Which Timeline is Star Trek: Discovery In?

Many Trekkers fear Star Trek: Discovery is set in the J.J. Abrams movie universe or is another reboot. We explain why Star Trek has two timelines.

Warning: SPOILERS below for Star Trek: Discovery!


As exciting as the prospect of a new Star Trek series is, Star Trek: Discovery arrives in a nebula of controversy and suspicion among many hardcore Trekkers. The first issue revolves around CBS's decision to make Discovery the flagship show of its streaming service CBS All-Access to entice Trek fans to subscribe. Only the first hour of the series will be aired on CBS for free, with the rest of Discovery available exclusively on CBS All-Access in the United States. This marks Discovery as the first Star Trek series to not be broadcast on free television, and many fans are not happy about having to subscribe to another streaming service just to get a new dose of Trek.

The other issue that has sparked ever since Discovery's trailer first aired is the question of what timeline the series is set in. Discovery's producers - original showrunner Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), who parted ways with the series last year over creative differences, and current executive producers Alex Kurtzman (The Mummy), Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts (Pushing Daisies) - have each insisted Discovery takes place in the Prime Timeline of Star Trek. However, the visuals of Discovery alone lend some doubt to that claim.

Star Trek: Discovery is a prequel series set approximately 10 years before the Original Series' first five year mission of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and the Starship Enterprise. This also places Discovery roughly a century after the Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula)-led Star Trek: Enterprise in the Prime timeline. While Discovery's cool and sleek starship design and blue uniforms do aesthetically meld as continuations of the designs of Star Trek: Enterprise, its visual style and bombastic special effects seem to make it more akin to the J.J. Abrams-produced Star Trek films, which are set in the rebooted Kelvin timeline.

Now, Discovery's slam-bang, Abrams-movie-like visuals may be simply due to modern special effects being leaps and bounds beyond what was possible in the 1960s through the 1990s, as well as a way to meet the heightened expectations of fans more familiar with the most recent trilogy of Star Trek movies. However, the suspicion of many fans is that Star Trek: Discovery doesn't truly adhere to its promise of being part of the Prime timeline.


William Shatner and Chris Pine - Kirk - Star Trek

At first, there was only one Star Trek timeline (besides the Mirror Universe - but that's a whole other story for another time). The Original Series of Star Trek ran for three seasons from 1966-1969, and was later joined by 7 seasons each of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), and a 4 season prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005). All of those series, plus ten feature films (6 about Captain Kirk's original crew and 4 about The Next Generation's crew) comprise what's considered as the Prime timeline of Star Trek, which spans from the 22nd century of Jonathan Archer's voyages to the 24th century. Star Trek: Nemesis, released in 2002 as the final film starring the crew commanded by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), remains to date as the final Star Trek story set in the canon of the 24th century. Everything since has been a prequel or a reboot.

The J.J. Abrams feature film reboot of Star Trek in 2009 introduced what became known as the Kelvin timeline, named for the U.S.S. Kelvin, the starship briefly commanded by George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), the father of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). The Kelvin encountered a Romulan ship commanded by Nero (Eric Bana) that time traveled from the 24th century at the start of the film. When Nero destroyed the Kelvin - and killed the elder Kirk - it changed the timeline as William Shatner's Kirk had grown up with his father. This event created an alternate universe where many things significantly changed - from how Jim Kirk joined Starfleet; to when he becomes Captain of the Enterprise; to when the Enterprise crew encountered the villainous Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) - all became events that happened much sooner and differently than in the Prime timeline.

One of the most significant changes the Kelvin timeline made was the destruction of the planet Vulcan by Nero, which reduced the Vulcan population in the galaxy to less than ten thousand. However, for a time, this ended up including two Spocks: the younger Spock of this time period played by Zachary Quinto and the elderly Spock from the Prime timeline played by Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy's Spock followed Nero back in time to the 23rd century and inadvertently helped create this alternate reality, in which he then resided until Nimoy's death in 2015 resulted in 2016's Star Trek Beyond revealing the older Spock died as well.


Star Trek Into Darkness JJ Abrams Set

As for why J.J. Abrams and his filmmaking team created the alternate Kelvin timeline to begin with, the answers to that can be found in the confusing real world issue of who owns of the rights to Star Trek: Paramount is the wholesale owner of the Star Trek property; Paramount in turn was owned by the Viacom corporation, which also owned CBS. In 2005, Viacom underwent a corporate split: a new Viacom was formed and the ownership of Paramount was transferred to it. The previous entity called Viacom was renamed the CBS Corporation. When this occurred, ownership of the Star Trek feature films made before 2005 was transferred to Paramount but ownership of all of Star Trek's trademarks and intellectual properties now belonged to CBS Corporation.

However, in order to make any new Star Trek movies or television series, Paramount has to license the rights to Star Trek from CBS. This is what happened when J.J. Abrams and his production company, Bad Robot, embarked upon making his Star Trek film; Paramount and Bad Robot licensed the rights to create an alternate Star Trek copyright from CBS, in part to enable Abrams' desire for his film to be about a younger version of Kirk and Spock, which would radically change established canon. Hence, Abrams created the Kelvin timeline, which allows him and his successors like Star Trek Beyond's director Justin Lin to do whatever they pleased with their version of Star Trek, since the results of this creative freedom would not conflict with nor infringe upon the canon established in the Prime timeline. It's worth noting that with the declining box office performance of the Kelvin timeline-set Star Trek films, the Prime timeline solidly remains the more popular version of Star Trek.


What Star Trek: Discovery's Episode Titles Reveal

Updated: May 2019

Star Trek: Discovery was announced in 2015 as a production of CBS Television Studios (which is owned by CBS Corporation) and executive producer Alex Kurtzman's Secret Hideout. In addition, the production cost of Star Trek: Discovery is reportedly financed by Netflix, which paid an exorbitant amount for the rights to distribute Discovery internationally. Variety reports the average episode of Star Trek: Discovery costs upwards of $8 million to produce. REDEF explains that "Netflix is believed to cover more than 100% of the cost of CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Discovery for the exclusive rights to the series in most non-US markets."

By the end of Star Trek: Discovery season 2, the CBS All-Access series has firmly established itself as part of the Prime timeline. Star Trek: Discovery season 2 introduced Spock (Ethan Peck) and delved into his relationship with his adopted sister Michael Burnham. In addition, the Starship Enterprise and Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) were huge fan favorites and Star Trek: Discovery established that Mount's Pike is the same character as the Pike portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter in the unaired Star Trek pilot, "The Cage". Star Trek: Discovery ended season 2 by sending the U.S.S. Discovery and its crew to the future but it also laid out the continuing 23rd century voyages of the Enterprise and Pike's inevitable future where he'll be tragically paralyzed.

In addition, Star Trek: Discovery's worldwide success has secured its place as the flagship series of the franchise's expansion plans, spearheaded by Kurtzman and Veronica Hart, the new head of the Star Trek Global Franchise Group. They'll be launching new Star Trek series including Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard series, a Section 31 spinoff, the starship comedy Lower Decks, an animated series on Nickelodeon, and more. The renewed growth of the Star Trek franchise was made possible by Star Trek: Discovery and should dispel doubt among skeptical Trekkers that Star Trek: Discovery is set in the Prime universe now that it has synched up with the established Prime timeline canon.


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