Star Trek: The Animated Series

“The Counter-Clock Incident”

3.5 stars.

Air date: 10/12/1974
Written by John Culver
Directed by Bill Reed

Review Text

Commodore Robert April, the first captain of the Enterprise, facing mandatory retirement from his ambassador role at age 75, is aboard the Enterprise with his wife, Sarah, to be transported to an event in his honor. While observing a supernova, the Enterprise detects an alien ship traveling at extreme speed ("warp 36"), far beyond any known ship's capability, heading straight for the supernova. Hoping to save the ship from certain doom, the Enterprise locks on a tractor beam.

The ship's captain, named Karla Five, speaks an unknown language, but the universal translator deciphers the language and determines it's simply being spoken backward. By reversing the recording, Uhura is able to hear the captain's message, which tells the Enterprise her intended course is the supernova and they need to release the tractor beam. Furthermore, the Enterprise is being pulled into the supernova with her ship. The Enterprise releases the beam, but is carried into the supernova anyway. Instead of being incinerated, the Enterprise finds itself in an alternate universe where space is white, stars are black, and time runs backward instead of forward. And every control on the ship now has to be operated in reverse.

First things first: You have to set aside everything you know about science — even Trek science — to accept anything that happens in "The Counter-Clock Incident." To say this story takes great liberty with the rules of space and time is putting it mildly. (Even, say, the massive amount of time available to alter course after the release of the tractor beam — at double-digit warp, no less — makes no sense.) That being said, if you take the story on its own science-fantasy terms, this is actually the best, most fascinating, and most interesting sci-fi procedural in the entire run of TAS. This manages to do everything it needs to do to shepherd us through to a willful suspension of disbelief.

In this universe, people are born old, get younger as they (de)age, until they are babies at the end of their lives. The flower that Sarah was wearing — which was wilting and dying before traveling through the supernova/anomaly — is now coming back to life. Upon arriving at Karla Five's version of Earth, called Arret, the crew studies the situation in earnest and realizes the only way to return home is to find a spot where a supernova is occurring in both universes (backward in this universe, forward in ours) at the same point where they converge like a mirror, just as in the scenario that brought them here. In studying the galactic maps to find a proper alignment, they learn there are no coinciding supernovas in both universes at the same vertex, so the crew has to find a location where a supernova exists in our universe and then engineer one here.

There's only one other problem: Everyone is de-aging at an accelerated rate (and losing their knowledge as they get younger), and if they don't travel through the supernova in time they will all be children and incapable of running the ship (and then presumably cease to exist). And this is actually what starts happening, so it's up to April, the oldest person aboard, to finish the mission as everyone else turns into children around him. This story manages to be an allegory on the value of age and experience, on top of everything else.

Watching "The Counter-Clock Incident," I realized there was a certain brilliant purity to its backward logic and the simplistic way it presented itself, while casting aside all other questions. The scene where Karla Five introduces her father (a baby) and her son (an old man), is an example of demonstrating the backward passage of time through the decades using the simplest storytelling means possible — while at the same time sidestepping all the mind-bending complexities of what this would mean if you were to reason it all the way through (like where old people come from and whether babies die by shrinking down until they're a zygote that splits into a sperm and egg; at a certain point, "backward" doesn't really mean anything useful, because the rules of the universe wouldn't apply at any level).

Such questions are outside the scope of the story, of course, but by keeping such things so far out of mind, the story concentrates on what's here with a straightforward examination that doesn't waste a single minute. The way the characters figure things out and work the problem would be right at home in a TNG episode. And after becoming children, how is everyone restored? By the transporter, of course, which has a stored pattern of everyone as adults. (This naturally raises the question of why anything — including death — can't be cured by restoring a person's backup from the transporter, but let's not open that can of worms.)

The plot holes in this story are numerous and large if you look for them, but this story reminded me that we don't always need to look for them. On its own terms, this is a very well-told sci-fi yarn — urgent and involving in a way I wish more of TAS had been. Robert and Sarah April choose not to remain young — even though they could — because they've already lived a fulfilling life that they're satisfied with. It's a touching sentiment ... even though I'd take the rewind and try to live a fulfilling life all over again.

Previous episode: How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth

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9 comments on this post

    "This naturally raises the question of why anything — including death — can't be cured by restoring a person's backup from the transporter, but let's not open that can of worms"


    Happy to see this episode rated so highly! I don't see it mentioned as often as Yesteryear, but I think it's similar in that it actually feels like a 'proper' episode of TOS despite its limitations, and manages to have some real poignancy. It's impressive that it does it without focusing on a character from TOS, the Aprils are without a doubt the most compelling characters to have originated from this show.

    Also, I feel like this episode ties in nicely with the themes about growing older that we would get in the movies, with Commodore April in particular paralleling the older Kirk we meet in those. For that reason, I think it's actually quite a fitting finale for the TOS crew's original mission even if it wasn't intended to be anything special.

    The "science" makes no sense at all, except within its own parameters, but that's not the point. Just never mind that, and hold on for the fascinating, heartfelt ride into the white universe with black stars.The Aprils, animated or not, are wonderful new Star Trek characters. I wish we had seen more of them over the years in the other series. (I know Robert April appeared in SNW ep.1, but I don't remember if he was in other eps. I don't think Sarah April appeared again.) The Counter-Clock Incident and Yesteryear are hands down the two best episodes of TAS, and can hold their own against any of the other Star Trek series.

    Okay, okay, I'm sold! If I'd seen this episode when I was a kid, I would have loved it. A universe where people talk and age backwards? A galaxy of black stars against a white void? My mind would have been blown! As an adult, I can totally appreciate the establishment of Robert April as canon, the nod to "Journey to Babel," and the adorableness of baby Uhura.

    I take back what I said in the other thread about this series being like your favorite band's worst album. Usually with those, I wish they'd never made them. I'm glad TAS exists, not only because it kept the writers and actors together between TOS and TMP, but also because it helped grow the fanbase and keep it engaged. Animation aside, the stories themselves are usually pretty good, and this episode was definitely one of the best. I wish I'd been just a couple of years older to have seen it when it first aired.

    I always thought this was one of the best TAS episodes due to its sheer pacing. It's got massive plot holes (the alternate universe gives birth to old people who turn into kids? Are the kids then reproducing?), but I remember it moving better than most other TAS episodes, which could at times be sluggish or repetitive.

    I haven't seen the episode in years, but I distinctly remember it as a well-oiled machine. Little themes and points are set up, knocked down, and then the episode briskly resolves.

    This is a nice episode with some reasonable problem solving and an interesting predicament. I guess it bothers me that Karla Five's ship was traveling at warp 36 and the Enterprise itself was dragged behind it and reached at least warp 20 -- was this really necessary? Robert April and his wife Sarah were good characters and it was also nice that Karla Five proved to be very helpful in getting the Enterprise back to its own universe.

    Kirk made it clear that she would never know if they succeeded or failed -- which added a touch of gravitas. I suppose there is also the theme of mandatory retirement and that one can still be useful -- although Robert April had reverse aged to a working age when he took command. So Robert April was the first captain of the Enterprise -- not Pike -- and I guess Archer was captain of the NX-01, which must be some pre-cursor to the Enterprise.

    I think there's a certain charm and Trekkian quality here about an alien from another universe being very helpful despite nearly getting totally screwed by the Enterprise. There's the usual bit of silliness with the reverse aging and the crew becoming kids, but that also plays into April getting a chance to command again and having him ponder if he wants to relive his life. There's some worthy sci-fi here with how the gateways between the 2 universes come about, some (albeit brief) reflection about aging and retirement. So this is definitely one of the better TAS outings.


    I enjoyed TAS quite a bit. Like I said for this episode, it has a unique charm. Having the original TOS actors provide the voices is massive for this series. I don't think it's the animation that's the biggest factor holding the series back -- that I think is the time. It's hard when it's just a 1/2 hr to tell more profound stories but I found some episodes really covered a lot of territory. Of course, some episodes got a bit silly when they tried to really use the animation to do things that TOS couldn't, but at the heart of it all are true TOS-style stories. It's understandable that many would overlook TAS, but I think a hardcore Trek fan (especially TOS) would greatly appreciate it.

    Glad you finally decided to have fun with the show for the last one

    I’m with Jammer on the 3 1/2 stars here. This is fun, thrilling, and well paced without being profound. Love the reverse aging theme. It’s a much better TV sendoff for the TOS cast than “Turnabout Intruder” that expands the universe by adding Capt April and his wife. Very cool. Overall a solid end to the Enterprise original cast’s 5-year mission.

    There were some really good stories among those animated episodes. Imagine if the soundtracks were married up with CGI like Star Wars: The Bad Batch 🙂

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