Nutshell: A refreshing, entertaining hour. Rather effectively plotted and paced. In short, a good setup.
I'll admit that, months ago, when I first heard about the premise for "Future's End" I wasn't exactly enthused about it. It sounded like a desperate stab by the Voyager writers—a rehash of the Star Trek IV concept of putting Trekkian characters in a contemporary time period and milking it for all the ideals contrasting it's worth.
Fortunately, I got something I wasn't expecting—a solidly written, fast-paced, plot-driven episode characterized by some memorable sequences.
All that plus a refreshing, interesting array of time travel machinations.
Let me also admit this: I'm a sucker for time travel plots when they dare to get as crazy as "Future's End" does. On my list of favorite movies is the gleefully entertaining Back to the Future Part II. That film was a lot of fun because the characters were constantly zipping in and out of different time periods, creating and resolving problems based on the reliable sci-fi idea of the time paradox. "Future's End," similarly, also piles paradoxes onto the plot with little regard for linear logic or, for that matter, even common sense. I think that's the point, and the reason why time travel stories are effective—they're based on a reality that can't possibly be understood because, as Captain Braxton (Allan G. Royal) of the 29th century notes, "A is to B is to C is to A." (Quick aside: Between this two-parter, DS9's "Trials and Tribble-ations," and the rapidly approaching First Contact, it would seem that if there's one thing there's plenty of, it's time travel.)
As the show begins, Voyager is in its usual routine, traveling through the Delta Quadrant. Suddenly a rift opens and a Federation ship emerges. The ship isn't just a ship, but a time ship from the 29th century. The captain is a sort of temporal police officer. He has traveled from the future to destroy Voyager. You see, Voyager is somehow responsible for a temporal explosion that destroys Earth's solar system in the 29th century, killing billions of people. Braxton frantically explains why he has arrived and why he must destroy Voyager. When Janeway demands further explanation and proof, Braxton simply responds, "No time!" and promptly opens fire. Amusingly ironic.
Voyager resists Braxton's weapons with some clever technobabble that inhibits his weapons, and the result is an accident that sends Braxton and the Voyager back to 20th century Earth. Under plot details that I refuse to go into here, the Voyager crew tracks Braxton to Los Angeles (the year, naturally, is 1996). After disguising their ship in orbit and briefly studying the contemporary culture, Janeway and the crew beam down in contemporary clothes to find Braxton.
They find him, but he has aged. As it happens the accident caused him to arrive nearly thirty years earlier, when he crash-landed his time ship somewhere in the High Sierras. He beamed out just before the crash, but before he could retrieve his time ship someone else did: a 20th century man (and now a computer company CEO) named Henry Starling (Ed Begley, Jr.). It's about here where we get the explanation of how A causes B causes C causes A. The story wisely acknowledges the paradox and then doesn't give it a second thought, which is a prudent move under the circumstances. As Braxton lays the plot down for Janeway and for us, we see what this aged character out of place has become: a crazed, raving old lunatic whose single, energetic scene proves very entertaining.
The rest of the episode follows the characters around as they try to track down Henry Starling in L.A. Further plot twists bring a young woman named Raine Robinson (Sarah Silverman) into the picture, whose connections with Starling put her life in jeopardy and could supply Tuvok and Paris with answers. Meanwhile Janeway and Chakotay break into Starling's office and find the stolen time ship, but are captured by Starling and his array of 29th century technology before they can do anything.
One amusing notion here is that the 20th century "computer revolution" shouldn't have happened at all—or maybe it should've always happened. I sure don't know; it's yet another paradox stacked into the deck. Apparently Starling has been responsible for "inventing" all new computer technology for the past several decades, but his technology is all based on stolen information from the future. But how can that future exist without the past having created it? As Janeway puts it, "It all gives me a headache." Paradoxes are fun. Implausible but fun.
In fact, the key to this entire episode is fun. It has a better sense of fun than any Voyager episode I can recall since "Projections." (What else can you say about an episode that ends with the Voyager, zipping across the sky, caught on home video?) The material is not very deep, but I really don't care. It's very well crafted, with plot manipulations that actually make sense. That's important, because this show rides completely on its plot. Plot-driven shows can become tedious or plagued with holes if not deftly written. But the biggest thing "Future's End, Part I" has going for it is its tight, taut, precise plotting. The events follow plausibly from A to B to C, and all the parts fit neatly into place; the story constantly demonstrates that it knows not only what is happening but why events follow from other events.
Pacing is also a strength here. The show does not waste time on events that don't progress the narrative—and every scene here zips along and proves entertaining on a story level. Case in point: Janeway and the crew are beamed down to L.A. by the end of the first act; the story knows where it wants to go and goes there, without wasting time on meaningless dialog or action.
The characterizations aren't nearly as urgent as the plot workings here, but they're relevant, and I'll quickly mention a few of them:
- Ed Begley, Jr. makes an effective villain—a conniving creep with a look on his face like he's better than everyone else. Plus he's smarter than he initially appears (always a good quality for a bad guy), as shown by his ability to use Braxton's 29th century technology against the Voyager.
- Sarah Silverman as Raine Robinson did not impress me. Sure, she's cute and all, but her unconvincing line delivery in scenes with Tuvok and Paris became very annoying very fast.
- The teaming of the various Voyager characters worked quite well. Janeway and Chakotay showed very promising signs of camaraderie (did I even hear him call her "Kathryn"?). Tuvok and Paris worked well together, as did Kim and Torres back on board the Voyager. Nice work.
This show is merely setup, but it's good setup. It swiftly and effectively establishes and fleshes out all the important characters and presents the problems with calm precision. Hopefully the second half can just as skillfully resolve the problems that this half has presented.