Star Trek has explored the possibilities and consequences of time travel many times throughout more than five decades of existence, sending the members of Starfleet to the distant past, the far future, and everywhere in-between. But which of these stories are the best? Well, we think we have the answers. We’ll see in time (arf) if Star Trek: Discovery changes anything…
10. E² – Star Trek: Enterprise (3.21)
Season 3 of Enterprise may have been plagued by the mind-numbingly awful Xindi storyline, with its clunky terrorism analogues and snail’s pace execution, but there were a couple of jewels to be found in the heap of dung. One such jewel was E², the episode in which the Enterprise encounters a version of itself from a possible future.
It’s obvious from the start that it’s a speculative version of the future we’re seeing – one in which the Enterprise is a generational ship staffed by the offspring of its current crew – but there’s a lot of fun to be had in exploring that idea. There are good laughs (uptight security officer Malcolm Reed discovering, to his horror, that his future self is unmarried and single, for example) and the suggestion of how a starship trying to remain off-grid for several decades might support itself are interesting.
In many ways the episode draws on the typical image of dystopian futures for inspiration, but the execution is original, and considering the series had an ongoing “temporal cold war” subplot, it’s telling that it’s this which had the best use of time travel in any of the show’s ninety seven episodes.
9. Yesterday’s Enterprise – Star Trek: TNG (3.15)
Alternate timelines are a staple of time travel genre, but they normally get trotted out as a fairly vague danger to the status quo that must be repaired at all costs. Yesterday’s Enterprise is one of the few stories that allows us to spend a significant amount of time in the “wrong” timeline and indeed, consider whether the inhabitants actually should repair it!
The episode begins with the Enterprise-C (the forerunner to TNG‘s flagship, the Enterprise-D) getting pulled through a temporal rift in the middle of a hugely important battle. The timeline is shattered – the Klingon and Federation peace treaty never happened, the Enterprise D is now a warship fighting a losing battle against the Klingons. Worf is gone… and Tasha Yar is once again alive.
Of course, the timeline is eventually repaired, but the mixture of a well-realised alternate timelines, some shocking crew deaths and the chance to witness the previously-unseen Enterprise-C in action meant that this episode has justifiably become a fan-favourite.
8. Little Green Men – Star Trek: DS9 (4.8)
Deep Space Nine‘s homage to 1950s B-Movies also incorporated the 1990’s conspiracy-theory du jour, catapulting the Ferengi members of the cast (Quark, Rom and Nog) back to a small American army base near the town of Roswell. As well as being a fantastic pastiche of its subject matter, this episode gave Armin Shimerman a chance to star like never before, bringing his typically Ferengi-esque perspective to Earth culture.
Not only is it one of the funniest episodes of DS9, it’s also the first time we see Rom, Nog and Quark acting like a family, something that would influence future appearances for the better. Between that and the unconventional setting, it makes for a Star Trek episode that’s warm, original, and most importantly a lot of fun.
7. Tapestry – Star Trek: TNG (6.15)
There’s a simple idea at the centre of Tapestry: if we could live our lives over again, what would we change? For Captain Picard, it’s the artificial heart which results in his (rather shocking!) death at the start of the episode. Luckily, Q is on hand to let us all see what Picard would be like if he had avoided the fight that originally led to his prosthesis being necessary. The results are… not flattering.
As an episode, it’s blackly comic at times (Q “welcoming” Picard to the afterlife springs to mind, as does his frankly brutal appraisal with Riker and Troi when he returns to his new future) – but it’s also strangely poignant, and decidedly humanist in its message that mistakes don’t ruin lives, and can even do the opposite. The ultimate dilemma – would you rather die a Captain or live as a Lieutenant (Junior Grade) – is one we can all relate to. Er, although maybe not in exactly those terms.
6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
AKA the Star Trek film for people who don’t like Star Trek. The crew of the Enterprise (still piloting a battered Klingon Bird of Prey from the end of Star Trek III) must travel back in time to save the whales, and with them, the future of Earth. Cue endless hilarity as Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew get into a selection of light-hearted scrapes in the present (well, 1986, which was the present at the time).
Accessible, amusing, and with a near endless-supply of novelty value, it’s also the point in the Star Trek movie series where the line between James T. Kirk and William Shatner finally disappears completely. The ecological message of the film might be simplistic and heavy-handed by today’s standards – but hey, what episode of Star Trek isn’t? It’s the Star Trek time-travel story you can only really do once, but luckily they nailed it first time.
5. Star Trek: First Contact
If Star Trek IV is the Star Trek film for people who don’t like Star Trek, First Contact is one for people who DO. After the meandering, self-indulgent plotting of Star Trek Generations, First Contact snapped things back into focus by providing TNG fans with a story that followed up on one of the show’s finest hours – The Best of Both Worlds – as the Borg attack Earth again. But this time, they do it in the past.
Combining massive set-pieces with strong character work and a villain who proved Picard’s equal, the movie kept the stakes high by framing the action against the discovery of warp drive on Earth and the resulting first step towards the Federation. Here, time travel is used more as a convenience towards isolating the crew from their allies and raising the stakes to the highest levels than for any especially clever purpose, but it’s impossible to ignore the sheer quality of the story. Undeniably the best TNG movie.
4. Cause and Effect – Star Trek: TNG (5.18)
Many time-travel stories, especially those in Star Trek, use the same few devices – characters explicitly travelling through time, attempting to preserve causality despite their presence. But Cause and Effect did something very different: it got the Enterprise-D caught in a time loop. Without their knowledge.
The episode starts with the Star Trek equivalent of a kick in the face: the Enterprise D exploding with the loss of all hands. It then flashes back to reprise the lead up to those events. And then it does so again. And again. Slowly, the crew learns what’s happening to them, but by this point, the audience is gripped by the sheer tension, captivated by every detail of every scene looking for a sign that the crew realise what’s going on. A fantastic episode by any standards, but an inventive and original use of time travel to boot. And, lest we forget, it’s the one where Frasier’s the captain of the episode’s guest-Starship!
3. All Good Things… Star Trek: TNG (7.25)
As season finales go, TNG‘s All Good Things… isn’t just Star Trek‘s best, it’s one of TV’s best. With Picard shunted back and forth between three time periods, All Good Things not only resolves the series’ longest running plotline – Q’s “trial” of humanity – it gives us a chance to see the fate of our favourite characters when, twenty-five years in the future, Picard gets the band back together with humanity hanging in the balance. Between Admiral Riker, Professor Data, Captain Crusher and – of course – the Enterprise D (now with an extra warp nacelle) you see just enough of the future to be left wanting more.
Not only does it celebrate the show’s entire run (Denise Crosby returns, one final time, to reprise her role as Tasha Yar), All Good Things manages to put a satisfying emotional cap on a series even though the prospect of movies in the pipeline meant that nothing could really change. With outstanding effects, acting, design and writing, it’s no surprise that it won a Hugo award. A fitting send-off, using time travel as the mechanism for a victory lap.
2. Trials and Tribble-ations – Star Trek: DS9 (5.6)
For Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, the makers of DS9 pulled out all the stops, sending the crew back in time to participate in the events of the classic TOS episode, The Trouble With Tribbles. With the DS9 cast inserted into the episode with the clever use of CGI, there’s barely a scene in the episode that doesn’t raise a smile – the one where Bashir and O’Brien receive a dressing down from Kirk following the bar fight is perhaps the best example.
There’s more to the episode than simple gimmickry, however. The plot is expertly woven around the events of the original episode, while the framing device – Sisko describing events to the “department of temporal investigations” – introduced an amusing new element of Trek lore. Whether or not you’re particularly into Deep Space Nine or TOS, Trials and Tribble-ations can’t fail to amuse fans and casual viewers alive, and used its time travel device to honour Star Trek‘s past while tying it to the current generation.
1. The City on the Edge of Forever – Star Trek (1.28)
Hardly a surprising entry for those that know, since this is widely considered the best episode of Star Trek ever made. As well as that, The City on the Edge of Forever is also a quintessential time travel story and a great sci-fi romance. When McCoy falls through a time portal, Kirk and Spock follow, but not before he saves the life Edith Keeler – a woman fated to be killed in an auto accident. Her survival means that she goes on to form a pacifist movement which, two decades later, delays America’s entry into WWII and allows the Nazis to win. Although hoping to find Bones and fix the timeline, Kirk falls in love with Edith. Ultimately, he has to allow her death to keep the timeline intact, sacrificing the woman he loves in to restore the universe.
The episode won multiple awards (despite hugely controversial rewrites and disagreements between the writer – Harlan Ellison – and Trek creator/showrunner Gene Roddenberry.) More than anything, The City on the Edge of Forever is all the proof you need that as well as being storytelling’s greatest gifts to comedy, jeopardy and philosophy, time travel also has the potential to evoke tragedy just as completely.
To promote the launch of their Kickstarter-funded sitcom, Den of Geek writers James and Seb have produced a pair of time travel-based articles celebrating their influences. Have a look at last week’s Top 10 Time Travel Sitcom Episodes article here, and have a look at their Kickstarter Project Page, accepting donations until November 30th!