Star Trek episodes often refer to the “star date.” What exactly is a “star date”? How does it equate to our calendar? Or is it merely sitcom disinformation? –Evan Williams, Austin, Texas

Details are for guys who get paid by the hour, sport. Star dates were among hundreds of unexplained terms thrown into Star Trek by scriptwriters whose main objectives were plausibility, a space-poetical ring, and meeting deadlines. The dates in the original show (which ran 1966-69) were of the form 0000.0 and were assigned pretty much at random; the producers merely kept a list to avoid duplication. The numbers meant nothing at first, but eventually it was agreed that the units were roughly equivalent to earth days and the decimals were tenths thereof.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation things are more systematic. One production staffer is “keeper of the star dates” and parcels them out to the episode writers to avoid mix-ups. The numbers are of the form 40000.0, sometimes with two decimal places. The initial 4 was assigned arbitrarily, the second digit refers to the season, and the remaining three usually progress from low to high as the season progresses. But everybody is still pretty vague on what the numbers mean in the context of the show.

Not that star dates don’t have a rationale. Something of the sort would certainly be required on an actual starship. We know from the theory of relativity that time is local, not universal. When a starship approaches the speed of light, time aboard it slows down from the perspective of us here on earth but continues to hum along at the usual rate for the passengers. Trying to use earth time aboard the Enterprise would have required speeding up the calendar abruptly every time Kirk had Scotty pour on the ions. Better to use “ship time,” that is, time as measured on the ship’s own clocks. Ship date 1000.5 would mean noon (.5) on day 1000, presumably the thousandth day since the launching of the ship. “Ship date” doesn’t sound as snappy as “star date,” which falsely suggests there is some universal “star time” (although see below), but I suppose we can allow for a little dramatic license.

Trouble is, star dates don’t follow this logical scheme. During the original series star dates ranged from 1312.4 to 5943.7 –a span of 4,600 days, or about 12 and a half years. We know from the opening voice-over that the Enterprise was on a five-year mission. This means that either (1) Kirk and friends were running up some serious overtime, (2) there’s more to star dates than meets the eye, or (3) nobody in the show gave the matter a moment’s thought. The real answer is obvious, but Bjo Trimble’s Star Trek Concordance (1976), written with some input from producer Gene Roddenberry, gamely attempts to account for things by saying star dates are “a function not only of time but of a ship’s position in the galaxy and its velocity.” How mere mortals could cope with a calendar of such breathtaking complexity is not explained.

Another problem is that several episodes in the original series took place only a star date or two apart, even though they seem to cram in a lot more than 24 hours’ worth of action. “What Little Girls Are Made Of” begins on star date 2712.4, “Miri” on 2713.5, and “Dagger of the Mind” on 2715.1. The Concordance ventures the explanation that “warp drive distorts time.” This suggests two things: first, star time is universal and not local (in fact the current assumption is that star dates are not peculiar to a given ship but are standard throughout the Federation); and second, inertial (e.g., earth) time would pass more slowly than ship’s time, the opposite of what Einstein told us actually occurs. Bjo cheerfully concedes this is a little feeble but says it was the best they could do to make the “theory” fit the numbers in the show. I say they should have admitted Kirk was sniffing dilithium crystals while making entries in the log.

One flub left Bjo no choice. The episode “Spock’s Brain” starts on 5431.4, but mid-show the date is inexplicably given as 4351.5. “The horror of having Spock’s brain stolen does strange things to his friends’ minds,” she notes drily. “Among other mistakes, the wrong star date is entered in the log.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.