The multiverse has replaced space as Star Trek‘s final frontier. Star Trek‘s opening monologue is undoubtedly one of the most famous in history. “Space,” Captain Kirk famously intoned. “The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!” The idea of space as a “frontier” that could be explored thrilled viewers, calling to mind images of old frontiers such as the American west. Although Kirk was technically an explorer, he often felt like a classic gunslinger from Westerns, wading into local disputes with fists flashing and a sharp retort.
Viewers were introduced to Captain Kirk and his Enterprise at a time when space exploration was in vogue. The original series released at the height of the Space Race, at a time when NASA’s annual budget had reached $5 billion (equivalent to a staggering $45 billion today after inflation). Within three years of Captain Kirk’s small-screen debut, real-life astronauts were walking on the surface of the Moon. Gene Roddenberry’s science-fiction TV series cleverly blended the country’s excitement over space exploration with a utopian vision of the future, one where scientific advancement had brought humanity to a place where so many of the world’s ills and evils had been erased at last. Fifty-six years later, the world is a very different place, and Star Trek‘s final frontier has palpably changed.
The Multiverse Has Become Star Trek’s Final Frontier
Star Trek has been telling time travel stories pretty much since its inception, but the modern franchise is becoming increasingly dependent on them. This is particularly the case with Star Trek: Discovery, which transported its crew to the 32nd century and saw them inspire the galaxy they encountered through values that had been neglected after a time of galactic turmoil. Star Trek: Discovery season 4 was essentially a meditation on the importance of communication, with the Discovery crew leaving the galaxy itself and confronting an alien race whose actions unwittingly imperiled all life in the Milky Way. The Discovery’s captain, Michael Burnham, has herself learned to put her aggressive past behind her and become a true diplomat. Thematically, it’s a perfect representation of Gene Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek – but it is the time travel that makes the story possible.
Star Trek: Discovery‘s spinoff series, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, spins out of this time travel story. Captain Christopher Pike, Kirk’s predecessor on the USS Enterprise, has gained foreknowledge of his own tragic fate. He wrestles with the question of how to live with knowledge of the future, especially when that knowledge isn’t good. This popular series uses one idea linked to time travel as a lens through which to examine Pike’s character. Star Trek: Picard season 2 used time travel in a similar (albeit more spectacular) way, with Q forcing Jean-Luc Picard to confront his heritage after the quasi-omnipotent being rewrote history.
The concept of the multiverse lies beneath Star Trek‘s current time travel stories. Discovery’s adventures really began when a malfunction in the ship’s revolutionary spore drive transported it to a sinister Mirror Dimension, and the next two seasons continued subplots involving this dystopian alternate timeline. Season 4’s villain, Ruon Tarka, was obsessed with the multiverse because he longed to find his way to a world where a loved one had not died. Meanwhile, Picard’s time travel adventures began when reality shifted around Jean-Luc and his friends, courtesy of Q’s meddling. Modern Star Trek is as interested in the multiverse, and indeed in time travel, as it is in space itself.
Why Has Star Trek Become Fascinated By The Multiverse?
It’s tempting to conclude Star Trek is simply following the fashion. Multiverses are all the rage in popular culture; even the MCU’s Phases 4-6 are officially called “The Multiverse Saga.” There’s surely a degree of truth to this, but it’s also an oversimplification; there is certainly a reason Star Trek has needed to embrace a new frontier to stay relevant. Part of it is probably that space exploration is no longer viewed as quite so exciting, and indeed is now under-resourced. “If you ask people whether space exploration is important, then eight or nine times out of 10 they will tell you that it is,” the Smithsonian Institution’s Roger Launius, senior curator for space, told Reuters back in 2012. “The only problem comes when you tie that to funding.” There’s a reason the latest high-profile innovations are driven by private citizens rather than states – but this is a model of exploration running entirely counter to Star Trek‘s vision of the future, where money has ceased to be part of human civilization.
Meanwhile, the attraction of time travel and the multiverse is best demonstrated through Star Trek‘s Mirror Universe. This presents an opportunity to ask that tantalizing question, “What If?” It positions time travel as a plot device for character exploration; Jean-Luc Picard faces his regrets, finally admitting truths about his own character he has refused to face throughout his life, Michael Burnham is shaken at a dark mirror-image of her mentor, and Captain Pike wrestles with an agonizing destiny. This last story is particularly interesting given modern culture looks to the future with pessimism rather than hope, fearing a thousand different world-ending scenarios, and Pike now faces the question of whether his good decisions matter in the face of future darkness. The ideas may be fantastical, but these are ways for people to explore questions of destiny and identity through the lens of science-fiction.
Star Trek will surely build on the multiverse and time travel going forward, whether in Star Trek: Discovery season 5 or elsewhere. It won’t always be the central concept, of course, nor should it be; as noted, these ideas resonate because they are a way for viewers to be drawn into character-centric stories, not because they carry the same sense of immediacy as space exploration in the 1960s. Still, these ideas are certain to be a major part of Star Trek‘s future, and popular culture as a whole over the next few years.