Star Trek Time Travel and the Tension of the Present

There are a lot of jokes to be made about time travel in Star Trek. These crews from the 23rd and 24th century seem to travel to late 20th century Earth a disproportionate amount. The Original Series crew travels to 1960s Earth twice in their short 79 episode run, and to the 1930s Earth once (stuff like the gangster episode and the O.K. Corral episode don’t quite count as time travel). All of these episodes take place in America. The crew of the Voyager travels back to the 1960s and 1990s in “Future’s End”. In Star Trek IV, released in 1986, the Enterprise crew ends up in — big surprise here — the 1980s.

While this plot device can feel a bit tacky and cheap, and fails to live up to the vast potential of time travel storytelling, there is something smart about it. By sending characters from the future to their own times, the writers had the chance to make some commentary on the times they lived in, without succumbing to the blurring effects of memory and nostalgia.

Many people refer to the times when they were younger as “simpler times”. Were they, really? Or were we just younger, and paying less attention to the complicated things that were going on? The passage of time wears years, decades, centuries down in the minds of individuals, as well as in the public imagination, until they are reduced to the blurry nostalgia of good things, or the stark, jagged lines of bad things.

I know that many of us are looking forward and backward, inside out, and upside down to figure out what is going on in our present time. Sometimes, I think about what I will tell future generations when they ask about these times (since I’m not very interested in having children myself, and am more interested in becoming a professor, I tend to think what will I tell my college students one day?).

The real question is, “What will the verdict of the future be on what we do today?” It’s the same tension as the writers of those Star Trek episodes must have experienced. In the end, they made a decision to portray what they hoped the future would be like. Perhaps, in such a time as this, that’s all we can do, too. We can decide what we want the future to be, what we hope the next generations will say about us, and then fight to make those things real.

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