Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: All Our Yesterdays

(Note: This post appears as a page elsewhere on this site. If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start. Previous essays on specific episodes can be found here.)

Original Air Date: March 14, 1969

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 0 (Zarabeth’s original wardrobe was deemed too scandalous by censors and had to be redesigned)

Rewatching “All Our Yesterdays,” I kept thinking this would have been a good two-part episode. There is real substance here but fifty minutes isn’t enough time to fully develop the story. This week, the Enterprise has come to the planet Sarpeidon, which is soon to be destroyed when its sun, Beta Niobe, becomes a nova. The landing party of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy arrives at a library to find all of Sarpeidon’s inhabitants gone with one exception: the librarian Mr. Atoz (Ian Wolfe, who previously appeared in “Bread and Circuses”), who speaks in riddles and operates a machine called the Atavachron. While perusing data tapes to learn about the planet’s history, a scream sends the landing party running to investigate. Kirk finds himself in a swashbuckling city, while Spock and McCoy end up in an ice age, thousands of years in the past. If our heroes can’t find their way back soon, they will be trapped forever.

“I can run circles around Dewey.”

The Enterprise arrives when Beta Niobe is less than four hours from going nova, continuing the crew’s pattern of arriving late established in “The Paradise Syndrome.” While the episode accelerates the nova process for dramatic effect, a nova in real life is a star which experiences a temporary and dramatic increase in luminosity, perhaps taking only a few hours to reach peak luminosity. The change is so dramatic that, from a great distance, a new (“nova”) star appears to have formed. As far as the Federation knows, the inhabitants of Sarpeidon have no space travel capability, so the whereabouts of its population is a mystery. Kirk even speculates on the possibility of “mass suicide” given the planet’s pending destruction.

The “our planet is doomed, what will we do?” premise is a popular one in science fiction. In “All Our Yesterdays,” we get no insight into how the Sarpeidians (?) made the clever choice to seek refuge in their own planet’s past. The Atavachron – the device that sends individuals to a historic place and time of their choosing – is a mysterious contraption with rules that seem confusing and arbitrary. An individual is transported to the time period determined by whatever “data tape” (closer in appearance to heavy-duty DVDs) they happen to be viewing at the time. How the Sarpeidians developed such detailed imagery from the years before imaging technology even existed is a mystery. (Ironically, Mr. Atoz says, “We have so little on recent history. There was no demand for it.” It seems the Sarpeidians wanted to thoroughly distance themselves from their time of impending doom.) A successful transition through the library’s portal requires “processing,” an unspecified procedure that alters the individual’s cells to exist permanently in their chosen time. Once processed, returning to the library results in death. Conversely, if a person is not processed, they must return to the library or face imminent death. Is this some obscure phenomenon of time travel that we haven’t encountered yet? The effect is not unique to natives of Sarpeidon, because Kirk is visibly affected after a few hours in his time period. The Atavachron must be difficult to master, because Mr. Atoz – with help from his robot duplicates – claims to have processed every resident of Sarpeidon himself. We can trust that Mr. Atoz is the consummate librarian, because Atoz = A to Z, and the episode was written by Jean Lisette Aroeste, who was an actual librarian at UCLA.

“Yes, the robe is very comfortable, I recommend it.”

Despite being thousands of years apart, Kirk is somehow able to communicate with Spock and McCoy through the library portal. Thankfully, Kirk ends up in what looks like a poor imitation of Shakespearean England, where he can make use of his conveniently superior fencing skills to save a wench in distress. Because Kirk speaks to the invisible Spock and McCoy, he is quickly accused of being a witch, because of course an irrational fear of witches and witchcraft exists here just like it once did on earth. Kirk is ultimately saved by the Prosecutor (Kermit Murdock), who also arrived here via the Atavachron and understands the disorienting nature of the experience. Initially believing Kirk to be stuck forever in fake-England, the Prosecutor promises to use his influence to clear the witchcraft charges. In what other ways might the Prosecutor try to influence the past, which, as we’ve seen in other time travel episodes, only takes a nudge to dramatically alter the future? We never learn Sarpeidon’s pre-nova population number, but it’s hard to imagine they all went to various time periods and resisted using their advanced knowledge to serve their own self-interests. It’s only a matter of time until the Atavachron never exists because Edith Keeler wasn’t killed in a car crash.

“If you stay here, imagine the fabulous wigs you can wear.”

Spock and McCoy get the lion’s share of episode time, however, struggling to survive in an “arctic wilderness” similar to the frozen landscape Kirk and McCoy will traverse in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). Just as Kirk and McCoy will be assisted, then betrayed, by a mysterious woman on Rura Penthe, Spock and McCoy will be similarly misled by Zarabeth (Mariette Hartley). Zarabeth was sent to the ancient past by the tyrant Zor Kahn (Kaaaaaahhhhnnn!!!) when her relatives joined a conspiracy to assassinate Zor Kahn. Wishing to eradicate the assassin’s entire family without risk to public opinion of widespread executions, Kahn sent Zarabeth and others to obscure times when they would suffer complete solitude. Kahn wasn’t entirely successful – Zarabeth says he sent her to a time when no one would ever find her, yet McCoy and Spock stumbled onto her without even trying. How long before the time of Mr. Atoz did Kahn rule? We don’t know, but Sarpeidon seems to have progressed considerably, now using the Atavachron to save lives rather than torture them.

From Sarpeidon to Rura Penthe

While Kirk is dueling away in fake-England, Spock and McCoy are stranded in the ancient past with Zarabeth. McCoy remains his normal crabby self, but Spock begins to revert to the primitive state of his Vulcan ancestors. (Some have speculated that only Spock changes because humans have progressed so little in five thousand years that the difference is negligible.) While McCoy refuses to give up, Spock is quick to shrug his shoulders and say “We can only hope…” the Enterprise and Kirk made it to safety. “It’s just not like you to give up trying,” McCoy observes, the physician already beginning to decipher Spock’s status. In the short term, vegetarian Spock is forced to consume meat, the only food available in the frigid climate, and while his mental state is clearly affected by the time shift, he remains clear-headed enough to plan a greenhouse.

The ultimate “three’s a crowd” scenario

McCoy eventually resorts to the same tactic Kirk used in “This Side of Paradise,” provoking an intense emotional reaction from Spock in order to snap the first officer back to his senses. It begins with McCoy’s traditional insult, calling Spock a “pointed-eared Vulcan,” to which Spock forcefully responds, “I don’t like that. I don’t think I ever did.” This confirms what we already suspected, that McCoy’s hateful remarks were taking an unseen toll on the first officer all along. McCoy continues his effort by accusing Zarabeth of trickery and demanding of Spock, “What are you feeling? Rage, jealousy? Have you ever had those feelings before?” Finally, Spock recognizes his behavioral regression: “I’ve lost myself. I do not know who I am.” Returning to the library is not just a physical journey for Spock, but a journey back to his true self.

“Listen here, you round-eared honky…”

The Zarabeth storyline explores loneliness in its various forms, giving us more insight into both Spock and the human (humanoid) condition. Zarabeth exists in a snow-covered world with no hope of companionship. When Spock and McCoy appear as if by magic, she hopes, for her own sake, that they are as trapped as she is. “Zarabeth is a woman condemned to a terrible life of loneliness,” McCoy says. “She would do anything to anybody to change that.” Zarabeth’s literal loneliness complements Spock’s life of loneliness among humans. “Do you know what it’s like to be alone? Really alone?” Zarabeth asks. “Yes,” Spock answers. “I know what it is like.” Mr. Atoz must have also known loneliness in his solitary work, sending his fellow citizens on their way to temporal refuge. He escapes to safety in the final seconds, though we never see which time period he chose for himself. Given more time to develop the loneliness theme, the episode could have taken us full circle back to the Prosecutor, representative of all the Sarpeidians, cultural strangers in a time outside their own.

Spock samples the local barbecue

The episode’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a character who also learned about loneliness the hard way. In the play’s final act, Macbeth learns that Lady Macbeth has died and he reflects on the brevity of life: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time, / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

Loss and solitude are often companions. Sarpeidon’s star, Beta Niobe, is undoubtedly named after the Niobe of Greek mythology, daughter of Tantalus (see “Dagger of the Mind” for a discussion of Tantalus and memory). Niobe was blessed with many children and took her good fortune for granted, tormenting poor Leto, who only had two children. But Leto’s children were Apollo and Artemis, who did not take kindly to Niobe’s behavior and killed her children out of anger. Lonely Niobe fled to Mount Sipylus in what is now Turkey, where her sadness turned her to stone, still visible today as the Weeping Rock. However long the history of Sarpeidon’s culture, it has amounted to nothing, reduced to retreating into the past, losing her system’s many children to eternal loneliness in a foreign time. The offer to join them is hardly the first time the Enterprise crew has been tempted with the opportunity to live in a reality far removed from their own. Whether among the mirror universe, the elitists of “Plato’s Stepchildren,” or Edith Keeler’s New York City, they reject alternatives and remain committed to fulfilling their best destiny. “My life is back there,” McCoy tells Spock. “And I want that life.” At home among the stars, Kirk and company will make the best of their “hour upon the stage,” always preferring “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” over the yesterdays of others. Saving the galaxy may be lonely work, but this crew will always come home.

Next: Turnabout Intruder

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