The Treks Through Space, and the Confusing Times They Happen

A Look at the Star Trek Universe Timeline

Editor's Note: When we posted this timeline certain assumptions were made about Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. continuity that aligned with what the franchise had shown us. Now, two years later, with the continued release of media in the franchise (such as the second season of Discovery), we've revised this timeline to better represent the current state of Trek.

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; X-Men, Fox Films, a Timeline of). So let's see if we can iron this whole mess out, shall we.

The first issue we have to address when 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?" most Star Trek fans say we should take the technology of TOS at face value (although, as we'll discuss in a bit, that may not be the right attitude to take). For now, let's assume if technology looks newer, there's a reason for it.

Our 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 "canon" 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.
  • PIC era: Although an extension of the TNG era, Star Trek: Picard takes place after the destruction of Romulus (glimpsed in Star Trek 2009), so it's best if we split this out for organizational purposes.

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 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), theoretically, 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 shard from the ENT timeline. We can view it as such:

  • TOS/TAS era
  • MOV era
  • TNG/DS9/VOY 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
  • PIC era

While this timeline is great if you want to be literal about what you see on screen, the second season of Discovery provided us a different, and much more elegant (at least in our opinion) solution. The second season brought Captain Pike (of "the Cage" and "Menagerie") on board as the new captain for the U.S.S. Discovery. During his adventures we saw glimpses of the U.S.S. Enterprise 1701 and it sported tech similar to Discovery, just with a paint job more in line with The Original Series. We even have "flashbacks" to Pike's time back in "The Cage" and we see the classic version of the Enterprise.

What this tells us is that, as far as the official continuity of the show, The Original Series tech is at the same level as Discovery. While it may look goofy now to modern eyes we're supposed to suspend disbelief and just accept that it only looks goofy because it was made in the 1960s. It's now retconned to always be at a nice, strong tech level in line with the era it's in.

Personally, I think this is a fantastic solution. I appreciate the care taken to make a modern version of the classic sets, keeping the basic details, like color and decoration, similar while making everything much more advanced in appearance. The show blends it all together seamlessly in a way that still honors the original context of the classic show. Plus, this also allows us to ignore any weird time travel wars for our timeline, which means the official timeline of the show (with the Kelvin movies included, is:

  • ENT era
  • DSC/TOS/TAS era
  • MOV era
  • TNG/DS9/VOY era
    • Romulans (equipped with Borg tech) travel back in time (after the destruction of Romulus) and blow up the U.S.S. Kelvin, causing a timeline split (the KELVIN era).
  • PIC era

And there we go. Nice, simple, elegant, and not really confusing at all. Thanks, Discovery, you did something really good there.