Minor actions having huge unforeseen consequences is a staple of time-travel stories. Pull on a thread, and you unravel the tapestry. "You go back before World War II and kill Hitler, and maybe you make everything worse," says Mercer, taking the opposing view of the conventional wisdom of the classic premise. In his mind, you just don't make that supposedly obvious choice.
I enjoyed hearing that, because the "kill Hitler" time-travel scenario always sounds good on paper, but you truly have no idea what the downstream ramifications of doing that would be. If you kill Hitler and change the course of history, the results could be counter-intuitively catastrophic. Maybe now the Cuban Missile Crisis ends in global nuclear annihilation. At the very least, you are all but ensuring you will not be born. Maybe I'm selfish and we're historically far enough removed from World War II to distance ourselves from that pain, but I happen to like the world as it exists today, and doing something as universe-altering as killing Hitler could mean I'm not only erasing my own existence in favor of that alternate reality, but creating a potentially worse one.
Someone in the comments last week made the point: Just by going back in time before your birth and breathing the air, you are guaranteeing you won't be born. I agree with this premise because I subscribe to the idea of the butterfly effect, which strikes me as more likely than anything we see in most time-travel stories — but is something that by necessity must be completely ignored by such stories. Why? Because the concept effectively destroys all time-travel stories (including that bad movie called The Butterfly Effect), because any sort of time travel would change a timeline from that point forward so radically it would become basically unrecognizable.
"The Road Not Taken" demonstrates how Past Kelly's knowledge of the future led her not to go out with Ed on a second date, which had a catastrophic chain reaction leading to the decimation of the Union and humanity. While I could probably do without the notion that the Ed/Kelly relationship — already a mixed-bag as a cornerstone of this series — is now so crucial that its absence means no less than the end of civilization itself, "The Road Not Taken" uses the premise to create a fun alternate-reality sci-fi adventure yarn that doesn't do anything riveting or unexpected but is consistently entertaining as a fast-paced homage to Star Trek and Star Wars.
This week while shopping at the TNG Store: The basic outline from "Yesterday's Enterprise" (a seemingly inconsequential event from the past ultimately results in the specter of society's downfall) only with a lot less substance, weight, and emotional heft — and a lot more visual effects and episodic adventure. The details of the plot reveal that Kelly changed history because her memory wipe didn't take (some protein missing from her body rendered it ineffective), and she wanted to spare herself and Ed their failed marriage and subsequent divorce. So she turned down their second date. Because Ed and Kelly never got together, Ed never became captain of the Orville, Finn was never assigned there with her sons, who never befriended Isaac, which led Isaac not to learn human compassion and therefore not stop the Kaylon invasion. (I like how this plot plays on the season's previous episodes.)
How Kelly knows all this from her visit to the future and only belatedly puts all the pieces together is not really important. What's important is that we must now use the Orville to send Finn back in time to intercept Past Kelly and make sure the memory wipe gets done right this time. The logic of the plot is linear and straightforward — perhaps even too much so — and points to a foregone conclusion which reveals few surprises. But we do get things like:
- Hey, look! The Kaylon not only have pop-out Head Cannons™, but now the whole head can detach and fly through the air like an aerial assault drone! Cool! This does not make them good shots, however; they're as incompetent as any flesh-and-blood bad guy.
- Look! A dash through the rocky cliffs of an asteroid while being pursued by the Kaylon is right out of The Empire Strikes Back!
- Everyone wears bitchin' leather jackets, because things are bad and wearing leather jackets means We Mean Business. If when the future's so bright you gotta wear shades, I guess you break out the leather jackets for the darkness.
- Look! The door at the hidden Union base looks just like the door at Jabba's palace in Return of the Jedi, and it has Yaphit's tentacle extending out of it for a chat! And inside the Union base is Alara, making an alternate-timeline guest appearance.
- Hey! Let's use this black hole to hide our ragtag bunch from pursuing Kaylon ships! I would've thought escaping after passing through an event horizon would be more difficult and technobabbly than they make this, but for our crew, it works sort of like a one-way mirror.
- A grayed husk of what remains of Earth (and a shattered Moon) allows us to see what would've happened if the Kaylon attack in "Identity, Part II" had not been thwarted. The characters are appropriately haunted by the sight.
- Joel McNeely's score is excessive to the point of distractingly counterfeit excitement. I used to rail against the music-as-wallpaper era of TNG, but it seems we've overcorrected.
- We venture 20,000 leagues under the sea (okay, far less than that) to retrieve the Orville, which has been stranded on the ocean floor since it was abandoned, crashed, and sunk during the Kaylon attack. Only Bortus remains on board, hoping for rescue. The mission to raise the ship from the ocean back into space plays like its own mini-episode.
- The Orville is destroyed as it sends Finn into the past, in a desperate save-the-timeline-or-bust concept very similar to the gambit in "Yesterday's Enterprise."
All these touches I enjoyed on their level. They speak to one of this series' apparent mission statements, which is to create sequences surrounded by quotation marks paying homage to their creator's nostalgic passions. The plentiful visual effects conveying all of this are wonderfully rendered. The action is brisk and breezy and the episode overall is nicely paced.
As for the romantic scenes between Ed and Kelly: I continue to struggle with them. On the one hand, Seth MacFarlane's hopelessly romantic Joe Schmoe sincerity routine is something I feel comes from a genuine place. Say what you will about Ed Mercer: He's not a cynic, and this sensibility from MacFarlane is a million miles from his previous flippancy in shows like Family Guy. But on the other hand, Ed's dialogue is so cornball and clichéd that I can't help but groan and roll my eyes when he throws together a spaghetti dinner here for the two of them amid the plot to save the galaxy. The intentions are good, but the execution is laughably trite. I would chalk this up to "irony," but these scenes are simply not being ironic.
I also find it kind of amusing that Ed lectures Kelly on changing the timeline after not having locked Past Kelly in a room (which would've been the smart thing to do) after she traveled through time in "Tomorrow." Of course, this Ed wasn't the one who didn't do that, because the one who didn't do that was in another timeline, so I guess I can't complain about his hypocrisy over something that never didn't happen. (And besides, it's not really me talking anyway; the Jammer complaining about this exists in the timeline that was erased. Don't worry; he'll be back before the episode ends.)
But this delivers on its plot and works as a season closer, if we grant (as I grudgingly must) that the Ed/Kelly relationship is a key pillar of this series. I like the idea of again not doing a cliffhanger; should the series not be renewed, this would make for an acceptable finale. If the show does come back for a third season, I hope they can take the improvements they've made in season two (particularly its second half; I was still a skeptic during the first half) and build on them. I think they've managed to find a balance that works for this show by not forcing comedy and taking a generally laid-back approach to the drama. If I find the ambitions to be modest and familiar (give or take a "Sanctuary"), I do like that they are sincere.
Previous episode: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
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