Star Trek: Fun with Time Travel

Emily and I just got back from seeing the new Star Trek movie, and at one point I leaned into her and whispered, “There is nothing about this that isn’t awesome!”  Really.  If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?

Now that our manuscript has officially been accepted (did I mention that yet?), I have a bit more time to give my thoughts on sci-fi, and the new Trek is so well done that it provides plenty of food for thought.  So without any further ado…

Severe Spoiler Alerts

In order to “reimagine” the Star Trek canon, J.J. Abrams decided to throw in a little time travel.  In and of itself, time travel isn’t a problem, and indeed, it’s done in a much better way this time around than in Star Trek IV when they went back to save some freakin’ whales.

It’s also not fair to poke holes in any of their misuse of general relativity.  After all, the Star Trek universe is one where warp drives allow people to travel faster than light, and once you’ve broken that law, what harm is there really in introducing “red matter” that somehow causes black holes to collapse or, for that matter, causing planets to suddenly become supermassive just by becoming a black hole?  (Although I’ll say it again, people: If the sun were to suddenly become a black hole, the earth would keep orbiting it, just as it always has.  It would not fall in.)

Abrams does make a time travel choice that makes me a little uneasy, though.  In our book, we talk about two plausible models of time travel:

1) There is a single self-consistent history, and if you go back in time, it’s only because in your own history there was always a “you” who went back in time.  Time travel in this model is good only for chrono-tourism since you absolutely cannot change your own past.

2) The universe can branch off into alternate realities.  Of course, this requires the existence of many universes, and there is zero direct evidence to suggest that parallel universes are real.   In the parallel universe model you could, for example, go back in time and kill your own grandfather, and nothing would happen to your existence since your original universe is different from the one whose history you are now shaping.

There are, of course, science fiction models which try to create amalgams of the two (See, for example “Back to the Future”) in which 1) you can affect your own history, but 2) there are alternate timelines.  These are simply wrong from a time-travel perspective and I won’t give them the dignity of responding to them here.

So we’re left with two options. To my mind, the self-consistent history model is almost certainly better motivated, and can be used to great affect in storytelling (see, for example, the original “Terminator”).  Still, if you want to use time-travel to advance the story line, I suppose it makes sense to introduce parallel universes, even though as a scientist I’m really not crazy about them.

Still, I’ll put off my skepticism and allow it.  In that case, Star Trek did it perfectly.  To recap, some Romulans and Spock travel from the future and affect the “present” (2200 or something).  Spock is never concerned that his actions will change his own past timeline.  How could they?  Spocks history is secure in his old universe, and the “new” version of Star Trek now has two Spocks.

But even though Abrams adhered fairly well to the (somewhat distasteful) parallel universe model, there are a couple of things that bother me a bit.

1) Convergent History.  In the “new” universe, Kirk’s father died young, Spock was appointed captain of the Enterprise (and apparently got busy with Uhura), Vulcan was destroyed (I warned you about the spoilers) and so on.  The entire future history of the universe should be very, very different than in the canon.  While old Spock guided events somewhat, it’s downright astonishing that the final state of affairs so quickly matched those of the old universe.  Kirk ends up as captain, and the rest of the bridge crew (despite very different histories from the original) take up their same positions as before.  Even some details, including how Kirk defeated the Kobayashi Maru, are identical to the original history.  This is troubling, because history should have been wildly divergent from the original (think of the butterfly effect, though for god’s sake, not the Ashton Kutcher “movie” of that name).  Are we to understand that the universe in the prequel gradually morphs into the Star Trek history we’ve come to know?

2) Assuming it doesn’t, I’m left with a problem of how to relate to this imaginary world.  The idea of the Star Trek universe is that it’s the future — in principle, our future.  We think about the events as what will happen to humanity, and that gives us a vested interest in their outcome.  When we introduce the parallel universe model, either the new universe or the old is no longer in our future.  Only 1 of them can be.  Yes, I realize that it’s fiction, but my point is that this puts Star Trek into a similar position as Star Wars.  It may as well be long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.  That’s somewhat sad for me, since though I wasn’t a fan of the original series, I liked the idea of a future filled with a single (peaceful) world government, intelligent aliens, and exploration of the galaxy.  It was comforting to pretend that’s how the world — our world — will turn out.

Now, I’m not so sure.

– Dave

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3 Responses to Star Trek: Fun with Time Travel

  1. jeff says:


    Not that I like to nitpick, but two things:

    1) Kirk and the Enterprise go back in time to kidnap whales in Star Trek IV (The Voyage Home), not Star Trek III (The Search for Spock).

    2) Uhura would be very displeased to find an ‘o’ in her name (well, her LAST name).

  2. dave says:

    I’ve fixed the petty complaints made by my co-author. Does everyone feel better now?


  3. Stephen Yenchik says:

    The impetus behind the convergent history is, unfortunately, the entirely unscientific notion of Kirk’s Destiny (note the capital D). Pike skirts around it with his post-barfight pep talk but alternate timeline Spock makes it explicit. I loved the new movie but it skews a bit more science-fantasy than science-fiction on certain plot points.

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