With forty years history including 31 seasons of television, thirteen film, and innumerable novels & comics, Star Trek can appear intimidating for newcomers.
This article is being written for those interested in the roleplaying game Star Trek Adventures, potentially for those who have friends interesting in playing the game, but who have no idea what “The Star Trek” is.
This article is the second in a series designed to serve as an introduction the setting with intent of making the franchise less daunting. In the first part of this series I discussed the history of the TV show and the universe. The third part deals with inhabitants of the galaxy. Part 4 suggests a few episodes for viewing.
Star Trek takes place in our galaxy, the Milky Way. The galaxy is divided into equal four sections known as Quadrants. As humanity was instrumental in founding the Federation, the galactic meridian goes right through the Sol system. (I.e. because the show is made by humans for humans, Earth is special and important.) To the west of Earth is the Alpha Quadrant, which occupies the southwest slice of the galaxy, while to the right is the Beta Quadrant. The northwest quadrant of the galaxy is the Gamma Quadrant and the Delta Quadrant is to the northeast. The vast majority of events in Star Trek take place in the Alpha and Beta quadrants, which is often simplified on the show as just the Alpha Quadrant.
The galaxy is further divided into sectors, which are large cubicle sections of space, given a name and/or number. Sector 001 is “Earth”. While many sectors have an established name, and there’s a method of calculating coordinates, most sectors are just a mishmash of numbers that are largely irrelevant to enjoying the show or setting.
Space travel is relatively slow in Star Trek, and only a small fraction of the galaxy has been explored, likely as small as 5%. Despite the relatively small galactic area it occupies, travelling from one end of the Federation to the other still takes a number of months.
The galaxy is big, with over 100,000 stars in a 500 light year radius around the Earth; even in the relatively small 2,000 light year diameter sphere of “known space” is full of a mind boggling number of stars numbering in the range millions.
In Star Trek, not all stars have planets, and only a fraction of planets develop life. And most planets with life do not develop intelligent life. Despite this, there is still a myriad of sentient life in the known region of the galaxy (and much of it humanoid for TV budgetary reasons).
Starfleet and the Federation
At the heart of known space is Earth and the United Federation of Planets.
The Federation is an economic and military alliance of numerous member worlds. By the 2370s, it consisted of 150 member worlds spread over 8,000 cubic light years. There’s thousands of affiliated worlds (i.e. protectorates, colonies, and outposts) with almost 1 trillion residents.
The Federation was a representative republic led by a president and Federation Council. Individual planets likely have their own government as well, akin to modern provincial or state governments that handle local affairs.
To join the Federation, a planet must have a single world government (as the entire planet must join and not just half) and the people must be advanced enough to travel faster than light.
The military arm of the Federation is Starfleet, a humanitarian and peacekeeping armada. One of the longstanding principles of Starfleet is that they do not design warships, and build spaceships for exploration and scientific endeavours. While Starfleet is in charge of defending Federation worlds, the principal mission of Starfleet is one of exploration. As the speech goes, they seek out new life and boldly go where no one has gone before.
Starfleet officers are forbidden from interfering with natural cultural development of less advanced worlds who do not possess the technology for interstellar travel. This is the Prime Directive. While a hard rule for Starfleet, this is policy of noninterference in internal affairs and societal development is a philosophy that defines the Federation.
Warp drive is the principal technology of Star Trek, permitting travel faster than light. Without warp drive, it would take years to travel between neighbouring stars. Ships can travel at variable speeds of warp, known as “warp factors”. Warp factors vary from 1 to 10 on an exponential scale, with warp factor 1 being light speed, warp factor 2 being 10x light speed, and warp factor 10 being infinite speed. (After warp 9, factors increase by fractions, such as warp 9.5 or warp 9.9.)
The second iconic technology of Star Trek is transporters. Created shortly after warp technology, transporters allow people to instantly teleport (or “beam”) from specialized pads that break down their body into energy that is transmitted and then reassembled. This allows people to transport instantly from a ship in orbit onto a planet’s surface and back again.
Ships are protected by defensive shields: spherical force fields of energy that are raised around the ship during combat or hazardous situations. Shields stop transporters and most weaponry, but lose power and weaken as they absorb damage. Offensive weapons on Federation starships include phasers, which are your standard science fiction energy weapons, and photon torpedoes, which have little really to do with photons. (Naming conventions of ’60s science fiction at work.)
When the crew of a starship transports onto a planet (aka beams down) they often take a smaller handheld phaser as well as a portable scanning device known as a tricorder. Landing parties typically have communicators to talk with their ship.
Created for television, Star Trek also possesses a lot of budget and plot saving technologies, such as artificial gravity that never fails regardless of how low the ship’s power, and universal translators that conveniently allow people to freely communicate.
Three of the Star Trek television series and all of the movies feature the crew of the starship Enterprise. These shows focus on the adventures of various important crew members, typically the commanding officers of the vessel. As a quasi-naval vessel, members of the crew each have a rank, with the captain at the top of the hierarchy, followed by commanders, lieutenants, ensigns, and then enlisted crew.
The Enterprise was named after the first nuclear aircraft carrier (the U.S.S. Enterprise CVN-65) which was famous in the early ’60s. The original Enterprise of the the ’60s TV show was about as long as its naval namesake, being almost as long as three football fields with roughly two dozen decks. This makes it roughly equal in height to a small skyscraper. The ship increased in size in the later series, growing to 42 decks and being over twice as long.
Despite the shows focusing on a small cast of a half-dozen characters, the Enterprise was crewed by a large number of people. Over 400 people worked on the ship during the first show, while in the second series this increased to 1000. (Which seems like a lot but is significantly fewer than the crew of the real world naval aircraft carrier.)
Despite Star Trek being a science fiction series about spacecraft, the series often has a strong naval aspect to its ship battles. Much like how Star Wars has aerial dogfighting feel to much of its space combat.