Star Trek Is Using Time Travel to Fix a Canon Problem — And Set a Brilliant New Precedent
We really are reliving the ‘90s.
When Khan remerges and prepares to unleash his wrath in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he reminds Chekov of his origin in the episode “Space Seed,” saying, “the Enterprise picked up the Botany Bay, lost in space from the year 1996.” And as established in “Space Seed,” according to Spock, “In 1993, a group of these young supermen [Khan and his people] did seize power simultaneously in over forty nations.”
But Strange New Worlds is now asserting that Khan was a little kid in the 2020s, meaning he didn’t rise to power until far later. The episode “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is rewriting a tricky bit of Star Trek backstory, but don’t freak out. This doesn’t really change anything, but it does give Star Trek a new playbook. Spoilers ahead.
The episode’s climax finds La'an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong) — Khan’s 23rd-century descendent — faced with having to prevent a time-traveling Romulan Agent (Adelaide Kane) from killing Khan (Desmond Sivan) as a child and changing the history of the Federation. Without the Eugenics Wars caused by Khan, and the ensuing dark times for Earth, the rebirth of humanity and first contact with the Vulcans in 2063 couldn’t happen. But if Khan left Earth in 1996, how is he still a young boy in a secret Toronto facility in the 2020s?
Strange New Worlds and the Trek time war
The Romulan agent, who’s disgusted as a human named Sarah, has the answer, and it boils down to lots and lots of time travel pushing the rise of Khan back by three decades. In her rant to La’an she says: “So many people have tried to influence these events … delay or stop them … it’s almost as if time itself is pushing back and events reinsert themselves. All of this was supposed to happen back in 1992, and I have been trapped here for 30 years!”
She also mentions entire temporal wars being fought over Khan. The idea of temporal wars raging in the background of Trek has been around for a long time, but was most prominently established in Voyager and Enterprise. In Enterprise, a character named Daniels assists Captain Archer in the 2150s, and suggests there are several factions in temporal wars spanning centuries. In Discovery Season 2, we learned the Federation was in an arms race against the Klingons to develop time travel out of fear of the Klingons changing history. And in Discovery Season 3, it was established that in the 32nd century, time travel is outlawed.
We don’t know what century “Sarah” is from, but the design of the Romulan ship in her photograph is from The Original Series, which suggests she’s from the 23rd century, like La’an and Kirk. Regardless, her statement reveals that it’s not just one time travel incursion that’s delayed the rise of Khan in Earth’s history.
The Picard season 2 explanation
Back in 2022, when Jean-Luc and the gang were hanging out in 2024, Picard showrunner Terry Matalas suggested that it’s possible Spock’s records in “Space Seed” were just incorrect. “We came to the conclusion that in WW3 there were several EMP bursts that kicked everyone back decades,” Matalas said. “Records of that 75-year period, the 90s on were sketchy. Maybe Spock was wrong?”
In “Space Seed,” Spock prefaces everything he says with, “Records of that period are fragmentary,” and admits there’s no record of Khan’s ship, the Botany Bay, at all. So the Matalas explanation didn’t require the timeline to change, but rather for Khan and Spock’s definition of “the nineties” to be inaccurate, which makes sense. How accurately do you know every event of several centuries ago?
Strange New Worlds goes beyond bad recordkeeping and says the various temporal wars from Enterprise and other Treks have created ripples in the Prime. Khan’s takeover now happens later than it used to, problem solved.
Strange New Worlds showrunner explains the timeline
Speaking to CinemaBlend, Strange New Worlds showrunner Akiva Goldsman pointed out this new revision of the Trek timeline was asserted in the very first episode. “By the way, this happened in Season 1, so this is not a Season 2 [issue],” Goldsman said. “We want Star Trek to be an aspirational future ... in order to keep Star Trek in our timeline, we continue to push dates forward. At a certain point, we won’t be able to. But obviously, if you start saying that the Eugenics Wars were in the ’90s, you’re kind of f*cked for aspirational in terms of the real world.”
In the first episode of Strange New Worlds, Pike shows the people of Kiley 279 the events that led Earth to World War III. In his speech, Pike implies the Eugenics Wars was eventually known as World War III, which lampshaded the canon rather than changing it. In TNG’s debut, “Encounter at Farpoint,” we learned parts of Earth were still barbaric in 2079, even though first contact with the Vulcan happened in 2063. But in Picard Season 2, 2024 Los Angeles looks more or less like today. The Trek canon, in other words, has always been flexible with its portrayal of this era.
Real-world explanations aside, when did the TOS timeline start to drift? Back in 2022, Prodigy producer Aaron J. Waltke put it like this: “There’s also the ripples of the Temporal Cold War shifting the Prime Timeline in Enterprise.” So did the Prime Trek timeline start to shift in Enterprise? Or maybe it was in First Contact when the TNG crew helped put history back on track?
If the Star Trek franchise continues beyond the year 2063 in reality, the timeline of the Trek universe will have to be revised again. But now that Khan’s backstory has been moved forward, any future canon inconsistencies could have one explanation: the ripples from time travel. And when you think of how many times the various Trek crews have gone back in time, well, it’s a wonder the canon makes any sense at all.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streams on Paramount+.