Star Trek is considered one of the geekier science fiction franchises for many reasons, including that our favorite characters are bound by rules they take very seriously.
This includes formal rules like the Prime Directive and cultural rules like the Klingons’ famous code of honor.
However, Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced one major rule that every series in this Paramount Franchise has since ignored, and that’s the warp speed limit.
Started In Star Trek: The Original Series
Back in Star Trek: The Original Series, starship captains had to watch how fast they traveled because their warp drives were fueled by rare dilithium crystals that would crystalize and eventually become completely useless.
This was meant as an analog for more familiar resources such as gasoline: ships could only go so far and so fast before they burned through all their dilithium.
Several episodes centered on the need to mine dilithium crystals because they couldn’t be effectively replicated. Original Series fans soon got used to hearing Scotty’s concerns about what Kirk’s misadventures were doing to their stockpile of rare crystals.
Star Trek: The Next Generation Shows Advancements
Star Trek: The Next Generation showed how much Starfleet technology had advanced over the decades, and one of the biggest advancements was that dilithium crystals could not be recrystallized. It was still important to keep the dilithium from getting damaged.
Still, assuming that didn’t happen, the Enterprise-D could theoretically travel as far and as fast as the captain wanted on the same supply of crystals.
Naturally, fans wondered why the starship wasn’t always traveling at Warp 9, especially when half the crew’s missions involved turning this Federation flagship into a glorified taxi for various ambassadors and dignitaries.
Addressed In Force Of Nature
Eventually, Star Trek: The Next Generation would address the issue (sort of) in the episode “Force of Nature.”
Captain Picard and crew encountered Hekaran scientists who made a bombshell claim: warp fields were actually damaging their intergalactic neck of the woods. And if ships kept traveling at warp, it would someday render their homeworld of Hekaras II completely uninhabitable.
The aliens had previously presented their research to the Federation Science Council, but it was dismissed due to insufficient concrete evidence.
Limited To Warp 5
In that same Star Trek episode, one of the aliens overloaded her own warp core and caused a subspace rift in the Hekaran sector.
It was a highly risky move, but it seemingly proved her point that warp engines were capable of causing damage to the delicate fabric of spacetime.
Due to this, the Federation Science Council instituted a restriction where all Federation vessels were limited to Warp 5 or slower. The idea was that this would slow down the spacetime decay.
And the Federation shared the new research in the hopes that other major powers (such as the Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians) would abide by this warp speed limit.
Rug Is Pulled
Starships were still authorized to exceed this speed limit in extreme situations, and a couple of future Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes showed Picard getting authorization to go faster than Warp 5.
However, later shows never again acknowledged this speed limit and the closest thing we got to an official explanation was the Star Trek Encyclopedia claiming that an offscreen solution to the problem must have been discovered.
However, Rick Berman would later give a much more realistic explanation: as reported by What Culture, the producer once said “when you limit warp drive, the rug is being pulled out from under Star Trek.”
Star Trek Says Hit It
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Berman was right and that a hard warp speed limit would have put an unnecessary limitation on future writers.
Still, it’s fascinating that Star Trek never officially acknowledged how or even if they managed to solve the problem of warp speed damaging space and time.
And now that the franchise mostly focuses on the past with shows like Strange New Worlds, we can’t help but think about what is happening to those poor Hekarans every time Captain Pike orders maximum warp by saying “hit it.”