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 marks te beginning of a new timeline or universe that continues in the following films, "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "Star Trek Beyond". This timeline (officially called the "Kelvin Timeline" since 2016) supposedly co-exists with the previous Star Trek continuity (the "Prime Universe"), according to Roberto Orci's multiverse concept. At EAS, I refer to the new timeline as Kelvin Timeline in a narrow sense (everything that unfolds because of and only after Nero's incursion) and as Abramsverse in a broad sense (everything from the Trek movies produced by J.J. Abrams, including events that supposedly belong to the Prime Universe). The Abramsverse is meant to be fully canon, just as the Mirror Universe established in 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 of the Star Trek continuity used to be on so far, still that doesn't cast doubt on their canon status.

After my "preview" of how the then upcoming movie "Star Trek (2009)" 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 the Abramsverse movies. The question is if and how continuity is really preserved in the Abramsverse, whether the full canon status is justified and how this can be accomplished.

 

Continuity Issues

The new movies definitely come with a great deal of inconsistencies. In particular, "Star Trek (2009)" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" have more problems than any other Star Trek movie before. Several of the issues 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. Contrived concepts such as the name "Nero" for a delusional Rom(ul)an villain who blames the wrong people for his misery 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 and then 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.

Enterprise shuttlebay in "Star Trek (2009)"
Attack on the Kelvin in "Star Trek (2009)"
Khan in "Star Trek Into Darkness"

Several continuity problems remain in "Star Trek (2009)" and the two other movies 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:

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 everything takes place in the Kelvin Timeline, a parallel universe or timeline, one where everything has taken a different development because of Nero's incursion? Does the Kelvin Timeline have enough time for its differences to unfold? 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? Or are there still different ways to explain it?

 

Theories Until 2016

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. This leads to sometimes unnecessary controversies. The Abrams movies bear still more conflict potential, owing to their parallel universe setting (in-universe) and their purpose to reboot the franchise with a new look & feel (real life). The following are three basic theories how fans can make sense of the new movies, 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 movies.

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 many of 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 the classic Star 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 the possibly most serious issue, why no one bothers to undo the extreme damage that Nero has inflicted, because time travel may not be familiar in this universe or even 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 movies. 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 Kelvin Timeline 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 "Star Trek (2009)" 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 Kelvin Timeline is a new timeline, exactly like the ones created by dozens of previous time travels in Star Trek, and a bit like the quantum universes of TNG: "Parallels" (which is a somewhat different concept, without a need for time travel). Nero, and only 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 "Star Trek (2009)", 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 Uhura too and notably Sulu, who may be gay in this timeline)? 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? Khan? The appearance of the Narada 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 a couple of 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 Abramsverse the way it was originally 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 (so it is technically not the "Kelvin Timeline"). More precisely, 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. For instance, already the Kelvin is a lot bigger than any Starfleet ship of the time should be. Hence, there may be a still earlier point of divergence that is not part of the story of "Star Trek (2009)".

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 does not have 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 movies 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 thereby 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". And all this wouldn't help at all with the Khan issue, unless we assumed that someone or something went back as far as to the 20th century.

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? The people in charge may have thought of this as a good idea, and they came up with theory D in 2016.

Anyway, it is obvious that while theory C may basically work without an exact date for the point of divergence, 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 Until 2016

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 Abrams movies. 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 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 frequently 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 the Abramsverse (see below). But probably never to everyone's pleasure. In 2009 many fans felt like dissing me and other people for our 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. By now 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 effort 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.

 

Official Policy Since 2016

The year 2016 did not only bring us the new movie "Star Trek Beyond" but also a new view of the Abramsverse, or of the Kelvin Timeline as it is officially called from now. Kelvin Timeline is a moniker established by Denise and Mike Okuda in the 2016 edition of the Star Trek Encyclopedia.

D: Partially preserved continuity, Kelvin Timeline extends to the future and to the past The Kelvin Timeline was set off by Nero's incursion at least for the most part. He certainly changed the future from the moment of his attack on the Kelvin. But the theory acknowledges that the past was affected as well in some fashion. It remains unexplained whether Nero's incursion somehow traveled back in time and altered certain aspects of the past, or whether he just wound up in a parallel universe similar to the Mirror Universe that was "slightly different" from the beginning of time.

Theory D appears to be the official explanation since 2016.

Simon Pegg uses the rift that extends to the past as a rationale why Sulu could be gay, which is irrelevant because for all we know he was born after the Kelvin incident. And even if he were older and hence the very same person, this would not preclude that he was gay in TOS. So this is a bit of a straw man attack by Pegg to get across his views. Pegg also mixes up all kinds of existing concepts that so far only made sense as long as they were separate: “traditional” time travel, Mirror Universe, Orci multiverse, second law of thermodynamics. There is a good reason that so far in Star Trek time travel didn't create a parallel universe and that, vice versa, the Mirror Universe did not have anything to do with time travel. Furthermore Pegg's theory, just like the Mirror Universe, is a clear violation of the second law of thermodynamics, unless we postulate that the Kelvin Timeline is dependent on the Prime Timeline. With the previous official position this was an (awkward) option to explain away certain inconsistencies, with Pegg's explanation it is a necessity. Pegg himself writes that he wants the new universe to be a "playground for the new and the progressive", which sounds a bit like a threat that it can have a loose continuity and a playful, often silly nature as the Mirror Universe of DS9.

The concept that things are allowed to be different even before or even without Nero's incursion may explain why the ships are huge in the Kelvin Timeline and it may alleviate the problem of the too many new aliens, just like the related theory C. It may even help a bit with Khan who, for some odd reason might be British in this universe and still have a similar background as the Prime Khan. All this comes at the expense of the overall credibility of the new timeline. It is strange enough that in the Kelvin Timeline Kirk, Spock and the others to serve on a ship named Enterprise and they run into a man named Khan at some time, just like in the Prime Universe. With the additional condition that the universes were separate even before Nero's incursion, it is just too obvious that there must be strange ties that cause some things in the Kelvin Timeline to be the same, defying the second law of thermodynamics. The question is if we want a second Mirror Universe with its inherently derivative nature.

Theory D also begs the question whether "Spock Prime" really comes from the Prime Universe, or rather from the future of the new universe. It would have the following advantages if "Spock Prime" actually came from the future of the Kelvin Timeline (which is apparently not the official position though):

Overall, it seems that the concept of a new universe that predates Nero's incursion was made up to give writers and production designers more leeway for the future and to retroactively justify the continuity errors already made in three movies. Although we may doubt that the lacking likeness of Nimoy-Spock and Nimoy-Spock will ever be explicitly hinted at in canon Trek, the new policy would make it possible, just like in the IDW comics. And regarding canon Trek, we already have a precedent in DS9: "Trials and Tribble-ations", where the different appearance of the TOS Klingons was explicitly mentioned, although until then the clear doctrine was that they were supposed to look just like 24th century Klingons.

There is one more problem with the idea that some effect went back in time and altered the past of the Kelvin Timeline when Nero appeared in the 23rd century. If this were the case, it should have been shown the way it was done in TNG: "Yesterday's Enterprise", when the appearance of the Enterprise-C changed the crew of the Enterprise-D and we could witness this on screen. Likewise, if the massive black hole created at the end of the movie was supposed to have such an effect on the past, it should have been shown or hinted at in some fashion. This leaves the concept of a parallel universe of a similar kind as in "Mirror, Mirror" as the only possibility to maintain theory D.

On a final note about this official theory, the name "Kelvin Timeline" is unfortunate. A "timeline" is a new branch of time created by time travel, as opposed to a parallel universe that may exist since its respective Big Bang, and without the need for time travel. The Star Trek Encyclopedia defines the Kelvin Timeline as a timeline, but the annotations about effects that travel back in time and that reflect the supposed official policy water down this definition. Officially, the Kelvin Timeline is supposed to be a parallel universe (rather than a timeline in a narrow sense) in which the Kelvin (or rather Nero) have a certain role but not the decisive one. So the name is misleading.

 

EAS Policy vs. Official Policy Since 2016

I will not support a new doctrine in which continuity is optional and only applies if the authors need it for a homage or an in-joke. Hence, the policy regarding the continuity issues in the Abramsverse movies may differ from the official position in the future. But the differences are not grave in most regards. Here is a summary of how TPTB and of how I currently look at the Abramsverse: 

Topic Official EAS
Meaning of "Kelvin Timeline" The Kelvin Timeline is the timeline triggered by Nero's appearance in the 23rd century. The past of the timeline is partially changed as well, either because some effect traveled back in time, or because the universe was and is different irrespective of this one incursion. So the Kelvin Timeline may extend from its Big Bang to its far future.


Yet, it is still unknown today (as of August 2016) whether or not the 2016 edition of the Star Trek Encyclopedia will label facts from the three Abrams movies that predate the appearance of the Narada (in a logical sequence) with a bullet.

The Kelvin Timeline is the timeline triggered by Nero's appearance in the 23rd century. There is nothing about Nero's incursion that could cause the past to change. Time's arrow applies. So the Kelvin timeline up to 2233 is identical to that of the Prime Timeline, just as it was the previous official position (at least, Roberto Orci's). This is my assumption unless pre-Kelvin changes should ever be a part of a canon story.
Meaning of "Abramsverse" There is no such thing as the "Abramsverse" but only a "Kelvin Timeline" for everything related to the new timeline or universe. The Abramsverse comprises everything that happens in the three movies produced by J. J. Abrams, no matter at which time or in which universe it takes place.


Well, this caveat may enable me to switch to the official position any time, or to declare the whole Abramsverse a total reboot.

Existence of a parallel universe Quite possibly the Kelvin Timeline is a parallel universe akin to the one established in TOS: "Mirror, Mirror", although any canon evidence is missing. There is no evidence that the events take place in a parallel universe that was different already before Nero showed up. This idea is not precluded but would have to be a part of the story to become acceptable.
Pre-Kelvin timeline issues The timeline prior to Nero's incursion in 2233 is very similar to the one in the Prime Timeline, but there are various differences. For example, starships are huge and have bridge windows. Even Khan may be a different person. This is sufficiently plausible due to the very nature of the Kelvin Timeline, in which many but not necessarily all things are the same ("It's not bug. It's a feature"). The timeline prior to Nero's incursion in 2233 is supposed to be identical to the one in the Prime Timeline because there is no canon indication that it would be allowed to be different. Any difference such as huge starships or Khan's nature is an inconsistency that we may or may not be able to explain away. Resorting to the convenient excuse that some things may be different is not an option.
Future of the Prime Universe Spock Prime has left the 24th century of the Prime Universe for good. Romulus is gone in the Prime Universe, and may be saved in the Kelvin Timeline.


The loophole that "Prime Spock" may come from the future of the new timeline remains unused as it seems. We will know more after the release of the new Star Trek Encyclopedia.

Spock Prime has left the 24th century of the Prime Universe for good. Romulus is gone in the Prime Universe, and may be saved in the Kelvin Timeline.


Once there is a chance to "save" the future of the Prime Universe, in the form of new canon evidence that would cast doubt on the 24th century events in "Star Trek (2009)", I will use it.

 

See Also

Abramsverse Movies

Abramsverse Inconsistencies - continuity issues and nitpicking in the reboot movies

Abramsverse FAQ

 

Credits

Thanks to Boris and Egan for the fruitful discussion on the new official policy!

 


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