You Have Meddled With the Primal Forces of Time, Captain Kirk!
(Spoilers ahead for a fifty-year-old TV episode. Proceed at your own risk.) I haven’t seen most of the original Star Trek series from the 1960s, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. For me, Star Trek is The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, the TV shows from the late 80s to mid 90s.
I have tried to catch up now and then. Recently I saw The City on the Edge of Forever, one of the most acclaimed episodes from the show’s first season. It’s hokey and dated as you would expect, but its reputation is deserved.
The premise: Thanks to a talking archway on an alien planet, Bones is sent back in time to 1930s New York City, where he does something that changes the future so that the Federation does not exist. Kirk and Spock take the leap themselves, hoping to fix whatever was changed.
Much fun is had as Kirk and Spock try to blend in with Depression-era New Yorkers: stealing clothes to change out of their uniforms, and making sure the Vulcan always wears a hat to cover his ears. I loved the increasingly elaborate devices Spock builds in their apartment out of vacuum tubes and radio guts as he tries to figure out what’s going on.
They fall in with Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), who runs the 21st Street Mission. She feeds the downtrodden a diet of soup and pacifism that Kirk becomes smitten with. Trouble is…
Spock discovers that McCoy will ultimately save Keeler from an otherwise fatal traffic accident, allowing her political movement to keep the U.S. from joining World War II, which allows Nazi Germany to conquer the world. Hence, no Federation.
This of course, must be fixed thanks to Hitler’s Time Travel Exemption Act. It all leads to the famous scene where Kirk must prevent Bones from saving Edith’s life, even though he’s fallen in love with her.
I’m curious though- is the accident we see the original one that McCoy intervened in? We have every reason to assume it is, except:
Kirk is walking along the sidewalk with Edith when he spots Bones across the street. He tells her to wait there and goes to greet Spock and McCoy. As they celebrate finding each other, Edith crosses the street toward them, where she’s hit by a truck.
Vox has a neat video describing three different variations on how time travel works in fiction. There’s the multiverse angle, where traveling through time creates a new continuity that’s completely separate from the original. There’s a fixed timeline, probably what’s going on in Game of Thrones, where you can travel to the past, but the future will always contrive itself into existence, no matter what you do. Lastly is a dynamic timeline, like in Back to the Future, where you can alter the future by doing things differently in the past.[ref]This introduces all kinds of nasty paradoxes to deal with, though.[/ref]
If the accident we see is the one where Edith was originally killed, it wouldn’t have happened if Kirk, Spock, and McCoy weren’t there. This would seem like a fixed timeline- in order for the Federation to exist, Kirk and co. have to create it.[ref] This also means that the Federation was never in any danger in the first place.[/ref]
If it wasn’t the right accident, first of all, Kirk and co. have blood on their hands. Second, they run the risk of causing further damage to the timeline if Edith dies before her time. You never know what consequences can come from the smallest alteration.
And that, kids, is why you should always say no to time travel. It’s just too dangerous. Don’t worry too much, though, because everybody says it’s probably impossible.