Saturday, May 25, 2013

Figuring out sci-fi timelines

Happy Towel Day, and Happy Birthday to that other franchise too!

So I have Book One of the Saberfrog novels more or less completed, and I'm compiling my notes to figure out the storylines for the other four. One of the things I'm having to do is nail down how much time passes between each book, and how old the characters are at the time.

Doing so has gotten me thinking about other franchises, and how much time is supposed to pass between installments. You've probably all seen movies where the sequel is supposed to take place only months or days after the original, even though the sequel was made years later and the actors are therefore older. Or sometimes they don't say how much time has passed, so you sort of assume that the same amount of time has passed for the characters as for the audience.

Occasionally it's hard not to wonder. Did the Peanuts characters live in a universe where little kids never age, or did all 50 years of it actually take place within a few years (say, in the late 1960s and early 1970s)? If the eleven seasons of M*A*S*H took place during the three years of the Korean War, is it possible to figure out what seasons took place in what year?

Of course, usually these series just make stuff up as they go along, without worrying about how things fit together or whether the actors are aging faster or slower than the characters they play.

But such franchises, if they last long enough, may eventually reach a point where they want to make prequels, or they want to have spin-offs that take place between existing installments. That's when the ret-conning begins. That's when some canon-keeper has to sit down and determine, once and for all, when these various installments took place, and how much time took place in between.

I decided to do some research and find out what the proper timelines are for some of these franchises. I figured knowing how much time was “really” passing, and how old the characters were at the time, would cause me to see these stories in a new light. Kind of like watching Memento in correct chronological sequence.

Anyway, read below for some occasionally-surprising chronologies,  in a shamelessly format. I was never hardcore enough about any of these series to memorize every date or follow every spinoff, so a lot of this is new to me.


The Star Trek timeline apparently went through various changes before being arbitrated by writers Michael and Denise Okuda. This Wikipedia article was my main source. Ignoring most of the various time-travel episodes, and focusing on when the “present” of the various TV shows and movies were supposed to be (as well as some backstory that is/was in our own future), here are some fun things I've learned about the Trek chronology:

1. Some of you reading this might live to see World War III.

The Trek TV shows and movies contain references to Earth's history getting worse before it gets better. The famous villain Khan is a product of the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s, which at the time were still in the future. World War III and the resulting apocalypse apparently take place in the 2050s (something to look forward to). The time-travel plot of Star Trek: First Contact puts our heroes at the end of this, in 2063, when humanity launches the first warp-drive spaceship and makes contact with the Vulcans.

2. The Enterprise was sloppy seconds by the time Kirk and the gang came aboard.

An early Enterprise, glimpsed in a picture on the wall in the first Star Trek movie, launched in 2123 according to a reference book that came out when that movie did. I don't know if other sources have stuck with that.

I never saw much of the show Star Trek: Enterprise, but apparently its four seasons take place in 2151-2155, with a series finale set in 2161, the year the United Federation of Planets is founded. Most of the original series characters are born in the 2220s or 2230s. (The timeline of the new J J. Abrams movies splits off at the point of Captain Kirk's birth in 2233.)

And after all that, the Enterprise we know and love, the good old NCC 1701, apparently had not one but two five-year missions with other captains – the first commanded by some guy named Robert April, the second by Christopher Pike. (Pike was the lead character in the first, rejected Star Trek pilot, called “The Cage”; it's considered canon because its scenes were used as flashbacks in a later episode.) So the old girl was in service for a good 9 or 10 years before Kirk took over. Who knew?

3. The original-series actors were older than the characters they played … except Spock!

The Wikipedia article states that Kirk's famous five-year voyage was from 2265 to 2270. I measured these dates not only against the birthdates given for these characters, but against how old the actual actors were at the time the show was made. If we assume that the first season of Star Trek in 1966 took place in 2265, then are the actors playing above or below their age?

At the start of the five-year voyage, Kirk would have been 32, while William Shatner was 35. Spock was 35, the same age as Leonard Nimoy (ironic since Spock is an alien and therefore the one character who could get away with being much older or younger than he looks). Sulu was 28 while George Takei was 29 – also pretty close. Scotty was 43 while James Doohan was 46.

But the hazards of space travel must have physically aged some of these characters just a bit beyond their chronological years. Uhura was 26 while Nichelle Nichols was 34. Dr. McCoy was supposed to be only 38 even though DeForest Kelley was 46. The biggest gap: Chekov was 20 while Walter Koenig was 30 (he was a year older than Takei, even though he was playing the young guy in the crew).

Also, I wasn't under the impression that the 1970s Star Trek animated series was considered canon, but according to this timeline, the three seasons of the original series and the two seasons of the animated series really do add up to comprise the famous five years.

4. There's a whopping 12 years, including another five-year mission, between the first and second movie.

In the real world, there was a ten-year gap between the end of the 1960s TV series and the first Trek movie, and I always assumed that there was a similar gap for the characters. But apparently, Star Trek: The Motion Picture takes place in 2273, only three years after the original mission ended. So while the characters have only aged eight years since the start of their original mission, the actors have aged 13 years.

But by the time of the movie Star Trek II, we've jumped ahead another twelve years, to 2285. This fits since Khan mentions being marooned by Kirk “fifteen years ago”, which is about how old his TV episode would have been when Star Trek II was made. But it also means that the characters are 20 years older than they were when the original series began, even though only 16 years had passed for the actors.

This Wikipedia article also claims that there was another five-year mission in between. No idea if that's just speculation based on the final scene of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or if there are a bunch of novels or comic books or something that I don't know about.

5. When the last of the Kirk-era movie came out, the aging actors had actually aged less than their characters (though not by much).

Trek II and Trek III take place in the same year, with Trek IV the year after that and Trek V the year after that. We're up to 2287 now, and while only 2 years have passed in the Trek universe, the actors have aged 7 years. By now the actors are pretty much in sync – the characters are 22 years older than when they first started enterprising, while the actors are 23 years older.

Six years supposedly pass before the events of Trek VI in 2293, even though the movie only came about two years later. So the 1960s Trek cast, much mocked for their oldness when their last film came out in 1991, had aged only 25 years in real life while their characters had aged 28 years.

The opening prologue of Star Trek: Generations – in which Kirk, Scotty and Chekov christen the new Enterprise B – takes place in the same year as Trek VI despite coming out three years later. So those three actors end up breaking even.

I also notice that this is quite near the end of the 23rd century. I wonder if Starfleet celebrated the transition, or if there was a Y2K3C bug of some kind to worry about.

6. Compared to all of the above, the timeline of the later TV shows is a lot less nuts.

Skipping past the ill-fated Enterprise C (seen in the time-travel episode “Yesterday's Enterprise”, set in 2344) brings us to the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Each of those seasons is a year, with Picard's crew of the Enterprise D have their adventures from 2364 to 2370, with the other two shows persisting into the 2370s. So all of those seasons (bar the time-travel ones, of course) apparently take place exactly 377 years in the future from when they first aired.

I haven't bothered to check how the dates of the Picard movies line up with the amount of time passing for the actors, but those movies take us to the end of the 2370s. And apparently, when the elderly Spock leaves his own time period in the J.J. Abrams Trek movie, the year is 2387 … and Spock is 157!

7. During the original series, Kirk and Sulu were deadbeat dads.

As you may recall, we met Kirk's grown son in the film Wrath of Khan, and Sulu 's grown daughter in Star Trek: Generations. The thing is, we never heard mention of these characters before their appearances in those films. So when the heck did Kirk and Sulu conceive these people?

Well, the simplest approach seems to be: figure out how old they were when we met them, and then work backwards. Unless there's some official source I don't know about, I don't think the age or birthdates of these characters were ever given, so the best I can do is assume that the actors were the same age as their characters.

Merrit Butrick, who played Kirk's son David Marcus, was 23 when Wrath of Khan came out. If that film took place in 2285, then David was born in 2262, when Kirk was 29 and still three years away from starting his famous five-year mission. So Jim Kirk and Carol Marcus (who was probably about five years younger than Kirk) got it on before the 60s TV show, not during or after it. I kind of assumed that, but it's nice to have figured it out for certain.

But what about Demora Sulu? Actress Jacquelin Kim was 29 at the time of Generations, set in 2293. If we assume that Demora was therefore born in 2264 … well, OK, she was also born before the TV show.

But where's her mom? It seems logical to assume that David was raised by Carol as a single mom, since he's got her surname and not Kirk's. But Demora is, well, a Sulu. So when Sulu was running around with his Enterprise friends, he had a daughter at home that he wasn't taking care of. Or maybe he was divorced and lost custody of her anyway.

Where was Demora during the third and fourth movie, when Sulu risked his career to save Spock and thus ended up in exile? Well, if Trek III was in 2285 and Trek IV the year after, then Demora was 21 … OK, that's not so bad. She would have been in college by then.

An extra wrinkle: According to, Kirk had previously met Demora 12 years prior to the time of Generations. That would have been 2281, in between the first two movies. Sulu must have reconciled with her by then. She would have been about 17, so hopefully Kirk didn't make a pass at her.


Star Wars would seem to be a simpler timeline, since we've got just the six “Episodes” to worry about. (Well, and a Clone Wars movie and some TV episodes and a zillion books.) But there are still some surprises.

1. Man, there are some novels set WAAAAY back in the past.

This Wikipedia article gives dates for all the Star Wars novels, including the novelizations of the six movies. Assuming the novels to be even remotely canon, we can use these dates to make sense of the Star Wars timeline.

I've read very few of the SW novels – none since the first Timothy Zahn book 20 years ago – so I'm gonna stick mainly to stuff that relates to the six movies. But I couldn't help but notice that there are some book series set thousands of years before the movies. It makes me wonder what kind of world they're set in. Was the Star Wars universe still hi-tech back then, or do those stories take place in a time before spaceships and talking robots? Is there an Also Sprach Zarathustra moment when someone invents the first lightsaber? I suppose I could read them and find out, but it kind of blows my mind just to think that such books were written at all.

2. “Weird Al” Yankovic correctly guessed how old Anakin and Padme are in Episode I.

“Oh, did you see him hittin' on the queen / even though he's just 9 and she's 14”, sang Weird Al in his famous Episode I parody “The Saga Begins”. Well, apparently that's how old Anakin and Padme actually were during the events of that movie. Michael Kaminski's The Secret History of Star Wars, an exhaustively researched book chronicling Lucas' revisions to the Star Wars backstory from the 1970s to 2005, gives those ages for Anakin and Padme in Episode I. The Wikipedia articles for Darth Vader and Padme Amidala also agree, unless someone's since changed those articles just to piss me off. (You knew Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader are the same character, right? … um, spoiler.)

3. Obi-wan Kenobi seems a bit old to be a student.

I have long wondered how old Obi-wan was supposed to be in Episode I. Filming began around June 1997, when Ewan McGregor was 26. I seem to recall the blurb on the VHS box saying Obi-wan was 30, but VHS has now gone the way of Clive Revill's Emperor so perhaps we should no longer consider that statement to be canon. Kaminski's book says that Obi-wan was 25, and I'm prepared to accept that. At the very least, all evidence seems to point to Obi-wan being in his mid-to-late 20s.

In our world, though, 22 is old enough to graduate from college. (Also – to skip ahead a bit – that's how old Anakin is in Episode III, by which time he's clearly been a full Jedi for a while. And Luke, after what appears to be maybe a year of training of most, achieves Jedihood at age 23.) And we know from the prequels that Jedi training normally begins during childhood. So what is Obi-wan's problem? Why is he still following Qui-gon around as an apprentice at age 25?

Here's a thought. In The Empire Strikes Back, you may recall Yoda saying that Luke had “much anger in him” and the ghostly Obi-wan replying “Was I any different when you taught me?” You may also recall fans being annoyed when the young Obi-wan in Episode I seemingly contradicted Yoda's statement by turning out to be kind of a wallflower.

Well, here's my fan theory. I think Obi-wan was not a good student. Maybe he got held back a bunch of times due to bad grades, or getting in fights with other younglings or something. We know from Episodes II and IV that he likes to go to the pub more than you might expect a Jedi to do, and that he's friends with some dodgy characters. So maybe when we see him in Episode I, he is as square as he is because he's been trying hard to put some youthful mistakes behind him.

It's also possible that the plot of Episode I was originally intended to have Obi-wan in the Qui-gon mentor role, but Lucas changed his mind and decided to make Obi-wan an apprentice. But I like my theory better.

4. The Emperor is REALLY old by the time he meets Luke.

The actual Star Wars films never say what kind of calendar the characters use in this universe. However, Star Wars spinoffs apparently date everything relative to the Battle of Yavin, i.e. the attack on the first Death Star in the original Star Wars (Episode IV).

So the prequels take place in the years BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin), while The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi take place in the years ABY (After the Battle of Yavin). I don't think this is supposed to be the dating system actually used by the characters, merely a way for authors and fans to keep track of the time scale.

Anyway, Episode I takes place in 32 BBY. According to , Palpatine was 30 years old in 52 BBY, so that would make him 50 years old during Episode I. (Actor Ian McDiarmid was about 53 when the movie was filmed.)

Episode II takes place ten years later, in 22 BBY. Anakin is now 19 (about a year younger than Hayden Christensen was), Obi-wan is 35 (about 6 years older than Ewan McGregor), Padme is 24 (about 3 years older than Natalie Portman), and Palpatine is 60 (7 years older than Ian McDiarmid).

Episode III, made three years later, takes place after another three years, in 19 BBY. Since Luke and Leia are born at the end of the movie, and Episode IV (the original film) is set in 0 BBY, it doesn't take a math genius to work out that Luke and Leia are 19 during the original film (about right for Carrie Fisher, though Mark Hamill was about 4 years older during filming). By then Vader (nee Anakin) is 41, the soon-to-be-late Obi-wan is 57, and Palpatine – though we don't see him in that film – is 82!

As in the real world, Episode V is three years after Episode IV, but only a year passes between Episodes V and VI. Nonetheless, when Luke confronts Emperor Palpatine, he's dealing with a dude who is 86. No wonder he walks with a cane.


Now here's a fun one. Take two franchises that were never intended to be in the same universe, make a couple of unloved movies to unite the two, and then make a prequel to one series that actually takes place in the future of the other series.

If we put all these stories in chronological order, then …

1. What happens in gang-ruled, near-future 1997 L.A. stays in gang-ruled, near-future 1997 L.A.

We begin with the movie Predator (which came out in 1987, so presumably took place then), followed by Predator 2, set in the then-future L.A. of 1997 (it was released in 1990).

Then … we get Alien vs. Predator in 2004. That film's sequel, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, apparently also takes place in 2004. In neither film do I recall the characters recollecting the not-so-long-ago days when L.A. was a post-apocalyptic hellhole. But I haven't seen those films since they came out, so I don't remember.

The Predators go it alone again in Predators, released in 2010. I haven't seen it but am assuming it took place in the present. Apparently the Predators stopped bothering us by the time we mastered space travel.

2. The crew of the Nostromo really were the absolute last people to find about these aliens.

One thing I've noticed is that when a past-its-prime franchise gets an overdue reboot, the last and most hated installment before the reboot actually seems to lead directly into the reboot. The TV show Enterprise wasn't very popular, but it's an attempt to be a grittier prequel to the Kirk era, and in hindsight it seems entirely fitting that it would be followed by the J.J. Abrams' Trek film, which brings us to the era of a young Kirk. Similarly, everything Doctor Who fans criticized about the 1996 TV movie – the Doctor-companion romance, the slick production values, the bombastic score, the baffling and sentimental deus ex machina ending – in hindsight seems to predict the exact formula that made the modern series an instant hit under Russell T Davies.

What I'm getting at is this: The Alien vs. Predator films aren't gonna top any Sight & Sound poll any time soon, but what seemed like the silliest thing about them when they came out – the idea that Earth already knew about these aliens years before Ripley and company discovered them for the first time – ended up being the very same idea that Ridley Scott's eagerly anticipated prequel Prometheus bet all its chips on.

So 2010's Predators is followed, 13 years later, by Peter Weyland's TED Talk from 2023 – you know, that viral promotional video that came out before Prometheus did. The actual movie Prometheus – apart from its infamously cryptic opening – apparently begins in 2089; the ship takes until 2093 to arrive at the planet where they first discover the aliens. (Who already visited Earth in 2004 – did I mention that?)

According to and , the original Alien takes place in 2122, so it's just a mere 29 years after Prometheus that Ripley and the gang encounter the aliens on a different planet. The Weyland-Yutani corporation must have done an excellent job covering up both of humanity's 21st-century encounters with these aliens, or else the Nostromo crew might have been better prepared.

3. Ships can travel faster than light, but not that well.

As I indicated above, the crew of Prometheus leave Earth in 2089 and arrive at LV-223 in 2093. That's four years. So obviously it takes a long time to get from one star system or another. You can't just hit the hyperdrive and get there quickly.

Or can you? Consider that in the real world, the nearest star to our sun (Alpha Centauri) is more than 4 light-years away. Meaning that's how long it takes light – the fastest thing in the universe – to travel that far.

Dialogue in Alien indicates that the planet they're visiting (later christened LV-426 in Aliens) is in the vicinity of Zeta Reticuli, a star which in reality is 39 light-years away from Earth. But as one of the commenters here points out, in the film it apparently is considered possible to get home to Earth from there in 10 months. (And when that estimate is announced in the movie, it's greeted with a groan, indicating that that's actually an unusually long time.)

Without faster-than-light travel, you probably couldn't even get out of the solar system in 10 months, so it seems safe to assume that faster-than-light travel is involved. It's just not as advanced as the faster-than-light travel seen elsewhere in the sci-fi genre, since traveling between the stars seems to take months or years, rather than days or hours. It's more like going on a ship would have been in the days of Columbus. So 4 years is considered a reasonable travel time, but 57 years is not ...

4. This saga spans a huge time frame, during which not much seems to change.

Aliens, of course, takes place 57 years after Alien, since that's how long Ripley has been told her shuttlecraft had been drifting in space. Since we only hear that information in a scene that turns out to be a dream (something that confused me as a kid, frankly) I wouldn't be at all upset if someone decided to ret-con it away, but it seems to still be considered canon.

57 years ago in our world, hard drives and videotape were brand-new inventions. Segregation still existed. So did the Soviet Union. We hadn't yet put a man on the moon. Someone who'd been in hibernation for 57 years would have a lot of catching up to do. But in the Alien universe, there don't appear to have been any giant advances in that time. Space travel seems to be the same. Androids seem to be the same.

We're never quite told when Alien 3 takes place, but Alien Resurrection apparently takes place 200 years after that. Again, no big technological, cultural or political shifts seem to have occurred in the three centuries since the time of Prometheus and Alien.

I don't have any witty point to wrap all this up with, except this: They should do an Expendables-style teamup of the various main characters from this double franchise. Bring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny Glover, Sanaa Lathan, Lance Henriksen and Noomi Rapace out of cryosleep to team up with the cloned Ripley so they can fight off the Aliens and Predators at the same time. I can't remember if Ron Perlman's character was still alive at the end of Alien Resurrection, but if not then clone him too.


If you think you know who's buried in Grant's tomb, or how long the Hundred Years War lasted, then you probably feel brave enough to hazard a guess as to what year 2001: A Space Odyssey took place in. (Clue: the title.)

Well, not so fast, wiseass. There's a big old “18 MONTHS LATER” intertitle separating the early Heywood Floyd scenes (in which the monolith on the moon is discovered) and the later scenes of Dave, Frank and HAL aboard Discovery. So which part takes place in 2001?

It seems reasonable to assume that the Dave/HAL stuff, which makes up the bulk of the drama, is the part that takes place in 2001. If so, then when did the Heywood Floyd stuff take place? If the HAL stuff is in the second half of 2001, then the Heywood stuff is in early 2000. But if the HAL stuff is in the first half of 2001, then the HAL stuff is in late 1999.

The movie itself doesn't offer many clues, other than Heywood being told by a colleague that she hopes to see him at a conference in June. Which doesn't necessarily help. However, an easily forgotten fact is that 2001 is actually a minor franchise – it spawned a series of novels, one of which was made into a cinematic sequel. So let's see what the movie 2010 has to tell us.

The opening titles tell us that, yup, the monolith was discovered in 1999, and that Discovery was lost in 2001. Later dialogue in the film says that the order given to HAL which led to his breakdown was dated January 30, 2001. I'm guessing this was slightly before the HAL scenes shown in the movie, so the HAL scenes have to take place no earlier than February 2001 ... but also no later than June 2001, in order for the Heywood stuff to take place in late 1999 rather than 2000.

Which raises the next question … when does 2010 take place? As in the previous film, there are scenes set before and after the long journey to Jupiter. In an early scene, Heywood tells his son that it will take two and a half years to go and come back. So half of that round trip is 15 months (fuel efficiency has apparently improved since 2001). Assuming that the bulk of the drama is in 2010, when does the beginning of the movie take place?

There's a big honking close-up of a Time magazine cover during the latter part of the movie, but the date is out of focus. The month looks like a long word – so it's either one of the ones ending in “ary” or one of the ones ending in “ber”. If it's an “ary” month, then it's early 2010, so the opening scenes could be late 2008 or early 2009. But if it's a “ber” month, then it's late 2010, so the opening scenes would be late 2009. Screw it, let's just say 2009 and call it a day, especially since it's a future vision that never came true anyway.

Well, that was a fun waste of time. But if you want to know the correct chronologies of River Song, Jack Harkness or the Daleks, you're on your own.