Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Time Travel and Its Implications

Any story that depends on time travel has some built- in wonder, lots of wonderful opportunities, and a lot of pitfalls and potential headaches. But this time there’s also an important outcome outside the story itself.

Villains who travel back through time to alter the past and hence the future, present a number of problems, especially when they fail. The Borg in First Contact failed, for example, but it’s not clear what prevented them from trying it again—and again and again. This problem is solved in this movie because it’s a single ship and a single villain, and neither survives. (Spock’s advanced 24th century ship doesn’t survive, either—but Spock Prime does. With his knowledge, the Federation could be centuries ahead of their competitors.)

Plus the effects of time travel can be complicated and hard to keep straight. It may take repeat viewings to sort out just what legitimately could have been changed in the Star Trek GR universe by the incursions from the future that wound up establishing Star Trek JJA.

But that was the outcome: the end of Star Trek GR and the beginning of Star Trek JJA.

For those who saw the movie but were confused about this, here’s how I understand it: a 24th century Romulan mining ship comes back in time to the 23rd century in search of Spock, but they come not to praise him, but to bury him. Or at least to force him to witness the destruction of his home planet of Vulcan, as revenge for his inability to stop the destruction of Romulus and the villain’s family.

24th century Spock is also pulled into the past, where the Romulans have already altered history by killing Kirk’s father. The destruction of Vulcan, the death of Spock’s mother, and other events further diverge from the conditions that must exist for the Star Trek stories we know to take place.

Even when the villain is defeated, this alternate timeline remains—apparently shocking some moviegoers who expected a characteristic reset button return to “normal.” But Spock Prime states it clearly: things will not be what they once were going to be.

There’s a certain elegance in beginning the Abrams era with an alternate timeline. There’s the built-in advantage of globally known iconic characters, revisited, revived and revised. But now their future is unknown, their adventures new. The constraints of a story universe filled with people, places, events and previous stories are avoided.

But Star Trek GR is honored in the sense that it isn’t just ignored. A connection is made—personified by Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime—that acknowledges Star Trek GR, even making it integral to the plot. It also doesn’t completely negate the timeline of Star Trek GR. But this is a new timeline: Star Trek JJA, and this is where the action is going to be.

If Star Trek JJA doesn’t go all the Oedipal way by actually killing the father, it does make the death of the father definite. The dedication of the movie—coming at the end of the long end-credit sequence, instead of at the beginning—to Gene and Majel Roddenberry, was more like a tombstone: he’s dead, Jim.

Was this the only way to make new Star Trek stories? No--there's the 25th century still open, for example, as well as the post-Nemesis 24th. Was this the only way to revisit the 23rd century--did they have to destroy Vulcan, etc.? No, not really. What they should have done will doubtless be debated for awhile. But what they have done has consequences.

Clearly there are now events that happened in original series television episodes and the movies—beginning with the very first pilot episode, and including the Spock trilogy that began with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan—that cannot happen in the Star Trek JJA timeline. Spock’s mother cannot beg him to save his father’s life, because she was killed, etc. All of this also calls into question the characters and events of Star Trek GR’s 24th century.

Let’s admit that there are inconsistencies in Star Trek GR, even within the original series, but certainly in the Berman era. An earlier time travel movie, Star Trek: First Contact, altered or at least stretched “facts” about Zephran Cochrane and other aspects of the GR universe past, as well as arguably altering the time line itself. Then there are elements of the prequel series Enterprise that trouble some, and let’s face it, there are 24th century stories that some wouldn’t mind erasing.

Ultimately what we’ve got are stories. They may now occur in two separate Star Trek story universes, but they rise or fall on what they are as stories.

New feature films will be in the Star Trek JJA universe. But the Star Trek GR universe still exists, in all those hours and pages. Star Trek GR can still generate new stories, though chances are they will be limited to novels, independent films and fan fictions. The canon of Star Trek GR ends with “Nemesis.” What happens next in that story universe is up to other imaginations, and those stories are all equal: they rise or fall on their own merits.

3 comments:

Alan David Doane said...

"The canon of Star Trek GR ends with 'Nemesis.'"

Not so, since the authorized (and therefore canonical) prequel to the new movie has quite a bit of information about what happened to many of the TNG characters after Nemesis, including many major, life-changing (or -restoring, in one case) revelations.

Captain Future said...

Well, I don't recall comics being canon before. Besides, I don't see how the new regime has any rights over canon for anything but Star Trek JJA. If that makes me a heretic, make it so.

abs said...

Unlikely to happen, but who is to say that after seeing what happened to Vulcan, Spock junior decides to to do a spot of time travel and go back to the point where Nero appears and stop his actions. Anything can happen with time travel!

There is an alternate timeline earth somewhere where David Hasselhoff is president of the world.