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Alternate History in Star Trek: Introduction

By Tom Anderson

In the course of me writing articles for the SLP frontpage, Star Trek is a topic that has recurred many times. This should not be surprising. It is not merely that this is a franchise I have been intimately familiar with from an early age (I bought the first edition of the Star Trek Encyclopaedia at a small bookshop in Yellowstone National Park in 1994, for instance) but one which touches many subjects and themes which I have covered in these articles. As a franchise which has run for over 50 years, producing both official on-screen media in live-action television, film and animation, as well as prompting much fan creativity (indeed, arguably creating the foundations of modern fan fiction), one can usually find an example of any subject in the Star Trek canon (or non-canon!). I have used Star Trek examples when discussing naval ranks in fiction, worldbuilding, prequel writing and anachronic order, attitudes towards earlier canon and aesthetics in long-running franchises, reboots and much, much more.

What I have never strictly discussed, however, is the raison d’être of SLP, i.e. alternate history fiction, and how that relates to Star Trek. This is significant, because Star Trek was frequently one of the primary means by which prospective writers are introduced to tropes such as this (as well as the more obvious related ones such as time travel). There were other major drivers of the general concept of Alternate History in the 20th century cultural mainstream, such as Back to the Future, Terminator, It's a Wonderful Life, and American superhero comics – I’ve previously mentioned my conviction that some 1960s DC writers cared more about creating alternate worlds as settings than writing hero-on-villain fights! However, Alternate History in the sense we would generally imagine now did not strictly feature in Star Trek until recently. Like most of the other examples I mentioned, Star Trek was generally more focused on the means by which an alternate world might diverge from our own (i.e. through a time travel based intervention) and then our heroes race to put it back again. (Or occasionally to change history to improve its current trajectory from the perspective of the interventionists, as in Terminator).

Usually, it is assumed that we are not interested in exploring what this alternative version of history is like, except perhaps to show how bad it is and how important it is that we fix it back to the old version with time travel. The idea of there being parallel worlds at all (rather than one changed timeline), though it would technically appear as early as the original series, would not become the norm until the 1990s. Even then, the story would be focused on our hero(es) trying to return to ‘the correct’ timeline, as in the contemporary series Sliders. The AH setting was a trap to escape, not a vista to explore.

This would go on to change, of course, most dramatically in the 2009 reboot Star Trek film. Despite its many, many flaws (“Prequel Problems” article incoming some day!) this film was notable for its bold and unapologetic use of Alternate History in order to engineer a reboot. Rather than trying to fit with existing canon, it explicitly begins with a time-travel-driven divergence from the canon we know, which impacts on the life of our protagonist James T. Kirk from the start (it happens during his birth!) The film is not about Kirk and company trying to ‘fix’ this diverged setting; from Kirk’s perspective, this is just the way the world has always been. Dramatic changes from the Star Trek we know proceed to happen, such as the destruction of the iconic planet Vulcan, and they are left to stand. There are a number of explicit nods in which our characters wonder how things would have gone in that other timeline, but know this is the one they are stuck with.

Of course, as I discussed in my articles on reboots, this frees the hands of the writers to more or less write what they want – they can portray characters differently, kill them off, have their fates echo their original-timeline ones but in a vaguer way (e.g. Captain Pike ends up in a wheelchair for different reasons). In theory, this gave them a canvas on which they could do whatever they wanted, and tell exciting new Star Trek stories that wouldn’t be constrained by the complex web of canon and continuity that already existed. In practice...but again, that’s another article.

The point I want to make today is that this explicit invocation of AH in the 2009 film, this bold (and justified) assumption that cinema audiences would follow along with the idea, was not produced in a vacuum. Rather, it rested upon a multi-tiered ziggurat of past explorations of the tropes surrounding AH, even if pure AH itself rarely appeared in Star Trek before 2009. I should also say that I am implicitly referring to ‘canon’, on-screen Star Trek here; in a setting which did so much to inspire the concept of speculative fanfiction as we know it today, it is unsurprising that there is plenty of non-canon spinoff material in which the idea was explored.

Indeed, our editor, Gary Oswald, has made the point that the primary driver for fanfiction is usually to see ideas explored that don’t appear in the canon setting of the work of fiction in general. In Star Trek, other than the inevitable stereotypes about interpersonal stuff, the primary example of this would be crossovers – both within time periods, which were shunned for many years before they finally began to start to appear on-screen, and more significantly between fictional franchises. There is a reason why “Star Wars vs Star Trek” is the internet’s equivalent of the argument in the corner of the pub that goes on for decades without resolution. We know it’ll never appear on screen (watches Disney’s wallet suspiciously) so it’s a natural subject for us to speculate about.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that AH speculation within Star Trek became a significant, if minor compared to crossovers, topic of both fanfiction and official, but non-canon, spinoff media (the boundary between the two is frequently blurred here). Sometimes it would then feed back into canon, when authors might explore an idea in print, only for it then to appear in a later series (either through that author getting involved with the TV production, or the idea being unceremoniously, ahem, ‘borrowed’).

As a result, it would be misleading and incomplete if I was only going to discuss AH and AH-adjacent tropes in on-screen canon Star Trek. While I can never be truly comprehensive, as not even I have read all Star Trek spinoff media ever produced(!) I am going to spread this discussion over several articles in order to give each example the level of spotlight it warrants. It is also worth noting that term ‘AH-adjacent tropes’ above. Probably 90% of what I’m going to discuss would not ‘count’ as AH under anyone’s definition. However, all of it (in my opinion) was ultimately required ground to cross, ideas which needed to be explored, before Star Trek could turn to considering true AH.

In the days of the original series (TOS), in the 1960s, contemporary TV science fiction (e.g. The Twilight Zone) liked the idea of exploring ‘what-if’ scenarios, in the sense of ‘it’s like our world, but...’ This approach would also appear in the original Star Trek to some extent, except rather than a reimagined version of Earth, it would be the planet of the week that the Enterprise encountered. Often these were allegories or metaphors for Earth’s history and then-present strife. Sometimes this could be done subtly, as in “A Taste of Armageddon”, which took Cold War attitudes to an extreme by having two warring planets which merely computer simulate attacks on each other, and then have the other side’s ‘casualties’ agree to commit suicide, in order to avoid collateral damage (which means the war is never-ending). Other times, of course, it could be much less subtle. Frequently modern viewers will point out “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” as a very ham-handed allegory for racism, which I actually think is rather unfair – but that’s another discussion.

"You're [both] black on one side and white on the other." "I am black on the right side." "I fail to see the significant difference."

What is more often seen as a sin in TOS is other planets resembling Earth for no adequately explained reason, usually driven simply by the desire to be able to reuse existing period sets from other shows made by the same studio. Again, sometimes this could be done relatively subtly (as in “All Our Yesterdays”, in which the planet Sarpeidon’s history only aesthetically resembles Earth’s), stupidly (“The Omega Glory”, in which an alien planet has factions explicitly resembling future-imperfect-degraded Americans and Communists for no explained reason), or inexplicably (“Miri”, in which the planet looks exactly like Earth and this is never mentioned again and has no relevance to the plot).

TOS would eventually fumble its way towards possible explanations for what Earth people and culture could appear on other planets in episodes like “The Paradise Syndrome”, in which it’s attributed to ancient aliens called ‘the Preservers’ relocating groups to other planets to preserve their culture. This idea is mentioned exactly once in the original series itself, but provided almost terrifyingly vast amounts of canon-fodder for the fanfiction and spinoff fiction writers, as we’ll go on to see.

TOS also had some other justifications, such as historical Earth settings or people being plucked from their imagination by super-powerful aliens (as in “The Savage Curtain” or “Spectre of the Gun”). In some ways, the most stereotypically ‘AH-like’ original series episode may be “Patterns of Force”, in which a historian thinks he can uplift a planet of very easily-influenced people by borrowing elements of the Nazi economic system – which predictably is mostly just an excuse to have our heroes running around on a planet of Nazis and try to overthrow the regime. I remember in the 90s, this episode was frequently criticised by people pointing out that, obviously, Nazi economics were notoriously terrible and why would any qualified historian ever think that was a model to emulate. Such were the refreshingly naïve views we had before the internet alerted us to the existence of every stupid lunatic in the world. Even though this episode doesn’t involve any AH at all, strictly (all taking place on an alien planet), its instigator will ironically now be immediately recognisable to anyone who has been on any AH forum full of people posting threads that amount to “What if Hitler wasn’t a racist, so I don’t have to pretend I don’t like the Nazis?” And people say the plausibility of TOS doesn’t hold up.

By the time we got to The Next Generation (TNG) and its successors, things had gotten straightened out a bit. Allegories for Earth history and politics done on alien planets were usually achieved more subtly. Certain Cardassians in Deep Space Nine (DS9) could stand in for historical Nazi or Japanese war criminals without anyone having to explicitly make the on-screen comparison. By this point, however, the Star Trek setting itself had now become sufficiently developed, backstory lore filled in by fans and nailed to the table in the Encyclopaedia and the (flawed) Chronology, that AH speculation just within that setting became more interesting. There was only so much we could have speculated about in TOS (though, as I’ll go on to explain in later articles, spinoff writers certainly did so), but by the 24th century TNG era we had a semi-coherent ‘future past’ of the 23rd century TOS era to precede it. Therefore, it was possible to speculate ‘if XYZ had happened differently back then, how would the 24th century be differe now?’ This would then be extended to other eras, until both the film “First Contact” (as I have previously gushed about) and the DS9 two-parter “Past Tense” were willing to speculate about changes resulting from interventions in the 21st century – a part of it we have not yet lived through.

Of course, it was always lower-hanging fruit to go for a time-travel intervention in the recognisable ‘present-day’ era in which the series in question was made. TOS did this with “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and “Assignment: Earth”, set in the 1960s; “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” did it in the 1980s, the Voyager (VGR) episode “Future’s End” did it in the 1990s, and so on. Though more predictable, these stories can be thought-provoking; we are used to the idea in AH speculation that treading on a butterfly in 1863 could change our present day beyond recognition, but this is the same story told from the perspective of future people – to them, it’s our own humdrum 21st century lives that are the perilous time in which history could change. A reminder of how important our choices are!

Before concluding this introductory article for this series, I’ll briefly clarify that this series is about Alternate History (and related tropes) in Star Trek, not about Star Trek. Speculating about how the series itself could have evolved differently is a fascinating topic in itself, one which has been explored by Ryan Fleming in this article: and by ‘Brainbin’ in his excellent pop-culture timeline “That Wacky Redhead”, which can be found posted on the SLP forums. However, it’s not what I shall be discussing in this series; this is a Watsonian, not a Doylist, production.

Tune in next time, in which I explore some of the AH-adjacent ideas explored in the original Star Trek series (TOS) way back in the 1960s.



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