The Great Star Trek TAS Rewatch: The Counter-Clock Incident

The Enterprise flies through a white void with black stars

While trying to save an alien ship, the Enterprise is dragged into a mysterious parallel universe where time runs in reverse. Kirk and the crew begin working with the natives of this universe to find a way home, but when the entire crew starts rapidly ageing in reverse, they have to act quickly.

Well, here we are, at the unremarkable end of this unremarkable series. With its parallel universe where black stars “shine” in a white void, this episode was one of the few that had stuck in my mind over the years. What I’d forgotten, it turned out, was quite how bad the actual plot is.

The episode begins with a few nods to both Star Trek canon and Roddenberry’s own notes. The Enterprise is once again on its way to the planet Babel, but this time it’s transporting Commodore Robert April and his wife Sarah to Robert’s retirement ceremony. Although never actually mentioned in the live action series, Robert April is cited in several supplementary sources as the first captain of the Enterprise – he even has an entry in the Star Trek Encyclopedia and Star Trek Chronology, accompanied by a photo of Gene Roddenberry in Starfleet uniform.

Of course, no mission is ever simple, and the Enterprise ends up chasing down a ship that seems to be determined to fly into a stellar nova at high warp. Instead of saving the ship from its seemingly foolhardy course, the Enterprise gets dragged with it into the aforementioned parallel universe, a place where time runs backwards. In terms of how this manifests onscreen, we see the following effects:

  • As mentioned above, the void of space is white, and the stars are black.
  • Humans exist, but are ‘born’ as old people and get younger throughout their lives, finally reverting to an infant state.
  • Similarly, dead stars go “nova” and come to life.
  • For some reason, the Enterprise has to travel backwards through this space.
  • Although not properly established as fact, Kirk refers to our universe as a “positive matter universe”, implying that the other universe may be made of antimatter. Under the Feynman-Stueckelberg interpretation, antimatter can indeed be considered as normal matter moving backwards in time.

When it comes to presenting scientific impossibility as plausible technology, Star Trek has form – just look at warp drive and the transporter. In this episode, however, all attempts at sensible worldbuilding have been thrown out the window.

Let’s take a quick tour of a universe where time runs backwards. First, we need to consider the human perception of time. Unlike space, where moving forwards and backwards are largely equivalent (barring local obstacles), we only experience time in what we’ve labelled as the ‘forward’ direction – the one in which overall entropy increases. The more one tries to consider the details of a universe where time flows in reverse, the harder it becomes for our human brains to even consider what it would be like.

Consider the simple case of a human eye perceiving a light source. Photons are emitted from the light source and reach the eye, where they stimulate light-sensitive cells on the retina. The optic nerve then relays an appropriate electrical signal to the brain, which translates it to the thought “ah, there’s a light”.

We could play this process in reverse. The information about the light is lost from the brain, as a photon travels backwards from the retina back into its source – effect is now preceding cause. How would this be perceived by a human? For that matter, what is the nature of this reversed-time universe? Is it a place where time reached its ends, and so everything that happened is now un-happening, with no “free will”. Or is it a universe where entropy decreases, and what does this mean for any life there – if life can exist at all in a form we could imagine.

Naturally, none of these deeper questions are addressed by this twenty-two minute episode, which instead opts for a shallow, nonsensical story that conveniently ends with the transporter fixing everything. Perhaps you hoped for more from the TAS finale, but after twenty-two episodes of this, you should have known better.

No, we haven’t finished nitpicking yet

  • When they enter the reversed time universe, the minds of the crew start working in reverse. But when Karla Five is in our universe, she still talks backwards. Why doesn’t the crossover into our universe cause her mental functions to reverse, such that she talks normally?
  • Spock is the last of the regular crew to de-age, because “Vulcans age more slowly”. This would make sense if Spock were older than the rest of the crew, but in fact he is the same age as Kirk.
  • Just from watching the episode, it isn’t clear why the reverse ageing process speeds up so much towards the end. Apparently a line that was cut for time would explain that it was due to a time “anti-dilation” effect caused by the Enterprise travelling at high speed in the reversed time universe. No, don’t try to make sense of it.
  • If the crew were losing their memories as they de-aged, how was it that they were still able to recall the mission to return to their universe? For example, April had forgotten he was a commodore and believed he was still a captain, but he still remembered that he needed to fly into a nova to get back home.
  • Robert April has apparently reached the Starfleet “mandatory retirement age” of 75. Presumably this only applied to humans anyway, but seems to have been scrapped by the 24th For example, both Picard and Tuvok were both actively serving in Starfleet beyond their 75th birthdays.
  • Sarah April refers to herself as the first chief medical officer on a warp-capable starship. While her accomplishments were no doubt worthy of note, we know that there were warp ships with chief medical officer well before this incarnation of the Enterprise.

Summary – The Counter-Clock Incident: You can’t reverse time and get back the life you used up watching TAS.

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