Star Trek’s Confusing Timeline Fixed By Forgotten Episode

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

In Star Trek, the Neutral Zone typically refers to a territory separating Federation and Romulan territories from one another. It also serves as the name of the TNG season 1 finale, and if we’re being honest, that episode was pretty darn disappointing. However, this largely forgotten episode did one thing we’ll always be grateful for: fix the show’s confusing timeline with a single line of dialogue.

The Neutral Zone

Star Trek The Next Generation The Neutral Zone

Before we dive into how this Star Trek episode did that, we need to clarify what made “The Neutral Zone” episode so special. You see, Star Trek has always relied on stardates, and those stardates have always been confusing. Later shows tried to make them make more sense, but the blunt truth is that most fans treat any given stardate as a random jumble of numbers.

Fortunately for Star Trek fans, “The Neutral Zone” did more than give us yet another stardate. Thanks to a line from Data, it also gave us the exact year that the episode took place…in this case, the year 2364. At this point in The Next Generation, we already knew that the show took place in the 24th century, but it wasn’t clear exactly when during this century the show was set.

Data Extrapolated From Data

brent spiner lore

For example, the pilot episode “Encounter At Farpoint” has a line from Data that he graduated from Starfleet Academy with the rest of “the class of ‘78.” This was referring to the year 2378, and fans used this date to try to extrapolate when the new show was set. Even though Data doesn’t exactly age, the fact that he was a lieutenant commander on the Federation flagship made fans think the show took place in the early 24th century, effectively giving the android a little over two decades to work his way through the Starfleet ranks.

Best To Not Take Things Literally

Star Trek The Next Generation The Neutral Zone Data

That Star Trek fan assumption was thoroughly debunked by “The Neutral Zone,” and it’s interesting to note that the assumption was partially based on The Next Generation being a fairly literal title. When we use the phrase “a generation later,” we are generally talking about a time-span of 20-30 years.

The Original Series ended in 2269 and The Voyage Home (the last movie released before TNG came out) took place in 2286, so it made a certain sense for Captain Picard’s adventures to take place about 30 years or so after Kirk’s adventures wrapped up.

Picard Takes Place In The 25th Century

star trek: picard

Incidentally, Star Trek has relied on the date established in “The Neutral Zone” ever since, which is why the later spinoff Picard mostly takes place in the 25th century. That spinoff based how much time had passed partially on Patrick Stewart’s own age, so season one takes place in 2399, and seasons two and three both take place in 2401. If we ever get the Star Trek: Legacy spinoff (even Jonathan Frakes wants to make it happen), it will be our first Trek show to take place entirely in the 25th century.

Time Travel Is Tricky

As you can tell, time is a tricky thing in Star Trek, and that’s before you take all the time travel shenanigans into account. Fortunately, we can mostly make sense of it thanks to a single line of dialogue from Data clarifying what year “The Neutral Zone” takes place. Thanks to him, fans no longer need the equivalent of an advanced positronic brain to figure out exactly when our favorite episodes are happening.

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