Star Trek (2009): Reboot or Multiverse?
Thoughts on the continuity and the canon status of the upcoming movie
Unlike what I expected some time ago, it has been confirmed that the new Star Trek movie by J.J. Abrams, which is simply named "Star Trek", is not just a prequel to or a reissue of The Original Series (TOS) with new actors in familiar roles. In fact, "Star Trek (2009)" will tell a totally different story.
Without too many spoilers, the premise of the film is as follows:
- "Star Trek (2009)" depicts a different history of the characters and of the Federation on the whole than the one known from TOS.
- The differing histories are the result of a time travel of the Romulan villain Nero back to the 23rd century.
- Regardless of the perhaps inevitable visual "updates" of the props and the new actors, the remaining differences are big enough that viewers with basic knowledge of Star Trek will be aware of them.
- The events of the movie are not a "What if?" scenario (such as in a dream or on the holodeck) but really take place.
- It has not been ultimately confirmed, but we can take for granted that the changes to the timeline will not be repaired but will remain permanent at the end of "Star Trek (2009)".
It has long been debated among the fans whether a prequel movie with many visual "updates" and certain liberties in the historical facts and the character development would still qualify as being in the same continuity, or whether it would have to be classified as a "reboot". Could it still be canon? After the release of the first photo of the redesigned Enterprise and the movie trailer in November 2008, Roberto Orci, executive producer and screenwriter, gave this question a new twist in an interview with Trekmovie.com. All quotes in my essay are from this interview.
The following considerations predate the release of the movie. I have not updated them with more recent facts, but they are mostly still valid. For an up-to-date take on the continuity issues in "Star Trek (2009)", please refer to Dealing with Continuity Issues of the Abramsverse.
Explaining that "Star Trek (2009)" takes place in an altered timeline, Bob Orci reasons that this would not be a first time in Star Trek. Also, as multiple universes (more precisely the many-worlds interpretation) are a seriously considered concept of quantum mechanics, it would be scientifically correct as well.
Roberto Orci: "If you look at quantum mechanics and you learn about the fact that our most successful theory of science is quantum mechanics, and the fact that it deals with probabilities of events happening. And that the most probable events tend to happen more often and that one of the subsets of that theory is the many universe theory. Data said this [in "Parallels"], he summed up quantum mechanics as the theory that 'all possibilities that can happen do happen' in a parallel universe."
Well, in almost all other movie or TV franchises the idea of a multiverse as a conscious way to justify the reboot of the existing continuity would be totally absurd. That way we might explain away why James Bond is played by different actors, claiming that each of them dwells in a different universe. Certainly neither the people making the movies nor the fans would ever resort to such far-fetched theories. Even most science fiction series have not dealt with parallel universes so far. Although they may not explicitly deny their possible existence, it would be an extreme stretch if they suddenly departed to a parallel timeline to make a reboot plausible.
Star Trek, in contrast, has shown parallel timelines or universes on various occasions. We may discount the very first occurrence in TOS: "The Alternative Factor" because it never made any sense and because we didn't really see the other universe (which consisted of antimatter or something). The most notable example of a parallel universe is the Mirror Universe of TOS: "Mirror, Mirror" that would reappear in a couple of DS9 episodes and ultimately in ENT: "In a Mirror, Darkly". We also have some time travel episodes such as TNG: "Yesterday's Enterprise", where Tasha Yar emerges in a parallel timeline in which she did not die and lives on in the past of our own timeline - although the two timelines do not have to be simultaneous. Finally, there are the multiple quantum universes of TNG: "Parallels" that Orci correctly referred to.
The future of the existing history
It is absolutely plausible that the alteration of the timeline remains persistent and all Trek from now takes place in this new timeline. A very important question, however, is whether the old timeline, the one we are familiar with from TOS, may still exist or whether it is extinguished. All the "multiple universes" episodes mentioned above featured two or more universes that must have existed simultaneously, as opposed to one timeline replacing another one after a time travel event. But the idea of multiple universes, which conforms with my "doubling theory", is just one logical explanation out of six that may explain what happens in case of a pending temporal paradox. Likewise, it is not the only underlying theory of quantum mechanics. And there are contradictory examples of time travel logic in previous episodes or movies. We should certainly not blame the new movie for the somewhat inconsistent depiction of time travel paradoxes or of their avoidance in Star Trek. Roberto Orci is aware of this problem too.
Roberto Orci: "We have to deal with it, with the fact that Star Trek episodes that donít conform to our theory of it, also do not conform to the latest greatest, most highly tested scientific theory in human history."
But unless we are given a cue in the movie that the old timeline still continues in some fashion, which is doubtful, it is the much more obvious assumption that it has been erased and will never come back (well, unless someone traveled back ever further into the past and restored everything exactly as it should have been at that point...). Orci, on the other hand, seems to have no doubt that it will persist.
Roberto Orci: "It [the original timeline] continues. According to the most successful, most tested scientific theory ever, quantum mechanics, it continues."
This is a recurring mistake in Orci's statements, actually an association fallacy. It is not the proven theory of quantum mechanics that would ensure the further existence of an "old" universe. It is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that would make it possible. While the latter has been accepted by a (perhaps growing) number of scientists, it is not sufficiently tested at all. So in one version of physics as shown in TNG: "Parallels" the original timeline would still continue in some fashion, but in real-life quantum mechanics it may just as well cease to exist.
The entropy dilemma
Many fans, including Orci himself, are apparently under the impression that the alterations of the timeline in the new "Abramsverse" are small enough that they could only invalidate some events of TOS but would ultimately not affect the 24th century as depicted in TNG/DS9/VOY.
Roberto Orci: "It [the time travel] is the reason why some things are different, but not everything is different. Not everything is inconsistent with what might have actually happened, in canon."
What Orci says may apply to a certain limited period following the time travel incident. The 24th century, however, can only diverge to a still greater extent than the time of TOS, owing to the second law of thermodynamics (in more popular terms, the "butterfly effect"). In other words, while Kirk and Spock "only" have different personalities than they used to have because they grew up in different milieus, Picard or Sisko may never be born in the Abramsverse! The writers of a future movie or series may or may not care about it if they should decide to let a familiar guest character from the future appear. But unless otherwise stated, we have to assume that from now the 24th century, comprising some 75% of all Star Trek live action, is totally different than we used to know it.
Roberto Orci: "According to theory, there are going to be a much larger number of universes in which events are very closely related, because those are the most probable configurations of things. Inherent in quantum mechanics there is sort of reverse entropy, which is what you were trying to say, in which the universe does tend to want to order itself in a certain way. This is not something we are making up; this is something we researched, in terms of the physical theory. So yes, there is an element of the universe trying to hold itself together."
Regarding the "reverse entropy" I wonder if Orci really knows that much about quantum mechanics that I'm not aware of, or if he, as an avid fan, rather refers to some Trek episodes that seem to insinuate that there are certain ties between different universes (most obviously between "our" universe and the Mirror Universe where the people that exist are largely the same at any time). Common sense is sufficient to disprove his idea of "reverse entropy", knowing that Nero's interference will likely kill thousands of people and change the lives of millions in a way that history will never lead to the 24th century we know. Well, the same could be said about time travel events such as in "First Contact" that did some damage as well, but even if it could not be completely repaired, the 24th century was still shown as being much the same in the aftermath. It is a stretch to expect the audience to believe that, after the extremely different events of "Star Trek (2009)", history would gradually be repaired in some sort of "reverse entropy" as it can't possibly exist in real science.
The principle of equivalence
It is clear that a principle of equivalence must apply to a multiverse, meaning that none of the many universes is a "preferred" or even the "rightful" one. In this regard there would be no point in complaining about the switch from the TOS/TNG/DS9/VOY universe to the new "Abramsverse". The latter may be just as valid in a scientific sense. The viewer, however, is not an expert in quantum physics or even an omnipotent observer able to perceive something like equally valid universes. In fact, we are used to be invariably part of exactly one universe.
The parallel universes shown in Star Trek never appeared on par with our own universe, and not just because they had far less screen time. Most notably the Mirror Universe of TOS: "Mirror, Mirror" gained an increasingly clownish reputation in the course of DS9, when the Mirror characters were turned into caricatures of their counterparts in our universe. The necessary equivalence of the universes was missing, and in many cases we could be glad that "our" universe was not such a crazy place seemingly devoid of rules how characters should behave. Considering that the "Abramsverse" will replace the existing Star Trek continuity in a narrative sense, this sort of puts "our" universe on par with the many parallel universes that are out of reach and better remain forgotten.
There is yet another inequality and therefore another flaw in the superimposed multiverse concept of "Star Trek (2009)". Even if the "old" TOS/TNG/DS9/VOY universe still exists in some way, there will be no ties any longer between this one and the "new" on created by Abrams. There will be no interchangeability. Irrespective of a possible scientific loophole to cross over we wouldn't honestly expect a quite probable movie "Star Trek XII" or a possible spin-off TV series set in the new universe to ever depart to the old universe, at least not on a regular basis.
Actually, the most-often cited (and most tiresome) argument of fervent defenders of the visual update of Star Trek has always been that there is no going back to the look of the 1960s. But it is exactly the reason why we will probably never see anything set in the old continuity of Star Trek on a TV or movie screen again. Perhaps in a retro fun episode such as DS9: "Trials and Tribble-ations". Perhaps in Star Trek books, but I'm talking of canon Trek only. And on a still different note, all books from now on will have to indicate whether they belong into the old or the new continuity, and this is just another sign that the multiverse concept will be hard to deal with and will ultimately split up the franchise.
Not a reboot?
It looks like the timelines begin to diverge at a certain point several years before the bulk of the movie's action takes place. This allows many things in the characters' histories and in galactic history to be different, preferably darker and edgier, as well as it enables a different technological development, preferably a faster one going along with a cooler look. Some basic facts certainly have to remain the same under such a premise. Spock will not be a woman, the Vulcans are still rather unemotional and have pointed ears, the Enterprise still has two nacelles. But other than that, Abrams has given himself carte blanche to change just everything about the setting of Star Trek, one obvious goal being to make it more appealing and more accessible to a general audience. The movie certainly follows a set of rules, but many of these rules are laid down in the movie itself. They are not taken over from previous Star Trek episodes or movies, but may be in contradiction to them. Just some examples:
- In TOS: "The Menagerie" Kirk hardly knew Pike. In the new movie Pike is much like a father figure to him.
- Kirk is shown as irresponsible instead of ambitious, Spock as enraged where he should be composed.
- In TOS: "Balance of Terror" the look of the Romulans was a huge surprise to the crew. In the new movie they will see them face to face before the Neutral Zone incident takes place (and it is very doubtful that it will take place at all).
- The ship and pretty much everything else looks much more modern far beyond the point of being a new, more realistic depiction of the very same sets and props.
- The Enterprise is being built on the ground, contrary to anything we know of starship construction.
This clearly indicates the new movie is a reboot. Not quite as radical as in the new Battlestar Galactica with its gender-switching but close enough. Certainly the many-worlds interpretation works as a scientific explanation and it may appease some fans who were opposed to the movie. But unless there are certain cues that the general audience wouldn't be expected to understand, it may have no bearing at all on the story of "Star Trek (2009)". In fact, it is well possible that Orci, as the film's resident Trekkie, made up his long-winded and admittedly profound rationale after the movie had been finished, much in the same fashion as fans try to make sense of inconsistencies in "fanon".
Star Trek's canon has always been based on formal criteria, rather than on qualities such as inter-series continuity, compliance with real science or even popularity. The very worst live-action episodes or movies, are still regarded as canon, while the best novels are not.
So is the new movie canon in spite of everything? The simple answer is that Abrams was given the power to make creative decisions, and if he says that it is canon we must accept that. Partial non-compliance with the existing continuity would not invalidate the new movie's canon status. Only in case of a total reboot the movie may question its own canon status or it would have to be declared an independent new canon. This is one more reason why Orci emphasizes the movie's ties to the existing Trek, rather than admitting that nearly everything has been allowed to be different.
Roberto Orci: "...much of what you will see could conform to classic canon, and thus we were not relying it as an excuse to change everything."
I have tried to illustrate the status of the Star Trek canon and its future development in the following map-like graphic. We can see that the Star Trek canon (as generally accepted by the producers and most fans) currently comprises all five live-action series, including the associated movies, and perhaps a little bit of TAS. The three 24th century series TNG, DS9 and Voyager are so closely related that it isn't even useful to separate them, while ENT and TOS differ at least in their "sophistication level". In a practical definition, something that I have called the "tech manual fringe" wraps around the five canon series and holds them together. This fringe is non-canon in a strict definition. However, it contains useful factoids such as "Miranda class" and very obvious conclusions that have not been explicitly stated on screen though. It does not contain any speculation about events that may have taken place ("fanon") or any information from novels or games. We can also see two exemplary incidents where episodes or movies leave the established continuity but still remain canon.
Map of Star Trek canon
It is undeniable that the sometimes disastrous results of temporal incursions such as in TNG: "Yesterday's Enterprise" are canonical, just as well as the Mirror Universe with its increasing silliness. In "Star Trek (2009)" the new timeline not only persists, which is the case with the Mirror Universe and perhaps with "Yesterday's Enterprise" just as well. But the latter two remain "elsewhere" in the narrative perspective, whereas, if there should ever be a new Trek series set after the events of the new movie, we can take for granted that it will take place in the new "Star Trek (2009)" universe. (Yes, I know that what I have sketched up as a continuum may be composed of 57 different universes since the beginning of Trek, but who was really aware of that before Orci postulated it?)
Even if the transition to "Star Trek (2009)" doesn't erase the old Star Trek as already discussed above, it largely removes the necessity to care about the existing canon any longer. Suppose that a future Star Trek series were set entirely or only partially in the 24th century or later. Even though Orci suggests something like "reverse entropy" that could save the future in much the way we know it, this is just an option, not something that writers would be bound to. While past writers definitely didn't stick to established facts on many occasions, in a new universe the events of TNG/DS9/VOY would be only a loose guideline in the first place.
Update notice Note that in order to reflect more recent developments, I have updated the above diagram in this otherwise old article. "Kelvin Timeline" now denotes the new timeline in a narrow sense, while "Abramsverse" stands for everything related to the new style and stories of the Abrams films, no matter if they may have been a consequence of Nero's manipulation or not.
I must concede that Roberto Orci has done his homework. Probably even more thoroughly than any writers who have penned time travel stories before. He may have been aware of my take on time travel in Star Trek, which has been around for ten years now and which cites the "doubling" or many-worlds interpretation as one possibility, although it is not my favorite. Anyway, the idea to relate the premise of the movie to the episode "Parallels" and thus to the many-worlds interpretation clearly makes sense.
However, unless we are given canon proof that the old Trek lives on in some fashion and that, in the new timeline, some sort of "reverse entropy" gradually corrects history after the movie, Orci's statements may remain a mere lip service to concerned fans. Even worse, the whole idea to travel back in time to redo parts of Star Trek's history must appear as a pretext to keep only the very basics of the franchise intact and change everything that Abrams may not have liked. In other words, if we leave aside the idea of multiple universes for a moment, which is exactly the part that the average theater audience is not supposed to care about, "Star Trek (2009)" is as much a reboot as any other franchise whose continuity was abandoned. It is only explained by a genre-specific twist that the audience is expected to put up with although it is a stretch, not unlike Dallas had "Bobby in the shower".
There is one more reason why I feel let down by the premise of the movie. We have seen so many time travel stories before, and most of them with an incursion that changed history for the worse, and that had to be fixed in some fashion. The crews of Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and Archer were struggling hard to correct history, up to the point of self-sacrifice ("Let's make sure that history never forgets the name... Enterprise"). And they always succeeded. In "Star Trek (2009)" they don't seem to try hard enough. The damaged timeline, the bad universe will persist. Is this a great twist, just for a change? I don't think so. On the contrary, it is depressing. The whole of Star Trek will take place in a universe that has lost its "innocence", that has been contaminated with future technology, that may not be up to the bright future we know especially from the TNG age. Star Trek has frequently brought in "dark" elements as a conscious antithesis to Roddenberry's idea of a better humanity, most obviously the Dominion War on DS9. But now something similar is done retroactively to the Star Trek Universe. Depending on how it is depicted, it may not show up immediately in the new movie, but the basic setting of Star Trek is being changed for the worse.
Anyway, while I may not be going to like what Robert Orci, together with co-writer Alex Kurtzman, with Damon Lindelof, J.J. Abrams and the rest of the creative staff have done in "Star Trek (2009)", his efforts to make the most possible sense of the new story are laudable.