Tuesday, December 10, 2013

“...of a mingled yarn”: Yesteryear

Godzilla vs. Spock was one of the lesser-known Godzilla films of this period...
“Yesteryear” is pure D.C. Fontana.

When returning from a mission of research into Federation history through the Guardian of Forever, Kirk is stunned to find out nobody on the Enterprise seems to recognise Spock, and that he himself doesn't recognise the person the crew is calling the ship's first officer: The Andorian Commander Thelin. A brief scan of the ship's record banks indicates that Sarek and Amanda, Spock's parents, divorced about twenty years ago after the death of their only son, Spock. This is of course, patently untrue as Spock is sitting at the table as the computer relays this information. The computer goes on to say that Amanda was later killed herself in a shuttlecraft accident. Reasoning that history has somehow been changed by their presence in the past, Kirk and Spock return to the planet and Spock recalls that the date he is said to have died is the same day he remembers being saved by his cousin Selek from an attacking wild animal. After being pressed by Kirk, Spock recalls that actually, now that he thinks about it, Selek looked an awful lot like him.

Before we go any further, I want to talk a little about the temporal mechanics in this story, as they're fascinatingly not the norm for time travel stories. The crucial detail is in how the Guardian of Forever works: It exists at the vortex point where every timeline in the universe converges and, as a result, endlessly broadcasts a record of every possible time stream. We can interact with it by leaping through it at the appropriate moment. What happened was that while Kirk and Spock were in the past, Vulcan's own history was being broadcast at the same time. Because Spock saved his own life and he was in a different time stream when the moment he was supposed to save himself was playing, he missed the crucial moment. But he doesn't erase himself from history, to the contrary: He turns both himself and Kirk into historical orphans by jumping each other's time streams. In other words, the Guardian of Forever works like a television set.

Although this was hinted at a bit in “The City on the Edge of Forever”, it's extremely clear in “Yesteryear”. The different time streams are easily comparable to television stations, and the slow, methodical cycling through them all is very much like someone sitting down and turning the dial on their set. The Guardian even looks like an old-style tube TV in this episode. This is altogether fitting in the context of the position Star Trek is now in: The Original Series is now more popular than it's ever been and is enjoying runaway cult success in perpetual, neverending syndicated reruns. Meanwhile, along comes the Animated Series attempting to make a decisive claim for what the future of the franchise should look like, and there's already a considerable amount of ambivalence about the project. Star Trek fans are, in a sense, incessantly revisiting their own past by tuning into reruns and slavishly worshiping the Original Series to the expense of other bits of Star Trek and, in doing so, they might be missing experiences that are at the very least equally worthwhile and enjoyable.

On the other hand, recall we're still in an age before home video: Spock screws up his history essentially because he missed the programme about his past, and now he has to wait for the Guardian to come 'round to it again to sort it all out. He has to wait for the rerun to catch it again, in much the same way the creative team might have felt Star Trek was cheated out of a longer success because not enough people watched it in its previous incarnation. They have the opportunity to catch up now that the Original Series is in syndication, but it remains a part of their history, distant and unreachable. But furthermore, recall television episodes used to be seen as one-time, disposable performances: Thought of this way, reruns are in a sense akin to history happening again-We're seeing the echo of a past performance. In that regard, it's fun to think of the Federation researchers dutifully cataloging tricorder readings as fans trying to take telesnaps to preserve their favourite shows, or writers attempting to transcribe a script into a mass-market novelization.

(Speaking of the Federation researchers, it's kind of nice to see a female officer wearing pants for the first time).

But “Yesteryear” is a D.C. Fontana script, and ultimately that means it's a strong character piece, and in particular a strong character piece about Spock and his family. Following up on “Journey to Babel”, Fontana hinges the emotional core of the story in exploring why Spock's family dynamic evolved the way it did, showing Young Spock caught in between his father's desire to push him onto a Vulcan path of pure logic and his mother's desire for him to become more in touch with his human emotional side. After an outburst of emotional violence at the hands of neighbourhood bullies, Young Spock runs off into the desert before his scheduled maturity trial to prove to himself as much as to his father that he's capable of making it as part of Vulcan society (this actually segues into one of the things that has always puzzled me about Star Trek: Vulcan bullies make no sense to me, especially ones that base their torment on xenophobic attitudes).

This is also the episode that even the people who have the most diehard objections to Star Trek: The Animated Series have to begrudgingly admit probably should be taken as canon. Fontana delivers a veritable flood of exposition about Spock's background and Vulcan history and culture, and most of the elements introduced here (in particular Amanda's last name being Grayson, the idea of Spock being tormented as a child, the capital city of ShirKahr and the sehlats) become established parts of lore and are referenced a lot in future Star Trek. Not that future writers can be blamed, as once again this episode looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous. ShirKahr, the Vulcan desert and the L-langon mountains are at once immediately reminiscent of what little we saw of Vulcan in “Amok Time” and utterly unique and evocative alien landscapes that look like nothing else. It's a triumph of world-building mixed with exquisite art design, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was still watching a Filmation show. It's that well done. The depiction of Vulcan here clearly goes on to influence all subsequent portrayals of the planet (including, perhaps ironically, the recreated CGI effects used in the 2007 rebroadcast version of “Amok Time”) and in fact, now that I think about it, I can see shades of the care and attention Fontana affords Vulcan here reflected in what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine eventually does with Bajor (or, well, tries to do at any rate).

The only minor quibble I might have with the conception of Vulcan here is ironically enough the acting: Leonard Nimoy is great as always and it's nice to see Mark Lenard again (and to see Filmation was actually able to afford him), though he remains a low-key presence at best, albeit a dignified one. However, Jane Wyatt was unavailable to reprise the role of Amanda Grayson (meaning Filmation probably couldn't afford her), so the part had to go to Majel Barrett, The Animated Series' pinch-hitter female voice actor. And, well, let's just say Barrett is no James Doohan. She plays Amanda pretty much the same way she plays the Federation historian, which is pretty much the same way she played Number One and Nurse Chapel. I mean they don't just act vaguely similar, they sound almost identical. She doesn't exactly have a terrific range as an actor, and now I see why Bob Justman and Herb Solow recommended she be dropped from the Original Series after “The Cage”. But this is an extremely minor complaint: If Barrett's the only person Filmation could get, than she's the only person they could get. Everyone's clearly trying their absolute hardest, and I'm inclined to forgive that (although one wonders why they didn't ask Nichelle Nichols to double up on a few parts too).

Returning to the actual plot, the episode's touching climax is, of course, when Young Spock's pet sehlat I-Chaya succumbs to fatal injuries after his battle with Godzilla (seriously, the episode straight-up jacks Godzilla's signature roar from the Toho movies for a Vulcan monster. I thought I was being clever with my Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah joke in the James Blish post), which wasn't technically supposed to happen. However, Old Spock uses the tragedy to teach Young Spock that it's OK to let people we love die with dignity, and that Vulcans can have emotion, in spite of what others think of them. The difference is that Vulcans do not let raw emotion control and consume them. It seems like a moment of revelation for both Spocks, and just like she had before, Fontana deftly and neatly resolves Star Trek's unnecessary logic/emotion schism by demonstrating that both are valuable for living a healthy and full life.

Actually, “Yesteryear” goes one step beyond “Journey to Babel”: In the Original Series episode, Spock stubbornly refused to admit this and continued to take glib pot shots at irrational humans. Here though, Old Spock's defining moment is when he tells his younger self to take pride in both sides of his heritage, and his request of Sarek to try and understand his son. He even cracks a joke in the denouement that stuns McCoy, and flat-out admits to the screen that “times change”. So, Spock hasn't actually restored the timeline, he's in fact created a new one and, in spite of the death of I-Chaya, arguably a better one: As much credit as the Original Series movies get for showing an older, wiser Spock who has learned to balance his Vulcan and human side, it's really the Animated Series, and this episode in particular, that moved him in this direction, and it's all on D.C Fontana. And, as just an aside, this means that the Animated Series has managed to do a soft reboot of the entire Star Trek universe, which honestly seems a fitting thing for it to do. Last week we had something that was suspiciously evocative of the first televised Star Trek episode, and now we have proof: Star Trek: The Animated Series both is and is not a continuation of Star Trek. It's a new Star Trek, and a superior one.


  1. The remarkable element of the story is that Spock, before he travels back in time to save himself, remembers the event of saving himself slightly differently than what he would actually do once he travelled back in time. And I don't just mean that he realized that his adult self was his "cousin" Selek. His pet I-Chaya dies, and young Spock learns a lesson about the necessity of acknowledging his emotions that is a novel element of his own history.

    It's almost as though the past itself becomes more detailed through our interaction with it.

  2. it's kind of nice to see a female officer wearing pants for the first time

    How can you tell it's her first time? Is she wearing them awkwardly or something?

  3. Vulcan bullies make no sense to me, especially ones that base their torment on xenophobic attitudes

    That's always bugged me too. Actually what's even more puzzling than the xenophobia is taunting someone for not being emotionless; it's like punching someone for not being a pacifist.