The penultimate episode of the original Star Trek series (TOS), “All Our Yesterdays,” has an interesting premise: an alien race faces certain destruction as their sun goes supernova, and instead of escaping into space, they use time travel to escape into their own history. On some level, it’s a parable of the original series itself, which was ostensibly exploring the depths of space, but found various ways to explore humanity’s past (including in some cases the writers’ own present). Viewed from our present perspective, though, it seems more a parable of the franchise as a whole, a franchise that keeps putting off its own demise by escaping into the past of the franchise itself.
The series has always made use of time travel plots, as the crew of every Star Trek vessel has found itself in some past earth era. Being a science fiction franchise, it also tries to create its own prehistory to connect it to the viewers’ world. The original series was ambiguous in its claims (whether purposefully, negligently, or some combination of the two) — if you want to disappear down a black hole of irrelevance, read online discussions of the dates of the Eugenics Wars (ostensibly taking place in the 1990s), World War III, and Colonel Green’s genocide. Up through Voyager, this playful or negligent attitude continued. A Deep Space 9 episode, for instance, contradicted TOS about the date of the Eugenics Wars (ostensibly by mistake), and a Voyager time-travel plot sent the crew back to the 90s where there was no sign of any Eugenics Wars raging (aside from a playful reference in the form of a small model of Khan’s vessel, the Botany Bay, on a character’s desk).
First Contact seemed to commit the franchise to at least one date: April 4, 2063, when Zefrem Cochrane makes the first successful warp-speed flight, attracting the attention of the Vulcans (a date which I have programmed into my Google Calendar just to be safe). Yet it does so by flagrantly violating previous canon about Cochrane’s career as established in the TOS episode “Metamorphosis.” So far, so talmudic.
The film itself seems to imply that everything is operating under the “world-historical event” theory of time travel: as long as the most important things happen, we’re all good, even if the details change. I don’t think the writers mean to make a claim that First Contact happened because the Borg travelled back in time and prompted Picard et al. to follow them and make sure things went on schedule. Seven of Nine implies that there’s a “predestination paradox” at work in a Voyager episode, but that’s from the Borg’s perspective — surely, surely we’re not to believe that First Contact is giving us a monstrous vision of the Star Trek universe travelling back in time to effectively cause itself, right?
With Enterprise, it seems that we settle on exactly that monstrosity. The First Contact time paradox effectively encloses the Star Trek universe into a recursive time-travel bubble — and what’s more, the overarching plot of the first two seasons is dominated by meddlers from the distant future (who themselves follow up on the “time police” who make an initial satirical appearance in Deep Space 9 and are then taken much more seriously in Voyager). As stupid as the Temporal Cold War plot is, it does at least release Enterprise from the grips of total historical determinism, opening up the space for the remarkable Xindi story arc in the third season, which I think is one of the most well-done sustained plot arcs in the whole franchise’s history.
Yet once that story is tied off and the Temporal Cold War is abruptly ended, Enterprise has nothing to do but escape into the interstices of the Star Trek universe, with a bunch of silly prequel episodes (and with the Mirror Universe sequence, even a combination sequel and prequel to different TOS episodes), retcons, and superficial “fan service” gags. The series itself even ends with the Next Generation crew retreating into the past that Enterprise represents for them, completing the circle.
And when it comes time to reboot, what do we do? Do we start with a clean slate? By no means — it has to be both a prequel and a time-travel plot, creating an alternate timeline that will be sure not to disturb the self-referential bubble of the old continuity, a bubble within a bubble.
As I was watching “All Our Yesterdays,” a thought occurred to me: why don’t the time travellers try to accelerate technological advancement in the past so that their future selves will be able to escape? Why not at least send back a warning party so that they can get started building a space ship? Why dutifully hide in the past, disturbing nothing? Was the past really so great and unsurpassable? Have they really reached their final horizon, so that nothing remains but to return again and again in an infinite loop? Perhaps they did consider it, but it appears they found it too stressful, too frightening, to risk reaching out to the outside world, to risk having some impact on real history. Better to stay within the little bubble they’ve created, floating out in space, affecting nothing and no one.