When a visitor from a future era arrives on the ship, Picard violates his ethics and asks for assistance about how to save a dying planet.
Plot Summary: While traveling to a planet that has been struck by an asteroid, resulting in a massive dust cloud choking the atmosphere, the Enterprise encounters an anomaly that turns out to be a spaceship carrying a traveler named Rasmussen, who identifies himself as a historian from the future. He claims to have come back in time in his mysterious vessel to study the Enterprise, particularly Captain Picard. Troi senses that he is hiding something and Worf is wary of giving him access, but Picard gives Rasmussen permission to study them while the crew sets to work trying to repair the devastated planet before a lack of oxygen and sunlight begins to kill the population. Rasmussen gives the crewmembers lengthy questionnaires tailored to their areas of expertise and asks to examine their “primitive” equipment. When LaForge comes up with a strategy to save the planet using the Enterprise’s phasers and deflector dish to ionize the atmosphere, Picard asks Rasmussen to give him a hint whether this is the correct strategy – the planet’s entire population will die instantly if it fails, though nearly all of them will die anyway if the crew does not try. Rasmussen refuses to intervene on the grounds that Picard is trying to manipulate Rasmussen’s own past, so Picard goes with his instinct to act rather than do nothing and orders LaForge and Data to put the plan in motion. LaForge remains on the surface, knowing that he will die if they miscalculate but believing the plan has a better chance of success if he calibrates from the planet. The ionization succeeds in clearing the atmosphere of the asteroid’s dust and Rasmussen prepares to depart, declaring that it is a thrill to have witnessed history, but the crew gathers at his vessel to announce that they have noticed many items missing and will not let him leave without a search. Rasmussen insists that only Data be permitted on the vessel, since he will not permit whatever he sees to compromise the future. But once Data is on board, Rasmussen reveals that he is from the past rather than the future and has come hunting for technology to steal, with the android now being his crowning achievement. However, the crew has already remotely deactivated all equipment on board Rasmussen’s ship, and Rasmussen is apprehended while the vessel returns without him to its already programmed coordinates.
Analysis: Everything about “A Matter of Time” feels like it’s trying too hard, which really drags down the mood of an episode that depends on timing as much as drama to succeed. Star Trek rumor claims that comic genius Robin Williams was meant to play Rasmussen, but had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict, so he was replaced by Matt Frewer aka Max Headroom; there really isn’t anything wrong with Frewer’s performance, but he lacks Williams’ manic energy and the charm that made Williams a movie star after his early turn as the alien from Mork and Mindy. Williams would have had me rooting for Rasmussen even if I didn’t believe a word that came out of his mouth. Frewer merely has me by turns curious and suspicious. There’s nothing charming about his treating Data like an antiquated personal computer, and his efforts to woo Crusher seem purely sleazy, so that when he claims in the end that not everything he said to her was fake, it’s impossible to believe him.
Often when there’s a character-centered episode, I wish for a somewhat stronger science fiction plot to go along with it, but in this instance, the deadly serious natural disaster seems too heavy for what could be a more entertaining romp through the crew’s reputations. It isn’t surprising that the crew comes to realize Rasmussen is playing them, but it would have been so much more fun to watch them catch on and turn the tables slowly, to get to see Picard get cranky and order everything on his ship deactivated. Instead everyone is preoccupied with the life-or-death situation on the planet, which is so overwhelming that Picard violates what on Deep Space Nine will be known as the Temporal Prime Directive, asking for information about a future event where that information may cause him to alter that future. Starfleet may not have a specific rule yet stating that officers aren’t allowed to established timelines, but Picard seems to understand the risks involved, even if he’s willing to accept those risks to try to save 20 million people.
It’s hard to feel lighthearted about any of Rasmussen’s interactions with the crew when there’s so much at stake, so all of his attempts at humor feel forced and mean-spirited. That drags down any real fun from his interactions with the crew – Troi mostly looks sullen about having to deal with him, Riker glowers a lot, when under other circumstances there would be barely-contained glee with them having as much fun at Rasmussen’s expense as he’s having at theirs. I mean, this guy really did his homework! He knows which names to drop, how much of the ship should look familiar, who built Data, where the sink can be found in the guest quarters and how to use it…he’s impressive even as a charlatan but then he seems to get sloppy, as if it’s almost too easy. He swipes a piece of medical equipment literally under Crusher’s nose, while he’s trying to persuade her that he’d break his own personal Temporal Prime Directive for some alone time with her. He wheedles at Troi about the fact that she doesn’t trust him. He’s completely obnoxious to Data when one would think he’d primarily want to avoid him lest he should make some small mistake that only an android would notice.
It might all be more interesting if the engineering at least made a bit of sense. Comets hitting planets are always good for drama – this episode may have been produced before Armageddon and Deep Impact, but it was after Meteor – though usually the focus is on preventing the disaster from happening. Here, it’s too late, and it’s comforting to know that Starfleet officers seem certain they should be able to save the people and the planet anyway. But the discussion goes from the concrete, involving things we’ve all heard about – nuclear winter, greenhouse gases – to wild technobabble involving phasers, deflectors, ions, metals, and I don’t remember what else even though I was taking notes. Though this might have been an unforgettable episode had the effort failed, with Picard agonizing over a rationally made decision and Data obsessing over his miscalculations, we know the moment LaForge decides to stay on the planet that of course it’s going to work perfectly, even if it looks at first like the atmosphere’s being burned away.
The best moments are due to Patrick Stewart’s skills as an actor. Though he approaches Rasmussen calmly, his verbal games and ingratiating behavior make it obvious that he’s terrified of making the wrong decision and having to take personal responsibility for the deaths of everyone on the planet. When Rasmussen says smugly that he’s comfortable with his own convictions, Picard must want to smack him, yet he continues to debate calmly: this is not a history class, not theory, but the lives of real people in their hands. I think Rasmussen seals his fate at that moment, not because he refuses to divulge any information – I don’t think Picard ever really expected it – but because of the selfishness and callousness with which he approaches the dilemma. A light goes on in Picard’s eyes, not because he’s sure he knows the right thing to do to save the planet, but because he’s got the measure of this time traveler.
It’s Data who gets to have fun with Rasmussen in the end – trapped in his pod but safe from the stolen weapons, he calmly says, “I assume the door will open for your handprint whether you are conscious or not” – and Picard gets a single moment of glee thinking about how much fun the real historians of his own century will have with this fake one. “A Matter of Time” needed more of that.