Thursday, November 21, 2013

“Dust to dust”: All Our Yesterdays

"I knew it was a bad idea to install that survival mod."
“All Our Yesterdays” is the second, and final, submission by Jean Lisette Aroeste, whose previous credit was “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”. It's also the final official fan submission in Star Trek for awhile, the last in the Original Series not to mention the second to last episode in the Original Series overall. Suffice to say, there is a distinctly funereal air about the general proceedings, which isn't at all helped by how stupendously uninspiring this episode is.

It is, however, significantly more coherent than the previous episode made out of an Aroeste script at least. While on a mission to ensure the planetary civilization of Sarpeidon evacuates in time to avoid the imminent supernova that will engulf their solar system in three hours (how exactly Starfleet was planning to evacuate an entire planet in three hours is not explained), the Enterprise finds the planet now entirely free of inhabited life. Beaming down, Kirk, Spock and McCoy find themselves in a gigantic library curated by an enigmatic man named Mr. Atoz, who runs the installation all by himself with the aid of his many duplicates (how the Enterprise failed to pick up Atoz's life signs is similarly unexplained). As the landing party peruses the discs that archive Sarpeidon's history Kirk hears a scream from outside and goes through a doorway to investigate, only to find himself on a city street in what appears to be England in the 17th Century. Spock and McCoy follow, but find themselves in a frozen arctic landscape from Sarpeidon's ice age. Spock and McCoy are rescued by a woman named Zarabeth, who confirms that the purpose of the library was to tie into a time portal, which allows people to travel back in time to any period in Sarpeidon's history, and that the planet's entire populace must have done so to avoid the supernova.

Reading this episode becomes pretty straightforward once you realise Aroeste was the librarian at UCLA. “All Our Yesterdays” seems quite overtly about the idea that books in a library can transport you to other places and times, especially in Aroeste's original brief, which had a lot more time travel shenanigans. Entitled “A Handful of Dust”, Aroeste's original story featured Spock and McCoy trapped in a desert suffering from heat stroke before encountering a band of mutant humanoids. Kirk ended up in a period reminiscent of Barbary Coast-era San Francisco where he encounters another time traveller, who helps him return to the library and rescue Spock and McCoy. Kirk and his fellow time traveller destroy the portal and escape just in time to watch everything crumble to dust in their hands.

Once again this is an instance of an episode that was considerably monkeyed around with and for which the original submission seems considerably more interesting, so I'm going to be talking primarily about that. But first, a few major things changed between “A Handful of Dust” and “All Our Yesterdays”. The big thing that seems to be different is the effect of time travel on the landing party, and in particular, the fact the original brief didn't seem to specify any. However, in the aired episode, once Spock travels back to Sarpeidon's ice age he seems to devolve to the way Vulcans behaved five thousand years ago: He falls in love with Zarabeth and becomes violently jealous when he thinks McCoy is interested in her as well. This, flatly, doesn't make a damn bit of sense. Neither McCoy or Kirk are similarly affected, and, well, while I'm not one to pull continuity, this didn't happen to Spock in “Tomorrow is Yesterday”,“The City on the Edge of Forever” or “Assignment: Earth”, so I'm not sure why it needed to happen here. Both the prosecutor Kirk associates with and Zarabeth make reference to the time machine “processing” its travellers to fit the period they travel to, which might account for some of Spock's actions were it not for the fact none of the landing party actually ever are “processed”: In fact, that's what allows them to return to the present in the first place. Speaking of Zarabeth, the most notable thing about her is that she's the part of the episode you'd most expect to see from a Star Trek fan, but neither her nor Spock's romance subplot were in Aroeste's original submission at all.

What I'm most interested in talking about here is actually the change in the time period Kirk gets sent to. In “All Our Yesterdays”, he's sent someplace that looks like the UK circa the 17th Century. This is, largely, a missed opportunity. If, judging by Spock, our heroes are meant to somehow adapt to the time period, this seems like it's be a great opportunity to show off William Shatner's talent for mercurial performativity: We'd expect him to turn into a drag show dandy version of Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, and while he does get a brief swordfighting scene soon after he leaves the portal, we've seen Kirk fence before and this doesn't seem like anything any different from what he's normally capable of. Then, there's a tantalizing moment where Kirk is able to contact Spock and McCoy through the portal, leading the villagers in his presence to immediately conclude he's a witch who communes with spirits.

This was naturally the part of the episode that got my attention, as for awhile it seemed like it was going to conclude that Kirk was some kind of shaman and the time portal was a magickal door between realms (which would neatly tie into my reading of “Wink of an Eye” that posited the world of Star Trek is a Otherworld of Eternal Youth and Summer), but ultimately Kirk just stamps his feet and screams about how “there are no such things as witches”, which sort of throws a damp towel over that particular reading for me. Kirk on the whole actually utterly fails to get into a role here which, sadly, means the episode plays out as almost the opposite of “A Piece of the Action”. I'm not sure whether this was just due to Shatner not caring anymore, or if he simply didn't feel the script was giving him enough material to work with. Given how haphazard the final product is though and that this is the penultimate episode of the series, I am going to lean towards the latter.

But Aroeste of course didn't have Kirk in 17th Century England originally: In “A Handful of Dust”, she had him in the Barbary Coast in the Victorian United States, which is somewhat more intriguing. During the California Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast section of San Francisco became an infamous Red Light District that was also a hub for all kinds of other illicit activity, such as gambling and organised crime. Putting Kirk here when at the opposite end of the season he was playing an Old West gang leader and, a few months before that a Chicago Mob Boss, is quite telling. Presumably Kirk would have wound up mingling with all the lowlifes and undesirables, tacitly putting him in opposition to the ways in which Victoriana manifested itself in the United States, which had the potential to give Star Trek one last chance to bare the anti-authoritarian teeth we now know it had. Also, I'm not sure how far Aroeste was planning to go in this direction, but it's certainly in keeping with her library theme to go to logical limit of having the landing party in some sense integrate themselves into the time periods they visit, just as a good book can sometimes be evocative enough to “draw us in” to the world it depicts.

But of course none of this is clear whatsoever in the episode that we can watch. “All Our Yesterdays” is positively crippled by plot holes and logic problems and commits an unforgivable sin by being possibly the most boring and uninteresting episode in the entire series. Furthermore, I found Kirk's violent treatment of Mr. Atoz in the library as he tried to rescue Spock and McCoy really distasteful: Giving Kirk a gratuitous fight scene is one thing, eye-rolling as it may be, but watching him aggressively assault a helpless old man and wrestle him to the ground without once explaining himself or his motives is shockingly awful display of flat-out cruelty that goes beyond simply writing him out of character. And anyway, if the Enterprise was sent to check in on Sarpeidon anyway, wouldn't it have made just a little sense to make sure they'd been contacted beforehand? The Prime Directive isn't explicitly mentioned, but I'm assuming that's why the landing party is so reluctant to tell anyone what they're actually doing, which would have resolved the entire plot about two minutes into the teaser.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this episode is the idea of people using time travel to escape a coming catastrophe: The Sarpeidons retreat into their own past to live out their lives in a deliberate attempt to circumvent the supernova by, in a sense, denying it. Much the same could be said about Star Trek now: The end is very much nigh and, in a real sense, the only thing the show's fans have to hold on to for the moment are the perpetual syndicated reruns to come. Their own history.


  1. That original setup seems much more fun than the actual episode, which I remember watching, but mostly I only really enjoyed the image of the library of time portals. That alone could have made for a fascinating episode, instead of the nearly pure meh that was actually produced. "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" appears most interesting now because of the meta-implications, as you imply at the end. But there's another potential take on this story that I can't help but consider.

    The Sarpeidons have created a series of time portals so the supernova-vulnerable population can have somewhere to live out the rest of their lives. The end of Sarpeidon culture is literally turning back on itself. The problem with this is that the current generation of this society is interfering with its past by appearing there. Unless, of course, the evidence for their having gone to the past is part of Sarpeidon history. And perhaps a group among the supernova generation is seeding the past with the scientific knowledge required to construct the time library in the first place. So the time library only exists because its builders themselves went back in time and conditioned their planet's history so that it would be able to build the time library at the appropriate historical moment. Essentially, the time librarians preserved the lives of the supernova generation by enclosing their planet's history in a complicated time loop.

    Yes, that's much more interesting than the mediocre story about time-sensitive Vulcan hormones, witch trials, and elder abuse that was actually transmitted. Don't necessarily expect me to write another eight week saga on my blog about this one, though.

    1. And I even misremembered the name of the episode, despite it being at the top of the post. It was that mediocre.

    2. I was a bit confused there for a bit until I saw your second comment! :-)

      Great reading, though: It certainly would have been considerably more fun than "All Our Yesterdays". I suppose pretty much anything would be, though.

      In case it wasn't already clear, looking at each episode and trying to figure out what would make it good is sort of my whole MO. Which I guess is telling.

  2. I once read one of the Pocket Books Star Trek novels which was, start to finish, a sequel to this episode. Since I can never keep a single detail of this episode in my mind for more than an hour after viewing, it was a fairly baffling book. I thought it must be a sequel to another book from the same author or something and didn't realize what they were sequelizing for years. Obviously the episode means something to whomever wrote that book, bless 'em. I wish I could share their enthusiasm for its pedestrian delights.

  3. The quiet bleakness of the episode (both from the story and production standpoints) has always been strangely satisfying for me. I can't particularly argue with any of your critiques, but I guess just given where the show was by this point there was something almost satisfying about an episode that seemed to reflect the way the show felt by now.

    1. I noticed that too, and tried to hint at it a bit in my concluding paragraph. It does feel like an attempt to deal with the inevitable. I just, you know, wish it had been an actually good episode.

      Of course I have something on an unfair advantage: I know TAS is right around the corner and I'm gearing up to launch into that series. But TOS fans in 1969 wouldn't have known another series was on the air, or that Star Trek even had franchise potential.

      All they would have known is that their favourite show was ending.

  4. this didn't happen to Spock in “Tomorrow is Yesterday”,“The City on the Edge of Forever” or “Assignment: Earth”, so I'm not sure why it needed to happen here.

    Those were all stories where Spock traveled back to the 20th century, at which point Vulcans were already civilised and logical?

    1. OK, if we're gonna pull canon I'm obligated to mention Enterprise establishes that pre-23rd Century Vulcans were viciously territorial, isolationist and bigoted so therefore it was a tremendous oversight on the part of Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana to not foresee what Rick Berman and Brannon Braga would establish forty years later :-)

      Seriously though, this still doesn't explain why McCoy didn't revert to Stone Age behaviour or Kirk didn't become a 17th Century witch or witch hunter.

    2. Spock probably had a better way to screen out the thought of the Vulcans in the 20th century, and also, he wasn't affected by the time-travel device, which adjusts people to survive [somewhat] in the past by not making them to be overly out of place in the past [with some internal changes, like a decrease of whatever life span they had in the 'future' so that they would die like everybody else did; of course, they'd still remember the future, but they would keep it to themselves and act accordingly).

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