The Star Trek universe’s timeline has never been a simple or even logical thing, but the new Star Trek: Discovery could make it even wonkier than before — or just split off and start a whole new continuity.
CBS’s new Trek series will ostensibly be set in the original “prime” canon, the same one that all of the original TV series and movies inhabit. But, it will still have a hard time not creating continuity issues within the massive amount of Star Trek lore. Discovery could — perhaps accidentally — create a subtle alternate universe, closer to the “prime” universe, distinct from the Kelvin universe, but still new. The reason why is that there are already numerous Trek universes overlapping in plain sight.
We know Discovery will take place about ten years before the original series and that the plot of the show will be related to events of galactic proportions. It could mean Romulans or it could mean Klingons. The costumes on Discovery will be “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” Everything about this Star Trek will be different, yet familiar. And yet, Discovery might need to contradict established events simply for the sake of aesthetics and narrative stakes, and that’s fine, mainly because Star Trek lets this minor canon fiddling happen all the time.
The 2009 Star Trek film began in the year 2233 and depicted the USS Kelvin falling under attack from time-traveling Romulans from the 2380s. It’s important to remember something here: The USS Kelvin is supposed to exist in the prime universe, with everything diverging after this event. And yet, from everything we knew about the old Trek canon, the starship Kelvin has some anachronisms. The uniforms sport the iconic “delta” shield, which was unique to Kirk’s Enterprise in the 2260s and not used for all of Starfleet until way after that. The flip-style communicators seem on par with those from the 2260s, plus the crew seems aware of the Romulans, but they shouldn’t be. Right here, before the timeline “diverges,” we’re already in a slightly different timeline anyway. For fun, we can call this the Pre-K timeline.
Consider this: Had Nero not shown up, this already different Pre-K timeline would have proceeded fairly close to the “old” Trek universe but with some notable differences: The tech would look better, Kirk would look like Chris Pine, Chekov would be born way earlier than he was in the regular continuity, Captain Pike would have a totally different personality, et al. The point is that Nero didn’t cause Jim Kirk to have blue eyes instead of brown or for Chekov to be a totally different age. It was a slightly alternate dimension before the temporal incursion.
This is okay. DC comics has multiple “Earths,” so why can’t Star Trek have multiple Enterprises? And if you want to get super real, you could argue that Star Trek has already subtly given us slightly alternate dimensions before. In The Wrath of Khan, Khan sports a necklace fashioned out of a Starfleet belt buckle. The only problem is that belt buckle didn’t exist until 2280 or so and Khan was stranded in the 2260s. How did he get it? Easy, that was an alternate dimension, too, which also explains how Khan remembered Chekov even though he wasn’t on the ship in the original episode.
You can keep doing this if you want, even within the original series. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Sulu is the ship’s physicist for crying out loud. Clearly, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is a slightly alternate dimension, too. Sure, we can do all sorts of mental gymnastics to explain why Sulu switched careers for no reason, or to figure out how Khan got on Etsy and purchased an updated Starfleet necklace, but the notion of a slightly parallel dimension actually makes way more sense.
So, when Discovery debuts in spring 2017, and certain details contradict the established Star Trek timeline, console yourself with this: Trek has presented all sorts of alternate dimensions before, and you didn’t even notice.