December 24, 2008

Thoughts on the "new" Trek

My pal Vic over at Screen Rant has what appears to be the definitive scoop: The new Star Trek film due out next May will take place in an alternate timeline.

Roberto Orci: It is the reason why some things are different, but not everything is different. Not everything is inconsistent with what might have actually happened, in canon. Some of the things that seem that they are totally different, I will argue, once the film comes out, fall well within what could have been the non-time travel version of this move. So, for example, Kirk is different, because his back story has totally changed, in that his parents…and all that. But you are saying that maybe Scotty or Spock’s back story would not be affected by that change?

Roberto Orci: Right.

Anthony: Does the time travel explain why the Enterprise looks different and why it is being built in Riverside Iowa? Yes, and yes.

So, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie takes place in/creates an alternate timeline/version of the Trek universe we know and love. He talks a lot about quantum physics and the new way of viewing time travel (if it were actually possible). According to Orci, the old time travel paradox question of whether you can go back and kill your own grandfather has been answered - and the answer is: Yes.

The idea is that event would exist in an alternate timeline in which you would never be born. In that timeline you’re a guy who came from nowhere and killed the man who was to be your grandfather. In that timeline you will never exist. According to this theory there is NO WAY to go back in time and change events that will affect the timeline you started from.

And this seems to be the more widely accepted versions of time travel utilized in science fiction. Currently, I am reading The Man Who Folded Himself which comes recommended, aptly enough, by Michael Okuda, co-author of the Star Trek Chronology. Though I’ve read better time travel stories (granted, this David Gerrold tale was written in the early 70s), it does take the, well, time to inform the reader as best as possible just how the protagonist can do what he does without creating all sorts of wacky paradoxes. But basically the gist is this: Every time you travel into the past, you create an alternate universe. Period. This is why you could encounter your younger self, or, as noted above, you could kill your grandfather (or father) and not suddenly disappear. Because your grandfather (or father) that you kill exist in a different timeline from yourself.

With Trek canon, however, there seems to be a hassle:

The problem with even this explanation is that it goes against what has been established in previous Star Trek episodes and movies: In prior Trek time travel DOES repair problems and the crew returns to the “fixed” future they left. Examples of this include the TNG episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” where a starship was sent back to fight a crucial battle and it set the existing timeline straight, and the film “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” where Kirk and Co. went back in time to bring humpback whales back to the future to avert the destruction of humanity.

In other words, Trek has historically used a … “linear” model of time where corrections in the past actually docorrect what is “wrong” in the future (in the “actual” Trek future). Other examples include:

  • “The City on the Edge of Forever” where a time-traveling McCoy ends up in the 1930s and his actions result in the Nazis winning World War II. Kirk and Spock have to bolt after him and “correct” what he’s done. (I’ve often wondered if that “uncorrected” timeline was the “Mirror” universe often seen in Trek; alas, it seems that universe had been historically brutal long before the events in this episode.)

  • “Star Trek: First Contact.” In this eighth Trek motion picture, Jean-Luc Picard and crew have to jet back to the mid-21st century to prevent the Borg from changing Earth history.

  • “Time’s Arrow.” In this “Next Generation” two-parter, the Enterprise crew has to go back to the 19th century to battle dastardly time-journeying aliens. The key ingredient here is that [back] in the 24th century, the android Data’s head was discovered by buried in a cave archeologists. Picard remarks near the end of the episode that it was “time to set history right” (or something like that).

  • “Past Tense.” In this “Deep Space 9” two-parter, Capt. Sisko plays the role of a revolutionary leader in early 21st century America after he’s accidentally killed – in order to “keep history straight.” In essence, Sisko is this leader from history as a result of his actions.

Of course, the main interrogative element in these Trek episodes is how, then, do people from the future exist in the past … in the same timeline. In other words, given standard Trek canon, Picard, Sisko or whoever could effectively change history by killing someone’s distant relative in the past – even their own, thus creating the standard “grandfather paradox.” Granted, Picard and Sisko (among others) always eventually hightail it back to their own time. However, it was established that in certain stories that some were “left behind.” For instance, the series “Enterprise” played on the events from “First Contact” when a few deactivated Borg drones were discovered. Yes, the drones were activated and wreaked a bit of havoc, but what would happen if these cybernetic goons began drastically altering the past – like offing a distant grandfather of Picard, say? According to Trek time travel law, the Federation would look a lot different. Not to mention, Picard would suddenly “disappear” from the bridge of the Enterprise-E.

In the aforementioned “Yesterday’s Enterprise” episode of TNG, Tasha Yar – who had been killed in the “standard” Trek timeline – reappeared as a bridge officer on the Enterprise-D when the Enterprise-C came through time to the future. To “restore” the timeline, Picard had to demand that the Enterprise-C go back to the past, but Yar – who realized she wasn’t supposed to exist – requested to go back with the older Enterprise. Picard agreed to allow her to go; however, we later learn that she survived the Enterprise-C’s battle with the Romulans twenty-two years prior, and was captured. What if she had managed to alter Romulan society in the past? What if Romulus was much friendlier to the Federation? According to Trek time travel law, the era of the Enterprise-D would suddenly transform into something quite different.

J.J. Abrams’ new twist to time travel in the Trek universe for the 11th film is actually akin to that of the popular “Back to the Future II.” This script was smart and detailed, explaining the “alternate timeline” theory of time travel quite thoroughly for the layman. Recall that Biff giving his younger self that sports almanac resulted in an alternate timeline where Biff became a rich (and unscrupulous) businessman. (Of course, this is a fundamental change from the classic first film, which seems to use a Trek-like linear approach. In that story, changes made to the past directly affected the future; recall that things disappeared – like Marty’s photos – and that the end result of Marty’s sojourn to 1955 resulted in his father becoming a confident and successful writer in the future of that same timeline.)

Most time travel novels I have read make use of “alternate universe” temporal mechanics; however, one excellent book that uses the “linear” approach is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. In it, scientists from the future ponder the “negative” effect Columbus’ voyage had on the natives of the Americas. But some others wonder if Chris’s trip wasn’t actually beneficial in the long run. The ultimate “solution” is incredible in scope, but the decision to alter time in the past results in the “present” timeline being erased -- no alternate timeline is created.

The 11th Star Trek film should appeal to both new fans and old Trekkers alike. It makes use of the most popular (and established) time travel theory, but most importantly it will inject a much needed “new energy” into a franchise that was becoming old and worn.

A terrific compilation of time travel movies and the theories behind them/problems inherent in them can be found here.

Posted by Hube at December 24, 2008 09:59 AM | TrackBack

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