Star Trek Animated Series Re-Watch: “The Counter-Clock Incident”

The Counter-Clock Incident
Written by John Culver
Directed by Bill Reed

Season 2, Episode 6
Production episode: 22023
Original air date: October 12, 1974
Star date: 6770.3

Mission summary

Enterprise is heading back to the planet of the diplomats, Babel, with another very special guest: her first captain, Commodore Robert April.

APRIL: No matter where I’ve traveled in the galaxy, Jim, this bridge is more like home than anywhere else.
KIRK: Yes, Commodore, I know the feeling.
APRIL: To me she was always like my child. I was there in the San Francisco Navy Yards when her unit components were built.

So basically, this guy is old. He’s a whopping 75, which unfortunately means it’s time for mandatory retirement from his position as Federation Ambassador at Large. His wife, Sarah–the first medical officer to serve on a starship–is also along for the ride, clutching a Capellan flower as if her life depended on it. McCoy turns on the charm and compliments her flower, but she tells him it has a bad prognosis: it only lives for a few hours, and now it has more time behind it than ahead. Just like her and her husband.

But enough dwelling on their impending death. Kirk wants to show them one more beautiful thing in the universe before their lives end, so he arranges for the ship to swing by the Beta Niobe  supernova, which is… Oh, right, a dying star. “It is beautiful, but also very deadly,” Sarah reminds them—as dangerous as that alien ship barreling towards them at an incredible warp 36!

They move out of its way and it keeps on going, straight for the supernova. It doesn’t respond to their hails, so Kirk orders a tractor beam, which slows the other ship slightly but also drags Enterprise along behind it at increasing speeds. The other ship finally hails them: a woman speaking a language none of them are familiar with.

Which means Uhura has something to do. The communications officer asks the computer to translate, and they discover that it’s the devil’s tongue: the woman is speaking in reverse! They play the recording backwards and her message becomes crystal clear:

I am on a priority mission. Your beam is slowing my progress. Release my ship at once or I am doomed.

Obviously, she’s too stupid to realize that she’s on a suicide course for a supernova; Kirk is determined to save this stranger whether she likes it or not, even if it means putting his own ship at risk. Engineer Scott reports that the engines are buckling from the strain of trying to slow the alien vessel—they’re being towed by their own tractor beam at warp 11, and rising.

Kirk finally decides to back off, but the ship’s tractor beam is stuck in the on position. They might have a chance at the very last nanosecond, if they change course as soon as the other ship burns up in the nova. As they prepare for this difficult maneuver, they’re astonished when the alien ship continues through the nova unharmed. Unfortunately, they’re still tethered to it with no way to break off, and it’s doubtful that they can survive the incredible heat at the heart of the star.

“It’s got to work,” Kirk insists. He tries pushing the same buttons Sulu did, as though they will suddenly work for him. Astonishingly, they don’t, and Enterprise enters the nova.

Instead of the fiery death they were expecting, they make it through unscathed and find a strange sight on the other side: black stars in a white void—a negative universe. In this backwards region, everything else runs backwards too, from the ship controls to their brains. And that’s not all! The ship’s clocks are turning back, and Sarah’s flower is blooming again. Everyone onboard is growing younger.

Another side effect is that they can now understand the alien woman, Karla 5, when she calls up to berate them for almost screwing up her trip.

KARLA: I am an explorer of space. I was caught unaware when Amphion, previously a dead star, went nova and came to life. I was pulled into the star. But instead of burning up, I passed into a universe where everything operates in reverse to my universe.
KIRK: Our universe.
KARLA: Yes. My theory is that two stars going nova in the same place in both universes created a gateway which I passed through.
APRIL: In her universe, a nova is a dead star which comes to life! And when the explosions of a nova in her universe and one in our universe occur together, it’s possible to travel between the two universes.
KIRK: Then we must return the same way, through the two novas.

This is easier said than done, when the chances of two novas coinciding like that in both universes is slim to none. Sounds like they’re going to need a wild coincidence to get out of this one. They follow Karla back to her planet, Arret (see what they did there?), to consult with their scientists for a solution.

There they meet Karl 4, Karla 5’s son, who is older than she is because that’s how they do things here. He shows them a map of their galaxy in his laboratory, which Spock correlates with a map from the positive universe so they can see if any novas overlap. To their dismay, none of them line up. So they decide they’ll just have to make their own miracle and ignite a dead star a little early to force a nova on their schedule.

One teeny hitch: the only way to avoid burning in the star is to move through it really, really fast–at speeds the Enterprise can’t reach unassisted. Karla 5 generously offers her ship, which can tow them on autopilot so they can leave the way they came. They load enough positive matter on her vessel to wake up a dead star and set course for one that matches a known nova in their universe. Of course, there’s still the other pressing issue: everyone on the ship is getting younger.

This might not be all that bad, if they weren’t also forgetting how to run the ship, not to mention having to go through puberty all over again, this time in reverse. While the Enterprise crew is reverting to childhood, April is looking pretty good, just returning to his prime years as a Starfleet captain. When Kirk can’t remember how to operate a tractor beam or make a responsible decision, Spock tries to assume command–as a Vulcan, he ages much more slowly than humans–but the commodore pulls rank and soon he’s back in charge of his old (but increasingly younger) ship.

It’s clear sailing from there. The impact of Karla 5’s ship, bearing its positive matter cargo, ignites the star and before you can say “diaper change,” Enterprises pushes through to home sweet home.

APRIL: We did it! We’re home again! We’re all right. We’re home. The reverse aging process has stopped.
SARAH: But the Enterprise crew, they’re all children.
APRIL: They can enter the transporter. It retains a memory of their original molecular structure.
SARAH: But what about us? We don’t have to use the transporter. We can remain young, live our lives over again. You could command a starship once more.
APRIL: What a blessing to be able to live one’s life over again, if the life you’ve led has left you unfulfilled. No Sarah, I don’t want to live it all over again. I couldn’t improve one bit on what we’ve had together.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is why the Aprils’ marriage has lasted so long.

Having turned down the opportunity to relive his youth, the re-oldened commodore is rewarded for his heroic rescue with a Starfleet communique announcing that the mandatory retirement age is now optional! Maybe people can still be useful, contributing members of society after the age of seventy-five after all. It’s a happy ending all around, even for Sarah’s flower.

KIRK: I see your flower has blossomed again.
SARAH: Yes, our trip into the negative universe gave it a second life. It gave all of us a second life.

Analysis

The finale of the animated series is a far sight better then the original’s “Turnabout Intruder,” that’s for sure. In some ways, this episode is a perfect ending for both series, as it celebrates a second chance at life and returns the show to its roots, by introducing the first captain of the Enterprise, Robert April, and the first ship’s medical officer, Sarah April. I’m sure there’s a story there, of how those two got together, just as I’m sure fans have written it many times.

This show is pretty heavy on metaphor, but the theme is at least consistent and resonant: another exploration of aging, death, and renewed life. From Sarah’s drooping flower to the supernova (as both a beginning and an ending), to April’s forced retirement, death is on everyone’s minds. I enjoyed April’s subdued nostalgia, his desire to continue to make a difference, and the fact that he was given one more adventure and one last chance to command his old ship. Refreshingly, he harbored no envy for Kirk’s captaincy, nor did he criticize his style of command. Though this could have taken the familiar road of celebrating a regained youth, Commodore April chooses to return to his natural age, honoring the lifetime and memories he shared with his wife. Awww…

I literally shook my fist at the screen though, when April blithely suggests they just run everyone through the transporter to restore them to their proper ages. It’s become part of protocol, for goodness’ sake! Similarly, many of the mechanics of the negative universe are simplistic and silly–their brains think backwards? The ship is flying in reverse? I cracked up when Sulu forgot how to pilot the ship, and this conceit of “losing knowledge” also introduces a significant plot flaw: April shouldn’t remember all the years he had with Sarah–he thinks he’s a captain, after all! Maybe he’s just assuming they have an awesome life together, since her flower is blooming again. Ahem.

For every good detail (like the later Captain’s Log having an earlier star date) there’s a weak one (such as the crew’s clothes inexplicably shrinking with them), but all my complaining about inconsistencies, crap science, and the unusually terrible voice acting may simply be overruled by one thing: baby Uhura is adorable!

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: Now this is what I’ve been waiting for: an engaging premise, wonderful characters, some tense action, and in the end, a bittersweet reflection on life and the series itself.

The teaser blindsided me with this beautiful young woman speaking incomprehensibly and hurtling to her seeming doom. From that moment I was entirely taken in by the story, ludicrous as it may be.  (While I fully acknowledge that the reverse universe makes absolutely no sense, I don’t really care: it’s clever, fun, and entirely compelling, which is more than I can say for 90% of the tricks we’ve seen in the Animated Series.) The white sky full of black stars just enthralled me, so alien and mysterious. I wanted to see more of this place and the people in it.

Karla V is as close as we’ll see to a female Kirk for a long time. She exuded confidence, compassion, and generosity–a touchstone of familiarity in an otherwise frightening, backwards world.  For a moment I couldn’t believe she would just give them her ship, and then I felt silly: of course she would. She’s from Arret.  But did anyone else think it odd that she had no crew, and didn’t seem to be a member of a Starfleet equivalent? Is she a freelance adventurer? (And wouldn’t that make a neat show?)

Robert and Sarah April are equally wonderful characters, seasoned veterans strengthened by both their service and their love for one another. They both seem so at home on the Enterprise, and yet it’s clear that their time there has passed. A new brood has taken over their stations but there’s no resentment, no envy, and no regret. They are both immensely proud of their achievements and the Commodore in particular seems as enthusiastic as ever about his life’s work. I can’t say I’m wholly convinced by his rejection of being young again–what’s to lose? It’s not like it’ll make him immortal (one of those offers I find entirely rejectable)–and yet that choice demonstrates precisely the kind of fearlessness, confidence, and maturity that has always graced the captain’s chair. When the Commodore said there wasn’t a single moment in his life that could have been improved upon, I confess to having teared up a little. What more could anyone ask for? Would youth have changed that, added to it in any way?

As for Sarah, I was pleased that McCoy had a chance to gush a little about her advances as a “pioneer doctor in space,” and they share some of the same rugged, down-to-earth qualities. (I do wonder about the Spock of April’s ship. Guess he must’ve felt like a third wheel with those two.) I wish she could have done a bit more when the Enterprise was in crisis, rather than just be a standard-bearer for an exotic flower. Was anyone else annoyed that as they got younger, Robert sounded more chipper but Sarah still sounded wheezy and old?

Commodore April’s presence establishes a nice continuity in the series and in Federation history. I like that Robert April, Christopher Pike, and James T. Kirk were the three early incarnations of who would be captain, and each was able to come into the final series in some small way (retaining their chronology, too!). Ultimately it is not the captain but the idea that matters. Both the Enterprise and its mission live on, even when different leaders are at the helm. They have something greater than their individual personalities to keep the spirit alive from from series to series and from generation to generation. I don’t think even Roddenberry could have known then how much that would resonate as the decades went by.

The episode’s narrative of birth and rebirth is a wonderful parallel to the show’s own resiliency. Has any other show come back from the dead over and over again, reinventing itself for so many new audiences and formats and generations? April’s dedication to serving the ideals of the Federation sends a beautiful message: life is only over when you give up on it, and even 20 (or for the series, 45) years later, age ain’t nothin’ but a number.

What a lovely, touching way to end the series. I hereby grant my first, and sadly only, warp 6.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6

Best Line: APRIL: What a blessing to be able to live one’s life over again, if the life you’ve led has left you unfulfilled. No Sarah, I don’t want to live it all over again. I couldn’t improve one bit on what we’ve had together.

Trivia: Robert April was the name originally used for the Enterprise‘s captain in the original Star Trek pitch and early drafts of “The Cage.”

John Culver was the pseudonym for Fred Bronson, an NBC publicist, who worried it might be inappropriate to write for one of their shows. This was not a problem for the network, which only highlights just how much the industry has changed in thirty-seven years…

Arret was previously used for a planet in an early script for the original series’ “Return to Tomorrow,” but didn’t make it into the broadcast episode.

April refers to Enterprise‘s previous mission to Beta Niobe just before the star went supernova, in “All Our Yesterdays.” The planet Babel is also a reference to “Journey to Babel,” and was mentioned again on the animated series in “The Pirates of Orion.” The Capellan flower refers to Capella IV, from “Friday’s Child,” the same home as the Capellan power-cat that appeared in the previous episode. The  concept of a negative universe was first introduced in “The Alternative Factor.”

April’s dress uniform was based on similar outfits used in the original series, as originated in “Court Martial.”

Other notes: This is the first time Star Trek characters revert to the age of children, but not the last. The idea is revisited in TNG’s “Rascals,” which also uses the transporter as a magical solution.

On the show Mork & Mindy, people from the planet Ork age backwards. You knew that, right?


Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 5 – “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth.”

Next up: The Star Trek Animated Series Wrap-Up.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.