar was no exception, but Denise Crosby reportedly decided to jump ship for greener career pastures. Her character was unceremoniously killed off as a result (giving Worf the chance to become a more prominent main character). Unfortunately for her, TNG would eventually claw its way upward to become a wonderful show that served most of its characters pretty well. So it’s cool that she gets to come back (and leave again) in the show’s best and most confident season that was firing on all cylinders.

“Stop after seven seasons? HA HA HA! Impossible.”

The episode starts with a nice and laid back scene between Guinan and Worf in Ten Forward. It’s interesting that it begins in such a Worf-centric way considering that he’s purposefully gone for the rest of it (so is Troi, but honestly who cares). Perhaps it’s an intentional choice to highlight his absence from the alternate timeline – as well as to give Guinan some screen time, who does figure prominently in the episode. She of course introduces Worf to what would immediately become his favorite drink – prune juice (lol). Dorn is great here, and I love it whenever Worf actually loosens up because he has such a magnetic presence when he does. Guinan even gets a hearty belly laugh out of him when she suggests that he, uh, fuck some of his human crewmates. Worf replies that human females are far too fragile for the kind of violent Klingon sex he likes. This sounds like the worst episode ever at this point, but it’s as elegantly written as possible and actually fun. It also emphasizes Guinan’s unique role among the cast of characters. She’s a civilian and not part of the command structure, so her relationships to the crew are far less rigid and more interesting – which also figures prominently into the plot here. Deep Space Nine would expand on the idea of emphasizing non-Starfleet characters and ended up being that much more awesome as a result.

As they sit, a strange anomaly appears outside which elicits a strange, almost knowing reaction of disbelief from Guinan. A ship emerges, at which point the bridge – and all of reality itself – immediately shifts. It’s an expertly done transition as we’re introduced to a more militaristic Starfleet and Enterprise-D. The extra effort spent to redress the sets of the ship and the uniforms is great and sells the idea that we’re in an alternate timeline. The darkened, more dramatic bridge is a look I really like and gives a more aggressive battleship/submarine vibe.

“Did everything just taste blue for a second?”
“Where did all these lame-o’s suddenly come from?”

Also really well done is the physical blocking of that shift, as Picard turns to the side to reveal Tasha Yar in place of Worf now. Scanning the vessel, she reports that it’s the previous version of the Enterprise, 1701-C. As with the case of DS9’s space station that had its own long and storied history, TNG’s decision to place the Enterprise-D at the end of a long lineage of other Enterprises was a clever one. It’s good to leave yourself some creative threads to pick up on should you ever want to – as is the case here (and to a much less cool extent with the Enterprise-B of Star Trek Generations).

The Enterprise-C emerges from 22 years in the past and beat to hell from a fierce, outmatched battle with Romulans while defending a Klingon outpost at Narendra III (a confluence of Romulan torpedo explosions somehow created a time rift). Riker leads an away team to search for survivors amongst the wreckage. Another great detail of the episode is Riker and Picard’s contentious relationship. Rather than being the easygoing and mutually respectful command team they normally are, they each have a much harder edge and do not seem fond of one another at all. It further illustrates the notion of how Wrong Everything Is here – the Federation is in a bloody, losing war that has cost 40 billion lives. But more importantly, these two likable studs can’t stand each other, and that’s the real tragedy! Starfleet is a true military organization here, harsher and not at all friendly or concerned with exploration. There’s barely a trace of the enlightenment of future humanity that is a foundational aspect of Trek. Instead of being secure in themselves, Picard and Riker seem like competing alpha males jousting for dominance. Riker is probably a threat to Picard’s command and is eagerly awaiting any moment of weakness to usurp it – as is done in the Mirror Universe or on a Klingon ship (ironic).

“I think I’m aware of your grumblies, commander.”
“No, I’m not going to be home by 9, dad. I’M NOT A LIEUTENANT ANYMORE!”

As I always do, I have to credit Stewart’s acting here. He’s still Picard, but the degree to which he modulates his performance here is great and believable. He’s more of a dick – a harsh and dominant commander that barks orders and doesn’t seek the counsel of his subordinates very much. It’s a logical outcome of a lifetime of war and the additional stress of knowing that Starfleet’s defeat draws near.

A lot of the Ent-C’s crew is dead, but Captain Rachel Garrett is still alive and though critically injured she’s insistent on kowing what’s going on, despite Picard and the crew’s intentional effort to obfuscate the details of where (and when) she is. Also alive from the Ent-C’s crew is Lt. Castillo, played by character actor Christopher McDonald. Normally typecast as a raging dickhead, it’s nice to see him playing against that as a sensitive and heroic character here.

“I was polishing off my fifth yuengling, one of the Romulans dared me to do a keg stand, there was a blinding light, and then I woke up here. Are you telling me I partied my way 22 years into the future?”
She’ll certainly fall for you if you… Shooter those glances.

Guinan visits the bridge for the first time ever and asks to speak to Picard. Her inclusion in the story is a clever detail, and it’s nice that despite how much this timeline sucks, they’re still close friends who respect and trust one another. It’s this trust that compels Picard to hear her out about why Everything Is Wrong. Guinan’s otherworldy senses, calm wisdom, and extreme longevity were all compelling aspects of her character that TNG used often. Her ability to perceive changes in the timeline is introduced here (and remains unexplained), but helps move the story along. She has a general, non-specific sense that the timeline has changed and is frustrated that she can’t articulate how. Picard listens but his concrete way of thinking struggles with her vagueness (the tall observation lounge table is another great detail – this is not a comfortable place to bounce ideas back and forth as it normally is). Guinan implores Picard to send the Ent-C back and restore the timeline, even though it would mean its certain destruction and the death of all its crew.

“This gigantic Battleship game is not supposed to be happening!”

The episode thus becomes a classic Trek moral quandary – weighing the needs of the many against the few, and trading actual lives for theoretical ones. We know that sending the ship back and correcting the timeline is the right thing to do for almost everyone, and there’s tension in watching the characters wrestle with it and arrive at that decision. But we can appreciate their hesitancy to do so – ordering the Ent-C crew to march back into that Romulan meat grinder just so everyone else can have it easy? It’s a raw deal for them, certainly. And it’s not like anything is for certain – Picard trusts Guinan’s intuition but that’s an extremely tenuous thing to base such a huge decision on. He demands to know from her why the original timeline should necessarily be any better than this one, or even if it can assuredly be changed. Data contextualizes the Ent-C’s heroic defense of a Klingon colony as a meaningful act that could change the course of history. But it’s still just conjecture. And after a contentious staff meeting, La Forge wonders if any of them will even exist after the timeline is reset (and we know not everyone will). So it’s a huge ask for everyone involved on both ships to basically obliterate their lives and everything they’ve known (even if things aren’t that great).

But that’s also where the heroism and nobility of our heroes comes in, and the quandary is the ultimate moral test in proving it. Garrett is adjusting to the reality that she finds herself in and is committed to helping Starfleet defend itself in its current war. But Picard dourly informs her that one more ship isn’t going to make much of a difference in Starfleet’s losing war against the Klingons – defeat is likely within six months. Garrett admits that many of her crew even want to go back despite the odds – honor compels them to finish the fight they started, to save the people they set out to in the first place. It’s self-sacrificing nobility at its finest, and helps to morally resolve their ill-fated journey back through time.

“Let’s settle the beer pong championship once and for all.”

Another, more personal illustration of self-sacrifice is in Yar’s storyline. She is unsettled by Guinan’s weird vibe towards her, and comes to learn from her that she is dead in the original timeline. Not just dead, but dead from a meaningless, careless act of cruelty. The episode has a great meta quality in this way, and the series is acknowledging that yeah, that was a real dumb and dirty way to do her character. In giving Tasha Yar the chance to return, the show also allows her the chance to go out on her own terms and in a memorable and honorable way. Like with the Ent-C crewmembers who choose to go back rather than being ordered to, she also exercises her agency to decide her own fate. Tasha (as well as TNG itself) is granted a do-over to get it right and go out like a G.

She also gets a quick romantic storyline with Castillo. It’s not strictly necessary, and perhaps falls into the classic male writer’s trap of “What to do with a female character? Uh, romance, I guess. What else do women even do???” But it’s also an efficient way of further endearing us to both characters and heaping on some additional tragedy to their situations. They’re both destined to die, so giving them a star-crossed romance does create some feels. For what it’s worth, they do have good chemistry and I like them as a couple.

“Here’s a little tongue to remember me by.”

Garret and her crew are ready to return, but things go awry when a Klingon ship unexpectedly attacks. They are repelled, but not before damaging the Ent-C and killing her captain. This puts even more doubt into the plan to send them back, but Castillo (as the highest ranking survivor of his crew) is committed to commanding the ship himself. Yar speaks with Picard and volunteers to leave her ship and go back with them. Whatever extra assistance she can give could prove to be crucial in their defense against the Romulans, and the stakes are too high to not try. She wants her inevitable death to at least mean something, and Picard hesitantly grants her request.

Ouch! Those nail clippers can be a real hazard. Why do they always fly directly at your face?

Three Klingon ships approach as the two Enterprises part ways to meet their fates. The Ent-D can escape, but they need to provide cover so that the Ent-C can enter the time rift. As Picard explains in a ship-wide announcement:

As you know, we could outrun the Klingon vessels. But we must protect the Enterprise-C until she enters the temporal rift. And we must succeed! Let’s make sure history never forgets… the name… Enterprise.

Chills! It’s an epic moment and kicks off the Enterprise-D’s last stand. The crew is fighting not only the Klingons, but their own war-torn fates for a better future. They may not be the cuddly characters we know and love, but they’re still heroes underneath, and it’s awesome to see them risk it all for a chance at peace. The stakes could not be higher.

“This is my little buddy, get your own!”
“Riker, would you walk off that mortal injury and get back to your station? See, this is why I hate you.”

It’s a thrilling climax as the Klingon ships hammer the Enterprise-D, which puts up a brave fight against hopeless odds (so that the Enterprise-C can fight its own equally hopeless battle). They manage to take out one enemy ship, but absorb more and more damage as the Enterprise-C approaches the time rift. Riker dies, the warp core takes on irreparable damage and destruction is imminent. The Klingons order them to accept surrender, and in one of Picard’s most badass moments grumbles “That will be the day!” as he leaps over the console to man the weapons himself. The bridge is engulfed with flames as the Enterprise-C finally enters the rift.

Oh Captain, my Captain! 😍

As soon as it does, reality changes back to normal again. The immediate shift in tone and excitement gives some effective and dramatic whiplash. Worf reports that it almost looked like a ship was about to emerge from the rift, but the anomaly is quickly collapsing. In Ten Forward, a satisfied Guinan sits down with La Forge and asks him to tell her about Tasha.

“Yesterday’s Enterprise” accomplishes so much in its hour and is one of the best episodes of any Star Trek series. It popularized (and possibly created) the Reset Button story type, and true to that structure, pushed its world and characters to dramatic extremes the series could not normally do. It’s those extremes that always create the most memorable moments and stories. The self-sacrificing heroism on display here is pretty typical for Star Trek but no less cool and moving to witness. That the episode also manages to correct its treatment of one of its past characters is also an impressive, Herculean task. The peaceful utopia of Trek is consistently shown to be a tenuous achievement that requires a lot of work, patience, understanding, and even the ultimate sacrifice to maintain.

Stray Observations:

  • As great of an end we get for Tasha Yar here, TNG couldn’t seem to leave well enough alone and it would eventually give an explicit explanation of her fate, as well as an identical half-Romulan daughter no one asked for. As it turns out, Yar and several other Enterprise-C crewmembers were captured. Yar catches the attention of a Romulan general, becomes his sex slave, births his child, tries to escape, is caught and executed. Ha ha, awesome. Also, what the fuck.

    I do respect picking up the idea of a time-displaced surviving Tasha from an alternate reality. That’s a great story hook, and she could have even been re-incorporated into the series. But putting her into that horrific situation seems completely antithetical to the whole point of bringing her back in the first place – an honorable send-off. Instead, this poor character gets killed a third time – and off screen, mind you – which seems even more pointless and cruel than being zapped by that slimy turd Armus. Whyyyyy.

    And Sela was such an unlikable, one-dimensional character. Romulans were kind of boring overall, but had some interest as calculating cold warriors throughout TNG. Sela is of course not that at all, and was mostly an angry dumb-dumb. Plus the show never followed up with her after “Unification” – even in the ultra-dumb film featuring the Romulans – which makes the whole thing that much more pointless. (She was in the Star Trek Armada PC game which counts for… nothing)
  • Strictly speaking, the Klingons shouldn’t be able to fight (much less win) a full scale war with the Federation given the Praxis catastrophe in The Undiscovered Country. Of course, that film was released after this episode aired, so the timelines don’t quite match up, either.
  • We never saw much of the Ambassador-class, unfortunately. Starfleet made approximately 2 of them, and about 1,000 Excelsior– and Miranda-classes.
It’s the Ambassador-class cruiser… from Galoob!
  • As we learn in the trippy “Timescape,” the Romulans like to use artificial singularities (tiny black holes) in their engine cores. Perhaps their torpedoes rely on a similar power source and could explain the time fuckery that occurs here.
  • Castillo’s fretting about being displaced 20 years is a little silly (and I love that Tasha calls it out). It’s certainly a big chunk of time, but not absolutely crazy. I’ve had pets that lived that long.
  • Again, I just love how cool the Enterprise looks here.