This article contains Star Trek: Picard spoilers.
Star Trek: Picard season 2 has its fans and its detractors, delving into Picard’s personal history, Data’s ancestry, and Earth’s future history. But for a show that is so deeply rooted in Star Trek continuity, it has certainly thrown up some questions. Some of those questions can be simply put down to the show ignoring existing continuity – like Picard’s dad having hair when “Tapestry” showed his was an angry bald man. Others, however, have sparked lively debate about time travel logic.
Only, you know when you have a loose thread on a jumper? And when you pull on it everything else just sort of… unwinds? In Star Trek, time travel logic can be a bit like that…
The El-Aurian in the Room
The continuity problem in question is a pretty straight forward one. In the latest season of Star Trek: Picard, our titular former captain finds history has been changed, and so travels back to 2024 to try and right the timeline. While he’s there he encounters his old friend and former bartender, Guinan, introduces and introduces himself to her.
The problem is that this isn’t the first time Picard and Guinan have met. Guinan has been on Earth since at least 1893, when she met a younger time travelling Picard who was attempting to halt an alien time invasion. It’s the sort of thing that you think would come up?
Now, before we go into whether it makes sense, what the time travel “rules” are and what the repercussions for this bit of amnesia are for the spacetime continuum at large, it is time to admit something. Something pretty hard to admit actually.
It doesn’t matter.
We have written a few articles on time travel logic in various films and while it’s fun arguing Back to the Future logic vs The Terminator logic vs Primer logic if you really have the time, the truth is it doesn’t really matter if the time travel logic is even internally consistent so long as it is used to tell a compelling story.
Back to the Future’s time travel makes no sense whatsoever if you think about it for longer than five seconds. Do we care? Not at all.
The main reason why Guinan’s amnesia raises our hackles is that, regardless of whether it’s consistent, it doesn’t feel like great storytelling. There are long-running sci-fi franchises where the audience is best advised to put its fan wiki down, forget about continuity and just enjoy the show (even though we refuse to do this). But Picard is very specifically about a long-lived character, with a rich history, revisiting his life and his friendships at the end of his life.
If we see Picard and Guinan reunited, we want to see Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg’s chemistry, and if you can drop that clanger of a line about El-Aurians aging when they choose to, you have some handwavium about them being able to age up-and-down at will.
And it’s hinted at, repeatedly across Star Trek: The Next Generation, that Picard and Guinan’s friendship goes far longer and deeper than the show ever directly addresses. Why not give Guinan not one, but two historical encounters with Picard? Why not have Guinan working at the 21st century Ten Forward and see her reaction to a human from the 24th century walk in who she last saw in the 19th? Isn’t that a more compelling story?
Why does your story need a clean slate when the very premise of your series is about how much the slate has been written on?
Back to the Future
However, narrative gripes aside, it turns out that Guinan forgetting Picard isn’t a massive blunder from the writers, but an intentional product of the way they show time travel in the show.
As the showrunner, Terry Matalas has explained, “This Guinan wouldn’t remember Picard because in this alternate timeline, the TNG story ‘Time’s Arrow’ never happened. Because there was no Federation, those events did not play out the same. No previous relationship exists. However, she still was likely traveling to Earth and, as we know, she hung around a bit. So this Guinan is different. But she, of course, can sense something is off. She’s going through a kind of time-sickness thanks to Q’s meddling with the timeline.”
People arguing about this on the internet have pointed to an inconsistency in Matalas’ explanation. When Seven and Rafaella are travelling on a bus in 2024, they ask a punk to turn off his obnoxious music (Kirk Thatcher, playing his own song). The punk responds by quickly and politely turning his music off while seemingly genuinely frightened.
This is because it is the same punk who got neck-pinched into silence in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. So, if “Time’s Arrow” never happened, surely The Voyage Home didn’t either, right?
Matalas has thought of this too, saying, “Now technically, Star Trek IV wouldn’t have happened in this alternate timeline, but maybe SOME part of him remembers his encounter with Spock in the Prime Timeline.”
But if humans are going around remembers alternate timelines willy-nilly, then what is even the point of El-Aurians?
A much more sensible solution is that while the Confederation were able to easily wipe the floor with the Xindi, the Romulans, the Klingons, and V’Ger, the Whale Probe completely handed their asses to them and Evil Kirk, Evil Spock, Evil Uhura, and Evil Chekov, Sulu and Scotty all had to travel backwards in time to get some whales in a grim and gritty dark reboot of Star Trek: The One With the Whales.
Meanwhile, the changes to the timeline have had other impacts on our history as well. The Devidians, the glowy blue alien time vampires that invade 19th century San Francisco, are now running about unopposed and mistaken for a cholera outbreak. Does this Earth now have a mass cholera pandemic that dwarfed even the ones in our own history? Are Devidians, even now, still stealthing around 21st century Earth draining people’s neural energy?
And that is only the beginning.
The Butterfly Effect
As we’ve mentioned before, Star Trek’s characters are no strangers to our present. If we are going to allow for changes in the timeline not only changing the future going forward from that change, but also retroactively changing any changes to the timeline in the past made from the future that has been changed, things are going to get even more complicated than this sentence. We have set off a chain reaction that is going bounce back and forth along the timeline like a Newton’s cradle.
For starters, we have mentioned before the theory that the Eugenics Wars did not happen in the ’90s as previously stated, because the events of the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Future’s End” featured meddling in the timeline that kickstarted the microprocessor revolution and brought about the timeline we all know and love.
If that didn’t happen, does Picard’s 2024 take place after a 90s that involved sleeper ships and genetically enhanced dictators? How do the Bell Riots go, the very same year that Picard & Co are there, without Sisko and Bashir to mess things up?
Okay, so the “Future’s End” theory is just an unconfirmed fan theory, and the Bell Riots probably go much the same way as they did before. But what the Roswell Incident? In this evil human-supremacist future Nog would never be allowed to enter Starfleet Academy, so he, Quark and Rom would never accidentally find themselves flung back to 1940s Earth. Which means this 2024 takes place in a dark timeline that never saw the 90s sci-fi high school drama, Roswell, or the CW remake. Does this timeline even have The X-Files?
But this isn’t just about Picard’s little alternate-timeline rock pool. It also has repercussions for the movies. In the Kelvin-verse timeline of Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Star Trek Beyond, the point of divergence is no longer Nero’s ship coming back from the future while Kirk’s mum is giving birth.
Now every time travel event that occurred after that will have gone differently as well, all the way down to First Contact itself.
We are talking about an intricate mesh of consequence and coincidence being struck with a jackhammer, so that even events such as which sperm met which egg could change. Suddenly you could end up with a timeline where William Shatner looks like Chris Pine, or where Khan looks like Doctor Strange for some reason.
Okay, so that actually explains a lot.
But this model of time travel does have one other major problem.
Forking Timelines vs Fadey Photographs
Like we said- Star Trek is no stranger to time travel, and one device that it absolutely loves is the idea of alternate futures. Nothing makes Star Trek happier than nipping forward to tell a story set in the future of the show, then hopping back to the show’s present to whack the reset button and restore the status quo.
Alternate futures we have seen in the various Star Trek series include “First Born”, when Worf’s son comes back from an alternate future, “All Good Things”, which gives us a version of the Enterprise-D crew’s future very different from what the movies, Picard and Lower Decks have shown us since, “The Visitor”, where Benjamin Sisko gets displaced and sees Jake Sisko grow old, “Visionary”, where Miles O’Brien foresees his own death over and over again. (“Future Imperfect” doesn’t count because its alternate future was just a holographic projection to trick Riker into being the alien’s new dad.)
Voyager crewmembers, after they have finally returned home, travel back in time in “Timeless” and “Endgame” to change history so that they get home sooner or with more people alive, and frankly we’ve no reason to believe they won’t have a go at it again to save Joe Carey or that ensign they kept wiping the Doctor’s memory over.
The point is that each of these futures was negated by the events of the story they appeared in, but everyone who encountered those futures continued to remember them after events had changed. That suggests a branching timeline model, so the futures would continue to exist even after the past has been changed- which is the bit of time travel lore that justifies the existence of the Kelvin timeline universe alongside the Prime timeline.
It’s the standard “forking timeline” model of time travel logic that we have seen in Avengers: Endgame, some iterations of The Terminator, Primer, and basically any time travel story with pretentions of making coherent internal sense.
Except that we also know that isn’t what happens in the Star Trek universe. When the past is changed it doesn’t create a handy little spin-off timeline that lets the rest of the franchise carry on as before.
When the Enterprise-C turns up in “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, we see the Enterprise-D get a dark and gritty makeover. In both “Timeless” and “Endgame”, when Kim and Janeway respectively are leaping back in time to give Voyager a do-over, they do so with Starfleet in hot pursuit, because the changes they make will have repercussions for everyone else.
When McCoy screws up the past in “City on the Edge of Forever”, when Sisko and Bashir screw it up in “Past Tense”, and when the Borg screw it up in Star Trek: First Contact, we see the repercussions immediately for all but the crew at the eye of the storm. (Incidentally, do the Borg do that a lot? Just every time they encounter a species they can’t assimilate shout “Temporal vortex!” and go back and assimilate them in the past? Because we can’t help but feel more should have been made of that…)
So in that model maybe changes to the future can ripple backwards in time, meaning, irritatingly, that Guinan never had an adventure with Picard and Mark Twain and the Roswell High books were never even written, let alone adapted into two mildly successful TV series.
It possibly makes internally consistent sense, but it’s still not as good a story as Picard and Guinan reminiscing about hanging out with Mark Twain.