Trek at 50: The quest for a unifying theory of time travel in Star Trek Part-2 of 3

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It’s 2016, meaning we now have many examples of Trek’s time paradoxes to explore.

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Hybrids: Consistent, time-looping, shifting timelines?

 

Picard stuns his future self and makes a different choice, breaking the time loop.

The animated series (TAS) was one of the first to build on the ideas presented in “The City on the Edge of Forever.” The episode “Yesteryear” has the Enterprise return to the Guardian of Forever to monitor the past eras flashing across its surface. This causes a change to the timeline—without even going back to the past. Luckily the Enterprise still exists, but Spock has been replaced as First Officer by an Andorian. The change happened because Spock didn’t go back in time as he was supposed to. To repair the timeline, he must go back and visit his childhood self on Vulcan.

Consider: If Spock hadn’t failed to travel into Vulcan’s past, the timeline wouldn’t have been changed. If the timeline hadn’t been changed, he never would have had a reason to go into his past in the first place. (Janeway’s headache coming on yet?)

In a sense, this is an integration of both the consistent universe and the changing timeline models. And some of the episodes mentioned under the header of “consistent timeline” also show signs of belonging to both categories. DS9’s “Past Tense” has the Defiant crew experience their timeline changing around them even though the same time travel incident includes evidence of a “consistent universe” event. In many of these episodes, even if the crew’s actions do end up as part of the way things were “supposed” to happen, the crew still worries about damaging the timeline. They act as if their actions potentially could alter history. Such is the case in the TOS episode “Assignment: Earth.”

TNG also touches on this trend with the episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, in which the previous iteration of the starship Enterprise, the Enterprise-C, travels forward in time, arriving in a future in which the Federation is in constant war with the Klingons. Guinan is the only crewmember aboard the current ship, the Enterprise-D, who partially remembers the correct timeline. (Who knows why? Perhaps parts of her brain are somehow protected from shifting timelines, just as Kirk and the landing party were shielded during “The City on the Edge of Forever.”)

She ultimately realizes that the Enterprise-C has to go back to its time, because its presence in an unwinnable battle was a crucial part of the peace that the Federation enjoys with the Klingons in the proper timeline (the ship had been destroyed defending a Klingon planet from Romulans). The past Enterprise returned to the past, taking one of our Enterprise’s crew along with it—Tasha Yar, who’s dead in the proper timeline anyway.

This restores the timeline, which was part of a time loop. When the Enterprise was defeated by Romulans, Tasha Yar was taken as a slave, and she later had a child with a Romulan. That child grew up to be Sela, an important figure among the Romulans who would antagonize the Enterprise crew.

This is yet another example of a changing timeline nested within a consistent time loop. Sela was presumably always part of history; the Enterprise-C’s battle against the Romulans is an essential part of our timeline.

But Trek also has examples of the opposite approach: a consistent time loop broken by a changing timeline. Take for instance TNG’s “Time Squared,” in which the Enterprise discovers a shuttlecraft containing a future version of Picard. Unlike other instances of time travel in Trek, this Picard’s own personal timeline has been reversed. It’s like someone hit “rewind” on Picard and then pressed “play.” As this Picard gets closer to the disaster that sent him back in time in the first place, he begins to reenact his choices from the first time around.

“Our” Picard and the rest of the crew figure out that it’s a time loop, in which some choice that Picard makes within the next few hours will destroy the ship and send him back in time. In other words, our Picard is destined to make the same mistake and become this Picard.

But our Picard doesn’t make the same mistake and instead stuns the future Picard by making the opposite choice. When he does this, the future Picard disappears; Picard has changed his own future timeline, breaking a consistent time loop.

And that’s not all. In another TNG episode, “Cause and Effect,” the Enterprise finds itself stuck in a time loop. The crew deals with the fact that they may be doomed to repeat their fate, but ultimately they realize Data can send a message to himself in the next iteration of the loop. This simple message gives the next Data the information he needs to save the ship, breaking the loop.

How can a consistent time loop be broken? Doesn’t that mean the loop wasn’t consistent in the first place? The answer is that the loop isn’t perfectly consistent. Throughout the episode, we see that more information seeps through from the previous loop with each iteration. The crew start hearing voices, more and more clearly each time, and recognizing situations from the previous loop. Once enough loops have gone by, the crew gathers enough clues to realize what’s going on.

This effect might also play into the aforementioned episode “Yesteryear.” While Spock’s trip to the past seems to be part of a consistent time loop (albeit one that involves a changing timeline), there’s one strange detail. Spock’s visit to the past changes history, despite the fact that his visit is a part of the history he remembers. Spock’s childhood pet, I-Chaya, is killed by the poison of a Le-Matya beast, an event the adult Spock doesn’t remember happening in his childhood (despite the fact that he does remember his adult self’s visit).

This could mean that, just as some information leaked through from previous loops in “Cause and Effect,” the same thing happened here. It would be interesting to see what would happen in the “next” iteration of the loop. The next adult Spock, surely, would remember I-Chaya dying in childhood; his actions while visiting the past, therefore, might be subtly different and perhaps this would even save I-Chaya’s life.

Note, however, even these two situations differ from each other. In “Cause and Effect,” the Enterprise’s time loop was going on while real time progressed. By the time it escaped the loop, 17.4 days had elapsed for the rest of the universe. (The Bozeman, caught in the same loop with the Enterprise, wasn’t so lucky; it was stuck for 90 years). In the case of “Yesteryear,” real time wasn’t elapsing with each iteration of the loop; every adult Spock jumped through the Guardian of Forever at the same moment with respect to the outside Universe, as far as we know. Maybe this requires an extra time dimension or something akin to it?

The DS9 episode “Children of Time” follows this pattern. The Defiant crewmembers investigate a planet surrounded by an “energy barrier,” only to discover that the planet is inhabited by their own descendants. Apparently, within the next few days the ship will get thrown back in time by 200 years, become stranded, and the crew will live out their lives on the planet. This appears at first to be another a consistent time loop.

Only this time, the Defiant escapes and is not transported back in time, thus erasing the colony from existence. When the crew scan the planet after escaping, they find that there’s no sign of the inhabitants.

Since the colonists have records of the Defiant being trapped, and some of them actually remember it happening, it must have originally been a consistent time loop. But in this iteration, for some reason, the Odo from the planet sabotages the Defiant computer, forcing the ship to escape and erasing the colony’s timeline.

If it’s starting to look like these time travel ideas are all pieces of a bigger puzzle—there’s one piece we haven’t yet seen.

 

Brand new universes:

Nero’s ship, the Narada, arrives in the past via black hole, confronted by the Starship Kelvin.

Sometimes in Trek, time travel creates neither a consistent timeline nor does it replace the one you know. Instead, it creates a new, separate timeline that goes on existing without bothering the original.

The most well-known example is from the 2009 film Star Trek. There, the Romulan Nero, originally from several years after TNG era, travels back in time to decades before TOS, creating a new timeline. The producers made clear that the original or “prime” timeline still exists parallel to this new one.

At first this might seem totally at odds with what we’ve known in Trek up to this point, but there is precedent for it.

One such example might have slipped right under the radar. In DS9’s “Visionary,” Chief O’Brien makes a series of time jumps, each five hours into the future. By the episode’s end, he’s gone into the future but is too sick to make the return trip. The future O’Brien instead returns to the past to take O’Brien’s place and finish his mission.

This can’t be an example of a new timeline overwriting the old; it can’t be an example of a consistent timeline. That’s because the O’Brien from the past doesn’t stay in the past; he goes into the future, where he collapses and almost certainly dies. Therefore, he can’t go on to become the future O’Brien (the one who lives on at the end of the episode). His death has no effect on that O’Brien, meaning the two are causally disconnected. They are instead parallel, co-existing timelines of each other.

TNG’s finale, “All Good Things…” featured the creation of alternate timelines as well. Picard finds himself jumping back and forth between three different eras: the beginning of the Enterprise’s mission, the present, and the future. The three eras seem separate from each other in that, while Picard has all three ships investigate the same anomaly, no one on them seems to remember the events from the other two timelines.

Furthermore, the anomaly itself seems to be progressing backwards in time—but into separate timelines. In each era Picard visits, the anomaly seems to have just appeared; despite this, it’s largest in the earliest era. In one scene, Q even shows Picard a timeline at the beginning of human history. In that era, the anomaly has become so large it has actually prevented abiogenesis (the beginning of life on Earth).

This is consistent with the way Nero creates the new timeline in the 2009 Star Trek film. He goes back in time to a particular point in history, causing a divergent series of events. The anti-time anomaly does much the same thing; it’s going back in time and affecting things there, creating a new series of events.

The only difference is that the anomaly is constantly going backwards in time, not just jumping to a particular point. That being the case, one might imagine that it’s creating new timelines every instant. If so, Q may have just chosen a few representative timelines to send Picard to in order to test him.

Time travel creating co-existing alternate timelines is hardly unknown in the world of Trek. But how does that fit in with time travel becoming a consistent part of history, or replacing the timeline, as we’ve seen it do? How does the universe know which effect happens when brazen Starfleet crews traipse into the past?

Read More:

This Ends Part-2 — Go to Part-3



 

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