Orci on Time Travel in Trek XI

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I was really looking forward to the eleventh Star Trek film, due out in a few months now. Casting Zachary Quinto as young Spock was brilliant, and I'll have to see the movie for that even if for no other reason, although I think loyalty to the franchise would be sufficient grounds to see it anyway. But I'm no longer holding my breath about whether it will be a good movie. If it is, I'll be pleasantly surprised, but I'm not expecting as much as I had. I was already a bit skeptical about a script written by the writers responsible for the recent Transformers movie, which was fun but was certainly not interesting script-wise. It was fun mostly because of the visuals. The main human character was painful to watch, and the storyline wasn't all that interesting given the richness of the Transformers material available in the comic books.

It was this interview with script writer Robert Orci that put a full stop to my optimism, though, for two reasons. The most important is that the assurances of producers that I've been seeing that it will be faithful to Trek canon for the fans while still doing something new for newcomers turn out to be a mere facade, given Orci's explanation of why he says it's faithful to canon. But I think the theory of time travel he endorses will also make the movie painful for me to watch, even if it won't be as painful as most Trek time travel stories are.

First, this is how Orci understands the time travel in this movie to work. He recognizes that there's a problem with any time travel theory that allows changing the past, although I don't think he makes it clear exactly why it's a problem. The real reason it's a problem is because if the past happened, then it follows that it didn't get changed, so when you go back you can't change it. If you can change it, then it's not the past. He gets into grandfather paradox issues, but I think those are derivative problems. The main reason is that it just makes no sense to think of changing the past. You can't make something that already was one way no longer be that way but be another way.

There's only one plausible way to interpret time travel stories that seem to change the past (other than the people didn't know what really happened and thus thought they changed something but actually only did what had already happened). If I travel back in time and do something that didn't happen, I must have traveled somewhere other than my past. If I ended up in an alternative time line somehow, then it makes sense to do what seems like changing the past. But the past of my time line doesn't change, and that time line continues on without me. The time line I entered always had me entering at that point and thinking I'd changed the past. This is the only way to make changing-the-past stories internally consistent, but it's still not a genuine change of the past, which the authors of those stories would usually not want.

So I applaud Orci for preferring this to the usual time travel approach. It's an improvement. There are still big problems with it, though. It would seem odd if time travel that doesn't change the past goes to our past and time travel when you do seem to change things ends up at other time lines. So a plausible version of this view must have every instance of time travel involve going to a similar time line, where it can generate a change that makes it diverge from the original one. The unwelcome consequence is that there isn't really anything that we can just flat-out call time travel. It's all Sliders-like world-jumping but with time travel too. You can never just time travel. That's an odd result.

Also, it does disastrous things to the fabric of a narrative in a fictional work that takes years and even decades to weave. Little did we know that the Star Trek canon time line isn't a constant world at all. Every time there's been time travel the characters have moved to a different world. We have no idea what happened after the events of City on the Edge of Forever in the time line that our characters began in. With such a view, it's not surprising that Orci wouldn't mind completely revising Star Trek history, because Spock of the TNG period going back to pre-TOS times and changing things would result in a different time line. That it violates canon is perfectly ok, even if the changes are drastic and far-reaching. It's a way to destroy the canon of Trek history while insisting that the original time line is untouched. It's crazy to think this won't anger fans who see Trek canon as something to build on, not to alter with impunity. It seems Orci wants to go by the letter of his time travel theory in good Pharisaical fashion to ignore the spirit of observing Star Trek canon while technically allowing it to remain in a time line that the movie doesn't follow (except to show that Spock and Nero will presumably never be in that time line again).

Worse still, Orci acts as if this theory of time travel is based on hard science, which just isn't true. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is certainly held by a handful of scientists working in the philosophical end of theoretical physics. It's a far cry from being the majority view, as far as I've been able to tell, though, and it's certainly nothing in the area of being demonstrable by experimentation. I think, in fact, that it's in principle completely impossible to verify or falsify it. There are several other interpretations of quantum mechanics, and the only reason I know of for preferring the many-worlds interpretation is that it avoids the most plausible fine-tuning arguments for an intelligent designer, not a very compelling scientific reason. If Orci is willing to reinterpret all of Trek canon because of misinformation about what science teaches, that's unfortunate. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm hardly confident with the future of the franchise resting partly in his hands, judging by what this interview reveals. I thought maybe they would finally have an odd movie better than some of the even movies. I'm not so sure now.


To present a counter-point to your gloom, I have actually been hoping that this is exactly the strategy they would take. It seems to me fundamentally inconsistent to insist on a strict adherence to canon, but then to not quibble about using sets which don't look like they were built in the 1960s on a budget of a few hundred bucks. Either canon is canon, or the writers should be free to adapt the original vision to a modern telling.

I enjoyed the fact that Enterprise did this, despite initial reservations. The time travel/alternate reality thesis makes this plausible within Trek itself, which is an added bonus.

That said, woah, that guy was seriously taken with quantum mechanics huh..."most current and awesome"...?

some more biblical studies please jeremy


I don't think the sets should be an issue, for one main reason. Sets are simply how the storyteller shows what happens. Presumably the characters aren't speaking 20th or 21st century English. But it's portrayed to us as if it's the language of our day. Presumably the display isn't as lame as in the original series. But it's presented to us in that way because the technology of the storyteller couldn't get beyond that. This is much like how the opening chapters of Genesis had to use the language and conceptual apparatus of the culture it was presented to. It's not inconsistent with that to tell of the same events to a different audience using their own terminology and conceptual scheme, which is why contemporary scientific pictures of human origins are fully compatible with Genesis, whether they are correct in all their details, correct in the main but flawed in some details, or completely wrong.

Now there is a complicating factor. In DS9 and Enterprise, we saw characters appearing on TOS-era ships and commenting on the style and minimalist aesthetic. So it's now canon that something of the original look has to be authentic. But they managed to work that into those stories in a way that's not at all inconsistent with many aspects of the way things looked on screen. But they also did it amidst using better technology to show various original series aliens. Why couldn't Abrams and crowd do the same thing? They could allow for a closer look to show more detail that the original portrayal didn't have while keeping the same aesthetic. Instead, they decided to do a reboot while pretending not to do one.

It would be fine to do a reboot and admit it, as J. Michael Strasczynski had proposed a few years ago (before Enterprise appeared, I believe). You just know you're alienating fans who want to see the canon universe expanded. These producers decided to try not to alienate those fans while still in effect doing a reboot. What they seem to have come up with doesn't seem to me to succeed at that. That's my complaint.

As for QM, I think it's clear that it's not QM that Orci was taken with. It's a minority interpretation of QM that has very odd philosophical implications that he's talking about as if it's the only acceptable interpretation, and he's embracing those odd and disturbing implications without really thinking about their consequences and how they would destroy one of the things Trek fans appreciate most about the franchise. That doesn't strike me as an attitude I want to see in someone responsible for safeguarding and furthering the franchise.

Bruce, I did bring in Genesis in this comment! How's that? The reality is that I'm a philosopher and a fan of science fiction and fantasy, and I write about what I have something to say about. Sometimes that's philosophical reflection on science fiction or fantasy, as in my latest two posts. I'm also interested in biblical studies, but it's not my field of study, and I only write about it when I have something to say that I think is worth saying and that I have time to write up carefully, which isn't going to happen every day. I do try to have at least one post per week that's explicitly related to Christianity, the Bible, or a Christian worldview, and often it's more, but I write about what comes to mind, and this is stuff that I've been thinking about.

no worries jeremy, i really enjoy reading your blog - particularly for the christian thought side of things and your insights on american politics. i don't mind a bit of trek every now and then - in fact an episode right now would be pleasant relief from the masorah parva!

" This is much like how the opening chapters of Genesis had to use the language and conceptual apparatus of the culture it was presented to. It's not inconsistent with that to tell of the same events to a different audience using their own terminology and conceptual scheme, which is why contemporary scientific pictures of human origins are fully compatible with Genesis, whether they are correct in all their details, correct in the main but flawed in some details, or completely wrong."

So you're claiming that Genesis is equally compatible with true theories, false theories, and partially false theories? In that case, I don't see that Genesis has any constantive force.

I'm saying that there are several views that go beyond what the text says and thus the text is neutral on. That doesn't mean the text means nothing. It's clearly incompatible with Zoroastrianism or naturalistic evolution. But there are clearly false views compatible with the book. Not every book of the Bible combats every heresy, and not every false view is contradicted by any scripture. Scripture doesn't report on whether the number of starts is even or odd, so obviously both views are compatible with it, and one of them is false. How would such a thing mean that there's no constantive force to the Bible?

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