Thursday, May 28, 2009

Star Trek: Humor and Problems

Okay, personally, I have a hard time believing it's been nearly three weeks since I saw the new Star Trek with old and new friends at the IMAX in Raleigh. Very shortly after my seeing it, friends made sure I also saw The Onion's take on it. It's a hoot--even more so if you've seen the movie, and still more so if you've seen all the others and are a long-time fan. Enjoy. (More of my thoughts on the movie are below the video.)

Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As 'Fun, Watchable'

So, my recommendation: SEE THE MOVIE. IT ROCKS. But that said, I still have to say that it's far from free of the paradoxes that tend to haunt any fictional effort in the realm of time travel. What follows is more for those who've seen it than not, so I'll warn you now, though I don't think knowing the whole plot in advance would spoil anything, nonetheless . . . SPOILER ALERT!

I think it's fair to say that J.J. Abrams gave himself license to start with a clean slate by undoing almost all we know about the genesis of the Enterprise's crew. Fair enough. Suffice it to say that most of what you know about the series, you can more or less kiss goodbye. This is an alternate timeline/universe.

Here's how that works. The movie opens on James T. Kirk's birthday. Literally, the day of his birth. Whereas the old character that Shatner brought to life grew up with his father still alive, this one takes his first breath just as Dad sacrifices himself to save the rest of his ship's crew. Thus, right off, old Trekkies know we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The simplest way to lay out the plot is chronologically, so far as is possible, since "before" and "after" begin to lose their meaning when you mess with the fabric of time. (If I've screwed this up, feel free to let me know in the comments.)


Late in the universe and timeline of the old Trek series, the sun of the Romulan homeworld supernovas. An aged Ambassador Spock is dispatched with all due haste in the Federation's fastest vehicle, a ship of Vulcan design, with a store of "red matter." His mission, deposit an appropriate speck of the red matter in the center of the rapidly expanding star, where it will form a singularity (read: black hole), stopping the expansion of the star before Romulus and its entire population is destroyed. Spock seeds the supernova with the red matter, creating a black hole at its center and causing it to collapse back in upon itself, but not before Romulus has been consumed by its rapidly expanding sun. Sucks to be a Romulan. And especially to be a Romulan miner named Nero, who somehow arrives home just in time to witness Spock's spectacularly late arrival and wasted effort, and then somehow blames Spock for the demise of Romulus and the death of Nero's family. I wish I'd been paying better attention and made better note of Spock's tongue-in-cheek description of Nero as an "extremely troubled Romulan," or something like that. (Help me out here guys.)

Anyway, Nero and Spock each are sucked into the singularity and emerge in an earlier time. Sucked in separately, seconds apart in the one universe, they emerge separately, some 25 years apart in the other universe. Nero has emerged some 70 years or so before the supernova, on the day of Kirk's birth. Nero must wait for some 25 years before Spock emerges to face Nero's fury. Still, even Spock emerges some fifty years before the Romulan homeworld is destroyed. The initial action takes place when pissed off Nero, just emerged from the singularity, encounters and destroys the ship on which Kirk's father is serving, with his pregnant wife. And so on.

The rest you can go enjoy, but I'm going to point out a number of problems with this plot. So, if you haven't seen it, go first and read this later, because, honestly, unless you're mind is functioning at warp, most of this is not going to occur to you while you watch it--you'll be having too much fun to worry about crap like the potentialities and paradoxes of time travel.

Problems (of physics, logic, and so on):

PROBLEM 1: Who dreamed up the idea of creating a black hole at the center of a star going supernova as a solution to the problem?

  • Last I checked, the theory was that black holes form naturally at the center of a supernova as the remaining mass of the star collapses in on itself. So, what Spock is supposed to create should already exist.
  • Worse yet, collapsing the star upon itself via the artificially created black hole solves the problem how? The star, aka the sun of the Romulan homeworld would then be, not gone exactly, but a black, unseeable "singularity" in the darkness. True, the mass and center of gravity should remain the same, leaving the orbit of Romulus largely unaffected, but dark and cold and barren. Not even mushrooms would grow to feed the darkened, rapidly cooling and dying planet. I suppose it might buy time for an evacuation, that's all though.
  • Still worse, there's the question of why creating a black hole at the center of the star should pull anything back into it. Somehow, red matter must itself be incredibly dense, ready to implode into infinitude at any moment; otherwise, there is only the original mass of the star to work with, and thus, only the original total gravity. That is, everything expanding away from the star's already imploded center is at greater than escape velocity already. To be effective, the created singularity would need an expanding event horizon. In truth, they seem to have gotten this right--it's how Spock and Nero are sucked in. Red matter. Cool stuff. I'll give them that one. My immediately preceding point still holds though.
PROBLEM 2: What, exactly, has Nero been doing for those 25 very real years he needed to wait for Spock to emerge on this side of the singularity? Here's a few thoughts:
  • Clearly, he's had his all his communication gear turned off, so that he would have heard none of the communications emanating from his still intact homeworld (remember, the time where Nero emerges, the supernova is a good 70 years away yet).
  • Clearly, there's some sort of spatial dislocation to match the temporal one, otherwise shouldn't Nero have emerged near the original sun and in the solar system of Romulus?
  • All of which is to say, just WTF has Nero been doing with the first 25 years of some 70 he has available to warn the Romulans of the impending disaster? How has he escaped the knowledge that Romulus still exists? He is one very target-fixated dude. Ambassador Spock called that one.
PROBLEM 3: Okay, so Nero's a doofus and an idiot (despite being commander of a highly advanced mining vessel), but there are all kinds of other brilliant people around, including not one, but two, count 'em, TWO Spocks! "And this is a problem, how?" you ask.
  • Well, at least one of these guys is going to use the knowledge of the impending disaster to prevent the worst effects of it. That is, to warn the Romulans well in advance that their star is developing a somewhat difficult personality. (Nevermind PROBLEM 4: that a star doesn't just up and decide to supernova one day. The changes in a star leading to that cosmic event take place over eons, not weeks. Whatever.)
  • Still don't see the problem? Well, what happens when, with at least 45 years warning, our intrepid young adventurers save the population of Romulus by relocating them elsewhere (something you'd think maybe Nero would've done), and voiding the reason for Nero's anger, Ambassador Spock's mission, etc, etc? How many timelines/universes can exist in parallel?
  • I'll answer that: an infinite number. So, really, this problem isn't a problem in terms of paradox. I don't think it'll upset the loop. The loop won't exist. Romulus will be saved by others than Nero, and the younger Nero of this timeline will have no reason for anger, nor opportunity to meet his older alternate self as Spock does. (Spock's implication to Kirk of universe-ending problems resulting from the meeting of the two Spocks needed only a reference to "crossing the streams" in Ghost Busters to be perfect.)
I cannot be the only person who emerged from the film pondering these problems. Again, I still enjoyed the heck out of it. But that said, The Matrix, a largely paradox-free contemplation of virtual reality remains the best sci-fi film of my lifetime, at least IMHO.

And oh yeah, that "space jump"? I so want to do that. (Should I mention that without pressure suits, their blood would have boiled the moment they left the shuttlecraft at any altitude considered "space"? PROBLEM? No? Well, okay, I'll let that one go then.

Peace. Out.