Be aware, you are about to experience some full-frontal nerdity if you keep reading. I have a theory regarding the often contradictory (and perhaps overdone) use of time travel in the Star Trek narrative. This theory covers all six shows (yes, I in fact count the Animated Series (TAS), and even Voyager (VOY) ) and the new timeline which I think was masterfully created in the 2009 film Star Trek.
For a while now I have been involved in a play-by-email role-playing game set a few years after the Dominion War in the Prime Trek universe. In case you aren’t familiar with that term, the script for the 2009 film used it to designate the continuing narrative which started with the Original Series (TOS) included all the series through Enterprise (ENT), and the first ten films. Therefore, Leonard Nimoy’s character was referred to as “Spock Prime” being from the original timeline. Anyway, the RPG has been a lot of fun (shout out to Steven and the gang) and is really more a form of collaborative writing than rolling dice. My only complaint is I don’t always have the time to dedicate to the stories that they deserve, but while sitting in the middle of the desert with my Firm watching people steal porta-johns (true story), I will often shake my head in disbelief and escape internally to thinking about fiction that needs writing, including the Game. This particular story involves the political and scientific dealings with the planet that houses the Guardian of Forever, made famous in what is widely regarded as the best of TOS, the episode “City on the Edge of Forever.” So, the different examples of time travel and methods thereof in Trek have been on my mind as I collaborate with fellow fans to tell this story. What I have realized is the descriptions and uses seen in the original episode with The Guardian do not make sense unless they are incomplete.
I am well aware of the controversy surrounding the great Harlan Ellison’s original version and what made it to TV under the hand of the great Gene Roddenberry. However, in this discussion, I plan to use only what has appeared on screen as official or “canon” information. You will see that some of Ellison’s original intention made it into the aired version, though changes left some inconsistency. Yes, I know the real world storytelling reasons behind problems I will point out, but I am arguing in universe.
Quick diversion: Once upon a time fans of a particular thing loved that thing and would vehemently defend it even in the evidence of narrative error. In the 70s and 80s there was a magazine called “Trek Magazine” (I know, not very original) dedicated to pointing out how inconsistencies in Trek episodes were not in fact inconsistencies at all, and providing explanation. Marvel Comics for years gave out the “No-Prize;” not for pointing out a mistake in a comic, but for pointing it out and explaining why it wasn’t really. Look, when you have literally hundreds of contributors to a narrative over decades things are going to slip through the cracks. We as fans once accepted that and rolled with it, helping the Powers That Be out when necessary. Now it seems fandom exists to decry the things it loves. Maybe it’s the internet’s fault, maybe it’s because fans hold things in higher regard than entertainment is worthy of, I don’t know. I’ve been guilty of some of this bashing myself. Could be time to stop. Or, if you didn’t like something, STOP WATCHING IT.
Back to my original point: I wish to make two assertions. One, there is in fact NO Prime timeline in Star Trek. Rather the shows are scattered about similar, even interactive timelines and causality chains created when characters from one change what’s in another. Two, the timelines of Trek are similar and linked because of a central hub to their existence: The Guardian of Forever. It is not just a lumpy doughnut you can time travel with.
Trek 2009 illustrates the first point very well. When something alters the existent chain of events that defines a timeline, the timeline does not change, but rather a new divergent path is created. I am not arguing a la Schrödinger that every decision creates a new timeline, but rather only when one is externally altered. Evidence of these parallel timelines all already well established in Trek: the Mirror Universe being the most obvious. The sideways universe in Voyager’s “Year of Hell” would be another, or the timeline shown in the final VOY episode where it took them 16 years to get home. I think however there are more, a lot more and indeed from our perspective as outside observer, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) takes place over at least three different timelines, possibly more. TOS does not take place in the same timeline as VOY or Deep Space Nine (DS9), and perhaps not even in the same timeline as The Wrath of Khan.
A very similar set of events to the TOS we observed did precede those stories, but not the exact narrative because of altered histories. I would argue TOS, which clearly puts The Eugenics Wars in the 1990s is somehow separate from the Khan in TWOK claiming he was on Earth “two hundred years ago.” If we assume TOS takes place in the 2260s (and honestly, most Trek dates are conjectures based on the year 2363 given by Data in the first season of TNG) then TWOK is in the 2270s or 2280s (Kirk mentions a man he hasn’t seen in 15 years). Two hundred years earlier puts Khan firmly in the mid to late 21st Century. Sure, figure of speech, etc., but Khan is brilliant and dramatic. He might use hyperbole, but I doubt he would undercut. However, we see the VOY cast specifically go to 1996…and there is no devastating Eugenics War. In DS9 we see them visit the 2020s and an America clearly heading toward trouble… like the trouble First Contact shows us the world recovering from in 2063. World War Three, presumably Colonel Green’s war which ENT would indicate includes ideas of genetic purity.
Now, look at TNG episode “Parallels” which actively shows Worf bouncing between similar yet different universes. Some are so similar as to escape basic notice. Some are variations so different as to drastically alter known history. One of Worf’s main indicators (and the audience for that matter) of his dislocation is the shield hanging on the wall in his quarters. Remember, though Worf passed through the quantum fissure on the shuttle on his way back to the Enterprise, he doesn’t start jumping realities until he is in proximity to Geordie’s VISOR. Therefore, the Enterprise on which the episode begins is this Worf’s original ship. When he enters the party in his quarters, there is a round shield hanging to the left of the doorway, and it and other decorations change as the shifting begins. At the end of the episode, Worf returns—supposedly where he should be—to his quarters. The shield is not there. We the observer are not in the universe we started in.
TNG shifts again at least once. In the aforementioned First Contact the Enterprise under Picard goes back and assists Zephram Cochrane against the Borg and to make the first warp flight. As we will see in ENT this has lasting effects when a chunk of Borg sphere is found a century later in Antarctica. I propose First Contact creates an entirely new version of the 22nd Century. Indeed, perhaps this is why the Temporal Cold War has a front here, why the NX-01 seems to be so much more advanced than it should be, and indeed why in Trek 2009 the Kelvin—before any changes have been made by Nero—has a crew of 800. The opening scene is not in fact in the TOS timeline but a version changed by the Enterprise-E’s presence in 2063. Multitudes of timelines overlayed and interacting, but on some level distinct, yet close enough to provide us a fairly coherent, if not perfect narrative. Something has to link all of this together. The chains of events, emergent personalities (look at the success of Kirk in ANY of these timelines), are linked somewhere. Something is affecting these timelines to make sure they stay on a basic track. Something makes sure the eddies and flow of time bring Kirk and Spock to the right place in the 1930s to find McCoy. Something makes sure the Enterprise happens to intercept and finally assist Gary Seven in the destruction of a warhead. Something makes sure 22nd Century Earth gets a boost of future tech before “Future Guy” starts giving tech to the Suliban. Something makes sure Picard will be ready to fight an outbreak of anti-time, that Sisko will be drawn to the wormhole, and that old Spock will be in a cave on Delta Vega to keep yet another version of Kirk on track. Either the entire universe(s) is based on ridiculous coincidence or time in the Star Trek narrative has a protector, a guide, a…Guardian.
The very title “Guardian of Forever” tells us it is not just a lazy gate waiting five billion years for someone to step through (“since before your sun burned hot in space…”); rather we have evidence something is holding the Treks together and there are only a few other candidates for doing so. Q? Perhaps, but VOY in their Q stories show us the fallibility of that being/race. I have always kind of held out that Q was in fact the eventual evolutionary fate of the Human race, but either way we see a limited pervasiveness and interest from the Q in Federation affairs, basically the humans. Whatever is making the Trek universe tick covers all of existence and not just Q’s pet Picard. The Preservers? We know they have been around a while, and may even be the humanoid progenitors of life in the Alpha Quadrant as discovered in the TNG episode “The Chase.” The however seem far more likely to affect things on a temporal scale (get on our ship, we are taking you somewhere safe so you don’t get wiped out). Same goes for Gary Seven’s bosses. Far too grounded by recruiting locals from a time for a time…though there may be no reason to think there isn’t a connection.
Further, look at the incongruities we see in the episode. The Guardian claims no builders (I am my own ending, my own beginning). Yet, later it tells Kirk and Spock it cannot change the speed at which it shows time because of how it was made. This really just gives it an excuse to put Kirk where it wants to: Long enough before McCoy to fall in love with Edith Keeler. That’s right, the Guardian is not just letting them fix time, it’s grooming James Kirk. It is here we see Kirk cast aside the woman he loves for a greater good. This defines who Jim Kirk is, and continues to for decades. The Guardian needs Kirk a certain way. The Guardian admits to Spock’s description that it is a portal to other times and dimensions. This is why Spock, falling into the same Black Hole in 2383 doesn’t fall back as far as Nero; he won’t be able to stop the Narada on his own, or even help the Kelvin stop it. The Guardian ensures he will be in Kirk’s life at the right moment to shape the Kirk in this new variant timeline. It remains unchanged as the universe seemingly shifts around it after McCoy’s alterations of history. I submit that the Guardian is the central point around which all possible Trek timelines and dimensions flow, and it takes active interest in keeping these universes in a particular shape. Not always exactly the same, but connected and similar, perhaps as support structures within the quantum foam to keep a particular bubble, or cluster of bubbles, from popping. The Guardian of Forever is the Star Trek universe.
Yes, outside actors will change things (Nero, Future Guy on ENT) but in the end, the Guardian will make sure the universe is. The Guardian abides to coin a phrase.
So, next time you’re getting caught up on some Trek, wondering why the Enterprise just to happens to end up in the 20th Century:
Or Picard happens to be at the center of a chronal paradox:
Or Janeway happens to be able to tweak a divergent timeline out of existence by the end of the season:
Or Sisko happens to have become commander of the station nearest the beings who may have created him:
Or Archer happens to run into a race from the 24th Century he should know nothing about:
...remember it is no coincidence. The Guardian is watching.
All images property of Paramount or CBS. Images borrowed from the awesome http://www.trekcore.com/
All images property of Paramount or CBS. Images borrowed from the awesome http://www.trekcore.com/