“All Our Yesterdays”: Days of Star Trek past

The penultimate episode of the original Star Trek series (TOS), “All Our Yesterdays,” has an interesting premise: an alien race faces certain destruction as their sun goes supernova, and instead of escaping into space, they use time travel to escape into their own history. On some level, it’s a parable of the original series itself, which was ostensibly exploring the depths of space, but found various ways to explore humanity’s past (including in some cases the writers’ own present). Viewed from our present perspective, though, it seems more a parable of the franchise as a whole, a franchise that keeps putting off its own demise by escaping into the past of the franchise itself.

The series has always made use of time travel plots, as the crew of every Star Trek vessel has found itself in some past earth era. Being a science fiction franchise, it also tries to create its own prehistory to connect it to the viewers’ world. The original series was ambiguous in its claims (whether purposefully, negligently, or some combination of the two) — if you want to disappear down a black hole of irrelevance, read online discussions of the dates of the Eugenics Wars (ostensibly taking place in the 1990s), World War III, and Colonel Green’s genocide. Up through Voyager, this playful or negligent attitude continued. A Deep Space 9 episode, for instance, contradicted TOS about the date of the Eugenics Wars (ostensibly by mistake), and a Voyager time-travel plot sent the crew back to the 90s where there was no sign of any Eugenics Wars raging (aside from a playful reference in the form of a small model of Khan’s vessel, the Botany Bay, on a character’s desk).

First Contact seemed to commit the franchise to at least one date: April 4, 2063, when Zefrem Cochrane makes the first successful warp-speed flight, attracting the attention of the Vulcans (a date which I have programmed into my Google Calendar just to be safe). Yet it does so by flagrantly violating previous canon about Cochrane’s career as established in the TOS episode “Metamorphosis.” So far, so talmudic.

The film itself seems to imply that everything is operating under the “world-historical event” theory of time travel: as long as the most important things happen, we’re all good, even if the details change. I don’t think the writers mean to make a claim that First Contact happened because the Borg travelled back in time and prompted Picard et al. to follow them and make sure things went on schedule. Seven of Nine implies that there’s a “predestination paradox” at work in a Voyager episode, but that’s from the Borg’s perspective — surely, surely we’re not to believe that First Contact is giving us a monstrous vision of the Star Trek universe travelling back in time to effectively cause itself, right?

With Enterprise, it seems that we settle on exactly that monstrosity. The First Contact time paradox effectively encloses the Star Trek universe into a recursive time-travel bubble — and what’s more, the overarching plot of the first two seasons is dominated by meddlers from the distant future (who themselves follow up on the “time police” who make an initial satirical appearance in Deep Space 9 and are then taken much more seriously in Voyager). As stupid as the Temporal Cold War plot is, it does at least release Enterprise from the grips of total historical determinism, opening up the space for the remarkable Xindi story arc in the third season, which I think is one of the most well-done sustained plot arcs in the whole franchise’s history.

Yet once that story is tied off and the Temporal Cold War is abruptly ended, Enterprise has nothing to do but escape into the interstices of the Star Trek universe, with a bunch of silly prequel episodes (and with the Mirror Universe sequence, even a combination sequel and prequel to different TOS episodes), retcons, and superficial “fan service” gags. The series itself even ends with the Next Generation crew retreating into the past that Enterprise represents for them, completing the circle.

And when it comes time to reboot, what do we do? Do we start with a clean slate? By no means — it has to be both a prequel and a time-travel plot, creating an alternate timeline that will be sure not to disturb the self-referential bubble of the old continuity, a bubble within a bubble.

As I was watching “All Our Yesterdays,” a thought occurred to me: why don’t the time travellers try to accelerate technological advancement in the past so that their future selves will be able to escape? Why not at least send back a warning party so that they can get started building a space ship? Why dutifully hide in the past, disturbing nothing? Was the past really so great and unsurpassable? Have they really reached their final horizon, so that nothing remains but to return again and again in an infinite loop? Perhaps they did consider it, but it appears they found it too stressful, too frightening, to risk reaching out to the outside world, to risk having some impact on real history. Better to stay within the little bubble they’ve created, floating out in space, affecting nothing and no one.

3 thoughts on ““All Our Yesterdays”: Days of Star Trek past

  1. Perhaps there’s also larger issues going on with these kinds of modern mythologies (X-men, Spiderman, Superman, Star Wars, Doctor Who, &c) having to be rebooted and rewritten just as our generation hits our own mile markers and the new one comes along?

    Brad Bassler makes a similar point about Arendt’s “celebration of natality” in The Pace of Modernity: “In each new generation human subjects cede their places to new and younger human subjects, and these new subjects guarantee the replenishment of human agency” (66). This replenishment has a tempo to it, as the new generation overtakes the older generation, and since its views are not necessarily those of the older generation, some “outsider” position is required if there’s to be any sense or perspective on the ‘progress’ humans make. Bassler makes the point that Arendt’s celebration of natality “is not specifically invested in a notion of modern technological progress, about which Arendt remains understandably dubious. Rather, it finds itself to be a limiting biological condition on the philosophical notion of any acceptable account of the willing faculty at all” (66). This “natural limit for the extension of the subject as agent” given by the larger tempo of successive instances of new overtaking old in the context of contemporary reboots/retcons suggests that we have to “reset” these stories as a way of making them *seem* ‘fresh’ or ‘engaging’ to the new/next generation who will be exercising their own fictive imaginations within the settings of those myths—if the model of mythological storycrafting is creating something new out of something old already existing, and doing so in a language that ‘speaks to both’ or finds some ideal communication between old and new. The talmudic reading fits what’s happening to all of the reboots of the mass mythological material in comics and cartoons, and perhaps the pace of rewriting our past on the basis of the concerns of this present looking drearily into the future’s deflection away from the past’s dreams has reached that point where we just can’t ignore how many new creation stories are needed to obscure how little we remember the details of our own earliest creation stories—or we can be really cynical and say that’s it all about monetizing even more what were themselves monetized myths. I mean, take Transformers. It’s not like Bay ruined them with his movies. Those movies are doing exactly what the cartoons and comics were meant all along to do, and in that sense are spiritually consistent with the economic incentive to sell things.

    There is, though, something different about how Star Trek uses the time travel narrative to try and rewrite itself within canonical frameworks, so that it’s all the same story, whereas other reboots, such as the -man reboots (and maybe this is where the larger issues are really all grounded anyway, that we’re having to reboot/retcon/reset what it means to be a -man), are more talmudic alterations than fundamentalist harmonizations.

    But your conclusion is fascinating in how you suggest what we’re trying to do with our own consumption of reboots is to relive the past without disturbing it, upon pain of paradox. Did you ever play the Metal Gear Solid games? There you don’t just listen or watch the retcon, but play it and try not to break it via paradoxes. The bubble becomes a place to retreat, isolate, withdraw into a familiar story from one’s childhood, full of dreams and expectations of what “the future”—or maybe, adulthood?—is like, but with the imaginative retelling needed to maintain the self-deception of any life within a fantasy. Because if we start accepting that ideas have consequences, and some of those ideas are the redefinition of future histories, we might have to “reach out” and affect and be affected.

    I think this kind of insight works well with your earlier insight about how nothing within ST canon has come after the events of the Dominion War, as seen in DS9. DS9 was all about ruining and problematizing the easy fantasies of Roddenberry’s myth, by presenting the common philosophical argument that underneath the illusion of safety or security is an even more insecure and lawless shadow (and actively shading) group/conspiracy that “really” runs things. The Tal Shiar, the Obsidian Order, Section 31, even the Founders themselves are all ‘protecting’ their own through a particular kind of ‘noble lie’, all lies modeled on the show’s own noble lie about how things got better to become the universe of the original Star Trek fantasy. Bashir asks Sisko, still with hair, at the end of the two-parter “Past Tense” after messing up and then barely surviving the Bell Riots, “How could they let things get so bad?” and Sisko just replies, “That’s a good question. I wish I had an answer.” —except he’s holding in his hand the historical accounts of what did happen and he could just look it up… so perhaps this show’s relationship to its own history is quite muddled already.

    Once within canon this noble lie was exposed, there really couldn’t be anything else to say for the fan, who wants only to live in the paradise. After the show reveals the extent of Eddington’s moral ambiguity and Sisko going Ahab for him, making a really good case for the legitimacy within the Federation’s moral framework of the Maquis setting themselves apart from the Federation (secession is applying the Prime Directive to one’s self, anyway!), it would have taken a really strong imagination to think about how the Federation becomes new wine fermenting in new skins.

    So then we’re left with the withdrawal into nostalgia (for nostalgia?), only this time we have much more spectacular explosions and ships. Diversions from the conceptual problems the myths cannot yet overcome.

  2. But there are events post-Dominion Wars in the Star Trek contuinity! On the literal level, there’s Janeway’s various compromises, including even a temporary alliance with the Borg (and continual use of Borg technology). She also continually violates the Temporal Prime Directive, to the point where she’s singled out as the worst offender. And in Enterprise, the “necessary evil” atmosphere is pervasive — there’s the MACO’s, the trial against Archer for his actions in the Xindi offensive, and the beginnings of something like Section 31. That “darker” approach continues in the reboots (which draw most from Enterprise in their approach to the franchise). People blame the reboots for betraying the “spirit of Star Trek,” but maybe the much-loved DS9 already made the decisive break (and interestingly, DS9 was the most anxious out of any of the TV series to prove its continuity with the broader franchise, perhaps realizing how distant it was from the spirit)….

  3. Actually, the dynamic that Charles R. points out is what makes the distant future series idea (“Federation”) seem compelling to me — the Federation has fallen into decadence, and it’s time to figure out how to get back to the roots.

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