Space: the penultimate frontier.
Fuck space! Time is where it’s at!
Seriously, for a movie franchise that prides itself on exploring the stars, they can’t seem to get asses in the seats without throwing in a little violation of the space-time continuum. The numbers don’t lie; out of the four Star Trek films that hinge upon time travel, three of them are the highest-grossing installments in the series. And yes, the odd one out is Generations, which barely qualifies since it’s about Magic Space Heaven and its script was written with scented markers.
I’m embarrassed to be responsible for some of these numbers.
Before darkness becomes the newest of the final frontiers, I thought it would be fitting to take a closer look at time travel in the Star Trek movies for this week’s Time Out. (And seriously, if there are any chrono-vortices or temporal transmogrifiers in Star Trek Into Darkness, Paramount is officially tapped for ideas. Also, I’ll be amending this article.) Does the story benefit from a journey through time? How do the rules work in each film, and are they consistent with each other? Was time travel necessary to keep the franchise fresh?
As Han Solo would say: “Punch it.”
Oh, and if there’s time travel in Star Wars, J.J., I swear– sorry, moving on.
STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)
The story: Known by your mom as The Whale One, this TOS crew outing is the third part of a three-movie arc that begins in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. After some death, Klingons, and soul transference nonsense, Kirk and his pals have hijacked a Bird of Prey and are on their way back to Earth, but unfortunately, a screeching alien probe is fucking up our electricity and won’t leave until it can talk to some humpback whales.
“You never wrote!”
Star Trek loves a good ancient aliens story, so it’s theorized by the crew that a race of intergalactic beings made contact with humpback whales before humans evolved on Earth, and now they’re back to check up on them. The only problem? Humpback whales are extinct in 2286. Well, that sucks, guess we’ll have to blow it up or find whoever sent the probe– I’m kidding, let’s go back in time to 1986 and grab some whales to go!
The rules: First of all, I have no idea how the hell you get yourself back in time in this movie. I know my original series; they’ve done this slingshot-around-the-sun thing two other times prior to The Voyage Home, but it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Fine, throw yourself at a star at a high warp factor, use the gravity to spin you around even faster, and presto, you’ve displaced yourself in time. But if you want to travel in the other direction, what then? Hit reverse?
“McCoy, sit down, you’re blocking my rearview!”
Once they’re in 1986, they affect the future in a few ways… or do they? See, a pattern I’ve found from today’s viewings is that Starfleet personnel pretty much seem to wing it when time travel is involved. They theorize aloud about what sort of rules might be applicable to this particular time warp… but they don’t know. When a conclusion is reached, we, the audience, are supposed to accept it and move on. Voyage is no exception.
All signs point to an immutable timeline here, or rather, the characters seem to think so. For example, Scotty teaches a man how to make transparent aluminum. When McCoy objects, Scotty suggests this may be the guy who invented it in the first place. That comes dangerously close to a bootstrap paradox, so Scotty could be wrong. But that’s okay… Kirk is wronger.
“I don’t believe in a Kirk-is-wrong scenario.”
Since they don’t use money in the future, the crew needs some quick dough to get around in 1986. Kirk pawns off a pair of eyeglasses for a hundred bucks, prompting Spock to ask, “Weren’t those a present from Doctor McCoy?” Kirk’s cheeky response: “And they will be again. That’s the beauty of it.”
Nope. Wrong. You fail at time travel forever. You’ve snapped the bootstraps, Jim. If that were the case, that these eyeglasses will one day be purchased by Doctor McCoy again, the cycle of buying, gifting, and pawning would loop indefinitely, meaning the glasses would age infinitely and that they were never made in the first place. Jesus, why would anybody let this guy get within ten feet of warp reactors?
Oh. Well… yes, I see your point.
Ultimately, all we have to go on is dialogue. The characters keep reiterating that they’re not doing anything that wasn’t already a part of history so that you, the popcorn muncher, can just enjoy the movie. We don’t see the future long enough at the end to learn of any timeline changes that may have resulted from their discreet actions (like, say, healing random hospital patients or stealing all of the power from an aircraft carrier). So, there’s no harm in believing what they say, that this is immutable time travel and everything turned out fine.
Wait, if humpback whales are extinct in 2286 and you traveled back to when they were merely endangered and stole two of them, aren’t you responsible for– ow, my head.
What time travel brought to the table: Now that I’ve nitpicked about all of the time travel rules, this movie is fun as hell. Honestly, none of that paradox crap matters, and you– er, I– am an asshole for bringing it up.
One of the best aspects of time travel stories is the Fish Out of Water plot, and that’s pulled off masterfully here. Yes, the movie feels dated; the hot drum-machine-and-saxophone track that blasts when Starfleet hit the streets of 1986 San Francisco is laughable today, but really, isn’t it good for a time travel story to feel tethered to its decade? Plus, each character reacts differently to their predicament. Sulu is overcome by nostalgia at the chance to pilot an antique helicopter, while Dr. McCoy is utterly appalled at how barbaric medical practices were in the 1980s. And Chekov, the Russian, goes sneaking around a naval ship. Great plan!
“After this, Uhura and I are going to something called a ‘clan rally.’ Sounds like fun!”
Some people find this movie a little too goofy, and that’s certainly a valid complaint, but Cinemanaut John had this to say while we were watching: “Wrath of Khan captures the tone of a dramatic TOS episode, and Voyage Home is like a fun episode.” I think he’s right on the money. The filmmakers used time travel to bring Star Trek to our world, and as a result, it brought “normals” to Star Trek. This premise kicked all of the box office ass because it was entertaining even to non-Trekkies. The environmental “Save the Whales” message didn’t hurt either, but even if you’re the most enthusiastic of hippie kickers, you can still enjoy Captain Kirk walking around San Francisco shouting, “Well, double dumbass on you!”
STAR TREK: GENERATIONS (1994)
The story: Ugh, do I have to?
Okay, there’s barely any time travel in it, so let’s blast through this. Captain Kirk is retired and hanging out with the cats on the new USS Enterprise-B when they get a distress call coming from some swooshy pink ribbon thing in space. Kirk goes to do the hero thing in the lower decks and gets ker-zapped to death.
What a cool, explodey, bridge-free demise!
Cut to 2371, where Picard and Riker, our TNG homeboys, are boosting the subwoofer and testing the hydraulics on an El Camino in the holodeck… kidding, they’re playing pirate ship. Anyway, ignoring a bunch of terrible side-plots, Picard finds out that some crazy asshole who was there when Kirk died is trying to get back into the swooshy pink space ribbon and is willing to kill entire solar systems to do it. When Picard does his homework, he finds that Guinan has also been inside the ribbon and calls it “the Nexus.” It’s supposed to be a place of everlasting happiness that you never want to leave. That you go to when you die. That sounds right at home in a science fiction movie.
“So… you wanna get high?”
Right, so Picard fails to stop the crazy asshole from blowing up a star, gets sucked into the Nexus, and finds out that it’s essentially Magic Space Heaven. Apparently, “time has no meaning” inside of it, so Kirk is also there and, from his point of view, has just arrived. Picard asks Kirk to help him stop the crazy asshole. Kirk says yes.
Data cries somewhere in all that. Whatever.
The rules: IT’S FUCKING MAGIC.
First of all, nobody can describe this damn Nexus consistently. At one point, I just started jotting down all the terms used for it.
- “Energy ribbon”
- “Inside joy”
- “Conflux of temporal energy”
Look, writers, if you’re afraid to call your plot device Magic Space Heaven, maybe you shouldn’t have Magic Space Heaven in your movie. Just a thought.
You might say that a groovy space doorway that everyone who enters it meets at the same time isn’t technically time travel; it’s more like a savepoint. Okay, sure, I’ll give you some wiggle room on that (as long as you wiggle towards “WRONG”), but when you enter the Nexus, you are also able to leave it at any point in time and space you choose.
On horses. That aren’t there when you exit. Like magic.
Here’s where absolutely nothing makes sense: Picard goes back in time to right before the crazy asshole shoots off his giant solar missile. Here’s the problem: Past Picard was already there. There aren’t two Picards, so it works like Quantum Leap, right? You just jump into the body of your past self and keep on going. Except that Kirk is there now too, so it can’t work like that. Maybe it runs on the wishes of children. I don’t know.
Oh, also, maybe go back in time a little earlier, you goddamn idiot? Go back to when the crazy asshole was a baby and strangle him to death. C’mon, Picard, I know you can go that dark, wait until Ensign Lynch– oh, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, we can eliminate immutable timelines, because where Picard once failed, he now succeeds. Oh, by the way, when the missile blows up the star, the change in gravity is what causes the Nexus to move closer to the planet, so if Picard prevents the star from exploding, he never ends up in the Nexus. If this was mutable, we’d get a paradox, right? So this would have to be an alternate timeline, which means Picard didn’t save shit and just ended up in a universe where his friends aren’t dead… and he killed Kirk to get there.
Wow, the only way Picard doesn’t come out an asshole is if everything post-Generations is actually happening in the Nexus as part of his weird heaven fantasies. Yeah, run with that theory, nerds.
What time travel brought to the table: It’s been pointed out by Red Letter Media that the only reason Kirk is in this movie is because the studios were afraid to kick off the Next Generation films without him. And the only way to make that transition is with time travel. Why it had to be magic and stupid: no idea. Regardless, this isn’t the last Star Trek film that will use time travel to soften the blow on a risky franchise gamble.
STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996)
The story: Aww, shit, it’s the Borg! And the Borg have time travel. When the Enterprise-E blows their cube up, the Borg attempt to escape by going back in time to Earth, circa 2063, to stop first contact, the moment in history that humans and extraterrestrials met. Their goal is to destroy the Phoenix, the first successful faster-than-light ship that launched from Earth and caught the attention of the Vulcans, leading to the United Federation of Planets, no more war or capitalism, hot holodeck sex with the cast of How I Met Your Mother, etc. If the Borg assimilate us, well… everything will suck. Luckily, the Enterprise followed them through the time-hole and isn’t going to allow that shit.
I bet they feel silly in those retro clothes.
There, you see how easy that was to describe? Compare that paragraph with Generations and you’d think there might be a correlation between a needlessly complicated plot and a shitty movie.
The rules: Yeah, there’s some sci-fi time goofiness going on here, but it’s kept to a minimum and it works harder than some other time travel movies to explain itself. If you’ve been reading my articles on Back to the Future, you know that it sometimes bothers me that Marty still has all of his old memories from the original timeline of events. This actually happens in a lot of time travel movies, mostly so the audience can relate to the shock the main character is feeling as they process how history has changed.
In First Contact, the Borg craft begins going back in time, and creates what Data calls a “temporal wake.” The Enterprise positions itself behind the Borg and is caught in this wake. This is where the writers get a high-five; from this vantage point, they can see the ripple effect happening to an Earth now populated entirely by Borg. But, because the Enterprise is stuck in the temporal wake, these timeline changes aren’t affecting them.
“Hey, does America look… Borgier to you?”
My initial reaction is to groan at some technobabble like that, but damn it, give them credit for trying.
The Borg’s plan is really fairly stupid; they’re clearly not considering the wide range of possibilities that time travel offers. Red Letter Media once again nails this plot hole, so go watch them nailing it hard. Really. It’s hot stuff. I’ll wait.
So, we’ve got a mutable timeline with a bullshit science reason for why nobody on the crew is getting rippled. I’ll accept that. What’s interesting is that we never see if the events of the movie had any other effects on the future. When the ordeal is over, the Enterprise just quietly makes an exit, leaving us in the past. And that works here. Get in, preserve first contact, get out.
Let Zefram Cochrane get back to drinking.
What time travel brought to the table: First Contact is kind of like Revenge of the Sith; when somebody tells you it’s “the best one,” it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still one entry in a very disappointing series. No Next Generation movie has ever really done the show justice. Still, as a premise, this one is pretty great. You get a time travel movie and a zombie movie smashed together. Plus, it incorporates a moment in the Star Trek canon that we hadn’t seen yet, even if it then proceeds to screw with it. Like Khan before it, it reached into an old episode and put a new spin on it. It just didn’t execute its ideas nearly as well.
I’m really trying to come up with a complaint about just the time travel. I can dredge up plenty about the dialogue, the acting, the misrepresentation of the characters… oh, wait, I have one. There’s a groan-worthy line about how the Enterprise‘s warp signature was shielded from the Vulcans by the moon’s gravity. Absolute horseshit, of course, just stuffed into the movie to justify that the Phoenix was the craft they detected, not the Enterprise. Here’s my question: why does that need to remain secret? So what if the Vulcans show up to find the Enterprise? Just explain that you’re from the future, you’re trying to stop the Borg, and that humans have warp capabilities and you should totally check it out. Time travel clearly exists and is a constant problem in this franchise, so why are we always hiding it? Isn’t the duty of every Starfleet officer to the truth?
You don’t deserve to wear that uniform.
Oh, also, we just did time travel one movie ago. Can’t we save it for special occasions? Like making the TOS cast sexier or something…
STAR TREK (2009)
The story: A gigantic mining craft falls out of a lightning storm in space and threatens a Federation ship containing one James T. Kirk… who is currently a baby still in his mother’s womb. When his papa, a first officer hastily promoted to captain, is killed in the ensuing attack, lil’ Jimmy is born on an escaping shuttlecraft, now doomed to grow up fatherless, which automatically makes you a complete cockbag, no questions asked, as we all know.
Just look at that douche-faced, self-absorbed fatherlacker.
It turns out that that huge lightning ship was from the future, and now that James is all grown up, another ship has appeared, containing a familiar Vulcan that may one day be his friend. What follows is The Young Starfleet Chronicles, but we’re just here to talk about time travel, so we can skip everything else.
Pictured: everything else.
The rules: Oh, there is so much to talk about here.
First of all, we are once again relying on the theories of characters to tell us the specifics on how time travel works. Unfortunately, not all of the characters seem to understand them?
There’s a scene in which Kirk, Spock, and Uhura go back and forth about Nero, the bad guy Romulan on the big scary future ship. Spock explains that Nero’s presence has already altered history, creating “an entire new chain of incidents that cannot be anticipated by either party.” Then Uhura chimes in to say, “An alternate reality,” because some of the audience fell asleep and she is pretty.
Hmm? Oh, damn, something important went by, didn’t it?
Okay, so that cements them in either a mutable or alternate timeline, despite Uhura popping in to lay down the law for the Trekkie nerds about to throw a bitch fit. We’ll get to why this is definitively an alternate timeline later, but let’s jump ships over to Nero now, shall we?
This is one Romulan I am never letting in my DeLorean. (Spoilers if you care not to have a villain’s insanely baffling plan ruined for you.) Nero’s motivation is all over the map. So he’s pissed that his home planet of Romulus was destroyed in the future because Old Spock couldn’t help fast enough. He has a few lines about how it happened, he saw it happen, it so totes happened, and now he wants his revenge. Now that he’s in the past, he can warn the people of Romulus and prevent it, right? No, no, he can’t because it happened, it happened, it happened. So… he think’s he’s in an immutable timeline that can’t be changed. BUT– his big evil plan is to destroy all the Federation planets, so they can suffer like he has. Which means he is clearly open to changing history in big ways. So he either thinks he’s in a mutable or alternate timeline. If it’s mutable, he can stop Romulus from being destroyed. If it’s alternate, then he can just warn the people of Romulus and maybe live in peace there. Or get everyone to evacuate. Or just… just cope. Just stay and have a think, man. You wanna grab a beer?
Oh, and I haven’t even gotten to the whole “I don’t want to kill people, I want them to suffer” crap. I have no idea what you know about time travel, Nero, but things are just plain different now, dude. Like, really, stop and realize that you’re in the past. These people haven’t done anything to you. They’re alternate people. And even if these alternate people, with plenty more time to find a solution, can’t stop a supernova or get you back to your universe… those are hard things to accomplish, buddy. I know you lost your wife and kid and you’re a little shaken up, but maybe we can get a Betazoid in here to help talk you through your Post-Time Displacement Stress Disorder. Fuck, this should have been the talky kind of Star Trek, but we got the pew-pew laser action kill-the-bad-guy Star Trek instead.
“Choke on my space-dick, asshole!” – The New Captain Kirk
Okay, let me get back to how we know this is an alternate timeline. It’s subtle, but it’s there. When Old Spock and Young Sexy Murder-Happy Kirk are sitting around their campfire in the Hoth cave, Old Spock has questions about what’s happened so far. Unless he’s on a severely delayed ripple effect, that’s how we know this is alternate. If he were changing his own past, he would remember all the events of the film. And, because alternate timelines can’t have paradoxes, it’s also why he can teach Young Scotty about transwarp beaming even though the Scotty of Old Spock’s universe perfected it much, much later in life.
“Isn’t this cute, Scotty? I’m doing what you did with transparent aluminum at the beginning of this article!”
Oh, and Old Spock makes a cutesy joke at the end about telling Young Kirk that he has to become friends with Young Spock or paradoxes will happen. Even though Kirk understands the time travel rules in an earlier scene. I’d go on, but I have written too damned much about this movie.
What time travel brought to the table: Just like Generations, the studio had a risky new proposal for audiences. Did you know that they’d been trying to make a “young Kirk and Spock having marketably sexy adventures back when they first met at Starfleet Academy” movie since Star Trek V: The Final Frontier? Yeah, it was nuts; Gene Roddenberry himself hated the idea of recasting the roles and actually started rumors that the movie was going to be a wacky comedy like Police Academy.
“Yup. Kirk gets a podium BJ from an Orion slave girl. Who wants to see that? Oh, wait, I do.”
Knowing that Captain Roddenberry was staunchly against the Chris Pining that I had just shelled out money for, I was very skeptical in the theater. And when they started using time travel to blow up planets that, you know, weren’t so blowed up in the original series, I was ready to scream. And then, they hit me with the alternate time travel, and that’s when it clicked: “Oh, you clever sons of bitches. You did it. You actually did it.”
They made a movie remake that still allowed the original to exist.
And they did it with time travel.
So come on in, people who hate Star Trek; we think you’ll like what you see. And you hardcore fans that think we’re raping your beloved franchise? Don’t worry. We just cloned it. That clone is locked in a basement and we’re doing terrible, unspeakable, poorly written things to its broken shell of a body, but Shatner Classic’s legacy is still there, and it always will be.
SO, WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
For starters, apparently you can do every kind of time travel and still have room for magic. Whereas a series not following its own timeline specifications would usually irk me to no end, I’ll give Trek a pass because it’s not just one guy with his one machine. They use everything to punch a hole in time, so I can allow for the rules being different depending on the method.
When you start playing with time travel, you can’t unplay with it. (Irony?) With Star Trek Into Darkness in the can, there are twelve films in the franchise, and four of them are about time travel; that’s a third of the series. For my money, though, shouldn’t they all be? It’s a very powerful ability, and can be used for many purposes, both good and evil. Even if time travel first reared its head back on TOS, the fact that it exists in this universe and seems to be pulled off fairly easily means that every Trek film should feature a lil’ solar slingshotting when the going gets rough.
“Man up, you baby, we’re gonna do the sun thing again. Enough with this katra crap.”
Ultimately, violation of the space-time continuum is used in Star Trek to stage an entertaining romp in a different era or to hedge your bets when you spring something new on the audience. In summation, it’s time travel for fun and profit.
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.