For almost as long as it’s been boldly going across the galaxy, the Star Trek franchise has been tackling time travel storylines in tandem. Indeed, just a few weeks into its three-year lifespan The Original Series cracked the ice with “The Naked Time,” which isn’t a particularly great episode but at least it’s got a shirtless George Takei swinging a rapier at people like a psychopath. Memory Alpha, Trek‘s leading Wikipedia-like database, lists a total of 61 Star Trek stories featuring time travel including 57 episodes and four feature films. With several dozen contenders, it can indeed be difficult to pinpoint the top 10 Star Trek time travel stories.
But we’re going to try.
There will be some painful omissions. This list will undoubtedly ruffle a few feathers as any list would. But such is the burden of the beast. Engage!
10.) Deep Space Nine – “Past Tense”
Spooling up the warp drive is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Past Tense” two-parter, a time-bending outing I often think of as the breakout moment for two of the show’s lead characters, Commander Benjamin Sisko and Chief Medical Officer Julian Bashir. It’s not that the two of them had nothing to work with in the show’s first two seasons (indeed, with Sisko in the lead role that would be more than a bit peculiar), but Avery Brooks and Alexander Siddig both seem to come into their own here, carrying their excellent performances forward for the remainder of DS9‘s run.
But enough about all that; what makes “Past Tense” such a solid time travel story? It’s somewhat rare for DS9 to deal with time travel so directly, but the writers nail it by putting Star Trek‘s noble social commentary routine front and center without coming across as overly preachy in the process. One might think that, by sending Sisko, Bashir, and Lieutenant Jadzia Dax to the year 2024, we’d be a scant three years away now from reaching the fictional destination and chuckling at how silly Trek‘s rendition of ’24 turned out to be.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. And it’s the haunting similarities on display between a made-up 2024 in “Past Tense” and the likelihood that a 1995 script got more right about the near future than intended that makes these episodes so important.
9.) The Next Generation – “Yesterday’s Enterprise”
“Yesterday’s Enterprise” is a very special episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s third season. Trek‘s most popular rendition had already turned itself around throughout that year after a rocky first couple of seasons, but this is handily one of the strongest episodes in the entire seven-year run. Not only does it feature the surprising return of Tasha Yar, but it’s also got Whoopi Goldberg’s mysterious bartender Guinan in one of her savviest appearances.
When a previous Starfleet ship with the Enterprise designation, long considered lost in a battle against the Romulans, abruptly emerges through a temporal rift the Trek timeline shifts dramatically. The TNG crew, Guinan aside, are utterly unaware that their desperate war against the Klingon Empire should not be happening and that Earth is imperiled precisely because the Enterprise-C‘s survivors did not perish bravely in 2344.
Yar’s heartbreaking choice to return to 2344 with the remainder of the Enterprise-C crew meant nearly everybody aboard the vessel sacrificing themselves for the greater good. It’s an intentionally painful sight to behold, even if the romance between Yar and Lieutenant Richard Castillo is a bit forced.
8.) Voyager – “Year of Hell”
It may seem silly given the modern TV landscape, but back in 1997, the thought of serializing an entire season of television to tell a single concise story was still considered outlandish. More’s the pity, because if the writers behind Star Trek: Voyager‘s “Year of Hell” two-parter had had their way, we would have gotten 26 episodes of this fascinatingly tale instead of two.
But what a whopper of a two-parter we got. Voyager has more time travel episodes than any other series in the franchise — ironic considering a certain famous line of Captain Kathryn Janeway’s relatively early into the show’s run — and “Year of Hell” is the darkest of them all. The Voyager enters a region of space controlled by a race called the Krenim that has been tampering with temporal shenanigans for quite a while. The region is a hodgepodge mess of surviving peoples, and when the Voyager crew gets involved they enter a literal year of hellishness, including the deaths of several major characters, the harrowing blindness of Chief of Security Tuvok, and an explosive finale.
Nowadays, it’s easy to critique “Year of Hell” for slapping the reset button and restoring everything to “normal” at the end of the story. Yet it maintains its status as one of the top Star Trek time travel stories thanks to a powerful one-two punch of stunningly effective acting from Kate Mulgrew and a villain who could have easily been some sort of cliched maniac but as it happens the poor jerk is really just trying to bring his wife back to life.
7.) Deep Space Nine – “Trials and Tribble-ations”
It was 1996 and the Star Trek franchise was officially turning 30. It was one of the big anniversary milestones that occurred during the spectacularly long 1987-2005 run of uninterrupted Trek TV, and Paramount decided that both currently-airing shows, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, needed to celebrate with episodes that honored and revered the crew of The Original Series. Voyager‘s episode, “Flashback,” promisingly jumped back in time to when Captain Hikaru Sulu helmed the Excelsior during the events of the sixth feature film but sadly squabbled a great deal of that potential with a dicey main plot.
DS9, however, delivered one of its most memorable chapters with the zany “Trials and Tribble-ations,” an episode which sends Sisko and several others smack-dab into the TOS classic “The Trouble with Tribbles.” At the time, technological limitations meant injecting contemporary actors into footage from three decades prior was a production nightmare. But the miracle workers at Paramount pulled it off, and what we wind up with is a charming, cheeky, and downright lovely ode to the days of James Tiberius Kirk and pals.
My favorite part is when Worf is understandably asked why his forehead has ridges but the Klingons who appear during the events of “The Trouble with Tribbles” do not. His reply is, frankly, a far better one than what Star Trek: Enterprise attempted nine years later.
6.) “Star Trek: First Contact”
When The Next Generation left the airwaves in 1994, it remained popular enough that plans were already well underway to give it a feature film. That film, “Generations,” also includes time travel after a fashion but it’s nowhere near as fun a flick as the next one. “First Contact” is often heralded as the only truly great TNG movie, and while that’s damning news for the other three it speaks volumes to what makes this one rock.
The nefarious Borg Collective hatches a plan to ruin the Federation by interfering with the 2063 landmark moment when drunken maniac Zefram Cochrane, who’s basically Cid Highwind in live-action format, breaks the warp barrier and makes titular first contact with the Vulcans. It’s kind of a goofy setup and Alice Krige’s delightful role as the Borg Queen is so smattered with smutty lines that you’d think you’re watching the end of a James Bond film. But it works so well.
Seeing the Enterprise-D crew interact with more grounded humans from a less civilized era is a joy, and Jean-Luc Picard’s iconic “the line must be drawn here” speech is perfectly balanced by resident 21st-century Earther Alfre Woodard’s simply-named Lily. The movie also assists in setting up the modern Trek series Star Trek: Picard by reinforcing the legendary captain’s personal difficulties with the Borg.
5.) Discovery – “That Hope is You”
Star Trek: Discovery, like all modern entries, is rather divisive among franchise fans. The show is commonly praised for its cast of excellent actors and the most impressive production values Trek has ever seen, but criticisms often include messy writing and scattershot pacing.
The most recent season hasn’t necessarily turned Discovery into the all-time greatest science fiction television phenomenon, but it has introduced even more great characters and — most incredibly of all — it has completely reset the show’s setting. No longer trapped in the realm of archaic canon restrictions, Discovery and her crew have blasted off into the distant edge of the timeline, also known as the 32nd century. Here, the strangest scenes are the ones you need to keep a keen eye out for — there’s a Cardassian near the top of the Starfleet command chain; there are hints that the Bajorans are some sort of interstellar syndicate; that sort of thing. There’s also an excellent development regarding Vulcans and Romulans that honors past productions perfectly.
But what is it about “That Hope is You,” the third season’s premiere episode, that makes it worthy of a spot on this list? The performances, the performances, the performances. Sonequa Martin-Green manages to imbue series star Michael Burnham with a dizzying range of appropriate emotions over the course of just 50-odd minutes, from shellshocked and scarred to high on drugs (not kidding) to hopeful for the fate of the distant future she’s arrived in.
The final scene is shared with actor Adil Hussain. He plays the role of Aditya Sahil, a man who has operated a space station for many years, alone, hoping against all odds to one day make contact with another Federation representative in an era that has shattered long-range communications. Of all the terrific guest performances in Discovery‘s growing history, his may be the most touching. Even if you’re not a fan of the show, watch this scene; I dare you not to tear up.
4.) The Original Series – “The City on the Edge of Forever”
Captain Kirk has so many romances in Star Trek — too many if you ask yours truly. But there’s one woman whose connection to him feels not only authentic but palpable to the point that when the curtains close on “The City on the Edge of Forever,” it’s almost impossible not to feel something.
Penned by the late, great Harlan Ellison and worthy of its every award, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is one of the best time travel stories of its era. It’s not unusual for TOS to deal with earlier time periods in strange and unusual ways, but when Kirk, Spock, and Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy end up on Earth in the 1930s, the captain meets the radiant Edith Keeler and almost willingly changes history in dire, dire ways. For Keeler, not unlike the crew of the Enterprise-C in TNG‘s “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” is destined to die for time to move in the proper direction. And, also like “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” if Keeler doesn’t kick the bucket bad things will happen in the kind of ripple effect that drives real-world theoretical physicists up the wall.
“Save her,” Spock warns Kirk during an emotional hurricane moment of TV, “do as your heart tells you to do,” it all sounds so cheery, “and millions will die who did not die before.”
Oh. Well, damn.
3.) The Next Generation – “All Good Things…”
It was and was not the end.
The Next Generation‘s series finale, “All Good Things…”, is TNG at its finest. It approaches serious themes like aging and destiny versus free will with maturity and care whilst reminding viewers why they’ve tuned in to see these characters every week for seven years. It also goes back to the show’s roots, pitting Captain Picard against his long-time foil, Q, for what up until quite recently was always thought to be the final time.
But Q isn’t a villain in “All Good Things…” but rather Picard’s conscience and guide in ways that mirror “Tapestry” and demonstrate how John de Lancie’s delightfully Loki-esque omnipotent being has himself evolved throughout Picard’s journey. Picard must avert galactic disaster by bringing together three eras of his saga — the crew as strangers during the series premiere, the crew as of seven years into their voyage as of our perspective of the series finale’s chronology, and the scattered crew of 20 years later, which is in actuality the script’s chief perspective.
With so many cards on the table, it would have been easy to falter. There are moments the episode threatens to dissolve its strengths into a string of technobabble that thankfully never fully arises. In hindsight, the Worf/Troi romance is… an odd moment, but in isolation, it works just as flawlessly as the rest of the two-hour tour de force. And the show ends with all those cards quite literally on the table, fading to black with the main characters playing poker together. Except, for once, Picard himself arrives to play. A masterstroke in character development.
2.) Voyager – “Timeless”
We’re nearing the end of our voyage together as we chart the Star Trek time travel greats. With only two picks left, it’s obvious I’ve left several fantastic picks on the chopping block, but 10 stories are 10 stories and only the best of my personal opinion’s best can make it to the top.
Star Trek: Voyager was firing on all cylinders (or dilithium chambers) in its fourth and especially fifth seasons. Sure, there were still some weak spots (this one’s downright unforgettable), but that’s what happens when you’ve got just a couple of months a year to write 26 episodes of television. Out of all the winners during this phase of the series, however, one stands tall above all, and it’s “Timeless.”
The premise is simple, as many good premises are. A failed attempt to harness experimental technology for a swift return home forced the Voyager to crash-land on an icy world (in a stunning CG sequence by 1990s standards that holds up pretty OK even today) with the whole crew perishing in the accident. But Ensign Harry Kim — whose seemingly, uh, timeless… time… as an ensign is going to be the butt of a Lower Decks joke any day now — survives aboard the Delta Flyer shuttlecraft alongside stalwart Commander Chakotay.
And, as it happens, this is all Kim’s fault. He was the one who pushed for Voyager to move forward with the botched plan. He and Chakotay indeed make it to Earth, but 25 years into the future they return with a daring (and entirely Starfleet-unsanctioned) plan to reverse the course of history to make up for the repentant Harry’s harrowing self-imposed nightmare. Garrett Wang, who didn’t often have a lot to chew on in his role on Voyager, delivers the powerful performance “Timeless” needs to ensure it may soar.
Two years down the real-world road, the writers would kind of ape “Timeless” for the series finale to mixed results. It’s an elder Janeway this time around and passing up an opportunity for a quicker ride home leads to gradual tragedy. It isn’t as effective, but at least it gives us two Kate Mulgrews on-screen together drinking coffee simultaneously.
1.) “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”
Decades before Star Trek 4 kept getting new writers to the point that I’m unconvinced it will ever exist, the original Star Trek IV — note the Roman numerals — tossed the likes of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and the rest of the TOS gang into the corporatist and self-indulgent year 1986 in not only Star Trek‘s best time travel story but one of the funniest films from the 80s.
One of my favorite little quirks about the entertainment industry is that it’s always in such a rush to bring characters from the past and future into “the present,” but every story that’s ever done so has, by necessity, labeled the present in relative terms. In other words, seeing Marty McFly talk like the 17-year-old 1985 high school student he is while he’s stuck in the 1950s is supposed to elicit a feeling in us that can no longer exist; we’re intended to identify with Marty’s origin, his vernacular, and his way of life. But more time has passed since Back to the Future was released now than what Marty experienced traveling back to 1955. To us, ’85 and ’55 are almost equally alien.
That’s the trick behind The Voyage Home. This Star Trek somehow keeps its time travel relatable practically despite itself. Sure, we’re supposed to view its take on 1986 San Francisco as if it’s our very own. And sure, we can’t, because it’s 2021 and the world has changed in myriad ways. But by pulling in a bunch of people from the fictional 23rd century, we experience what the movie originally depicted as “our present-day” from the lenses of outsiders.
Spock renders a young punk unconscious because he’s blasting obnoxious music on a bus; in today’s world, the driver wouldn’t have allowed the guy to play the music on the bus in the first place. Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott tries speaking into a computer mouse to the chagrin of civilian warehouse workers; we still don’t talk into mouses, but voice-controlled electronics are everywhere. In both these instances and more, I honestly identify more with the 23rd-century folks’ perspective. It makes the whole thing click 35 years later and counting.
At its core, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a ludicrous story about Captain Kirk and crew saving two humpback whales in the 1980s to save the future from an alien probe that’s… looking for some whales to talk to, except they’re extinct. The movie knows exactly what it is, however, capitalizing on the sheer absurdity of it all. It’s a beautiful movie and Star Trek time travel at its best.