The film First Contact marks a decisive turning point in the Star Trek franchise’s approach to time travel. Previously, the emphasis was always on preserving the past, which had led to a glorious future. Even at great cost — as in the classic episode “City on the Edge of Forever” — the timeline that had produced the optimistic semi-utopia of Star Trek had to be restored. That emphasis on future greatness continues even in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, whose somewhat contrived plot centers on the hard lesson that present short-sightedness (such as letting whales go extinct) can affect the future in ways that might not even make sense to us now (such as an alien force that had befriended the whales laying waste to earth when they can’t find them). Even if Voyage Home marks a shift, it’s still within the same basic frame of rehabilitating our own accidental behavior in the past.
The new element in First Contact is the malevolent intention of the Borg in disrupting our timeline. A completely unpredictable force, which at that point in history humanity had had no dealings with, blasts out of the future and takes over — and while Captain Picard et al. are able to set things back on the utopian path, humanity’s great hero, warp-drive inventor Zefrem Cochrane, knows that his discovery and fateful voyage were part of a conflict between two mysterious powers from the future.
In the episodes of Voyager that aired after First Contact, we see the writers develop a device to close the menacing gap they’ve opened up, a kind of temporal police from the distant future (which had appeared as a joke in the DS9 tribble episode). The very distant future, it seems, “has our back” and will intervene to make sure things don’t go so badly awry. And yet in the biggest time-travel plot, which brings the Voyager crew back to the 1990s, we learn that humanity’s tech boom in the late 20th century was the result of interference from future technology — and it’s never clarified whether this is “fixed.” Once again, the future is calling into question what we thought were our own accomplishments.
Hence it’s a natural next step, in writing the prequel series Enterprise, to ask what it would mean if this kind of thing happened all the time, if there were malevolent forces with unclear goals constantly tinkering with the timeline. It wasn’t particularly well done in practice, though it had its moments — above all, the time when Archer and Daniels find themselves stuck in a desolate distant future. The final plot in this questionable arc was a bit contrived, but on the conceptual level, it worked: future aliens have so infected the timeline that the Russian Revolution never happened and thus Hitler was able to control all of Europe and invade the US. And although the main villain is directly allied with the Nazis, supplying them with weapons, they aren’t even the ones who killed Lenin — that just happened by accident from some random prior intervention. It’s not just the utopian future that’s threatened, but our present is even menaced by the threat of the very worst past outcome.
That damage is undone, but the main effect of temporal meddling — a devestating attack on earth by a race that had been misled into thinking humans would exterminate them in the future — is not. Henceforth, the Star Trek universe is scarred by the future. And in the subsequent Star Trek prequel/reboot (preboot?) films, that pattern obviously continues as the “alternate timeline” is opened up by a temporal intervention of incomprehensible destructiveness, one which all but wipes out the ultimate “good aliens,” the Vulcans (aliens that Enterprise had already shown to have not been quite so good when we first met them). In the second preboot film, the Star Trek future happens somewhat as planned, but it’s a negative event (Khan) and it happens much too fast.
How do we account for this shift from a utopian future to a threatening one — indeed, a threatening future that is not safely distant in its own dystopian reality, but that continually invades and disrupts our present? Whether this was the writers’ conscious intention or not, it’s difficult not to read this all as a metaphor for debt, that uncanny visitor from the future that increasingly threatens to destroy our present. The old approach to time travel, where everything gets smoothed out in the end, corresponds to the Fordist state under which Star Trek originally arose. The various prequels (First Contact, Enterprise, the new reboots) try to connect Star Trek more directly to the present, but it is a present that is profoundly changed by the emergence of neoliberal financialization and the retreat of the providential state.
The temporal authorities are no longer omniscient police, but one power among others, which can recruit us to try to stave off the very worst, but which lets the scar of an unprovoked massacre stand uncorrected. Can’t we see here a prophecy of the state’s response to the financial crisis, where “the financial system” was saved from collapse, but the carnage in people’s lost homes and livelihoods was allowed to stand? And in the confusing, unresolved power dynamics of Enterprise‘s “Temporal Cold War,” can’t we see the dilemma of political action today, where all our actions feed into a machine so opaque and complex that it’s hard to know whether anything we do makes a positive difference in the end?
In the end, Enterprise reconnects with the optimistic future of Next Generation, as the series finale presents Riker and Troi interacting with a holodeck program that shows that Archer and company belong to their past. I thought it was a cool idea and an elegant conclusion to the modern TV franchise, but fans of Enterprise were outraged — and from this perspective, it does appear as a contrived and forced ending. Next Generation may have opened up this shift, but the path Enterprise is headed down doesn’t end in Next Generation. Nor does it even end in The Original Series, a fact that the writers seemed to recognize by making the silly prequel episodes of the final season relate primarily to TOS’s most pessimistic moments (the fallout of the Eugenics Wars, the Mirror Universe, Orion “slave girls,” etc.).
After all the incursions from the threatening future, we can’t simply rejoin the old utopia. That’s why I still hold out hope that someone will eventually make the distant future television series proposed by Bryan Singer, where the Federation will have fallen into bad decline and need to regain its former glory. I’ve complained before that Enterprise should have done more about the “transition” from the warlike neoliberal earth we know and hate to the unified, peaceful utopia Star Trek shows us, but under present conditions, maybe that’s impossible. Perhaps the only way to present that kind of transition is by restoring the shattered utopia within the fictional universe itself.