Over at Trekmovie, Anthony Pascale has gotten new Trek movie writer Roberto Orci to admit that the forthcoming feature essentially takes place in an alternate Trek universe. (Their conversation is here, and a diligent follow-up post here checks in with Trek science experts and some real science video.)
The idea is that there's a Romulan named Nero who exists in the 24th century of the Trek universe we know. He goes back in time to alter the past, by killing off James T. Kirk's parents. He is pursued through time by Spock, who apprises his young self of what happened. There's more we don't know yet about this part of it, but Orci says that the premise is that because Kirk's past has been altered, this is an alternative universe according to the Many Worlds theory, which says there are many realities slightly different from each other, perhaps one branching out from every different action, like one for the universe in which Kirk's parents live, and this one, where they didn't. ( So it should probably should be called Many Universes theory, or "many timelines", especially because there is another Many Worlds theory that purports to show that intelligent life is likely on many worlds in our own universe.)
The theory of time travel Orci cites says that when someone goes back in time, he is going to (or is creating) a different universe (or timeline) by that very act. So when Nero goes back in time and changes the past, he creates the alternate universe the new Trek movie is in.
Orci stresses however that the essential characters are the same. (Their motto when writing the script, he says, was "different day, same ship.") He also uses an elaboration of the Many Worlds theory to account for why things are pretty close in this universe to the people and events we know--i.e. the same crew winds up on the Enterprise.
There are a bunch of things to say about this. First, the science. Orci repeatedly references "quantum mechanics" as providing the rationale for this approach, and refers to it repeatedly as the "most successful theory of science" and "the most successful, most tested scientific theory ever..."
Sheila Jones, in her introduction to her book, The Quantum Ten, makes a distinction I think is really worth making. She defines "quantum mechanics" as "the set of rules for how the physics and mathematics are used to make testable predictions," and she agrees that by this definition, these rules of quantum mechanics "have been used to unparalleled fruitfulness since their development in the 1920s."
But, she defines "quantum theory" as "explanation for why the quantum world behaves the way it does; this exercise is still fraught with controversy." She considers "quantum physics" as the umbrella term covering both the how (mechanics) and why (theory.)
So by these definitions I believe what Orci is talking about is quantum theory, not mechanics. Quantum mechanics seems to be entirely mathematical, and its "success" has been in testable results. Indeed, computers, cell phones, etc. would be impossible without successful quantum mechanics.
But quantum theory (which is also highly mathematical) largely can't be tested. It's been frustrating and embarrassing to physicists since the 1920s that they don't really know why quantum mechanics works. They have yet to come up with a "why" that is agreed upon.
Indeed, it's hard not to agree with Jones that the current state of quantum theory is very messy. There are a lot of competing ideas, and a lot of doubts about all of them (including string theory.) And that may be why Andre Bormanis (Star Trek science advisor and producer/writer) says Many Universes is "one way of looking at quantum mechanics but not everyone agrees that it is the right way, certainly it is not the only way." Or why, when The Physics of Star Trek author Lawrence Krauss considers the idea of universes branching off whenever someone goes back in time, he is "not convinced this remains consistent with the laws of physics as we understand them."
So, in terms of science, it's a respectable theory, but the success of quantum mechanics doesn't say much about whether it's true. Until somebody travels through time, it's probably not a testable hypothesis.
But in science fiction and particularly in Trek, the science is about what seems plausible at any given time, and also what sparks the imagination in terms of what future may result if it is true. Most of Star Trek is based on science fiction conventions that it either established or followed, roughly based on scientific and other possibilities.
So let's look at science fiction. Orci cites the TNG episode "Parallels" to establish the Many Universes theory as it relates to quantum physics. Which it does, but I don't see it as establishing a link between Many Universes and time travel, or that time travel places the traveler in an alternate universe forever. The story follows Worf through slightly different Trek universes, but it does get him back to the one he left--the one where he belongs. It is arguable however that every time travel in Star Trek results in a new timeline.
The Back to the Future time theory was discussed, in which Marty McFly has to avoid changing important elements of the past or he'll change the future, which is his present. The "grandfather paradox" is explored: if a time traveler shoots his grandfather as a boy, he'll prevent his own birth, but if he wasn't born, how could he travel through time to shoot his grandfather? I haven't seen another paradox discussed much, that was a key plot point in the most recent feature film version of The Time Machine, only loosely based on the classic H.G. Wells novel. In that movie, the (American) scientist is motivated to complete his time machine when his fiancee is killed by a mugger in Central Park. He goes back in time to prevent the murder, but she immediately is killed in another way. This continues to happen, and his inability to change this aspect of the past is explained to him by someone in the far future, who says that he couldn't change what motivated him to invent the time machine, because the time machine is what made it possible for him to go back to the past and try to change it.
But back to the new Trek movie. The revelation that it takes places in an alternate Trek universe seemed prompted by concerns among fans over canon--differences in the movie from the Trek universe we know. (Devoted readers know we've gone into this in excessive depth and detail before.) But I'm also going to be interested in how this movie deals with what is supposed to be the 24th century (TNG era) of the classic Trek universe. Who is this laughably named Nero anyway, and why doesn't he look like the Romulans we've known? How does he travel through time; how does Spock do it, too? (And since we're talking time travel paradoxes, what's to prevent him from doing it again?)
In moviemaking terms, the alternative universe solves problems with Trek canon in going back to the Trek past, and also allows the 23rd century Enterprise to look different--and probably much fancier and more advanced--than it did on the original series. As Orci and Pascale say, all of this may well be totally irrelevant to the average movie fan, and quite possibly a lot of Star Trek fans. Even fans may be more interested in their favorite characters, which are going to be somewhat different anyway because they're played by different actors. Although Orci justifies character consistency also with quantum theory, he also suggests it depends on "how much you believe in, for lack of a better word, their souls."
Which is a way of saying they are essentially the same, and Star Trek--including the ethos governing the stories--is essentially the same. All this of course remains to be seen... because the movie remains to be seen.
But if this movie follows quantum theory as Orci seems to be interpreting it, hasn't the Abrams Era trapped itself in an alternate Trek universe? So now there will be New Trek, separate from Classic Trek... Remind you of anything?
Back in 1985, Coca Cola saw its market share drop, and decided it was time for a reboot, a reinvention--something new, different and modernized. So the company introduced New Coke, though it wasn't called that at first. It was a new flavor that was supposed to completely replace old Coke. But gradually the public rebelled, and for awhile there was New Coke and what came to be called Coke Classic--the flavor New Coke replaced. When Classic Coke became much more popular, New Coke became Coke II, and pretty much faded from history.
What differences there really were between the two drinks, and even if Classic Coke is exactly the same as it was before the switch, remain debatable. But what's clear is that New Coke didn't triumph enough to have much of a future. Will New Trek?
I must add here a belated fond farewell to Denny Crane and Boston Legal. It was a great series, and although I'm not always a fan of all of William Shatner's activities, I deeply admire his acting work as Denny Crane. Simply as acting I feel it's the best work of his career. I would have loved to see the series continue, just for the writing--and a homemaking with Denny and Alan spin-off could be a lot of fun--but it certainly went out with a lot of class, and both Shatner and Spader did some of their best acting in those final episodes.