In Captain Kirk's immortal opening monologue for the original Star Trek, he tells us that the starship Enterprise is on a "five-year mission" of exploration. But as the newest episode of Star Trek: Discovery proves, that famous five-year mission was in no way the first five-year mission the Enterprise embarked upon. In Discovery's Season 2 premiere episode, "Brother," we learn that during the Klingon War in Season 1, the Enterprise was away on its "five-year mission." So what's the deal? How many five-year missions did the Enterprise have? Did Discovery contradict canon with this? Or fix it?
**SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, Episode 1, "Brother."**
Long before Discovery existed, the history of the original series' USS Enterprise has always been a little murky. Viewers of the first season in 1966 would have assumed that Captain Kirk was the first and only captain of the ship, up until the famous two-part episode "The Menagerie," in which it was revealed that there was a captain of the Enterprise before Kirk: Captain Pike. In the episode, Spock mentions he served with Pike for "11 years, four months, five days." That's a long time! And on Discovery it seems we're either witnessing the very end of Spock and Pike serving together or the middle of that partnership. Confused? That's normal, because Discovery exists in a weird part of Star Trek history — an era that's actually defining more than it's contradicting. Here's the background.
First of all, the whole existence of Captain Pike is one of the first Trek retcons ever. Famously, the first pilot episode for Star Trek was "The Cage," an episode featuring Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Number One (Majel Barrett), and other characters tangoing with the mind-powers of the big-headed aliens called the Talosians. Trek's network at the time — NBC — rejected this pilot outright, and asked creator Gene Roddenberry to give it another try.
By the time he did, Hunter had declined to return as Pike, and a new character, Captain Kirk, as played by William Shatner, was created instead. Cleverly, Roddenberry later decided to just use the footage NBC rejected for his pilot episode and turn it into a "flashback" in a different story. Thus we got the episode "The Menagerie," in which a rejected pilot episode of Star Trek instantly became retroactive canon. Back then, Trek was sort of vague about the exact years everything took place, but it's generally agreed now that "The Cage" happened in 2254 (that's just two years before Discovery's first episode in 2256), while the events of "The Menagerie" happened in 2267. As such, 13 years pass between "The Cage" and this point of the original series. And here's where things get dicey.
If Spock served with Pike for 11 years, then it seems like the Enterprise went on back-to-back five-year missions. If we work backward from Spock's number in "The Menagerie," and we assume the new episode of Discovery is showing us the end of the most recent five-year mission, then that means Pike and Spock were on two back-to-back five-year missions from 2247 to 2257. If true, this wouldn't contradict canon per se, but it would upend with the long-held assumption that Pike was in command of the Enterprise right up until Kirk took over in 2265. In "The Menagerie," Kirk says he "took over the Enterprise" from Pike, but we don't really know when that happened. It just had to happen at some point before 2265.
But there's another way to make all of this work. Maybe at some point during this new season of Discovery, Spock and Pike will fix the Enterprise and both go back to serving on that ship and bid the crew of Discovery adieu. If that happens, we can shift our timeline a little bit and accommodate a second five-year mission with Spock and Pike that happens from 2257 (the current year on Discovery) to 2262, which totally gives us enough time for Pike to step down and for Kirk to take over in 2265. Hell, maybe everything that happens this year on Discovery takes up one year, four months, and five days, which could account for the weird figure Spock gives in "The Menagerie." This would push the second five-year mission for Pike and Spock to 2258-2263, which, again, works fine with canon.
In other words, if Spock and Pike just did two back-to-back five-year missions, why would Spock have given this strangely specific answer? A normal person would say that's just Spock being Spock, but 10 years would have made a little more sense. That 11th year could be happening in this season of Discovery. It's uncertain whether it's either squeezed in between two five-year missions or it's at the tail end of Pike's last five-year mission, but either way, it works.
In the new episode, Burnham really makes it sound like the Enterprise being on a five-year mission was an impediment to them coming back and helping out with the Klingon War. "You were too far away," she says to Pike. With this detail, it seems like Discovery is using a time-honored Star Trek tradition of playing fast and loose with distances in outer space. In the original series, sometimes it seemed like the Enterprise was in deep space and really far away from planets that had been charted before. After all, that's kinda the point of being an exploratory mission, boldly going where no one has gone before. But at other times, including the first aired episode ever, "The Man Trap," it seems like the Enterprise is just patrolling Federation space.
So, while saying the Enterprise was too far away to come back and help with the Klingon War might sound a little wonky, Star Trek has pulled this kind of thing a lot. What's really interesting about what Burnham says to Pike is the idea that "Enterprise was an instrument of last resort." What does THAT mean? Like, if the whole Federation had been destroyed, would the Enterprise have rolled back into town like a few months later and started acting like the Star Trek version of the Rebel Alliance? It's not clear exactly what Burnham is saying specifically, but it sounds pretty awesome and really dangerous.
So, what was the Enterprise doing during the first season of Discovery, in the year 2256? Well, on July 30, 2019, after the second season of Discovery is good and over, a new Star Trek novel called The Enterprise War will answer that question. As for questions fans have about what will happen with the Enterprise later this season, in the year 2257, and maybe 2258, we'll have to just keep watching.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 airs new episodes on Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access.