The 14 Greatest Star Trek Time Travel Adventures
By Kevin J. Guhl
Time travel is a magic tonic for the writers of Star Trek. For some reason, episodes about time travel generally manage to be more creative and interesting than the average Star Trek episode, even in seasons that suffered from mediocre writing. Outside of “The Wrath of Khan,” the two most arguably well-received Star Trek movies were The Voyage Home and First Contact, both of which focused on time travel. It’s no wonder that the most recent Star Trek film threw in time travel as a crucial plot element. Success! In fact, Star Trek has gone back to that gravity well for more than 50 episodes and movies, and that’s not even counting the fact that whole seasons of Enterprise were focused on time-traveling alien terrorists. The crew of Voyager used the plot device so much that the time cops had to stop by and give them a warning about it! (Maybe that was the writers wryly telling themselves that, as well.) Either way, Star Trek has produced so many good time travel stories that it’s hard to narrow it down to a manageable list. These 14 movies and episodes, however, prove that no one does time travel quite as well as Star Trek.
14) Tomorrow is Yesterday
This episode was the first real time travel adventure seen on Star Trek, and it began with a surreal image – a 20th Century fighter pilot spotting a “UFO” in the sky – the Starship Enterprise! Culture shock ensued after the Enterprise crew beamed up the pilot, John Christopher, and debated not letting him return to his own time after all he had seen. The Enterprise succeeded in returning to its own time thanks to the handy “Slingshot around the Sun” maneuver, which would later be used again in Star Trek IV. And the Enterprise crew also managed to beam Christopher back into himself in the past, which made no sense whatsoever and adhered to the long-standing, senseless rule of time travel fiction that two of one person can’t exist in the same time. But nevertheless, it was a fun adventure that began the trend of time travel in Star Trek. The later episode “Assignment: Earth” was similar in tone and was good, but was more of a spin-off for new character Gary Seven.
The animated Star Trek series told some pretty good stories, although this episode was the only one Gene Roddenberry considered canon. It’s easy to see why, as this excellent, mature tale had Kirk and Spock return to the Guardian of Forever to view Andorian history and accidentally wipe out Spock’s existence. After some fun on the Enterprise in which no one recognized Spock, he found out that he had died as a child on Vulcan since he was not there as an adult to save himself. While older Spock reentered the Guardian and succeeded in that task, his beloved pet shelat was fatally wounded defending young Spock from a wild animal. Young Spock was then left with a choice to have a veterinarian save his pet but doom it to a life of pain, or to have it put down. Choosing the latter, Spock learned an important lesson about logic and young viewers were taught about euthanasia. Hmm, maybe Spock in the new films can use the Guardian to go back and save Vulcan…
The best Voyager time travel episode included an awesome scene in which the ship crash-landed on an ice planet, killing everyone but Chakotay and Harry Kim, all thanks to a colossal screw-up by Kim. Fifteen years later, Chakotay and Kim, who was wracked with guilt, became Federation fugitives and returned against orders to Voyager, where they planned to send a message to 7 of 9 in the past to prevent the accident. Voyager used the reset button too much (“Year of Hell,” anyone?) but it didn’t feel like a cheat this time. All this and a surprise appearance from Geordi La Forge made this an awesome Voyager episode. Too bad about the other 167 episodes.
11) Cause and Effect
When the Enterprise-D blows up before the opening credits, you know you’re in for a ride! In fact, it blew up several times as the Enterprise got stuck in a time loop while trying to save an older Federation ship from a time distortion, inadvertently causing the ships to collide and the Enterprise’s warp core to explode. After managing to communicate with themselves in the next loop, the Enterprise crew avoided destruction and finally met the captain of the other ship – Dr. Frasier Crane!
10) Little Green Men
No, Ferengi don’t look much like the reputed aliens who crashed at Roswell in 1947, but it nevertheless was fun to watch Quark, Rom and Nog end up there in a sabotaged ship and befuddle the confused, “primitive” American military personnel who captured and had to deal with them. At one point, Quark tried to open Ferengi business negotiations and, when rebuffed, threatened to take his business to the Russians. Hilarious episode.
9) Children of Time
Trek is at its best when it uses its sci-fi devices to present genuine moral dilemmas, and the DS9 writers were skilled at doing that, especially in a darker manner than other Trek shows. The Defiant crew faced such a dilemma when they were sucked 200 years into the future and landed on a planet inhabited by 8,000 of their descendants and future Odo. Learning that the Defiant was due to crash on the planet upon returning to the present and that Major Kira would be killed in the accident, the Defiant crew had to decide if they would save themselves and erase their descendants from time, or make sure the future happened as they had seen it. In the end, they decided they could not essentially kill the people they had come to know in the colony, and Kira resigned herself to her fate. However, the flight plan to cause the unique accident failed, dooming their descendants. In the “Holy crap!” finale, Odo revealed that his future self altered the flight plan because he could not allow Kira, who he was in love with, to perish. It was both a powerful and creepy show of affection.
8) The Visitor
This heart-wrenching episode saw Captain Sisko become unstuck in time and randomly appear to his son Jake at sequential points throughout Jake’s life. To Captain Sisko’s great sadness, Jake wasted his potential as a writer and spent years of his life in order to focus on rescuin
g his father. And what Jake finally realized, as an older man, was that he had to commit suicide in the presence of his father in order to break the temporal rubber band that attached them. Although Captain Sisko had to witness his son die in front of him, it returned Captain Sisko to the moment he first was cut loose in time and ensured that he and his son would not be separated.
7) Yesterday’s Enterprise
“Let’s make sure history never forgets the name… Enterprise!” Captain Picard uttered that famous line in this excellent episode, a story that reportedly would have been saved for a feature film if the producers knew at the time that films were in the wings. When the Enterprise-C arrived in the future through a time anomaly instead of being destroyed in a battle that led to a peace accord with the Klingon Empire, the present suddenly took a dramatic shift. Still at war with the Klingons, the Enterprise-D became a warship and Tasha Yar was still alive as its security chief. The ending with two Enterprises fighting to set things right was epic.
6) The City on the Edge of Forever
Captain Kirk had a reputation as a ladies’ man, but this episode introduced him to both his greatest love and his greatest loss (well, until Spock died and the Enterprise blew up). Trapped by the spooky Guardian of Forever in 1930, Kirk fell in love with peace activist Edith Keeler. Unfortunately, her existence meant that the U.S. would never enter World War 2 and the Nazis would go on to conquer the world, making the Federation cease to exist. Making the hardest decision he’d ever have to make, Kirk let her die in a car accident to save the future. Back in the present, the Guardian excitedly offered the Enterprise crew more opportunities to travel through its wonderful time portal, but Kirk responded with a terse, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Yes, Captain Kirk, time travel is a bitch.
After a phaser blast to the chest knocked Captain Picard’s artificial heart out of commission, Q appeared as God and gave Jean-Luc a chance to go back in time and relive his rowdy Starfleet Academy days. Determined to stop himself from being stabbed through the heart in a bar fight in the first place and to right other wrongs, Picard ended up alienating all of his friends and becoming a total loser in the future. After Picard learned his lesson that the daring nature of his younger years made him the man he became and admitting that he would rather die a great man than live as a pathetic man, Q restored things back to normal. Picard, whose bionic heart was revived, realized for the first time that maybe Q was actually trying to help him, in his own twisted way.
4) Star Trek: First Contact
When the Borg traveled back in time and assimilated Earth, the Enterprise-E crew had a major problem on their hands. They had no other option but to follow the Borg further back in time, leading to the amusing antics of half the Enterprise crew making sure surly inventor Zefram Cochrane made humanity’s first warp flight, and the other half of the crew engaged in a tense battle against the Borg onboard the orbiting Enterprise. Capped off by Earth’s first meeting with Vulcans, First Contact was not just the best TNG movie, but one of the best Star Trek movies.
3) Trials and Tribble-ations
This episode was a Trekkie’s dream. Thanks to the convenient existence of a Bajoran Orb of Time, the DS9 crew returned to the wild days of Classic Trek, in which saturated colors and miniskirts prevailed. It all began with a pants-wetting moment when the original Enterprise appeared on the Defiant’s viewscreen, way more detailed and glorious than we had ever seen it before. The DS9 crew intermingled with Captain Kirk & Co. thanks to cleverly intercut footage, and the fan-favorite Tribbles made their return in full-force. What really made the episode was its humorous meta-references to all things Trek, from the lack of Klingon forehead ridges in the Original Series to the first mention (somewhat indirectly) of there being an Enterprise-E. And temporal investigators Lucsly and Dulmur were hilarious in their all-too-serious debriefing of Captain Sisko. “James T. Kirk… 17 separate temporal violations, the biggest file on record. The man was a menace.” All in all, a fantastic tribute.
2) Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Before Star Trek began again in 2009, The Voyage Home was the Star Trek film that the general movie-going public best related to. “The one with the whales,” as it is mostly known, saw Kirk & Co. travel back to 1980s San Francisco in order to obtain some whales that were extinct in their own time and bring them back to dissuade an alien probe from destroying the planet. But sci-fi framework and environmental message aside, the reason this movie was so popular was the non-stop humor that ensued as the Enterprise crew interacted awkwardly with 20th century American culture. (“Well, a double dumb ass on you!”) The “fish out of water” element of this time travel story (and no, not the whales; they’re mammals) made it a roaring success.
1) All Good Things…
The Next Generation went out on top, at least on TV, with this finale that saw Picard leaping through time between his present self, past self and his miserable future self in order to solve a time anomaly (with the help of Q) that stood to erase mankind. Picard’s realization – that it was a paradox – was in line with the hopeful future Gene Roddenberry had always envisioned for humanity through Star Trek. As Q said, “For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.” And on a less lofty level, the episode reinforced and strengthened the family that these characters had become. It was a fantastic celebration of the series and of Star Trek itself, and was a moving end to the story of these characters we had grown to love. At least until the TNG movies began…