With Star Trek: Discovery coming to CBS at warp speed, casual fans might be confused as to where it takes place in the expansive canon. The short answer is: the future, but then again, the majority of Star Trek happens in the future. And that future-history can be a little daunting for the uninitiated. Because the Trek franchise started predicting the future in 1966, there were bound to be some anachronisms and divergent paths from our own history.
With that in mind, here is a brief guide to the fictional history of Star Trek’s future, which naturally, starts firmly in our own past. The following is by no means a comprehensive timeline, but the largest, most important events are included. If you’re wondering whether Khan came before Captain Picard or how close Burnham’s new adventures on Discovery are to the J.J. Abrams movies, all your Trekkie chronology answers are below.
Thanks to nearly immortal beings and tons of time-travel, Star Trek people are hanging out on Earth even before the 20th century. The android Mr. Data was briefly chilling with Guinan in 1893. They also got to meet Mark Twain, who quickly learned all about the future. (Star Trek: The Next Generation; “Time’s Arrow.”)
By saving the life of a charismatic social worker in the year 1930, a time-traveling Bones (from 2264) briefly creates an alternate dimension where the United States is swept by a huge pacifist movement which allows the Nazis to win WWII. Kirk and Spock time-travel after him, and correct history. This means the super-nice social worker — Edith Keeler — has to get hit by a truck. To make things worse, Kirk was in love with her, mostly because she was played by Joan Collins. (Star Trek: The Original Series; “City on the Edge of Forever”)
Alien Nazis invade New York City, but are stopped by Captain Archer’s Enterprise, visiting from 22nd Century. A mobster (Steve Schirripa) who is played by Bobby on The Sopranos helps out, too. (Star Trek: Enterprise; “Storm Front”)
Kirk’s Enterprise travels to the ‘60s twice. The first time is in 1966 where they accidentally abduct a fighter pilot. And the second time, they are there on purpose, but end-up pissing off another time-traveler named Gary Seven who is basically like the Star Trek version of the Doctor from Doctor Who. In this versions of the ‘60s, America is about to create an “orbital nuclear weapons platform.” Naturally, because of Kirk, Spock and Gary Seven, it doesn’t happen. (Star Trek: The Original Series, “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” and “Assignment: Earth.”)
Two humpbacked whales named George and Gracie are beamed-up by Admiral Kirk in a stolen Klingon ship, previously parked in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. He and his crew of renegade Starfleet buddies take the whales back to the future of 2286 to talk to a giant alien probe. (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home)
There’s a huge world-wide conflict sometimes called WWIII and sometimes called “The Eugenics Wars.” This is where Khan comes from. Obviously, because there wasn’t a real Eugenics War in the ‘90s, Star Trek novelist Greg Cox has tried to retcon this big war as being a “secret war.” At this point, space technology is good enough that we’ve got spaceships capable of interstellar flight in which the crew is put in suspended animation. (*Star Trek: The Original Series; “Space Seed”)
Income inequality gets so bad that huge swaths of the homeless populations of America are imprisoned in terrifying ghettos euphemistically called “Sanctuary Districts.” Sisko, Bashir and Dax all accidentally time-travel to this period where Sisko is forced to impersonate a civil rights leader to put history back on track. (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; “Past Tense”)
A global war annihilates over half the Earth’s population. With everything in shambles, a guy named Zefram Cochrane manages to build a space ship that can go faster-than-light. He modifies a military missile to do it. On April 5th, after going “warp speed” for the first time, Vulcans land on Earth and start helping the human race get back on its feet. (Star Trek: First Contact)
After having the Vulcans boss around humans for almost a century, Earth’s space-faring organization — Starfleet — gets off its ass. The “first” starship named Enterprise (NX-01) heads out into space on a mercy mission for the Klingons. This era is where the vast majority of where the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise happens. Weirdly, when the J.J. Abrams movies created a divergent canon, literally everything in this era remains intact. (Star Trek: Enterprise)
A murky time in Star Trek history. Presumably, James T. Kirk’s dad, George Kirk, is running around at this time on the USS Kelvin. In one alternate reality, the Kelvin is destroyed by a Romulan ship from the future. That timeline creates the divergent reality of all three of the “Abramsverse” movies. (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Trek Beyond)
Because the new show will take place “Ten years before Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise,” Star Trek: Discovery will almost certainly happen exclusively in this decade. Apparently, Starfleet officer Michael Burnham will do something that “changes the galaxy,” in the pilot of this show. And, if all the old canon matches up with this, the Enterprise is actually already on active duty at this point. The original series establishes that Spock served on the Enterprise with Captain Pike in 2254. (Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: The Original Series; “The Cage,” and “The Menagerie.”)
This is the origin of most of Star Trek. Other than time-travel, all of the original series takes place here. Supposedly, Kirk takes command of the Enterprise sometime in 2264, around the time his best friend Gary turns into a telekinetic wacko in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” (Star Trek: The Original Series.)
All six of the original series movies take place in this span of twenty years. Fun fact, in between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan OVER TEN YEARS PASS. Really! The Wrath takes places in 2284. This is why Kirk is complaining about being over the hill in The Wrath: he totally is. Also, by the end of the 2290s, the Federation is at peace with the Klingon Empire and Kirk is dead.( Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and the first 20 minutes of Star Trek: Generations.)
This is the beginning of the heyday of the 24th century, and where almost all of Star Trek: The Next Generation takes place. The idea here was to have Picard and the adventures of the new Enterprise happen exactly 100 years after the original show. To be clear, by this point, there have two other Enterprises in between Kirk’s final Enterprise and Picard’s first one.
Arguably, the 2370s is the most densely packed of all of Star Trek. All The Next Generation movies — Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, and Nemesis — happen in this decade, not to mention nearly the entirety of the two TV series Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Big historical events all happen during this decade. The Federation has giant war with the Dominion from 2373-2375. Then, in 2278 USS Voyager returns home after being stranded in the Delta Quadrant for seven years. And, Captain Picard battles his clone (played by Tom Hardy) in the last TNG movie, Star Trek: Nemesis in the year 2379. Right now, this is the furthest point in the future Star Trek has taken us in terms of a regular setting, featuring regular characters.
In the J.J. Abrams Star Trek, this is the future-year Spock tries to prevent the planet Romulas from being destroyed by a supernova. Yeah, Spock is mad-old. Other than a few glimpses into the future thanks to a few time-travelers from the 29th or 31st Centuries, no offical in-canon Star Trek thing has actually gone past this point.
Will Star Trek ever return to its own future? As of now, with Discovery taking place firmly in the 2250s, the answer seems to be no. But, because this is Star Trek, anything is still possible.