Is sci-fi about going forward boldly into the future or reminiscing and reliving the past? Certainly, with time travel preoccupying science fiction as both an awesome gadget, concept, and plot device, the beauty is you can do both timelines at the touch of a blinking button or the roar of warp drive. However, as a purely solid and compelling narrative—is it better to keep reaching for the mysterious future or revisiting the well trod past?
In both Star Wars and Star Trek, time travel is a regular plot device and also a way of presenting character struggles and backstory. In the new big feature films from director J. J. Abrams, we learn more about Captain Kirk and Spock’s diverting backstories, but what of learning more about the galaxy and beyond? What of the wonder of exploration, the fascinating new tech, the new alien wonders? Where is a new Khan, evolved from the origin TV tale, Space Seed, stealing and then using the awe inspiring Genesis Device? Where are the intelligent whales helping to decipher a mysterious probe from Voyage Home?
Is Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk roaring away on a motorcycle in Star Trek: Beyond more compelling than trying to understand the intricacies of detonating a planetary terraforming device or other new mysteries?
Star Wars: The Force Awakens continued the George Lucas created space saga by blasting off through hyperspace into the future. Now Rogue One is coming to theaters—but that’s steeped in past glory. Star Trek announced a new chapter of its franchise—Star Trek: Discovery. It will be set about a decade before the launch of Capt. Kirk’s Enterprise. What’s with all this time traveling to the past in sci-fi?
While it’s true as long as a story is set beyond the time it’s being told, it can be justly called the future or a future timeline, but in a serialized format like a TV show or movie series, what’s gained by constantly retreating into the past and exploring things which connect back to the future?
Is sci-fi safe and predictable or boring when its creators flee into the past for backstory? With Star Trek: Enterprise, this didn’t work so well—becoming the shortest running and least popular of all the Trek TV spin-off incarnations. Many felt the Star Wars prequels were a bit too safe and even pedestrian. With sci-fi or the even more liberating narrative of space opera, why doesn’t the future provide enough of a environment to spin tales?
Star Wars—The Prequels
When Star Wars: The Phantom Menace opened, many fans were skeptical. A prequel? Going backward? Seeing a cutesy Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) as a nerdy, droid building kid—is that really what fans wanted in a star spawned space saga? With a budget of $115 million dollars and earning $1.027 billion dollars worldwide, it’s undeniable the film was an enormous blockbuster hit. Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith carried on a herculean profit performance, and generally fans liked what George Lucas gave them—a detailed look into how Darth Vader was created and driven to the dark side of the Force.
With the coming of The Force Awakens, fans could now relish going forward into the future. We’d now find out what happened to the dashing Han Solo, the royal rebel Princess Leia, the Jedi Luke Skywalker, and those adorable droids. We’d get new characters, new environments and new struggles. Use the new Force, Luke! Star Wars is new again!
And then, amid all this shiny and new stuff, we'll get, Rogue One.
Being released in December of 2016, Rogue One promises to be an exciting chapter in the Star Wars saga—set in the past. The plot, what we know of it so far, is about the stealing of the Death Star plans. As loyal Star Wars fans know, the Death Star was destroyed in the original film—A New Hope. So, yeah, we can now see how it was accomplished.
Rogue One is poised to do reminiscing mired in a bunch of action packed battle scenes. Nothing wrong with that, but how does it further the galaxy far, far away which George Lucas carefully crafted? What’s next on the oldie hits parade for Star Wars? Seeing a young Han Solo, become, well, older Han Solo. We’ll see Chewbacca go from just a wee teddy bear to the hulking Bigfoot of today, I’d imagine.
Cool stuff blasting down galactic memory lane? Sure, why not.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes
The sci-fi prequel predates Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. After the huge success of Planet of the Apes in 1968 and sequel, Beneath The Planet of the Apes, studio 20th Century Fox wanted more ape bucks. They got it with Escape From the Planet of the Apes, where lead apes Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and wife Zira (Kim Hunter) used astronaut Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) spaceship to slingshot back to the 1970s. The time romp was fun and dramatic. Its financial success allowed two more apes movies to be made—Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. While those moves all were prequels, they served to connect the dots of the main premise: How did superior and technologically advanced humans become subservient to primitive apes who had mastered the power of speech?
You could argue with Rogue One, we’re also seeing "missing pieces" of a puzzle. However, the comparison of a premise involving a truly Earth and history shattering change in the dominant species and its subsequent nuclear holocaust to rebels stealing plans to blow something up seems woefully lopsided.
Enterprise—Birth Of The Federation
Back in 1995, UPN (United Paramount Network) was the new network or netlet on the block. It had seen success with Star Trek: Voyager, helmed by lead actress Kate Mulgrew. Now, it was time to go back into the past for a prequel.
Actor Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap) was cast as Captain Jonathan Archer in the first prequel series to legendary Star Trek. The production was more than solid, the other actors strong; Producers even paid super pop songwriter Diane Warren to rewrite her former Rod Stewart hit song to be used as the theme song, the first song, sung by Russell Watson, with lyrics to a broadcast Trek program.
All cosmic signs pointed to it all working tremendously.
In the first three years of its original broadcast, Enterprise was simply entitled that—with no accompanying Star Trek preceding it in the title. Was this an attempt to lose the brilliant shine of a multi-billion dollar beloved fan franchise? Or simply a way of nodding to the concept of the show itself—seeing the iconic Federation of Planets forming, recognizing that Roddenberry's wagon train or trek to the stars was still in its infancy?
Who knows exactly why Enterprise didn’t resonate as much with fans or new audiences as previous Trek incarnations. As Leonard Nimoy was fond of saying about Star Trek's popularity—it’s catching lightning in a bottle. We all know of movies and TV shows which have quality written all over them on the script page or in previews, then completely disappoint or bomb out once ideas are executed. Here once again, however, we’re saddled with a future show—a future trek—going back into the past. What may be most ironic about Enterprise is one of the recurring themes was a time travel sub-plot involving a group of terrorists called The Suliban, who were apparently sabotaging events in the past to influence the future. Can you have your narrative cake and eat it too? If Enterprise is any example, you'll only be tasting one confection from The Cosmic Cheesecake Factory here.
Stephen Hawking—Super Genius & Time Travel Expert
George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry, Rod Serling, and Stephen Spielberg have launched our imaginations about time travel through the magic of science fiction. However, what does one of the smartest men in history think of the concept?
"I do believe in time travel. Time travel to the future. Time flows like a river and it seems as if each of us is carried relentlessly along by time's current. But time is like a river in another way. It flows at different speeds in different places and that is the key to traveling into the future. This idea was first proposed by Albert Einstein over 100 years ago." —Stephen Hawking
Do you have time for time travel? Does any of us?
If the great scientific minds are correct—from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking—the fluidity and elasticity of time, space time, or time travel may prove to be so flexible, so forgiving and accommodating, perhaps future humans will be sailing off on all sorts of time escapades. It won’t matter what era you start or end up in—it will be all about the enjoyment of the temporal journey. If, as some others believe, time travel is only about going forward into the future—as we do every moment of our natural lives—then those past excursions are mere reminiscence, whereas the real power lies in journeying into the unknown future.