Friday, 18 December 2020

SF&F Questions: Do the new STAR TREK shows really take place in the Prime Timeline?

Star Trek is one of the most popular and prolific live-action science fiction franchises of all time, spanning some 795 episodes (as of January 2021) across nine distinct television series (with three more in pre-production) and thirteen theatrical movies. Entering production in 1964, the franchise is the work of hundreds of writers, directors and actors. Unsurprisingly, ensuring a consistent, coherent canon and vision for the Star Trek universe that respects its immense backstory whilst also being accessible for new fans has proven extremely difficult.

In particular, there was a significant “break” in production between the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise airing in 2005 and J.J. Abrams’ movie Star Trek being released in 2009, with a new cast replacing the original actors and a new timeline – the Kelvin Timeline – being created for this series of films to take place in. When Star Trek: Discovery began airing in 2017, the creators officially stated that their new series was taking place in the original or “Prime” Timeline. However, very quickly they began making changes in the areas of visual design, continuity and backstory that seemed to contradict this. Even casual viewers who didn’t pay close attention to such things were confused as to where and when the show was taking place. The question is therefore worth asking, do the new Star Trek shows really take place in the Prime Timeline, given the evidence to the contrary?

Left: a Klingon based on the designs used between The Motion Picture (1979) and the conclusion of Star Trek: Enterprise (2005). Right: the Discovery version of what is apparently the exact same species.

Word of God

This is pretty straightforward. Alex Kurtzman is the executive producer of the new wave of Star Trek shows, which includes the in-production Discovery, Picard and Lower Decks (plus their associated Short Trek stand-alone minisodes), as well as the in-pre-production Section 31, Prodigy and Strange New Worlds. He is the effective successor to Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek and showrunner of the original series and the first season of The Next Generation) and Rick Berman (who oversaw all the shows produced between 1987 and 2005). Kurtzman has unequivocally started all of these shows take place in the Prime Timeline, the same timeline that The Original Series, The Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise took place in.

Some evidence backing this up has been shown. Picard was presented as a direct sequel to both The Next Generation and Voyager, featuring characters and actors from both shows and some flashbacks to events in those shows. Discovery used shots from The Original Series in a “story so far” sequence, and featured scenes from a Next Generation episode as a historical recording in its third season. Lower Decks has featured characters from the earlier shows, such as Q, Captain Riker and Counsellor Troi, voiced by the original actors.

So, the official word is simple: the new shows are set in the Prime Timeline. There is, however, significant evidence that disputes this.

The Discovery iteration of the Constitution-class starship is 432.9 meters in length, some 50% larger than the 288.6 meters of the Constitution-class in prior incarnations of Star Trek, despite this supposedly being the exact same ship that appeared in the Original Series.

Contrary Evidence

The amount of contrary evidence is impressive:

The Starfleet of 2256 exhibits significant technological superiority to not just that of 2266, as depicted in The Original Series, but even the 2360s and 70s as presented in TNG, DS9 and Voyager. Most controls involve holographic interfaces, communications are accomplished by holographic projection, and forcefields are rigid, constantly-visible structures. Federation starships of the era are significantly larger and faster than their Original Series counterparts (even ostensibly of the same class, with Discovery's version of the Constitution-class being 50% larger than the TOS version), with far larger rooms. Klingon vessels show extreme variants from their Original Series versions (although designs more faithful to TOS do start appearing in the second season). Federation shuttles now seem capable of high warp speed, unlike their TOS counterparts which required special “warp sleds” to travel at moderate warp velocities. The USS Discovery itself sports a “spore drive” allowing instantaneous travel anywhere in the Milky Way Galaxy, a drive far more advanced than anything seen in previous series where it took (circa Voyager) a year to travel 1% of the diameter of the galaxy.

On a character level it is revealed that Spock has an adopted human sister, Michael Burnham, who has not previously been mentioned in any prior iteration of the franchise despite playing a significant role in events, including sparking a war with the Klingons.

In the most notable difference, the design of the Klingons has been radically changed, with the Klingons now sporting immense curved skulls completely different in shape and size to anything seen before, and most of them are hairless (although there are some attempts in Discovery’s second season to change this, with some shown growing hair). The Klingons show a distinctly different attitude to honour and glory than their previous incarnations.

In another notable difference, the Constitution-class USS Enterprise NCC-1701 which appears in Discovery’s second season and is due to return in Strange New Worlds features significant design differences from both the original starship as it appeared in TOS, TAS and the refitted version from the films, including being half again larger. Confusingly, flashback material to the TOS pilot episode The Cage, which takes place two years before Discovery (and eleven years before the rest of TOS), depicts the original Enterprise, suggesting on a literal level that the starship was heavily modified and increased in size before its appearance in Discovery and will, at some point, be heavily modified back again, which I think we have to assume is not the case.

Supporting In-Show Evidence

In Star Trek: Discovery’s third season, the “Kelvin Timeline” of the three J.J. Abrams-produced movies (Star Trek, Into Darkness and Beyond) is specifically identified as an alternate timeline completely separate from the Prime Timeline which the other shows take place in. This appears to be an attempt by the writers to put the issue to bed. In addition, Discovery’s third season also depicts the planet Vulcan as still being extant but the planet Romulus having been destroyed, whilst in the Kelvin Timeline the status of the two planets has been flipped (Vulcan is destroyed and it is implied that the Romulans, forewarned of the destruction of their world by the Hobus Supernova in the Prime Timeline, will be able to save their world).

It would appear that the combination of in-show evidence and the “word of God” of the showrunners places the new Trek shows firmly in the original Prime Timeline, despite the significant evidence to the contrary.

The Guardian of Forever, one of several entities capable of changing time and history.

A Brief Guide to Time Travel in the Star Trek Universe

This, however, is not necessarily a contradiction. In fact, repeated and well-established precedent in Star Trek has the existence of parallel universes and alternate timelines being a relatively rare phenomenon in that setting. The Original Series introduced the Mirror Universe as an alternate timeline which it was possible to travel to and then back again, an idea revisited in Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. The Next Generation episode Parallels then confirmed the existence of a multitude of parallel universes, formed by branching decisions and alternate events playing out to that in the Prime Timeline. The Kelvin Timeline is yet another parallel universe, believed to have been created by the travelling of a Romulan mining ship into the past (although given that significant changes to the timeline had already occurred by the time of the mining ship’s arrival, such as Federation starships like the USS Kelvin showing differing designs and being much larger than ships in the Prime Timeline, it has been argued that the Romulans and later Ambassador Spock had merely travelled to a pre-existing reality, reached only due to the deployment of red matter).

However, virtually every other episode of Star Trek featuring time travel does not involve a parallel universe or splinter timeline being created. Instead, the Prime Timeline itself is dynamically rewritten to take account of the changes. There are almost too many examples of this to list, but a short number of highlights follows:
  • The Allies failing to win WWII and never achieving interstellar flight capability due to the success of Edith Keeler in keeping the USA out of the Second World War, instead of being killed in a car crash in 1930. When Keeler’s death as reinstated in the timeline, history returned to normal (TOS: The City on the Edge of Forever).
  • When the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-C was removed from the timeline and transported forwards twenty-two years, it dynamically re-shaped history to plunge the Federation into a war with the Klingons which it was losing. When the Enterprise-C returned to its own time, saving a Klingon outpost from Romulan attack and inspiring the signing of a new peace treaty, the timeline dynamically reverted to its prior configuration (TNG: Yesterday’s Enterprise).
  • During an accidental sojourn to the year 2024, the crew of the USS Defiant were inadvertently responsible for the premature death of Gabriel Bell, who was supposed to be killed by police forces, triggering riots which would result in one of the world’s biggest, sweeping social justice reforms. Bell’s premature death caused alterations to the timeline causing the Federation to cease to exist. Captain Sisko impersonated Bell and falsified information to show he had been killed, causing the timeline to return to normal (DS9: Past Tense).
  • Captain Sisko’s death in a warp core overload caused the future history of the Alpha Quadrant to play out extremely differently; fifty years later, his son Jake found a way of reversing the overload and allowing his father to survive. Sisko’s presence caused history to unfold very differently (including apparently the Dominion War, which did not take place in the previous iteration of the Prime Timeline). This is unusual in being a reset or permanent change to the Prime Timeline overwriting the original and being allowed to stand, rather than being reverted (DS9: The Visitor).
  • The Borg launched a massive assault on Earth but were halted when their main ship was destroyed by a Starfleet battle group. At the last moment a secondary Borg vessel travelled back in time to 2063 to halt First Contact between Earth and Vulcan, and call in the Borg of that time to assimilate both worlds. This resulted in the Prime Timeline dynamically shifting to a state where Earth and the entire Federation were overrun by Borg. The USS Enterprise-E travelled back to 2063 and destroyed the Borg incursion, once again resetting the timeline to its former state (Star Trek: First Contact).
  • The USS Voyager, lost in the Delta Quadrant, returned to Earth after twenty-three years. Ten years later, Admiral Janeway, discomforted by many aspects of the long trip home, went back in time and changed history so Voyager returned home after only seven years in the Delta Quadrant, with many more of its crew intact. This change to the timeline was also allowed to stand (Voyager: Endgame).
As these and many more examples show, the usual outcome of time travel in the Star Trek universe is the alteration of the Prime Timeline, not the creation of splinter or divergent timelines.

A deus red machina, yesterday.

A Possible Solution

Therefore, it is possible to create a solution which satisfies both the “Word of God” that the new Trek shows take place in the Prime Timeline whilst also taking accounting of the exceptionally large number of discrepancies that appear to contradict that.

In Star Trek: Discovery we learn that Michael Burnham was adopted as a young girl by Ambassador Sarek of Vulcan and taken to live in his home on that planet. Shortly after arriving, she was nearly killed by a vicious predator that lived in the vicinity and was only saved by the intervention of her own mother, using the time-travelling "red angel" exosuit (Discovery: If Memory Serves). Logically, the timeline would have been adjusted back and forth by these events.

This means that in one version of the timeline, Burnham would have been killed by the predatory animal just a few days after arriving on Vulcan. In this case, Spock would have never thought of her as his adopted sister, it being a regrettable and sad event taking place several decades in the past and not an event he would have any cause to mention to his later comrades (or if he did, only as a trivial anecdote). Burnham’s deletion from the timeline would mean that the Klingon War of 2256 would have likely never taken place, in keeping with previous versions of the Star Trek timeline (in which clashes and lower-key conflicts with the Klingons had been reported prior to TOS but a full-scale war which brought the Federation to its knees was never mentioned). In turn, the war never taking place means that Section 31’s advanced intelligence AI, “Control,” was never prematurely activated and never became an existential threat to either humanity or the galaxy at large.

Similarly, without the outbreak of war, there was no reason for Starfleet to pour resources into the highly dubious and fringe experiments being conducted by Doctors Paul Stamets and Straal, meaning the Spore Drive would never have been invented.

Thus, Burnham living or dying creates a massive shift in the Prime Timeline which explains most of these discrepancies in one go. The butterfly effect would mean apparently completely unrelated events would also take place, resulting in more and more tenuous changes (such as relatively minor design shifts in the Federation’s Constitution-class starship design programme). The changes to the appearance of the Klingons would not be impacted by Burnham’s survival, however, and can only be explained by other, as yet unknown time-travel adjustments to the Prime Timeline.

Fortunately, such other adjustments have clearly taken place. In the 30th and 31st Centuries, humanity and numerous other races engaged in a Temporal Cold War (later heating up into the Temporal Wars) which reached back and forth across centuries and was fought on many fronts. Voyager hinted at such a conflict and Enterprise confirmed it. The war threatened the cohesion of the timeline, and by the early 32nd Century the powers of the Star Trek galaxy have voluntarily destroyed their time travel technology to protect themselves. Constant time travel conflicts and adventures taking place post-Voyager and pre-Discovery could have easily resulted in the rewriting of the Prime Timeline in numerous ways, further explaining discrepancies such as the appearance of the Klingons.

Answer: The new Star Trek shows do take place in the Prime Timeline, but a version which has been rewritten or adjusted by time travel as shown as possible in Star Trek many times before, and these revisions can explain all of the discrepancies seen in the show.

Oh dead, I've gone cross-eyed.

Behind-the-Scenes Concerns

Obviously the real reason for the differences is that the writers and producers of Discovery and its successors wanted to create a new visual aesthetic different to what had come before, and far more spectacular (although also massively and somewhat inexplicably over-designed, but that's what we have to go with). Fans have been somewhat annoyed by this because it contradicts what has come before.

In the early TNG era, it was unclear if the show would respect the visual continuity of The Original Series. In the second episode of the series, The Naked Now, a visual of Captain Kirk's Enterprise appears on a monitor seemingly depicting its appearance during Season 1 of the original show (specifically during the events of The Naked Time) and the movie Enterprise is shown, not the original ship, leading to speculation that TNG was going to pretend that the movie Enterprise was the ship's appearance during the original show rather than its more primitive, original form. TNG also used the movie Klingons rather than the original design. DS9 initially seemed to go the same way, even bringing in specific Klingon characters from TOS now wearing the movie-style makeup (in the DS9 episodes Blood OathThe Sword of Kahless and Once More Unto the Breach, and the Voyager episode Flashback).

However, the producers changed their mind. The TNG episode Relics recreated the original Enterprise bridge on the holodeck, down to the big buttons and 1960s-style colour scheme, and later DS9 episodes such as Trials and Tribbleations depicted the original ship and sets faithfully, with character discussions on the classic, retro stylings of the time period. Enterprise, in its fourth season as recently as 2005, reconfirmed this by reusing the original show's visual design in its episode In a Mirror, Darkly. Both DS9 and Enterprise also acknowledged the visual change in Klingon makeup design and the latter even provided an explanation (not a particularly convincing one, but still).

Thus, when Discovery decided to completely jettison all previous visual continuity in favour of its own designs, it seriously irked fans who felt it was a totally unnecessary complication that could have been easily avoided by, for example, setting the far-more-advanced-looking Discovery a long time after the TNG era, a conclusion that the producers themselves reached by removing the Discovery and its crew to the 32nd Century in the show's third season. Unfortunately this reprieve to the canon is only temporary, with the forthcoming Strange New Worlds likely to cause yet more headaches.

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NL said...

Short answer: yes, they do.

Andy said...

I think we're basically screwed going forward. After viewers accepted, and many loved, a reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, and after the success of JJ Abrams 2009 Star trek, which is a success to the extent that multiple movies were produced, there really is no bottom. Writers and studio executives now think that they can tell stories with continuity as an afterthought, because the product sells regardless. Frankly, I wish I was not such a stickler for continuity and logic in my stories. I would be much happier as a fan if I could treat each new iteration as its own thing, but JJ's Star trek and Star Wars are slapdash abominations to me, and I've seen better characters in fanfiction.

Anonymous said...

This isn't JJ. This is Post-JJ, thank heavens.

Sean said...

Surprised you didn't bring up what, to me, feels like a more significant branching of continuity: several characters from the Original Series are now played by different actors.

Adam Whitehead said...

The actor thing really is something that you cannot avoid/overcome, and is something that's been an issue with the Star Trek franchise since the original show (when Pike was played by different actors in The Cage and the framing story in The Menagerie).