When did Star Trek (The Original Series) take place? This is a question that Gene Roddenberry avoided. In fact, they created the Stardate system to avoid answering this. They provided “dates” as a system of nonsensical numbers that told the watcher nothing. But, in a way, they actually did answer it if you watch the right episodes. Specifically, the ones involving time travel.
I was watching Space Seed (one of my top ten episodes) last night and something bothered me. No, not the fact that there was no third world war, aka The Eugenics Wars, in the 1990s. Even though the producers work hard to make it seem as if it does, Star Trek doesn’t necessarily have to take place in our reality. What was bugging me was the frequent statements that Khan and his cronies were asleep for two centuries, or “about two centuries.”
Let’s examine that for a moment. Spock states in the episode’s beginning that the last DY-100 class vessel was launched in the late 1990s. Also, Khan later reveals that he and his band of merry men and women left Earth in the year 1996. Add two hundred years to 1996 and you get 2196. Now, they did at least once say “about” two hundred years. “About” makes it seem that it was near two hundred, but maybe not exactly two hundred. However, according to “canon” information established in the later series, the series ran from 2266 to 2269. Space Seed took place in 2267. Last time I checked, 2267 – 1996 = 271. So, Khan and company were frozen for 271 years, which is a lot longer than “about two hundred years.” Though, this is of course a condition that was stipulated later, which is known as “retroactive continuity,” (where you change the circumstances of your already established continuity at a later date) or retcon for short. “About” indicates that you’re close, but not exact. So, adding the “about,” we can add a bit of leeway, maybe a decade, possibly two. However, that still puts you, at the latest, in the year 2216, assuming it’s closer to 220 years. However, that’s still a far cry from 2267. And, even in The Wrath of Khan, where they established that they were in the 23rd century, they maintained that the Botany Bay left Earth in the year 1996. Again, there was a reference to two hundred years in these lines from Khan:
“These people have sworn to live and die at my command two hundred years before you were born.”
“On Earth, two hundred years ago, I was a prince with power over millions.”
This once again establishes that we’re roughly two centuries after the 1990s. At the beginning of the film, they state that it’s in the 23rd century, which isn’t an issue, given that Space Seed should have been in the late 22nd, early 23rd century and this is fifteen years later. So, even if Khan and his band of misfits were asleep for 220 years, we’re still only up to the year 2231, though “canon” states that the movie took place fifty-four years later. (2285, which isn’t even fifteen years after 2267)
Now, if this was a case of one or two episodes (or an episode and a movie) doing this, this wouldn’t be as big of a deal. As most of us know, continuity in TOS was a mess. However, this is not the only episode to suggest that Star Trek was roughly two hundred years in the future. In the episode Tomorrow is Yesterday, the Enterprise travels back in time to the 1960s. An exact year isn’t given, but we know it’s the late 1960s. This is in the dialog. During the episode, Kirk and Sulu break into an Air Force base and Kirk is captured. He’s later interrogated by a Lieutenant Colonel. Now, Kirk is being a smartass during the entire interrogation. However, at the end, the Colonel says, “I’m going to lock you up for two hundred years.” At that point, Kirk (seemingly earnestly) says, “That ought to be about right.” (those quotes may not be exact, but they’re close enough) How is that “about right?” The last time I checked, 2267 is three centuries later, not two. Two hundred years would get him to the 2160s, which would be closer to the end of the 22nd century than the mid-late 23rd century. This indicates once more that Star Trek actually took place in the later years of the 22nd or early years of the 23rd centuries, not the later part of the 23rd century.
Though, I am happy to say that I’m not the only person whose math puts them there. The book Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise was published in 1987, before the series was retconned to the 2360s by TNG writers. (presumably, with Gene Roddenberry’s approval) In the “History of the Refit” section, the writer states that the Enterprise was launched in the year 2190 and returned to Earth for its refit in the year 2212. That would put the series from the years 2209 to 2212, which fits with the time line of “about two hundred years” after 1996. Specifically, that would put Space Seed in the year 2209 or 2210. Assuming everybody simply rounded down, that’s close enough to two hundred years to simply say “two hundred years.” This also allowed plenty of time for Robert April and Christopher Pike to have commanded the ship before they handed the keys over to James T. Kirk in 2207. Of course, this is not canon information, but the writer can apparently do math better than TNG writers could
So, that answers the question of when the series should have taken place. Late 22nd, early 23rd centuries, the movies in the early 23rd century. I don’t know where in the hell they got the idea to retcon it to the 2260s, 2270s and 2280s, because none of that fits with what was established during the series or movies. Of course, in the year 1996, (ironically) the movie First Contact came out and they retconned the third world war to the 2050s. So, assuming the same leeway for the “about,” Khan and company would have been asleep for “about two hundred years” and arrive in the year 2267. Though, this doesn’t fit with the episode’s dialog.