Time travel plots: With particular reference to Star Trek

Time-travel plots seem to fall into two broad categories. The first is a variation on Greek tragedy, where the very attempt to change past events actually itself causes what it was meant to prevent. (I like to tell my students that Oedipus Rex is actually the first time-travel plot.) The second is not so fatalistic — it turns out that you really can change the past, but normally the way the plot works out is that everyone decides that the best thing is to try to change things back the way they were. (The movie Primer is a bit of an outlier, but I think that it basically falls into the second category, insofar as it’s a cautionary tale about unintended consequences and hence implies that simply leaving well enough alone would have been preferable.)

In the latter kind of plot, the writers have to face a metaphysical decision, namely, whether the time-travellers retain a kind of “pointer” back to their original timeline. If they do, you can see phenomenon like the character starting to “fade out” as the odds of their ultimate existence decrease (perhaps most famously in Back to the Future). If they don’t, then they simply exist in their new time-position alongside everything else, and so there is less room for paradoxes like changing the timeline so that you never actually went back in time in the first place, etc.

This brings us to Star Trek. Generally speaking, it seems that the approach to time travel across the franchise has been in the second category on both counts — you really can change the timeline (though you shouldn’t), and you simply exist in your new time-position without any kind of “pointer” to where you came from. They also take a kind of Hegelian approach to the issue, focusing solely on world-historical events. There is no “butterfly effect” problem to deal with — as long as the broad outlines of past history go the right way, history turns out like it should. You can see this on several Deep Space Nine episodes, such as the one where Sisko stands in for the peaceful protestor who changed everyone’s perceptions of the internment camps for the unemployed and the one where they go back to the Tribble episode of the original series.

And yet sometimes they break these implicit rules, as in the episode where the DS9 crew encounter a human colony made up of their own descendants and face the choice of whether to duplicate the accident that sent them 200 years into the past — or else their descendants wouldn’t exist! As far as I can tell, this isn’t how it should have worked. The versions of themselves who travelled back in time simply existed in that timeline, and they don’t “need” their later counterparts to travel back again.

Of course, I may be attributing too much coherence to their approach to time travel given how massively nonsensical the Next Generation series finale was.

What about you, readers? What do you think about time-travel plots?

18 thoughts on “Time travel plots: With particular reference to Star Trek

  1. Your division seems to leave out stories like The Time Machine or many episodes of Doctor Who, where the time traveller goes either into the future or so far back into the past that they can’t conceivably powerfully influence anything relating to their own lives. These seem to be less about the metaphysics of time travel than a way to bring the protagonists to exciting locales—which I suppose is another broad division you could make in the time travel sub-genre.

  2. (Sorry, didn’t mean to post yet….) What I like about (what I characterize as) the primary Star Trek treatment of time travel is that it is parallel with Kant’s account of freedom — the time travellers intervene into a chain of determination “from elsewhere” and have a real effect. With the “pointer” method, it’s as though there’s a kind of meta-determinism or meta-timeline that keeps everything deterministic even when the rules are apparently violated. Time travel doesn’t really interrupt or disrupt anything, but just produces certain loops in what is ultimately still a unidirectional inescapable causality.

  3. You left out ‘Looper,’ which Shane Carruth collaborated with Rian Johnson but we’ll leave that alone. Let me state ‘The Time Machine,’ ‘Primer’ and ‘Looper’ are the only ‘good’ timetravel stories.

    At heart timetravel stories are basically Hellenistically derivative tragi-comedic theatre tricks. Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Wheeler, Penrose, Hawking, Barbour and a host of other physicists are trapped inside of a concretized block-universe view that is time bi-directional in a reductive calculative manner. This view is wrong. I should say that Schrödinger and Bohr are canonically misinterpreted as Karen Barad makes plain in ‘Meeting the Universe Halfway,’ so I would except them from the previous. Chaos sciences/math, quantum mechanics, quantum chaos and nonequilibrium thermodynamics render classical interpretations inoperative. Time is unidirectional, nonentitative and completely real — not unlike Deleuze’s virtuality. Time as real precludes the supposed bi-directional hypotheses. Where does that leave us? Timetravel is a direct function of time unreality. It’s complementary in the Bohrian sense. If time is real there can be no timetravel in this universe. If time is unreal there can be timetravel but only as a sophist’s mental illusion. You might take issue with all that. I refer you to Lee Smolin’s ‘Time Reborn.’

    There were three ridiculous timetravel episodes and one creative and what I consider to be my fourth ‘good’ timetravel story, ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ by the incomparable Harlan Ellison in ‘Star Trek: The Original Series.’ Of all the innumerable timetravel episodes in ‘ST:TNG’ ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’ was arguably the best of a bad lot. ‘STIV: The Voyage Home’ (1986) was hilariously inane and preposterous. ‘STVII: Generations’ was dumb, dumb, dumb. Need I say more? It was a trite transition piece for that the Next Gen cast takeover of the movie franchise. ‘STVIII: First Contact’ (1996) while intriguing and well-executed was also silly and ridiculous. I hope there is no quarrel with that assessment.

    The JJ Abrams reboot of ‘Star Trek’ the movie franchise is even more RIDICULOUS. It’s pitiful. It’s painful. It’s silly. It’s an absurd caricature of SF to serve only to resuscitate a dead corpse of a show with younger, newer cast members. I think we can safely surmise that timetravel in Trek has been overworked, overdone, overused, and rendered completely clichéd and irritatingly redundant.

    Timetravel does not, nor will ever exist. Things fall down; never up. Time runs forward; never backwards. A good comprehension of Deleuze’s magnum opus ‘Difference and Repetition’ — that means both the philosophy and science/math at the same time — is useful to understand this basic principle.

    Oh, and after reading Barad I am convinced of her agential realism and reformed Bohrian Ontic Indeterminacy. The universe is real, but it is not determinate; it is radically indeterminate. That does not mean you get whatever you want at your whim. It means you get whatever it wants at its whim and you must to deal with that.

  4. Perhaps the connection between the “pointer” and the “fade out” is that individuals just aren’t as historically important as we imagine them to be thus the “fade out” is a representation of the fact that individual agency really isn’t all that important at historical time-scales. This is separate, I think, from the free will vs. determinism issue because it locates the issue at the different level of analysis.

  5. Have you seen Safety Not Guaranteed? It seems to get around your two categories. I don’t want to spoil it, though. I’ve already said too much!

  6. Scott! I totally missed this one. I am really happy you shared. I will see it now. It just might make my expanded list of good timetravel stories. Looks very good. http://www.safetynotguaranteedmovie.com/

    While we’re on this subject. I have three related things to say. For some reason I like both ‘The Time Machine’ movies 1960 & 2002. Rod Taylor and Guy Pearce are men of their times that do creditable work. I have a soft spot in heart for George Pal movies. That crazy movie with Malcolm McDowell as HG Wells and Mary Steenburgen was not bad at all. Unfortunately, Michael Crichton’s ‘Timeline’ was a poor showing. He is great with genetics and medicine but not so much with quantum mechanics. He overdepended upon canonical misinterpretations of infinitesimal quantum effects. They are chaotically unidirectional not bi-directional. Which is even more disappointing because he had a healthy respect for chaos sciences/math. Oh. That was four things!

  7. Kev Mequet have you read Barjavel’s Future Times Three (originally Le Voyageur imprudent)? To me it seemed to go through every permutations of the genre.

  8. It’s not the same kind of time travel, but 2011’s Source Code seemed to step outside this grouping of time travel movies. It ended up basically saying, “Time travel can fix everything!”

  9. Source Code was more a variation of a brain-in-a-vat than a thoroughbred time travel film. I would be more inclined to group it with Being John Malkovich than the examples listed above. From memory wasn’t the past simulated so no true time travel actually took place?

  10. Poul Anderson’s “Time Patrol” series and Kage Baker’s novels of the Company take the second branches in both cases, but add something I think is essential if you’re going to set up a universe where time travel stories are consistent. Both series plant an anchor in the ridiculously distant past, as a guarantee that the institution will exist no matter what changes in relevant world history after that point. Of course, they’re also both about the institutional use of time travel, where the Star Trek universe is only about the institutional use of space travel.

    Both also take the idea that it isn’t the minute details of history, but only the major contours, that must be respected. Kill a butterfly, in other words, and nothing happens. For Anderson, kill one man, and another will take his place. (“Hero” characters are privileged by the pattern that produces them, not by their own unique personalities.) For Baker, the canon of recorded history is not to be altered—but most of history lies in the shadows of the recorded events, and can be manipulated.

    Narratively, both the anchor and the limited flexibility of the timeline allow the author to contain and restrict the tragic elements of a given story. If you really want the cataclysm, there’s ways to get it, but your average story in-world isn’t constantly dangling over the edge. Screw something up badly enough, and the future from that point changes, but not only do you continue; there’s also always a way back because the institution persists up to that point. So often the problem with time travel stories is that the danger is utterly massive, and invoked with no safety net—and then the author has to get the characters out of it in a timely fashion, usually by invoking some deus ex machina, mere unexplained luck, or a last-minute safety net that violates Chekhov’s Gun. None of that is necessary if you write the world correctly, first.

  11. Here’s a general question some of you might be able to help with. When did time travel stories become a thing? I know Adam joked that Oedipus Rex is the first time travel story, and there are certainly many stories from time immemorial about falling asleep or the like and waking up years in the future, but none of these are time travel as we think of it. So, when did time travel stories become popular? Were there any social or scientific achievements that spurred it on as a genre?

  12. My friend Dave argued in Slate awhile back that the first type is more in keeping with physicists’ understanding of time travel and “the grandfather paradox,” as best exemplified in the Terminator movies.

    Monday Movies saw Safety Not Guaranteed. It’s true that the time travel doesn’t function as type one or two, but it also doesn’t function as time travel exactly, more as a marker of faith.

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