Time travel episodes are always tricky in Star Trek, because they are packed by nature with ethical dilemmas related to disrupting the time stream. SNW's effort brings the question of sacrifice to the fore in a way that rightfully unsettles. But is it enough?

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This week’s episode of Strange New Worlds takes us boldly to Canada, but I promise: just because most of the show is set in my birthplace of Toronto, we won’t go off-mission too much to reflect on how it uses the location. I will only say that if you’re buying street meat (veg or otherwise) but don’t so much as put a little sauce on your downtown dog, let alone top it with freshly chopped onions, corn relish, and maybe some pickled peppers or sauerkraut, what are you even doing with your life?

Okay. Street cred aside: Time travel episodes are a challenging business, and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is no exception. What makes a time travel episode difficult is that they are always imbued with contrived ethical dilemmas. Why contrived? Because from a multiverse perspective, it shouldn’t matter what one does in the past. If the universe contains infinite possibilities, then there’s nothing one can do that will either increase or decrease the number of active forks in the temporal road. In that case, though, what’s the big deal about stumbling into another timeline? Shouldn’t there be a timeline for every possible stumble into every possible timeline at every possible timestamp?

In other words, a truly infinite multiverse is narratively dull, which is why we don’t trade in those in science fiction. Even hard sci-fi series like DEVS (2020), which offers perhaps the most explicit example of a stable and infinite multiverse, ultimately sides with the idea that getting your you into the best universe matters more than thinking about versions of you suffering elsewhere.

So these are our rules: The past does matter. What we do in it matters, too. Therefore, certain core timelines have to be preserved at any cost, and characters must get back to their core timelines before they do lasting damage in another.

Some series add tension by having characters begin to fade out of existence, creating an artificial race against… ah… time. But in Star Trek two other factors contribute to the pressure: Starfleet’s own strong sense of right and wrong (a kind of “Temporal Prime Directive”), and the existence of time police, here called the Department of Temporal Investigations, who come from centuries ahead of our characters to dictate how the timeline must be saved, no other questions asked or answered.

Although every Star Trek series dabbles in time and multiverse hopping, most usually stick to the United States, future home to Starfleet. “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” (TOS S1E19) finds Captain James T. Kirk struggling not to disrupt the 1960s after the Enterprise is thrown back in time. “Little Green Men” finds Ferengi (accidentally) responsible for Roswell (DS9 S4E05). “Future’s End” offers a Sarah Silverman cameo in 1996, where Voyager‘s crew needs to avoid damage to the 29th century while returning to the 24th (VOY S3E08-9).

Sometimes, Star Trek uses other species’ timelines to grapple with more complex histories, such as when Kira Neyrs travels back, in “Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night” (DS9 S6E07), to learn the truth about her mother, a Bajoran that a Cardassian occupier claims was his lover. The strong Holocaust parallels in Bajor and Cardassia’s history play out here, but at a remove from an Earth history that Star Trek writers often feel uncomfortable tackling head-on.

(NB: Nor is this the only time Star Trek uses other species for World War II atrocity. Neelix endures a version of this Othering of non-white WWII history in “Jetrel”, VOY S1E15, which blends the bombing of Hiroshima and Holocaust medical atrocity to make a controversial statement between aliens about forgiveness.)

On other occasions, the past is just goofy. When Captain Benjamin Sisko and the crew of the Defiant accidentally end up in Kirk’s era, they trip into some trouble with Tribbles and grapple with how different Klingons look across series (DS9 S5E06). But even amid this silliness, cardinal rules about non-interference still apply.

And this is because one use for time travel sings out above all others in sci-fi: to ask if you would kill baby Hitler. How would you would respond, if given the chance to change history around so awful a human being?

Star Trek‘s best time travel episode in this regard goes right back to The Original Series, with “The City on the Edge of Forever” (TOS S3E28). Captain Kirk, along with Spock and McCoy, find themselves in Depression-era New York after McCoy stumbles through a time portal. Its guardian allows the others to travel back to repair the damage. Kirk works odd jobs to support the team, and falls in love with the dreamer Edith Keeler. If allowed to live, she’ll bring about a pacifist movement that keeps the US out of the war long enough for Nazis to develop the atomic bomb and take over.

Yes, there’s a lot of congratulatory nationalism to unpack there, but can you see the cleverness of the narrative move? The original Trek was already subverting a classic use of the time travel trope, by asking not if we’d kill Hitler, but if we’d be willing to let someone wonderful die if their death could stop Hitler.

This is something that quality genre work has always done: gone beyond its basic premise to explore a chewier ethical issue. Night of the Living Dead (1968), for instance, both emerged as a seminal piece of zombie film-making and as a story that, by virtue of its devastating ending, immediately transforms the simple monster trope into a potent sociopolitical metaphor for a racist society. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) was similarly rich with class and geopolitical anxieties tethered expressly to its formative use of the werewolf/vampire archetype. And Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) situates reader sympathies with Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, by highlighting humanity’s prejudice and ego as the true sites of modern monstrosity.

Most sci-fi and horror stories that follow in the footsteps of such transformational work are derivative, absent many of the social complexities initially raised. They sleepwalk through the moral implications of their worldbuilding, and avoid the most challenging aspects of their premises.

So how well does SNW do, on its own trip through such temporal morality plays?

Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)

La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong) is carrying a lot of frustration forward from the events of episode two, when Una’s trial for being Illyrian, a species/race/culture that genetically augments its children, brought up painful personal history. La’an is a descendant of Khan Noonien-Singh, a human Augment originally from the late 20th century, who plays a leading role in the Eugenics Wars, killing millions. Although she doesn’t bear personal responsibility, she lives with shame and insecurity from the harm her family line has done.

Then a time cop pops into her world, shot and in need of her assistance.

“Get to the bridge”, he tells her, pressing a device into her hand. When he disappears, La’an finds herself on a different Enterprise: a vessel that’s not even Starfleet because the organization never came about, but which is captained by James T. Kirk (Paul Wesley), in the middle of a brutal war with Romulans that finds Vulcans and humans unaligned.

When Kirk doesn’t believe her story, the two wrestle for the device, which sends them back to… today! Sort of. 21st century Toronto, where they have to procure material goods in a currency-based society and figure out what incident they’re supposed to prevent. For La’an, the issue is of grave importance: If they don’t fix the timeline, she’ll never get back to her ship. But for Kirk, the logical choice at first seems to be to do nothing, because “fixing” the timeline would mean his own ceasing to exist.

And La’an is hesitating, too: especially when it later turns out that, in Kirk’s timeline, her family never becomes the notorious heart of a Eugenics War. (Instead, everything‘s terrible on Earth, for everyone!) Wouldn’t it be nice to be part of a world where she no longer has to bear personal shame for her family’s past?

Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)

An exploded peace bridge changes the meaning of the time cop’s instructions. Since the event vaguely registers in both Kirk and La’an’s histories, it’s not the actual fork they’re here to prevent, but it offers the clue they need to figure out who’s trying to hold Earth back from a more utopic future.

With a little help from an alien conspiracy theorist (Adelaide Kane, no relation to Carol), along with Chief of Engineer Commander Pelia (Carol Kane, our “Guinan” for this series: a long-living Lanthanite who hoards artifacts in Vermont at this point in her life), Kirk and La’an come to realize that Romulans are plotting destruction to keep humanity paranoid and small. With one of Pelia’s artifacts, the pair tracks the device the Romulans are planning to use to blow up Toronto. When this hunt leads to an institution with La’an’s family name, the reason for her selection by the time cop becomes clear: biological markers will get her through security.

Oh, but not before our friendly neighborhood conspiracy theorist turns out to be a Romulan! Kirk pulls a risky gambit and dies in the process. La’an defeats the Romulan and enters the facility to find none other than her ancestor, Khan: a child who asks if she’s here to kill him. She isn’t, and doesn’t. Before returning to her own time, where she’s forced to grieve alt-Kirk’s death alone due to time-cop protocol, La’an tells this future nightmare that he is exactly where he needs to be.

Humanist storytelling structure?

I had a sneaking suspicion, from how much the Season 2 opener focused on Spock, that we were looking at a season that would spotlight a different character each episode. So far, that suspicion has borne out, for better and for worse. For instance, in last week’s episode, a solid B-plot with La’an’s family tree could have offered a brilliant narrative offset the thinly scripted A-plot about Federation prejudice against engaging in genetic augmentation. Instead, episode two was all about Una, and episode three is all about La’an. This choice allows each episode to do more character work, but at significant cost to holding competing ideas in tension.

(However, does this mean we’ll get an all-Ortegas episode? A part of me hopes so, but she’s such an excellent foil character that the best use of an Ortegas episode would probably involve her moving through other stories with her usual self-assured charm and wit, effortlessly and hilariously fixing crises around her. And I can definitely see myself writing such a fan-script if that episode doesn’t show up in canon!)

It’s not really fair to expect later-Trek narrative structures in a series fashioned after TOS, though. SNW has made its Season 2 priorities clear, and a good reviewer pays attention. Moreover, within those parameters, the show is also still doing something pretty innovative for time travel, by having the representatives of two distinct timelines show up in the same past, to haggle over which future should win out.

And although the episode never explicitly says as much, our alt-Kirk also offers a tacit rebuttal to the choice La’an ultimately makes. To stop Kirk’s violent timeline from coming to pass, the duo needs to defeat the Romulan threat—which they do, but only after Kirk has given his life so that a better timeline can emerge. Once the Romulan threat has ended, though, La’an has a chance to prevent even more violence, by killing her ancestor at cost to her own existence, too.

So why doesn’t she?

Where’s the narrative justification for not sacrificing herself as Kirk did?

‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’: The thematic payoff

Unfortunately, this is where sci-fi hand-waving comes into play. From the outset, when the time cop tells La’an that she has to fix the timeline, we know that her terrible history is the one sanctioned by centuries of secret police. We also know that if La’an takes herself out of the timeline, that takes her out of SNW: not an impossible move, but one pulled more often in a finale, or for an actor leaving in a rush.

These bigger narrative facts not only take the ethical dilemma out of La’an hands, but also ours. We know she’s not going to kill baby Hitler. Or even if she does, he won’t stay dead if time cops think that hers is the correct history. If La’an tries to junk it up, they’ll just send more people along to undo her damage. So why fight the inevitable?

But there’s another component to her decision: a personal one. La’an falls quickly for this alt-history Kirk, and imagines bringing him to her timeline once they’ve saved its past. Far from being an extraneous story beat, La’an’s romance (much like our “real” Kirk’s romance with Keeler in TOS) strengthens her sense of value for her own universe. Although one of her ancestors will grow up to do great harm, what she’s trying to preserve about her world can’t help but feel much bigger than her personal pain and shame by the episode’s end. After all, it now includes something that a man she cared about was willing to die for, too.


Is this sufficient cause not to kill Khan?

Not really.

But here’s the thing about the “Would you kill baby Hitler?” hypothetical:

It has always been a false binary in science fiction, and one that speaks more to our own fixations than to any coherent discourse about temporal ethics. Why? Because there were always other ways to spin the question. For instance: “Would you get Hitler into a good art school?” Or, “Would you reveal to the leaders at Versailles the path to fascism that their World War I peace treaty would create if left as is?”

The fact that we don’t consider these alternatives, or at least don’t consider them anywhere near as exciting as hypothetical dead babies, suggests that we are not by and large interested in reducing worldly violence. The whole thought experience is about ascertaining if and when it would ever be acceptable to take another life.

So though I’m not convinced that this episode adequately justifies La’an’s choice, I also don’t think it was ever trying to. It simply has La’an face up to her biased subject-position, as a person who cares too much for her present to give it up, irrespective of all the terrible history that made it possible.

Meanwhile, I tip my hat at the narrative ambiguity presented through alt-Kirk’s concurrent act of ultimate sacrifice. Yes, when the time police pick winners and losers, we’re invariably left with a thematic and moral cop-out. But when even a single character imagines a better world without himself in it, and gives his life in pursuit of a dream he’ll never see firsthand… that takes real courage.

That asks a question we’d all do well to take up ourselves.

Three out of four happy humans to an episode, then, that like all good time travel stories leaves us wondering if we too could ever be so brave: either to lay down our lives for a dream larger than ourselves, or to live with less than utopia instead.

Quotes of note, and Easter eggs:

  • Is a quote from Macbeth really fitting for this episode’s title? I’m not so sure. I suspect it relates to [SPOILER] alternate Kirk’s death, a brief candle in La’an’s life [/SPOILER], but the complicity the two Macbeths share in murder leading to that implied suicide doesn’t match the story beats here at all.
  • This episode cleverly feeds us key intel at the start, by having La’an argue with Commander Pelia over ill-gotten artifacts that Pelia explains have a history going back to Vermont. This is a delightful insertion, because in hindsight one’s left to wonder if Pelia knew that the time had come to make a scene in this century, to facilitate La’an’s visit to her in the past. (We won’t know for sure, though, because the time cops tell La’an that she can’t talk about her trip with anyone.)
  • Pelia also has some great lines in this exchange: “Once you have lived through every natural disaster and economic calamity in human history without becoming a pack rat, then you can judge me. I still have a bunker in Vermont where I used to live, in case this whole ‘no money, socialist utopia’ thing turns out to be a fad.”
  • Toronto cops in this episode come off as incompetent when they don’t so much as write a ticket for our recklessly driving Kirk, just because a live-streaming bystander makes vague claims about the person they’re arresting. The scripting here is a stretch, and it’s also a moral mismatch, because it gives the impression that live-streamers in our era are disrupting legitimate police stoppages. Nothing could be further from the truth: Whether in the case of the footage that caught a police officer killing a 17-year-old in France, or footage that similarly contradicts PR statements about violent incidents in the US and Canada, those monitoring police activity are doing the responsible work of concerned citizens, especially when body-cams are often conveniently off during confrontations.
  • Relatedly, I’m not in in the camp chuffed to have Canada summarized with “maple leaves, politeness, poutine”. This suggests a future as white-washed as our present, though I’m not surprised writers didn’t see fit to include a darned thing about Indigenous struggle. There was an easy opening for it, though! La’an could have said they were in “Toronto, the largest city in the region of Canada, which comes from an Indigenous word meaning ‘the village’.” (Canada is canonically present in other Star Trek episodes, including “The Trouble with Tribbles” [TOS S2E13].) Then Kirk could have quipped that Toronto looked like no village he’d ever seen, before they moved to the key question of his timeline-shifted birthplace. Easy as Canadian apple pie. HIRE ME, STAR TREK.
  • And… yes, if you remember my closing note on last week’s episode, the timing is weird for Khan to be a child in the 2020s. The episode rushes through that time glitch by having our Romulan claim that she’s been waiting since 1992 (the year when Khan comes to power amid the Eugenics Wars, controlling a quarter of the Earth) for these events to come to pass. This suggests something important about SNW: it’s operating in a universe that has deviated from its original timeline. Why does this matter? Because it means that Pike’s future might not be set in stone. So was this line a mere throwaway fix for a major plot hole? Or part of an intentional rewriting of SNW that might allow Spock to break up his betrothal before “Amok Time” (TOS S2E01) to be with Nurse Chapel, and find Pike living a longer life of full mobility? We shall see!

Strange New Worlds

Season 2, Episode 3: “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”

Season 2, Episode 2 | Season 2, Episode 4

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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