Star Trek's best time travel episodes, part 1: TOS, TAS & TNG
Time travel is a popular sub-genre in science fiction, because it opens up so many new creative possibilities, and the stories can often be vicarious wish-fulfillment for the audience. Let’s face it: who wouldn’t be intrigued by the idea of meeting a historical figure one admires, or going back to correct a mistake that was made in one’s own life? Or, alternatively, who hasn’t dreamed of going forward in time to see if we’ve finally gotten those flying cars we were promised?
And so, science fiction has frequently played with the idea and elements of time travel, sometimes in humorous ways, sometimes in dark or troubling ways, and sometimes in unoriginal and repetitive ways (e.g., a character or group has screwed something up and caused a major change, and the protagonist or protagonists have to go back and fix it). Star Trek has tackled time travel a lot, which makes sense given the open nature of its format. Four of the Star Trek movies have involved time travel, with just those four showing a wide range of ways in which it can be used. And within the six TV series, there are dozens of episodes that involve time travel, and I’ll be looking at the ones that did it best.
First, for this article, I’ll be looking at the best time travel episodes from the first three Star Trek series: TOS, TAS, and The Next Generation.
1. “The City on the Edge of Forever”
“City” is a combination of two fairly unoriginal sci-fi premises, which manages to overcome that and be terrific. It’s a merger of a common alternate history premise (what if the Axis powers won WWII?) and the previously mentioned “something is screwed up by a character and has to be fixed” premise. However, it has so many great elements that that’s not really a problem. To start with, a self-aware, talking time portal is a clever idea that does away with the need for a technobabble explanation for the time trip, and adds to an atmosphere of wonder. The fish-out-of-water parts with Kirk and Spock in 1930s New York are great. The episode is also thematically dark for TOS in a few ways: It features a brutal death for one of Kirk’s loves, the protagonists allowing her to die for the necessity of a greater good, and it makes a rather effective point against an overly utopian pacifist view. Here, peace is decidedly not the answer, and we’re thankfully denied a comedy relief moment before the closing credits.
This great TAS episode has lot in common with “City on the Edge of Forever”, particularly in that it sees the return of the Guardian of Forever and features another “going back to the past to fix something” plot. The voice acting is… how shall I put it? The voice acting is of an inconsistent quality, but the character development we get for Spock is very good, as well as the in-depth cultural look we get at Vulcan. We also get touching scenes between Spock and his pet and a non-heavy-handed look at euthanasia. The opening moments of confusion when Spock comes back to a baffled crew that doesn’t recognize him are great. TAS doesn’t have many entries that get put on lists of all-time great Star Trek episodes, but this one belongs.
3. “Cause and Effect”
This is an episode that works because it takes time travel in a different direction. Instead of covering a vast span of time or multiple trips to fix something that went wrong, we get a Groundhog Day premise before Groundhog Day existed. The senior staff poker game is used to great effect, and brilliant little details pop up all over the place, like the planting of the number three. There’s also an eerie atmosphere that fills the episode, especially in scenes like the regulars predicting the cards in the poker game, and the low murmur of voices in Dr. Crusher’s cabin. The teaser is of course one of the best in Trek’s run: How can you beat an episode in which the ship’s destruction is only the beginning?
Is this a time travel episode? Is it a near-death experience? Is it a fantasy created by Q to either manipulate Captain Picard or teach him a lesson? For the purposes of this list, it certainly feels like a time travel episode, as Picard goes back to change various things in his past, only to see the results go disastrously awry. Here, however, he goes back to “fix” something that wasn’t really wrong in the first place.
There are some questionable messages in this episode if you scrutinize it closely. Picard probably makes the more sensible decision to avoid a fight with the Nausicaans, against whom he and his friends are certainly outmatched. When he previously got into the fight, he had been seriously injured, and it’s reasonable for him to have regrets about this. This episode, however, can seem to be saying that the fight was an important character moment, and that it was key to Picard learning valuable things about risk and leadership. While it’s important to realize that moments or decisions that one may not be proud of can play a major role in how we turn out, I think that managing to avoid being an impulsive, hot-headed idiot who got stabbed in a bar fight would count as a win to many viewers.
Further, the depiction of Picard as a middle-aged lieutenant (junior grade) astrophysics officer struggling to climb the career ladder and stuck in a job that he finds tedious stretches the point a little far. Would the fall from captain be that steep? Couldn’t he be a lieutenant commander in charge of a department or something? Still, the interaction between Q and Picard are great, and it’s amusing to watch young actors and actresses pretend that a fifty-something Patrick Stewart is really the age of a cadet.
5. “Yesterday’s Enterprise”
This is another time travel premise that’s basically a play on the classic “something got messed up in the timeline and has to be fixed” plot, but this one pulls off so many things well. The show does a good job of establishing the “wrong” timeline, with many obvious differences from the regular Next Generation one. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” also makes good use of the character of Guinan and her extrasensory abilities. Other positive points include the way that Tasha Yar is used effectively and gets a more heroic ending for her character (only for that to be yanked away by future plot revelations), and the interesting back story we get on Federation history as it relates to the Klingons.
6. “All Good Things…”
While this series finale is highly regarded and structured well to make good use of various parts of TNG’s run, I think there are some things holding it back from a higher ranking. The way that the crew comes together in the future timeline is fairly contrived, with several of the old senior staff being conveniently placed in the right positions to be able to accomplish what they need. Of course, if you look at it as a fake timeline put together by Q to test Picard, then it doesn’t really matter. Also, the technobabble is dialed up about five levels for this episode. We’re also meant to overlook how naive and trusting the “Encounter at Farpoint”-era crew look when they agree to go along with Picard’s daring plan. Up until that point, he’s come across as erratic and possibly unbalanced.
Still, criticisms aside, “All Good Things” acts as a proper series finale should. It takes the show full circle to “Encounter at Farpoint” and brings back the first recurring adversary that the Enterprise crew faced. It’s filled with great nostalgic moments. The episode is really in Patrick Stewart’s hands as he’s involved in just about every part of it, and he delivers. The interactions between Picard and Q are so good that when I watch this one years later, it makes the realization that they’re the last Picard/Q scenes ever all the more poignant.
7. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
It’s hard to rank the movies alongside the shows, since the movies have bigger budgets and longer run times. Apples and oranges aside, The Voyage Home is both one of the best Star Trek films and one of the best Trek time travel stories. It’s got a good sci-fi story, an environmentally-conscious message, and an abundance of humor. The use of time travel is fairly straightforward, as this is a “go back to fix a problem” story, but it’s a creative twist to have it be something the crew needs to bring back, rather than a key event they need to change or prevent.
8. Star Trek: First Contact
This entry was the peak of the Next Generation movies, being the most successful one at the box office, and likely the most popular one with fans. It combined an effective antagonist (the Borg were still in their underused, pre-Voyager days) with a fairly well-written time travel plot that allowed some light to be shed on the pre-Federation period that hadn’t been explored much. The movie also was an example of the straightforward action style of Star Trek that the movies hadn’t seen much of at that point since The Wrath of Khan, but would come to be common after this entry.
9. “Time’s Arrow”
This one has its critics, but I would say that it’s one of the better season-ending cliffhangers in Star Trek, and involves the clever narrative hook of finding Data’s head in the distant past. The regulars all get to contribute to the story here, which is nice to see. The character of Guinan gets even more development in this episode, as does her relationship with Picard. There are also some good bits of humor with Samuel Clemens, Captain Picard and the crew rehearsing for the theater, as well as Data’s interactions with Jack London. When Star Trek does time travel and shows Earth’s past, it’s been a lot of mid-20th century or later stuff, so this was a good choice for a period to use. It’s certainly not a wildly original time travel premise, but it’s competently done.
10. “All Our Yesterdays”
TOS’s third season isn’t known for having the best episodes, but this one is a great one, tucked away late in the season. It features a creative premise with which to involve time travel, and has some very good character moments for Spock. The teaser is clever and funny, with the multiple Mr. Atozes. There are some similarities to “City on the Edge of Forever” here, like the romance with a main character who’s doomed by the circumstances of the time travel involved, and there’s a figure who serves as a guide to a sophisticated time portal, but in “City”, of course, the guide was the portal itself. The premise of a time portal to escape looming disaster is a creative one, and again, this is a very good “Big Three” episode in a season that could have used more of this quality.
Looking over these episodes, most of them do fall under the “restoring the timeline” or “go back and fix what went wrong” premise, or involve an effort by another force to change events. Still, I think that many of these episodes did interesting things with the premise, and also almost all of the ones on this list had significant character moments or development. The specific rankings aren’t too important, and could be subject to some flipping at places, but overall I think these are the strong ones.
In my next article, I’ll be looking at the Deep Space Nine to Enterprise-era time travel episodes.