April 25 2024

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Retro Review: Future’s End

7 min read
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Pulled into a temporal rift, Voyager arrives at Earth circa 1996, where an entrepreneur with technology from the 29th century is about to cause a cataclysm.

Plot Summary: An unknown Federation vessel emerges from a disruption in space-time to fire on Voyager. When the crew takes evasive maneuvers, they are hailed by Captain Braxton of the timeship Aeon, who claims to have come from the 29th century to destroy Voyager before it becomes responsible for the destruction of Earth’s solar system. Unwilling to risk her crew on the basis of this accusation, Janeway orders countermeasures that result in Braxton’s ship being pulled back into the rift…along with Voyager. The crew finds itself in orbit around Earth in the late 20th century. Dressed in the clothing of the era, Janeway, Chakotay, Tuvok, and Paris beam down to look for Braxton and try to determine whether the timeline has been disrupted. Indeed it has, for a young astronomer at Griffith Observatory detects Voyager in orbit, informs a sponsor who runs an enormous tech startup called Chronowerx, and sends a message offering a welcome from the people of Earth. After Kim alerts the crew, Tuvok and Paris head to the observatory, where they meet astronomer Rain Robinson, whose distraction discussing old horror movies with Paris allows Tuvok to wipe her hard drive. Meanwhile, Janeway and Chakotay use their tricorders to find the homeless, wild-eyed Braxton, who is putting up posters about the end of the world. From Braxton they learn that Chronowerx founder Henry Starling has stolen the timeship and is about to launch the incursion that will cause Earth’s destruction as well as Voyager’s. Starling’s men come looking for Tuvok and Paris, who flee with an unnerved Robinson only to find that their comm badges have been disrupted by 29th century weapons. Janeway and Chakotay sneak into Chronowerx and find the timeship, but in doing so, they set off Starling’s security alarms and enable Starling to reverse Janeway’s efforts to download the contents of his computer. While Janeway and Chakotay beam back to Voyager, Starling steals a substantial portion of Voyager’s programming, including the EMH.

Analysis: “Future’s End” is classic, an exercise in nostalgia in every sense, and one of my very favorite episodes of Star Trek. The time travel may seem goofy and scientifically implausible in ways not seen since the original Star Trek – the sneaking-around-in-the-past scenes feel like a colorful, updated version of “Tomorrow is Yesterday” or The Voyage Home – but it’s not only great fun to see Voyager’s crew having a surprisingly good time in millennial Los Angeles, it’s also quite amusing to find so many references to the pop culture of Voyager‘s era, beginning with a hippie Bill Gates stealing all of Microsoft’s best ideas from a futuristic timeship whose crash he is lucky enough to witness. Janeway informs us that the tech boom of the turn of the millennium was not supposed to happen, which neatly explains why our own future diverges from the one laid out in the original series and later in The Next Generation. Now we know why we missed the Eugenics Wars and didn’t notice the rise of Khan. The progression of the sci-fi drama is very X-Files, with Janeway and Chakotay forced to play sleuths who visit both the seedier area around Venice Beach and the glossy high-tech district of Los Angeles. And their relationship is very Mulder and Scully, with a delightful amount of flirting not entirely necessary to convince those around them that they’re just a tourist couple enjoying the sights. “Well, Kathryn, you got us home,” jokes Chakotay, the first time we’ve heard him call her by name since “Resolutions,” though it immediately offers hope that it isn’t the only time. This is a moment when they should be sad and concerned – the future’s at risk, and even if things go the way Janeway tells us the timeline says they should, that entire region will be underwater after a massive earthquake in 2047, presumably killing most of its occupants – but instead they seem excited and happy to be home.

There are several lovely references to the original series, most pointedly Janeway saying that dealing with 20th century computers is like working with stone knives and bearskins, a direct quote of Spock in “The City on the Edge of Forever” when the Vulcan had to create a mnemonic memory circuit using tools from the 1930s. But that isn’t the only reason “Future’s End” makes me feel nostalgic, because I really miss this era of Voyager, too, before Seven of Nine and the Borg arrived and things took a permanent turn toward darkness and doubt. There’s nothing I don’t love about Janeway in “Future’s End” from the first moments when Tuvok points out that her serve is inconsistent because she’s not keeping her eye on the ball. Janeway has her eye on everything here and a healthy sense of humor about it all, even when a Federation captain from centuries in the future announces that he has to kill her crew based on some 29th century debris. She decides that this is an instance in which she really should lead the away team herself, though historical Earth is really more Paris and Chakotay’s area of expertise, and if it’s risky to put Tuvok on the away team with his alien physiology when it might make more sense to leave him in command on the ship and take Kim to the surface, it’s not like Kirk didn’t take Spock places where it was illogical to bring a pointy-eared non-human. This is the Janeway from “Flashback” who’s a bit sorry she doesn’t get to experience the fun of the unknown like Kirk and Sulu. While Tuvok is off helping Paris sabotage Griffith Observatory’s readings, Janeway and Chakotay work very much like Kirk and Spock together, except Spock never would have told Kirk that a spirited rollerblader who could have been the captain’s many-times great-grandmother had similarly noteworthy legs. We pick up some more tidbits about their past, like Janeway’s playing on her high school tennis team and Chakotay’s descent from a schoolteacher in Arizona. Given that this is a plot-heavy installment involving most of the major characters, the focus on crew camaraderie is a delight – and the four crewmembers on Earth look really good in 20th century clothing. Janeway’s hair looks so much better that the bun disappears even after the timeline is restored.

Ed Begley, Jr., a Star Trek fan and longtime collaborator of Robert Beltran in Paul Bartel movies from the ’80s, gives a wonderful performance as Starling, the ex-hippie whose great wealth and power only fuel his hunger to beat Tony Stark as the most celebrated tech nerd of all time. He’s very tall, traditionally good-looking, and playing a serious, scheming businessman instead of the quirky characters for which he’s best known in Christopher Guest films and on shows like Arrested Development. It’s not easy to play affable and dangerous at the same time, but he pulls it off. I hardly knew who Sarah Silverman was when “Future’s End” first aired, so what a pleasure as well to relive her performance as Robinson, fairly tame by her comedic standards though she has the funniest line of the episode, demanding of Tuvok, “What is that thing in your pants?” while he’s trying to hide his 24th century technology from her. Paris’s flirtation with her is less impressive until they start talking old movies, the posters for which contain the names of several Star Trek production staff members – Robinson even has some of the action figures – but I like that Paris quickly learns not to condescend to her, since she can keep up with his talk of amplitude parameters and Fourier spectral analyses. Really, though, the most entertaining guest star of “Future’s End” is greater Los Angeles, including the Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach Boardwalk as well as Griffith Observatory and the mountains that surround it. Janeway and Chakotay talk very calmly about how this will all be a massive coral reef by their own century, something that’s a little bit hopeful given the current bleaching and die-offs of coral reefs from global warming in our own century. Yet this episode celebrates all the craziness of la-la land, be it homeless people warning of the End Times, young people zipping around on scooters and skates in outlandish clothing, outsiders obsessing over soap opera plots, or entire mobs screeching to a halt to check their mobile phones when Janeway’s communicator beeps. We can guess that Starling’s the villain when he warns Rain against being overenthusiastic, for enthusiasm is the hallmark of this first-of-two-parts.

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