“Yesterday’s Enterprise” might not be my favorite episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” – that top spot might go to “Best of Both Worlds” or “Starship Mine” or “Inner Light” or a handful of others – but it’s one that I stop and rematch every single time it’s on.
“Yesterday’s Enterprise” was the 15th episode of the third season of “TNG,” airing in February 1990. The series had found its footing by that point. What seemed like an awkward, stilted attempt to reboot the “Star Trek” franchise became its own show, with relatable characters and a cohesive, intriguing universe.
That said, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” took a risk that a few series take at some point in their run: Twisting that established universe and showing fans what might have been. The original “Star Trek” did it, most famously, with its “Mirror, Mirror” universe. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” did it better than almost anyone. Heck, in recent years, even “Community” did it, with its “Darkest Timeline” stories, in which beloved Abed suggests everyone adopt Spock-style goatees to signify the twist.
With “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “TNG” went in a fascinating direction. A team of writers – four are credited with the screenplay and two with the story – and director David Carson took us to a dark place: An alternate universe in which the Federation has been at war with the Klingon empire for many years.
The familiar Enterprise, under the command of Captain Picard, encounters another ship coming out of a rift in time. The ship is the Enterprise-C, and its appearance in the “TNG” reality catapults Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D from the show’s familiar setting to the war-torn universe.
The change in timeline means more than a change in the look of the ship. Klingon officer Worf is, obviously, no longer on the ship. But Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby, most recently seen in “The Walking Dead”) is back. Yar has been dead for a couple of years in the mainstream universe, but no one knows this in the rebooted, twisted universe, just like no one knows the Federation really isn’t at war with the Klingons in “our” universe.
No one but Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), the enigmatic alien who tends Ten Forward, the Enterprise-D’s bar.
Against all probability, Picard finds that Guinan’s warnings of the disrupted timeline make sense and has a fateful decision to make. If he sends the Enterprise-C and its crew, including Captain Rachel Garrett and helmsman Richard Castillo, back into the time rift and certain death. But doing so might “correct” the twisted timeline.
It’s a fascinating, spooky “what might have been” episode.
The crew did a lot to suggest the wartime Enterprise-D with darker sets, more “war room” type display panels and a few minor costume adjustments. Neither “TNG” or any TV series of the time had money to burn on individual episodes, so a little had to go a long way.
“Yesterday’s Enterprise” was an example of what “Star Trek” always did best: Raising the stakes and building to a suspenseful climax.
The weight of Federation history weighs heavily on this episode and the writers, director and cast rise to the occasion.
The guest cast was good. Richard McDonald played Castillo in a kind of Ryker-ish style. McDonald has been a good character actor for years now, and he’s maybe best known for this and his role as the idiot husband in “Thelma and Louise.” Not to mention Shooter McGavin in “Happy Gilmore.”
And I’ve always loved Tricia O’Neil, who played Captain Garrett. She’s gorgeous and authoritative. I wish we had seen more of her adventures. Or more of her in this episode, for that matter. Her early death leaves her ship in the hands of Castillo and Yar.