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The Vanishing Hobo

15 February 2013

One of the great things about watching a show like Star Trek is its philosophy. In the future, mankind strives for peace. Everyone works together. Everyone is important. Unless they’re doing time travel that week, because apparently, some people have so little import that they just lift completely out of history and no one gives a shit.

In City on the Edge of Forever — widely regarded as the best episode of the original series — McCoy gets all hopped up on Cordrazine and travels to 1930 while he’s seeing all the pretty colors. He immediately meets a hobo named Rodent… OK, he doesn’t really meet him for long.

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Rodent manages to vaporize himself with McCoy’s phaser, thus ending his days of rooting through trash cans and slicing up a single bean for dinner. And that’s a problem — Rodent might have lived another 20 years if McCoy hadn’t shown up. Who might he have influenced? What was he supposed to do?

It wouldn’t be a big issue — he was a hobo, after all — except the entire conceit of the episode was that one person living or dying could change the course of history.

And it still wouldn’t be a big deal if Star Trek didn’t keep on pulling crap like this.

Tomorrow Is Yesterday: The Enterprise picks up an Air Force pilot in the late 1960s. After a quick check of the computer (more on that later), Spock decides the pilot is basically a nobody, and they can just take him back to the future with them. Then, Spock discovers the pilot would eventually have a son who would be a part of the first Mars mission, so they send the pilot back.

Two problems here — does Spock’s computer contain every detail of the pilot’s life, every person he ever came in contact with? An offhand remark from the pilot might have gotten say, the neighbor kid to start thinking about politics — and that kid could go on to be the president who ended all war. Second problem: is the guy’s son really all that important? Wasn’t there an alternate for the Mars mission? It’s not like the mission would not happen if that kid wasn’t born. It would just be someone else, right?

Star Trek IV: Hey, remember this lady?

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She was the Marine Biologist Kirk and Company took out of 1987 and back to the 23rd Century. Unlike Rodent, she wasn’t an elderly, loner hobo — she was a young scientist with friends, a job, and a life. A life that, before Kirk and Pals, continued past 1987. She had a good 50 years left to influence people, continue her activism about saving the whales. Hey, what was the plot of Star Trek IV again?

Oooooh. Right.

It looks like Kirk might have caused the very problem he went back in time to fix. We know whales went extinct sometime after 1987… which is when a major whale activist vanished.

It gets worse. Remember Spock and his “this person is useless, historically speaking” computer program? He didn’t have access to that. They were in a Klingon ship with, at best, partial access to Vulcan databases. In doubt this lady’s life story was in either. They not only grabbed her out of the past blind, but Spock didn’t even raise any red flags. There was no way for them to know she wasn’t the next Ghandi.

The other Star Trek series aren’t immune, either. There’s Gabriel Bell —

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— a man so important to history that no one notices when he dies, and Benjamin Sisko pretends to be him —

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— despite looking nothing like him and only knowing what the guy does from history class.

The entirety of science fiction is full of problems like these. Writing time travel is hard.

So what’s the best time travel story you’ve ever come across? What’s the one that bothers you the most?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 15 February 2013 1109

    It’s not the best in the science and continuity of it all, but man: I’m a sucker for Time Bandits! Recently saw Safety Not Guaranteed. Stuff that jumps off the top of my head: Twelve Monkeys. Groundhog Day, Hot Tub Time Machine. Futurama, including all the time travel episodes in the series.

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