Welcome to the first Star Trek 101 article.
With forty years history including 31 seasons of television, thirteen film, and innumerable novels and comics, Star Trek can appear intimidating for newcomers.
This article is the first in a series designed to introduce people to the franchise and its in-world history, with intent of making the setting less daunting.
(Or as less daunting as several full pages of text can be…)
Specifically, this is being written for those interested in the roleplaying game Star Trek Adventures, potentially for those interested in running the game for or with friends, who may be less Trek-savvy.
This introduction to Star Trek continues with Part 2, which introduces the galaxy, and the third part deals with inhabitants of the galaxy. Part 4 suggests a few episodes for viewing.
The Real World History of Star Trek
Loosely paraphrasing Futurama, Star Trek can be summarised as “a 1966 TV show; three seasons; 79 episodes, about 30 good ones.”
Star Trek began as as a television show on NBC with limited popularity and poor rating; the series struggled to survive its three seasons. It was cancelled repeatedly, with multiple fan write-in campaigns managing to sustain the show for its second and third seasons. In 1969, the show was finally cancelled, and Star Trek seemingly ended forever.
However, the continued popularity of the show in syndication and constant pressure for a revival from the fanbase prompted Star Trek to be renewed in 1973… as a cartoon. Star Trek the Animated Series lasted two season (22 episodes) before that show too was cancelled. Meanwhile, the fans continued to ask for a new live action TV show.
In the late ’70s, a third series was planned (Star Trek: Phase II) but before the show could begin filming, a little low-budget film known as Star Wars became a surprise hit and Paramount decided to pre-cancel the new TV show in favour of Star Trek the Motion Picture. The movie came out in 1979 and was moderately successful, but its profits fell short of studio expectations (i.e. Star Wars) and it was not well reviewed by fans and critics alike.
Despite so far having released a partially successful film based on two failed TV shows, it was decided to make a second film, albeit with a much lower budget. This was 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The success of this film led to four subsequent movies and a new television series, 1987’s Star Trek the Next Generation. This new series was set 100 years after the original series. The Next Generation did well enough that three spin-offs were produced: Deep Space Nine in 1993, Voyager in 1995, and the prequel series Enterprise in 2001. Following the sixth film featuring the original cast, four movies based on The Next Generation were also released between 1994 and 2002.
The new movies were only moderately successful and ended after the fourth film with the Next Generation cast. While the first three of the relaunched series were popular enough to end on their own terms, Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled in 2005. Star Trek would not return to television until Star Trek Discovery in 2017.
Meanwhile, Star Trek returned to theaters in 2009 with a movie simply titled Star Trek, which rebooted the series and recast the original characters. This film was followed by Into Darkness in 2013 and Beyond in 2016.
The In-Universe History of Star Trek
(For a more detailed history, click here and here)
The first Star Trek TV series takes place in the 23rd century, beginning in the year 2265 (roughly 300 years in the future). The Next Generation advanced the timeline by a century, being set in 2366. Meanwhile, Star Trek Enterprise was set in 2151, over a century prior to The Original Series.
Sometime in the future, there is a Third World War against genetically engineered humans, which is also known as the “Eugenics Wars”. The Original Series placed this conflict in the then future 1990s, while The Next Generation moved this to middle of the 21st century. Following the war, in 2063 a scientist named Zefram Cochrane turns a nuclear missile into a spaceship capable of warp speed, allowing it to travel faster than light. This flight attracted the attention of an alien species who initiates humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrials.
Following First Contact Day, humanity slowly begins a campaign of self improvement with the help of their new alien allies, managing to end war, hunger, and poverty. Slowly, humans begin exploring their neighbouring starsystems, coming into contact with numerous alien people. Earth’s first interstellar exploratory vessel was the Enterprise commanded by Captain Jonathan Archer, which launched in 2151. (As seen in the prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise.)
In 2156, humanity became embroiled in its first interstellar war: the Earth-Romulan War. Despite the Romulans having a larger empire and more advanced technology, humanity managed to claim victory, in part because of assistance from allied worlds: the Andorians, Tellarites, and Vulcans. In 2161, these four species formalized their alliance, founding the United Federation of Planets.
In the decades and centuries following its founding, the Federation has grown, adding new colonies and species to its ranks. While the Federation has found no shortage of enemies in space, it has continued its mission of peaceful exploration, often turning enemies into allies.
Eugenics Wars and World War III are not the same thing. The Eugenics Wars were in the 1990s; World War III will be in the middle of the 21st Century.
WWIII is reputedly 2026-2053 while the Eugenics Wars are the 1990s. But TNG moved the Eugenics Wars a little later (because by 1987 it was obvious the war wasn’t going to happen). As such, in later series, the two were used interchangeably. Even in The Space Seed Spock refers to the Eugenic Wars as the “last of your world wars”.