Star Trek: The Next Generation: A Matter of Time   Rewatch 
April 15, 2021 2:08 AM - Season 5, Episode 9 - Subscribe

While the Enterprise works to save Penthara IV from devastation, visiting Professor Berlinghoff Rasmussen takes advantage of a historic opportunity.

You can't expect me to believe that Memory Alpha can possibly be of interest to MetaFilter:

• Rick Berman commented, "I am fascinated by all the episodes that have dealt with the implausibility of time travel. I have always had in my head the idea of an episode that had someone who was capable of time travel and professes he is from the future, and we find out he is actually from the past. It's part of that Mark Twain feeling of what Leonardo da Vinci could have done with a calculator or Alexander the Great with a shotgun." Berman found writing this episode was profoundly enjoyable.

• The character of Berlingoff Rasmussen was originally written to be portrayed by Star Trek fan Robin Williams, however, he backed out from the role. According to Berman, "I developed the show with Robin Williams in mind. He had said he wanted to do a show and when it got finished his wife was 8 1/2 months pregnant and they were about to go and he had just finished Hook and was starting something else and couldn't do it."

• In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fourth season episode "Bar Association", Odo cites the case of Rasmussen as an example of a security breach aboard the Enterprise to Worf.

• Rasmussen's question to Riker concerning what he thought was innovative about the USS Enterprise-B is the first canonical reference to that starship.

• Michael Piller remarked, "It was a delightful change of pace and tone from the grimness and darkness of the Spock episode. It was just at the right time […] That fourth act where Picard and Ramussen have a one scene act is wonderful and I enjoyed that a lot."

• Director Paul Lynch stated, "It was more of a comedy than a drama. Matt Frewer was wonderful as a space con man […] He got the reputation of being large for his comedy roles, but he was a consummate actor and he found the level of comedy and realism of the character which is what makes him such a good character. He was never schticky." In 2012, however, Lynch stated that he felt "A Matter of Time" was his least favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode out of the five he had directed.

"If I hand my assignment in on time, can I get a glimpse into next week's poker game?"
- La Forge, to Rasmussen after he tells the crew he will be giving them questionnaires to fill out

"You know, Homer was blind. Milton, Bach, Monet, Wonder."
- Rasmussen, to La Forge

"Every choice we make allows us to manipulate the future. Do I ask Adrienne or Suzanne to the spring dance? Do I take my holiday on Corsica or Risa? A person's life, their future, hinges on each of a thousand choices. Living is making choices! Now you ask me to believe that if I make a choice other than the one that appears in your history books, then your past will be irrevocably altered. Well, you know, Professor, perhaps I don't give a damn about your past, because your past is my future. And as far as I'm concerned, it hasn't been written yet!"
- Picard, to Rasmussen about making choices for the future

"I assume your hand print will open this door whether you are conscious or not."
- Data, to Rasmussen

Poster's Log:
I used to like this episode a lot more than I do now, and it all hinges on Frewer's (obviously-deliberately) irritating performance. I sort of can't handle it anymore, for some reason, despite the satisfying shadenfreude of Rasmussen's comeuppance. It's not Frewer himself; I thought he was really good in Orphan Black.

But I also feel about this Robin Williams casting-near-miss the same way I feel about Eddie Murphy almost being in The Voyage Home: it might've seemed like a good idea to the showrunners, and definitely to the studio, but in retrospect it probably would've turned out to be way too much for Trek.

Poster's Log, Supplemental:
Given how tall he is, Rasmussen should have stolen a ship with a little more…headroom THANKS YOU'VE BEEN GREAT

As the Greatest Gen guys point out, the (better) Voyager two-parter "Future's End" (FF previously) is in one respect quite similar to this episode; the villain of the VOY two-parter has a similar time-thief, sham-inventor kind of thing going on, only more successful. And he's played by Ed Begley Jr., whose deliberately-irritating performance is tempered with that indefinable but always-welcome Begley-Juniorness.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (31 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I swear that when Rasmussen is talking to LaForge in Engineering and the subject of the VISOR comes up, Rasmussen says "I have a picture of you wearing that, Lev," as in LeVar Burton. You all hear that too, right? I've seen defenses that he says Laf, as in LaForge, but I clearly hear Lev.
posted by Servo5678 at 5:28 AM on April 15, 2021

Usually I can remember what the episode is from the Netflix summary, but this one wasn't very useful:
Reaching Penthara IV after an asteroid wreaks havoc of catastrophic proportions, the Enterprise crew deals with trying to save the planet.
posted by ckape at 6:33 AM on April 15, 2021

The captions have poisoned me so at 16:18 I can only hear him saying "I have a picture of you wearing that in my office, how d'you like it?"
posted by Kyol at 6:49 AM on April 15, 2021

I agree with you on this. Rasmussen being deliberately irritating is key to the con; if people are ignoring him, that gives him an opening to stick gadgets in his pockets. But, yeah, it also means that rewatches are probably neither necessary nor desirable; it's basically the Requiem for a Dream of Trek episodes. And VOY's "Journey's End" does a lot more with the concept, although it had problems of its own. One thing about Henry Starling vs. Rasmussen is that Starling seemed smart enough (at least at first) to have not pushed the envelope on tech too much, maybe just coming up with "inventions" a little bit before they would have come on the market anyway; Rasmussen really does seem like he'd just show up with a 24th-century tricorder and say, "Yep, I made this." The timeline could have been altered in either case, barring predestination paradoxes, but it would have been especially egregious in Rasmussen's case. I do wonder if Berman had this ep in mind either when VOY redid the basic idea, or when he was doing ENT. (If Rasmussen had sold the advanced tech to United Earth Starfleet--we don't know when exactly in the 22nd century he's from, or planned to return to--the whole Xindi/Expanse thing, or the Earth-Romulus War, could have gone completely differently. But then, Trek has never really been consistent about time travel...)

But anyway, for an episode that I'll probably never watch again, it was kind of fun. I'm usually amused by this sort of geoengineering that's done in about a day with one starship, especially when they think that they've fixed the planet, but then it turns out that they really killed it, but no, they really fix it in the end. I was a little disappointed that Troi doesn't get to be the one to call bullshit on Rasmussen when he's obviously frightened by the possibility of failure when he should know the outcome. And Frewer was fine. It's pretty easy to forget how ubiquitous Max Headroom was in the culture of the eighties; I never actually watched an episode of his show, but Max tried to sell America on New Coke after soft drink execs brought Classic back, and Garry Trudeau did a Reaganesque version of the character, Ron Headrest; for that matter, the Trek people probably had one eye on Max when they started introducing sentient hologram AIs in various series.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:13 AM on April 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Cards of the episode in the Star Trek CCG:
I came to this episode via the card game first, so the antagonist has never-not-been a time thief, to me. I come from his future. Spoilers, Berl.

From Premiere, we got our Time Travel Pod as an artifact. In the game, artifacts are normally retrieved upon completion of a planet mission, here we see a shot on a planet's surface, as if you just dug it up. Not sure if this was an unused prop shot or some photo manipulation on Decipher's part.

"You'll be telling everyone you were there at Penthara IV"? Please, it's just a 20 point mission. And later a 15 point mission. It's ridiculously easy for one personnel to solve, with one of two single, common skills. Completing this and two 40-pointers is certainly a way to win.

Alternate Universe's Burningoff Raisinmuffin himself has decent 'trek sense' for the most part, other than his ability to help staff your Edo Vessel or Enterprise-C. That ability was be a solid reason to include him at the time. He fit nicely in Archeology-heavy Romulan decks, also. Sacrificing him is certainly better than having your main ship stuck in the TT Pod for 5 turns...

Timepod Ring offers a bit of deck manipulation and dilemma busting potential, inhibited only by the fact that it sat in the cut file until the All Good Things wrap-up set, when the game itself was out of time.
posted by StarkRoads at 7:31 AM on April 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

it's basically the Requiem for a Dream of Trek episodes

I hereby award you Archery merit badge for such a bullseye.
posted by rocketman at 7:53 AM on April 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

It's pretty easy to forget how ubiquitous Max Headroom was in the culture of the eighties; I never actually watched an episode of his show, but Max tried to sell America on New Coke after soft drink execs brought Classic back, and Garry Trudeau did a Reaganesque version of the character, Ron Headrest

Back to the Future II's Cafe '80s had several Max-Headroom-ish versions of well-known '80s people, too.
posted by hanov3r at 8:51 AM on April 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

The plotting on this is really weird.. usually some crew members have a dawning suspicion that there's something not quite right going on, and they build on their suspicions as clues accumulate. Here, it's much more just a dawning suspicion that Rasmussen is unfuckingbelievably annoying. Then, right at the end, some stuff is missing, so let's drop all pretenses and just force him to have his ship inspected, since we don't really like him at this point.

I guess we're supposed to believe that Rasmussen's abrasive behavior is a smoke-screen? I don't really see any evidence that it was helpful or hurtful for his plan. He just grabbed too much stuff. He could have been super annoying time-travelling historian and gotten away with everything if he had just taken fewer items. He pretty much had carte blanche over the whole ship, since Picard had "examined his credentials and everything seems to be in order." WTF PICARD? What kind of credentials do you accept for a time-travelling historian? Then Picard gets duped again when he lets the guy he clearly suspects to be a thief take Data, alone, inside of the impenetrable time-machine. Here's some actual footage of a younger Picard running into a similarly fiendish ruse with a wallet inspector.

All the previous drama between Rasmussen and Picard regarding revealing what will happen on Penthera IV is nice, but it ends up not having anything to do with the resolution of the plot. I think it could have been a much more interesting episode if Rasmussen had legit knowledge of the future, and Picard does some serious wrestling with his decision. Also, this is all very theoretial for Rasmussen, but why? He doesn't know the TNG crew, he doesn't seem to be alarmed, shouldn't he be worried that they are just going to beat the answer out of him? Why didn't they at least consider doing this, there were millions of lives at stake, and it's not their future they are messing with, as Picard points out.
posted by skewed at 12:36 PM on April 15, 2021

I seem to have recalled enjoying this episode more than I actually did--possibly it's residual affection for Max Headroom, which I loved back in the day, and Matt Frewer's appearances in many of the Canadian shows I watched. But god, he's irritating, and I am not quite certain why he has to be to accomplish his goals. You can palm a few devices just as easily when you're pleasant and people get comfortable around your presence, if you're remotely competent. The fact that the command staff let the sole functioning android in your universe get into a ship that they cannot enter is, that's some dumb stuff.

I've known a lot of people named Rasmussen (it's very close to my family's name) and I've never heard it pronounced (raz-MYOO-sen) quite that way before.

"it's basically the Requiem for a Dream of Trek episodes"
I'm gonna need that explained to me!
posted by kitten kaboodle at 1:28 PM on April 15, 2021

Requiem for a Dream is one of those movies that has a reputation for being both very good and that nobody wants to watch more than once, because of its unflinching portrayal of drug abuse and its more extreme consequences (imprisonment, humiliating sex work, etc.). It's a very different experience from this episode, but given how many movies and TV shows gain cult status even though they may not be particularly good because of their innate rewatchability, I thought that the exact opposite should also be its own category. (Another Darren Aronofsky movie, The Wrestler, is also in this category for me.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:53 PM on April 15, 2021

Who is more over the top, Matt Frewer or Gates McFadden?
posted by StarkRoads at 3:10 PM on April 15, 2021

Also, Riker's 'we've dealt with so many imposters in the past' is like, welcome to lampshade city, population you

You can't fire us, we quit
posted by StarkRoads at 3:18 PM on April 15, 2021

Almost as soon as Matt Frewer came on the screen, I was saying "Where do I know him?" I felt like I'd seen him a million times. After about 20 minutes I blurted out "Max Headroom!" which is a problem because there was no way to explain that to my daughter. But I looked him up, and although he has been in a million things, Max Headroom is the only thing I've seen. I'm now extra impressed by the power of Coke commercials from decades ago--or maybe just impressed by Matt Frewer's distinctive voice & appearance.

And damn am I glad it wasn't Robin Williams.

While I got plenty of laughs out of this episode, it felt like the show was clowning around at its own expense. I was really pissed at how they let Rasmussen roam about and pester everyone. Q could be half as annoying, and Picard would be demanding he go to hell. But sure, Mr. No-Reason-Given-That-We-Owe-You-Anything Future Man, we'll fill out your questionnaires. Unlike with Q, I think you can actually make this guy go away.

Was it this one where Greatest Gen guys point out that it's a big problem when the plot depends on the Enterprise crew being dummies?
posted by polecat at 3:32 PM on April 15, 2021

Have always been a fan of Frewer, although I was a touch young for Max Headroom. (He had a deliciously meta role in Altered Carbon recently.)

I think his being annoying seems to be a common thing on TNG - most non-Starfleet humanoids in certain situations are to Starfleet personnel, no? The outrageous Okona, the Collector, the revived 20th century cryonauts, Q, etc.

This time, being annoying is part of the con.

OTOH, it speaks to the the command crew's narcissism that they take a future "historian's" word on face value so quickly. Though Crusher enjoying Rasmussen's flirting speaks to the character's charm.

That exchange between Stewart and Frewer, though. Classic Stewart and pretty meta on Frewer's part accepting that his character is a shitheel and a con and channeling that fear into "honourable regret" or something.

"I have a picture of you wearing that, Lev,"

To my ear, it was "I have a picture of you wearing that Lev, as." which makes no sense other than as a slip and an attempted save for LeVar.

I hated Requiem because it's essentially a "scared straight" movie in its absurd inaccuracies.
posted by porpoise at 4:01 PM on April 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Frewer excels at being annoying, but he really turns up the scumbaggery in the sickbay scene on Troi, and especially Dr Crusher. I can’t imagine that Williams wouldn’t try to lighten that scene, while Frewer sells that this guy is just the fucking worst.
posted by rodlymight at 8:10 PM on April 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

fucking worst

So they ship him off to a starbase for, presumably legal judgement, and a quip about "current historians being interesting in him."

Does the Federation have laws on the books about temporal crime - and if so, are those laws published/ available to the public?

How public knowledge is time travel? Why have laws on the books if the trespass is impossible? Does the Fed acknowledge time travel freely (qv events in 'The Search for Spock')?

If the laws aren't on the books, can't the criminal defense be that what he did wasn't illegal since the law against what he did isn't public knowledge?
posted by porpoise at 9:17 PM on April 15, 2021

I'd say they can charge him with fraud and interfering with a very sensitive Starfleet mission, so the time travel needn't be part of the crime.
posted by polecat at 11:16 PM on April 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Does the Federation have laws on the books about temporal crime - and if so, are those laws published/ available to the public?

DS9: "Trials and Tribble-ations" reveals the existence of the Department of Temporal Investigations, which is a Fed agency, but AFAICT Sisko et al. were never in danger of being determined lawbreakers so much as maybe being reckless about guidelines.

How public knowledge is time travel? [...] Does the Fed acknowledge time travel freely (qv events in 'The Search for Spock')?

You may have meant to say Voyage Home, in which Kirk blurts out over subspace to the entire Starfleet HQ "We're going to attempt time travel"; it's not as though you're going to keep that news locked down on Earth after that.

Mayyyyybe Starfleet/UFP are aware that future historians visiting the 23rd/24th (presumably only to look in on movers and shakers, not so much the daily life of Average Federation Citizen) is actually a once-in-a-while thing, but since the future Federation DOES have a Temporal Prime Directive  forbidding  regulating such incursions, maybe every future-person who makes such incursions is somehow messed-up (c.f. Braxton), and Starfleet crews by Picard's time have been trained to expect that future-people are both a possibility and a risk. If so, Picard et al. did indeed drop the ball by not automatically suspecting Branmuffin of being unscrupulous, even if his tech was enough to make them think he really was a Future Guy.

Also: duck blinds. We know how incrementally cloaking tech advances. There could be like ten future historians hidden in every single episode of the franchise.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 4:07 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

I could have sworn that Picard used Rassmussen's visible fearfulness during the planet-saving maneuver as a gotcha line in the shuttle bay at the end. Like, I remembered it so clearly. I guess I must have conflated my memory of Picard's line on the bridge about how his refusal to tell him what he should do helped him decide what to do anyway, and my memory of Frewer's performance on the bridge scene. So far in this rewatch I either remember things correctly or not at all, I think this is the first one where I have an imaginary memory.

I agree that the plot holes are pretty gaping. But Frewer is great (I had such a crush on him back in Max Headroom -- for the human 'Edison Carter' character that Max is created from, I mean, not the disembodied computer-screen head).
posted by oh yeah! at 5:45 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

If the laws aren't on the books, can't the criminal defense be that what he did wasn't illegal since the law against what he did isn't public knowledge?

He stole various bits of Starfleet equipment, attempted to abduct a Starfleet officer, and apparently confessed to a murder, all of which are crimes today. Unauthorized time travel/impersonating a historian may not be a crime.
posted by StarkRoads at 7:31 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

He’ll probably do a short stint in a comfortable federation prison, maybe have his sentence commuted to a research project with historians, and then live out the rest of his days with a higher standard of life than he would have had at home in the 22nd century. Won’t get to be a very important inventor, though.
posted by rodlymight at 8:30 AM on April 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

I can’t imagine that Williams wouldn’t try to lighten that scene

The thing about Robin Williams is that when you hired him, you got Robin Williams. Turned up to 11. Because that's what Robin Williams did. (Yes I recognize he did drama, but let's agree this particular role is not a dramatic one)

And unlike so many of the wonderful guest actors, Robin Williams on 11 could easily disrupt the tone of the show. Generally when he shows up, you can't ignore that it's Robin Williams.

I'm not a huge fan of this episode, but I think Matt Frewer was the better choice here.
posted by rocketman at 12:08 PM on April 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

The thing about Robin Williams is that when you hired him, you got Robin Williams. Turned up to 11. Because that's what Robin Williams did. (Yes I recognize he did drama, but let's agree this particular role is not a dramatic one)

I'm undecided - I do feel like Frewer was the right choice, but I would like a peek at the parallel universe where Williams did the episode. This episode was in 1991, same year that 'Dead Again' came out, which was a pretty low-key level of cameo acting for him. (Same year as Fisher King though, so, definitely could have gone either way.) And I wonder if they would have found some way to fit a Rassmussen+Guinan scene in despite their busy schedules what with having worked on all those Comic Relief specials together.
posted by oh yeah! at 12:51 PM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

What was missing from the debate between Picard and Rasmussen:

Picard: Look, if it's so important that you don't change history, then you shouldn't even be here. Everything you do must set off an endless cascade of cause and effect that are different than if you hadn't traveled to the past...
Rasmussen: Ah, so it may seem to you, Captain. But we've learned that the only way to change history is by telling other sentient beings what will happen in the future!
Picard: Then it should still be too risky for you to travel to the past. How can you guarantee that you won't destroy your own history by accidentally letting some information slip? In fact, you've already told us several things about the future. That you will one day be born. That time travel technology will be developed and that it will become a tool of historians. That future historians will be very interested in what we do on Penthara IV, as well as in how many words per minute Data can type!
Rasmussen: Well, actually, I should have been more clear. They only real danger is in telling someone what will be the outcomes of specific actions. It's very complicated, and many painful mistakes were made before we learned this! I wish I could tell you....
Picard: Look, this is all nonsense. It is a celebrated fact that Captain Kirk traveled back to the year 1984 and saved the Earth, while stealing a whale and teaching the people of the past how to make transparent aluminum, and everything turned out great! Between him and me it was one of the most significant times that we saved the Earth. And just as he saved the Earth, You. Must. Help. Me. Save. This. Planet.
Rasmussen: But...everyone knows transparent aluminum was invented by Stuart Pankin... ???

Picard realizes that Rasmussen has no idea who Kirk was. The lie is revealed. The end.
posted by polecat at 5:49 PM on April 16, 2021 [7 favorites]

transparent aluminum was invented by Stuart Pankin

oh ho. What a can of worms.

If backwards time travel is widely known to have benefited humanity, gave them a leg up on interstellar tech abilities/ timelines, why not go back and give humans even more advantages? Since obviously no-one from the Enterprise bridge crew stepped on any butterflies.

But this raises the question of the 'Great Man Theory' where a singular person allows history to happen, rather than that - sooner or later given the prevailing circumstances - someone would make it happen, ie. transparent aluminum will be invented. (then again, we already have transparent aluminum in lab-grown sapphire; it's a matter of manufacturing scale)

Trek is canonical that the universe is not many-worlds (changes the past creating a branch, therefor doesn't affect the timeline that launched the change to the past - I can't recall the term for this model), right?

polecat's point still hilariously stands chronologically, though.

I'm just re-thinking Picard pulling Rasmussen into his ready room now - he's been hearing reports of missing knicknacks (possibly precipitated by Data detecting the theft of his tricorder and giving Rasmussen rope to hang himself out of curiosity rather than confronting him then and there) and called in Rasmussen more to determine whether he's a fraud over making a decision on whether to risk destroying a planet for carbon-based lifeforms. I'm a dumbass.
posted by porpoise at 7:04 PM on April 16, 2021

Trek is canonical that the universe is not many-worlds (changes the past creating a branch, therefor doesn't affect the timeline that launched the change to the past - I can't recall the term for this model), right?

Not if you factor in TNG: "Parallels," which I feel one has to, and which I did in my own attempt to make sense of Star Trek time travel.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 4:43 AM on April 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Also: duck blinds. We know how incrementally cloaking tech advances. There could be like ten future historians hidden in every single episode of the franchise.

In a sense we’re all time travelers observing the crew of the Enterprise from our own duck blinds, hmm?
posted by EarBucket at 6:40 AM on April 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Matt Frewer is such a conundrum for me. I like him. But, other than his turn in Orphan Black, I really don't like him in anything post Max Headroom. For me, this episode, as much as I really like the premise, is ruined by Frewer in the role, simply because I can't not see Matt Frewer playing Matt Frewer™.

That said, Robin Williams would have been a far bigger disaster. Though, I suspect they would have gotten an outtake reel for the ages out of him.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:53 AM on April 18, 2021

I liked Frewer as the Trashcan Man in the original miniseries of The Stand, which may have been better than the recent remake overall.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:47 PM on April 18, 2021

in the original miniseries of The Stand

Is the original worth watching? I kind of liked the remake, never read the source material.
posted by porpoise at 7:27 PM on April 18, 2021

Huh. I feel like Robin Williams could have crushed this role, if he approached it with his more low-key gear. Frewer's choice isn't necessarily a bad one - I see the annoyingness as not even being part of the con so much as an already irritating guy getting high on his own incredible fucking luck that he's getting away with what he is here - but Williams could have made it less transparent from his first line that he shouldn't be trusted. In this version everyone on the Enterprise is an idiot except for maybe Troi and I guess nobody cares what she thinks? It's frustrating.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:02 PM on September 25, 2021

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