STARDATES IN STAR TREK FAQ -- Part II
Last update: Feb 15 1997
by Andrew Main
1996-03-28, stardate [-31]7269.00
PART II: THEORIES OF STARDATES
Originally, stardates were used so that Star Trek could be established as
taking place a long way into the future without actually being pinned down to
a particular time. The stardates were arbitrary, chosen without regard to
consistency. The only thing that was consistent was that the stardates
generally increased. However, because episodes got out of order in the
production sequence, and were shown in a different order again, even this
could not be relied upon from week to week.
Furthermore, even ignoring obvious verbal slips, the stardate ranges of
episodes occasionally overlapped, and stardates sometimes even decreased
within the confines of a single episode. When pressed for an explanation,
Gene Roddenberry said:
This time system adjusts for shifts in relative time which
occur due to the vessel's speed and space warp capability.
It has little relationship to Earth's time as we know it.
One hour aboard the U.S.S.Enterprise at different times
may equal as little as three Earth hours. The stardates
specified in the log entry must be computed against the
speed of the vessel, the space warp, and its position
within our galaxy, in order to give a meaningful reading.
Roddenberry went on to explain that stardates would be different in different
parts of the galaxy at any one time. He admitted that he didn't really
understand this, and would rather forget about the whole thing. And that was
when there was only ST:TOS to consider.
Roddenberry's explanation does make some sense. It seems to suggest that
stardates are completely subjective. This will be dealt with in the next
section. Contradicting this, however, is the suggestion that position is
relevant to the calculation. This part of his explanation, at least, must be
discounted on the grounds of absurdity. His explanation is not canonical, so
it may be treated like any other theory.
A common theory, picking up on part of Roddenberry's explanation, is that
stardates are measured subjectively by each different starship. This means
that relativistic time distortions, caused by travelling at impulse speeds,
cause stardate rates to vary from an objective point of view.
Such a system would be useless across the Starfleet, because stardate X to the
Enterprise would be stardate Y to the Potemkin, and stardate Z to the
Sutherland. This situation is obviously not very helpful when arranging a
To be useful, stardates must be universal, and the computers will have to
allow for time dilation. The computers available in the 20th century are
capable of compensating for this effect, so it is certainly possible in the
II.3. MISSION-BASED STARDATES
Another theory is that stardates refer only to the ship's current mission, but
increase at an objectively constant rate. This is an improvement over the
previous theory, because different ships' stardates would differ by constant
values only. This theory has also been used to give some very plausible
relative dates for ST:TOS.
However, it doesn't account for the Earthbound use of stardates, or the
demonstrated universality of stardates in ST:TNG. Furthermore, if each ship
has its own subjective epoch, it seems most odd that all stardates would
increase at the same rate. The only type of stardates that would be of any
use would be those referring to a single standard timebase (i.e. the
Federation Timebase), and having the same origin for everyone.
The constraint of universality makes matters a little complicated, because it
means that the rate of increase of stardates is not totally constant. For
example, the duration of the ST:TNG series is confirmed within itself to have
lasted about seven years, during which time the stardate has increased almost
7000 units. This is irreconcilable with the fact that SD 5943.7 to SD 7411.4
was more than two years (ST:TMP).
It has been suggested in numerous places that stardates are actually Julian
dates, as used by 20th century astronomers, modulo 10000. This would make
each stardate unit exactly 24 hours. This works well at some points in Trek
history. Unfortunately, it makes the `five-year mission' some thirteen years
It has been suggested, in jest, that stardates are actually hexadecimal, and
that it is merely coincidence that only decimal digits have been heard so far.
This is worth mentioning, in order to point out that this FAQ proceeds on the
basis that all stardates are specified in decimal.
It is interesting to note, however, that the distribution of digits is far
from uniform. A canonical stardate ending in ".8" is a real rarity, though
not totally unknown. The distribution of single decimal digit fractional
parts, according to the most up-to-date episode list I can get at the time of
writing, is thus:
Digit Occurrences Proportion
0 8 2.34%
1 54 15.79%
2 73 21.34%
3 58 16.96%
4 48 14.04%
5 34 9.94%
6 17 4.97%
7 28 8.19%
8 6 1.75%
9 16 4.68%
Total 342 100.00%
It used to be widely stated that the first digit of ST:TNG stardates was 4
because it was set in the 24th century. Obviously, this idea can have no
place in a proper theory, because it would make each century ten years long.
It is, however, the way this digit was decided initially for ST:TNG. The
Voyager episode "Basics, Part II" finally canonically laid this bit of bunkum
to rest, when it announced a stardate of 50032.7, while remaining firmly in
the 24th century (2373 to be precise).
Many people have noted that between ST:TOS and ST:TNG, as well as the stardate
system being revised, the warp factor scale changed. The warp scale had
previously had no upper bound on warp factors, but the new scale has a maximum
of warp 10, which is defined as infinite speed. (See the Warp Speeds FAQ for
futher information.) It has been suggested that both changes happened a the
same time, possibly as the result of the same new knowledge about the nature
of time, warp drive, and the interaction of the two.
However, it actually appears that the warp scale changed sometime during the
classic film series, well before TNG stardates were used. Consequently the
two changes can not have occurred at the same time.
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