Thursday, January 14, 2010

Using time travel - lessons from J.J. Abrams' Star Trek

In two earlier posts this week, we've covered the most basic approaches to time travel, so why not confuse the hell out of everyone and try to explain the notion of alternate timelines?

Back to the Future part II dealt with an alternate timeline in the form of Biff's distorted future (though technically all of BTTF, save for the opening of the first movie in 1985, happens in timelines that get altered by Marty's actions in the past.) The notion here is that there's one timeline and it is completely mutable. In changing things, you're really creating an altered timeline rather than an alternate timeline, despite the language Doc uses in Part II.

A truly alternate timeline would likely exist parallel to the "real" timeline. Thus, if you do something like going back to 1963 and saving JFK, you would have no impact on the history you just left. Instead, your changes would cause a new timeline to branch off from the old one, effectively creating an entirely new universe without wiping out the old one. I mention this because it can be a great way around the "paradox problem" one might encounter when writing time travel movies.

According to writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, this is the approach they took to time travel in last summer's Star Trek. Star Trek is also novel because it's a time-travel movie set entirely in an alternate timeline, with the characters themselves not becoming aware of that fact until at least midway through the script. In other words, it's a time travel movie told from the point of view of the people who have been impacted by changes the others faced. Supposed that the assertive George McFly we meet at the end of the first Back to the Future learned that he was actually supposed to be a wimpy nerd married to an overweight alcoholic and you'll get a sense of what I'm trying to explain.

Star Trek's approach is smart because it found a way to honor over 40 years of existing canon without making it a flat-out reboot that erases everything to start fresh. The film starts when a Romulan ship from the future ends up in the early 23rd century. This triggers a battle with the Starfleet vessel Kelvin, which in turn causes Jim Kirk's mother to go into labor early. Not only that, in the course of the battle, Jim Kirk's father George Kirk ends up sacrificing himself and the ship to save the rest of the crew. This is significant because in the original timeline where this encounter didn't take place, Jim Kirk was born weeks later in Iowa, and his father George lived to see him become captain of the Enterprise 30 years later.

Thus, Trek history has been altered at the moment of Kirk's birth and everything that happens after this is an alternate timeline. This is confirmed later, when a now-adult Kirk is stranded on an ice planet and encounters a version of Spock from 130 years in the future - a Spock played by Leonard Nimoy, the actor who carried the role through the earlier incarnations of the series. This was smart on the part of the writers because not only does it allow them to say to fans, "That history you loved still happened. We're honoring it, not ignoring it," but it also makes clear that this new history that has emerged is going to be significantly different from that which is documented in the original series and movies.

To drive home the point, the planet Vulcan - a significant element in the original series timeline - is destroyed in the course of the film. Even though the film ends with all the classic characters in their familiar positions, it's clear that none of their fates will be the same as in the first series. Kirk could be killed in the next movie, if the creators saw fit.

The writers have said that the way they see it, the "original timeline" that the Nimoy Spock left still exists and marches on parallel to the new one. I'd argue that nothing shown in the film itself specifically supports that notion, but there's nothing that either disproves that either I suppose. Since it's unlikely we'll ever revisit the original, prime timeline again, it's probably a moot point.

I mention all this because it shows there's a way to use time travel without relying on the paradoxes, as Back to the Future does. Here, the time travel is a way of achieving and "in-the-box" reboot and giving all the characters a clean slate. So keep in mind that if you want to use time travel, you don't need to rely on the old "we have to put the future back exactly the way it was meant to be" chestnut. In Star Trek, the mission isn't really to restore the original timeline - it's to stop the Romulan Nero before he does further damage to this one.


  1. And as discussed on Monday, the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series does a lot of this as well, with 'different' versions of characters jumping back and forth in time.

    It's a well-executed concept - in the future, the character of Derek Reese is in a relationship with feisty Aussie Jesse. Derek jumps back to 2008 and joins the Connors, but some time after that Jesse comes back to meet up with him - only she's not quite the same Jesse as the one he left behind. Subtle changes to the timeline as a result of the team's actions in the present have made her a more ruthless and calculating individual, as Derek stresses on their last encounter with 'You're not MY Jesse.'

    And yes, that does make the new Star Trek a lot clearer - I followed it at the time but picked it apart a bit too much afterwards to know which way was up any more!

  2. What are your takes on some of the strange time traveling rules brought up by these films.

    Rule #1: (TimeCop) If you make physical contact with a former incarnation of yourself you will both explode.

    Rule #2: (BTTF 3) All your ancestors look exactly like you, and for some reason, even your mother is there, generations before she married into the McFly's. Oh, and also, if you prevent your own birth in the past, you slowly fade out of existence instead of just vanishing instantly.

    Rule #3: (B&T EA) For some reason time remains constant only in San Dimas.

  3. Hmm, what about Star Trek 4, where they go back in time to save the earth from whales of the future, does that hold up?

  4. Patrick - I always thought the TimeCop rule was rather stupid. I'd love to pick it apart beyond that, but it sounds incredibly geeky to attack that made-up physics with "real physics" considering we're talking about travel.

    The BTTF ancestor thing is also a little strange. I can go with the family resemblance, but always thought that using Lea Thompson as Marty's great great grandmother was pushing it. For what it's worth, writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis take on that issue (and many others) in this FAQ.

    And the gradually fading thing also seemed weird to me, but I can go with it. Not quite sure what you mean with regard to Bill & Ted though

    Joshua - Well, with Trek IV, you're probably working under the BTTF model of time-travel - that the future can be altered. This is supported by the fact that when the Starfleet command window breaks the first time, Sarek has no reaction, but when Kirk and co. return, he sees them at that moment. Thus, that might imply that the arrival of the whales creates an alternate timeline.

    But the real clue might come in the scene where Scotty is about to give a scientist an advanced formula for transparent aluminum. McCoy pulls him aside and reminds him that this is altering the future. Scotty says "How do we know he didn't invent the thing?" I always felt that was a great way to side-step that nitpicking.

    However, pay attention to earlier in the film before they go back in time. Spock is completing an exam and one of the questions relates to "transparent aluminum." I can't remember the dialogue exactly, but it cites that scientist as its inventor in the year 1987, which is roughly the time of the film. Thus, the hint seems to be that Kirk and Co were ALWAYS a part of that history.

    The thing is that TREK has used every permutation of time-travel in 40 years, so there's no way to pick just one of the theories I described this week and make EVERYTHING work.

  5. Fascinating, Captain, fascinating.

  6. Basically in Bill and Ted, the screenwriters needed a ticking clock. However, when the protagonists have a relatively functional time machine, it doesn't really matter how long they take to prepare their history report.

    The fix for this shows up in Rufus's line...

    "Now, most important, no matter what you do, no matter where you go, that clock (points to Ted's watch), the clock in San Dimas is always running. Got it? (they nod) All right, time for me to go."

    This is why Ted needs to remember to wind his watch, because they only have so much time to prepare the report. I thought it was an interesting workaround.

  7. BTW, I guess I can accept the explanation Gale and Zemeckis give for Maggie McFly's appearance.

  8. Patrick - Oh! Now I get what you mean. Yeah, in terms of time-travel rules, I remember thinking that was a little odd, but you're dead-on with the reasons why it's there - the ticking clock. It's a rule that doesn't make much sense, but BILL & TED is the kind of movie that can get away with that, I guess.

    You just hit on the real problem of time machines, though... it can let the hero do anything. For example, in Back to the Future, Marty knows he has to save Doc from the terrorists and realizes he's got all the time he needs - he's in a time machine! So what does he do? He sets his destination back ten minutes!

    TEN MINUTES?! AYFKM! (work out that acronym yourselves). Clearly the smart thing to do would have been to set it back a few hours, get to the parking lot before Doc and then warn him before Marty's past self shows up. Giving himself only a few minutes seems to increase the risk that Marty will run into his past self at the mall parking lot.

    Now, you could always write this off as Marty making a split-second decision and not thinking it through, but it still bugs.

    And then there's STAR TREK GENERATIONS, where Picard finds himself in the Nexus and is told he can go anytime, anywhere he wants in order to thwart Malcolm McDowell's evil plan. He choses... the absolute worst moment he could have picked, and one that's dependant on getting a second person to help him - the point where he has mere minutes left to stop the villain from destroying a star.

    But then once you open up the time-travel can of worms in GENERATIONS, your head is bound to explode because there's no way to make it track.

    Anyway, to get back on point, you've got to be clever about your "ticking clocks" when time is irrelevent for your hero.

  9. Have you ever read Gale's original draft of BTTF? It's very strange. Scott Myers posted it a while back and I've reviewed it here.

  10. I've had it sitting on my hard-drive for about a year now, but never got around to reading it. I've devoured every special feature on the BTTF DVD box set though, so I'm pretty spoiled about a lot of the changes.

  11. The "Timecop" rule was actually stolen from the 1983 Dr. Who Episode "Mawdryn Undead," except the Doctor used that rule to fix a couple of issues in the episode to his advantage.

    Okay, let's do this.

    JJ Abrams "'Star Trek'" pretty much shat all over 40+ years of Trek, and did it with a smile.

    "James Kirk was a great man, but that was another time, ese."

    So a Romulan miner, tatted up, and speaking with the eloquence of an MS-13 gangbanger, inexplicably has control of a "Death Star" sized vessel that has Borg technology and weapons, is pissed off at Spock because Spock didn't manage to stop Romulas' star from going Supernova? Wait, what?

    Stars don't go Supernova overnight. There are several phases the star has to go through before it blows. ALL of which would be easily detectable by 24th century technology. So everyone on Romulas would have had more than ample time to evac the planet.

    Even then, it's still not Spock's fault, I mean come the fuck on. If I was off mining some asteroids and I got news that my home star was about to go fucking supernova, and I was out of range to evac my wife, and I heard that some dood had some magic red goo that turns supernovas into black holes, and was racing to help, but he didn't make it in time I certainly would not be, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, I must now create an elaborate plan to get back at the dood that was trying to help stop my star from going Superfuckingnova!!!"

    It's just ridiculous when you actually think about the motivation of Nero. Here you have Spock flying toward a Supernova, trying to help with an untested magic red goo, facing certain death, and then the next second being sucked back in time with Nero. Why would Nero, a MINER, even know about Spock and his red goo? Furthermore, why would he be angry at Spock? "Arrgghhh, I'm angry with you, Spock!!! You flew directly into a star about to go Supernova to help save my planet, BUT YOU FAILED! NOW YOU MUST PAY!!!!!!!"

    The two BIG problems with "'Star Trek'":

    1. Nero pretty much had a Death Star at his command. There was nothing in the KNOWN GALAXY (during that time period) that could stop Nero. Not even the Borg. Not even Species 18273717381. Nero could have pretty much scooted over to Romulas and taken over with one ship, and then used the future tech to ensure utter dominance and rule of the Galaxy. Even if he didn't aspire to such grandiose plans, he could have simply...

    2. WARNED ROMULAS OF THEIR IMPENDING DOOM. Nero wasn't bound to any temporal directives, and could do pretty much anything he wanted. Showing up in a Death Star with uber weapons is an almost sure fire way to get people to believe that you are from the future. By doing this he would (possibly) ensure that his wife in the future would not die (Well at least not get vaporized inside a Supernovae).

    This whole "alternative reality" stuff is just bullshit to hide the fact that the new Trek is a straight up reboot. Everything that happened in the series, and subsequent series is now dead, and gone.

    Since Spock and Kirk got tied up with the Nero nonsense, how will they be able to stop the Earth from being destroyed by V-Ger, The Probe from ST IV, the Genesis device, etc... You can't say with a straight face, "Durr, all dose stuff stiff happnnd!" It is utterly impossible to alter a timeline in such an incredible way, like DESTROYING A WHOLE PLANET, and then say, well, everything still happens as it happened before, just in a slightly different way.

    I've already ripped on the new Star Trek movie so many times already I grow tired of trying to explain to people why it was such a retarded movie and an insult to anyone's intelligence.

    Oh, and Fuck you Gay-Gay Abrams and your hipster glasses and your twin-headed hydra Orci-Kurtzman monster. Go back to darkness from whence you came!

  12. That was... well, pretty awesome, purple.

  13. I think that sums up what I mentioned earlier when I said 'I followed it at the time but picked it apart a bit too much afterwards to know which way was up any more' :)

  14. thank god, other people ripping Star Trek, I can relax on that topic now

  15. "Gay-Gay Abrams?" I'm all for cheap shots and insults hurled at filmmakers but... seriously, "Gay-Gay Abrams?" What are you, twelve?

    I'd actually composed a response to each one of your points, and then I hit that phrase and decided there was no point in posting it.

    I will respond to this bit though:

    This whole "alternative reality" stuff is just bullshit to hide the fact that the new Trek is a straight up reboot. Everything that happened in the series, and subsequent series is now dead, and gone... It is utterly impossible to alter a timeline in such an incredible way, like DESTROYING A WHOLE PLANET, and then say, well, everything still happens as it happened before, just in a slightly different way.

    Yeah, it's kind of the whole point of the movie that nothing that follows will be like the original series at all. I can see how you missed it, though. They only mention it three times in the film itself, and that fact is pretty much the whole thesis of my post above.

    I welcome contrary posts, and normally I'd say "thanks for reading," but from the way you responded to the posting it's pretty clear you didn't.

  16. JJ Abrams isn't gay. He's happily married and has two kids. I was expressing my Trek-Nerd anger. JJ Abrams is a talentless douchebag. Is that more PC?

    "I'd actually composed a response to each one of your points, and then I hit that phrase and decided there was no point in posting it."

    Actually you didn't post a response because you can't, and used my riff on Abrams as a scapegoat because you know what I said is the truth.

    I don't know if you read Orci's take on "Quantum Mechanics," but here it is, give it a read.

    Here let me use some nice quotes directly from the writer of the Trek movie:

    Q: Is everything different in the alternative timeline?
    A: No, some things remain the same.

    Q: Does this alternative timeline wipe out the original timeline (from TOS -Nemesis)?
    A: No, quantum theory says they both co-exist.

    Q: Does the original timeline continue?
    A: Yes, again as explained by quantum theory.

    So if the original timeline does continue, then Earth is still going to be attacked by V'ger and the Probe-thing from ST IV.

    Sure, thanks to the new events in this horrific Trek movie, (Vulcan destroyed) things are definitely going to be utterly different. However, you can't say that the original timeline is still going to continue on, (AS ORCI SAYS) albeit altered, yet ignore HUGE problems like what if Kirk and Co. are on the other side of the Galaxy now fighting the Romulans when V'Ger/the Probe comes back. Those events are "timelocked" (to steal from Dr. Who), as they always going to occur at the same time, in the same way.

    Part two up next.

  17. It is no secret that old JJ, besides NOT being DIN-O-MITE! is VERY fond of throwing in bullshit time travel logic into just about everything he touches. He's a fan of Star Trek: Enterprise, as was Orci and Kurtzman. For those very few of us that watched Enterprise, the last two seasons turned into a bullshit "Time War" waged by Federation members from the far future.

    I'm going to let fellow blogger Mr. Nash explain the problem of the new trek time travel nonsense.

    Here’s the big problem. The last two years of the Star Trek series Enterprise were literally based on the Temporal Cold War. (In fact, this was an extension in some ways of the “Relativity” episode in Star Trek Voyager and the “Trials and Tribble-ations” episode of Deep Space Nine.) Without descending into a geek singularity, the basis premise is that in the future, time travel technology is mastered, leading to a set of accords among governments to “protect” the timeline. Some people violate those accords (“The Temporal Accords“), and thus there are future Federation people and ships whose purpose is to help apprehend these criminals and restore the original timeline.

    I’m not talking about one or two flaky episodes here with a minor inconsistency. I’m talking about dozens of episodes and a major timeline of future history with key events between the 20th century all the way to the 31st century.

    In any case, in order to believe this plot reboot, you have to believe that somehow with all those time ships and policing, Agent Daniels, the USS Relativity, and all those others just let a random mining captain from Romulus rewrite the history of the Federation without correction. They go to huge lengths to save Captain Archer, but not Captain Kirk?

    Sorry. That doesn’t work.

    I think what I’m more disappointed about is that the movie didn’t even try to explain it away. For example:

    Old Spock from the future, for example, could have added 30 seconds to his explanation to either New Kirk or New Spock to say that this timeline is permanent, or why it won’t be fixed.

    Spock: “In general, major timeline changes in the past have been corrected by the Federation in future centuries. However, we had been warned that the use of “red matter” could leave us vulnerable to untrackable temporal events. In my rush to save Romulus, I have put the entire future at risk.”

    This really wouldn’t bother me if the movie was a clean reboot of the series, like Battlestar Galactica. But J.J. Abrams is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He clumsily and awkwardly brings everyone together for the new Enterprise crew (exactly how unlikely was it that Scotty would be on that one base on that one moon…) In some ways, the half-hearted attempt to maintain continuity with the time travel device is worse than just doing a straight reboot, no questions asked."


  19. How "'Star Trek'" ripped off Star Wars.

    Best review of the new "'Star Trek'" movie:

    It's done by the same guy who made the incredible 70 min. Episode One review.

  20. JJ Abrams destroys the expanded Trek universe.

    "I suppose I just can’t quite come to terms with the fact that Star Trek is part and parcel in the hands of one man and his small team. A man who, time and again, reminds us that he “isn’t a fan.”

  21. I know we've gotten a bit bogged down here in whether new Star Trek is any good or not, but I've got an honest, writing-related point to make about it now:

    A lot of the issues people have raised with the film is the paper-thin characterisation of Nero and plot holes that arise from his mission of revenge.

    Turns out, the four-issue prequel comics series 'Countdown' not only cover this in more detail, but flesh out the relationship between Nero and Spock Prime, show how Romulus chose to ignore the supernova warnings and other expositionary information that greatly fleshes out pretty much every aspect of the movie that wasn't the Kirk & Spock Show.


    Do we think it's clever marketing to do this, or is it an absolute sin of screenwriting to have important, even vital information about your movie presented in a medium OUTSIDE of the script itself? People who read those comics underatsnably got more out of the movie because they weren't missing anything - I didn't and had many of the issues presented earlier with the story. The information was out there, I just wasn't aware of it.

    With 'Lost,' a lot of additional information has been presented outside of the show itself (the Numbers being a prime example), but arguably little of it is vital enough to the weekly show to require you knowing about it. Not so with 'Star Trek,' IMHO.

  22. Secret - I'll respond to your point because it's reasonably phrased and actually goes to a couple issues I had in my non-posted response. I am one of those who feels that the movie SHOULD stand on its own. If I'm going to see a Star Trek film, I don't want to have to read 12 comics, three novels, and see 5 old episodes to have everything make total sense to me. If they enhance the story, great, but one shouldn't be dependant on it.

    However... I think it's great that the novels in Star Trek, and even Star Wars to an extent, are able to fill in little continuity bits so fans who are concerned about the minute details can have those questions answered. If you're dying to know how Princess Leia assumed a bounty hunter's identity before going to Jabba's Palace, then there's a book for you.

    I think Nero's motivations are reconsilable even if you didn't read COUNTDOWN. Consider the long history of conflict between the Vulcan and Romulan people, and also the fact that to a Romulan loyalist like Nero, Spock has been working underground with a subversive movement for almost 20 years to undermine the legitimate Romulan government. Under those circumstances, I don't feel it's out of line that he'd not take Spock's "failure" at face value. Add to that the post-traumatic stress of losing his entire world AND the very passionate nature of the Romulan people and I have ZERO trouble buying his Ahab routine.

    (As to why he didn't just conquer the galaxy with his advanced tech - all it took was one ship ramming him to disable his ship, so odds are a direct assault on a particular power would have ended badly. If his ship was unstoppable, he wouldn't have needed to torture Pike for the defense codes.)

    But I did a test - I went to the film with a friend who had only seen the movies and was somewhat familiar with TNG, and someone who had NEVER seen any Star Trek. Both of them are avid enough moviegoers that they would have picked apart anything they didn't understand. Afterwards, I asked if they felt lost at all by Nero's backstory or his history with Spock. They said "no." Still it's great that COUNTDOWN is there, along with the new miniseries NERO so that the fans who really want to see the gaps filled in can have that.

    I wasn't a huge fan of COUNTDOWN. The Spock/Nero stuff was interesting, but the use of the TNG cast was questionable, to say the least.

    And for the record, I have read many of the Trek novels, and they can be quite enjoyable. However, if any of those works were required reading for the next movie, that would be a bad move indeed. The supplemental material should be enhancement, not essential.

    Jumping off that, I don't understand the obsession with V'Ger and the whale probe. V'Ger isn't set to arrive for another 10-13 years, and the whale probe another 20 or so. That's a problem for future stories to deal with, assuming the butterfly effect doesn't end up impacting their arrival as well. (My bet - we'll see these threads dealt with FAR down the line in a novel once the feature film crew decides they don't want to rehash that story.)

    STAR TREK the movie is deliberately self-contained - as every movie should be. Part of the reason I walked away from LOST was because I had no desire to follow any of their extended universe stuff and started feeling more and more like I HAD to in order to keep up. So I wouldn't call that kind of writing "good marketing" and it might even be the opposite of it. There's only so much product people can keep up with.

  23. I get the feeling LOST, actually, is going to go down this dual timeline route in it's final season. On a board I frequent, I've a few times tried explaining the concept of a new timeline branching off another one because of a specific 'incident' but people do find it hard to reconcile quite often.

    I was also talking to a good friend about the exact issue A Closely Guarded Secret brought up just last week infact. He suggested Nero's rationale was weak, I pointed out COUNTDOWN and explained it, he suggested it should have been in the movie. I read the comic after seeing the film and felt the film gave me what I needed about Nero, if I'm honest - COUNTDOWN only expanded things in a fun way.

    For the record, I'm a huge fan of STAR TREK the movie. My favourite film too of last year. Can't wait for the sequel.

  24. Sci-Fi blog I09 has posted the JJ Abrams board game to illustrate just what a hack Abrams really is.