by Christopher Jones
When Captain Archer made his first log entry it was dated April 16, 2161. That’s something with which we can all associate. But soon mankind found that dates based on Earth’s Gregorian calendar just didn’t work when travel involved covering great distances faster than light. Thus was born one of Star Trek’s great mysteries: the Stardate.
No real explanation for Stardates has ever been given that both makes sense and can be consistently applied to Star Trek as a whole. When it comes to The Original Series proposed explanations cannot even be applied to the five year mission.
Still, we want to know what these numbers mean and how they tell us when, on our calendar, the events from our future take place. Today we’ll focus on the 23rd Century and look at how Stardates have been presented in TOS.
The First Stardate
During the time of Enterprise the Gregorian calendar was still in use. No one knows for certain when the very first Stardate appeared, but the first Stardate ever given in Star Trek is 1312.4 in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” The earliest Stardate given comes from The Animated Series episode “The Magicks of Megus-Tu,” which takes place on Stardate 1254.4.
It isn’t clear, however, what a one-digit increment really means. Star Trek’s unaired pilot with Captain Pike, “The Cage,” has been placed on our calendar as taking place in 2254 in the reference book Star Trek Chronology, and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (the first mission with Kirk) in 2264. Additionally, Kirk is said to have been promoted to captain of the Enterprise in 2263 at the same time that Pike was promoted to fleet captain. (“The Menagerie, Part I,” [TOS]).
As Gene Roddenberry himself explained in Stephen Witfield’s The Making of Star Trek, a Stardate did not necessarily correspond to a specific calendar date. Roddenberry’s explanation, which he came up with not in advance of the series but in response to questions about the topic, is that the Stardate as recorded in a ship’s log must be calculated against several factors to determine the actual date. These factors include the speed at which the ship is traveling, the space warp, and the position of the ship within the galaxy.”
That all sounds good but it still doesn’t really mean anything (as Gene himself admitted). So we’re still left with the mystery of the Stardate.
Days Would Seem Like… Digits
A section in the TOS bible provided some instruction for writers that gives us a clue about the progression of time as notated using Stardates:
We invented “Stardate” to avoid continually mentioning Star Trek’s century (actually, about two hundred years from now), and getting into arguments about whether this or that would have developed by then. Pick any combination of four numbers plus a percentage point, use it as your story’s stardate. For example, 1313.5 is twelve o’clock noon of one day and 1314.5 would be noon of the next day. Each percentage point is roughly equivalent to one-tenth of one day. The progression of stardates in your script should remain constant but don’t worry about whether or not there is a progression from other scripts. Stardates are a mathematical formula which varies depending on location in the galaxy, velocity of travel, and other factors, can vary widely from episode to episode.
If this is to be taken at face value then a single-digit increase in the Stardate equals one 24-hour day. This works fine within an episode to indicate that a day or a week has passed. Taken over the course of a year however it still leads to confusion.
An exploration of this concept starts off with “The Magicks of Megus-Tu” (TAS) in which Kirk is in command of the Enterprise on Stardate 1254.4, a date that places the story before the first voyage of TOS (1312.4). Using the one-digit-equals-one-day concept this episode would take place 48 days before the first production episode of TOS (after the original pilot) “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and thus would work out to 2263 or 2264.
That’s fine if Kirk was promoted to captain of the Enterprise in 2263, as indicated by Star Trek Chronology, nearly a year before the first aired episode of TOS—even if it does seem odd to have an episode of The Animated Series pre-dating The Original Series.
As we said earlier, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” gave us 1312.4 as the first Stardate of TOS. The next Stardate given is 1329.8 in “Mudd’s Women.” This would mean that approximately 17 days passed between the events that we see in these two episodes. That’s reasonable enough. So far so good.
After “Mudd’s Women” the next Stardate given is 1512.2 in “The Corbomite Maneuver”, which is followed by 1513.1 in “The Man Trap.” This suggests that less than 24 hours passed between Kirk’s deception of Balok and the encounter with the Salt Vampire. I know the crew was young back then, but that’s asking a bit much.
Supposing this could somehow be accomplished, the next Stardate given is 1533.6 in “Charlie X.” This would be 20 days after “The Man Trap,” which is perfectly reasonable and then another four-and-a-half months (139 days) passed before the events of “The Enemy Within” (Stardate 1704.2). Apart from the near double-booking of “Corbomite” and “Man Trap” this timeline is reasonable and the one-digit-equals-one-day concept seems to work.
Au Contraire, Mon Capitan!
Or perhaps it doesn’t work. Looking at the first few episodes of TOS the one-digit-equals-one-day concept does seem reasonable. But if we run to the end of each season, which are generally taken by fans to each be one year of the five-year mission, everything falls apart. If we look more closely at season one we find that 2,105 days have passed between the earliest Stardate given (1312.4 in “Where No Man Had Gone Before”) and the latest Stardate given (3417.3 in “This Side of Paradise”). That’s more than five years by itself.
Then the second season starts out on Stardate 3018.2 (“Catspaw”) and ends on Stardate 4768.3 (as the latest Stardate given) with “Return to Tomorrow.” Here we have an earlier date that rolls us back more than a year from “This Side of Paradise.” So instead of five years from the start of the series we’ve moved ahead only four. The latest Stardate in season two brings the total days encompassed by the season to 1,750, or four-and-half years. So at this point, using the one-digit-equals-one-day concept from the TOS bible, we’re eight-and-a-half years into the mission of the Enterprise.
As we move into season three we are given an earliest Stardate of 4372.5 in “Elaan of Troyius.” Once again we’re being rolled backwards a year, which places us seven-and-a-half years into the voyage. The latest Stardate given in season three is 5943.7 in “All Our Yesterdays.” This means that the final season of The Original Series spans 1,571 days or a bit over four years.
For those of you keeping score, the grand total brings the mission of the Enterprise as seen in The Original Series to just a few months shy of 12 years.
Time Travels in Divers Paces with Divers Persons
Obviously the mission of the Enterprise as seen in TOS did not last 12 years. The accepted date for the launch of the Enterprise (in the prime reality) under Kirk’s command is 2264 and the end of the mission seen on screen in TOS is 2269. So the one-digit-equals-one-day concept—while useful for the passage of time within one episode—does not work over the long haul. Something more is at play in TOS Stardates.
There have been several other ideas put forth over the years to explain Stardates. One explanation is that the Stardate indicates the period of time since the ship embarked on its current journey. This would mean that in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (Stardate 1312.4) the Enterprise is 13 months and 12 days into its voyage. This method would allow the earlier date given in “The Magicks of Megus-Tu” (1254.4) to work within the timeline of Kirk’s command and, interestingly, even comes out to a total of almost exactly five years by the end of the series. Using this method the latest Stardate in the series, given in “All Our Yesterdays,” would place the Enterprise 60 months and 13 days from the start of the voyage. This of course only works for The Original Series.
Another popular method used by fans to create Stardates is to list the current date as YYMM.DD. So the date that TOS premiered, for example, would be Stardate 6609.8 (September 8, 1966). That’s fine if you just want to have some fun, but it would also mean that as I write this it is Stardate 1104.26 (April 26, 2011). Somehow I have traveled back in time. This method, while logical within a single century, has no application whatsoever to Star Trek.
Still another method put forth by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman in writing 2009’s Star Trek uses the Stardate to represent the year and day of the Gregorian calendar. In the opening of the film the U.S.S. Kelvin comes under attack by Nero’s ship the Narada. The Stardate given is 2233.04 which Orci has explained represents the fourth day of the year 2233, or January 4, 2233. Using this method, the first four digits indicate the year and the digits following the decimal indicate the day of the year. According to explanations given by Orci the first day of the year 2233 on the Gregorian calendar would be 2233.1 and the last day would be 2233.365. This is very much a revisionist history of Stardate methodology, which makes sense given that the whole alternate reality is revisionist history of Star Trek. Of course no explanation is offered as to why the given Stardate is .04 when .1 should be the lowest possible number, though we can speculate that it was supposed to be .4 instead of .04. Or maybe this discrepancy just helps an otherwise logical method fit in with the crazy that is Stardates.
If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from this journey through time it’s that Stardates are not meant to be understood. Like much of the terminology found in TOS and general SF stories of the time, a “Stardate” is just something that sounded futuristic. There’s a disconnect between our 21st-century understanding of science and technology and that of the 1960s. Today’s audience is far more sophisticated and these storytelling elements undergo a scrutiny that was not anticipated.
Star Trek has evolved into such a rich universe that it is easy to get lost in that world, which itself seems real, and it’s natural for us to want to line up all of the events into a nice, neat, sensible history. But as indicated by this line in the TOS bible—“don’t worry about whether or not there is a progression from other scripts”—the Stardate was never intended to create a consistent historical framework.
Efforts were made in the TNG-era series to progress the Stardates in a way that appears to provide a sensible linear history—at least when not subjected to close inspection—but even those dates aren’t backed by strict rules.
We’ve touched on four possible methodologies behind Stardates in TOS, yet none of them really satisfy the desire for a true explanation. The one-digit-equals-one-day concept of the TOS bible is a fine idea for telling single stories, but it clearly doesn’t work over the long haul. The fan-based YYMM.DD method for creating Stardates in a pure novelty with no application to Star Trek.
The idea that yields the closest results to Gregorian dates that have been matched to events is the reading of Stardates as the number of months and days that have passed since the start of the voyage. It gives a progression that, over time, yields a more realistic duration for the five year mission of TOS. Even this method, however, doesn’t fully work and it’s nothing more than an attempt in hindsight to make things fit together rather than an intended meaning of Stardates.
On a simple organizational level the alternate reality method employed by Orci and Kurtzman is actually the one that can most successfully create a consistent timeline, but it isn’t possible to apply this method to the prime reality. There is also a weakness in this methodology: it doesn’t address the need for a Stardate in the first place. It’s merely the Gregorian calendar written in a different way. There would be little point in the use of such a Stardate system.
When all is said and done the best way to understand Stardates is to accept that they can’t be understood. It sure is fun to try though.