Click to viewStar Trek and Terminator often feature the same time-travel story: someone journeys back in time from the future. The only difference is, in Trek, our heroes are usually arriving from a shining paradise, while the Terminator franchise always shows people fleeing the shattered ruins of Earth. Whether they come from a dystopia or a utopia determines how our heroes view the past they arrive at. And, of course, both Terminator and Star Trek have big tentpole movies coming out next summer. Spoilers and speculation ahead.
Long-running space-opera Star Trek isn't strictly about time travel of course. But it's amazing how often Starfleet's crews seem to travel back in time - Kirk and friends visited the 20th century on a few occasions, and stopped by planets that looked just like 20th century Earth on several others. Voyager went to 1990s Earth and matched wits with Evil Bill Gates. And two of the Trek movies so far have featured trips back to our present or near future.
At the other end of the spectrum from Trek is the Terminator franchise, which has always featured visitors from a shitty future coming back and trying to tinker with events in the present. Usually revolving around John Connor, the future hero. There's a nice moment in a recent episode of the Sarah Connor Chronicles where Brian Austin Green and the rest of his scruffy mob of freedom fighters appear (naked as usual) in the present, and marvel at how clean and nicely built everything. It's a half-remembered dream from their youth.
Both Star Trek IV and Terminator involve people (and things) journeying back from the future to the 1980s.
But in Trek, the present is a crude time, when people practice "medieval" medicine and go around talking about their asses all the time. Kirk and friends have a hard time fitting in, because they're so advanced. In the Terminator, meanwhile, the danger comes from the future. The people of the mid-1980s are backward technologically, and refuse to believe the truth about the coming Skynet takeover. But they're also living in a promised land compared to the world Kyle Reese comes from.
Terminator 2 also features a visitor from the messed-up future bringing danger, plus another visitor bringing salvation, as they both try to mess around with the timeline. But it also introduces the idea that the seeds of the horrible future are already here, in the form of the nascent Skynet and Cyberdyne.
Similarly, in First Contact, Trek finally travels back into a past where things are fucked up - even worse than the present - but the seeds of the wonderful future are already present, in the form of Zephram Cochrane's warp-travel experiments and the first meeting with the Vulcans.
And, of course, time travel apparently plays a huge role in J.J. Abrams' upcoming Trek movie, due out in May. People who've seen the new full-length trailer say it includes young Spock (Zachary Quinto) and old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) sitting hand in hand, watching the Enterprise sail past. (Okay, they don't hold hands.)
I would be shocked - well, mildly surprised - if the movie doesn't include a scene where old Spock tells young Spock how great the future is going to be, and how wonderful his life with Jim will turn out. Not to mention how nice the Next Generation-era Federation is going to be. That's sort of an obligatory scene in the visitor-from-a-lovelier-future school of science fiction.
Does Terminator 4 include time travel? We don't know yet. It does take place in our future, after the rise of Skynet. So if there is any time travel, it'll mean visiting our future. (In much the same way that Abrams' Trek is visiting our future, but the franchise's past.) I suspect there will be a time-travel element of some sort in the movie, judging from this bit in the official synopsis:
But the future Connor was raised to believe in is altered in part by the appearance of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a stranger whose last memory is of being on death row. Connor must decide whether Marcus has been sent from the future, or rescued from the past.
Rumor has it that Marcus is from the past, the product of a cyborg experiment by Skynet. But he could be from further in the future, for all we know.
With both Star Trek and Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins opening next May, we'll see dueling time-travel narratives. Or really, we'll see dueling versions of the future. Trek will show us the start of Starfleet's golden age, when James Kirk is just on his way to becoming a captain and a century of radness lies ahead. And TSTFB (not the greatest acronym) shows us John Connor at the start of the most hellish period of Skynet domination, when everything has already been wrecked and he's having to lead the resistance against the machines.
Which version of the future will audiences prefer? Star Trek's sunny future, including a pointy-eared visitor from an even sunnier future? Or Terminator's bleak and horrendous dystopia, which may include a visit from an even more dystopian time further in the future? I guess we'll find out next May - but a lot depends on how we feel about our present. If we see ourselves as living in a backward, messed up era, like the "present" that Captain Kirk regularly visits, then maybe we'll gravitate towards Trek's vision that things get better. If we see ourselves as living in a brief patch of sunshine before things get worse, then we'll embrace the Terminator worldview. (And yes, whether we prefer J.J. Abrams or McG as a director could have something to do with it too, I guess.)