EXCLUSIVE: Bob Orci Explains How The New Star Trek Movie Fits With Trek Canon (and Real Science)

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?

Bob: Right.

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?

Bob: Yes

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?

Bob: Yes


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?

Bob: Yes.

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.

 

 

 

More Orci
See part 1 of TrekMovie’s exclusive December interview with Roberto Orci.

 

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Enterprise
December 11, 2008 10:19 pm

Great stuff. The movie will be awesome.

BonesCLCW
December 11, 2008 10:26 pm

Wow! I’m confused!

Enterprise
December 11, 2008 10:28 pm

If Spock and Spock meet the universe will either explode, or they’ll just faint.

Curtis
December 11, 2008 10:29 pm

As soon as I read “Spoilers Below” I skimmed right down to the bottom and tried not to read anything else – although I did peak, damnit! Why must your articles be so interesting and why must I be so weak?!?!

;)

December 11, 2008 10:30 pm

Wow…that was a heavy discussion. Quantum mechanics always makes my head spin.

McCoy's Gall Bladder
December 11, 2008 10:33 pm

I wonder why they dont explain that when Kirk & crew came to Omaha in the 1960’s they prevented the Eugenics War in the 1990’s and how when Kirk & crew came back in 1986, they caused WW3

Just saying…

I dont mind them fooling with the timeline.

Ratchet & Clang
December 11, 2008 10:33 pm

I must say, studying Quantum Physics… this certainly boosted my interest in this film. My hat is off to the gentlemen, this will be a very interesting film…

:)

NOW I can sleep easy tonight knowing this bit of info!

Harry Ballz
December 11, 2008 10:35 pm

The last part of the interview is what caught my attention….if the original timeline continues after Nero and Spock go back in time, then where is the motivation for Spock to want to go back in time unless he isn’t privy to the fact that no change will happen and only discovers that later in the movie before returning to his own original future!

Everybody got that?

Sheesh!

Mackenzie
December 11, 2008 10:36 pm

I think I speak for all of us, if I say… huh?

sean
December 11, 2008 10:36 pm

Reading this article gave me a technobabblegasm.

McCoy's Gall Bladder
December 11, 2008 10:37 pm

53 time incursions, no wonder BonesCLCW is confused.

To some, Trek is a great universe to tell stories in, to others, its a religion.

No wonder they banned it in Futurama!

just saying…

December 11, 2008 10:38 pm

Same here, I’m confused.. but this article begs the question:

Has anyone tried diagraming the many different timelines that are how out there? Where would one start, and how would Archer’s trip to the future fit into that map?

That would certainly be interesting.. not to mention (dare I say) fascinating..

Gravitic Yours
December 11, 2008 10:38 pm

I’d rather have seen a Batman-style reboot than this, personally. Time travel is too easy to get wrong plus we have seen it way too many times. The canonistas won’t be happy in any case so why bother with the silly pretense?

I’m definitely excited about this movie…however…

It’s time for a future producer of Star Trek to travel back in time to ensure that this is the very last and final time travel related Star Trek story ever made. Time travel in Star Trek is second only to the problems created by the invention of the holodeck in post-TOS Star Trek. Both are the ”kryptonite” of the Star Trek realm.

Jordan
December 11, 2008 10:38 pm

I’m confused. They are using an alternate timeline as an excuse to change cannon and do what they want? Thats BS.

Vance S
December 11, 2008 10:39 pm

This is a beautiful solution to canon concerns. It respects what has been, while allowing it to be seen in a new light.

Closettrekker
December 11, 2008 10:40 pm

“Fascinating”.

OneBuckFilms
December 11, 2008 10:40 pm

8 – Nero is still endangering lives, even if they are in an alternate timeline.

There fore, with or without Quantum Mechanics, the logical imperative remains the same.

His way of saving lives:

Help Kirk and himself to become who they are meant to be to stop Nero.

Michael
December 11, 2008 10:40 pm

So how do these multiple timelines explain Vulcan’s BLUE sky in the trailer?

McCoy's Gall Bladder
December 11, 2008 10:43 pm

Hi Harry!

If everything that can happen, does and will, then nothing we do is in vain.

Ever read that Azimov story about the guy that puts the gun to his head and dies, puts it down, it jams, it’s unloaded, etc.?

There was also a parallel universe where Hemingway wrote slightly different stories and eventually, each time he tried to kill himself, an alternate version still lived, skipping into a new universe each time until the end of time. Not a Trek story, but one of those “Years Best” Sci-Fi compilations.

Then one of my favorites was a short story about what would have happened if the Lindbergh baby had lived, instead of having his head bashed in. I wish I still had that story.

Quantum Physics doesnt jibe with Einstein Physics anyway. If everything that could happen does, and already did, then what’s the point of doing anything at all?

Harry Ballz
December 11, 2008 10:44 pm

#19

Reasonable, I guess, but from a dramatic storytelling point of view, it’s difficult to get “worked up” over the danger to individuals who live in alternate realities.

I mean, come on, if you’re concerned about THAT, where the hell do you draw the line?

OneBuckFilms
December 11, 2008 10:45 pm

20 – Vulcan’s atmospheric appearance might be weather based.

We have seen only a select couple of locations on Vulcan.

On a Class M planet, the atmosphere likely changes appearance depending on weather, similar to Earth, and that may change noticably depending on geographical location on the surface.

Enterprise
December 11, 2008 10:45 pm

What about when the Borg ended up in the arctic in Enterprise? That changed everything we know right there.

McCoy's Gall Bladder
December 11, 2008 10:48 pm

What I dont understand is why CGI the Vasquez rocks forver to stand in for Vulcan?

I like the way Vulcan was presented in Search

Harry Ballz
December 11, 2008 10:48 pm

#20 McCoy’s Gall Bladder “what’s the point of doing anything at all?”

EXACTLY!

As a matter of fact, after reading this interview, I’m so depressed over alternate realities, I’m sleeping in tomorrow!

What’s the point of getting out of bed?

Mackenzie
December 11, 2008 10:49 pm

#25 Um…. women?

AJ
December 11, 2008 10:52 pm

Great stuff.

Now we need Closettrekker to spend his whole Friday explaining it to us.

Hi Closet!

AJ

Harry Ballz
December 11, 2008 10:52 pm

#26 Couldn’t you simply extend the invitation to have them join you?

To me that’s just good time management!

December 11, 2008 10:53 pm

#26 now that’s funny.. ;) doesn’t work for everyone though..

Author of "The Vulcan Neck Pinch for Fathers"
December 11, 2008 10:54 pm

I think this interview was a $14.49 way of saying “yeah, we reboot everything that was canon, but everything that is canon is still valid, because this is just an alternate universe extrapolation of a different timeline.”

Somewhere, I think I just had a flashback to Bobby Ewing talking to Victoria Principal and explaining away an entire season of “Dallas” as a dream…..

Iyellkhan
December 11, 2008 10:59 pm

I have to ask, if we branch into another universe inherently by traveling into the past, and the original timeline continues after we’ve left and or changed anything, then what good is going back in time and killing off kirk or spock?

just sayin…

Harry Ballz
December 11, 2008 11:01 pm

#31

Hey, thanks, you just saved me $11.

cd
December 11, 2008 11:07 pm

I would have liked to have seen an attempt at real Star Trek, not a convoluted redo to make Ultimate Star Trek. Oh, well, it’s just a movie. >|>{

gp1477
December 11, 2008 11:07 pm

So…they are not calling it a reboot but are going to stage this new history in an alternate timeline so they can create a new history…what? How is that NOT a reboot in sheep’s clothing?

cd
December 11, 2008 11:09 pm

#14 – agreed.

Chris Basken
December 11, 2008 11:09 pm

What I got from this article is that quantum mechanics is the most advanced, best-tested scientific theory in the history of humanity. :-P

BTW, the “many worlds” theory does, indeed, require that the original timeline gets wiped out. “Many worlds” is something of a misnomer. It’s really more like “many configurations.” If you actually created a whole new universe by going back in time, it would take as much energy that is actually IN an entire universe to make the trip (otherwise where does this new universe come from?). But “many worlds” really means that the positions and whatnot of all the particles gets reconfigured once you arrive. You won’t wipe out your own past and fade like Marty, but you’ll “overwrite” the universe moving forward from your arrival point.

Not that it matters. “Many worlds” also maintains that travel between the quantum realities is impossible, so…

Yspano
December 11, 2008 11:10 pm

Oh, haha, that sounded like a cheat. XDDD

Weerd1
December 11, 2008 11:11 pm

He’s thinking- I like that. Half of the enjoyment of any fiction for me is the production not treating the audience like we’re idiots. With Star Trek, the other half for me is the production understanding my complete adoration for the source material.

Cap'n Calhoun
December 11, 2008 11:12 pm

> Pine and Kirk are hanging out in a bar.

Now *that’s* going to be hard to explain. ;-)

cd
December 11, 2008 11:13 pm

#15 – with what we have seen so far, that is the way it appears to me too.

Atlantians
December 11, 2008 11:13 pm

Latest Greatest “most tested scientific theory ever” what nonsense!

Half of the theory is supposition and a great majority of what is left is pure math and utterly untestable as of yet.

Anyone else get the “beating that into my brain because you can’t actually prove it” feeling? Considering how many times “Bob” repeated it?

He said it in grand and eloquent, yet pointless, flourishes at least 5 times.

Aragorn189
December 11, 2008 11:14 pm

So they are making it so that everything that has happened previously timeline wise has always subtly changed the timeline in every Trek episode in movie regarding time travel. Sounds like a good explanation. I also like the fact that he mentioned how the universe likes to Gravitate in a certain way. And it doesn’t mean that this subtlely alternate timeline won’t flow into the normal timeline to some degree. You just have to leave somethings up to the imagination.

December 11, 2008 11:16 pm

I worked on this stuff for 15 years and even *I’m* confused. :) But as Steven Wright observed, “I was walking down the street the other day and– wait, that wasn’t me…”

Chris Basken
December 11, 2008 11:17 pm

BTW, I like the gobbledy-gook of the quantum explanation, and it fits with what I was saying a few threads ago that this movie, for all intents and purposes, is completely disconnected from the TOS reality.

This doesn’t diminish my interest in the characters at all. It’s not like the TOS reality was “real” reality.

RMBurnett
December 11, 2008 11:20 pm

Folks,

Know what? I’m ENTIRELY down with this.

Orsi’s comments engender much trust. Especially after watching the recent episode of UNIVERSE which deals with parallel universes.

Why didn’t they just say this from the beginning?

I LOVE this idea. I really do.

Unfortunately, this Trek universe wound up with absurd production design.

Other than that…Trek on!

Harry Ballz
December 11, 2008 11:20 pm

So, if the Universe tends to gravitate towards what was intended to happen, does that mean in any alternate reality I’d still be stuck with taking Debbie Simms to the Senior Prom?

Aw, crap!

Boborci
December 11, 2008 11:21 pm
Tony Whitehead
December 11, 2008 11:25 pm

I have a lot of faith in the writers and the production team, but I sort of hope I don’t need to take a wall chart of alternative timelines with me to understand and enjoy the movie. Give us layers of storytelling, but don’t bog us down in techspeak, please!

Captain Pike
December 11, 2008 11:27 pm

I’ll go see it. But I’d rather have had a story set in the classic canon TOS universe without time travel for the 53rd time!

braxus
December 11, 2008 11:29 pm

You think that is confusing, wait until you add in the negative mirror universe into all this. Matter- antimatter. The two meet and BOOM!

wpDiscuz