Star Trek: The Original Series – “Tomorrow is Yesterday” (season 1, episode 21)
Written by DC Fontana; directed by Michael O’Herlihy; first aired in 1967
In 1969, US Air Force Captain John Christopher is sent to intercept a UFO in the sky above Omaha, Nebraska. That UFO turns out to be the Enterprise, which was thrown backward in time by a convenient plot device. When Christopher’s plane is destroyed, Kirk has him beamed on board the Enterprise to save his life. The crew must now decide what to do with Christopher, and find a way back to their own time, preferably without doing any damage to the timeline.
Star Trek: Voyager – “Future’s End” (season 3, episodes 8 and 9)
Written by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky; directed by David Livingston (part 1) and Cliff Bole (part 2); first aired in 1996
In 1967, a hippy on a camping trip witnesses something falling from the sky. In the 24th century, Voyager is attacked by a Federation ‘timeship’ (Convenient Plot Device class) from the 29th century, whose captain claims that Voyager will somehow be the cause of a catastrophic event in his time, and must be destroyed. His utterly incompetent attempt to do so creates a timey-wimey rift that returns Voyager to Earth … which would be great, if it hadn’t also sent them back to 1996. Looking for the crashed timeship and a way back to their own time, Janeway and an away team beam down to Los Angeles, and run into that hippy fellow from the opening, who has built a tech empire using technology from the timeship … and whose plan to use the timeship to scavenge more technology from the 29th century may cause the catastrophe Captain Incompetent warned them about.
What is it with Star Trek and time travel?
That might seem like a weird question to ask. Time travel stories have always been a big part of Trek, beginning in the very first season of its very first TV series, and some of its most memorable episodes and movies – “City on the Edge of Tomorrow” (TOS), “All Good Things…” (TNG), Star Trek VI: The Voyage Home, Star Trek: First Contact – have revolved around time travel. But why? Trek is already set in the far future, in order to show us a favorable vision of what humanity might someday be capable of. What does exploring other times add to this vision? And of all the times Trek could send its characters to, why set both “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and “Future’s End” in what was, when they first aired, the present?
It’s easy enough to imagine the motivation behind these episodes from a production standpoint; after all, truly exploring deep space and alien civilizations has always been a challenge to the budget and effects Star Trek was working with, and episodes set in the present – episodes which could make use of existing sets and costumes from other shows, or even real locations – must have been cheaper and easier to make. But there’s more to it than just budget concerns, I think. Science fiction is, at its core, always more about the present than the future, and Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision was never meant to just reassure us that the future would be better than the present. Trek has always had an activist sensibility to it; it’s always encouraged us to compare our own world to the Federation, and to the alien civilizations the crew would visit, and to maybe see our own world a little differently as a result. While this is usually subtext – sometimes subtle, sometimes not – Tomorrow is Yesterday and Future’s End each take that subtext and make it text, by having our crews from the future interact directly with the audience’s present. They’re both relatively light episodes, and we’ll look at some more serious and profound approaches to time travel in the coming weeks. But for now, these two episodes give us an interesting glimpse into Trek’s relationship with the real world.
Both episodes begin, strikingly, in what the characters would see as the distant past. “Tomorrow is Yesterday” opens on images of an American airbase in what is later identified as 1969 – 2 years after the episode would first air – and then moves on to the impressive sight of the Enterprise in Earth orbit, surrounded not by black space and a star field, but by blue sky and fluffy white clouds. It’s a beautiful, compelling image, and it might be the perfect way to begin a story like this. The Enterprise’s presence there is briefly scienced away after the opening credits, but the creative team behind this episode was wise enough to know that the ‘why’ behind the premise can’t possibly be as interesting as the premise itself, and so they don’t spend much time on it.
That opening scene, contrasting the late-60s setting with the iconically futuristic image of the Enterprise, prepares the audience for a comparison of 20th– and 23rd-century human culture and technology, and that’s exactly what we get, with mixed degrees of success. John Christopher is capable and compelling; unlike the security guard who is transported on board the Enterprise later in the episode, Christopher is amazed but not shell-shocked, out of his element but actively adapting. It’s interesting how both he and Kirk become audience surrogates, in a way: Christopher stands in for the Star Trek audience of the 1960s (or anyone new to Trek now), taking in the advanced technology and culture of the 23rd century; and Kirk could almost represent Trek fans (or even Roddenberry and the writers themselves), trying to walk a new viewer through the inspirational, aspirational, and, yes, sometimes silly world-building of Star Trek.
Christopher’s shock at seeing women serving on the Enterprise mostly works, I think, given the time at which the episode was written. I like that he recovers quickly from that shock, and is seen listening attentively to Uhura on the bridge, rather than, say, refusing to take her seriously because she’s a woman. This reinforces Trek as an aspirational utopia, and not just escapism; it subtly suggests that people can adjust to social progress more easily than we might think (which is certainly a welcome thought in 2017, when it seems like some of us are more militantly resistant to social progress than ever).
As for the less successful elements – and as long as we’re on the subject of gender equity – the running joke about Kirk’s “female” computer is … well, it’s just really, really stupid. I’m guessing it was included as a way of showing that things still aren’t *perfect* in the 23rd century, giving Christopher a chance to use the line, “You people certainly have interesting problems.” But I have a hard time believing this running joke wouldn’t have come across as obnoxious and sexist even in the 60s. And the notion that any computer programmed by women would be uncontrollably flirty feels doubly weird in 2017, given that the tendency for personal assistant software, like Siri, to default to an attractive-sounding female voice has become such a symbol of Silicon Valley tech-bro culture.
Which brings us to Future’s End, which starts with a scene set in 1967, the same year “Tomorrow is Yesterday” first aired. It’s a nice detail that the harmless-looking hippy who witnesses the crash of the timeship turns out to be Henry Starling, who would go on to become an evil tech-bro himself by the time the Voyager crew meets him in 1996 (the same year this episode would first air). “Tomorrow is Yesterday” had adversaries (in the airbase guards) and obstacles (in the actually-easily-solved problems of how to get back to the 23rd century, and what to do with Christopher), but “Future’s End” adds the element of an out-and-out villain in Starling, and he’s probably the best part of this two-part episode.
When I sat down to watch these two stories of characters from the future visiting a present which is, to me, now the past, I expected there would be elements that wouldn’t hold up (Kirk’s computer trouble being an extreme example of that). But Starling, as the casually dressed, casually murderous CEO of a tech company, holds up surprisingly well in 2017. It’s easy to imagine the character being played as a theatrical megalomaniac, but Ed Begley Jr. gives a performance that emphasizes the banality of Starling’s evil, playing him as though it would never even occur to him that he shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing – whether it’s ordering a murder, threatening to destroy a city, or even endangering an entire solar system. He sees it all as being justified by his contributions to humanity’s technological progress … and he defines ‘technological progress’ as things he can sell. Like more than a few real-world Silicon Valley kajillionaires, I’m sure, Starling is a “break a few eggs to make an omelette” kind of guy. He’s also the guy selling the omelettes.
Starling provides an interesting angle from which to examine what Trek’s utopian vision says about the real world, what it suggests might be the path to real utopia. Trek has always presented the advanced technology and advanced society of the Federation as going hand in hand; several characters have implied, on several series of Trek, that it was solving humanity’s social ills that allowed for its greatest technological achievements. Starling represents an opposing view; he believes that technological progress must be allowed to continue unabated, and that society will, naturally, be better off for it (and, again, his convenient, cyclical logic defines ‘better off’ as having the chance to buy what he’s selling). In Starling’s conversations with the Doctor and Janeway, we see these two philosophies contrasted directly. Starling literally can’t believe that the Voyager crew is motivated by altruism, that they’re searching for the timeship – technology more advanced than their own – for any reason other than to steal it for themselves. And for her part, Janeway is genuinely shocked by Starling’s amorality, by his willingness to threaten the destruction of Los Angeles, and to risk destroying an entire solar system with his misuse of the timeship. Their dialogue brings the Trek vision of a future utopia into stark contrast with our real world:
Janeway: In my time, Mr. Starling, no human being would dream of endangering the future to gain advantage in the present.
Starling: Captain, the future you’re talking about, that’s 900 years from now. I can’t be concerned about that right now. I have a company to run, and a whole world full of people waiting for me to make their lives a little bit better.
If you can imagine this conversation very plausibly taking place between a time traveller from the future and a CEO (or POTUS) from our own time, you’re not the only one. The danger that Starling represents – and the contrast between Trek’s utopian future and the real world – could hardly be any starker, any more relevant, than it is as I write this, in 2017. It’s kind of heartbreaking to think of how far we are from the future Janeway describes, in which it’s simply a given that humans will put the greater good before their own self-interest; if this episode took place in 2017, instead of 1996, I can easily imagine Starling having an army of Twitter eggs, defending him with Tweets like “actually stealing technology from the 29th century is good” or “yes blow up LA, nothing but libtards there anyway!!!”. It’s hard to imagine how we could ever get from here to a place where any of us could be trusted to use technology as potentially dangerous as the timeship, but at least Janeway points us in the right direction: according to Trek, utopia (or something closer to utopia, at least) is built on putting society before ourselves, on bending technological progress to the needs of social progress, and not the other way around. How hard can it be to convince people of that? *sigh*
Speaking of how dangerous the timeship is, there are a number of story-logic problems in “Future’s End”, and, for me at least, they stand out more than similar issues in “Tomorrow is Yesterday” (beaming down Christopher and the guard at the exact right time synchs them up with their past selves, and erases their memories of the last few hours? Okay …), if only because more time is spent explaining them. Even if the Federation is as utopian, and its citizens as altruistic, as we’re led to believe, it seems crazy that they’d allow the use of technology as potentially dangerous as the timeship (which, if used slightly incorrectly, could cause the destruction of an entire solar system). And the timeship’s Captain Incompetent (Braxton, as he’s called in the show) isn’t exactly a glowing example of the best the 29th-century Federation has to offer. Why does he immediately attack Voyager, instead of using his timeship to first investigate Voyager’s role in the 29th-century disaster?
For all the work “Future’s End” puts into explaining the crew’s trip into the past, the temporal mechanics of the plot aren’t any more plausible than those in “Tomorrow is Yesterday”; the 29th-century explosion must be prevented, but Starling’s polluting of the timeline with future technology can just be left as is? Mostly, it feels like these details are there to fill out the two-part episode’s running time, as is much of Tuvok and Paris’s interactions with Sarah Silverman’s Rain Robinson, and the entire bizarre C-story in which Chakotay and Torres are captured by a right-wing militia (again, more timely than I’m comfortable with, but serving literally zero story purpose here, as far as I can tell). “Tomorrow is Yesterday” really did have the right idea: it’s probably fine for the mechanics of time travel to make no sense – I mean, I love a good time travel story, but let’s be honest, the logistics of time travel never make sense – but just make sure you don’t spend enough time on those details for it to matter very much.
Overall, logistical problems and depressing musings about the dystopian 21st century aside, “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and “Future’s End” provide a fun opportunity to mix the Trek universe with our own and see what happens. They make a good primer, I think, on how time travel works in the Trek universe. And next week, we’ll see time travel put to its full potential, when we compare “Past Tense” (DS9) to one of the best episodes Trek has ever produced: “City on the Edge of Forever” (TOS).