Movies & TV

Star Trek: Picard finally cleans up the franchise’s messy timelines

We’re just a few episodes into the debut season of Star Trek: Picard, and Patrick Stewart’s return as former USS Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard has already proven to be a success. Not only has the CBS All Access series managed to channel what made Stewart’s portrayal of Picard so popular, but it’s added to his legacy in a compelling way. The series draws Picard into a galaxy-spanning adventure that plays to his strengths as a character, as well as to Star Trek’s knack for exploring complicated sociopolitical issues through its unique lens.

Thankfully, the new series also goes a long way toward clarifying a wholly different element of the Star Trek saga: Its convoluted timeline.

For those unaware, the Star Trek franchise currently encompasses two different sets of characters sharing the same names (and in some cases, experiences), but existing in multiple, alternate timelines. It might sound confusing, but Picard has thankfully taken on the duty of clearing up some of the more perplexing elements.

In order to explain where Picard fits into the Star Trek timeline lexicon, it’s necessary to take a good look at each of the two universes in detail.

Prime time

The first timeline — dubbed the “Prime” timeline — feature’s William Shatner’s version of James T. Kirk and the rest of the original Star Trek series’ cast of characters exploring the universe through the events of the original series and the first six movies of the franchise. This is the initial, best-known timeline that started it all.

Also included in the Prime timeline are the events of the shows set after the original series, such as Star Trek: The Next GenerationStar Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager, as well as the movies based on those characters, including Star Trek Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection, and Star Trek: Nemesis

Finally, Star Trek: Picard is also part of that Prime timeline, and unfolds 20 years after the events of Nemesis.

It’s a simple, and well-ordered universe. At least it was, until J.J. Abrams’ 2009 soft reboot of the franchise, simply called Star Trek, effectively split the saga into the two parallel timelines we have now.

Kelvin time

In Abrams’ Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy’s Spock attempts to stop the Romulan home world’s sun from going supernova, but his plan backfires, sending him and Romulan captain Nero (Eric Bana) back in time more than 100 years.

Upon arriving in the distant past, Nero attacks the USS Kelvin and puts into motion a new set of events that bring a young James Kirk (Chris Pine) to the USS Enterprise, along with a young Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the original series’ protagonists, in a different way than in the Prime timeline.

So, although Nimoy’s version of Spock begins that particular story in the Prime timeline, he ends up creating a new “Kelvin” timeline through his actions, changing the dynamic between the franchise’s key characters in multiple ways.

These characters would go on to encounter some enemies and allies familiar to the Prime timeline in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness and 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, establishing the Kelvin timeline as a similar but different spin on Star Trek’s continuity.

Big questions

With Paramount Pictures, Star Trek’s film studio, focusing on the success of its new, younger franchise in the Kelvin timeline, fans of the Prime timeline’s cast and characters weren’t given any new projects for years — leading many to wonder exactly what became of the original Kirk, Picard, and the rest of that timeline’s inhabitants.

Naturally, this led to more than a few mysteries among the franchise’s faithful scholars.

Star Trek: Original Series

For example, did the original series’ characters cease to exist after Spock and Nero traveled back in time and put the Kelvin timeline in motion? Or (perhaps) worse, did the Romulan supernova still happen and destroy the universe Spock left behind?

Thanks to Picard, we finally have answers to those questions.

Mystery-solving engaged

In a surprising — and smart — move, the first episode of Picard makes the events of 2009’s Star Trek an important plot point in the show’s central narrative. Over the course of the episode, we learn that Jean-Luc Picard was not only aware of the Romulan sun’s impending supernova event, but that he led a massive effort to evacuate Romulans from their home planet.

By acknowledging the supernova and the threat it posed, the new series simultaneously established both the Kelvin timeline and the continuation of the Prime timeline (and all of its popular characters and stories) in one deft bit of exposition.

That’s no simple feat, and given how easy (and at this point, expected) it would have been to ignore the events of Abrams’ Star Trek and the Kelvin timeline, you have to give the Picard team some credit: They pulled off a bit of narrative trickery likely to make fans of both timelines happy.

There are plenty of episodes left in the inaugural season of Picard, but at the rate it’s going, the series is primed (pun totally intended, and apologized for) to not only take the series in bold new directions, but also to become the narrative glue that binds the Star Trek franchise together.

There’s a lot of pressure in that role, certainly, but Jean-Luc Picard has never been one to shy away from a perilous mission.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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