Back and forth in time, but to what end?
May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
In 1967, the television series Star Trek aired its most memorable episode, "City on the Edge of Forever." The crew members of the Starship Enterprise unknowingly rewrite history so dramatically that they themselves cease to exist. To repair the present, they must find the point in the past when things changed, and end up in New York in the 1930s.
There, they encounter a beautiful pacifist social worker. Our hero, Captain Kirk, falls in love with her. They learn that she is supposed to die in a car accident, and that their arrival has spared her. Her survival, they discover, will set in motion a series of events that will keep the United States out of World War II, which will allow Hitler to get the atomic bomb first and take over the world.
Since they saved her, do they now have to kill her? What else can they do to set things right? Setting things right was the secret to the appeal of the original Star Trek. Its crew was never supposed to meddle in the affairs of other planets, other civilizations, other cultures, but being good, responsible, liberal internationalists, they just couldn't help it.
What was (and is) remarkable about "City on the Edge of Forever"--aside from its implicit assault on the anti-Vietnam-war movement, which would be unthinkable today--is the Hobson's choice it presents its characters. Some things can't be repaired. A seemingly humanitarian act, the saving of a single life, will lead to the deaths of millions.
That episode was, at the time, the most mature effort in the annals of popular culture to deal with the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by the very problematic use of time travel as a plot device. It came to a necessary conclusion as a matter of dramatic structure: The past cannot be tinkered with--and if it is, the tinkering must itself be revisited and the proper events allowed to occur as they did.
Without the plot discipline that requires a time-travel scenario to leave the past as it was, the whole business just becomes a Rube Goldberg machine, with characters simply jumping backward whenever they want to make the present-day reality more appealing to them. That is suitable for comedies involving time travel, like the two Bill and Ted movies and Back to the Future, but not for science fiction. For science fiction to work, and work memorably, it has to offer a believable reason for every alteration in the nature of reality.
The writer-producer-director J. J. Abrams seems intent on ignoring the need for rules--any rules. On his beautifully made and insanely exasperating science-fiction TV show Lost, people travel forwards and backwards in time whenever it suits the show's fancy, can occupy the same time and space with their younger selves so that they literally exist in two places at once, and in general, make a hash of any coherent plotline.
Abrams has decided to imitate himself on the big screen. He has now produced and directed a new Star Trek movie, the 11th big-screen feature in the series and a deliberate attempt to relaunch it with a new cast of younger actors playing the Star Trek crew. All the trappings are good. The movie is dynamic and propulsive, and the new cast is terrific. It will surely be a hit.
But it's a mess, and a disgraceful mess at that. That's because Abrams and his screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, simply discard all fealty to the iron rules of time travel that made "City on the Edge of Forever"--the episode that was one of the key reasons the show so captured the imaginations of its viewers and became the phenomenon it did--such a haunting and memorable hour of television.
A gigantic alien spaceship from the future decides to rewrite history to its liking. That changes the past, but nobody seems all that interested in going back and fixing things, which is what would have happened on the show. Instead, we are asked to accept that a planet well known in Star Trek lore can be destroyed at a cost of six billion lives, and the event is simply accepted. Abrams and company also devise a deus ex machina in the form of one of the show's most beloved characters. He won't do anything to fix things, either, except try to turn young Kirk and young Spock into friends.
Now, that's very nice, but it's hardly germane. Star Trek's characters, let us recall, were on a "mission . . . to boldly go where no man has gone before." That mission was to "seek out new life and new civilizations." It wasn't to practice interplanetary male bonding. Abrams's Star Trek is made on an epic scale, but in the end, it's nothing more than a Kodak commercial set in the 23rd century.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.