Section 4: UNIVERSE

4.0 SCALE [see footnotes, postscripts]

If this wasn't Space Opera I would object to the whole notion of interstellar imperialism; Earthlike worlds are too self‐sufficient for centralised “empires” to be likely, however FTL your drives.  At least the UFP is federated, albeit ruled from Earth (Sector Zero Zero One; so where is Sector Zero Zero Zero?).  Or to be precise, from San Andreas City; which explains why the entire galaxy keeps a 24‐hour day and Pacific Standard Time!

Let me point out some facts, all of which were readily available in the 1960s, and should be no obstacle to writing good Space Opera plots:

4.1 GALACTOGRAPHY (PHYSICAL) [see postscripts]

The Federation's scale is very hazy.  If they're really at the edge of known space when they meet Romulans at Tau Ceti (“Whom Gods Destroy”, ST:TOS3), Klingons at Capella (“Friday's Child”, ST:TOS2), and Apollo at Pollux (“Who Mourns for Adonais?”, ST:TOS2) it is only dozens of LY wide.  Yet in “Miri” they were exploring hundreds of LY out; in other ST:TOS1 plots they were “thrown 500 parsecs” (in “Arena”) or “at the other end of the galaxy” (“The Menagerie”).  Vagueness is all very well, but this is ridiculous.  Even ST:TNG4's “Best of Both Worlds” puts the Federation's outermost colony only one day's travel from Earth, while Saturn is about half an hour away!

As for the Galactic Edge Energy Barrier… even charitably assuming that this means the extraplanar fringe, not the distant galactic rim, and pretending that the stars run out there at some abrupt boundary, any mere glowing fence (as this is shown) could be simply hopped over!  And see “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (ST:TOS0); who built those robot mining bases, restocked “every twenty years”, beside an uninvestigated Barrier?

4.2 GALACTOGRAPHY (POLITICAL) [see footnotes, postscripts]

It would be pleasant to get some inkling of where the Bajorans, Borg etc. live, relative to each other or to the galaxy.  All we know is that the Romulans, Federation, and Klingons have common borders, each with a Neutral Zone.  The Klingon one was set up by the Organians (“Errand of Mercy”, ST:TOS1) – who seem to have vanished between ST:TOS3 and ST:TMP1; maybe the Klingons' added prosthetic foreheads are Organian repellent?  Regardless, all the rules about trespassing in Neutral Zones seem rather biassed; when the USS Enterprise does it, it is always legally in the wrong – even when their incursion is met by a welcoming committee of previous intruders.

And how big is the Romulan–Federation border?  By the ST:TNG era the two empires have been expanding competitively for some 200 years; the frontier has to be millions of LY².  So how can Starfleet stop cloaked Romulan Warbirds infiltrating, nuking Earth, and blaming the Klingons?  One story (“Redemption”, ST:TNG5) even showed a Federation blockade of the Romulan–Klingon border, with “a net of active tachyon beams” strung between a fleet of 23 ships – that's at most 253 narrow connecting lines, many parsecs in length, leaving no gaps big enough for any vessels to sneak through!?

4.3 GALACTIC PALAEONTOLOGY [see postscripts]

The Star Trek Universe is notable for its lack of historical backdrop; all it's got are the unexplained Romulan/Vulcan split, some little‐known Preservers (see 5.1), and dozens of purely local, empireless Godlike Beings.  But… something seems to have synchronised the development of the main local races, so humanity didn't run into ST:TNG Romulans prior to developing the impulse drive.  An explanation would be reassuring to pedants like me; and if done in terms of ancient wars and relics of dead empires, it would also add atmosphere.  Perhaps (improvising wildly) the local superpower recently collapsed in civil war, leaving scattered humanoid ex‐slaves?

4.4 CHRONOLOGY [see postscripts]

The “stardate” system kept the ST:TOS dateline cleverly obscured, whilst giving the impression of accounting for relativistic problems like the impossibility of a universal standard of simultaneity.  The fans based their own estimates on circumstantial evidence such as the following:

Somehow the consensus developed that it was the twenty‐third century, and in “The Neutral Zone” (ST:TNG1), Data finally specified the date as 2364 (“old calendar”).  Working by such benchmarks as McCoy's ST:TOS and ST:TNG ages, and disregarding seventies novelisations etc., fans can now produce a tentative series chronology:

Federation of Planets founded thanks to Garth of Izar (“Whom Gods Destroy”, ST:TOS3).
Original pilot episode, “The Cage”: NCC1701 under Captain Pike.
Start of the ST:TOS “five year mission”.  Kirk is 34 (as of ST:TOS2 = 2268?).
Beginning of the Motion Picture era: ST:TMP1 (NCC1701 refitted).
ST:TMP2 (Kirk fifty), ST:TMP3 (NCC1701 destroyed), ST:TMP4 (NCC1701A built)
ST:TMP5 (?) and ST:TMP6.  Original crew are reaching their retirement age.
NCC1701C destroyed by Romulans (“Yesterday's Enterprise”, ST:TNG3).
Start of ST:TNG (introducing NCC1701D); McCoy turns up aged 137.
ST:TNG6; Scotty turns up aged 72 (plus 75 in a transporter beam).

4.5 QUASIHISTORY [see footnotes, postscripts]

There were a range of fundamental flaws in the ST:TOS “future history”, most of which the ST:TNG “Scriptwriters' Bible” inexplicably retains.

  1. Foolish twentieth‐century predictions – too big, too specific, and too early.  For example:
Orbital‐nuke silo explodes on launch (“Assignment Earth”, ST:TOS2).
Khan (born in a 1950s genetics lab!?) attempts world conquest.
End of Eugenics Wars; Khan flees in an interstellar (!) vessel.
Voyager six falls into a black hole (returning in ST:TMP1 as V‑ger).
  1. Inconsistent pessimism.  Twentieth‐century “nuclear and biological holocausts” are followed by twenty‐first‐century “genocidal wars” (as in “Encounter at Farpoint”, ST:TNG0).  All known ethnic stereotypes survive this feeble apocalypse intact, as do the works of Raymond Chandler, Golden Gate Bridge, ozonosphere etc.; but does this really (as Trekkies always claim) count as “optimism”?
  2. Impossibly fast interstellar expansion.  Suspended‐animation vessels are obsolete by 2018, and ships have reached the Galactic Edge by 2070 (thus the 200‐year‐old debris in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, ST:TOS0).  Some twenty‐first‐century colonies aren't rediscovered until ST:TNG, proving Faster‐Than‐Light drives are easily available.  Zefram Cochrane “of Alpha Centauri”, who “discovered the Space Warp”, disappears aged 87 in 2120ish (“Metamorphosis”, ST:TOS2).  Yet the Romulan War (“Balance of Terror”, ST:TOS1) is fought circa 2170 on sublightspeed impulse drive only; and “The Cage” places the invention of warpdrive between 2236 and 2254.  None of which makes any sense at all.
  3. The whole thing being set too soon.  Time has to be allowed for the recovery from World War III; for space‐travel to develop; for known space to grow (at colony ship rates) without fragmenting, while derelict craft drift light‐centuries; and for humans to encounter and grow accustomed to dozens of alien races.  Space Opera is more safely, and more frequently, given a dateline well beyond 2500; Dune, for instance, is set in 29,391 AD!

1993 Footnotes

4.0 All right, San Francisco.  The Python song I'm thinking of is in “The Meaning of Life”.  And if you really want scenes set in cobbled space, don't use asteroid belts, use planetary ring systems!
4.2 “Prosthetic foreheads” is a wilfully obscure reference to a “They Might Be Giants” lyric (“We Want a Rock”).
4.5 Technophobia‐inducing conflicts (Clone Wars, AI Wars, etc.) are a popular trick for Space Opera backgrounds.  But they make me wonder how things are going in the alternate histories where the good guys won…

1997+ Postscripts

4.0 The parochialism of the star names in Babylon 5 “known space” clashes somewhat with the scale of Morden's galaxy‐carving proposal, and there are still cobbled‐space asteroid belts, but JMS does relatively well.
4.1 The “quadrants” stuff is all late ST:TNG revisionism.  Naturally, it's even rubberier for DS9, which appears to be next door to everyone; but B5 could do with some exposition on life in the colonies, too.
4.2 While it might be nice to see proper starcharts, B5 has the hyperspace excuse to hand; who says these empires occupy a continuous volume in normal space?
4.3 The B5 Universe has a backplot, measured both in years and in aeons.  Nobody ever explicitly asked Kosh whose handiwork the panhumanism and Level Playing‐Field are, but…
4.4 Compare the B5 timeline, which fades in smoothly from a vague twenty‐first century to a well documented twenty‐third.
4.5 Star Trek continues to confirm and contradict previous historical references at random…
  1. Do you think perhaps Federation historians meant Imran Khan?
  2. …And we've still got a holocaust or two to fit in before 2001!  But that never stops the Trekkies burbling stuff like “it's within all of us to hope that our future is as bright as what we see on ST”! (Yes, that's my March 1999 correspondent again.)
  3. “First Contact” (ST:TMP8) and its twenty‐first‐century warpdrive conflicts with stories as recent as “A Matter of Time” (ST:TNG5).
  4. B5 is set rather early too, but makes it clear that Earth's isn't a very widespread empire.