In this semi-regular column looking at time travel in fiction, Causality Loop explores the interesting paradox of the Guinan character in the recent second season of Star Trek: Picard…
BEWARE SPOILERS for Picard Season 2.
A tried and tested Star Trek trope, time travel is the principal gambit behind the second season of sequel series Picard.
The mechanics of how it works are largely a magical combination of Star Trek mechanisms, from the slingshot effect around the Sun first seen in 1986’s fourth movie with The Original Series crew, The Voyage Home, with a liberal dose at the same time of the Borg Queen’s temporal vortex abilities we saw in the Next Generation’s second film First Contact. It’s all designed deliberately to evoke the nostalgia of those earlier means of time travel without needing to delve into any kind of logical temporal theory.
Where things get complicated is over the question of Guinan. One of TNG’s most beloved supporting characters, played with enduring mystery by Whoopi Goldberg since the late 1980s, we see her return in season premiere The Star Gazer in the early 25th century before, once the La Sirena crew go back to the year 2024, she gets a new bit of youthful casting in Ito Aghayere, portraying a Guinan who hasn’t yet met Jean-Luc Picard in the early 21st century.
Does this contradict Star Trek canon and the established timeline? Possibly. Possibly not. Let’s just call her, for now, Schrödinger’s Guinan.
You’ve heard of Ernst Schrödinger, I’m sure.
He was a renowned physicist who in 1935, alongside Albert Einstein no less, posited a thought experiment that became known as ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’. It was designed to tackle a central problem within quantum mechanics of a paradox. In the experiment, inside a sealed box is placed a cat, poison and a radioactive source. If the source, such as a Geiger counter, picks up radioactivity, such as a decaying atom, the flask of poison shatters and kills the cat. What happens next is described here:
The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that, after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality resolves into one possibility or the other.
Without getting too deeply into quantum superposition, science way over my head, this relates to Guinan in a flippant sense. She should and shouldn’t exist in the space she does in Star Trek: Picard.
Here’s why. In Seasons 5 into 6 of TNG, in the two-parter Time’s Arrow, Picard and Data travel into the past to stop an alien race called the Devidians from changing human history. They arrive in 1893, have adventures with Samuel Clemens, and crucially Picard meets a younger Guinan for the first time, living in 19th century San Francisco. Or that should be, the first time Guinan meets Picard, as opposed to the other way around. As an El-Aurian, a mysterious species who have some sense of cosmic beings and the fabric of time (as we later see demonstrated in feature film Generations where Picard meets an ‘echo’ of her in the strange Nexus), Guinan has extreme long life and a deeper understanding of time and space.
So in theory, when the older Picard arrives in 2024, Guinan should recognise him, except she doesn’t. It appears the events of Time’s Arrow didn’t happen for her. Now the prevailing reason behind this is thanks to the point Picard and his crew travelled from. Guinan’s nemesis, the omnipotent Q, travels back himself to 2024 and prevents Picard’s ancestor Renee, the pilot of a mission into space called Europa, from going on the mission. As a result, time is so badly affected that the Federation never exists and instead a ruthless totalitarian racist future human empire comes into being, as Picard & his confederates suddenly wake up into in Penance. Aware only saving Renee means they can return to their own reality, Picard & co travel back in time to correct the timeline.
Guinan, if this theory is correct, doesn’t recognise Picard and indeed is played by an entirely different actor (although that is likely the realities of Goldberg’s age and availability in truth), because of the point the La Sirena crew travelled from. They came from a future, a dark future, in which the events of Time’s Arrow never happened. Middle aged Picard never went back and met Guinan in 1893 in the first place and, thus, she doesn’t remember him.
This Guinan wouldn’t remember Picard because in this alternate timeline, the TNG story ‘Time’s Arrow’ never happened. Because there was no Federation, those events did not play out the same. No previous relationship exists. However, she still was likely traveling to Earth and, as we know, she hung around a bit. So this Guinan is different. But she, of course, can sense something is off. She’s going through a kind of time-sickness thanks to Q’s meddling with the timeline.
The problem with this, for me, lies in the problem of Renee. If she was the crux point as to whether that dark future existed, the events of the past should only be affected after the Europa mission. Everything before Renee either did or didn’t fly that mission should, theoretically, be unaffected.
So by that logic, should Guinan have remembered Picard or not? Here’s where our friend Schrödinger comes in. Depending on which theory you subscribe to, Guinan should and shouldn’t remember Picard. If the timeline works backwards and affects the pre-Europa past, she doesn’t. If the timeline only is affected post-Europa, she should, as history records Renee going on that mission and it leading to the Federation. Only Q’s change to history, which we don’t see, leads to the darker timeline. The reason, for me, Guinan not remembering Picard is a canonical error lies in the fate of another character central to the season: Agnes Jurati.
In The Star Gazer, we see a new, very sinister Borg Queen in an encounter suit who begins to attack the Federation fleet, seemingly, leading Picard to prepare to ‘blow up the damn ship!’ to stop her. Then Q flips them into his alternate future. But when, after in finale Farewell, Q flips them back in his dying act (don’t ask) to the timeline they have now saved, by helping Renee launch, the Borg Queen is still there and she is revealed to be… Agnes Jurati, the disgraced doctor who across Season 2 is corrupted and morphs with the Queen until in Hide and Seek she convinces the Queen to sail off on the La Sirena into deep 21st century space in order to create a better, more peace-loving Borg. All of this happens in the pre-Europa timeline where Guinan doesn’t remember Picard. None of that changes when the future changes. And Jurati-Queen always existed, as we see when we go back to the climactic moment from the season premiere.
In other words, if the dark future timeline where Times Arrow didn’t happen truly had rippled back to before the Europa mission, and then all of that changed when the timeline was corrected, Jurati-Queen likely would never have existed as everything that happened in 2024 would, technically, have never happened. But it did. Picard, in Farewell returning to an older Guinan who knew she would meet him in 2024, sees she has a picture of his crew mate Cristobal Rios on the wall of her bar with the woman he stayed in 2024 to be with. She claims it’s always been there for 400 years. Which means everything that happened in 2024 always happened and, ergo, that means the Federation future was the one, pre-Europa, that always existed. And so ergo… Guinan in 2024 should have remembered Picard, because she existed in a timeline where Times Arrow always happened.
In terms of Guinan and a point of Star Trek temporal canon that has perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, been ignored, consider this the cat being very much out of the bag. Or maybe in this case, the box.