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Blink of an Eye

I rate this the best episode of Star Trek Voyager.

Voyager gets caught above a planet where time is passing at a different speed from the rest of space. A second aboard Voyager is about a day down on the planet, which makes an hour on Voyager about ten years on the planet. (The episode follows this ratio to some extent but sometimes departs from it for dramatic purposes.[1]) Not only is Voyager stuck, but its presence is causing continual earthquakes on the planet, so they want to get away for the benefit of the inhabitants. The ship is visible from the planet as a bright star.

As the crew study the planet and try to find a way out, we see society evolving on the planet's surface. First, a stone age society, then a medieval one, then something like the earlier twentieth century. Eventually, a space programme tries to reach Voyager ("Skyship"), and an astronaut does in fact come on board. By this time the people on the planet discover warp technology and try to destroy Voyager, so he goes down to stop them. Voyager would not contact them earlier because of that pesky Prime Directive.

Voyager's presence influences every aspect of the planet's society: religion, politics, technology, popular culture.... The people on the planet attempt to understand the arrival of the "Ground-Shaker" in various ways, according to the ideas of their time. And they try to communicate, according to their ideas. In the initial society, a shaman or priest is consulted about the new star and explains that they need to understand the nature of the new god (the stars are gods). He does so, on the basis of his data, and it is decided that the fire-fruit is now only for the new god. In the medieval society, the ruler ("Protector") has a theory that the stars are cities, and tries to send a message by hot-air balloon to request—Protector to Protector—cessation of whatever is causing the shaking. In the modern society there is a SETI-like programme to send radio signals to the "Skyship". Then there is the space programme. In all of this, they are peaceful. It's only when they discover Warp Drive and become eligible for contact that they immediately turn to violence (even if, as Janeway considers, it's justified). It makes you wonder about the Prime Directive a bit.

One of the things that is appealing about the episode is that there isn't anything very peculiar about the people on the planet. They aren't bad people, nor are they super-good. Nor does their civilization have any special extreme emphases about honour, or profit, or whatever. The doctor beams down for a brief reconnaissance of a few days (a few seconds on Voyager), but they lose him and it is (for him) several years before they can retrieve him. He comes back regarding himself as an honorary citizen. The people down there had a brief war, but the doctor is more interested in the opera, the sports, and the personal relations he formed. He apparently formed an intimate relationship, and even had a son, though the details are left vague.

The glimpses of people in the different stages of history are brief. That is inevitable because of the premise, but these brief, cut-short appearances contribute to the episode's significance. History is rushing past, from the point of view of Voyager, and this gives us a sense of the immensity of time. People live and die, with lives full of work and meaning. Then the characters, who we saw briefly, disappear. The performance of Obi Ndefo as the Protector is especially memorable: self-confident, authoritative, benevolent, but taking offence at any slight to his dignity. Then the Protector, too, is swept into the receding past. Does anyone remember his attempt to negotiate with the Ground-Shaker? Probably not. Even less does anyone remember the shaman and the man making an offering when it appeared in the sky. Does that make life ultimately futile? "Blink of an Eye" seems to suggest not.

At the end, the astronaut persuades his people to stop the attack, and they devise a time-insulated ship which assists Voyager to escape. Voyager will need about two hours to get its warp engines back on line, and in the final scene we see the astronaut, now ageing, sitting on a hill above the city and watching the star disappear from the sky. There is an elegaic sense to the scene, but it is a completion of his life's work.

Voyager becomes, accidentally, a point of aspiration and meaning for the people of the planet, even as it brings unintentional damage. Perhaps there is an allegory of the way someone can be important in the life of another without knowing it.


Footnotes

[1] There are 3600 seconds in an hour, so an hour on Voyager equates to 3600 days on the planet. I am assuming that the planet's year is about the same as Earth's, and using 360 days. This gives ten years. (With an Earth year of 365.25 days it would be 9.86 years.) This gives an equivalence of ten hours to a century, and a little over four days to a thousand years.
At one point Voyager receives a voice transmission from the planet, and there is a meeting to discuss it. It is stated that even if they wanted to reply, the man who addressed them has been dead for almost a century. But that implies it's taken them ten hours on Voyager to get round to discussing it, which seems a rather leisurely pace. Of course, you're supposed to be watching the story, not tapping your calculator. [Return]


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