Published Jul 3, 2023
The Awesome Ways Star Trek Navigated Time Travel
From whales to Tribbles, time travel is always an adventure.
By Jordan Hoffman
There are few things more fun to think about than time travel. Imagine visiting ancient Greece or the Roaring Twenties!
The probability of us ever experiencing time travel as depicted in sci-fi is not very likely. (However, if you get to the nitty gritty of relativity, there is a microscopic amount of time dilation for anything in motion as compared to something at rest; so each time you are on a bus, you are blazing a science-fiction path compared to those still at the station. Heavy!)
But out in the far reaches of the galaxy (and the imagination of Star Trek's writers) time travel is a not uncommon phenomenon. Here are five of the many awesome ways in which Star Trek has navigated time travel.
How to extend the greatest science-fiction franchise while also retaining the characters that everyone knows and loves? Circle back and start again, but bring the continuity with you.
The three Kelvin Universe films take place in a parallel existence, but it is a continuity created by time travel. Nero's Borg-enhanced mining ship Narada went from our Universe through a red matter created black hole (it can happen!) and blew up the U.S.S. Kelvin. Every single change thereafter (even design tweaks to uniforms) can easily be explained away because of this fork in the timestream.
It was a brilliant idea, and it also meant we got to see Old Spock (who followed Nero) and Young Spock face-to-face. And quite frankly I get a little teary just thinking about it, even now (or was it yesterday?).
Our Ferengi friends Quark, Rom, and Nog get into a little fourth-dimensional flummox in this extremely clever Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode. A trip to Earth goes haywire (thanks to a little benign smuggling) and the trio ends up back in recent history — Roswell, 1947. So those conspiracy rumors are true, and space aliens really did land in New Mexico. Of course, they were our aliens.
It's mostly a humorous conceit, but like everything on Deep Space Nine, there's a little more depth to it. Watching our good guys get treated like bad guys by people that somewhat reflect “us” (that is, a little more closer to our reality than the orbit of Bajor) is an opportunity for us to reflect on our points of view and prejudices.
The DS9 gang has to travel back to a very important spot in history — the classic “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode. It's brilliant because it plays with the differences in The Original Series and later iterations of Star Trek (don't ask Worf about those ridges), but also plays with fiction vs. reality. (OurDS9 pals know “the stories,” too.)
When you've got the greatest fans in the galaxy, you've got to do something a little extra than mere “fan service.” This episode, a deep soak in Star Trek lore, is exciting for a number of reasons, but the extra flavor is discovering that our Deep Space 9 crew are TOS fans, too. Captain Sisko is practically ecstatic when he gets a chance to meet Captain Kirk, and Dax gets the vapors after scoping out sexy Spock. We know how they feel!
“He knows, doctor. He knows.”
There is no more solemn line in all of Star Trek— and it gets me every time. Dr. McCoy accidentally gets lost in the past (thanks to a glowing, donut-shaped portal with a booming voice) and Kirk and Spock must follow. While Spock works to make instruments out of 1930s-era technology, Kirk ends up... in a love story?
Approaching world events from a position of omniscience can be a splash of cold water. We all want peace, but the butterfly effect of one peace activist could, without her ever knowing (or certainly wanting), lead to a brutal genocide. Sometimes the bravest action to take is no action at all. So when Kirk allows the love of his life to die in an accident (as what “ought” to happen), it is a battle between his heart and head more explosive than with any photon torpedo.
It wasn't the first time that Star Trek visited “us” (the episode “Assignment: Earth” in the late 1960s had already done this trick), but a big-budget movie version of the 1980s Enterprise having adventures in San Francisco was also something of a victory lap for fans. The franchise had lasted 20 years, so much so that we've seen it “grow up.”
From Scotty leaking the formula to transparent aluminum to Kirk hurling a “double dumbass on you,” the fish-out-of-water aspects of The Voyage Home are, bar none, the best comedy in all of Star Trek lore. And speaking of fish and water, humpback whales George and Gracie add an ecological aspect that is, unfortunately, even more relevant today.
That's only five lights! There are many more examples in our expanding Star Trek universe. Let me know which of your favorites I left out. Maybe I'll go back in time and add them.
This article was originally published on February 1, 2019.