Nerd School: “The Voyage Home Paradox”

by Joe on January 11, 2012

Suspension of belief is a prerequisite for the consumption of fiction. It is completely understandable in genre fiction such as Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, that the basic tenants of science will be violated in order to create a ripping yarn. However, even in more grounded genres of literature such as mystery and romance one can see small tears in the fabric of reality. Seriously, how were there so many murders in Cabot’s Cove?

2% of the population of that city is dead... think about it.

In film and television this gets even more hairy, as we have to make the assumption in our mind that what we are watching takes place in a world where the actors portraying these characters never existed. Simply put, The current incarnation of CSI takes place in a world where Ted Danson doesn’t exist, otherwise people would be consistently going up to D.B. Russell asking  “didn’t you play Becker?” This is easy for our mind to do. Since the advent of theater, actors have been playing multiple characters.

You played Norm right?

However one of the more mind-bending suspensions of belief comes up every time a familiar property is transplanted from the time of its original inception to the modern age. I know that seems like a mouthful, but let’s break it down. For simplicity’s sake I’m going calling this “The Voyage Home Paradox” after the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where I first noticed this idea.

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the characters of the franchise travel back in time to the year 1984 to save the whales. It’s a simple enough premise for science fiction and a well worn trope, with time travel. As a consumer of fiction we have to accept the fact that in the future, using the technology available, time travel is possible. Be that as it is, the one fact I cannot accept is that in this 1984 that the Enterprise travels to, Star Trek (the TV show) never existed.

When we think about the impact pop culture has on our society, we often think about fleeting trends, bad music, and things they would make fun of on one of VH1’s “I Love The (insert decade here)” shows. In spite of the uselessness of most pop-culture, sometimes literature, television, and movies have such a cultural impact that to separate them from our culture is to alter our culture irreconcilably.

Let’s take Star Trek for example. In order to accept that the crew of the Enterprise could travel back to 1984 and not be recognized, we have to assume that in 1966 there was no Star Trek television show on the air. Because, not once during the interactions with the people in 1984 did one person say, “hey, you look like that guy from that show with all the spaceships, and aliens.”

"No, I was Denny Crane!"

In that situation, a domino effect occurs in the logical progression of culture. Examining the influence Star Trek has had in the field of engineering alone is mind boggling.  Martin Cooper, one of the inventors of the cell phone, stated that watching Captain Kirk using his communicator on the television show Star Trek inspired him to develop the handheld mobile phone.  The test vehicle for NASA’s shuttle program was named the Enterprise in honor of the show. Not to mention the effect Star trek has had on the genre on science fiction in general. Following the logic presents, the people of 1984 had none of these influences. Sure society seemed normal in the film, but perhaps it is because 1984 is too close to the deviation point of 1966 to be affected. How much would society as we know it have changed if we looked all the way to 2012?


This isn’t to say that “The Voyage Home Paradox” is an awful thing. In many ways our favorite fiction couldn’t exist without it. For example, the most recent offender of the time space continuum is “Sherlock”.

Oops, wrong Sherlock

Probably one of the best shows you’ve never seen, the BBC’s “Sherlock” is an updated take on the classic stories of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes”.  The show is an “update” in the sense that it takes place in modern times. Since the show is not an interpretation like “House”, but a direct take on the characters, “Sherlock” asks the audience to believe that this is a world where Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote “Sherlock Holmes”.  This wouldn’t be an issue, if we as the audience we asked to… say… believe in a world where Sue Grafton never wrote “Q” Is for Quarry.  However a world without Sherlock Holmes is a world without the mystery genre.  So much of our television rips off the inductive/deductive reasoning skills of Holmes that the universe we are asked to believe in becomes ridiculous.

seriously his name is Benedict Cumberbatch

As I stated earlier, the deviation period for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is from 1966-1984, the deviation period for “Sherlock” is from 1887-2010. Assuming we take into account the “Voyage Home Paradox”, “Sherlock exists in a parallel universe without 123 years of detective fiction. Though one could argue that the influence of detective fiction could have shifted to Edgar Allan Poe’s,  Auguste Dupin and Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq, the genre itself could never have reached the heights it did without the rabid popularity Holmes had in the 1890’s.

Think of the repercussions to our cultural history without Sherlock Holmes. Starting at least from the point of deviation we would lose characters like Marples and Poirot. Moving all the way to modern fiction, we would never have had Columbo, Jessica Walters, Kojack, House, Grissom, Scooby Doo.

Luckily we'd still have the Harlem Globetrotters

That’s just the cultural influences lost.  Many people don’t seem to realize the contribution Doyle made to the field of forensics. Doyle made things such as trace evidence, fingerprinting, ballistics, and handwriting analysis trademarks of a good investigator, and as such influenced many to accept them as actual criminal evidence.  Without “Sherlock Holmes” would these still be accepted? Well, according to “Sherlock”,  yes they are.

Or are they? Yes, “Sherlock” has many of the hallmarks of modern television procedurals, but we only see a small chunk of the London Metropolitan Police Force, and like in Doyle’s fiction, they tend to bumble many of the cases. So, without it just as predicted in “The Voyage Home Paradox” perhaps forensic science never really caught on as predicted. This of course means that the police would need to turn to an individual like Sherlock Holmes to help them solve their case. Thus the cycle is complete and the universe seeks to right itself.  Nature does abhor a vacuum.

The concept of  “The Voyage Home Paradox” is never going away. In fact, with all the recent reboots and sequels coming into the theaters and television, Hollywood is going to ask you more and more to accept these strange parallel universes. In fact while watching Transformers 3 the other day,  I thought to myself, “Why does no one recognize the Transformers? They have been on our televisions since 1984!”

Hear Joe every week on the Planet Arbitrary Podcast or follow him on Twitter @planetarbitrary

Read Joe’s other articles:

Star Trek: Evening the OddsStar Trek Blu-rays 1 and 2Trek in your Queue 1 and 2, Obama Trek,  Star Trek: A Different Generation, Failed Star Trek Spinoffs,

Doctor Who: Doctor Who Season 6 Round Up, An Alternate History of the Doctor, Inn at the Crossroads interview,  Doctor Who Season 6 primer, A Game of Thrones Primer, More

Game of Thrones: Casting Roundup 1 and 2, Game of Thrones Primer II,  Game of Thrones Primer I

Misc: Sci fi Composers,  Thieving Sci-fi, Paranormal Activi3The Walking Dead Primer, The Genre Problem,, Conan Primer, Mutant Fatigue Sci-Fi A-Team, A Love Letter to Natalie Portman Thor Primer,



{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

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Kevin January 11, 2012 at 7:45 am

The saddest thing about this is that every Bill Murray movie that’s not Ghostbusters lives in a world without Ghostbusters. Frankly, that’s not a world I want to live in.


Jim January 12, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Great article. Really interesting to think about. I’ve always assumed that Rob Lowe plays the same person at different points in that character’s life. As Billy Hicks he leaves Georgetown to play the saxophone in New York (St. Elmo’s Fire). Ends up going to Princeton as Sam Seaborn and gets recruited from Dewey Ballantine LLP to work for Josiah Bartlett’s presidential campaign / administration (The West Wing). After national politics he settles down (so to speak) and takes a position as Pawnee’s Acting City Manager, Chris Traeger (Parks & Recreation).


Joe January 13, 2012 at 10:45 am

Anne Perkins!


SGM February 1, 2012 at 11:36 am

I always figured it was that guy who vaporized himself with McCoy’s phaser back in City on the Edge of Forever, that he was Roddenberry or a muse for Roddenberry or something, his death resulting in no Star Trek at all.


Joe February 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm

that’s funny, killed by his own creation.


Thaddeus May 5, 2012 at 6:19 pm

Great article! if i made such a film, i’d be sure to show a knockoff series, the movie world’s equivalent of sherlock, xformers, etc.


Fabrizio June 6, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did wrote a fictional detective, but he was called “Terlom Jones”. Who knows. He could even be called JJ Jameson. It’s just a name.
The same goes with Star Trek. Maybe in that interpretation of things the show was called No Mans Land and starring Charlton Heston. It’s not like it’s supposed to be a window into the future.


jandalofdoom June 7, 2012 at 1:03 am

Here’s my take on it. I think what you are missing is that because Star Trek existed, similar shows never got made. But in a world were Star Trek never existed (such as the one in the Voyage Home Paradox) there would be a gap in the market (so to speak) for a Science Fiction show about spaceships and explorers.

I read something the other day about how the creator of Sons Of Anarchy was sued by someone who had pitched a very similar idea to FX before SOA came out. However FX preferred the SOA take on the idea. It goes to reason then that in the SOA world, this other show would probably have been made instead.

As viewers we don’t see this happen much in TV or Movies, because they are an international medium – but it happens in Advertising all the time. There will be an idea that is developed and made in one country, only to be concepted and created independently in a second country.

I said we don’t see it happen much in TV and Movies, but it does happen. The movies Armageddon and Deep Impact came out in the same year, pretty much at the same time. Two movies about an end of the world asteroid within months of each other. More recently, there are two Snow White movies coming out at the same time (Snow White and the Huntsmen and Mirror Mirror)

I guess my points is this – Just because one major pop culture show or movie doesn’t exist in movie world, doesn’t mean a similar movie/TV/novel wouldn’t have been created in it’s place.


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