Time Travel in Star Trek: Discovery (DIS)

"People think time is fragile. Precious. Beautiful. Sand in an hourglass, all that. But it's not. Time is savage. It always wins." (Dr. Burnham, DIS: "Perpetual Infinity")


DIS: Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad

A time crystal gives Harry Mudd the ability to rewind time by 30 minutes, with him being the only one who is aware of the effect. Everyone else experiences those 30 minutes without noticing that everything happens again and again. Using this tactical advantage, Harry Mudd gradually learns to evade his pursuers and to operate the systems of the Discovery with the goal of handing the ship over to the Klingons. Lt. Stamets is the only other person who knows what is going on, thanks to his connection to the spore network. It takes at least 56 loops for Stamets and his crew to stop Mudd.

The idea behind this story is very similar as that of TNG: "Cause and Effect". The difference in a physical and logical sense is that in the TNG episode time was reset in a causality loop, which may have lasted forever without human interference. In the Discovery episode, Mudd triggers the reset on purpose in each loop (or it is triggered by his death). There is no causality loop in "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" but "only" someone playing with the "time controls".

It is clear that Mudd's crystal does not reset time in the whole galaxy or universe but just in a limited space around the Discovery. He wears a wrist device that seems to control the time displacements and obviously protects him against the effect. The displacement is triggered by Mudd pressing a button or by his death as it seems. The actual crystal is located in his ship that is hidden inside the Gormagander. This readily explains why it is necessary each time for him to get the "space whale" aboard the Discovery in order to pursue his plan, although he might have found better ways once he knew all controls of the ship he wants to capture. Yet, it also aggravates the problem of why the creature was beamed aboard each time, although Stamets knew what was going on. Had he managed to convince Lorca not to do it in just one of the many loops, Mudd may not have been able to carry on.

Classification: time reset in an isolated region of space-time

DIS: What's Past Is Prologue

After the escape from the Mirror Universe through the spore network the USS Discovery arrives in its own universe nine months late. It is not the first time that the time is a variable in the crossover from one universe to another. Something similar already happened in ENT: "In a Mirror, Darkly", except that the USS Defiant of our universe crossed over in the opposite direction, and wound up in the past of the Mirror Universe.

Classification: travel to the future of another universe

Red Angel arc

The time travel arc related to the Red Angel spans the whole second season of the show. Particularly interesting observations can be made in the following episodes:

The seven signals were all created by Michael Burnham, in this order:

The Red Angel arc is the arguably most complicated story ever told in Star Trek. Although "Such Sweet Sorrow II" wraps it up nicely and answers the ostensible questions, hundreds of problems still remain. Even if we leave out any questions of how the story may possibly fit with canon, it has numerous internal inconsistencies. The following will focus on the mere time travel related questions and will not discuss technical issues such as why the Red Angel suit is an omnipotent piece of technology (time travel, instantaneous space travel, cloaking, tractor beam to tow churches and starships, "infinite" computer memory, "incomprehensible" signal generation, the ability to disable the Enterprise across half the galaxy, unlimited energy once it's powered up).

The first thing to put on record regarding the Red Angel arc is that there is essentially just one timeline. The crew of the Discovery (and the viewers) witness a single continuous timeline from "Brother" to "Such Sweet Sorrow II". There is no past incursion that would have interrupted history. At least, Michael Burnham never does anything that would change the past. Her timeline is predetermined. In this regard, the assessment in "The Red Angel" that she would come to save herself because of the grandfather paradox is not correct. Actually, if her timeline is predestined, she would not be able to die at all at this point of her life, no matter how exactly it is averted. Well, the result is pretty much the same anyway, and becomes irrelevant when the forcefield actually captures her mother.

It seems to be somewhat different in her mother's case because in "Perpetual Infinity" Dr. Burnham says about her daughter: "I've seen you die a hundred times, and I'll see you die a hundred more." So she changed the timeline, and witnessed the effects during her many time travels. Dr. Burnham was responsible for altering Discovery's flight path so the ship would encounter the Sphere. The Discovery crew is not aware of this or any other timeline changes that may have occurred during the second season. On the other hand, Dr. Burnham also says that certain things are beyond her control, and in her view it is almost inevitable that the AI will eventually acquire the Sphere data some way or another, become sentient and kill all life in the galaxy.

There are actually two Red Angels: Gabrielle and Michael Burnham (both named for biblical angels). Gabrielle Burnham shows up in the flashback in "New Eden" when she saves the people from the church. She is said to have appeared to Spock in his childhood, and once again when she told him the possible future. We finally see her as the Red Angel when she is captured in "The Red Angel". A preliminary theory was that Gabrielle Burnham would appear together with one of the seven red signals (that she said she didn't create) whenever her daughter is in danger. In "Such Sweet Sorrow II", however, it becomes clear that Michael Burnham does not only generate the signals, but also appears as the Red Angel on these occasions: to herself in "Brother" and to Saru and Siranna in "The Sound of Thunder".

Michael Burnham creates the seven signals, and most clearly the first five ones, in a predestination paradox. She knows by the time of "Such Sweet Sorrow II" that following the five signals was helpful for Discovery's mission, and she has to make sure retroactively that these signals would be created in the first place. As outlined in the introduction, a predestination paradox eludes the grandfather paradox because it is not possible to change the past. But it invokes the ontological paradox: Matter or knowledge may come to existence from nothing. The occurrence of the ontological paradox is obvious because Michael Burnham couldn't be aware of the Hiawatha with Jett Reno inside the asteroid field before her own signal led her to this place. She couldn't know that her mother saved the people from WWIII and transferred them to Terralysium before her own signal showed up at the planet. She couldn't anticipate that the Kelpiens would "evolve" before it happened and I doubt she was aware of the time crystals on Boreth before the ship actually visited the planet. Also, she neither knew that Po had devised a way to recrystallize dilithium nor that she had been aboard Discovery before (Tilly evidently didn't tell Michael). The five examples of the ontological paradox in the story arc are rather "mild" ones. In its ultimate consequence, the Red Angel may just as well have given a superweapon to defeat Control to Michael Burnham, without the need to ever build that weapon!

Considering that they both use identical technology, it is not plausible why time travels initiated by Dr. Burnham create new timelines while those performed by Michael Burnham don't. Temporal physics and logic in Star Trek has never been consistent, but there is no reason why they should vary even when using the very same time travel method. One possible rationale is that Gabrielle Burnham was pulled into the far future by accident and that she snaps back to that time like on a rubber band, whereas her daughter seems to have no problem to return to from where she started (the piece of debris in "Such Sweet Sorrow II") as well as eventually to open a wormhole for a permanent time travel. The rubber band effect is a new aspect of temporal phenomena in Star Trek anyway because so far a time travel resulted in a person to remain in a different time permanently. But rather than a fundamental difference in the involved logic, it is more likely just a technical matter. A wormhole that is not completely open may allow limited presence and interaction on the other side until it closes, which may give the impression of being pulled back. So it remains a mystery why Red Angel incursions sometimes change the timeline and sometimes don't.

One more observation pertaining to the predestined timeline is that Michael Burnham is not allowed to enter a destination in the future in her freshly activated time travel suit in "Such Sweet Sorrow II". In the story, this is supposed to ensure the closing of the time loop because otherwise the known history would not have happened. Usually in such a kind of story, the circle is completed inadvertently. Data definitely didn't want to lose his head in "Time's Arrow II" so it would be found in the first part. But in Burnham's case a technical device, and not adverse circumstances, force her to go back. The suit was built according to specifications from outside the time loop, but can we nonetheless invoke the ontological paradox that the suit would need to enable its own creation? Has the suit been programmed in a way that it would notice that a predetermined timeline must be fulfilled? Does it even have the power to decide when to force it and when to be more liberal? Or did it just suffer an unlikely malfunction that was gone after the fifth jump to the past that was necessary, now finally allowing to go forward? And what would have happened if Burnham had decided not to travel in time at all? This all remains a big mystery.

Regarding the timelines, the biggest open question is whether Dr. Burnham died on Doctari Alpha 20 years ago or whether she escaped. Both her daughter (who could hear it) and Leland (who found the corpse) can testify that Gabrielle Burnham was killed by the Klingons. It did happen. At least, it did happen in one version of history that both Burnham and Leland remember. The dilemma is that the very first time travel event that occurred in the Red Angel arc was that Dr. Burnham activated the suit and escaped to the far future. After that, she was not in complete control of the time travels. She could change the timeline to some extent, but she couldn't accomplish anything that would have saved her husband or that would have stopped Control from getting the Sphere data. But most obviously, she could not have caused a timeline in which she died on Doctari Alpha because at the time of "The Red Angel" she was clearly alive! There is only one way that this inconsistency could have and perhaps still can be resolved: Dr. Burnham must return to Doctari Alpha to be killed there. And even this would not be totally plausible, considering that her time travels are not predestined. No one could possibly remember seeing her dead before she really goes back to die.

There are also still many unanswered questions regarding the signals. In "Brother", seven signals appeared across the whole galaxy before "new" signals (actually the same ones) started to appear one by one. We still don't know how and when the initial signals were created, and how they could appear simultaneously. One way to accomplish this would be to transmit two signals from each location: one "live" signal (at high warp) to be received by the Discovery, and one signal to travel back in time, precisely timed for the Enterprise to receive it together with the other six signals. This should have been addressed somehow but it was ignored in all following episodes. The seven simultaneous signals are crucial for the whole story because they damaged the Enterprise and they could not be explained, whereas the seven single signals could have been created by anyone who owns a fast enough starship.

In "Such Sweet Sorrow II", Spock picks up the last of the seven signals 124 days later, and from a planet on the other side of the galaxy. As we see in "That Hope Is You", Michael Burnham sends the Red Angel suit back through the still open wormhole to transmit this signal. So is Hima, her crash site in the 32nd century, on the other side of the galaxy? It seems so. And the 124 days? Perhaps this is an uncertainty caused by the wormhole?

In conjunction with the seven simultaneous original signals that the writers apparently forgot about, this also raises the question if Michael Burnham shouldn't have known in advance that the journey into the future would not take her to Terralysium as planned. After all, in "Brother", the signals could be identified as coming from seven different locations, and not two from the same one. The knowledge about the failure to travel to Terralysium probably wouldn't have been a reason not to go on that journey. But it should have been mentioned, and not shown as a surprise in "That Hope Is You" that Burnham ended up on Hima instead.

One controversial aspect of the Red Angel arc is that when Captain Pike touches the time crystal in "Through the Valley of Shadows", he sees his own future, his accident that leaves him paralyzed in the wheelchair (as known from TOS: "The Menagerie"). We knew it would happen (considering that Discovery is supposed to be canon in spite of everything), and now Captain Pike is aware of it too, which breaks the fourth wall. But Tenavik, the Klingon guardian of the crystals, tells Pike that there is even more about it: "But if you take the crystal, your fate will be sealed, forever." In other words, the very act of taking the crystal determines his fate and makes the accident inevitable. Anything that Pike may do to change his destiny will be useless. In "Such Sweet Sorrow II" Pike even volunteers to stay with the torpedo when it goes off, but Admiral Cornwell (who somehow seems to know of the future he saw?) says it is not his destiny and orders him to leave. So is Pike's destiny really predetermined? Considering that Michael Burnham experiences pretty much the same in her time travels using the crystal and that his vision of the future may be seen as the equivalent of a time travel, this may not seem like a big deal. But being the master of one's own fate is a principle that Star Trek so far was very proud of, and that is dropped for a melodramatic story about Pike's sacrifice (well, and to "sync the series with canon").

Classification: predestined timeline (partially) and time travel to the future

DIS: That Hope Is You, Part I

The season 3 opener concludes the Red Angel arc from season 2. After arriving on the planet Hima in the 32nd century, Michael Burnham sends the Red Angel suit back through the already closing wormhole. She does this because she promised to Spock to transmit that final signal to let him know she is safe. But even more importantly, it is part of the predestination phenomenon. Yet, other than in DIS: "Such Sweet Sorrow II" where the suit itself refused to operate prior to creating the first five of a total of seven signals, we have to wonder what would have happened in case Burnham had not programmed the suit accordingly. Would it have lifted off by itself and gone back through the wormhole?

DIS: "That Hope Is You, Part I" answers the question of how the seventh signal would be created but its origin (from Spock's perspective) still remains mysterious (besides the even bigger riddle how this one could appear simultaneously with all six others as soon as in "Brother", a fact that the writers forgot about halfway through season 2). Prior to sending it away, Burnham enters some coordinates into the suit that we can't make sense of. As seen in "Such Sweet Sorrow II", Spock picks up the signal 124 days later, and from a planet on the other side of the galaxy. This likely doesn't refer to Hima, Burnham's crash site in the 32nd century, because the suit still transmits through the closing wormhole. So the exit point of the wormhole in the 23rd century has shifted in the meantime, to the other side of the galaxy? And the 124 days? Well, at least the latter may be an uncertainty caused by the wormhole, or Burnham simply programmed the delay for some reason.

The episode also establishes that time travel is outlawed since the Temporal Wars. The latter may coincide with the Temporal Cold War as shown on Star Trek Enterprise.

Classification: predestined(?) timeline and time travel to the future

DIS: Terra Firma I/II

In "Terra Firma I", Kovich shows a hologram of Commander Yor, a "time soldier" from the Kelvin Timeline (but without actually using this moniker). So this is the first time in Star Trek that the co-existence of the Prime and the Kelvin Timeline is acknowledged. This is meaningful because it confirms that the time travel of Nero created a new universe that doesn't replace the old one and doesn't have to be fixed, very much unlike in all previous instances of a past incursion in Star Trek.

Yor wears a Starfleet uniform from the early 2360's. Kovich doesn't establish when exactly Yor arrived in the Prime Universe, but Yor purportedly came from the year 2379 and traveled forward, to a time when the universes were already further apart. So the Kelvin Timeline has the same uniforms in 2379 as the Prime Timeline in 2364, instead of anything very different that would have been more plausible? Or does the hologram simply show Yor on an earlier time travel to the year 2364?

Regarding Georgiou's illness, it is stated to be caused by the growing divergence of her own (Mirror) universe and the universe she currently resides in. The portal that may help her and that is revealed to be the Guardian of Forever initially sends Georgiou back to a time when she is still Emperor of the Terran Empire (2257). But as the avatar "Carl" states in "Terra Firma II", this was just a test of character, and Georgiou didn't actually change her history during her stay in the past. Carl makes it sound like he sent Georgiou to another timeline for that purpose, rather than creating an illusion or holodeck scenario. So in order to keep people from misusing time travel, the Guardian itself creates disposable timelines with real people in them that are allowed to be messed with? That is presumptuous and doesn't really make sense. In this regard, the Guardian of Forever acts very differently than it did in TOS: "The City on the Edge of Forever".

Carl eventually sends Georgiou back to a time when the Prime Universe and the Mirror Universe were "still aligned". We don't learn yet what time he refers to, and unlike in the TOS episode Carl never shows a "preview" of the time either.

Classification: travel back to an unknown time, outcome tbd


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