There is a sense in which this movie follows from the earlier Star Trek materials. Spock, who has been alive through the other series, is now very old and on a mission to save Romulus--a mission that fails, resulting in the creation of an unstable black hole/wormhole which hurls him back to the time of his youth, and also hurls a Romulan mining vessel back a few decades before that in the same event. The Romulan arrives mere hours before James Tiberius Kirk is born, and immediately begins altering history in an attempt to locate and execute vengeance against an ambassador Spock who seemingly has not yet been born. Once he determines that he is in the past, he devises a plan to avenge Romulus, and waits for Spock's arrival.
That sets up the bulk of the story, in which we see the childhood experiences of Spock and Kirk, the former much as they must have been in the original history, the latter severely altered by the fact that his father died a hero fighting against that mysterious ship but still leading to his entrance into Star Fleet Academy. This analysis will cover the major temporal factors from there.
Questions have been pouring in about the temporal anomalies in the new movie, Star Trek, to the point that one fan (whom we thank sincerely) provided a copy for examination.
Michael Stackpole has mentioned that the line editors of the Star Trek universe are not terribly concerned about continuity. If writers place the same characters in different places at the same time, that's not a problem. The same might be said of their concepts of time and time travel. In three previous movies and uncounted episodes of the several television series (including the animated adventures) there have been time travel stories told, and the methods for traveling through time as well as the theories of time themselves have been inconsistent. Some, such as DS9's Bell Riots story, have been brilliant. Others, such as Voyager's first season temporal fiascos, earn responses from cringing to shouting at the screen. Thus any new time travel story from the Star Trek producers raises warning flags as well as hope. Will they get it right again this time, or is it going to be yet another disaster?
As it happens, they may have done well, but the answer will take some extensive explanation. More intriguingly, they have in one fell swoop erased everything nearly from the beginning, and given themselves a clean slate on which to write new stories.
Midway through the film, we are given in flashbacks the distant future, a time when of the original characters only Ambassador Spock still lives. Romulus is destroyed; Spock was minutes too late with his black hole generator to save it. He still created a black hole to stem the expanding supernova, and then his ship was caught in it, along with a Romulan mining vessel commanded by a very angry Captain Nero.
Nero's ship emerges one hundred fifty-two years in the past, and immediately has a confrontation with a ship whose first officer, George Kirk, takes command and orders an evacuation of everyone including his wife who is at that moment delivering their son James Tiberius. Thus from the moment of Jim Kirk's birth, all of history is different; his father dies saving the crew, he becomes a rebellious teen, and Captain Pike eventually encourages him to join Star Fleet.
Spock, coincidentally, emerges twenty-three years after Nero, at just about the time Kirk is completing his training and butting heads with the younger Spock, who is very upset that this cadet cheated at the Kobayashi Maru test he administered. Through circumstances, Kirk, the young Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, Checkov(!), and Scotty are gathered together aboard the Enterprise under Captain Pike. Confronting Nero, Pike leaves Spock in command and makes Kirk First Officer before boarding Nero's ship and being taken prisoner.
The movie makes a point of letting us know, largely through information provided by the older Spock, about some of the little things that are different; the big things are obvious. Vulcan is destroyed, and Spock's mother is killed along with most of the population (Sarek is saved). Ultimately, Kirk takes command of the Enterprise from the younger Spock and working with that Spock saves Earth and destroys Nero's highly advanced ship. He earns a commendation and is officially promoted to captain of the Enterprise, putting the world at something not too unlike the original beginning of the original series (although with enough differences that diehard fans will report them).
The big question is what this drastic event does to time itself, that is, what sort of anomaly do we have in the end? It is evident that history has been changed (thus not fixed time), and probable that this is the history of the world (neither parallel nor divergent dimension theory), and thus happening under replacement theory. What sort of anomaly is created? Before we reach that, though, there are several smaller questions, the first of which has to do with Montgomery Scott's transwarp teleportation equation, which we will address next.
In the movie a possibly too young engineer Montgomery Scott is manning a small ground station on a frozen and hostile planet within sight of Vulcan, where both the older Spock and the young Kirk are separately marooned and find each other. Mr. Scott, or Scotty as he is known, is certain he was assigned there as punishment for having argued with his admiral professor that it would be possible to teleport someone far across the galaxy and onto a ship traveling at warp, and incidentally for having attempted the feat with the admiral's pet dog, which vanished. The older Spock reassures him that indeed what he proposed is entirely possible, based on an equation which Scotty himself will eventually develop. Spock then shows Scotty that equation, and uses it to teleport Scotty and Kirk from that station to the warp-driven Enterprise.
As he looks at the equation, Scotty comments that he would never have thought to treat space as that which is moving; that is, he does not believe he ever would have developed that equation on his own. The question is, does it matter that Spock gave Scotty the equation, which now Scotty will be able to publish to prove his theory, but which no one will ever actually discover or create in real time? It is an object of a predestination paradox, something that exists in the past because it was brought from the future, but has no origin in time.
This type of paradox happened previously in Star Trek, when in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Mr. Scott gave to Dr. Nichols the formula for transparent aluminum, which "he might have invented". There were certainly ramifications of that, but ultimately it did not destroy the future. It is sufficient that Spock would know the formula when he traveled to the past, and so could give it to Scotty; that that formula is now never "invented" is not a problem for time--directly.
It does, however, raise two concerns.
The first is that the equation will be "discovered" sooner. This scientific and technological advance will have become the basis for other advances, at least some of which will be found sooner, some by different researchers from their original discoverers. Time, though, depends on an event still over a century in the future, a moment when Spock, using the most advanced ship Vulcan could provide, will be mere seconds too late to save Romulus and instead will be pulled into a temporal vortex. Very slight advances in technology now might mean that Spock will save Romulus--and in saving Romulus, undo the time travel event creating this history.
The other concern is more difficult to express; it is about Montgomery Scott himself. Anyone who has reasoned his way through a difficult theory or discovery knows that this work changes you. It builds your thought processes and prepares you to tackle similar problems more easily in the future, in a way that gaining an understanding from someone else's explanation does not. If Scotty has just been handed the answer to the single most difficult question he ever solved, he is the poorer for it, and might not be as sharp an engineer thereafter as he was.
On the other hand, it might not be so serious. After all, Spock did not leave Scotty with the equation; Scotty perhaps got no more than a hint to put him back on track to something he may still take years to unravel. We might be fine. Technological advances might already be behind schedule if the interferences with history have altered events enough. We do not know that this will have more impact in this history than it had in the other.
Of course, we also lose Vulcan, and the advanced technology generated by its famed science academy. Next we consider the impact of the loss of the Federation's most respected planetary member.
In a way it seems silly to have started with the passing of the transwarp formula to Mr. Scott, because that happened within sight of the much bigger change to the past, the complete annihilation of that planet which was in story terms the only Federation planet besides Earth that ever really mattered until the Bajorans joined the Federation, home of Spock, Sarek, Tuvok, and Valeris just to touch the most notable, Vulcan. It is consumed by a black hole created within it.
The notion that a black hole can be created by a drop of otherwise apparently containable "red matter" is excusable as a science fiction advance; we are not expected to know how it works, because it is centuries beyond us. A bigger problem is what we might call the foolishness of using black holes to treat other problems. Once a black hole is created, it thereafter grows larger and more powerful for the rest of time, consuming everything in its reach and extending its reach as it feeds. There might be such a thing as a "little" black hole, but it will not stay little. It is also unlikely that a black hole could send someone into the past. The science of the fiction, though, is not our concern. It is the impact of the time travel that catches our attention.
It is difficult to gauge just how much impact this event has on the history of the universe. We get glimpses, now and again, of Vulcan involvement in the Federation. In one episode, a ship crewed by Vulcans is reported lost in an instant. Vulcan officers appear here and there. Ambassador Sarek stands by Earth with the power that comes from representing one of the Federation's most technologically advanced members. All of that has been at the very least threatened, as the young Spock notes he is now a member of an endangered species and the older Spock eventually reports having set up a colony on a small planet for the scattered survivors of the lost world to start anew. Yes, their culture and perhaps the best of their knowledge was all preserved in the rescue of the elders, but they are not the force in the universe that they were.
More significantly to our time problems, though, is the fact that the Spock who failed to rescue Romulus was traveling from Vulcan on the best ship Vulcan could provide, apparently carrying Vulcan technology. As mentioned last time, he was mere minutes shy of saving Romulus, and the N-jump resolution of time depends on the next Spock failing to rescue Romulus and being caught along with Nero in the same temporal vortex he creates, so as to be thrown into the same past.
The unknowns here are too great even for speculation. Has Vulcan's technology been set back such that the ship will be the poorer, or the black hole technology not ready? Will the new Vulcan home be closer to or farther from Romulus? The impact on the young Spock himself cannot be discounted. Will his determination to save his mother and his home drive him to find salvation for Romulus sooner? Will his knowledge of his previous failure cause him to look for a different solution, or call for the evacuation of Romulus in sufficient time to save the people?
On the other hand, the older Spock is likely to recognize the importance of preserving time, and although he may have fewer years left to him than the actor who plays him, he could take steps now to protect the necessary events of the future and enable his younger self to follow that part of the path into the past. Time could be saved even here.
That raises the next question: what happens when the two Spocks meet?
Spock is thrown back from a point beyond the end of all Star Trek stories to date to the beginning of his own career one hundred twenty-nine years earlier. Eventually he meets himself, that is, the older Spock from the future of the original history meets the younger Spock fresh from Star Fleet Academy in the new history.
Older Spock tells the young cadet Kirk that he must not under any circumstances reveal to the younger Spock that the older Spock sent him to take command of the ship. He implies in that conversation that there might be severe temporal problems from such a meeting. Yet at the end of the film when the younger Spock mistakes the back of the grey-haired Vulcan for his own father, the older Spock introduces himself and says that there are too few Vulcans in the universe for them to avoid each other, and that his presence makes it possible for Spock to be in two places at once. Which is the truth? Are there serious repercussions arising from the time traveler meeting his younger self, or is it a completely unimportant event?
The answer lies between those extremes. As noted in our discussion of temporal doppelgangers, such a meeting will change the traveler, altering the history and the identity of his younger self in unpredictable ways and possibly endangering time by making it more difficult for that history to stabilize from a sawtooth snap to an N-jump. The younger Spock might take a course of action that does not bring him to that moment of traveling back to become the older Spock, and in that case the older Spock would never have arrived to meet the younger Spock and so change his life.
In this case, though, their meeting is a dwarf so small in the face of the giant changes which the older Spock has already, directly and indirectly, caused in his younger self. Because of what the older Spock did in the future, the younger Spock saw his planet vaporized, watched his mother fall to her death from the grip of safety at the last instant, was given command of his own ship and forced to relinquish that command to someone he neither liked nor trusted, piloted a ship a century ahead of the best he might ever have seen, and fought in a dread battle against a foe with superior weaponry. This Spock has been changed by that Spock. Further, he had already deduced that that Spock was here somewhere, and he was in some way responsible for much of what had happened. Certainly eventually Kirk will tell him the rest, as their relationship develops. It is not as if not meeting will shield the younger Spock from change.
It will still be a factor in the total picture, of course. For history to be preserved, this younger Spock must eventually fail to save Romulus and be caught in the black hole he creates, in just the right way to be sent back to the same point in history (and to bring Nero back with him). He must in his turn meet his younger self--who will be more like the self he remembers having been, because he will have lived in the same or very similar version of events. That, too, will be a telling moment, telling whether that new younger Spock will be impacted in the same way by his older self, and ultimately take the same steps. But then, it is the logical choice, and so we have every hope that Spock, of any iteration, will make it.
There have been several issues of concern which we have considered. Ultimately, though, the important question is whether in one hundred twenty-nine years time someone sufficiently like the Ambassador Spock and someone sufficiently like the Captain Nero who were sucked into the past through the black hole will be so again, so as to perform their parts in the new history.
Captain Nero's part seems probable. As long as Romulus is not significantly impacted by the changes in the Federation, he will be born, become captain of his mining ship, father a child, and be in position if Romulus is not saved. Thus it is mostly about Spock, and about the Federation.
It is clear that this will be a very different Spock. He is already very different. Yet he is still very Vulcan, and has the benefit of the wisdom of his older self to prepare him. He will do the logical thing. The history of the universe has changed drastically, and we cannot assume plot immunity for anyone, but Spock might manage to live long enough to play his part, and this history may yet stabilize despite the impact his own trip has had on his own past. History might be undone by this, but it is likely that this will not be a fatal problem.
It is also clear that in giving the transwarp equation to Mr. Scott, Spock has probably given a boost to the science and technology of the time. That, though, is a very unpredictable factor. Perhaps it will lead to more discoveries sooner, and the development of better ships and better ways to save Romulus. This could be a serious problem, since if Romulus is saved, history is lost.
On the other hand the loss of the planet Vulcan with its people is a setback to the Federation on many levels, technology not the least of these. Without the brilliant graduates of the Vulcan Science Academy, the Federation will be struggling to keep pace with the Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians. Without the strength of Vulcan in its membership, the Federation will be a considerably weaker entity. Suddenly there are many questions concerning whether Spock will have a ship equipped to create black holes able to reach the supernova threatening Romulus moments too late to save the planet but at the right time to save history.
Thus it all hinges on Spock. If he fails to make the right trip at the right moment, whether he saves Romulus or makes no attempt to save Romulus, then neither Nero nor Spock will appear in the past, and history will revert to the original version--which we know ends with Spock and Nero being thrown to the past. Thus an infinity loop looms as a very likely danger. Yet Spock knows, or should know, what he must do. It may be that his older self can give him the very timing and trajectories of the events, so that he can play the part quite intentionally, traveling back to the beginning of his own life to put himself on the right course to save the universe. If he follows the pattern precisely, there will be a sawtooth snap caused by his interaction with his own temporal duplicate, but there is reason to hope that it will resolve to an N-jump ultimately. Star Trek has created a time travel event that could happen and could resolve to a benign preservation of an altered history of the universe.