A Brief History of Star Trek’s Time Travel

A Brief History of Star Trek’s Time Travel
Loops, portals, and branched realities — just three different ways Star Trek has used time travel as a conceit to tell its stories, time and time again. (Image: CBS/Paramount)

Time travel and Star Trek have gone hand in temporally adjacent hand since practically the beginning of the franchise. Like time itself, the narrative fluidity time-travel stories provide has allowed Star Trek in all of its iterations to explore its themes and characters in unique and compelling ways over the years. Now that Picard’s second season is diving into that well too, Gizmodo takes a look back at some of the franchise’s best uses of it, and how time travel lets Star Trek shine.

Tomorrow Is Yesterday (1967)

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Star Trek’s very first dabble with time travel still remains a highlight to this day, putting our Enterprise crew in a true fish out of water situation. They’re flung back to “contemporary” 1969 earth and have to both find a way back to their own time and erase their appearance to U.S. military as a UFO.

Yesteryear (1973)

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There’s a lot to love in Star Trek The Animated Series, but one of its most potent stories is this dive into Spock’s childhood, as the elder Vulcan is tasked with helping his past self endure a harmful trauma to avoid a divergent timeline being formed.

Trial and Tribble-ations (1996)

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It may be far from the heyday of the original Trek, but Deep Space Nine’s time-bending anniversary celebration was a production highlight, as well as a gloriously fun tribute to Trek’s roots. The episode sent the DS9 crew back in time through cleverly edited footage from the beloved “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

All Good Things… (1994)

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The Next Generation had hit after hit with time travel tales — some of which we’ll get to later — but one of its most important and poignant remains the series finale. The two-parter followed Captain Picard across three different time periods reckoning with a potentially fatal disease and, oh, y’know, the fate of humanity. All in a day’s work for the Enterprise-D.

Timeless (1998)

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Star Trek: Voyager maybe loved time travel more than any other entry in the franchise before it, with many of its strongest episodes relying on the conceit (playing strongly to its habit of resetting to the status quo week-on-week, in spite of the series’ unique setup of a stranded Federation starship). “Timeless” is just one great example, set in an alternate future where a failed attempt to get home to the Alpha Quadrant killed most of Voyager’s crew, as an older Chakotay and Harry Kim must work together to undo their present and save their friends.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

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One of the finer Trek movies may primarily be about the endless horror that is the Borg — and Jean-Luc Picard’s traumatic relationship with them — but it’s also a great Star Trek time travel premise. What if the Borg, sick of being repelled by Starfleet in the present, just went back in time and stopped humanity from ever ascending to spaceflight in the first place?

Star Trek (2009)

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J.J. Abram’s controversial (yet pretty fun, if you ask us) cinematic reboot is one of the most impactful Star Trek time travel stories in the entire franchise. The plot revolves around a disastrous interaction between the Romulus system’s star going supernova and an experimental red matter ship piloted by none other than Spock. It cleaves the Trek timeline into two parallel realities, created by the Romulan mining ship Nerada being flung back into the 23rd century and changing the course of history by attacking the Kelvin, the ship where Kirk’s father, George, served.

Past Tense (1995)

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is beloved for its unique approach to many Trek hallmarks, shining a light on the darker spaces of the franchise’s utopia — and its use of time travel could be no exception. For instance, this two-parter which takes Captain Sisko and his officers back to a dark turning point in Humanity’s history: the Bell Riots of 2024, a housing and unemployment crisis that rocked America and ultimately paved the way for a radical socioeconomic overhaul of its society.

The Inner Light (1992)

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One of the most heartbreaking TNG episodes is also one of its smartest uses of time travel. Jean-Luc Picard finds himself placed in a living memory of a dying civilisation, living 40 years as an alien named Kamin in a matter of minutes. It was something that left an impact on the captain for the rest of the series.

Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad (2017)

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Star Trek’s most recent mainline addition, Discovery, is certainly no stranger to time-travel at this point — the show completely re-invented its premise between its second and third seasons to fling itself to the farthest ends of the Star Trek timeline as we knew it, now firmly placed in the 32nd century. But one of its earliest, strongest highlights in season one is this wonderfully clever time-loop tale, as Michael and her friends work to stop notorious conman Harry Mudd from using time-loop technology to enact bloody revenge on the Discovery’s captain, Gabriel Lorca.

Year of Hell (1997)

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“Year of Hell” is a strange one — it’s about time, yes, but it’s not your usual “travel forward/travel backward” kind of setup. Instead, Voyager finds itself facing the Krenim, a society of scientists who weaponize time travel to turn themselves into a dominant empire. Transformed into an overwhelming force, the Krenim hound Voyager across their territory for a bloody, exhausting year, picking the ship and its crew apart slowly and painfully, until Seven of Nine discovers a way to undo the Krenim’s temporal manipulation.

Storm Front (2004)

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Time travel played a huge part in Enterprise’s narrative — it’s here that we see the infamous Temporal Cold War play out in one of the show’s strongest subplots. But Enterprise could also have a bit of high-stakes fun with its time travel narratives, like season four’s brilliant opening two-parter, building on a cliffhanger where the Enterprise finds itself flung back to a World War II-era New York… that’s been occupied by Nazi Germany.

The Visitor (1995)

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Another example of Star Trek using time-travel tropes to twist an emotional dagger in your heart, this Deep Space Nine classic hinges on the relationship between Sisko and his son Jake, a tragic story of fatherhood as an elderly, retired Jake tells a tale of how a subspace accident aboard the Defiant caused his father to begin slipping in and out of “time,” watching his son grow old without him like a temporal ghost. Bring tissues when you watch.

Yesterday’s Enterprise (1990)

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Another tale of alternate timelines, this TNG classic brings our crew face to face with a much more desperate version of themselves: an Enterprise-C, from a timeline where the Federation is in a losing war with the Klingon Empire. Beloved for the alt-reality premise that allowed for a brief surprise return for Denise Crosby’s Tasha Yar — infamously killed off near the end of TNG’s first season — it’s also a touching tale of sacrifice and honour, as the Enterprise-C crew faces extinction to give the Enterprise-D a chance to fix time.

The City on the Edge of Forever (1967)

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Not just one of the most beloved episodes of time-travel Trek around, but one of the most beloved episodes of Star Trek, full stop. Harlan Ellison’s tragic tale of James Kirk’s doomed love in ‘30s New York pushed the boundaries of the kind of sci-fi tale the original series could tell, and holds up today as a shining example of how Star Trek could use time travel in fascinating ways.