It’s fair to say that Star Trek is one of the biggest media franchises in popular culture history – 703 episodes are spread across five series (and that’s not even counting The Animated Series!), buttressed by 13 feature films (including Star Trek Beyond, which releases today).
Given that Trek first debuted on September 8, 1966 and has been running nearly continuously ever since (minus the several-year gaps in production here and there), that’s a considerable period of time to establish a long, convoluted, and heavily-fleshed-out timeline – not just the events of the 729 hours of content themselves, but also in their backstories, some of which reach all the way back to the Big Bang itself (that’s that pesky Q [John de Lancie] for you).
Even worse, given the long life of the franchise, there has been more than a few retcons implemented throughout the decades; when The Original Series’s broadcast run occurred in the late ‘60s, the ‘90s seemed like a long way off, making something as technologically and culturally advanced as the Eugenics Wars seem like it could plausibly occur then. We’re using the updated and revised chronology here, as established in the last several seasons of the various television series (in case all you purists out there were curious).
Now, without further ado, let’s jump into The Complete History of Star Trek, shall we?
(Oh, fine – one last note: if you’re looking for an overview of the creation and production of the Star Trek universe as opposed to an in-world historical summary, check out our in-depth guide.)
15 World War III – 2026-2053
With various factions – such as the Eastern Coalition – dominating the entire planet, it doesn’t take long for war not only to break out, but to quickly escalate into the most costly conflict humanity has seen since World War II, back in the 1930s and ‘40s. After the two-and-a-half-decade war winds down, 600 million people lie dead, and the planet is practically swimming in radiation following a rapid-fire launching of nuclear missiles, causing a practically planet-wide nuclear winter. Nearly all of Earth’s governments have fallen, allowing anarchy to reign supreme, but that doesn’t stop what’s left of them to convene in San Francisco in 2053 to sign an armistice and thereby bring World War III to an end.
Interestingly enough, Earth’s closest interstellar neighbors, the Vulcans – an alien species that was only able to overcome its extremely violent past by abandoning emotions and worshipping logic and reason – were able to detect the radiation emanating from the planet, but opted to leave those savage humans alone and let them figure everything out for themselves. It would make for a bad introduction of humans and color the two peoples’ relations for a while to come.
14 First contact – 2063
Just a short decade after humanity nearly wiped itself out, a drunken and disillusioned engineer, inventor, and pilot named Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) succeeds at long last in constructing the first vessel capable of faster-than-light travel, thanks to a little magical device known as a warp core. Flying the Phoenix – which uses a giant Titan II missile for its body and launches out of a missile silo – into orbit, Cochrane does a quick lap around the solar system, but it’s just enough to once again catch the eye of the Vulcans; the T’Plana-Hath, a survey ship, just happens to be passing by and decides that humanity has evidently hit maturity and, thus, is ready for their first (publicly-known) contact with aliens.
The halting, awkward meeting would eventually be enough to inspire all of humanity to come together, joining into a single world government and pledging itself to leave behind violence and bigotry and instead concentrate on conquering poverty and disease and dedicating itself to that most magical of all human endeavors, exploration.
13 The experimental Enterprise – 2151-2161
The Enterprise, registration NX-01 (“NX” being a designation that signifies an experimental, prototype craft), is launched by Starfleet, which is the exploratory and military arm of the United Earth government. What makes this inaugural Enterprise so special is its engine: it’s the first warp-five-capable vessel, allowing humans to zip all throughout the (local) galaxy at speeds previously undreamt of – which, in turn, makes the NX-01 the first true starship in human history. The warp drive required many years of research, since the Vulcans, who have become Earth’s first alien partners but who still distrust the not-fully-enlightened humans, refused to share their technological superiority. Interestingly enough, it is the many adventures of the Enterprise that ultimately play a big role in helping to change their minds.
Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), a preeminent Starfleet officer, is chosen to captain the ship, in part because his father, the famous warp scientist Henry Archer (Mark Moses), designed the engine-- though he didn’t live long enough to see it in “flight.”
12 The founding of the United Federation of Planets – 2161
A series of interstellar conflicts, most notably the Earth-Romulan War (which lasted from 2156 to 2160), slowly lead a number of civilizations to start working more and more closely together: Humans, Vulcans, Andorians, and Tellerites. This sharing of defensive, technological, and scientific resources and responsibilities spurred the creation of a governmental framework that would officially bind the four worlds (and their numerous colonies) together in the United Federation of Planets. Earth’s Starfleet was recast as the main exploratory and diplomatic force of the Federation, extending to incorporate all the member worlds and placing a huge emphasis on "seeking out new lifeforms and civilizations" and "boldly going where no one has gone before."
After Captain Archer resigns from commanding the NX Enterprise, he takes on various governmental roles for the fledgling Federation, starting as its ambassador to Andoria and ending with his being elected president of the UFP in 2184. After an eight-year tenure, he retires.
11 The timeline diverges – 2233
A rogue Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana), the captain of the Narada, a mining vessel, accidentally travels backwards in time by roughly a century-and-a-half, to the year 2233 (see the entry “Spock and Nero travel backward in time – 2387”). Once there, Nero is undeterred from his quest of attaining vengeance against the Federation for failing to save his homeworld, Romulus, from a supernova star in the year 2387. He attacks the first Starfleet vessel he sees, the USS Kelvin, NCC-0514, resulting in its destruction and the death of its first officer, Lieutenant Commander George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth). This irrevocably changes the life of Kirk’s newborn son, James (Chris Pine), which, in turn, somehow has extraordinary effects on the rest of the Star Trek timeline.
(Note: even before the “Kelvin timeline” starts, there are significant differences between the mainstream and this new offshoot chronology, including the design of the Starfleet uniforms, the construction and design of its vessels, the birthplace of James T. Kirk, and, even, the look and handling of the future starships. In an attempt to explain away all these inconsistencies, some fans have taken to calling the Kelvin timeline a parallel reality instead of simply a divergent chronology. It is the best explanation one can hope to get.)
10 The first (mainstream) USS Enterprise, NCC-1701 – 2245-2285
By the middle of the 23rd century, Starfleet has commissioned a whole new breed of starship, dispatching their crews on five-year missions to comb the cosmos for greater scientific and philosophical understanding of the galaxy – and of themselves. The USS Enterprise, NCC-1701 (Constitution-class), originally starts as just one of dozens of such vessels in the United Federation of Planets’s service, but it slowly distinguishes itself as the premiere ship, thanks to its countless adventures and first-contact situations under several different captains, starting with Robert April (who was assigned a new command upon the completion of the Enterprise’s original mission in 2250) and running through to, arguably, the most famous captain in Starfleet history, James T. Kirk (William Shatner) (who comes aboard the ship in 2265).
After completing five tours of duty, the Enterprise is given a lengthy and exhaustive refit, replacing nearly every screw and bolt and upgrading her to the latest that technology has to offer. Although Kirk is initially promoted to admiral during this time and is transferred to serve at Starfleet Command, he works his way back onto the bridge of the overhauled Enterprise for yet another five-year deployment in 2273.
Although the vessel is finally decommissioned in 2279 and is transformed into a training simulator at Starfleet Academy, Kirk and his legendary crew continue to use it in several further, top-priority missions, until it is finally destroyed during an engagement with the aggressive Klingon Empire in 2285.
9 The alternate timeline: Kirk becomes captain of the USS Enterprise – 2258
The Spock (Leonard Nimoy) from 2387, formerly Captain Kirk’s first officer (and science officer) on the Enterprise and now one of the Federation’s top ambassadors and diplomats, finally arrives in the past, 25 years after Nero (due to the difference in their trajectories into the somehow-time-traveling black hole). When he arrives, Nero is there waiting for him, and the resulting confrontation continues to divert this new alternate timeline/reality from the events of the original chronology.
A young James Kirk takes temporary command of the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701 (which, for some reason, doesn’t have its maiden voyage until just this year), with this timeline’s Spock also serving as his first officer. They attempt to stop the mad Nero from destroying both Vulcan and Earth, the homeplanets of two of the founding Federation races, but they only succeed in preventing the latter’s annihilation. Nero is eventually killed, Kirk is officially made the captain of the Enterprise, and the vessel finally kicks off its five-year mission of exploration.
8 The USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-A – 2286-2293
Honoring James Kirk (who’s been demoted to captain once again, following some rather rebellious moments with Starfleet Command) and his crew’s extraordinary service in saving the galaxy on multiple occasions, the Federation decides to rename the USS Yorktown, NCC-1717, as the Enterprise and, more importantly, keep the same registration but affixed with the letter A – the very first time a ship’s identity was allowed to hop from one vessel to the next, and the singular event that solidifies the spacecraft as Starfleet’s flagship.
Despite the honor, the Enterprise-A is still extremely old (it’s another Constitution-refit class) and Kirk barely gets more than one full five-year tour out of her. By the time 2293 rolls around, she is decommissioned – even though Kirk and his long-serving, extremely loyal crew are hesitant to face the end of their “military” careers and confront some difficulty in embracing their retirement.
Shortly afterward, Captain Kirk is asked to attend the maiden voyage of the Excelsior-refit-class USS Enterprise-B. Although originally envisioned as just a quick jaunt around the solar system, the trip turns deadly when it attempts to rescue a vessel trapped in an unusual rift in the space-time continuum, which, as far as the galaxy is concerned, results in Kirk’s death.
7 Conflicts with the Klingon Empire end – 2293
The Klingons are a warrior people, who attempt to clothe their naked aggression with elaborate ceremonies and codes of honor. When they inadvertently make contact with humans in 2151, it leads to one of their couriers, Klaang (Tommy Lister, Jr.), being shot and nearly killed. Returning him to Qo’nos (pronounced Kronos) becomes the very first mission for Captain Jonathan Archer and the Enterprise NX-01.
Despite the gesture of good will, suspicion and belligerence were the main consequences of Klingons’ first encounter with humans and relations between them and the eventual Federation continue to degrade over the decades, until all-out war is reached in 2245 – and despite that specific conflict’s quick resolution, battles and border skirmishes continue to rage off and on until 2293, when, at long last, the two peoples put their differences aside and sign the Khitomer Accords (an event which is heavily influenced by none other than Captain James Kirk and his first officer, Spock).
6 The USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-D – 2364-2371
Essentially the flagship model of Starfleet’s flagship, the Galaxy-class USS Enterprise-D is exactly what it sounds like: a massive, majestic ship that would host not only Starfleet officers, but all of their families as well, making the ship something close to a floating city in the stars.
The second-most famous crew in Star Trek history, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his officers might have commanded the D for only a fraction of the time that Kirk and company stayed together, but their tenure is nonetheless one of the most important – and consequential – exploratory missions the Federation had ever seen: in addition to countless rescue operations, scientific surveys, and diplomatic tasks, this Enterprise made a host of absolutely critical first contacts, including with the Borg, a cybernetic entity that assimilates all lifeforms it comes into contact with and makes them part of its collective consciousness.
The NCC-1701-D would meet an untimely demise (at the hands of a pair of Klingon renegades, ironically enough), but Starfleet worked quickly to rectify the situation and to keep Picard’s staff (mostly) together.
5 The Cardassian occupation of Bajor ends – 2369
One of the most notorious alien races the Federation encounters is the Cardassians, a people ruled over by a fascist, militarized government that directs them to colonize or occupy as many planets as possible, in order to strip-mine them of all resources. The Federation-Cardassian Wars start in 2347 and stretch on through to the 2350s, with a prolonged armistice-negotiation period ending in the late 2360s. The finalized treaty is formally signed in 2370.
Under increasing stress from the United Federation of Planets – as well as facing continued insurgent strikes from the resident population – the Cardassian Union finally ends its five-decade-long occupation of the once-peaceful planet of Bajor in 2369. Right away, the Bajorans petition to join the Federation, but given that the various resistance cells seem poised to turn their military strikes into a civil war, Starfleet is dispatched to help lend a guiding hand in the creation of a new global, civilian government; once peace and stability are reached, their application will be officially decided upon.
A space station in orbit around Bajor called Terok Nor by the Cardassians – where the uridium ore that was mined on the planet below would be refined by Bajoran slave labor, and where the prefect of the occupation was housed – is taken over by the Federation and renamed Deep Space Nine, thereby honoring the Prime Directive (non-interference in non-Federation worlds) but still being close enough to advise and monitor the situation on the ground. The date when Bajor finally joins the Federation, and when the Starfleet occupancy of DS9 ends, is currently unknown.
4 The USS Voyager is lost in space – 2371-2378
The USS Voyager, NCC-74656, an Intrepid-class starship whose main purpose is scientific exploration and research, is launched on her maiden voyage from Deep Space Nine in 2371 – and then is promptly snatched up by an energy-based, incorporeal entity known only as the Caretaker. The self-avowed caretaker of an alien race, the Ocampa, whom his people had accidentally nearly exterminated some several centuries ago, hopes to find a way to continue protecting the Ocampa after his imminent death. It doesn’t work, the Caretaker passes, and the Voyager is left stranded in the Delta Quadrant, some 70,000 light-years away from the Federation and the Alpha Quadrant.
Over the course of the Voyager’s perilous journey home – during which time Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) decides that they will continue their mandate of scientific inquiry, even on the other side of the galaxy – the ship and her crew encounter several hostile alien races. None of these, however, match the menace of the Borg, whose home region of space just so happens to lie in between the vessel and its home.
But it is precisely the Borg, ironically enough, that allows the crew to get home several decades early: by utilizing one of their transwarp hubs (how the Borg’s craft can quickly traverse space and thus sporadically invade Earth), the Voyager is able to close the gap to her homeplanet in a heartbeat.
3 The USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-E – 2372-date unknown
A Sovereign-class starship, the most advanced in Starfleet’s history (though nowhere near as big as the Galaxy class), starts construction well before the destruction of the Enterprise-D. Once that incident occurs, however, this unknown vessel has its name switched to the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-E, the next flagship in Starfleet – and the second to be captained by Jean-Luc Picard, alongwith, though not all, of his crew (Lieutenant Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) was transferred over to Deep Space Nine in the interim).
The vessel would remain under Picard’s command until at least 2379, when even more of his original crew finally get transferred to other posts (or, even, to ships of their own). It is generally believed in the Star Trek canon that Jean-Luc gets “promoted” to the role of ambassador – as happened to many of the original Enterprise’s crew – and the Enterprise-E continues its mission for many years afterwards under the commands of different captains, as was the case for the first four flagships.
2 The Dominion War – 2373-2375
A stable wormhole, an incredibly rare find, is immediately discovered by Starfleet in the Bajoran sector upon their taking command of Deep Space Nine. Thus, a new chapter of exploration begins all the way on the other side of the galaxy, in the Gamma Quadrant, where the wormhole opens up in.
The excitement of this major discovery, however, is short-lived; just one year later, the Dominion is encountered for the first time, the only other power in the galaxy that can rival the Federation in terms of either pure size or strength. Headed by a triumvirate of races – Shapeshifters that have been persecuted and chased throughout space, along with their genetically-engineered diplomatic emissaries (the Vorta) and foot soldiers (the Jem’Hadar) – the Dominion attempts to crush the Federation and force all of its 150-odd member worlds to join the Changelings’ “order” (once the Federation is conquered, the Dominion assumes, all the other superpowers in the region will fall like dominoes). Starfleet, of course, has a different idea, and the most intense and costly war in the Star Trek timeline is fought for two cataclysmic years, a time that saw changing allegiances on both sides of the war (the Klingons temporarily turn against their Federation allies, while the Cardassians, who have been devastated internally by political revolution and externally on the battlefield, voluntarily join the Dominion).
After hundreds of millions, if not billions, lie dead, a truce is finally signed, with the Dominion agreeing to stay on its side of the wormhole forevermore.
1 Spock and Nero travel backward in time – 2387
Ambassador Spock arrives at Romulus in an attempt to save the planet from a star that was in the process of going supernova. He fails to act quickly enough to save the Romulan people, but he does manage to carry out his mission of creating a black hole to gobble up the supernova (since it was in danger of also destroying other inhabited worlds). Nero, the captain of a Romulan mining vessel, attempts to exact his vengeance against Spock – having lost his wife and unborn child in Romulus’s annihilation – and the two ships accidentally get sucked up into the black hole, which somehow has the effect of throwing them backwards some 150 years in time (see the entry “The timeline diverges – 2233”).
Did we miss a salient point of the Star Trek timeline(s)? Is there an event that you want to know more about? Where do you think the new Star Trek series should take place? Sound off in the comments.