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.


Khan! Khan, no, Khan, Sing, Khan Singh!

Abastract: The author goes on a bit about if Khan would make for a good next Star Trek movie. (±2,000 words)

There’s been a lot of fun over at TrekWeb talking about the next movie, what it should, shouldn’t, could have.

Some folks feel like Khan would be great. GREAT, I tell you. Khan rocks: he kicks Kirk around space, blows things up good, and then DIES!

No, no, some say. Khan was a great villain. But he’s been done, done well, and doesn’t need to be redone.

It seems a … teacup sort of debate. Almost no body at any fan site can really have much influence over the creative decisions that will go into the next movie. And I’m certainly not one of them. So why inject my opinions into this?

Eh… why not. I love Moby Dick, and I stab at thee!

Khan rocks, and I’d love to see him again. But: I don’t want to see a remake of the Wrath of Khan. I don’t want to see a remake of Space Seed. I don’t want Khan to become a recurring villain. There’s this whole galaxy out there. I really don’t want to see Khan-as-Joker-to-Kirk’s-Batman. Oh, good lord I don’t want that.

I just don’t agree with the idea that Khan and Kirk represent opposing visions of… whatever. Kirk is a big proponent of humanity, human potential, justice and … getting things DONE. Khan… big fan of human potential, justice and getting things done. The difference: Kirk wants his things done, and his is a more expansive idea of those things. Khan? He’s pretty selfish. So they’re opposed, rivals to be sure, but they’re not really opposed in the way Batman and the Joker have been set up in the last twenty-odd years.

I don’t think Kirk needs a special villain, or different (Bond-style) mastermind in every story. There’s plenty of room in Star Trek for action-adventure, shoot-em-up. Oh, yes. But I think what makes Kirk’s Enterprise really interesting, which is to say, what I find most interesting, is the way on the Enterprise he can face some crazy double-bind of a situation, massage his senior staff, and then do the right thing more-or-less. I mean, he cheats, and it sometimes seems there must be some other starship out there cleaning up Kirk’s messes, but, as a viewer, it’s mostly fun to watch Kirk do that stuff.

So, should there be a new Khan movie? Probably not. I still think there’s a whole galaxy out there, so we don’t need to see that character again. But if it’s a good movie, then, heck. Give it to me.

Real humorists say “propaganda”

But they were really just ads. Horribly designed and written ads (done by a niave 22-year-old) I might add. But as the saying goes (and if its not a saying, then I just coined it): “Advertising is 80% being seen.”

The problem was we needed more writers and we needed to get noticed. Well, mostly we needed to get noticed. A monthly four-page pamphlet of a paltry 1,000-copy run that was distributed at (somewhere around) 5 locations on campus was treated with the same interest as a coupon booklet. We needed wider exposure. Hence, the most ubiquitous and overlooked form of on-campus advertising: the flyer.

Continue reading Real humorists say “propaganda”

By Hook or By Crook or By Law of Bylaws

the Harpoon bylaws
the Harpoon bylaws

So there were these rules, right? I mean they had to be there or the Harpoon would never get any money. So we had to write some. It was actually pretty fun.

And they were popular, too. At least in certain circles. For instance, in the Student Life Office, the leagal counsel seemed to really enjoy them. After the War Issue, his advice was to stop publishing stupid things, and start publishing more things like the bylaws. It seems there was one he really liked. I don’t think it was the one about what to do with them when they can’t take a joke. That one was full of problematic advice.

Constituting the Harpoon

Constituting the Harpoon
Constituting the Harpoon

So, when a bunch of students at the U want to get together and do something, I mean really do something.  Together.  In a bunch, like.  And not be arrested for being a mob or something, I mean.  When they want to do that, become a bunch, not become a mob, they become a Registered Student Organization.  This gives them access to all sorts of resources of the U.

Stationary.  Office Space.  Student Life Fee Funding.

All these things and more, o! so much more.

And all you have to do is fill in the paperwork.  And ask.  And ask.  And ask.

Even a cusrory reading the constitution of the Harpoon will make the reader with experience running organizations shudder.  Were a serious attempt made to actually operate an organization with this document, things would fall apart pretty quickly.  Certainly within one year.  Possibly much, much sooner if someone with an Agenda got involved.  Or even just someone with a Trickster mentality.  As difficult as that is to imagine.

Office space for the Harpoon

Late in the first year of the Harpoon, some time in the second half, anyway, and certainly after the War Issue was published, the Harpoon got itself some designated office space from Student Life.  At that time in the history of things, these offices were located on the main floor of the Kirkhoff Center, with a wide bank of windows overlooking the pond, and the book bunker beyond.

The office space was just a six-foot-wide length of desk space, set in the middle of a cubicle garden, sandwiched between the assigned desks of two organizations who, if they had ever come in to use them, seemed to have stopped when the Harpoon was installed in their midst; it was nothing more than  a few drawers, a phone, as many rolling chairs as we could commandeer, and an overhead bin.  The only things the Harpoon had, in the way of office equipment, was a phone book.  The records, the ones the U cared about, were stored at the other end of the building, safe from staffers.  The documents which were important stayed in the publisher’s apartment.

About all the office was good for was for certain high-level members to make a lot of noise, and to spy on the Greek Round Table.  There was one member who fit under the desk, or in the overhead bin, depending.  It was always best to enter the office space at the safe end of a yardstick, while probing–not so gently–with the other end into cravasses.  Where the pumas live.

Once a co-founder told a blonde lies about the Beatles, a band about which she was kind enough to pretend for twenty minutes to not know anything.  Another co-founder created and strategized a political campaign from the office.  And one day several members got bad news about their respective love lives in the office.

Something about the original logo

Down there, way, way, way down there at the bottom of the page, the entire contents of the very first post, is the original logo.

Here are some lies and a little bit of truth about it.  It’s a pun.  One of the very few puns published in the Harpoon which the co-founders understood.  The only reason they understood it is because they originated it.  “Hey,” one of them said.  “We need a snappy visual element for the masthead, right?  How about a baboon playing a harp!”

Monkeys are funny, right?  Harps are unusual, and so distinctive.  That’s good for a logo.  And, best of all, it’s a harp-boon!

Get it?

It was widely alleged to have been drawn, black on white, in the blue style of a certain anatomical caracture of a widely-beloved cartoon race of little, blue, woodland creatures.  This is a style popularized by, and mainly popular with, a down-the-way neighbor of one of the co-founders.  With cross eyes.  The baboon had cross eyes, not the blue creatures, and not the neighbor.  Not the neighbor most of the time, anyway.

The art director inverted the colors and replaced the cross-eyes with sunglasses.  This led to a knock-down roll-about on the publisher’s living room floor between the art director who liked the sunglasses and the editor who did not.  The sunglasses were replaced with the more-or-less well-focused eyes we all came to love.  More or less.

The baboon’s name is thought to be Ed.  This may or may not be strictly accurate.  The baboon has never talked about that.  Indeed, it is unknown if, in fact, and despite the obscene allegations of what the blue caricture style intended to imply about harp playing, the baboon is, as depcted, actually male.

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