Dealing with Continuity Issues
of the Abramsverse
General thoughts and the policy at EAS
"Star Trek (2009)" is far from being yet another Star Trek movie. It is not a prequel to or a reissue of The Original Series (TOS) with new actors in familiar roles. It takes place for the most part in a new timeline or universe (the "Abramsverse") that supposedly co-exists with the previous Star Trek continuity (the "Prime Universe") according to Roberto Orci's multiverse concept. As such, "Star Trek (2009)" is meant to be fully canon, just as the Mirror Universe established of TOS: "Mirror, Mirror", the quantum universes of TNG: "Parallels" and the various previous parallel timelines due to time travel incidents. They are all separate from the "Prime Universe" that the focus used to be on so far, still that doesn't cast doubt on their canon status.
After my "preview" of how the upcoming movie could fit into the established continuity and the commentary on Orci's multiverse theory, here is an investigation of how we can essentially deal with the facts and events established in "Star Trek (2009)". The question is if and how continuity is really preserved in the Abramsverse, and whether the full canon status is justified.
The new movie definitely comes with a great deal of inconsistencies, more than any other Star Trek movie before. Several of them are rather unproblematic though, because only the internal consistency of the movie is concerned. "Star Trek (2009)" is certainly not the first Trek installment to have plot holes. For instance, it is extremely unlikely that Nero could defeat a whole fleet of Klingons, capture Spock and the "Red Matter", drop him on Delta Vega and begin to drill on Vulcan in less than one day. Likewise, the bad science surrounding the supernova that Spock attempts to swallow using a black hole may deserve to be condemned. And contrived concepts such as the name "Nero" for a delusional Rom(ul)an villain who blames the wrong people for a disaster are not credible either. But all these problems have no bearing on the new movie's continuity with previous Trek, and much less on its canon status.
Other facts and events in "Star Trek (2009)" are indeed inconsistent with previous installments but they may be simply small enough to be overlooked, such as the new stardate system (now denoting the Earth year), especially bearing in mind that it has never been quite consistent anyway. The permanently blue sky of Vulcan in just this one movie is not a major issue either. Still other facts established in "Star Trek (2009)" may be cringeworthy, such as Delta Vega's location in the vicinity of Vulcan and Cadet Kirk's promotion to captain, but although there are no particular precedents, strange and unlikely things have happened before. Ultimately we may even excuse the absurdly unlikely chain of coincidences that the story is built upon (Kirk meets Spock meets Scotty within a few kilometers on Delta Vega's surface), although it shatters the credibility of the entire Abramsverse as it tries to "imitate" the setting of the Prime Universe. It is rather a doubtful story concept than a continuity issue.
Still, several continuity problems remain in in "Star Trek (2009)" that may be either explained away or have to be ignored or re-interpreted in order not to become hard errors. Here are some exemplary issues:
- Starfleet's ships basically still look like they always did but are now allegedly twice as long (that's eight times the volume!). And in case of the Enterprise exactly every second deck would be "coincidentally" without windows (the real reason being that it was designed to be 366m, and the finished ship was bumped up for some visual effects to 725m).
- The Enterprise is being assembled on the ground, as opposed to everything we have ever seen.
- Budgineering. No other Starfleet ship ever seen from inside has a huge engineering section without recognizable decks and with a maze of water pipes.
- The transporter, phasers and other technology look and sound different than in previous Trek installments; shields are inefficient.
- Already the USS Kelvin that predates Nero's incursion may be far too big with a crew of 800 and its technology is different than we should expect it from a ship of her time.
- The Narada, a monster ship armed to the teeth, is not really credible as a 24th century mining vessel either, at least not without additional non-canon explanations.
- Realistically Pavel Chekov can't be genetically the same person as in the Prime Universe, because the new Pavel is four years older and has to be, otherwise there would be a 13-year-old ensign on the bridge. This is not a big continuity issue per se, but we would want him to be the same person, wouldn't we?
- There are at least a dozen new aliens (probably more like 20) that we have never seen before, neither in the 22nd nor in the 24th century. Actually, every single alien in the movie aside from the Vulcans, Romulans and the Orion has to be classified as a new species. How slim is the chance of seeing them only in "Star Trek (2009)", and hardly any known species besides them?
- In strong contrast to what it would have been in any other Trek series or movie, no one tries, no one even suggests to fix the extreme damage that Nero has done. Everyone accepts their fate.
The question is how far we can explain these and several more differences to the previous 600+ episodes and 10 movies. Is it sufficient to assume that "Star Trek (2009)" takes place in the Abramsverse, a parallel universe or timeline, one where everything has taken a different development after Nero's incursion? Does the Abramsverse have enough time for its differences to unfold? Or are the changes so extreme that we would need to declare the new continuity a total reboot, and effectively non-canon in the scope of the old one?
It is problematic to start with whenever fans discuss possible continuity issues and have different criteria which kind of evidence must and which may be taken into account, which leads to sometimes unnecessary controversies. "Star Trek (2009)" bears still more conflict potential, owing to its nature as a parallel universe setting (in-universe) and as a reboot of the franchise with a new look & feel (real life). The following are three basic theories how fans can make sense of the movie, provided they care at least a bit about Trek's continuity. These theories are either explicitly being discussed in the fan base (with theory A, the total reboot, not requiring much of a discussion though). Or they are only an implicit part of debates on details, which may cause confusion if one side does not know that the other side has a wholly different view of the movie.
A: Total reboot, no continuity with old Trek The Abramsverse is a completely separate entity, without any ties to the old continuity. It is a total reboot just like the one of "Battlestar Galactica", although somewhat less radical because at least the characters are preserved for what it's worth. Everything in the reboot is allowed and even encouraged to look and feel different than in the old continuity. If anything is still the same, it is rather a homage to classic Trek than an indicator that continuity has been preserved.
It is clear that only theory A solves all problems outlined above without exception, because in a total reboot there is no need any longer for anything to look and work like it did in previous Trek series and movies. We may even excuse why no one bothers to undo the damage that Nero has inflicted, because time travel may not be familiar in this universe and because it may be customary to accept a destiny as God-given. The case could be closed.
But a total reboot is not what we are supposed to see in the movie. The time travel of Nero and of old Spock to the 23rd century is an important part of the story for a reason, to tie together the Abramsverse and the Prime Universe. While the mere appearance of Leonard Nimoy as Spock may be rather a homage than evidence that the character is still the very same, the plot of the movie is designed to create the Abramsverse as a spin-off of the familiar Prime Universe and not from scratch; this is backed by Orci's long-winded explanation of the multiverse concept. We may still choose to ignore Orci's intention and focus on what is actually in the movie. But the story of "Star Trek (2009)" would become meaningless under the assumption that the world of Star Trek, and in particular TOS, has never existed before. Because we have no idea what history would have been like without Nero's interference, and it wouldn't matter at all that Nero came from the future and changed a history we never knew. The movie wouldn't work, as it would lose its significance in the eyes of Trek fans. And it would sort of require for anyone who is at least a bit familiar with Star Trek to try to watch it with the eyes of someone who has never seen any Trek before.
Well, we may still decide to ignore the movie as a part of Trek's so far uninterrupted continuity because we want to preserve the old Trek from destruction or from falling into oblivion, or because we simply don't like it. Theory A is the one of choice for all fans who feel that the Abramsverse is no longer their kind of Trek, and I admit it may have been the path I would have chosen if I didn't run this site. But such motivations clearly should have no impact on the evaluation of continuity issues, much less on the canon status that is not up to the fans to decide on anyway.
B: Preserved continuity, Nero changes history in the first place The Abramsverse is a new timeline, just like the ones created by dozens of previous time travels in Star Trek or the quantum universes of TNG: "Parallels". Nero is to blame for the differences to the original timeline; without his interference history would be just as we know it from TOS, or at least very close to it. The options to explain away discontinuities are rather limited though and it is not possible to address the problem that already the USS Kelvin and the Narada, ships of the old timeline, are not as they should be.
Theory B is how we are supposed to understand the movie, while it remains a matter of interpretation whether we believe that the old Trek is still out there according to Orci's multiverse theory, or whether it has ceased to exist as the old timeline in nearly all previous time travel incidents. Anyway, with Nero's interference being the point of divergence we have 25 years for the new timeline to unfold. But is that really enough to explain away the diverging history and the different look and feel of the movie? It is sufficient to explain why Chekov is four years older in this new timeline, although this would mean he is a genetically different person and not at all like "our" Chekov (like possibly some other young crew members such as Uhura too). It certainly wouldn't really mitigate the problem of the many new aliens that appear in Starfleet. And what about oversized and overcrewed ships? Starships being assembled on the ground? The built-in brewery? Seeing that many of these problems already apply to the Kelvin and the Narada the appearance of the latter in the 23rd century can't be the reason for all that.
It looks like the writers and the set and make-up designers went too far with redefining and redesigning the world of Star Trek. If we go with theory B we may decide to overlook that most aliens in the movie are completely new and that in one or two scenes the Enterprise looks huge (a size that is contradicted by the ship's general structure anyway). We may want to imagine that the engineering set looks less like a brewery. It is a matter of choice whether we try to embrace the changes in the movie or gloss over them for the sake of Star Trek's overall consistency. In any case it remains problematic to accept the movie the way it was designed to work. And even if we give the merely technical issues a lower weight than I usually concede to them, there is still the dilemma of explaining why everyone, including old Spock, accepts the new timeline with its disastrous events as if nothing could or nothing should be done to correct it.
C: Preserved continuity, earlier point of divergence The Abramsverse is a new timeline, but the explanation that Nero created it in the first place is not sufficient. The 25 years from the destruction of the Kelvin by a mystery ship to the launch of the Enterprise could not explain the fundamental differences, and most obviously already the Kelvin is a lot bigger than any Starfleet ship of the time should be. There may be a still earlier point of divergence that is not part of the movie though.
Theory C buys us more time to explain away discontinuities with the Prime Universe. It helps us rationalize why the development of the technology has taken a different path, why ships are being built on the ground and why they are much bigger. Compared to theory B it may reduce the amount of visual evidence that we have to overlook or re-interpret. But it doesn't explain why the ship designs still look like they are small and why the Enterprise has not a single window on exactly every second deck (obviously, because it was designed to be half as long). It may work better for those fans who believe only what they see, exactly what they see and everything they see. But theory C wouldn't really help us explain the appearance of the many new alien races. It would only alleviate this issue a bit, because the Federation could have grown more rapidly, depending on how far we predate the point of divergence.
As it is not hinted at in the movie in any fashion, it would be pure conjecture to nail down an exact point of divergence. Some fans surmise it should have been at least another 25 years prior to the Kelvin incident, to justify at least that already the Kelvin is bigger than we would expect from a ship of this time. Other theories link the point of divergence to the time travel in "Star Trek: First Contact", and they go as far as claiming that the complete series Star Trek Enterprise already takes place in the parallel universe that the Narada would enter at the beginning of "Star Trek (2009)". Well, this is contradicted by the continuity of 24th century events that predate "First Contact" with those that follow and just as well by the appearance of the Defiant from the Prime Universe in ENT: "In a Mirror, Darkly" and by Riker's re-enactment of 22nd century events in ENT: "These Are The Voyages". It would better be a still unknown temporal incident that created the Abramsverse in the first place. And preferably one whose effect has already arrived in the 24th century and could rationalize the odd Narada with her odd crew likewise. Perhaps the Abramsverse even exists since the beginning of time, like presumably the Mirror Universe too?
Anyway, it is obvious that while theory C may basically work without an exact date, most fans will explicitly or silently supplement it with their personal conjecture and hence leave the common ground of canon. Even worse, if it is possible to explain away the problems of "Star Trek (2009)" as being the result of an undetermined temporal incursion, probably of one that has never been shown or mentioned before, it opens a can or worms. Because this precedent would be an invitation to explain away any discontinuity in any previous Trek series as being the result of a time travel. I was hoping the times of "fanon vs. canon" debates were finally over.
Theory C is based on the evidence that the Kelvin does not fit into the Prime Universe, but I think it's just as well the vague feeling that the allegedly huge ships of the Abramsverse may make sense if only more time were available to develop them. It helps us only quantitatively compared to B. It does so at the expense of overall coherence of the story. Because as soon as we postulate that Nero doesn't change the universe in the first place but that even without his interference the world of TOS would never come to life, the impact on the story of the movie is the same as with theory A, the total reboot. It would be pointless to watch the lives of the people of TOS being changed, because even without Nero they would have been different than we used to know them. And thinking even further about it, not only Chekov but pretty much everyone would realistically not exist or may be of a different sex. It would be perfectly plausible in this universe if Spock, for instance, were a woman! While it is already unrealistic in theory B that the characters and only the characters are essentially the same while pretty much everything else is different, this would be only aggravated in theory C.
Abramsverse Policy at EAS
I have chosen to stick to theory B at EAS, that "Star Trek (2009)" is still a part of Trek's continuity and hence canon, with Nero's arrival being the one and only point of divergence. It is the middle way, but probably not the path of least resistance. EAS, as a major Trek website, needs to put up with the official policy at least to a certain extent, and theory B is how the film is supposed to work despite all the flaws in the concept and execution. The theory A supporters effectively ignore the new movie as a part of Star Trek, while the theory C camp retcons the whole story for little benefit as I believe. I have decided for myself that accepting the basic premise and tweaking a few other things to make more sense is the lesser evil. Well, and that I may give the Abramsverse a lower weight than the Prime Universe if the two are in conflict. So I may come to considerably different conclusions than other sites such as most importantly Memory Alpha regarding the size of the new Enterprise and other issues. But that is rather the result of a different weighing of facts than of a fundamentally different view of the movie. Memory Alpha is clearly a proponent of the "official" theory B as well, albeit not as explicitly as EAS.
My decision for theory B certainly doesn't mean that I resent anyone with a different interpretation of the Abramsverse. In fact, I admit that without my website I would probably tend towards declaring "Star Trek (2009)" a total reboot because it's not my Trek any longer. And I have just as well respect for fans who really loved it and who attempt to link it better to the old Trek, as I have tried within the old continuity for many years. I wish I could say that I received the same respect from those people who not only criticize me for listing "wrong" sizes of the new ships, but essentially for finding any fault in the movie. The more polite critics at least tell me they presuppose that the Abramsverse predates Nero's arrival (according to what I call theory C), that therefore the ships could be very well huge, and that all my reasons why they should still be small are invalid. While they don't acknowledge that their theory C only alleviates the problem of the size but not of the ship design, as it is only a quantitative "improvement" over B, I can still understand if they decide for themselves that the Enterprise is 725m long based on some visual evidence. As long as they don't insist on their personal criteria, findings and theories being the only truth.
Now that the dust has settled a bit, it is perhaps the time for every side to review their idea of the Abramsverse, and this is why I refine and clarify my own position. I have never expected fellow fans to take everything posted at EAS as gospel. In fact, everyone who knows me is aware that I have very often reconsidered my own views in the past, and I may do it again regarding some things in "Star Trek (2009)". But probably never to everyone's pleasure. In 2009 many fans felt like dissing me and other people for their unpopular takes on "Star Trek (2009)", on message boards and in hate mails. I give them the benefit of the doubt that this happened in the first excitement after the movie was out. Next time we should know better what we are talking about, because we may be comparing apples and oranges. I probably can't expect my opponents to read everything I have to say about the Abramsverse, and they will most likely label my new attempt to bring some order into the chaos of Trek's continuity (well, and of the fandom likewise) as another pathetic attempt to justify a single person's opinion. But the least they should do is acknowledging that their personal take on the movie too is just a possibility, and may not even be the majority opinion outside their cozy message board.
More about the Abramsverse Continuity
Abramsverse Inconsistencies - continuity issues and nitpicking in the reboot movies