The Treks Through Space, and the Confusing Times They Happen

A Look at the Star Trek Universe Timeline

I thought about posting this to the end of my Discovery article, but that was already long enough and I couldn't find a way to organically add this on...

Star Trek 2009

In discussions with friends, the question has come up as to when, exactly, Discovery takes place in the Star Trek timeline. It's a really nerdy discussion to have, and your average viewer of movies and TV probably doesn't care at all. However, I'm clearly not your average consumer of media and having long, intricate discussions of timelines is right up my alley (See Also: Timeline, Terminator Series, an Analysis of). So let's see if we can iron this whole mess out, shall we.

The first issue we have to address with trying to determine an exact timeline for the Star Trek series is whether we take the technology shown in the series at face value or we qualify it based on the time period the show was filmed in. This is a big issue when we have anything set before The Original Series (TOS), such as Discovery (DSC) or Enterprise (ENT) -- those shows clearly have better technology but they take place decades or more before. How to reconcile that? While I'd probably lean towards "fuck it, TOS was from the 60s so who cares if newer shit looks better?" However, most Star Trek fans say we should take the technology of TOS at face value, so for the sake of this discussion lets do just that.

Our next solution will be to take time travel into account, but before we let the timeline get crazy screwed up, let's first establish our baseline "cannon" wherein technology seems to move at a natural pace:

  • TOS/TAS era: The Original Series and The Animated Series (the later of which isn't really in official continuity, at the request of Gene Roddenberry, but otherwise doesn't really conflict with our discussion here, and I like including it)
  • MOV era: The original series of movies, starting with The Motion Picture and ending with The Undiscovered Country
  • TNG/DS9/VOY era: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, all of which take place in the same time period, with one spinning-off to the next, and the next. This also includes the Next Generation movies, from Generations to Nemesis

So far, so good. Although there are a number of episodes (City on the Edge of Forever, Yesterday's Enterprise) and movies (The Voyage Home, Generations) that have time-travel baked into their plots, none of them cause great distortions to the timeline that would cause us to have to reevaluate anything we see in the TOS/TAS era. We'll even forgive First Contact despite the fact it goes back in time and mucks about in actual Federation history as that movie is about fixing what the Borg changed, and the Enterprise-E crew would appear to have reset the timeline back to where it was before by the end of the film.

Where things get complicated is with Enterprise (ENT). Here, the series takes place 100 years before TOS but everything is slicker and more technologically advanced (at least as far as what we literally see on screen -- the show goes out of its way to hint at us that the ship is technologically inferior to anything we're used to from Trek but that doesn't always show on screen). Although it would have been hard for us to reconcile the technology dissonance between ENT and TOS, the show actually has its own solution baked in: The Time War.

See, hundreds of years after the TNG/DS9/VOY era there's a Time War (okay, a "Temporal Cold War", but Time War is easier to write). It's implied that this future war is affecting history back along the timeline as various battles are fought and key moments in history are changed. Thus, things look newer in ENT because, quite literally, history has changed.

This solution is great for this discussion (although, to be honest, is sucked as it aired in ENT, as it gives us an easy out for all these issues we see on screen: everything that came out from the TOS and TNG eras happens on one timeline. After that, ENT, and then DSC (90 years later) takes place in a new timeline.

As a bonus this also helps us explain why the technology seen in the Star Trek 2009 reboot and it's Kelvin-based sequels have better technology, too (to the point that fans joked the Enterprise looked like an Apple Store): The Kelvin split off is actually a timeline splitting from the ENT timeline. We can view it as such:

  • TOS era
  • MOV era
  • TNG era
  • Future Time War causes split
    • ENT era
    • DSC era
    • Romulans from this timeline's TNG era, equipped with Borg tech, travel back and blow up the U.S.S. Kelvin, causing timeline split
      • Kelvin era

Now, some would argue that the Spock we see in the Kelvin reboot movies clearly is the Spock from the TOS era. And maybe that's true. We've seen instances in Star Trek where two different time travelers, leaving at different times, end up at the same events back in history, only to find that that time has already changed around them. It's not hard, using Star Trek logic, to imagine Spock (and the Romulans) travelling back from the Prime (TOS) timeline and ending up two time-splits apart from where he started.

So our big takeaways: Well, for one, ENT saved us from having to really think about the technological improvements Star Trek goes through by grace of newer media filming with better technology available. And, two, time travel in Star Trek is really stupidly handled.