Alternate, alternate, and how do I get there from here?

Abstract: The author contends, at great length, that alternate time lines have always been a part of Star Trek. Any perception that time lines could be obliterated was a misunderstanding on the part of characters and viewers caused by the story telling needs of the writers. (± 3,000 words)

Ooba dooba, over at TrekWeb there’s a simmering foldorol about the original Star Trek time line and its existential relationship with the new time line established by this year’s movie. In broad outlines, does the new time line obliterate the original one? (There are various terms: old/new, original/alternate, Shatnerverse/Abramsverse, Prime/New, Prime/Alternate, and on and on. I’m just going to say original and new for now. Incidentally, I’m aware that the term ‘Shatnerverse’ is more narrowly applied to the Star Trek stories written by William Shatner.)

So. Has the new time line obliterated the original one? In a certain, very important sense, I think the answer is “probably.” It seems to me the likelihood of any future movies being set in the original time line is vanishingly small. It also seems unlikely that any potential future TV series will be set in the original time line. I think that the owners of Star Trek will want to direct the production costs for any new movie or TV series toward a proven product line, and right now the new time line is successful and the original time line isn’t. At least not as regards movies and TV.

But, more interesting to me is this question: has, within the context of the story, the new time line as obliterated the original time line? And what could that possbily mean for a fictional place? Some fans say, yes, absolutely, the Prime time line is gone, baby, gone, and that’s the way time travel works in Star Trek. Changes to events in the past mean the characters’ present becomes something unrecognizable. Exhibit A: “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

The production team of the new movie have apparently gone on record asserting that the original time line is still in place. This indicates that the first set of fans is mistaken about something more fundamental than a failure to “suspend disbelief and trust the storyteller.”

A second set of fans says, look, obviously the original time line is still out there, they’re still publishing novels and comic books in it. Perhaps more powerfully, the online game published a graphic approved by Paramount showing events in the original time line, including events subsequent to the departure of Nero. At this point the debate can break down into highly nuanced discussions about what it means to be cannon. Over in the Star Wars fanbase, there’s a hierarchy of cannon which could be applied to Star Trek. I’m not going to do all that homework.

And anyway consider Exhibit B: “Parallels.”

What I’m interested in is the kind of story mechanics involved in an effort to reconcile these differences. I think it’s possible, but it relies on fan speculation and the building of a tower of references.

So, let’s assume that what we’ve seen is right, that both Exhibit A and Exhibit B show how reality works for Star Trek. In the one case, a change in the time line caused Our Heroes to be cast up on the shores of reality with no home, and, for that matter, no way to get there even if they had one. In the other case, Our Heroes encounter a plethora of copies of themselves, more or less, with minor-to-major differences amongst them. Though we really only have to look at the fact that the Mirror Universe is out there.

I don’t know what “out there” means. If space-time is a 4 dimensional construct, and there are alternate versions then they must be “stacked,” if you will, in some construct of at least 5 dimensions. Seems I’ve heard that guy on Nova talk about super string theory needing 11 dimensions. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, we’re talking about fiction here. So imagine each of these alternate realities occupying its own book in a library. Chuck Jones did a cartoon about it once. Characters can visit one another’s books. Also, I’ve seen some discussion in the context of Star Trek about the differences between alternate time lines, alternate realities, alternate universes, and alternate dimensions. I suppose there might be differences, but I’m not convinced there’s a real difference between any of these distinctions. So I’m not going to bother with them.

Back to the issue at hand. We’ve seen both versions of how the world works for Our Heroes; as fans we’ve seen it. But, here the thing, we’ve only seen it as Our Heroes have seen it, and they’ve only seen it as the writers have let them see it. So, the writers have been having Our Heroes perceive time travel in a certain way… in a linear way dependent upon their own narrative. “I’m Commander Riker of the Federation Starship Enterprise, and yesterday was the last day I shaved.” Each character–no matter how mind-bendingly complex the time travel story is, no matter how odd the changes are, no matter how difficult or easy it is to correct the time line subsequent to those changes–each character only perceives those changes as a sequence of events that take place one after the other. Even Archer’s experience, whatever that ultimately was, during the Temporal Cold War story took place as a series of events with a beginning, a whole lotta middle, and an end.

And we, as viewers, followed that story. All we, as viewers, ‘know’ about how the world works in Star Trek is what we’ve seen. Which is to say what we’ve been told through the beliefs and actions of Our Heroes by the writers. And there have been a lot of writers, each of them mainly trying to tell a good story at the moment of telling. As viewers, we have taken upon ourselves the task of constructing a Theory of How Time Travel And Alternate Realities Work In Star Trek. It’s a subset of continuity or cannon. So now we have been presented with a definitive statement that seems new. How can it be fit into the Theory?

So here’s the thing: Exhibit B tells us that in the Star Trek world there’s a whole lottalotta that we don’t see, and almost never see. Our Heroes, understandably, get all worked up about “changing the time line back.” What they perceive as destruction of their time line is more like a dislocation; they’ve lost contact with their home. They can’t see it, so, from their point of view it’s gone. (Exhibit A.) And in fan discussion there’s been a lot of speculation about what it would take for Spock Prime to do just that. There are some known ways for Spock Prime to time travel, but what we’ve now seen is that every change in the time line creates a new time line. I’m moving firmly into the realm of fan speculation, here, and I’m going to rely on a non Star Trek sci-fi source here: Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways.”

In that story, Larry Niven presents the argument that for every possible outcome of a situation, every possible outcome actually happens, creating an alternate time line. The plot of the story depends on the discovery of a way to move between the alternatives. What’s noted in the story is that when someone is moving between alternatives, then that someone goes to every alternative–a decision is made and every outcome actually happens.

Back to Star Trek. The current writer’s don’t have any motivation to have Spock Prime “fix the timeline.” From Spock Prime’s point of view he either can try to fix things or he can make a home for himself in the new universe in which he finds himself. Obviously, in the first place, in order for him to do it, some writer’s going to have to come up with the story for it. There’s no reason to expect this. Some writer may want to do something with Spock Prime, something major, or even minor, I suppose, and may feel a need to address the issue of why Spock Prime either a) doesn’t want to–or b) is unable to–“go back and fix things.”

I’ll throw a couple of things out on this. Maybe Spock Prime doesn’t want to “go back and fix things.” He’s old, maybe even old for a Vulcan, almost certainly old for a Vulcan/Human, and certainly old for a Human, even in the future where Our Heroes are able to live a very long time. Maybe he’s seen enough, or done enough, or feels (yes, feels) that he can do more good (however that could possibly be gauged) by staying where he is and doing whatever he’s going to do there. Maybe he feels this new reality has as much existential right to be as his home reality did, and thinks that if the original was wiped out in favor of this new one, that may be regrettable, but doesn’t want to wipe out the new one, either. Or maybe, like the viewers, Spock Prime understands that the original one is still out there, somewhere, and he’s just left it and it’s as OK/messed-up as it was before he got sucked out of it. So he might just as well stick around where he is now. Where he is now is almost certainly more comfortable than the Romulan underground he spent so much time in back home. Maybe in the new timeline he’ll decide to attempt Romulan/Vulcan reconciliation again.

Or maybe he can’t go back. We, as viewers, don’t really understand how time travels actually works. I mean the math and stuff. We’ve seen it work, of course. We’ve heard characters discuss it as if it’s not much more difficult (compared with space travel), than, say climbing Mt. Everest (compared with a walk across a town square). You know, doable if you know what you’re doing, but not something to undertake lightly. Maybe one of the rules in time travel and going back where you came from is you have to do it the same way. Maybe you need to be dealing with the same mass. Maybe you need to do the return trip before the trail goes cold–within a few days, say. Maybe the technology available to Spock Prime isn’t up to the task of initiating a one-way trip to the future. (To this last one, Spock Prime is ‘returning home’ but is the Jellyfish up to the task structurally? Does it have the computational oomph to do it? On and on.)

Any one of these things would be enough to keep Spock Prime where we left him, and it’s up to the writer of Spock Prime’s future to decide what’s what. Maybe the writer even decides that Spock Prime wants to fix things, is technologically able to, and (from a plot point of view) even succeeds. What does that mean for we viewers who are curious about the Theory?

Not very much, I’ll contend. The new movie has presented us with a robust and flexible understanding of alternate time lines within Star Trek storytelling. Again, I’m going to lean on Niven here. Under Exhibit B and in the new movie we are given this view that there are a lot of possible time lines, that they all really exist from a story point of view, and that it’s possible to move between them. As noted above, it’s up to any given writer to determine if it’s possible for any given character to move between them, or even be aware that the alternates actually exist. At this point there’s no reason to think Spock Prime is aware that they exist, though it’s possible, since he was active after the events in Exhibit B. But it doesn’t really matter.

Something Niven proposed is that every instant options occur, and that every option actually happens, so that every instant, no matter how small your units of time are measured, an infinity of alternate time lines are created. In his story one can travel between them, leaving behind a beacon so one can get ‘home’ at the end of the trip. Since, while one is travelling decisions are still being made back home, when it’s time to return, there are an infinity of options, all of which are the ‘right’ one. And since choosing which one to go home to is a decision, one actually goes ‘home’ to all of them. Maybe in Star Trek it doesn’t work exactly like that. Maybe only “big decisions” branch the time line. Maybe characters are limited to time lines in some way related to their own histories.

But the point is, I think that even if Spock Prime were to succeed in his desire to ‘fix’ the time line, or prevent the death of George Kirk or the destruction of Vulcan, he would only do so within the context of another newly created time line. His home time line would still be out there, the time line created by the events of the new movie would still be out there, and now another new time line within which Spock Prime managed to prevent whatever harm was done by Nero in the new movie.

So Spock Prime apparently cannot undo the creation of the new time line, but he might have an adventure attempting to. Now the question is: is that a good story? In Exhibit A, the adventure hinged on two things, the challenge of fixing the time line and the discovery and healing of Dr. McCoy. The moment of crisis was Edith Keeler’s death. Our Heroes perceived the creation of a new time line as a problem to be solved, because they were unable to get home. And they perceived the condition of Dr. McCoy as a problem because he is a beloved friend and colleague. In Exhibit B the problem was the headaches involved with having a bunch of Enterprises zipping around, and the headaches implicit in the bunch of time lines suddenly without their Enterprises. In both cases the problem has more to do with Our Heroes’ perceptions of outcomes to changes in the time line than with the changes themselves. The time line isn’t broken, it’s natural for it to branch under certain (currently unknown, even to we viewers) circumstances. In Exhibit A, it’s “we can’t get home, but we can attempt to solve that problem by changing something in the past.” In Exhibit B it’s “there are too many Enterprises here, we have to get them home and lock the door behind them.” But all those alternatives are always out there, and they’re still out there after the adventure. It’s just that now Our Heroes are comfortable with their circumstances again, and time travel and adjusting events in the past was the way to get there.

And some have pretty critical things to say about this, like over at The essential argument here is that, if every thing that could happen does happen, then there’s no narrative tension. There’s no reason to be invested in these characters or their dilemmas because it could just as easily be a different story. Another problem articulated from this view is that it makes our POV characters less human, because when they encounter their counterparts we viewers aren’t as affected by their deaths because it’s just the death of a copy, and if there are an infinite number of copies out there, why get so worked up? We’ll see the character again. Who worries too much about the 250th copy from the photocopier if it gets jammed and thrown out? Nobody, of course.

This is an understandable position, and TV Tropes shtick is to take a hard line on the things is goes on about. Which is great. I think the gimmick can get worn if the story in question is a running story (like a TV series) and this business of moving among alternates is central to the story. On the other hand the alternate story over in the Star Trek comics called “Last Generation” gives us every reason to care, while still knowing it’s not Our Heroes… except, if you find the story well done then they are Our Heroes, and what happens to them affects us without diminishing how what happens to Our Heroes in the Prime time line affects us.

What about making the continuity too complex? What about over-saturation of the market? What about the lessons of Crisis on Infinite Earths? Ack! Gadzooks! And Good Grief!

I don’t know. What about them? If the story is well done, then I don’t think all of that matters. It may be that DC made a mess of trying to clean up a mess. But that may be an execution thing. If the story telling isn’t good, you’re not going to get a good story. If one relies too heavily on a story tool–universal crisises, travel between alternate time lines, all-title-cross-overs, then, sure, things are going to get complex and difficult to follow, and maybe even unacceptable to the consumers. But in small doses, with the steady hand of a good editor, none of these story telling tools are bad.

So, here we are, almost three thousand words gone from our lives, and where are we, actually? I don’t think the Prime time line is gone, baby, gone. I don’t think fiction works that way. It’s still out there… all those books, TV shows, movies and so on. They still exist, and always will. And as long as the copyright holders are willing to pay writers to keep telling stories, it will continue to develop. I don’t think that the fact that the Prime time line still exists violates cannon. To the degree that it might seem to, I think it’s just an expanded understanding of what we’ve seen before. We’re being asked to look at what we’ve seen before in a new way. It’s not necessary that we like it, but that doesn’t mean it’s inconsistant with what we’ve seen before. Unreliable narrators and characters who don’t know the full truth are hardly innovations now. It’s always the job of the writers to tell a good story, but there’s nothing inherent about alternate time line stories that precludes telling an affecting, moving, thrilling story.

Thanks for your time.


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