“A Matter of Time”
Written by Rick Berman
Directed by Paul Lynch
Season 5, Episode 9
Production episode 40275-209
Original air date: November 18, 1991
Captain’s Log: The Enterprise is en route to Penthara IV to help counteract the devastation on that world following an asteroid strike. However, Worf has detected a time-space distortion and an object that hadn’t been there previously. They stop briefly to investigate, and find a tiny ship that is impervious to sensors. After Worf hails them, he tells Picard that the message is a request to move over. Picard says the Enterprise isn’t moving anywhere, but then Worf clarifies that the request is for the captain to move over. He walks toward Worf to ask what the hell they’re on about, and then a tall figure materializes where Picard was standing.
He identifies himself as Professor Berlinghoff Rasmussen, a historian from the twenty-sixth century, and he’s traveled back three hundred years in order to witness historical events. While explaining to Picard that he can’t give specifics as to why he’s there, he does check out the ready room—apparently, his Shakespeare book was believed to be on his desk rather than the end table, and Rasmussen had apparently guessed correctly about the distance from the door to the wall.
Rasmussen wants to give the senior staff questionnaires. He is still not forthcoming with specifics—though he continues to ask silly questions, like if Worf usually sits on that side of the table—but he does confirm that he came to this day on purpose.
The staff is skeptical, but he is human, and he is in a ship that’s like nothing they’ve ever seen, which came out of temporal distortion. Picard says he’s examined his credentials, and everything seems in order. (Of course, Picard has no idea what his credentials should look like, so that’s kind of meaningless, but whatever.)
The Enterprise arrives at Penthara—where it seems to be a local law that you must wear an ugly gray jumpsuit with silver trim in order to live there—where Picard and La Forge discuss options with Dr. Moseley. They can use drilling phasers to release pockets of carbon dioxide. Moseley comments on the irony of them creating a greenhouse gas effect that they’d spent decades trying to avoid. But it’s necessary for them to keep as much heat in as possible.
Rasmussen joins Riker, Crusher, and a very reluctant Worf in Ten-Forward. The time traveler provides them with their questionnaires, and Riker asks why there are no other records of time-travelling historians. Rasmussen says that he and a colleague went to the twenty-second century just recently. Crusher immediately asks if he saw surgical masks and gloves, since that was before quarantine fields. Rasmussen is amused by what different people consider important, and he then asks Riker what he thinks the most important invention of the past couple hundred years was. He says the warp coil. Worf says the phaser.
Then Rasmussen heads to engineering to give Data and La Forge their questionnaires. All along, Rasmussen makes oblique comments that make people wonder why he’s here for this mission. At one point, Rasmussen surreptitiously pockets a padd.
The Enterprise starts drilling. It does the trick—the temperatures stop dropping, and in a couple of equatorial regions it’s even gone up. Now Penthara has time.
Later, Rasmussen goes to sickbay to ask Crusher about a neural stimulator, and she gives him one.
A discussion on the bridge about Rasmussen’s questionnaires is interrupted by an alarm: there are earthquakes and volcanic activity on the planet. The Enterprise overestimated the geologic stability of the drill sites, and releasing the carbon dioxide has caused the mantle to collapse. Worse, the volcanic ash will compound the existing problem with the debris from the asteroid.
Rasmussen visits Data in his quarters, asking him for schematics, claiming that very little of Noonien Soong’s work survived to the twenty-sixth century. (He also comments that he should have told Data to limit himself on his questionnaire to 50,000 words or less, to which Data replies, “You did ask me to be thorough.”) While the android speaks with La Forge on the surface, Rasmussen palms a tricorder.
The particles in the atmosphere are charged. La Forge and Data have a plan that, if it works, will save the planet by using the phasers to convert those charged particles into plasma, and then use the Enterprise shields to absorb that plasma and discharge it, thus clearing the atmosphere. But if they’re off by even a little bit, they’ll burn off the planet’s atmosphere and all twenty million people (and all other life on the planet) will die.
Picard is agonizing over the plan while waiting for the colony leaders’ decision, and he summons Rasmussen to his ready room. Picard is stuck on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, asking Rasmussen for the outcome violates everything he believes in, all his training as a Starfleet officer—but he now has twenty million reasons to change his mind. Rasmussen, however, isn’t budging in his willingness to tell Picard what happens—which Picard finds appalling, given the possible death count. But Rasmussen can’t risk his own history being altered—and besides, all of these people are long dead from his perspective.
They go back and forth, until Riker interrupts, saying that conditions are the best they’re going to be. Rasmussen, for the first time, sounds sincere when he says he can’t help Picard and that he’s sorry.
They go to the bridge, where Rasmussen realizes that Picard had already decided to try, even without his help. Picard assures Rasmussen that he did help—his refusal to assist reminded Picard of the importance of freedom of choice. And he chooses to act rather than play it safe. La Forge feels the same way—he chooses to remain on the surface, despite the risk. When Picard says there’s no guarantee it will work, La Forge points out that there’s no guarantee it’ll fail, either.
The plan works, the planet’s saved, and Rasmussen announces that it’s time to go. With a final comment that Riker is taller than he expected, he buggers off.
Arriving at the shuttle bay, the crew refuses to let Rasmussen onto the ship until they can search it for some objects that have gone missing. Rasmussen assures them that he’s not here to forage for relics, but Worf assures him that, if he doesn’t open the ship, Worf will do it with explosives, if necessary.
Rasmussen agrees—but only if Data accompanies him alone inside ship, since he won’t divulge what he sees if Picard orders him to do so.
They enter the ship, and Data finds a tray filled with items from the Enterprise. Data points out that they don’t belong to him; Rasmussen admits that the phaser he’s now holding on Data doesn’t, either. Turns out, he’s not from the twenty-sixth century, he’s from the twenty-second. His ship is indeed from the twenty-sixth—“At least, that’s what the poor fella said”—but Rasmussen stole it. A dismally inept inventor in his own time, he has come to the future in order to swipe some items and “invent” about one a year or so, thus making his fortune.
However, the phaser doesn’t work. Once Rasmussen opened the door, the Enterprise was able to scan the ship’s interior and deactivate anything belonging to the ship inside—including the phaser. Data brings him back outside (“I assume your handprint will open this door whether you are conscious or not”), and Worf takes him into custody after retrieving all the items. The ship itself—which was on an autotimer—disappears, to Rasmussen’s horror.
Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: Rasmussen’s stolen ship is made of a plasticized tritanium mesh, which is like nothing on record. (“At least until now,” La Forge adds.)
Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi doesn’t trust Rasmussen, knowing that he’s hiding something—which is natural given that he needs to hide things about the future for his cover, but still...
There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: Worf is cranky about Rasmussen from jump. He also claims to really hate questionnaires. He must’ve been a barrel of laughs at the Academy.
If I Only Had a Brain...: Rasmussen says Data is like the Model T of androids. Data corrects him by saying a more apt analogy would be the Model A, since he was Dr. Soong’s revised prototype.
He also listens to four pieces of music at once, but can listen to up to a hundred. He seems oddly surprised that Rasmussen has trouble talking when he does that.
No Sex, Please, We’re Starfleet: Rasmussen flirts with Crusher, who seems to be okay with it right up until he gets more aggressive with it, at which point she reminds him that she could be his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother.
In the Driver’s Seat: This is the first of five appearances of Ensign Felton at conn, an officer so distinctive that I totally forgot she existed until I watched this episode again.
I Believe I Said That: “What if one of those lives I save down there is a child who grows up to be the next Adolf Hitler or Khan Singh? Every first-year philosophy student has been asked that question since the earliest wormholes were discovered.”
Picard arguing with Rasmussen over what to do.
Welcome Aboard. Matt Frewer is the big guest in this one, best known in genre circles at the time as the both a reporter and a wacky computer avatar in the short-lived cult hit The Max Headroom Show (the latter role also served as a Coke spokesperson for a while, and those ads were probably more popular than the TV show, more’s the pity). Frewer also starred in the even-more-tragically-short-lived Doctor! Doctor! and has actually carved out an impressive career as a character actor. While he’s best known for his wacky roles, like Taggart on Eureka and the White Knight in the SyFy miniseries Alice, he also has done some stellar turns on Canadian television, most particularly the serial killer Larry Williams on a two-part DaVinci’s Inquest (for which he was nominated for a Gemini Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Emmys) and the starring role of semi-ethical cop Ted Altman in Intelligence.
Trivial Matters: The role of Rasmussen was originally intended for Robin Williams, but his filming schedule for the movie Hook kept him from doing so. Both Frewer and Williams were known for ad-libbing in their seminal TV roles—Williams in Mork and Mindy, Frewer in Max Headroom. (Given how Hook came out, Williams might’ve been better off with this role.)
This episode would be referenced by Odo in the Deep Space Nine episode “Bar Association” when he wants to give Worf a hard time about all the security breaches on the Enterprise.
After serving his prison sentence, Rasmussen shows up for a big poker tournament on Deep Space 9 in the novel The Big Game by “Sandy Schofield” (a pseudonym for Kristine Kathryn Rusch and big-time poker enthusiast Dean Wesley Smith), and also played a major role in David A. McIntee’s Indistinguishable from Magic. He also appears in J.R. Rasmussen’s very metafictiony short story “Research” in the Strange New Worlds II anthology.
Make it So: “We should be on our way back to a place called New Jersey.” I really wanted to be excited about this episode when it first aired because I’ve been a huge fan of Matt Frewer’s since his Max Headroom days, and have continued to follow his career through good and bad (he was, quite possibly, the worst Sherlock Holmes ever).
Sadly, this episode doesn’t make nearly as much use of Frewer’s talents as it should. He’s not manic enough to be fun, not subtle enough to be convincing. Picard’s trust of him seems off somehow, like he’s going along with it because the script told him to, though at least Worf and Troi maintain their skepticism. It’s cute to see that few can resist asking him about the future, not even Data, and there are some other fun things, but ultimately the episode just feels meaningless.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the very well-scripted scene in Picard’s ready room where Picard tries every rhetorical trick in the book to cajole assistance from Rasmussen. That’s a scene that doesn’t work after the first time you see it, because when you know that Rasmussen’s a con man, the scene utterly deflates, because there’s no moral dilemma for Rasmussen. What should be an interesting discussion about the philosophical and ethical implications of time travel instead becomes Picard wasting his time.
Admittedly, it takes talent to waste a scene that has two actors of the caliber of Frewer and Sir Patrick Stewart, but that’s not the kind of talent you actually want to see creating TV shows.
Warp factor rating: 4
Keith R.A. DeCandido wonders what happened to Rasmussen’s time machine. Who found it when it went back to the twenty-second century?