Star-Trek’s Love Affair With Time Travel
I recently marathoned the entirety of Star Trek Deep Space 9, partially out of a desire to hold it up against Babylon 5 having learned a few things about the origins of both, and partially because I hadn’t watched so much as an episode in many years, and here’s what I noticed. More to the point, here’s what I remember.
Star Trek likes time travel episodes.
No, you don’t understand, Star Trek really likes time travel. If Star Trek was in a room with Back To The Future you’d be nudging it every few minutes saying “Go ask them out” but you know it never will. Hurled backwards to the modern day or at least close to it, cast forward to witness dire consequences of their actions, people emerging from before to wonder at the future, or after with dire warnings, time is treated like little more than a location, temporal anomalies every few lightyears, it seems like there’s always some way to shoehorn a little time travel in every few episodes.
Here’s a quick conversation on how Star Trek uses time.
It should be noted that time travel does not entirely come from nowhere in Star Trek, or at the very least, the more often it is used the more deeply the notion is cemented as a reality, not entirely outside the bounds of possibility. Use of the gloriously misused terms like “tachyon”, “chroniton particles” and “temporal distortion” are rampant in the same technobabble style that runs like veins through every Star Trek script, but even without them we have some very major players travelling through time on a regular basis.
The Q Continuum are the godlike entities who toy with mortal lives, travelling time and space in the blink of an eye. The Q, John De Lancie, who delights in tormenting the crew of the Enterprise-D, particularly his best friend Picard, has a tendency to drag people through time, showing them glimpses of possibility, and visions of the past to make some grand philosophical point.
Star Fleet of the 29th Century pop up every so often as of Voyager onwards, the future of humanity travelling through time to help enforce a kind of temporal code of conduct, abiding by a revised version of the Prime Directive.
These, and others like the Bajoran Prophets, and the Sphere-Builders, all make time travel seem almost reasonable, and yet still all too common. Perhaps a little more consistency in methods of time travel would make the plot-crutch less objectionable. Time travel in other sci-fi tends to rely on a single method, perhaps no more than three or four in much bigger universes, the Memory Alpha wiki lists no fewer than thirteen different methods by which time travel is achieved.
It bothers me, but at least they maintain a modicum of internal consistency.
Building A History
I can think of no better example in the entire Star Trek catalogue than First Contact. The Warp drive is the backbone of the universe, the advent of the technology is the basis for welcoming species into the galactic community, and First Contact – from the collection of Next Generation films – tells the story of the Enterprise crew helping Zefram Cochrane and his engineers make that first flight in the face of Borg interference. It plunges the crew a critical node of the history of the universe, painting one of the essential figures of the universe’s history as a lazy drunk, and giving us a glimpse of our first stumbling encounter with the Vulcans.
Plunging the cast into that moment makes it more tangible, bringing their history – our future – to the fore. In Deep Space 9 we get a glimpse of the Cardassian occupation of Bejor, intensifying the struggle of the interspecies hatred that pervades the series. Lending this degree of historical context does help to enrich a world that is already so full of detail.
Science Fiction As Cultural Commentary
Moreso in DS9 than elsewhere I have noticed, is time travel making a point about the current state of human affairs. I adored the episodes spent in the minds of early 20th century pulp sci fi writers, Sisko in the mind of Benny Russell, desperately trying to bring the world of Deep Space 9 to life with a “coloured space station captain”, which is a hard cut into the racist backdrop of the early part of the century, and the racism that still pervaded science fiction, and still does to an ever decreasing degree. The episode “Past Tense” addressed economic tension, a grim vision of the near future that’s looking worrying real.
These are just some of my favourite examples, there are others, but I don’t want to talk about the damn whale-song-probe.
The issue I find with episodes along these lines is that the social commentary that has been rife in sci-fi since before even the Canals of Mars is made too obvious. That’s not to say that it removes all artistic merit, but the strength of science fiction has always been to review ourselves through an alien lens, to make lessons palatable to the point where we don’t even know we’re learning them. The Borg are considered a representation of communism and the lack of individualism, the Romulans and Vulcans have some deep cold-war undertones of their own, being unscrupulous, a divided people.
Is it better to dress up moral lesson through analogy and metaphor? To sugar coat with prosthetics and special effects what we can so easily lay bare in drama and historical context? I think that within the confines of Star Trek it makes for a rather dramatic difference in tone.
I should have probably led with the words “I don’t like time-travel”! It’s either a sloppy crutch to put everything back to square one, a logical tightrope no one can walk properly, or a complete shambles.
Does Star Trek use it well? Not particularly, I find a lot of the episodes in which time travelling is an essential plot component take me a long way out of the world I was occupying, shining a bright light on the fact that I am watching television instead of being granted a window into a world. I’d be a great deal more forgiving, but they do it so often I find it hard to immerse myself as deeply as I’d like.
Babylon 5 uses time travel and barely scrapes by with an acceptable use, partially because we’re never plunged all the way back to reality, we never get close (apart from Garibaldi’s Daffy Duck poster). Stargate SG-1 was always a little kitsch about things but their episode in the 1960’s was still excessive. Heroes character Hiro Nakamura gets a little too sloppy with time on a regular basis, and the less said about The Flash the better.
Time is such a tricky thing to mess with, and thinking about it too deeply could cause serious medical issues (if existentialism or insignificance persists, consult your nearest hobby or games retailer), but I find the Star Trek love affair with time travel baffling and all too pervasive. I have plenty of nice things to say about Star Trek. This isn’t one of them.