Let’s talk about time travel this week! I would like to say I thought of this topic due to the temporal incursion known as “Daylight Saving Time” that we all experienced, but it really was inspired by the episodes whose anniversaries are this week.
Today is Alfre Woodard’s b-day. More well known now for a couple of roles in the MCU, she was Lily in Star Trek: First Contact.
This week is the 22nd anniversary of the Voyager two-parter “Future’s End,” wherein Voyager travels to the 1990s and meets Sarah Silverman. It’s also the 21st anniversary of “Year of Hell,” a large story that features a timelord-esque villain played by Red from “That 70’s Show.” It’s ALSO the fifteenth anniversary of Enterprise’s “Twilight,” which is basically their version of DS9’s “The Visitor.” Some people really like it. It’s ALSO the 22nd anniverserary of “Trials and Tribble-ations,” which is DS9’s delightful romp into the original series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.”
(big shout out to https://twitter.com/TodayinStarTrek which keeps me straight on all this stuff and is honestly the twitter account I visit the most often).
So with all of that on my mind, writing about time travel seemed like a fixed destiny. Which is fine with me. I love time travel stories. I always have. When I was a kid, the idea fascinated me. My earliest favorite shows were Superbook, Flying House, and Voyagers! — all of which featured time travel. I had an entire collection of poster-sized timelines. I would pour over these, reading every detail, imagining myself sliding back and forth across the colored lines to different centuries and events.
Being an American kid whose PBS channel showed no Doctor Who, Star Trek was a primary source for getting my time traveling fix. I ate up every episode that even mentioned the idea. The very first piece of “behind the scenes” info that I remember learning was that the brief time traveling at the end of “The Naked Time” was supposed to take them back to the sixties, and was to be a multi-part episode that eventually became “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” I enjoyed “The City on the Edge of Forever,” but being a bit of a little psychopath I got bored that there was so much hemming and hawing over killing one measly person who from their future perspective was already dead. I cared less about individuals and more about world building (thus why I’m the target audience for Sid Meier) and about how society and culture changes from century to century. How what people think is forever and fundamental is really societal and transient.
So my favorite TOS time travel episode was, and continues to be, “All our Yesterdays.” This was an episode that had multiple time periods within a single plot. More than that — and this remains rare — it is an episode that focuses on the history of a planet other than Earth! Sure, it’s very earthlike and the history is only laid out in very broad strokes, but we do learn more about this planet than many worlds the Enterprise visited. There’s an earth age, a period gripped in paranoia with an inquisition against witches, a cruel tyrant with access to time travel, and the death of the planet with a mass exodus.
(sidenote: “All our Yesterdays” guest starred the late Ian Wolfe, whose birthday was November 4th. Yet another time travel related trek anniversary this week).
There’s another reason I really like “All our Yesterdays,” and that’s because I consider it the series finale of TOS. Sure, it was made and aired before “Turnabout Intruder,” but it has the highest stardate meaning that chronologically it comes last. And I’m holding on to that because it contains something that a TOS series finale should do: it finally pays off the tension between McCoy and Spock. They finally really have it out, in the most nakedly aggressive no-holds barred argument the two of them ever have. This is the peak of the conflict between the two of them, and away from the balancing influence of Kirk they really let each other have it.
Spock and McCoy have remained a fascinating relationship through 50 years because while their like of each other is genuine, their problems with each other are as well. They both honestly think the other’s approach to life is not just naive, but downright dangerous. As fellow Avocado Glyph put it, “”Dr. McCoy, Space Racist” has become the popular shorthand narrative on that character and I’ve even made those jokes myself, but I continue to maintain that while McCoy frequently expresses his feelings in (intentionally archaic) racist language, the character’s true beef with Vulcans and Spock is always at root philosophical, as he does not trust pure cold logic to allow sufficient space for human inspiration and empathy.” Their arguments often have a tinge of personal insults to them, but are usually not openly hostile and dirty.
Not so here. Yes, Spock is not quite himself here (and Leonard Nimoy takes full advantage to show us a different version of the character), but I don’t think we are seeing anything in Spock that isn’t real, only usually covered. At 32 minutes into the episode, McCoy says his traditional semi-racist “You pointy-eared Vulcan!” After years of putting up with it, this time Spock picks McCoy up by his shirt and gives one of the best line readings in the entire series: “I don’t like that,” says Spock in a tone that is both cold and furious. “I don’t think I ever did and now I’m sure.”
Spock is wrong in the argument, but McCoy kind of had that coming to him. Kind of had it coming to him for years.
In the end, Spock realizes that McCoy is the logical one trying to save Spock from his own passions — which is a wonderful role-reversal. It makes the episode a satisfying book end to their relationship. That’s the other thing a good time travel episode can do: by being a fish-out-of-water story, it can distill and reframe the characters so that they can develop in ways that they could not in their usual surroundings (not unlike how Spock going to a more primitive era of humanity — the eighties — helped Spock get in touch with his human side in Star Trek IV).
(tangent: this episode also provides a crisis of identity and motivation for Spock that could hypothetically explain why he leaves starfleet and becomes basically a space monk, as seen at the beginning of TMP. Another reason why it is a superior choice for true series finale).
So I’ve only mentioned a few in a wide, wide slew of Star Trek time travel episodes. Just off the top of my head, there’s also “Assignment: Earth” (the Gary Seven one), “Yesteryear” (Spock meets his mini-me), “Past Tense,” (Sisko goes to a 2024 that is depressingly possible given current politics), “All Good Things” (Picard hops around his own timeline), “Before and After” (Kes travels backward through her life due to an incident that forms the basis of “Year of Hell”) “Timeless” (Ensign Kim fucks up the timeline on purpose) and “Endgame” (Janeway fucks up the timeline . . . also on purpose). Oh, and there’s about a million Enterprise episodes that at least mention time travel since there’s a whole temporal cold war thing going on.
And I know I’ve forgotten some. Let me know in the comments which ones pop to mind.
Some of these episodes use time travel to do amazing character work. Some of them are fun jaunts. Some get a little tedious. What tops your list? What is the best use of time travel in Star Trek? And do you prefer the episodes where they travel to historical periods, or the ones where they are traveling within their own lifespan, or time-loop episodes like “Cause and Effect,” (also known as the Kelsey Grammer Groundhog Day episode)?
And now, a random image from Memory Alpha
(P.S. if you are interested in other friendships like Spock/McCoy, don’t forget to check out the Avocado’s platonic friends tournament )