It's an alternate timeline where everything's dark and exciting - but don't worry, the Enterprise crew will fix that in no time
Guinan is trying to set up Worf with a date when all of a sudden the bridge picks up the second wormhole of the season and everything goes wibbly wobbly. Suddenly, the bridge is darkly lit and Lieutenant Yar is at tactical. Red alert - the Enterprise is in enormous danger with such a hopeless security chief! But no time to worry about that, what is this old Enterprise doing here, and why is everyone talking about being at war with the Klingons…? Mysteries, battles, time travel, a super special guest star, this really is the answer to fandom’s dreams - so much so that it’s hardly worth wasting any time with a synopsis because you all already know everything that happens in this show.
This is the first time that revived Trek flirts with the Federation at war, something that was given full reign in the latter run of DS9. Still, this was a serious break with Trek writing guidelines at the time. Not that warfare hadn’t always been there, lurking in the background - there’s no shortage of World War II-inspired battles in the classic show - but TNG had set out a different tent. To say that reverting this gave the fans a big dollop of what they not-so-secretly wanted was an understatement. As a result, the word ‘battle’ does enormous work in this screenplay - the Enterprise-D is a ‘battleship’, Picard calls for ‘battle alert’... it all helps to make it clear that this is a radically different timeline, one where war is not only on the menu, it’s served with every meal.
Not only is there a great story on screen, there’s quite the tale behind the scenes as well. The original concept for this episode was submitted to Paramount as a spec script in the middle of season two, not long after the open submission policy was introduced. Trent Christopher Ganino’s original plot did not involve the present being rewritten, but rather Picard wrestling with the dilemma of whether or not they should return Richard Garrett (the captain’s name in the original draft) and the older Enterprise to its original timeline.
Now remember Eric Stillwell, the production assistant who cobbled together all the stock footage of Riker used for “Shades of Grey” at the end of season two...? Around the time that Ganino’s script was joining the slush pile, Stillwell had met with Denise Crosby at a convention and began flirting with an idea to bring Tasha Yar back to the show. Drawing upon the classic Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, Stilwell envisioned a story in which a Vulcan science team would accidentally kill the founder of Vulcan philosophy, Surak, after a joyride through the Guardian of Forever. This story would have ended with Ambassador Sarek sacrificing himself to restore the old timeline.
When Stillwell had a chance to pitch his idea to Michael Piller, a devilish plan hatched in Piller’s mind: what if Stillwell’s timeline-unweaving was wed to Ganino's “Yesterday’s Enterprise” story...? Tasha Yar was baked into Sarek’s role, and in no time at all a future classic was in production. One aspect of the final story wasn’t present however: Guinan’s role as the one person capable of remembering that things had gone awry (the early drafts had an alien probe act as the necessary exposition dump). Working within the expanded cast of the show was a much more elegant solution, and also helped to strengthen the sense of Guinan having gnarly powers without having to actually say what they were.
But this created a problem. Originally, the episode wasn’t to be developed until after New Year 1990. The trouble was, Denise Crosby and Whoopi Goldberg had other filming commitments and in order to get them both into this show they had to roll on production immediately after Thanksgiving. As a result of the time pressure, the screenplay was split up between Ira Steven Behr, Ronald D. Moore, Hans Beimler and Richard Manning who rewrote it over the Thanksgiving weekend. As annoying as it was to work over a holiday, the writers lapped up the opportunity to write a darker story with much more character conflict.
Moore, who was responsible for the Yar-Castillo romance, provided perhaps the best summary of this episode:
We brought Denise back to kill off Tasha Yar a second time. It was a great opportunity to send the character off in a big heroic sacrifice because nobody was really happy with the way she left the series in the first season. Nobody on the show really liked it, the fans didn’t like it, I’m not sure even she really liked it. So “Yesterday's Enterprise” was a chance to kill her right.
Not surprisingly, this is Denise Crosby’s favourite episode. Mission accomplished.
Because of the specific circumstances of the story, Michael Dorn’s Worf is relegated to the bookends, but is absolutely wonderful paired with Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan in the teaser (even if it resulted in Dorn having to endure decades of fans bringing him prune juice afterwards, which he himself dislikes.)
In another episode, this scene would have been a highlight... but there’s so much going on in “Yesterday's Enterprise” that it gets rather overshadowed. But as ever, it’s Marina Sirtis’ Troi who gets screwed over - she doesn’t have a thing to do, and is completely erased from history for most of the episode.
Tricia O’Neil’s Captain Rachel Garrett doesn’t get too much screen time, given that they kill her off at the end of Act three, and she mostly gets to lie down in sick bay looking grim, but I find her very convincing as a captain.
A perennial bit player with guest spots on dozens of shows between 1972 and 2001, this is perhaps her most memorable role anywhere. Trek gets her back twice, once as a Klingon in a later TNG episode, and once as a Cardassian in DS9, but this is the only time you can clearly see her face. Well, except when there’s a shard of metal sticking out of it, of course.
Christopher McDonald’s Lieutenant Richard Castillo pairs brilliantly with Denise Crosby - and note how he inherits the captain’s original forename of ‘Richard’.
This is his only Trek role, but you will have seen him in dozens of other TV shows and movies as he’s had quite a career as a supporting player. Unlike O’Neil, he often seems to get recurring roles. I spent ages trying to work out why I recognised the police detective in the so-so mystery thriller The Watcher - eventually, I figured it out.
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
The make-up team have a literal blast in this episode - never more so than in killing Tricia O’Neil, apparently using a fragment of a model kit from Superdimensional Fortress Macross.
As an encore, they conjure up a gruesome death for Riker too!
The team working on the sets also do a brilliant job redressing everything to make it feel different. Take a look!
If I have a grumble about the awesome battle sequences, it’s that all the Klingon ships we see are Birds-of-Prey. Of course, we know why it has to be like this - we already used up all the footage of the Klingon cruiser in season one and two! Since they have the studio miniature for the Bird-of-Prey available, it means they can shoot all new footage - and this makes that final battle sequence a real humdinger.
But the SFX star of this week’s episode is of course the studio miniature of the Enterprise-C.
Loosely inspired by Andrew Probert’s design that can be seen on the wall in the Enterprise-D’s observation lounge, Rick Sternbach created a new concept that was built by Greg Jein at Image G. Supra-fanonically, this is an Ambassador class ship, but this name never appears on screen for the Enterprise-C, and I’m not convinced it ever does (it was namechecked in “Conspiracy”, but we never saw that ship!). What’s more none of the future appearances of Ambassador class ships uses this studio miniature, as Jein made a new casting for those. This is the one and only time you see it in all its glory, and glorious it most certainly is.
A fantastic story, a great cast (sorry Marina!), a brilliant new battle-damaged studio miniature, and we get to kill Tasha Yar a second time...? No wonder this is so many fans favourite episode of TNG.
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