Earlier this month in an exclusive interview with TrekMovie.com, Star Trek co-writer and executive producer Roberto Orci finally came clean and explained how the new Star Trek movie fit in with Star Trek canon, and the explanation involved a bit of Trek science and real science. Today TrekMovie takes a closer look at all of this with the help of some noted experts in both science and Star Trek. [SPOILERS]
Star Trek 2009 and the alternative timeline
(aka what we should have already known)
Earlier this month in an interview TrekMovie.com, Star Trek co-writer Roberto Orci confirmed that Star Trek starts in the same canon universe that we are familiar with, but that much of the new film takes place in an alternative universe/timeline, which was created when the villain Nero goes back in time from the TNG era and destroys the USS Kelvin (a ship with both of James T. Kirk’s parents on board).
Time travel, alternative timelines and universes are nothing new for Trek and so even though the article launched over a thousand comments as well as coverage across the media, many observers were not surprised. AICN noted that this alternative universe approach is something you could have picked up on "if you’ve been following the film at all" and AMC SciFi Scanner said the solution was "exactly what everyone assumed all along." And for the mainstream perspective, the LA Examiner noted the discussion was something "only the devout need dare care enough" about, and they just hope that JJ Abrams "makes the movie rock." Which is a good point.
The ‘Star Trek’ trailer shows that things are not exactly as we saw them in TOS…hinting at the alternative universe/timeline
The Quantum Physics of Star Trek 2009
But here at TrekMovie we are ‘the devout’ so we like to go that extra step, as does Bob Orci. In the original interview Orci went on to state that even though the new film posits an alternative universe, the ‘original’ universe was left unchanged. Although Orci noted that this is not necessarily something that needs to be understood to enjoy the film, it could have implications with regard to future films or the ‘extended universe’ of Star Trek. For example it would be perfectly within canon for there to be books, comics and games set in either universe, including the ‘original’ universe after Nero and Spock left for the ‘alternative’ universe. It also shows that the film makers do not see the new film as ‘overwriting’ Star Trek canon and history as we know it.
As precedent for this view Orci cited both Star Trek history (such as the episode "Parallels") as well as real quantum mechanics and specifically the ‘Many Worlds Interpretation‘ which posits that every decision creates a new universe. This view not only allows both universes to co-exist, but also resolves the many paradoxes normally associated with time travel. Orci and writing partner Alex Kurtzman did their homework regarding the theoretical science of time travel and quantum mechanics. In a follow-up Orci tells TrekMovie that four books were particularly helpful: "Black Holes and Time Warps" by Kip Thorne, "Parallel Universes" by Fred Wolf, "The Fabric of Reality" by David Deutsch, and "Hyperspace" by Michio Kaku.
In the following video clip, Kaku explains how time travel and the many world interpretation could work.
Quantum mechanics can’t save Star Wars Episode I, but it can work for ‘Star Trek – 2009’
Trek science experts weigh in
We have heard from Orci’s expert (above video), so TrekMovie decided to check in with a couple of Star Trek science experts to see what they thought of all of this.
Andre Bormanis, author of "Star Trek Science Logs" worked as a science advisor for the Star Trek franchise from the seventh season of TNG all the way trough DS9, Voyager and Enterprise as well as some of the TNG feature films. He also was a writer and producer for both Voyager and Enterprise. Bormanis says that he agrees with Orci that quantum mechanics is "the most successful theory in physics" and also notes there isn’t a single interpretation that is considered the ‘right’ solution:
[Many worlds] is one way of looking at quantum mechanics but not everyone agrees that it is the right way, certainly it is not the only way. The many worlds interpretation is fun in terms of science fiction, but it isn’t necessarily how every physicist thinks of quantum mechanics. It is one of several interpretations.
ASU Physics Professor Lawrence M. Krauss, author of "The Physics of Star Trek" and "Beyond Star Trek," agrees, telling TrekMovie that the MWI "is one perfectly adequate approach to trying to understand quantum mechanics in terms of our classical reality." However Krauss also notes:
Jumping back in time and starting a new timeline has been suggested as one way to avoid the time travel paradoxes that would otherwise result. It is probably the only way to avoid this, other than having time repeat itself exactly. Nevertheless I am not convinced this remains consistent with the laws of physics as we understand them. However, it is certainly consistent with the way Star Trek has tried to handle time travel.
Bormanis also points to how the Many Worlds interpretation has the added benefit of resolving time travel issues, noting it "was not intended to address the grandfather paradox, but it just happened to provide an answer to it." In the following video from a Discovery Channel program on time travel, Oxford University physicist David Deutsch (author of one of Orci and Kurtzman’s reference books) explains how MWI resolves the grandfather paradox (the video also features DS9 showrunner Ira Steven Behr on the bridge of the USS Defiant):
MWI resolves that pesky grandfather thing
A clever ‘Star Trek’ solution
Looking at the views of Kaku, Deutsch, Krauss and Bormanis it is clear that quantum mechanics is valid science and that Orci’s preferred flavor is at least acceptable as a possible valid interpretation, but more importantly it is consistent with Star Trek storytelling. Bormanis tells TrekMovie that he feels Orci and the team show "respect for Trek history," but their approach allows them to take liberties, noting "I think it is a pretty clever way to go." The Trek vet even hypothesized that with this view, then the ‘mirror universe’ (first seen in the TOS episode “Mirror, Mirror“) could have been created in the episode “City on the Edge of Forever” in an alternative version “where Kirk and Spock did not succeed in their mission and Edith Keeler survived”.
Bormanis also points out that although there are dozens of Star Trek episodes (and three feature films) that deal with time travel, there has not been a uniform approach:
Star Trek’s approach to time travel has not been consistent. They have played both sides of the street. A lot of people forget, when you look back at The Original Series, there were a lot of inconsistencies…from the beginning. I think that Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman are perfectly within their rights to essentially reinvent The Original Series, yet it sounds to me like they have gone out of their way to be consistent with the established tenants of the Star Trek universe and whatever deviations they introduce are going to be accounted for by a time travel element which is accounted for in the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Some fans have also brought up the question of whether or not the characters in an alternative timeline are the same characters or totally different. This is probably more important than any of the science. Orci tells TrekMovie that their motto for the film was "same ship, different day." TrekMovie asked Bormanis how he sees this issue of characters and alternative universes, and he uses the fan favorite (and alternative timeline) TNG episode "Yesterday’s Enterprise" as an example, noting:
It is a different shade of the same color. So that Picard [in "Yesterday’s Enterprise] — he was recognizably Picard in many ways. He carried himself the same, he had the same character traits and the same was true of the others, but they lived in a different universe and they were shaped by different events. If your characters occupy a different universe and have a different history then it is true they are different characters, but how different is the critical question. I don’t think Picard and Guinan were all that different in "Yesterday’s Enterprise" from the characters that we had been familiar with.
For his part, Orci had previously cited “Yesterday’s Enterprise” as one of the key episodes that they referred to when writing the script and in his more recent interview the writer emphasized that “some things are different, but not everything is different” in this alternative universe.
Are these not the heroes we know — in the closing of "Yesterday’s Enterprise"
Is it May yet?
So there you have it. The Abrams team have used a Star Trek convention (time travel and alternative universes) in order to thread the needle between a traditional prequel and a traditional reboot — allowing them some changes while staying within the canon of Trek history. It also allows them to have Leonard Nimoy’s Spock interacting with the main cast and involved with the plot, instead of having the film just be a big flasback. Of course, the proof will be in the pudding and so far all we have is an approach. The time travel is not the ‘end,’ it is only a means to an end, so we still don’t know why the characters are doing what they are doing and what the consequences are…and for that we will need to see the actual movie.
All of this time travel, paradoxes, and quantum mechanics stuff is fun for science fans, but if it isn’t your thing, then take a hint from Austin Powers and just try to enjoy the movie.
Dive into the depths of quantum mechanics…or maybe just sit back and have fun…whatever works for you.