Star Trek superfans are sticklers for canon. Star Trek’s official lore spans centuries, from obscure millennia past to the far-flung future of the 31st century. When J.J. Abrams and his production team set out to create a new version of Star Trek in the form of the 2009 film of the same name, they knew they had to address a daunting question. How could they reinvent iconic characters like Captain Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy without trampling on decades worth of lore?
The answer to that question is the most clever conceit of the current feature film series: Rather than violate canon or create a prequel to the original show, the production team decided to create an alternate reality.
That means the new films are not a reboot of the original Star Trek. Rather, they exist in a separate yet parallel universe to the six TV shows and 10 films that came before. It may seem like a small semantic shift, but it allayed any fears Star Trek fans had that Abrams would barge his way in and obliterate 40 years of existing Trek history.
Even better, Abrams and team actually created a fictional reason for this new timeline (known now as the Kelvin Timeline) to exist, then tied it directly to events that occurred in the original timeline (aka the Prime Timeline).
So how exactly did the Kelvin Timeline come about, and what’s happened since?
Romulus Is Destroyed (Prime Year 2387)
In the year 2387, almost 20 years after the events of The Next Generation, a supernova threatened the entire galaxy. In its path was the planet Romulus, the capital of the Romulan Star Empire. Spock, whose long Vulcan lifespan allowed him to live for over 100 years after Star Trek: The Original Series, promised to help the Romulans. Armed with a substance known as red matter that could disrupt the supernova, Spock took a Vulcan ship to Romulus — but it was too late. The supernova destroyed Romulus. Spock launched the red matter anyway to stop any further destruction.
A Romulan mining ship called the Narada, commanded by a Romulan named Nero, witnessed the planet’s destruction and found Spock. Nero, enraged by the destruction of his planet and the death of his pregnant wife, blamed Spock for what happened. Both the Narada and Spock’s ship came too close to the black hole created by the red matter. They were both sucked in, with the Narada going in first.
And that’s where the Kelvin Timeline begins…
The Narada and the Kelvin (Kelvin Year 2233)
Over 100 years earlier, in 2233, the Federation starship U.S.S. Kelvin intercepted strange readings on the Klingon border. They went to the source of the readings and found the black hole, with the Narada emerging from it soon after. The Narada immediately attacked the Kelvin, and Nero realized that he and his entire crew had gone back in time to the 23rd century. George Kirk, the first officer aboard the Kelvin, commanded his ship after the death of his captain.
At the same time, his wife Winona gave birth to a son: James Tiberius Kirk. Only minutes after the future Captain Kirk’s birth aboard an escape shuttle, the Kelvin was destroyed, taking George Kirk with it.
It was this event that sparked the beginning of the Kelvin Timeline. The destruction of the Kelvin didn’t happen in the timeline Nero came from. George Kirk lived to old age and watched his son become captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. By virtue of Nero’s arrival and the ripple effect it caused, history would be very different in this new universe.
Nero, meanwhile, went into exile, having calculated that because of time displacement, it would not be another 25 years until Spock arrived from the future.
Kirk and Spock Begin (Kelvin Year 2258)
The young Kirk and Spock both began their lives in a new reality. Kirk, raised without a father, became rebellious and was often in trouble with the law in Iowa. Yet he was still gifted. The half-human Spock grappled with his emotions while growing up on Vulcan. He joined Starfleet and became first officer on the Enterprise, under the command of Christopher Pike. Kirk also joined Starfleet on advice from Captain Pike.
In 2258, Nero finally captured Spock Prime. Intent on revenge, Nero used red matter to destroy Vulcan. Starfleet sent an armada, crewed largely by available cadets from Starfleet Academy, in order to find out what was happening. The Enterprise, upon which Cadet Kirk had snuck on board after he was put on academic suspension, arrived late to find the armada destroyed. Nero spared the Enterprise only because he knew the young Spock would be aboard. Pike was captured by the Romulans, but not before he placed Spock in command and appointed Kirk as first officer.
A disagreement over what to do next led Spock to abandon Kirk on a snowy world near Vulcan. Kirk met Spock Prime there and learned about what happened in the other timeline. With the help of Montgomery Scott (Scotty), who was stationed at an outpost, Kirk transported back to the Enterprise and emotionally compromised Spock, forcing him to step down as acting captain. Kirk took command and led the crew to rescue Captain Pike and destroy the Narada. Pike was promoted to Admiral, while Kirk became captain of the Enterprise.
The new crew soon set out on their mission. By that point, the other classic characters of Leonard McCoy, Nyota Uhura, Hikaru Sulu, and Pavel Chekov also joined the crew throughout the course of the mission to stop Nero.
Starfleet’s Militarization (Kelvin Years 2258-2259)
After Vulcan was destroyed, Starfleet — under the command of Admiral Alexander Marcus — began searching distant quadrants of space. Their objective was to find anything they could use to strengthen Starfleet. Not only could that prevent a future disaster like Vulcan, but Marcus also believed that war with the Klingons was imminent. He wanted that war. He wanted to win it, and he believed he was the only one who could. The militarization of Starfleet had begun.
While searching, Starfleet discovered the Botany Bay, a 20th-century spaceship from Earth that carried genetically-engineered humans. These humans, known as Augments, were led by Khan Noonien Singh. Khan and his crew had been frozen in cryosleep since the 1990s, and Marcus awoke only Khan.
Under the new identity of Commander John Harrison, Khan was forced into working for Section 31, a covert black ops group in Starfleet, to design new weapons and ships that could benefit from Khan’s savagery. Marcus used Khan’s crew against him, but Khan eventually placed them inside the torpedoes he had built and tried to smuggle them to safety. Khan was discovered, and he was forced to flee Starfleet alone.
Khan’s Wrath (Kelvin Year 2259)
Khan believed his crew was dead, so he set out for revenge against Marcus and Starfleet. He bombed a Section 31 base in London, prompting the fleet captains and their first officers to gather in San Francisco. Among those present were Pike, Kirk, and Spock. Kirk had lost command of the Enterprise after violating the Prime Directive, and he was reassigned to be first officer under Pike, who retook command of the ship. Khan attacked the officers and killed many of them, Pike included, giving Kirk his own thirst for revenge.
Khan found refuge on the Klingon homeworld, which was where Marcus — who wanted to use this as a pretext for war — ordered Kirk to take the Enterprise to kill “John Harrison” with the torpedoes Khan had designed. Instead, Spock convinced Kirk to capture “Harrison” and return him to Earth for trial. Kirk then learned that Harrison was really Khan.
Marcus soon arrived aboard an experimental starship called the Vengeance. Never intending for Kirk to make it away from the Klingon homeworld alive, Marcus fired on the Enterprise. Kirk and Khan teamed up to space jump from the damaged Enterprise to the Vengeance, which Scotty had snuck onboard earlier and disabled. There, they could capture Marcus and rescue his daughter, Carol Marcus, a member of the Enterprise crew.
Once aboard, Khan betrayed Kirk, killed Admiral Marcus, and demanded that Spock beam the Augment-filled torpedoes to the Vengeance. Once Spock did so, Khan returned the Enterprise crew members and opened fire. The Enterprise was critically damaged, but Spock played his trump card: He detonated the torpedoes in the Vengeance launch bay, after having Dr. McCoy remove the Augments while they were still on the Enterprise. The Enterprise nearly crashed before Kirk sacrificed his life to save the ship, while Khan crashed the dying Vengeance into the heart of San Francisco.
Spock, enraged at the death of Kirk, chased Khan through San Francisco. McCoy, meanwhile, realized that Khan’s blood had regenerative properties that could return Kirk to life. Uhura transported to San Francisco, where she convinced Spock to capture Khan instead of killing him. Kirk returned to life because of the blood, while Khan was placed into cryosleep once again. One year later, the refitted Enterprise was assigned a new journey: a five-year mission to explore where no one has gone before.
The Five-Year Mission (Kelvin Year 2263)
WARNING: Major Plot Spoilers for Star Trek Beyond Follow!
After spending so much time in deep space, the crew of the Enterprise became listless. Even Captain Kirk, always the adventurer, thought things were getting a little too routine. A stop at a space station called Yorktown, though, gave them a new mission: rescuing a crew stranded on a planet cloaked inside a nebula. The Enterprise traveled to this strange new world only to be immediately attacked and destroyed by a crew of drone ships. Kirk was the last person to depart the ship, watching the saucer of the Enterprise crash onto the surface from his escape pod.
With most of the crew captured by the leader of the drone swarm, a mysterious alien warrior named Krall, Kirk and the others who weren’t captured regrouped and find their crewmates with the help of a stranded warrior named Jaylah. They ended up boarding the crashed remains of a 22nd-century starship called the USS Franklin, that disappeared in the early 2160s and was never heard from again. The crew repaired the Franklin, which Jaylah had been working on for several years after making the ship her home, and rescued the rest of their crew.
It was then that they learned the truth: Krall was actually Balthazar Eddison, the captain of the Franklin, who had used alien technology to keep himself alive — at the cost of extreme physical mutation. And he had a beef with the Federation: He was a soldier in the Xindi War and the Earth-Romulan War, who felt he was forgotten when peace was achieved and the Federation never rescued his crew. For a century, Krall searched for an ancient artifact known as the Abronath that could power a bioweapon from the planet, and he attacked the Enterprise once he learned it was aboard.
Flying the Franklin, Kirk and his crew followed Krall to Yorktown, where Krall intended to unleash the bioweapon against millions of Federation citizens. Kirk defeated Krall, who was sucked into space and killed. Through his dealings with Krall, who had a similar identity crisis, Kirk came to remember that being a starship captain was his first, best destiny, and that he lived for the adventure with his crew. The crew was given a new starship, the USS Enterprise-A, and they resumed their five-year mission to explore where no one has gone before.
Star Trek Beyond is in theaters now.