On May 23, 1994, the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) ended its seven-year run with the two-episode “All Good Things…” Like its predecessor, the Star Trek series of the 1960s, TNG had chosen to occasionally dabble in time-travel and was now bringing the curtain down with the most complex of its temporal plotlines.
In the second book of their two-volume series The Fifty-Year Mission, Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross describe the plot of “All Good Things…” as a narrative in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard “confronts a juxtaposition of time periods in an attempt to solve a puzzling galactic mystery” while “time slipping” between past, present and future “iterations” of the USS Enterprise, not unlike Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
Time travel has been capturing the attention of listeners, readers and viewers for centuries. In its earliest narratives, time travel was pointed only in the direction of the future. Certain ancient myths speak of characters traveling into the future and back. Rip Van Winkle, the title character of Washington Irving’s short story, is considered by some a time traveler who witnesses life beyond his own era. And even H.G. Wells in 1895 chose to send his time machine forward into the temporal unknown.
In the early 20th century, the notion of time travel was discussed in the stories and letter pages of popular science-fiction magazines like Amazing Stories, but the past had become a more interesting topic. As the science of quantum mechanics examined the paradoxes and alternate worlds, timelines, and realities engendered by the notion of time travel, literature, television and movies continued to explore it.
In 2019, the Looper website noted that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige had identified that “All Good Things…” “served as an essential jumping-off point when crafting the storyline for Avengers: Endgame.” Feige reported on Twitter at the time, “I liked the idea of allowing our characters to evolve. When I was a kid, the finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation did this very well…”
In Endgame, the character the Ancient One discusses with a time-traveling Bruce Banner the concept of temporal divergence, the creation of an alternate timeline or reality resulting from a change inflicted on the past by someone from its future. Last year, Marvel further explored these branches in time in its TV series Loki and the feature film Spider-Man: No Way Home.
But this year, the second season of the TNG spin-off series Picard is picking up where “All Good Things…” left off and tipping its hat somewhat to Marvel’s recent endeavors. The season’s narrative, set within TNG’s 24th century timeframe, concerns a temporal divergence occurring in 2024 that refashions the future into an oppressive, militant universe and sends the title character and his team into the past to repair the timeline.
A trip to the past is nothing new for any Star Trek series, but Picard is layered with references to time travel from both the franchise’s and science fiction’s history.
Within the first four episodes, there are allusions to the original Star Trek series episode “Assignment: Earth,” in which the Enterprise visits the 1960s, and to the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where the crew time travels to the 1980s. Subtle references are made to Terry Gilliam’s time-shifting film 12 Monkeys. And, rather ironically, the director of some Picard episodes is Lea Thompson, the actress who appeared in the Back to the Future film trilogy.
But Picard also seems to acknowledge its connection to Marvel. Its nuanced application of quantum mechanics and temporal divergence may owe a bit of a debt to Endgame and Loki, and its inclusion of a character known as “the watcher” may be a nod to Marvel comics’ cosmic race of the same name that was first introduced in 1963. Time travel, it seems, can connect everything.