When did Star Trek really take place?

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.

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8 thoughts on “When did Star Trek really take place?

    • What really bugs the hell out of me is why they changed it. I guess the late 22nd century wasn’t “late enough” for their purposes. However, they could still have done it and had TNG set earlier in the 24th century. Even if they wanted to move the Eugenics wars and the invention of warp drive to the mid-late 21st century, they could still have had TOS set about 140 years later.

  1. The first time you say “2131” you seem to mean “2231” (fifty-four years before 2285). In the last paragraph you write “2150s” but seem to mean “2050s” (Time of WW3 in FC).

  2. With the retcon, you also have to assume the dailog changes to fit.
    Of course it would cost to much to get guest star, to dub or re-film the scene that needs to be changed. Then you got the time differance. If you retcon something now, you can’t go back to a TOS episode to re-film a scene so it fits. 😉

    They should have spotted the retcon with TWOK, but I guess they missed that one it happens. At least in ST:ID they said Khan was from 300 year ago, still placing him in the 1990’s.

    • Technically, that hadn’t been retconned when they did TWOK. The first time that I know of where they mentioned being in that later part of the 23rd century was in The Voyage Home.

      Kirk: “I’m from what, on your calendar, would be the late twenty-third century.”
      (I just watched that again last night)

      Though, you can assume that was added to the dialog because TNG was getting ready to start. They did a few “pre-TNG” things, like having Okudagrams for the first time for their interfaces in Starfleet Command and on the new Enterprise at the end of the film. Knowing they were going to be setting TNG in the mid-late 24th century and wanting TOS to be about a century earlier, they might have added that to the dialog to finally set a time reference.

      So, with TWOK, they still hadn’t established which part of the twenty-third century they were in.

      Ironically, I’m getting Into Darkness from Netflix tomorrow. I will finally be able to see just how badly JJ frakked things up this time. 😉 By they way, 300 years still wouldn’t be correct for that film, because the Eugenics Wars/WWIII was changed to the 2050s. That was in the movie First Contact. So, it would still be 200 years. (more of JJ not doing all of his homework)

  3. Even ignoring the books by Greg Cox, the Eugenics Wars predate WWIII in Trek history. Also, I find that character comments like “200 years ago” need to be taken with a grain of salt. But the chronology was pretty well established by the late 80s, since TNG was set in a specific year. The Star Trek Chronology gets most things right, though I’d like to see an edition that includes the last years of Voyager, ST: Enterprise, and even the ST: Online franchise, which seems to be the only canon timeline post-Nemesis. The Chronology includes explanations for each entry, and where a choice had to be made the reasoning is made clear. I highly recommend it.

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