Wednesday, May 6, 2015

TOS Rewind #75: All Our Yesterdays

Today we look, ahem, back on All Our Yesterdays (3/14/1969)

The podcast for this episode:

What is it about time travel that is makes it such a compelling idea in science fiction? As often as the device is used, it is an often welcome trope in the genre, even today (Doctor Who, anyone?). There are many aspects that draw us to it, but one of the attractions of traveling in time is the idea of escape. Escape from any number of life's complications, for it can be easy to delude one's self into thinking that living in the past would be simpler and easier. I have plenty of nostalgic moments (the bulk of my YouTube videos are nostalgic in nature) and I am often thinking about the past but if I'm honest, I don't really think I'd rather live in any particular period of the past. However, I could think of worse ways to escape a planetary catastrophe than to travel into the past and live there (paradoxes notwithstanding).  In the case of this episode, an escape is made by the planet's inhabitants into their own past to escape the nova of their sun. There are plenty of holes one can poke in this idea but as a time travel story idea, I like it quite a bit.

We get so used to time travel plots in sci fi having certain sets of rules, mainly revolving around paradoxes, changing of history, etc but this story doesn't seem to concerned with that for, after all, having entire planet's population travel into its own past would seem to invite all sorts of complications where it comes to history. But the this time, the story goes with the wrinkle that anyone who travels into the past must be "prepared", as the episode calls it, so that his/her molecular structure matches up with the period being travelled to. The episode is pretty vague about how this works, fortunately, but it does specifically say that once you've gone through the time portal "prepared", you cannot come back to the present and live. Despite the fact that these rules are really in place to further the plot, I rather enjoyed a different take on the time travel theme.

The two main sections of this episode revolve around Kirk being trapped in what looks like 16th Century England/Disneyland and Spock/McCoy being stuck in an ancient ice age/stock footage. The Kirk subplot is rather simple and while his meeting one of the planet's future people fleshes out the story, this part is really just there to delay Spock and McCoy's situation from being resolved. The Kirk side of the story is entertaining, but you pretty much know how it's going to come out.

The Spock/McCoy section is by far the most interesting. By having Spock be trapped in a time period  long before Vulcans conquered their primitive emotions, we get to see him slowly revert to a more barbaric Spock, full of passion and yes, anger. Zarabeth, the woman who takes Spock and McCoy in, is actually an interesting character with a real background. Zarabeth is a political prisoner, trapped in the past by some despot. The prisoner can be forever trapped in the distant past and the dictator or whoever can say they didn't execute anyone. Clever. So Zarabeth is extremely happy to have some company and takes a liking to Spock. Spock, in his proto-Vulcan state, falls for Zarabeth. Eventually she reveals that she is only certain that she cannot go back; perhaps Spock and McCoy can.

This reveal is a good example of how well the episode is paced and its information given out. We the viewers don't really understand the whole story and the details are dished up very strategically. We rarely feel like we're far ahead of the characters with regards to what's going on with the story. Not every episode handles this so well. The way that Spock struggles with his emotions is acted well by Nimoy and this is where the interplay between Spock and McCoy really plays well. McCoy realizes what's going on and at the risk of Spock losing his shit and possibly kicking his ass, has to push things with the now emotional Vulcan to try and get home. The scenes between the three of them feel genuine and allow us to invest in the characters enough that the ending scene where Spock and McCoy ponder the now long dead Zarabeth is quite touching. I should also point out that Mariette Hartley really sells her roll which is fortunately well written. 

There are things here and there that one can criticize, such as the silly scenes with the librarian, Mr. Atoz (har har) but for the most part this is a strong episode, one of the best of the season. That's not saying much I realize. It would have been far better for them to have ended the series with this episode, a bright spot of the season. This is still a personal favorite I will most definitely return to.

Eric's take:

2015 is turning out to be a bad year for the original Star Trek cast. Leonard Nimoy passed away on February 27th, and Grace Lee Whitney, who portrayed Janice Rand, died last Friday, May 1st. Yeoman/Commander Rand appeared in the first season of original Trek as well as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II, IV, and VI, and an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Ms. Whitney lived to the venerable age of 85 and will be fondly remembered and missed. RIP. 

On that sad note, we come to “All Our Yesterdays,” the penultimate episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. As has been mentioned several times, I and my fellow podcasters fervently wished this had been the last episode. It is one of the best of the third season, and (like many Trek episodes) takes its title from Shakespeare, in this case, “Macbeth:”

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
- Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5)

I won't rehash our entire podcast, but the idea behind this episode is that the inhabitants of the planet Sarpeidon escape the impending disaster of their sun going supernova by traveling into their own history. The time travel aspect is hardly new, but it introduces an interesting twist by making it necessary for people to have their physiology adjusted by the Atavachron (the time machine) so that they can live in the past permanently. This aspect of time travel was never discussed in any other Star Trek episode, and I don't recall ever reading or seeing anything about it in non-Trek SF. It also forms the basis of a crucial plot point when Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are faced with the imperative to return to the present or die.

In terms of drama and storytelling, the B plot, Kirk in Sarpeidon's equivalent of the sixteenth or seventeenth century in England, is entertaining but not inspired. Spock and McCoy in the planet's last ice age, however, is excellent. The idea that Spock would revert to the mental state of Vulcans of that era (i.e. pre-logic) is interesting, especially given the suggestion that it might be due to him not having been processed by the Atavachron. It is Leonard Nimoy's performance, though, that really sells it. He makes Spock's regression subtle but steady and utterly convincing. This is one of Nimoy's best performances. And Mariette Hartley, who guest stars as Zarabeth, does an excellent job playing a woman who is desperate from crushing loneliness. This is due in part to Hartley's solid acting and partly to what is surprisingly good writing for the end of the third season. Zarabeth is portrayed as a strong, smart woman who is, as McCoy points out, highly motivated. In our podcast, we talk about “Misogyny Corner,” but in this episode, there really is nothing that fits in that category. (This is particularly remarkable given the next, final episode “Turnabout Intruder.”)

Finally, it is poignant, and perhaps ironic, that Zarabeth cannot return to the present with Spock, for the same reason that Spock cannot remain in the past with her—Zarabeth has had her physiology adjusted by the Atavachron and Spock has not. 

On a personal note, I greatly appreciate the economy and effectiveness of the dialog in “All Our Yesterdays.” In screenplays, it is often necessary to do exposition via dialog, but that is also difficult, and it is frequently done poorly. Not so in this episode. Kudos to the writer(s)!

I also want to mention that this episode was the springboard for one of the best Star Trek novels: “Yesterday's Son” by the late A.C. Crispin.

In closing, the only major complaint I have is that the librarian is named Atoz (A to Z). Really?! Oh well, that is a minor flaw in an otherwise good, if not excellent, episode. If only it had been the last one aired...

Next time: “Turnabout Intruder”

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