Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3.
In the second part of this short series about the Burn we’re going to consider the possible impact of time travel. Last time, in case you missed it, we looked at how transporters and transwarp beaming could – potentially – have provided Starfleet and the Federation with a way to relieve the pressure of dwindling dilithium reserves in the years before the Burn. I also have a column looking at how well the Burn worked as a storyline, which you can find by clicking or tapping here.
As Season 3 began – and for much of its run – I speculated about the possible involvement of time travel either as part of the explanation for the Burn or as a way for Discovery to reset or even undo the catastrophic event at the storyline’s resolution. Here’s the short version of why: the Federation had access to time travel technology for hundreds of years, and by the 29th and 30th Centuries Starfleet routinely explored the timeline and even tried to patrol it and prevent any nefarious interference. Though there was a “temporal prime directive” in effect which prevented travellers from the future from changing the past, the precise way in which this worked is not clear.
Time travel has not been depicted consistently within Star Trek, and we do have to acknowledge that. Stories featuring the cast of The Original Series – including the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – seem to depict time travel as something that basically anyone with a warp-capable starship could accomplish (via the method of slingshotting around a star). However, by the time we get to stories set in the 24th Century, time travel appears to require specialist equipment and devices – which, at various points, the Federation may or may not have been in possession of.
Even if we’re incredibly conservative with how we interpret time travel stories within Star Trek, it still seems highly likely that by the 25th Century or thereabouts, Starfleet had the technology to routinely and safely travel through time – which is more than 600 years before the Burn. Much of what we know about Starfleet’s time travel missions suggests that their primary interests would be in travelling backwards through time to get a first-hand look at historical events, as well as to prevent factions like the Sphere Builders or the Borg from changing the past to suit their own goals and purposes. But there’s nothing to say that Starfleet wasn’t at least peeking ahead at the future timeline.
I’d argue that not doing so would be a major risk and even a dereliction of duty. With Starfleet involved in a Temporal Cold War and/or the Temporal Wars, other factions were almost certainly using time travel technology to jump forwards and backwards through time to try to score an advantage. Heck, Discovery’s second season finale is an example of this: Captain Pike, Saru, Burnham, and the crew decide that sending the USS Discovery forward in time – removing it from the 23rd Century – was the safest way to keep this vital ship and its important data out of the hands of their enemy. If 23rd Century Starfleet was doing that, I see nothing to suggest that 29th and 30th Century Starfleet wasn’t doing that too.
We can’t argue that travelling forwards in time is any more difficult than travelling backwards. Again, Discovery Season 2 is a case in point. The Red Angel project in the mid-23rd Century created two time travel suits that were capable of moving forwards in time, and at various points in Star Trek’s broader canon we’ve seen ships like the USS Defiant and the Enterprise-E manage to successfully return to the 24th Century after jaunts to the past.
Everything we know about time travel in Star Trek tells us that the Federation had the capability to travel forwards in time, and a combination of their role in the temporal conflicts of the 29th and 30th Centuries as well as their previously-established desire to protect and preserve the “true” timeline gives them the motivation – and moral requirement – to do so as well.
So why didn’t anyone warn the Federation about the Burn?
The answer, at least according to Discovery Season 3, is the ban on time travel. But I’m not convinced that this works as a satisfying and believable reason on its own. Even if Starfleet were willing to abide by the ban on time travel and the temporal prime directive, would everyone have felt that way? If a Starfleet timeship encountered the post-Burn galaxy, would they not have felt an obligation to warn their colleagues in their native era?
Even if Starfleet had been willing to sacrifice countless lives and leave the galaxy in a horrible state to uphold certain ideals and principles, the Burn is bigger than just the Federation. Other factions in the Temporal Wars, had they become aware of the Burn, would likely have tried to warn their colleagues of what was to come. Even organisations within the Federation, like Section 31, seem like they’d have been unwilling to abide by a ban on time travel, let alone refuse to share knowledge of an impending disaster.
We don’t know for certain that this didn’t happen. Section 31 may not exist by this time, and if they do still exist they may indeed have tried to warn the Federation about the Burn. Other factions with access to time travel technology may have also warned their past selves too. Heck, this could be a plot point in Season 4; perhaps one faction was better-prepared than everyone else and is now ready to conquer the galaxy.
However, there is a significant counter-point that we need to consider: until Saru, Burnham, and Dr Culber travelled to the Verubin Nebula and met Su’Kal, no one knew what caused the Burn. Even if Starfleet had been warned centuries ahead of time, without the crucial knowledge of what the Burn was, who caused it, and so on, simply knowing that it was going to happen would not have been enough to prevent it. And perhaps that’s the key here. Even if Starfleet had travelled forward in time, in this exact version of the timeline, all they would’ve seen is a galaxy devastated by an event that no one knew anything about.
As I said last time, the way the Burn occurred was a combination of unlikely, unpredictable circumstances centred around a single, relatively obscure starship and one Kelpien child. When looking at a galaxy-wide event that appeared to happen everywhere simultaneously, even the most dedicated timeship crew would’ve struggled to put the pieces together. Michael Burnham and the crew of the USS Discovery were able to do so only with the Federation’s help; and it seems highly unlikely that Admiral Vance would’ve agreed to help the crew of a 29th or 30th Century timeship in the way he agreed to help Saru and Burnham. Remember what Vance said when he debriefed Burnham and Saru: their mere presence in the 32nd Century was “by definition, a crime.”
Thus we can argue that Admiral Vance would have been unwilling to help a Federation timeship prevent the Burn, and would not have shared the vital information relating to SB-19 which ultimately allowed Burnham to pinpoint its source.
Likewise, if Section 31, the Emerald Chain, or some other faction operating in the 32nd Century wanted to travel back in time to prevent the Burn, the same issue of not knowing how, why, and where it happened arises. Without this information, realistically it seems impossible for the Burn to have been avoided. Only after Burnham’s investigation, culminating in the discovery of the KSF Khi’eth and Su’Kal, could anyone realistically use time travel to prevent the Burn or warn their counterparts in the past. And from our point of view as the audience, we’ve only just arrived at that chapter of the story!
When the Burn was first teased in the trailers for Discovery’s third season in 2019 and 2020, I wondered what role – if any – time travel might’ve played in the story. There were possible hints at a time travel-related cause for the Burn, perhaps even connected to one of the Red Angel suits from Season 2. There was also the Temporal Cold War from Enterprise. However, as a story point one thing about connecting time travel to the Burn seemed like it would be impossible to resolve as the season rolled on.
In short, if the Burn had been revealed to have been caused by the nefarious actions of a time traveller – or as the result of a time travel/Red Angel suit accident – then logically, from Starfleet’s perspective, the only solution to the Burn would be to undo it; to travel back in time and prevent it from happening. In the first couple of episodes of the season, as we found our feet, perhaps such a storyline could’ve worked. But as we got to know people like Booker, Admiral Vance, the leaders of Earth, Ni’Var, Trill, and many others across the 32nd Century, removing most of them from existence by resetting the timeline would have felt completely wrong.
Undoing the Burn would’ve completely changed the 31st and 32nd Centuries, with knock-on effects for all of those characters – and countless more. Even if the crew of Discovery were immune to such changes, the consequences for everyone else would be vast. As I mentioned when discussing Admiral Janeway’s decision to take a similar action in the finale of Star Trek: Voyager, wiping untold numbers of people from existence altogether seems like the worst possible use of time travel – a war crime. The Temporal Accords that Admiral Vance mentioned and which the Federation strives to protect seem specifically designed to prevent anyone from doing this kind of thing.
So we get into the weeds of philosophy with this one! The Burn happened, and until we learned exactly how and why toward the end of the season, it was possible that time travel could’ve played a role in it. But even if it had, and the Burn was entirely the fault of the misuse or weaponisation of time travel, more than 120 years had passed since. In those 120 years, billions of people lived out complete lifetimes. They made friends, had relationships, had children, and above all they shaped the galaxy in the 31st and 32nd Centuries. Some nebulous, unprovable concept of how it might’ve been “different” and thus better was already a moot point by the year 3188, because going back in time and changing the past would remove untold billions of people from existence, and utterly change the lives of everyone else.
There’s also no guarantee that preventing the Burn would’ve made the galaxy in 3188 a better place. The Burn destroyed countless starships, but if it hadn’t the galaxy’s dilithium shortage would’ve continued and even accelerated, potentially leaving whole fleets of ships – and possibly planetary power grids – with no fuel at all. Though we get into pure speculation at this point, perhaps the Burn destroyed an invasion fleet that the Borg, the Dominion, or some other villainous group had put together, and if it hadn’t occurred the Federation would’ve been conquered.
This is the fundamental problem with making changes to the timeline and with time travel in general – it isn’t possible to predict every consequence! Star Trek even has a story all about that: the Voyager two-part episode Year of Hell, in which the villainous Annorax is in control of a time travel-based weapon, but after inadvertently removing his wife from existence becomes obsessed with making changes to the timeline left, right, and centre to undo his mistake.
In short, whether the Federation, Section 31, or some other faction were involved, they wouldn’t be able to predict what consequences would befall the galaxy if the Burn never happened. It isn’t possible to take into account every individual and thus every variable – as the story of Su’Kal kind of demonstrates. One Kelpien child on one crashed starship caused all of this damage and devastation. Who’s to say that undoing that event wouldn’t have led to something worse, some other catastrophe caused by a different individual?
As a contemporary analogy, imagine going back in time and preventing the rise of Napoleon and thus the Napoleonic wars. Or going back in time to prevent the eruption of Krakatoa. Those events caused widespread death and misery, and our morality says that we should try to minimise suffering and death wherever we can. But could you reasonably predict the consequences? If Napoleon didn’t rise to power in France, would someone else – someone worse – have done so? If Krakatoa didn’t erupt in 1883, would the pressure building up under the crust be released somewhere else at a different time – perhaps somewhere more highly-populated? These are just two examples, yet each one brings with it huge potential ramifications.
To conclude, time travel seemingly presents a way for the Burn to have been avoided – if we don’t dig too deeply. But scratch the surface and it becomes apparent that there are serious barriers. Starfleet’s steadfast commitment to its principles wouldn’t have allowed Admiral Vance – or anyone else in his role – to share information with time travellers from the past. Even if someone from the past had travelled to the 32nd Century, without the very specific information on the KSF Khi’eth that Michael Burnham and the crew of the USS Discovery assembled, warning Starfleet that the Burn was coming would have made little difference. Perhaps some ships could’ve been saved if the Federation were forewarned of the exact timing of the event, but that’s about all. With the destruction of the Red Angel suits, it appears that no time travel technology exists in the 32nd Century, preventing anyone – Section 31, the Emerald Chain, etc. – going back in time to prevent the Burn. Even if someone wanted to, the lack of information would once again be a hurdle even if we ignore the huge moral implications – and the implications for Discovery as a series effectively wiping out an entire season’s worth of story!
I can understand why the writers of Discovery Season 3 brought in all of the stuff about the Temporal Accords and the ban on time travel. I wish it had been elaborated on – and I also wish that Star Trek had been more consistent in its depiction of time travel on the whole, because there are definitely holes we can pick in the concept quite easily. As things sit, it feels like the writers basically said “time travel was banned, so get over it” and then moved on to the rest of the story. If you don’t look too hard, that’s okay. But we’re Trekkies – we like to dive deeply into all things Star Trek!
The ban on time travel is just one part of why Starfleet couldn’t really have used the technology to avoid the Burn, though. And the Burn’s ultimate origin as something accidental connected to a child who wasn’t even born before the KSF Khi’eth entered the Verubin Nebula provides a reasonable explanation. Without knowing the Burn’s origin, all Starfleet could’ve done was shut down as many ships as possible and try to rebuild after the Burn – and that would likely not have been good enough for worlds like Ni’Var. The Federation would still have fractured and the rest of the galaxy would still be in a mess.
As for going back in time and undoing the Burn now that Starfleet knows its origin, that seems off the table. Maybe a faction like Section 31 would contemplate it, but even then I think there are solid reasons to hesitate. The morality of wiping out an entire timeline and most of the people in it is the biggest consideration, but purely on a practical level there’s no guarantee that undoing the Burn wouldn’t lead to something else – something worse. For us as viewers, the Burn is something new. But from the point of view of characters like Admiral Vance and Kovich, this is an historical event more than a century in the past; it occurred before practically everyone alive in the Federation in 3188 was even born. Undoing it would be like one of us wanting to undo something that happened in the 19th Century. Can we think of valid, sympathetic reasons to want to undo certain historical events? Of course. But can we also understand why changing the past can have catastrophic unforeseen consequences? Absolutely. And that, in a nutshell, is why I think the Burn couldn’t and wouldn’t have been avoided via time travel.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States, and on Netflix in the UK and around the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.