Star Trek’s Theories of Time Travel Don’t Line Up

I love Star Trek.

The sense of exploration, facing the unknown, “boldly going where no one has gone before”… To this day it still captures my imagination.

But one of the things I noticed the last time I watched through TNG, was a very interesting piece of trivia. Time travel and temporal mechanics is nothing new to Star Trek or SCI FI in general. The rebooted Star Trek series started off with the timeline being thrown out of whack due to time travel. It set Star Trek on a new course, able to do its own thing separately from the established canon of events.

The theory of time travel that Star Trek says it follows, is completely different than the one it actually follows.

Let me explain:

In quantum mechanics, there’s two different schools of thought as to how time works.

There’s the straight timeline theory. The idea goes that time is forever moving forward. If you were somehow able to go back in time, events would play out exactly as they did, provided that you didn’t do anything to alter the timeline. You don’t give your past self investment advice. You don’t stop 9/11. Everything that happened happens again.

The flip side to this is the belief that time moves more in a circular motion. Events from the future can affect events from the past. Time is more fluid than rigid.

Let me draw you a picture.

Timeline: This looks very similar to the timelines we learned about in history classes. Let’s take my life for example. I was born on January 15, 1992, and since then I have entered the stream of time as we know it. Every year month week day hour minute second of my life has played out as it has, and I am powerless to stop the stream of time.

Let’s say I magically had the power to go back in time. Let’s go back to June 2013 and stop myself from making the biggest mistake of my life. This new timeline that exists would completely erase the initial timeline, but would instead branch off into a new timeline. This is called “an alternate” timeline.

Circular: This theory of quantum mechanics works more in a circular motion. It gives the idea that time works in an endless loop, that history has a tendency of repeating itself, and that time is much more fluid than we think it is.

Here’s where Star Trek gets it confused.

As any Trekkie can tell you, the Federation governs itself with one of their more important ethical principles, “The Prime Directive”. It basically says: We will not interfere with the natural development of other cultures and civilizations. A primitive species is about to be destroyed by a volcanic eruption that the Enterprise could stop. Sorry, prime directive.

As an offshoot of this principle is the “Temporal Prime Directive”. The concept is the same: We will not interfere with the natural development of history. If the crew of the Enterprise finds itself transported hundreds of years in the past, they do everything in their power to not do anything that could damage the timeline. This is of vital importance if you feel strongly that time follows a linear form.

However, as I have already hinted at, the way that events play out in many episodes proves that the writers don’t believe that time works this way. Let me elaborate.

Example 1:

In the movie, First Contact, the Enterprise is caught in the middle of a war with the borg. The borg go back in time to stop First Contact from happening. The Enterprise is forced to follow the borg to stop them from assimilating earth, and restore any damage that the borg had done.

Sounds good so far right?

The crew of the enterprise has obviously studied how first contact happened. A small subplot of the movie is hero worship. The entire crew are star struck at their chance to work alongside the man that invented the warp drive.

Do you think any of their history books noted that they themselves were the ones doing most of the work? Geordi even has a moment where he tells Zefram Cochrane how important he is, and what he accomplishes. Even a statue is erected in his honor. But who accompanies Zefram on his first flight? Geordi and Riker.

If it hadn’t been for the crew of the Enterprise from the future, First Contact would never have happened. The borg interfering is what caused the Enterprise to go back in time, and they practically did all the work to rebuild the Phoenix. Maybe Cochrane’s flight would have been a complete disaster had they not been there?

We don’t know because time doesn’t work on a line.

The ultimate example comes right before the maiden voyage of the Phoenix. Zefram finally snaps and tells Riker that he didn’t set about to bring in a new era of peace for humanity. To open the galaxy to faster than light travel. He did it to make money and retire to an island with babes.

Riker tells Zefram an inspiring quote: “Don’t try to be a great man; just be a man, and let history make its own judgements.”

To which Cochrane responds: “That’s rhetorical nonsense… Who said that? “

And Riker’s response? “You did. Ten years from now.”

Riker quotes Zefram, but Zefram got the quote from Riker.
So who came up with the quote?

Example 2:

In the two part story arc “Time’s Arrow”, the Enterprise is called back to earth when it is discovered that Data’s severed head is in a cavern near San Francisco. Data says that whatever happens is inevitable. “It has occurred. It will occur.” Whatever event from the future that causes him to go back in time and die is both past and future.

While trying to solve a mystery in regards to the ophidians, Data is transported back to 19th century San Francisco, as you may have guessed. The senior officers of the Enterprise decide to go and rescue him.

While deliberating what they must do, Picard goes to see Guinan. Throughout the run of TNG, there’s an odd but obviously powerful relationship between Picard and Guinan. Guinan says it goes “beyond friendship and beyond family”. But it’s never made entirely clear why that is. Picard doesn’t question it, but it isn’t until the next episode when all is revealed. Guinan asks Picard if he remembers when they first met, to which Picard says yes. Guinan replies: “Don’t be so sure.” She tells him that he must go on the away mission or they will have never met.

Sure enough, Picard goes on the mission. Stuff happens and… What do you know, Picard and Guinan meet. She doesn’t know him but can sense something is special. “Do I know you?” She inquires. Picard responds: “Not yet, but you will.”

Events continue to unfold, and Picard and Guinan are trapped together. Guinan laments that she won’t be able to tell Picard about their meeting 500 years in the future. Riker is trying in the present to get Guinan to reveal how to save them. There’s this back and forth between the past and the present. Finally at the end, Guinan says “See you in 500 years,” and Picard responds, “See you in a few minutes.”

This episode epitomizes the idea that time travel isn’t the simple linear progression as we believe. It acts much more in circular fashion than a straight line. Picard and Guinan’s friendship during the first five seasons is strong, but obviously Picard doesn’t know fully why. Guinan doesn’t know Picard when he’s transported 500 years into the past. All is finally revealed in this weird loop how the past affects the future which is obviously affected by the past.

Why is this important?

To quote an amazing article:

Reading science fiction enables us to reflect on the ways people interact with each other, with technology, with our environment. A good science fiction work posits one vision for the future, among countless possibilities, that is built on a foundation of realism. In creating a link between the present and the future, science fiction invites us to consider the complex ways our choices and interactions contribute to generating the future. The collective and individual decisions we make every day—the careers we choose, the ideas we propagate, the ways we educate each other—lead us into the future. Science fiction gives us a venue to consider the futures that we want, and those we don’t, and how our actions contribute to one or the other.”

We should constantly be endeavoring to better understand the world we live in, and contemplating the deeper meaning of the universe. It helps us be better individuals. It helps us “Boldly go where no one has gone before.”

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