Lost, Fringe, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Flash, Harry Potter, Legends of Tomorrow, even Game of Thrones. Why do so many of the stories we love involve time travel?
Traveling to one’s past is not necessarily a doomed venture. “Sometimes the only way to move forward is to revisit the things in your past that were holding you back,” Barry Allen says in the The Flash episode “Flashback.” “Because once we do, you’ll see that you can go further than you ever imagined.”
Even without the benefit of physical time travel, looking back with fondness recalls the pleasure of nostalgia— a word that’s been thrown around a lot recently thanks in large part to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which J. J. Abrams effectively invites audiences on a collective trip to 1977.
Behold, a side-by-side comparison of A New Hope and The Force Awakens:
For what it’s worth, most audiences and critics (and I include myself in both categories) loved The Force Awakens. The Hero’s Journey template has always been there, and Abrams capitalized on familiar iconography to remind fans what they loved about the original Star Wars movie to hook their emotions onto this new one. Change is scary. We revel in the familiar.
Terry Matalas and fellow 12 Monkeys Executive Producer Travis Fickett embraced this idea with their television series. “Nostalgia is an incredible way to connect to the audience,” Matalas says. “[It’s] a way to use the goodwill the audience has for the [Terry] Gilliam film or a particular time period to garner an emotional response and connection to our characters.”
(For an intensive study on how Inside Out utilizes nostalgia, check out my piece here!)
Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a franchise or beloved film that has not been summoned from the catacombs of pop culture history for an inevitable “reboot” or “revival”; Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, MacGyver, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist and Xena: The Warrior Princess are only a smattering of fan favorites returning to a small screen near you. Though the sheer volume of reboots may feel excessive, the psychological appeal makes sense. As often as we look back with regret, we also hearken back to happier, simpler times from our childhoods, times that recall certain film and television franchises of yore.
As often as we look back with regret, we also hearken back to happier, simpler times from our childhoods.
One of the most high profile iterations of the reboot effect is Star Trek, which is undergoing separate renaissances in the cinema and on television. When it comes to Star Trek, nostalgia has been at play even within the narratives of the original universe, and more often than not, the writers used time travel to explore this theme.
In “Trials and Tribble-ations,” a fifth season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine written by Ron Moore (now executive producer of Outlander) and René Echevarria, the DS9 crew travels back in time to prevent the assassination of Captain Kirk by a rogue Klingon. The weapon of choice? A booby-trapped tribble.
The assassination plot allows the DS9 writers, in 1996, to insert their crew into the cherished Original Series episode from 1967, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” for a fun little romp of nostalgic mayhem. In “Trials and Tribble-ations,” Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) and members of his crew get to live out every Star Trek fan’s dream: stepping aboard the USS Enterprise and meeting the inimitable Captain Kirk.
The episode is notable for its tongue-in-cheek approach to time travel, starting off with a visit from the sassy Department of Temporal Investigations. The two agents interrogate Captain Sisko and reveal that they hate predestination paradoxes, time loops and jokes. “Trials and Tribble-ations,” of course, indulges in a bit of all three.
For all of its humor, “Trials and Tribble-ations” sets up a pretty airtight time travel story in the vein of the causal loop model: The Deep Space Nine crew successfully conserves the original timeline from “The Trouble with Tribbles” in which Captain Kirk is not, in fact, assassinated.
Though he is still “bonked” by Tribbles…
The 2009 Star Trek film reboot by J. J. Abrams also takes a dip in the nostalgia pool. In the film, an elderly Spock (Leonard Nimoy, reprising his iconic role) convinces a young Kirk (Chris Pine) that they can change the course of events by remedying a mistake made by Spock 129 years in the future. Kirk— brash, idealistic, impetuous— takes this older Spock (dubbed “Spock Prime”) at his word and rushes into action.
What Spock Prime doesn’t let on is that our Kirk is already living out an alternate history. In the “prime” timeline, Spock’s failure to prevent the destruction of the planet Romulus catapults him and Nero (Nero), the Romulan villain of this film, through a black hole to another universe, whereupon Nero attacks a Starfleet ship captained by our Kirk’s father, killing him on the day of Kirk’s birth. Thus, Abrams’s franchise is not rewriting decades of original Star Trek history, but branching off into a different timeline altogether. It’s a neat bit of time travel trickery, allowing Trekkies to savor this new iteration while the original series lives on in a parallel universe.
Check back in next week for mirror images: Spock and Spock Prime, and hope and faith. Or, you know, just hop in your time machine and read it now. If you choose that option, hit me up, I have some questions…