Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Season 1 and the trailers for Season 2. Spoilers are also present for the following: Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Discovery Season 2.
Star Trek’s internal timeline gets a little inconsistent when it comes to the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. If we take a “canon purist” approach, we have to say that the Star Trek timeline diverged from our own around the 1960s, with events like Khan ruling a large portion of the world taking place in the ’80s or early ’90s, before the Eugenics Wars saw him defeated. Obviously that doesn’t line up with stories like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the Voyager two-part episode Future’s End, or even Enterprise’s Carpenter Street, all of which depicted the modern world unchanged by those events.
The Third World War is a part of Star Trek’s internal timeline that was first introduced in The Next Generation’s premiere episode, Encounter at Farpoint. Episodes of The Original Series had talked about the Eugenics Wars and other conflicts on Earth, but Gene Roddenberry had been keen to avoid mention of World War III during the show’s run in the 1960s. Some episodes, such as Season 2’s The Doomsday Machine, actively went out of their way to say that such a conflict had never happened on Earth – an apparent contradiction to what would come later.
It was the film First Contact that elaborated on some of the ideas first posited in Encounter at Farpoint and thus gave us a better look at Earth in this era. Though we knew that nuclear attacks were part of the conflict, it was First Contact that first showed that some of these attacks had impacted North America, and that the conflict was fought between the United States and her allies on one side and the so-called “Eastern Coalition” on the other. Some of these moments would be shown or explored further in Enterprise’s fourth season, and most recently World War III has appeared in Discovery’s second season.
Although the Third World War has been an integral part of Star Trek’s fictional history for more than thirty years, that’s about the extent of what we know. There was a major conflict which occurred in the first half of the 21st Century, it killed hundreds of millions, there was a limited exchange of nuclear weapons (i.e. the planet wasn’t completely destroyed), and it took Earth a generation to recover – with more than a little help from the Vulcans. But this article isn’t just a history of the conflict within Star Trek’s timeline – because something in the promotional material for Star Trek: Picard Season 2 could suggest a return to this era.
When I took a look at the second Star Trek: Picard Season 2 trailer a couple of weeks ago I also looked at a newly-released poster which appears to show a modern-day city – probably Los Angeles in the United States. If the poster is supposed to represent Los Angeles circa 2021, well the timeline starts to line up for a possible World War III story.
In the real world, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of technological advancements made in wartime. The First World War saw the invention of tanks and the further development of aircraft. The Second World War gave us computers, rockets, and splitting the atom. Even recent conflicts like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars saw incredible developments in medical technology. Taking inspiration from the real world, Star Trek’s World War III is similarly an incredibly important event. The Third World War led directly to the development of warp drive in the 2060s, and thus to first contact with the Vulcans and to humanity becoming an interstellar species. The Federation would not exist without it – at least, not in a form we would recognise.
And that’s at the heart of this theory. In order for everything we know of in Star Trek’s internal history to have come to pass, World War III needed to happen. It was a devastating conflict that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, but what emerged from the wreckage was United Earth and ultimately the Federation.
In the first teaser trailer, we heard Picard say in voiceover that “time can turn even our most impulsive, ill-considered actions into history.” He also spoke in a regretful way about “what could have been” and tells us that time does not offer “second chances.” In the second trailer, Q told Picard that he had come to “the very end of the road not taken.” We also saw what appeared to be significant changes to the timeline for Picard, Raffi, Rios, and Seven of Nine, as well as possible changes for Soji as well.
It seemed from the first teaser as though Picard was talking about events in his own past – that teaser also featured prominently a model of the USS Stargazer, from which I derived a few other theories! Picard is someone who we know cares about history a great deal and has studied it in depth, but nothing from the first teaser gave me the impression that he was talking about anything outside of his own personal experience. Whatever he was lamenting or regretting seemed to be within his own past – not an event from centuries earlier to which he had no significant emotional connection.
Although Picard did spend several days in the 21st Century, shortly after the end of World War III, he doesn’t exactly have a strong tie to the war or even to that time period, certainly not enough to have any motivation to change or undo events in that era. Picard is as far removed from the events of World War III in the 24th Century as we are from the events of the early 1700s – and I can’t imagine anyone nowadays would feel strongly about the Jacobite Rising or the War of the Spanish Succession. Those events – and many others – are just too far in the past to be something we care about, even if the impact is still felt today in some respects.
So I’m not suggesting that Picard would deliberately seek to prevent World War III – even if he found himself able to do so, somehow. But the second trailer showed off some pretty significant changes to the timeline, and combined with a poster that appears to be teasing a contemporary setting, the possibility of a World War III storyline has come up.
It seems like the story of Picard Season 2 will deal with some kind of alternate timeline – that’s what I infer from Q’s “road not taken” line, as well as the changes to characters like Seven of Nine and Rios. Picard was also heard in voiceover promising his new crew that they can “save the future,” which seems to add to this idea of something going wrong in the past causing things to change.
When we deal with alternate history and alternate timelines, practically every story hinges on a so-called “point of divergence.” This is the moment at which the real timeline and the alternate one separated. In alternate history novels, popular points of divergence include the American Civil War, with a Confederate victory being a common one, as well as World War II, with an Axis victory being similarly used. In Star Trek, a point of divergence between the Prime Timeline – the one which runs from Enterprise to Picard and beyond – could be World War III. What would the timeline look like if it didn’t happen, or happened in a different way?
It could be that the poster is teeing this up. In the background, behind the skyscrapers in the centre of the city, is a glow. That glow could be a sunrise or sunset – it looks like the right colour. But it could also be something far more sinister – the afterglow of a nuclear bomb, perhaps? Maybe that’s a stretch! But it would definitely tie into this World War III theme.
There are still two big questions, even if we assume that this theory is true and that the point of divergence has something to do with World War III. Firstly, what happened to cause the divergence in the first place? In Star Trek, these things don’t just happen naturally! Every change in the timeline that we know of had a cause – the intervention of some nefarious time-traveller. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, why are Picard and the crew of La Sirena seemingly immune to these changes in the timeline? Q’s intervention is a possible explanation for the second point, perhaps, presenting Picard with another time-mystery to solve. But I’m not convinced that’s how the story will go.
All of this leads to an interesting moral conundrum for Picard. If we’re right and, somehow, World War III was prevented and that’s the reason for changes to the timeline, it could fall to Picard and the crew of La Sirena to trigger the worst war in history in order to restore the timeline. How’s that for a horrible decision?! Imagine being told that you had the power to prevent the First World War, and all of the misery and death that resulted from it, but that doing so would make the world worse. Instead, you have to actively choose to cause this horrible conflict in order to preserve the timeline and “save” the future. That could be Picard’s choice in Season 2 if this theory is correct.
Aside from the poster with its seemingly-modern city and some dialogue about time and changing the past, there’s no real evidence for this theory yet! Much of what we saw in the second trailer – which is the only time we’ve seen Picard and the others – may very well suggest that any changes to the timeline take place closer to the 24th Century than the 21st. But it’s interesting to consider the possibilities, especially in light of the Season 2 poster.
To summarise, then, here’s the theory in a couple of sentences: for an as-yet unknown reason, the timeline was changed to prevent World War III. This had major consequences for humanity and the Federation, and the only way to restore the timeline and save the future is to ensure World War III happens – and this is what Picard and the crew of La Sirena will have to do.
It would be quite a dark story if Season 2 goes down this road – or anywhere close to it. But it would be very interesting to see the crew wrangling with these big moral questions and issues. It could lead to quite a lot of drama! Q’s inclusion in the season would make sense, not as the cause of changes to the timeline, but as the figure who steps in to guide Picard in his understanding of those changes. It would also explain the poster, which came completely out of left-field!
Having had two teasers already, with the latest dropping only a couple of weeks ago, it may be some time before we hear anything more out of Star Trek: Picard Season 2. So all we have to go on right now is the poster and the first couple of teaser trailers! It’s not a lot, and there are certainly many different ways to interpret things. In this theory I’ve focused on how the poster could be depicting the 21st Century, but that may not be the case. Changes to the timeline could have caused the 24th Century to become less technological, and the poster could instead depict Los Angeles in the year 2399!
I’m very much looking forward to Picard Season 2, and I’m still hopeful that we’ll eventually see spin-offs and other Star Trek projects set in the same era. If and when we get any more news or another poster or trailer, check back as I’m sure I’ll have more to say!
Star Trek: Picard Season 2 will be broadcast on Paramount+ in the United States (and on Amazon Prime Video in the UK and elsewhere) in 2022. The Star Trek franchise – including Picard and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.