In which several time loops are closed, the Eugenics Wars is one of them, and Kirk avoids all consequences for everything.
The Bounty lands in Golden Gate Park, terrifying two garbagemen and flattening the grass. What’s rather odd is that in space, the Cloaking Device gives off a telltale ripple, at least to the viewer, but on the ground the only way you can tell it’s even there is from the ramp spilling light from the empty air.
And thus begins Kirk’s Adventure in the past. Nearly getting run over because he doesn’t remember how ground-based traffic works. Three people are in uniform – Kirk, Uhura, and Scotty. Chekov is wearing a bomber jacket, Sulu is wearing a fabulous suit, and Spock is wearing a bathrobe. There’s a lovely continuity shout-out here – Kirk is pawning the antique glasses frames McCoy gave him and noting the fact that this might be the very same pair McCoy will give him later. Thirty seconds of research into archaeological dating techniques tells me that there is one that might work on them, which could in fact be used to tell how many loops those glasses have actually been though. There is not (yet) evidence to suggest this particular loop has happened more than once, but it would be illogical to assume that when it’s equally as likely to have gone on for dozens if not hundreds of iterations, from the glasses frame of reference. Who knows, those 18th century american frames might be thousands of years old. And he only gets a hundred dollars for them.
So the crew have various jobs. Kirk and Spock will go find the whales. Scotty, McCoy, and Sulu will work on getting the ship converted, and Sulu and Uhura will go look for some radioactivity to collect. Here 20th century advertising comes in handy. At 42:10, the best scene happens. Chekov and Uhura wandering around San Francisco asking how to get onto a military base. If memory serves, most if not all of the people they talk to were just random people walking by, eliciting the best responses. Much better when you realize the Cold War is still technically happening in 1986 and Chekov has a thick Russian accent. Granted he makes the least plausible covert agent ever, but it’s still very suspicious.
Here we meet the next woman Kirk will fall in love with. She’s exactly his type: blonde, intelligent, driven and focused on her life’s passion. He will fall in love with her and eventually they will part ways because he loves his ship and she loves her whales. She’s expounding on why whales sing, when we currently know at least some of the answer. Also, during her presentation, prior to her going completely off on Krik and Spock is environmental theme reference #3. I digress. Spock mind melds with the whales in order to gain their consent to be taken into the future to save the humanity that will inevitably hunt their species to extinction. Gillian happens to come across Kirk and Spock as they’re walking home and interrogates them regarding what the hell Spock was doing in the tank. Putting a brain-damaged Spock in close proximity to a high-intensity interrogation is a wonderful way to give her a lot of clues about what’s really going on, though ‘time travelling space pseudo-military officers trying to save the world’ is not what you might normally consider within the possibility space.
Meanwhile, McCoy and Scotty have managed to con their way into a plexiglass manufacturing plant with great ease, because they’re both highly functional people, and Scotty can speak the language. After the tour (and a brief interstitial where Sulu hits on a helicopter pilot) Scotty mentions that he can offer a transparent product that is objectively better than plexiglass. Mentioned earlier in the movie was transparent aluminum, which does in fact exist outside of Star Trek, and it appears that Scotty is bringing the knowledge of it back with him. The Plexiglass guy doesn’t believe them, so Scotty will have to demonstrate. That computer is so adorable, it’s amazing. It’s also frankly stunning that it can keep up with his typing.
More temporal dynamics: Scotty is playing with fire here, since he risks introducing materials science before its time. However, his question “how do we know he didn’t invent the thing” confirms something rather chilling. I believe it was in “Space Seed” that we saw how scattered knowledge about the period leading up to the Eugenics Wars was, as if quite a bit of history was completely unknown. Here, Scotty knows by heart the formula and molecular configuration of the Starfleet equivalent of window glass, but can’t name the person who invented it. I submit to you, gentle reader, that the Enterprise and her crew have never created a universe-ending paradox is because so little is known about the past that it would take a truly major change to do so. It appears to be the case that so long as they don’t alter events they are aware of as having occurred differently there’s no problem. The likelihood that Scotty randomly chanced on the person destined to invent transparent aluminum at exactly the time he was supposed to have the idea of it is vanishingly small. What would have happened of Scotty knew the correct inventor and deliberately chose someone else, we can only speculate. However, during the first loop, so long as Scotty is ignorant of the correct state of the timeline, any state that produces effects consistent with his experience can be a correct state.
Or, to put it more succinctly: time travel is demonstrably safe so long as a cataclysm erases historical records between the origin point and the past destination.
Kirk has dinner with Gillian, trying to convince her to give him the whales, when he gets a call and it all comes out that he’s from the future. She guesses, and still doesn’t believe him. And is making fun of him with glorious sarcasm. This distracts from what should be very important considerations – Scotty is beaming Chekov and Uhura onboard the USS Enterprise. Yes, the one that exists. They have to dodge guards and dogs while sneaking into the engine room. It is, in fact, causing a power drain that they’re picking up on the bridge. Fortunately, they finish just as this happens. With all the interference and low power, they have to beam out one at a time, and Chekov gives Uhura the collector to go first. Did I say first? I meant only.
So, this would be a good time to mention that Chekov caused the Eugenics wars.
So you’re in command of the shipboard operations on a nuclear warship in a time when the US is under constant threat of full-on war with a nuclear power. This agent in plainclothes and a thick Russian accent is caught in your engine room with a number of devices, one of which appears to be some sort of ray gun. Even though it appears to be deactivated, it’s of a make you’ve never seen before. He tosses you the gun and bolts for it before knocking himself out and being taken to a hospital where, because it’s Star Trek, he will inevitably escape under mysterious circumstances. So you send your new ray gun toys to DARPA where they tell you the underlying physics, if the understand it correctly, is decades ahead of even the most advanced theories. If the Russians have access to this science, the arms race may be over and the United States has lost. So all your decision-making changes. Instead of de-escalation leading to the end of the Cold War in ’91, tensions mount, the US is less friendly, and eventually they dust off a couple of black projects, including eugenics-bred supersoldiers. The rest, as they say, is alternate history.
Okay, back to the plot. The Whales ahve been shipped out of the institute early, Sulu is transporting plexiglass panels back to the ship by helecopter when Gillian shows up in central park to see this sight which, at a guess, will confirm to her satisfaction everything Kirk told her and be the final straw in giving him what he needs to track the whales. She does run up to the ship’s footprint and bounce off the invisible hull. Rather than let her pound against the air like a crazy person, he beams her aboard. Her first transport is therefore completely unexpected. With the ship gassed up and the modifications to the storage tank underway, they have only one obstacle to going to get the whales and save the day: Chekov is not expected to survive.
Cue a dairing heist. They have to rescue him from the hospital, where McCoy gives an old woman on dialysis a pill that regrows her kidney in about ten minutes. Everyone gets their time in the sun, and here McCoy gets to show off his mastery of medicine when compared to primitive 20th century technology. But whereas Scotty was content with a muttered “quaint,” McCoy is much more entertainingly grumpy.
So it all comes to a head. The Bounty lifts off and Gillian stows away under the very reasonable premise that nobody in the 23rd century knows a goddamn thing about humpback whales. She is, however, just as confused as I am at how they can put the whales on-screen when they don’t have cameras out that far. The final chase begins when Uhura detects a whaling ship closing on the whales. They ready the harpoons, and the music is tense and full of jagged horns. OH NO. WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN?!
Kirk does love to make an entrance. However, the sudden appearance and just as sudden disappearance of a massive stationary signal complete with potential photographic evidence of a highly advanced atmospheric ship will not help the peace of mind of the American military.
The whales on board, they limp home with a few hundred thousand more tons of mass in an incredibly delicate maneuver that Spock is only guessing at. The calculations were a success, which only means that the ship is now damaged and weighted down and powerless in front of the probe, a few seconds prior to when they left. It’s a good thing there’s an emergency escape hatch right on the bridge of the Bounty, but this begs the question… WHY? At least it appears to lead into a maintenance airlock instead of directly outside, but is it really that necessary that a door lead basically directly outside from the command center?
No power and a sinking ship, Kirk gets his chance to be an action hero by diving into the flooding cargo bay and blowing the hatch manually. The whales are now free in an ocean devoid of their kind, but we might presume that the Federation will be willing to clone them with sufficient variation to avoid… the standard inbreeding joke is ‘webbed feet’ but that doesn’t really apply here. Regardless, the whales sing and the probe responds. One can only imagine the conversation.
“Where were you guys? I’ve been calling and calling?”
“We’re from the past. Apparently humans kill us all but then learn their lesson.”
“Should I kill them all?”
“Nah, these ones are chill.”
“Aight, peace out.”
On its way back to wherever the hell it came from, the probe restores power back to every ship it took out of commission, and there was much rejoicing. Which leaves only the matter of nine formal charges to be laid against Admiral Kirk. Conspiracy, assault, theft of Federation property, sabotage of the Excelsior, willful destruction of the Enterprise, and disobeying direct orders. Which is only six unless they punched three more guards when Kirk went off to fight Khan. Because Kirk saved the world, he gets all the charges but disobeying orders dropped, and gets busted back down to Captain and forced to command a starship again. Nobody seems particularly put out by this decision, though the Klingons are not going to be happy. And, inevitably, Kirk will not get to spend much time with Gillian, since she’s going off to remedial science school and then to take care of whales.
Spock reconciles with his father, and as the movie closes, the core crew argues about which ship they’re going to get. Sulu has his heart set on the Excelsior, but again inevitably, waiting just behind it is the Enterprise. NCC 1701-A.