A Brief History of Time Travel: Star Trek Edition

In his Star Trek reboot, JJ Abrams decided to use one of Star Trek’s most-controversial plot devices, and creates a predictably paradoxical result.

[This weekend’s second guest article comes from Chris Richards. How could we resist—he takes up one of our favorite topics for overtinking: time travel. Let us know what you think in the comments!]

The Enterprise C emerges from a temporal rift.Earlier this month, JJ Abrams rebooted one of the most successful Sci-fi series of all time with his whiz-bang extravaganza.  But, unlike the Nolan-style reboot of Batman, Abrams didn’t ignore the fact that other movies came before.  Of course, unlike the Batman franchise, there were a lot of people who didn’t WANT to forget the other movies.  This, in and of itself, creates a problem: how can anyone reconcile the two?  Abrams decided to use one of Star Trek’s most-controversial plot devices, and creates a predictably paradoxical result.

Before going on, yes, there are major spoilers ahead for the new movie, past movies, and at least one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  You’ve been warned.

In Abram’s Star Trek, the Romulan Nero follows Spock Prime back through time to avenge himself upon the beloved Vulcan, whom Nero blames for the destruction of Romulus, his homeworld.  Nero’s goal is to punish Spock Prime by making the old man see his own homeworld obliterated, so that Spock will share Nero’s pain.

Later in the film, after Vulcan’s destruction, some of our main characters are made aware of the time travel factor and share a brief exchange regarding the ramifications of Nero’s knowledge of future events:

Young Spock: “You assume that Nero knows events are predicted to unfold.  But Nero’s very presence altered the flow of history, beginning with the attack of the U.S.S. Kelvin, culminating the events thereby creating an entirely new chain of incidents that cannot be anticipated by either party.”

Uhura: “An alternate reality.”

Young Spock: “Precisely.”

These words suggest that this Star Trek is running in parallel to the old Star Trek.  If this is the case, than Spock Prime’s Vulcan is still intact, Nero’s Romulus is destroyed, and that universe continued unaltered as seen in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, etc.  However, this does not seem to fit with the previous Star Trek canon involving time travel.  To believe this, one must assume that there are many multiple realities, or dimensions, and that by going “back in time,” what has really occurred is the creation of a new, independent branch of existence.  This is very similar to the type of time travel that is described in Michael Crichton’s Timeline, which deals with quantum mechanics and such.  So, JJ’s Star Trek seems to operate on this Timeline-esque model.

However, if this is the case, than time travel cannot change the past.  Instead traveling back in time takes us to a separate timeline, similar to our own, and allows THAT timeline to unfold in different and unexpected ways, much as Young Spock described.  But if we look to other Star Trek movies, this is clearly not the model that has been used for time travel in the Trek universe.

Picard et al. make first contact with St. Elsewhere's Dr. Roxanne Turner.

Dr. Crusher et al. make first contact with St. Elsewhere’s Dr. Roxanne Turner. How’s that for a pair o’ docs?

In First Contact, a Borg vessel travels back several hundred years to assimilate a defenseless Earth and prevent it from ever coming in contact with the Vulcans.  The Enterprise is caught in the “temporal wake” of the Borg ship, and is immune to the changes caused by its time travel.  In this way, the Enterprise watches as Earth changes from the one they know to one ruled by the Borg.  This implies that there is a way to change the past, and that the Borg have altered the history of the Enterprise’s world.  This idea relies on a linear view of history, that all of OUR history has occurred in the same basic realm of existence and that going back can change it.  It’s similar to a computer’s hard drive; certain parts can be erased and rewritten.  By going back after the Borg, the Enterprise can stop the invasion and save Earth.

But, if the Timeline theory is correct, the Borg had assimilated a different Earth. Therefore, the Enterprise does not have much reason to save it.  Their Earth is still fine.  Further, by going back after the Borg timeline is already created, the Enterprise does not have save THAT Earth.  They saved another new Earth which they created in another alternate timeline, which should be more similar to their own.

Based on these two movies alone, it’s impossible to get a consensus on which Star Trek prefers.  Things become clearer if we look at an episode of The Next Generation.

In Yesterday’s Enterprise, a rift in the space/time continuum allows an older ship, distinguished as the Enterprise-C, to be saved when it was supposed to be destroyed.  This radically alters history, for the worse, and creates a dilemma.  Aware of the changes, should the current Enterprise send the Enterprise-C back in time to their certain death if it means a better future?  Are the lives of those on the Enterprise-C worth more, less, or the same as those that have now died because it survived?  In the end, the Enterprise-C goes back and the timeline is restored, but with one small caveat, a member of the current Enterprise’s crew went back with the Enterprise-C, and births a child that before did not exist.  If this episode exists, than the past is alterable; we the audience observed the changes that occured.

Similar instances happen in other Trek installments.  From the fourth movie, The Voyage Home, to the seventh, Generations (not to mention innumerable episodes in each of the different series), we see a relative consensus on the nature of Trek Travel.  (Note: This does not mean that parallel universes cannot exist, such as the episode Mirror Mirror, but time travel is not how someone travels from one to the other).

The writers of the new Trek seem to want to comfort fans by saying that this all takes place in an alternate timeline, but by Star Trek’s own conventions this cannot be the case.  For the new Star Trek to exist, it seems that it must erase the old timeline.  This includes the Original Series as well as The Next Generation; even Voyager has theoretically ceased to be.  This opens the door to numerous other time paradoxes as well, which could be fodder to a whole separate post.  But for now, for all those who are sad to see nearly forty years of beloved character development get wiped away, there is some solace yet.  At least the prequel show Enterprise was unaffected…is that a good thing?

Wait for it... wait for it...

Wait for it… wait for it…

26 Comments on “A Brief History of Time Travel: Star Trek Edition”

  1. rdriley #

    The new Star Trek MMO seems to be taking the alternate timeline track, as well. The game is set some 20 years after Spock and Nero go down the black hole, and, according to the backstory they’ve released so far, the universe has continued on without a single hiccup.

    Star Trek fandom is also hewing to the “it’s not OUR universe” theory. The ST wiki site Memory Alpha refers to Zachary Quinto’s character as “Alternate Timeline Spock.”

    And that’s all BS, of course. You neglected to mention the seminal Star Trek time-travel episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” When Bones goes back in time and saves Joan Collins, he changes the future. Only the crew members on the planet remain, for some reason I’ve never understood. The Enterprise is gone. The Federation is gone. Starfleet is gone. No helpful alternate timeline for Kirk. Joan Collins is dead, dead, dead, and there’s no secondary scenario in which she lived.


  2. zaws! #

    the fallacy in this article is that you are assuming that there is just one kind of time travel, but if we look at the “Temporal Mechanics” or the “Time Travel Episodes” page at MemoryAlpha, we’ll see that there are many ways to time travel: there is the slingshot effect (The Voyage Home), time portals (TOS:The City on the Edge of Forever), time rifts (TNG:Yesterday’s Enterprise), temporal vortexes (First Contact), just jumping into a black hole (Star Trek)…
    why should we suppose that all those seemingly unrelated phenomenoms work under the same principes, respect the same rules, or have the same effects?


  3. Chris Richards #

    That’s an interesting point, zaws!, but we DO witness the effects of all those different forms of time travel, and they all appear to be the same. In fact, and maybe I should have included it in the article, there is another time travel episode, Time’s Arrow, which puts it directly. When Data finds his head, a 500 year-old artifact, he states that his death cannot be avoided, “There is no way to prevent it…It has occured, it WILL occur.” This seems to say that, as the denizens of the Trek universe understand it (and they have a whole Starfleet division to explore this) all Time Travel works the same, and that is linear.


  4. Saint #

    If it is possible that there are two different and co-extant models of time travel (the “alternate universe” model and the “four-dimensional continuum” model) and that these two models are called upon when different temporal phenomena are encountered, as zaws suggested, then the question becomes “what causes one model to be appropriate and not the other?”

    A scientific determinist view of history states that, in our universe, the rules of physics and quantum mechanics cannot be perfectly and completely mapped out (as shown by Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem) but they do result in only a single path for history. This is a model that looks at all of the past and future as being a physical dimension, similar to the three physical dimensions we can directly experience. The past and the future exist simultaneously with the present, just as New York and San Francisco exist simultaneously on the Earth. The fact that we experience time as a progression from the past into the future is entirely arbitrary, and could just as easily be experienced in the other direction or all at once. We are as commuters on a train, moving forward towards the future, while those high above can see both our origin and our destination on the same landscape.

    In this model, changing the future by changing the past makes perfect sense. If time is a physical dimension, any change at a particular point to the static model would necessarily create changes through-out the rest of the model. This seems to be best shown in the Star Trek: The Next Generation finale, where an “anti-time” disruption was caused by three ships acting simultaneously (from a 4-D point of view) and decades apart (from a 3-D point of view). The disruption acts much like Q does: as an audience of the universe from a different dimensional perspective relative to humans.

    In the non-determinist model, each momentary quantum event, at an infinitely small level, occurs every possible way that it can, separately from the other iterations, in a different universe. The number of universes in existence at any moment is equal to p^s^m, where s=quantum states, p=smallest possible subatomic particles and m=number of infinitely small moments in history up to the present. If there are four particles in the universe, with two possible states, after two moments there are 256 universes. But, as Zeno proved, time cannot be divided in this way, nor space. It is meaningless to talk about either time or space in terms of indivisible particles, as subdivision occurs from action within a continuum. It is through the act of change that new universes arise, not the ticking of some imaginary universal clock.

    This model suggests you cannot change the timeline of your own universe by traveling backwards through time, but are instead creating a brand new universe by adding new particles to the quantum equation of a pre-existing universe. Thus, if you travel backwards through time in a traditional human way (faster-than-light travel, or travel through a worm hole), you cease to exist in the universe you left, and you can never return to it through forward temporal progress. Theoretically, it is impossible to exist in a universe in which someone has traveled from your future to your present, as the time-space-state the traveler has left will no longer exist in your future when the traveler arrives in your time-space. This creates a paradox: one can neither arrive in the past nor can you witness someone arriving from the future unless there was no time-travel in the first place.

    These two models are not exclusive: in fact, one implies the other. Within a timeline, the universe progresses deterministicly, but there are infinite parallel timelines which are different but also determinist relative to themselves. Travel between universes can be achieved through normal physical means (faster-than-light travel, etc), and travel within a universe’s timeline can be achieved through extra-dimensional movement (such as the movement that is theoretically possible among so-called “strings,” which vibrate in dimensions we cannot perceive). Neither creates insurmountable paradoxes, because causality is preserved within a notion of extra-dimensional and alternate-universe physical movement.


  5. Gab #

    I bow to the Saint. Holy crap.


  6. Pianodan #

    I disagree with your interpretation of Godel’s incompleteness theorem. I don’t think you can generalize it as far as you have. The theorem is applicable to basic mathematics, and states that you cannot have a formal system that characterizes all of number theory. However, I don’t think it is appropriate to stretch it to the point of saying that the rules of physics and quantum mechanics cannot be mapped out. While that may or may not be true, I disagree that one necessarily implies the other.

    Moving down your post, you assert that an action took place “simultaneously (from a 4-D point of view) and decades apart (from a 3-D point of view)”. If you’re going to try to be scientifically rigorous, you simply cannot make statements like this. An important consequence of relativity is that there is no such thing as “simultaneity” unless you are in exactly the same position in spacetime. That sentence is simply meaningless in terms of relativistic physics.

    It is facetious in the extreme to say that Zeno proved that time is not subdividible. The nature of time and its passage is a subject which is still hotly under debate, and was certainly not resolved 2500 years ago. There IS in fact a smallest unit of time which can be analyzed in any meaningful way, known as the Planck time.

    No current string theory that I am aware of suggests that moving strings will allow travel between alternate universes. Reference? In fact, can you find a reference for a lot of this stuff in some sort of peer-reviewed format? (Wikipedia does NOT count)

    Gab, just because Saint is using big words, that doesn’t mean he actually is making any sense. I recognize the inherent silliness in getting too bent out of shape about Star Trek physics (does he?), but if we’re GOING to do it, let’s try to keep our real world physics at least a little plausible.


  7. Saint #

    Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem states that any closed system, not just mathematical system, cannot be both complete and consistent. If there is a finite set of true axia for a scientific model of the universe, we cannot know all of those true axia without also believing untrue axia. It might be possible to have access to a scientific model of our universe that is both complete and consistent, but not from within the system of those axia. Unless we can measure our universe from outside of it, we must apply Godel’s theorem.

    I mean “simultaneous” in terms of those things that are mutually observable, as the three ships were in the episode. Einstein’s models of relativity did not account for wormholes or other links between time and space, such as the one at the center of the narrative in that episode.

    Planck time is not a meaningful constant within the context of the Star Trek universe, which assumes the ability to manipulate the shape of space for the warp drive to work. An inflexible Planck length doesn’t exactly jive with faster-than-light travel.

    Gary Shiu at UW Madison has been published on the subject of theoretical high-dimension vibration of strings. I was not implying that strings could be manipulated, or that they could be used for time travel. I was simply indicating that strings seem to move in more than three physical dimensions.

    I really don’t understand where all your anger comes from.


  8. fenzel #

    “I really don’t understand where all your anger comes from.”

    Ooh, I know this one!

    The Internet!



  9. Gab #

    Pianodan: I was making a pun. Saint. Bow. Holy. Get it? This is what tends to happen when I attempt wit- I usually fail, and lo, wind up pissing someone off. Hence why I didn’t bother trying to enter that cliche contest a while back. Le sigh.

    However, to be fair (and yes, defensive, so sue me), I have virtually no science experience. Most of what EVERYBODY is saying makes no sense to me because of all of the huge, jargony language. You could say with enough big words that an object can fall *up* because of Suchandsucha theory, and I’d probably smile and nod- and forget every word within a few hours. Not because I don’t care, but because I am so inexperienced that unless you basically speak to me in Dick and Jane words, I’m not going to “get it.”

    So why am I reading it anyway? Well, I find this exercise entertaining to observe/sort of participate in *because* of that “inherent silliness”- that’s sort of the life-blood of the site and why I stalk it so much. I’m a nerd and proud of it. But since I admit from the outset that I have absolutely nothing of real substance to contribute in this particular case because of my complete ignorance in the field of science, I guess I should apologize for even posting my poor attempt at humor. I should have just kept my mouth shut. I’ll leave the discussion to those that can actually *discuss* now.


  10. Erin #

    While watching Star Trek, I noticed JJ Abrams has taken an interest in recycling:

    Pregnant woman in firey crash/introduction of hero: opening of Lost, opening of Star Trek
    MacGuffins: Mission Impossible III and Alias
    Families working in covert government organizations: Fringe and Alias
    Mysterious similarity between “red matter” the “Mueller device” from Alias.

    Star Trek is just Felicity… with phasers…


  11. Pianodan #

    Sorry, I really didn’t mean to sound angry. I just run into so many people online that like using big science-y words without understanding their context that it’s a knee jerk reaction at this point.

    Like I said, applying any level of scientific rigor to Star Trek is inherently ridiculous. Like for example, if I responded to Saint by saying, “Look, you can’t invoke quantum mechanics as part of your explanation of time travel in Star Trek, and them dismiss the concept of the Planck Time which is fundamental to the very nature of quantum mechanics!.”

    That would be very comic book guy of me, so I’m not going to do it. Instead, I’ll point out that based on the entrance to that outpost on the frozen planet, crash bars have not evolved at all in 300 years.


  12. Gab #

    Pianodan: I understand why it would make you angry. I always hate it when political theories or philosophies I studied hard get thrown out there in a context/way that doesn’t feel right to me, so I see where you’re coming from and totally empathize. But it’s perfectly okay for you to refute what someone else says and to use just as jargony language. That’s the whole point of the site, to overthink it however possible. You have every right to say, “Look, you can’t…the very nature of quantum mechanics!” since you have the ability to do so. I, at least, *want* you to. Like I implied before, I like observing the debates or discussions I can’t contribute to, and I love participating in ones I can. So this is the kind of discussion I’ll watch from the sidelines (if I don’t ask a question because I’m on the cusp of understanding something and think it may help). When someone writes a post about the political structure (or lack thereof) in _Star Trek_, or they apply a thinker or theory I’m familiar with to it, I’ll probably have my own jargon to toss into the pool. It’s all fine and dandy because, to allude to one of the Podcasts, even if it seems kind of elitist, it’s using elitist tools (i.e. the knowledge and terminology about the theories) to appreciate something that is loved from the Popular Culture. So keep going. It’s awesome.

    Still, about the bars. Maybe that’s sort of an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” kind of deal.


  13. Pianodan #

    As I recall, the most jarring thing for me about ST IV was that hanging up in the kitchen was an honest to goodness, Class ABC, pull-pin-hold-upright-and-aim-at-base-of-fire fire extinguisher.


  14. Greg #

    I think you are taking it too literally, They are not saying there are now two dimensions where it was one before but instead that this reality while the same is alternate, they’ve changed the past and are not able to undo the changes like before so therefore this reality has become an alternate to what happened the first time through and the reality that Spock and Nero have knowledge of is changed due to their actions.

    They didn’t create a separate dimension they changed the current one and they needed to word the explanation better.

    To Nero and Spock it will be an alternate reality but it is physically the same one.


  15. CTB #

    Here’s what I don’t understand: Nero goes to the past instead of asking for help to prevent a future disaster he seeks to create one. OK,,, grief has made him crazy. But what of all the other crew. OK ,,, they are all crazy. Then what about everyone else in the known universe. They have 129 years now to plan for the supernova. No revenge motive for Nero. No time change. BTW Spock has traveled in time many times do it again and get to the Supernova sooner.


  16. L33tminion #

    Eh, there’s no reason why you can’t have different mechanisms for time travel that work in different ways.


  17. Gab #

    CTB: I from what I can tell, that wouldn’t work because the Nero during young Spock et. al.’s time is physically removed from his own reality. There are two of him in the reality we saw on the screen: the one that went through the supernova that is doing all the talking, and the one on Romulus that we don’t ever see. Even if the latter’s homeworld were saved, the former’s has already been destroyed. The two Neros would still exist side-by-side (not literally, but at the same moment), much like the two Spocks.


  18. Pianodan #

    Oh… did I mention that the idea that a single supernova could destroy the galaxy just sets my teeth on edge? I know, I know, it’s fiction, but come *on*… they could have just made up a “wormhole inversion” or “quantum hyper-wallaby” or something that isn’t actually real, and could therefore be assigned any arbitrary threat level you like.

    Sigh.. this is how my geologist friend felt watching “Volcano,” I’m sure.


  19. Gab #

    Or how my astro friends feel watching _Deep Impact_? (Note: I specifically did NOT say _Armageddon_ because they find it SO laughable, they love it.)


  20. Pianodan #

    Have we actually met? I can’t remember. If so I AM one of your astro friends.


  21. Gab #

    I dunno, where are you from? ;)

    It’s funny how movies become running jokes within a department. The astro department at my college shows _Armageddon_ once a year as a party (and with the pretext of offering ten extra-credit points to any student enrolled in an astro class that can turn in a list of ten things scientifically wrong with the movie when it’s over). The geology department does the same thing with _The Core_. And I think that’s why I love the _National Treasure_ movies so much.


  22. Pianodan #

    I was in the YPMB ’96-97. Rode a unicycle. That’s my real first name in the handle. Made a few arrangements. The only OTI person I’m SURE I’ve met in person is Shechner, but I’m fairly sure I’ve met some others, possibly including you. :)


  23. Gab #

    Ah, no, probably not. I was in fifth grade when you were in the YPMB.


  24. stokes OTI Staff #

    Oh man, National Treasure! Gab, we should hijack this comment thread and just talk about how hilarious that movie is all day long.


  25. Gab #

    Or why don’t you write a post? OH SNAP! ;p


  26. Jay Maus #

    Also recall that pretty much all of the events of Enterprise were the result of a ‘Temporal Cold War’ in which Earth found itself an unwilling combatant. That’s how I explain away the niggling little notion that ENT breaks the hell out of canon: a mysterious time traveler sending messages through time to wipe out mankind (who I like to pretend is Khan) has created a new parallel world in which the NX-01 Enterprise is the first ship to bear that name, a Klingon crashlands on Earth, Denobulans exist, Borg are encountered, etc.

    In a sense, Enterprise explored the idea of a Star Trek reboot before JJ Abrams came to the scene, they just never developed (or realized!) the idea.


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