One topic that seems to come up quite a bit with Trek fans regarding the new Star Trek movie, it is the subject of the Star Trek continuity (or canon). It has been the contention of the film makers that despite how some things may appear to be rewriting Trek’s history, the movie fits within Trek’s canon. In a very detailed conversation with TrekMovie’s Anthony Pascale, Star Trek co-writer Roberto Orci finally explains how it all fits together. [SPOILERS BELOW]
Bob and Anthony talk Time Travel, canon, paradoxes, physics and more
Background: As a follow-up to our earlier ‘post November’ interview with Star Trek co-writer Bob Orci is the following conversation between Bob and TrekMovie.com editor Anthony Pascale. It is presented as a ‘conversation’ because it is more of a chat between two Trekkies diving deep down a nerdy rabbit hole, than a traditional interview. Understanding the issues discussed is not required to watch the movie or enjoy it, but is presented to answer the follow-up questions about how the film ‘fits’ with Trek and with science.
The subject of the discussion was how to reconcile a number of issues. Since day one with regards to this project, it has been stated that the new movie is not a ‘reboot’ like the recent Batman, Bond and Battlestar Galactica, but will fit within Trek canon. However, just by looking at the new trailer and certainly based on JJ Abrams four scene preview tour (see TrekMovie report), some things appear not to fit within canon. Or do they? Many have noted that the report in Entertainment Weekly revealing how the film’s villain Nero travels through time to attack the ship carrying James T. Kirk’s parents might somehow come into play. But if so, then there are implications related to Trek history, as well as real and ‘Trek’ science. And that is where this discussion begins.
[NOTE: The discussion goes pretty deep into science and Trek lore, so for those who just want the quick version, skip to the summary at the bottom]
Nero attacks the USS Kelvin in "Star Trek (2009"
Anthony: OK, now let’s get really into it. From the trailer, and certainly from the four scene preview, there is no doubt that things are different. Pike and Kirk are hanging out in a bar. The ship looks different. Kirk is on the Enterprise and not headed to the Farragut. People are seeing Romulans…things are different. Now it has been revealed in the Entertainment Weekly article that Nero goes back in time and attacks the Kelvin, and JJ also talked about this during his previews. So the big question is: Is the destruction of the Kelvin, the canon reason why everything is different?
Bob: It is the reason why some things are different, but not everything is different. Not everything is inconsistent with what might have actually happened, in canon. Some of the things that seem that they are totally different, I will argue, once the film comes out, fall well within what could have been the non-time travel version of this move.
Anthony: So, for example, Kirk is different, because his back story has totally changed, in that his parents…and all that. But you are saying that maybe Scotty or Spock’s back story would not be affected by that change?
Anthony: Does the time travel explain why the Enterprise looks different and why it is being built in Riverside Iowa?
Bob: Yes, and yes.
Anthony: OK, well then some fans will say ‘fair enough, alternate timeline, we are used to that, but that is not my Kirk, that is some other Kirk.’ So is this still our movie, or are we seeing some other version of Star Trek?
Bob: Well that depends on whether or not you believe in nature or nurture and how much you believe in, for lack of a better word, their souls. I would argue that for the characters, their true nature does not change. Our motto for this movie was ‘same ship, different day.’
Alternative timeline in "Yesterday’s Enterprise"
Anthony: So then is time travel, and the alternative timeline, just a way to do a BSG-style reboot, while still remaining canon?
Bob: In some one else’s hands, maybe, but, again, much of what you will see could conform to classic canon, and thus we were not relying it as an excuse to change everything.
Anthony: So even though some things, most notably Kirk himself, are on a different path (for example he doesn’t go to the Farragut after the Academy), he still ends up on the Enterprise with Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, Spock, etc. Are you saying there is some kind of ‘entropy’ perhaps? So even though some things are different, they gravitate towards some kind of center point?
Bob: Yes. If you look at quantum mechanics and you learn about the fact that our most successful theory of science is quantum mechanics, and the fact that it deals with probabilities of events happening. And that the most probable events tend to happen more often and that one of the subsets of that theory is the many universe theory. Data said this [in "Parallels"], he summed up quantum mechanics as the theory that "all possibilities that can happen do happen" in a parallel universe. According to theory, there are going to be a much larger number of universes in which events are very closely related, because those are the most probable configurations of things. Inherent in quantum mechanics there is sort of reverse entropy, which is what you were trying to say, in which the universe does tend to want to order itself in a certain way. This is not something we are making up; this is something we researched, in terms of the physical theory. So yes, there is an element of the universe trying to hold itself together.
Data explains quantum physics in "Parallels"
Anthony: OK so let’s call the timeline Nero left, as ‘the prime timeline’, so that means that the USS Kelvin, as designed and seen in the trailer, that is also in the prime timeline?
Anthony: So what happens with the destruction of the Kelvin is the creation of an alternative timeline, but what happens to the prime timeline after Nero leaves it? Does it continue or does it wink out of existence once he goes back and creates this new timeline.
Bob: It continues. According to the most successful, most tested scientific theory ever, quantum mechanics, it continues.
Anthony: So everyone in the prime timeline, like Picard and Riker, are still off doing there thing, it is just that Nero is gone.
Bob: Yes, and you will notice that whenever the movie comes out, that whatever DVDs you have purchased, will continue to exist.
Anthony: OK we just dove pretty deep into Trek physics minutiae. Is any of that discussed in the film? In "Back To The Future II," there is that scene with the Doc and Marty, where the Doc explains time travel to Marty on a chalkboard. Does Spock ever do that with Kirk?
Bob: It would seem very logical. Quantum mechanics avoids the grandfather paradox that Back to the Future relies on, which is: you can go back in Back to the Future and screw with your own birth and potentially invalidate your own birth. In quantum mechanics that is not the case. In quantum mechanics, if you go back and kill your own father, then you just live on as the guy who came in from another universe who lives in a universe where you killed some guy, but you don’t erase your existence doing that.
Doc explains time travel to Marty in "Back To The Future II"
Anthony: And you believe that the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics is the Star Trek interpretation, based on "Parallels."
Bob: Yes. I would argue that at the very least, if we are going to do our Star Trek, it has to conform to the latest scientific theories and the most advanced and complete, and right now that is quantum mechanics.
Anthony: Star Trek has not always been consistent in this regard. For example both "Yesterday’s Enterprise" and "City on the Edge of Forever" seem to follow the Back to the Future rules of time travel, where new timelines overwrite previous timelines.
Bob: We have to deal with it, with the fact that Star Trek episodes that don’t conform to our theory of it, also do not conform to the latest greatest, most highly tested scientific theory in human history. So I would default that it is the science that counts. And say in the case of "Star Trek IV," it could go either way. They cross over to a parallel universe and grab some whales and bring them back and save their own universe.
Kirk and crew in "Star Trek IV", one of Trek’s many forays into time travel
Anthony: Although the "Parallels" view of time travel resolves the paradoxes and is based on quantum physics, doesn’t it also affect the level of the drama? Are there still life and death stakes if anything you do in the past has no real effect on the timeline you started in?
Bob: There are, of course, life and death stakes, they simply don’t involve the cartoonyness of having a picture of yourself fading away because you bumped into your mother [as it was in "Back to the Future"]. We are not relying on the time travel element to tell a good story. That’s why this is not "Terminator" or any other movie you’ve seen before. And yet, oddly, as a practical matter, most people who see this movie will not have read this interview. Most of the audience will assume the classical time travel rules still apply.
Anthony: Well in the history of Star Trek there are dozens of recorded time travel events, and so does every single one of those create a new timeline. For example when Ben Sisko goes back in time ["Past Tense"] and becomes Gabriel Bell, does every Trek episode after that exist in an alternative timeline where Ben Sisko is Gabriel Bell?
Bob: I would argue that, yes, any time there is time travel that they created a parallel universe, if they want to conform to our most current and advanced thinking on the matter, which is quantum mechanics.
Anthony: So starting with "The Naked Time," which is the first episode of Star Trek with time travel, where they just went briefly back in time and that even though they didn’t change anything, merely by going back in time they created a new timeline?
Trek travels back in time for the first time in "The Naked Time"
Anthony: And even though they are all very similar, that we are up to something like the 57th* timeline when we get to Nemesis due to all the previous time traveling.
Bob: If we take Data’s description of the most current and awesome scientific theory to heart, then there is no prime timeline. If everything that can happen, does happen, who is to say what the right timeline is.
Anthony: But elder Spock and Nero come from the last known Star Trek timeline, which is the post-Nemesis, Next Generation era, right?
Bob: Right, that is where they are starting, yes.
Anthony: And that timeline lives on after they leave?
Anthony: Traditionally in time travel plots from "Yesterdays Enterprise", "Star Trek: First Contact" and "City on the Edge of Forever" to the Back to the Future and Terminator series, the goal of the protagonists is to protect or restore the original timeline. Is that also the case in this movie? Is Spock’s mission to restore his original timeline?
Bob: No comment, I can’t give everything away [laughs]
Spock is back in time again in "Star Trek (2009)," but what is his mission?
To summarize…in FAQ form
All of the above can be a bit much to take in, and to paraphrase Captain Janeway ‘time travel gives you a headache.’ In reality you really won’t need to understand any of this to watch the movie. The above explains (in possibly too much detail) how the film resolves both the paradox of how the movie can appear different, but fit within canon, as well as how the film resolves the traditional paradoxes associated with time travel. So here it is in a simpler FAQ.
Q: Why do some things appear different in the new Star Trek movie?
A: There is an alternative timeline created by Nero traveling back in time.
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.
Q: Does this quantum theory approach conform to ‘Trek science?’
A: Depends on the episode, but it is explicitly cited by Data in the episode “Parallels.”
* 57 was just a number pulled out of the air. In actuality (according to Memory Alpha) there are 53 Star Trek episodes (including movies) involving time travel, many with multiple time travel events within them.
See part 1 of TrekMovie’s exclusive December interview with Roberto Orci.