On Penthara IV, an asteroid has struck an unpopulated continent, a catastrophe which has thrown a heavy mass of dust into the atmosphere, threatening to create an impact winter. La Forge and Data are hard at work in Engineering coming up with a plan to save the inhabitants, but on the bridge, Worf notices a temporal distortion, and traces it to a small, curiously-designed ship, approximately five meters in length. They receive a message that only says, "Move over." Captain Picard proclaims that the Enterprise isn't going anywhere, but their visitor meant Picard himself — as soon as Picard steps aside, a lanky gentleman beams onto the bridge right where Picard was standing and introduces himself as Professor Berlinghoff Rasmussen (Matt Frewer), a historian from 26th-century Earth.
Rasmussen immediately begins treating the ship like a museum, leering at everything with comments about how certain aspects of the ship look in "history books." The crew, of course, are in disbelief as to why this guy chose now, of all times, to show up on the Enterprise, but Rasmussen invokes the Temporal Prime Directive every time they inquire about the future. He does, however, imply that he's here to witness an interesting piece of history. A scan of the timeship's hull reveals "some kind of plasticized tritanium mesh," a material not on record and impossible to scan through, which is evidently enough to convince Picard of his credentials. Rasmussen asks the crew to complete some questionnaires he's prepared for them, and Data then shows him to his quarters, where Rasmussen treats him like an indentured servant. (Geez, at least Dr. Pulaski actually had a proper dialogue with him!)
As expected, Penthara IV proves to be in pretty bad shape upon the Enterprise's arrival. As Picard speaks with Dr. Moseley on the planet about how to use Federation technology to help, Rasmussen goes to Ten-Forward (sadly, Guinan does not appear in this episode) and Engineering, and delivers to the crew, as promised, his questionnaires. Attempts to get him to open up a bit are met with Rasmussen condescending to them, and talking too cryptically and vaguely to get anything out of him. On the other hand, he certainly has an awful lot of questions for them, and has taken to pocketing random pieces of equipment from around the ship.
The crew are hard at work using phasers to drill into Penthara IV to release carbon dioxide, increasing the greenhouse effect to warm the planet. So far, so good, though there's still the issue of their guest lumbering around with that big smirk at everything they do. Troi, having sensed all episode that their guest is trying to confuse them, makes no secret of her disdain and tells him she doesn't trust him. No sweat off his back, as he then proceeds to hit on Dr. Crusher outside of Sickbay (and none too subtly at that). Beverly doesn't mess around with pick-up artists, so she puts him in his place:
While Riker and Picard are on the bridge discussing what in the blue hell the professor's questions are about, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions devastate Penthara IV. Seems their phaser idea didn't work like they'd hoped, and instead they dramatically increased seismic activity, worsening the ash cover. La Forge and Data figure they can ionize the upper atmosphere with their deflector beam and a modified phaser blast, which will somehow clear the air, but, as Data relays to Picard, they have to do this maneuver precisely or risk burning off the entire atmosphere from the planet.
Picard, with little alternative, decides to consult a source he's never really had before — one Berlinghoff Rasmussen. He explains the plan, and points out that Rasmussen knows the outcome of this plan. Picard points out that asking for a time-traveller's perspective — namely, whether this plan succeeds or not — is not something he would normally do, since Picard is pretty by-the-book. However, he now has "twenty million reasons to do so." This turns into a heated debate, in which Rasmussen hesitates to offer any information and even tries to invoke Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act. Picard finds himself flummoxed that Rasmussen, faced with the chance to do the right thing and possibly save twenty million people, callously refuses to budge on his beliefs, simply because the entire sector, Rasmussen's past, could completely change.
Picard: How can you be? How can you be comfortable watching people die?
Back to square one, Picard goes out to the bridge and decides to go for it, and Dr. Moseley on the surface agrees to make the attempt, though as La Forge points out, they only have one shot at this. The Enterprise fires their deflector dish, and after a few tense moments, successfully returns Penthara IV to its original climate. Rasmussen seems satisfied having seen this unfold, and then announces he's off to pack and leave the ship, though not before a few more smug comments. By this point, the crew have heard more than enough from this guy.
Rasmussen is tickled to see the crew lining his timeship to see him off, until Picard reveals that they're really there to inspect the timeship. Before he can invoke the Temporal Prime Directive again, Picard points out that valuable tools are missing from various corners of the ship. Rasmussen responds by asking Data to make the inspection, since an android can absolutely be trusted to not reveal any details of the future they'd glimpse while inside. Data agrees, and with an identifying handprint, Data steps inside with Rasmussen, only to find that the missing items are indeed laid out all over his dashboard. Data turns around to find he's being held at phaser-point, and then we get The Reveal — Rasmussen isn't a historian, and that's not even his ship. A real 26th-century historian had the misfortune of traveling back to the 22nd century and being mugged by Rasmussen, a struggling inventor, who plans to "invent" one piece of the stolen equipment a year. And to his delight, he now gets to make off with Data as well. With the ship's auto-timer set to transport them back to 22nd-century New Jersey in two minutes, he prepares to stun Data, only to find his phaser has been deactivated. Uh oh.
Data takes Rasmussen back outside, and reveals the whole plot. Picard immediately points out the hypocrisy of all his secrecy, and reveals that with the door to the ship open, they were able to scan inside and remotely deactivate all the weaponry. Rasmussen tries desperately to get back inside his ship, even pleading to Crusher, who is decidedly unmoved by his plight. It's too late for Rasmussen, whose ship disappears, stranding him in the future forever. Picard points out to Rasmussen that some real historians at Starfleet might have a lot of question for a human from the 22nd century, and he is rather looking forward to turning him over to them. The episode ends with Worf hauling away a horrified Rasmussen, as Picard welcomes him to the 24th century.
Tropes featured in this episode include:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Rasmussen creeps on Beverly outside of Sickbay. Beverly ain't got time for creeps.
- Borrowed Biometric Bypass: Data threatens Rasmussen with this, assuming the time ship will accept his hand print as valid even if Data has to knock him unconscious to get it there.
- Break the Haughty: After a holier-than-thou attitude the whole episode, Rasmussen, thanks to some quick action from the crew, gets what's coming to him and more.
- Call-Back: Picard invokes Khan Singh in his argument with Rasmussen.
- Con Man: Rasmussen isn't actually a 26th-century historian, he's a 22nd-century inventor with a stolen 26th-century timeship.
- Cryptic Conversation: Rasmussen spends the whole episode being a huge pain in the ass with this, justifying it in the name of "preserving the timeline."
- Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Rasmussen is using a time machine to steal objects from the near-future and take them back to his timeline to reverse-engineer and market their technology.
- Foreshadowing: Carefully analyzing Rasmussen throughout the episode reveals major hints that he isn't what he seems.
- The first time we see Rasmussen's facade crack is at the end of the big Patrick Stewart Speech, when he meekly says, "Please don't ask me to help you, Captain. I can't help you." No, Picard, he literally can't.
- Better yet, check out his face when they fire the deflector dish. He looks incredibly tense... probably because he doesn't know at all if this is going to work.
- A lot of Rasmussen's dialogue does casually reveal information about the future, hinting that his dedication to not revealing information about the future in the name of preserving the timeline is a farce. He also hits on both Dr. Crusher and Troi, even though that'd obviously be a huge breach of the integrity of history; Dr. Crusher directly points out that for all Rasmussen knows, she could be his ancestor.
- He refers to Data as the "Model T" of androids, but then later says that very little is known about Data's efficiency records, and also claims not much of Dr. Soong's work was preserved to the 26th centuriy. If Data were the basis for future androids, as Rasmussen's analogy implies, surely they'd know something of his design specifications.
- Future Imperfect: Rasmussen's story is that he's a 26th-century historian who time traveled to the 24th century to fill in gaps in the historical record, thus trying to avert this in his time. When it turns out he's a conman from the 22nd century, Picard thinks 24th-century historians would love to talk to him for this very reason.
- He Knows Too Much: Probably why the Enterprise crew look totally unapologetic about Rasmussen's horrible fate — with all the information he got from them while he was on the ship, he's become a serious liability to the timeline.
- Hell Is That Noise: When Rasmussen goes to Data's quarters, he's immediately hit with an onslaught of four songs loudly playing at the same time. Data eventually settles on one, for Rasmussen's sake.Rasmussen: HOW THE— [catches himself] How the hell can you listen to four pieces of music at the same time?
Data: Actually, I'm capable of distinguishing over 150 simultaneous compositions. But in order to analyze the aesthetics, I tend to keep it to ten or less.
- Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: Discussed and defied. Rasmussen attempts to invoke this as an excuse not to help the Enterprise, but Picard is unimpressed.Picard: Yes, Professor, I know. What if one of those lives I save down there is a child who grows up to be the next Adolf Hitler or Khan Singh? Every first year philosophy student has been asked that question ever since the earliest wormholes were discovered, but this is not a class in temporal logic. It's not theoretical, it's not hypothetical, it's real! Surely you see that?
- Hoist by His Own Petard: When the crew begin to suspect Rasmussen of thievery, he consents to allowing Data to inspect his timepod, thinking that he can take Data back with him to the 22nd century. And in doing so, ends up getting caught defenseless by the one crewmember (with the likely exception of Worf) whom he'd never have a prayer of taking on in hand-to-hand combat.
- Rasmussen spends much of the episode stubbornly insisting that the crew having knowledge of the future could have serious repercussions on the timeline. This from the same guy who's stealing Enterprise tools and planning to be the one to "invent" them. (Besides that, who knows what knowledge he would have gotten from those "questionnaires" he made the crew take?)
- Picard tears apart Rasmussen's arguments (as quoted under Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act) as relating to interfering in the past, but has used those exact arguments to justify allowing entire planets that he could easily save to die himself in earlier (and later) episodes. In fact, it's the show's main justification for the darker elements of the Prime Directive.
- Idiot Ball:
- Rasmussen sets himself up for failure by focusing on physical equipment, the absence of which could be noted. If he had instead shmoozed his way into access to the Enterprise computer, he could have stolen far more in schematic form, including critical technology that couldn't be pilfered, e.g. replicators.
- Putting aside the dubious decision to take Data into the shuttle with him, the one crewmember Rasmussen couldn't possibly overpower, his ship was set to automatically travel back in time in two minutes — if he had just done a better job stalling, or even just timed his departure a little tighter, he would have gotten away with it all.
- If You Won't, I Will: In the final scene, when Rasmussen hesitates to open the timeship, Worf threatens to do it for him — with explosives.
- Impossibly Tacky Clothes: Those big brown things Rasmussen is wearing.
- Insufferable Genius: Subverted. Professor Rasmussen certainly acts like this to the crew, but in the end, it turns out he's not at all the "genius" he touted himself as.
- Ironic Echo: "Now what possible incentive could anyone offer me to allow that?" Spoken by Rasmussen when Picard tries to get him to reveal the result of their risky plan, and then Picard repeats the same thing back at him when the whole ploy is revealed and Rasmussen tries to get back on his ship.
- Jerkass: Rasmussen fits this to a tee, the way he constantly hovers over everyone and talks down to people. By the end of this episode, you'll wonder why Worf hasn't taken a bat'leth to this guy.
- Joisey: Rasmussen's 22nd-century home is in New Jersey.
- Just Between You and Me: As soon as Rasmussen gets a moment alone with Data in his ship, he pulls a phaser on Data and gleefully invokes this trope.
- Large Ham: Rasmussen is just a ball of energy in this episode. (Of course, this is Matt Frewer of Max Headroom fame playing him, so '80s pop culture aficionados will know what they're in for.)
- Makes even more sense when considering the character was originally written with Robin Williams in mind.
- Not with the Safety on, You Won't: Rasmussen tries to shoot Data with a stolen phaser, but it doesn't work. Data calmly explains that because the Enterprise computer realized it'd been stolen, it got deactivated.
- Oh, Crap!: When the phaser aimed at Data doesn't go off, Rasmussen is stunned. When the time-locked ship disappears, stranding him in the 24th century forever? Then he's aghast.
- Pre-Asskicking One-Liner: From Data of all people, when Rasmussen, whose handprint is required to unlock the pod door, has him locked in the time pod with a non-functioning phaser. Fortunately for Rasmussen, he backs down from Data, and the ass-kicking doesn't occur.Data: I assume your handprint will open this door whether you are conscious or not.
- Properly Paranoid: Something nags at Troi the whole episode about the reliability of their visitor's whole persona, and she's not shy about telling him this.
- Rewatch Bonus: Looking back on the episode, Rasmussen really does a bang-up job on the whole con, deftly changing subjects and misdirecting the main cast at every turn. He only really stumbles, of course, by getting too cocky.
- Shout-Out: In a discussion with Geordi regarding his VISOR, Rasmussen mentions Homer, John Milton, Claude Monet, and Stevie Wonder as major historical figures who were blind.
- Sticky Fingers: Rasmussen keeps stealing some of the ship's tech, to the point that it ultimately proves his undoing.
- This Is Reality: When Rasmussen tries arguing his point with semantics and theories, Picard invokes this trope and shuts him down.
- Timeline-Altering MacGuffin: Rasmussen's true goal. He hopes to take the stolen goods, including Data, back to the 22nd century, where he'd "invent" them and profit from it.
- Trapped in Another World: With his stolen ship gone, Rasmussen winds up stranded in the 24th century.
- Villain Ball:
- Rasmussen spends the first half of the episode making vague comments about coming to the Enterprise on the right day and looking forward to a specific upcoming time, and later makes comments that imply he specifically knows what's going to happen with Penthara Four and that it's going to be a momentous event. Being that he's from the 22nd century and is making it all up, his comments only serve to make the crew suspicious of him and prompt Picard to probe him for information — if he had been more discreet and given a Hand Wave that the date he chose for his arrival was completely arbitrary to him, he probably could have maintained his cover better.
- Picard points out that if Rasmussen had stolen only a few items, it's unlikely they would've been suspicious, but he stole enough that it got their attention. It's also unclear why he feels the need to steal the items when he could have just asked for them and claimed he wanted them for a museum or something. Minor items like neural stimulators, phasers, and tricorders, the Enterprise could just replicate one for him to take back, and they probably wouldn't have minded too much if he sold his story better.
- We All Die Someday: Part of Rasmussen's argument in his debate with Picard.Rasmussen: You must see that if I were to influence you, everything in this sector, in this quadrant of the galaxy could change. History, my history, would unfold in a way other than it already has. Now what possible incentive could anyone offer me to allow that to happen?Picard: I have two choices. Either way, one version of history or another will wend its way forward. The history you know or another one. Now who is to say which is better? What I do know is here, today, one way, millions of lives could be saved. Now isn't that incentive enough?Rasmussen: Everyone dies, Captain! It's just a question of when! All of those people down there died years before I was born! All of you up here, as well. So you see, I can't get quite as worked up as you over the fate of some colonists who, for me, have been dead a very, very long time.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: The time machine that vanishes at the end, stranding Rasmussen in the 24th century. Now granted, it may be virtually useless without Rasmussen's input, but still, there's now a 26th-century time machine just sitting somewhere in 22nd-century New Jersey?
- Since Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would later introduce the Office of Temporal Affairs, likely once Rasmussen was removed from active influence in changing the timeline they would have been able to go back and confiscate it.
- All of which leaves the question of what happened to the ship's creator after Rasmussen stole it.
- Who Would Want to Watch Us?: Putting aside that he's the captain of the Federation flagship, Picard can't understand why Rasmussen would want to visit him, pointing out that there are smarter and wiser humans both in and out of Starfleet.
- You Can't Fight Fate: Discussed at length.