Space is really big, and it's common to forget that in storytelling. The tendency to write about vast distances as if they were just a few miles is common, especially in movies. Star Trek is more prone to these mistakes than other movies, because it spends so much time in space. Here are the seven biggest mistakes Star Trek movies have made about distance.

NOTE: This list does contain spoilers for some of the movies described if you haven't seen them.

1. The V'Ger Cloud (Star Trek: The Motion Picture)

In the original theatrical cut, the cloud around V'Ger is described as being "82 AUs" in diameter. While this must have sounded very impressive, it's way too big. An AU is short for astronomical unit, and is roughly the distance between the Earth and the sun (150 million kilometers or eight light-minutes). The average distance between the Sun and Pluto is 39 AUs. 82 AUs would have meant that the V'Ger cloud engulfed our entire solar system. In the DVD director's cut, this was fixed by taking out the "eighty." 2 AUs is a lot more reasonable while still being impressive.

2. The Center of the Galaxy (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier)

In this movie, the crew travels to the center of the galaxy in search of God. Since Kirk is on Earth at the beginning, the Enterprise goes from there to the center of the galaxy in a few days. At one point, Chekov says they're traveling at warp seven. Warp speed is fast, but not that fast. Consider how long it took Voyager to get back to the Alpha Quadrant from the Delta Quadrant. The entire journey from Earth to the center of the galaxy would take decades, not the days it seems to take in the movie. I also wonder why they thought God would be in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Shouldn't God be in the center of the universe? But I digress...

3. Soran's Supernova Bomb (Star Trek: Generations)

In this adventure, the evil Soran is destroying suns to alter the path of a space ribbon. We see him launch a rocket, and seconds later, the sun implodes. The problem is that the rocket should have taken longer to reach the sun. Our own sun is eight light minutes away from Earth, so even a rocket from Earth flying at the speed of light would take eight minutes to reach our sun. Soran's rocket is clearly not equipped with an FTL or warp drive, since it doesn't immediately vanish from sight. That means the rocket somehow reached the sun faster than the speed of light.

4. Leaving Spacedock (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock)

In one scene, as the Excelsior leaves spacedock, the commander orders the ship to go at one-quarter impulse. What's odd is that previous scenes leaving spacedock used thrusters. In canon, it's been established full impulse drive is one-quarter of the speed of light. That means one-quarter impulse would send the Excelsior half the diameter of Earth in a second. Yet the sequence of the Excelsior leaving spacedock is about forty seconds. Unless the spacedock is over thirteen times larger than Earth, the trip shouldn't take that long.

5. Earth From Warp Drive (Star Trek: First Contact)

When Zefram Cochrane makes the first trip using warp speed, he turns around to make the return trip, and is surprised at how small the Earth is. Very dramatic, except for the fact that he traveled for one minute in warp one. Warp one is the speed of light, which means he traveled about ten million miles. That would leave Earth looking like a mere dot in the sky.

6. Vulcan's Destruction (Star Trek)

In the 2009 reboot, we see Spock standing on the planet Delta Vega, watching Vulcan collapse into a black hole. The only way he could see it that clearly is if Delta Vega is a moon of Vulcan. Vulcan has no moon, but if it was, Delta Vega would have been close enough to be destroyed. The only safe distance would have been in another star system, where Vulcan would have been a mere speck of light in the sky.

7. The Destruction of Romulus (Star Trek) 

An evil Romulan is out for revenge because Spock failed to stop a supernova that destroyed his family on Romulus. No explanation is made of why the Romulans didn't simply evacuate the planet before its destruction, since they clearly knew it was going to explode. The energy blast from the supernova would have taken a long time to reach Romulus, plenty of time for them to evacuate even after it blew up.

What did you think of the list? Can you explain these mistakes? Any other distance goofs you've noticed in scifi movies?

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Now I want to go watch all of the movies again and catch those mistakes. Yeah, I don't think Spacedock is that big.
Maybe a shark ate their continuity guy as well?

tara tyler said...

lesser minds like mine are what hollywood counts on not to notice these lapses. i love that you compiled this list!


Great list! I agree W/Tara I tend not to notice until someone brings it up. The only thing I can think of is in Star Wars Ep IV, when Han Solo refers to a Parsec as a unit of time and not distance. "It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs."

Briane Pagel said...

As I said recently, movies hire legal advisers to make sure their legal scenes are accurate, and medical advisers to make sure their medical scenes are accurate, but they never call a scientist (or, these days, LOOK ON WIKIPEDIA) to see whether an "AU" is what they think it is.

That says something about society, I think: if a courtroom scene has the wrong flag in it, people go nuts and post stuff all over Yelp or whatever about it. But have Kirk land on Venus and NOT get crushed in seconds by its gravity, and everyone's all "Welp, that's SCIENCE for you: completely unknowable and unprovable!" Maybe we'd have gotten a little closer to getting to the stars if Ally McBeal had been set on Triton.

Brandon Skrtich said...

I always thought Delta Vega was another planet in the same system. If that is the case, wouldn't it look just like it did? We can see Veinus and Mars from earth with out aid.

Exobenny said...

Vulcan observed from Delta Vega appears similar to the Moon observed from Earth. The only explanation for this would be if Vulcan and Delta Vega formed a "double planet" which is when two objects of planetary mass orbit a common centre of gravity, but I have seen no indication of this.

Jon Gibson said...

Venus' gravity isn't so powerful as to crush anything that lands on it. Venus' gravity is almost equal to Earth's gravity. Venus' atmospheric pressure IS extremely high, though. Similar to being in extremely deep water.

Jake Harris said...

I remember watching Star Trek V and thinking... "How'd they manage THAT load of bull?" when they got to the center of the galaxy, because I had seen Voyager before ST: V, and I made the connection myself. Ahh, to be 12 again... Anyhoo, I also wondered why they later made an episode of TNG where Barclay went all cuckoo and sent them flying to the center of the galaxy so fast that it put Kirk to shame, and discovered that there was a different species there, as if "God" never existed in the center of the galaxy. Was this contradicted on purpose to sort of go the same route of Mortal Kombat 9 and change the canon that obviously sucked tribbles?


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