As a space opera franchise about exploring strange new worlds, it’s no surprise that Star Trek shows us a number of extremely weird planets. Most of the time, these worlds have a scifi explanation underpinning their weirdness. Meridian is a planet that occasionally phases out of our reality due to quantum cascades, while the episode Blink of an Eye introduces a planet where time passes super quickly because its core is made of tachyons. Sure. While those technobabble explanations may not be especially convincing, some Star Trek planets don’t even get that much. Naturally, this merits further investigation, so I’ve compiled five of the most bizarre for your enjoyment.
1. Ceti Alpha VI
We never actually see Ceti Alpha VI on screen, as it’s already been destroyed by the time Wrath of Khan starts. However, its influence is felt throughout the film, as the planet’s destruction apparently shifted Ceti Alpha V’s orbit, drastically altering the climate and killing many of Khan’s followers. At first, that sounded pretty unlikely to me, since a solar system’s star has way more influence on planetary orbits than the planets have on each other. However, it turns out that in at least some orbital models, removing a single planet can make the whole thing go haywire, so the idea is more plausible than I thought.
But Ceti Alpha VI’s destruction is a different case. All we get is Khan’s dialogue saying it “exploded.” This is, notably, not something planets do. Stars explode, and I have to wonder if the writers got a little confused because there’s a star named Alpha Ceti in real life. Otherwise, there’s simply no known mechanism for a planet to explode on its own. Planets are generally made of rock, gas, or ice, none of which is particularly explosive.
But, in fairness, Khan didn’t have any advanced sensors to study the explosion, so maybe there’s a scifi explanation he doesn’t know about. Ceti Alpha VI might have had large dilithium deposits, which The Next Generation portrays as causing the destruction of at least one planet. Or a planet killer might have wandered through the system and stopped for a brief snack.
However, that doesn’t explain the weirdest part: when the USS Reliant arrives in the Ceti Alpha system, it mistakes Ceti Alpha V for Ceti Alpha VI, which is how Khan escapes to start his revenge plot. I don’t see how that can possibly be the case. First, however Ceti Alpha V’s orbit was affected, it almost certainly wouldn’t end up in exactly the same orbit that Ceti Alpha VI used to have. Even if it somehow did, we’re supposed to believe the Reliant didn’t notice that the system had one too few planets? We’ve seen that Starfleet ships can detect a system’s planets and moons with just a few button presses.
Maybe the scan data was cached, so the monitor just put up an older image of the system? They probably should have at least refreshed the page a few times before beaming down.
2. Murder Planet
Our second planet comes from the franchise’s newest show, Star Trek: Prodigy. In the third episode, our scrappy heroes land on a planet where everything is trying to kill them, hence the name they give it. But things are weird even before that, as they detect the planet via a proximity alarm. That means they just happened to be passing close enough that the automated systems had to warn them of a possible collision. In space. Which is known for being really big and also really empty. Maybe Holo-Janeway changed the course a little so she could have the ship to herself for a while.
Once our heroes are exploring this strange new world, the hostile flora and fauna seem reasonable at first. We’ve seen plenty of planets with unusual predators before, so this barely raises an eyebrow. Presumably, the various creatures hunt each other when there aren’t any off-world protagonists around.
Oh no, of course it’s not that simple. Instead, we learn that the entire planet is a single superorganism and that its only source of sustenance is people who land from off world. I have questions. First, how can that possibly be enough food? I’m guessing that when they say the whole planet is a single organism, they just mean all the trees and plants are linked rather than the entire thing being meat down to the core, but that’s still an absurdly high calorie requirement. Unless there’s a constant stream of ships queuing up to be eaten, Murder Planet is probably going hungry.
At first, I expected a reveal that Murder Planet can move around. That would explain how it got close enough to set off the proximity alarms, and it would offer some justification for how it gets enough food. We even see a crashed Klingon ship there, which I assumed was more foreshadowing. Last time I checked, Klingon ships don’t generally frequent the Delta Quadrant. But no, the planet doesn’t move, or at least it doesn’t give chase when the heroes flee. It really is just waiting for anyone unfortunate enough to land there.
Which brings us to the final point: Murder Planet isn’t actually that difficult to escape. Its vines are slow and easily destroyed or dodged. The only real point in its favor is that it can create psychic illusions to lure in prey, but these are so obvious that our heroes quickly realize what’s going on. The only reason Prodigy’s characters have trouble is that they’re a dysfunctional crew of misfit youngsters who don’t know what they’re doing. Most adult crews would have little difficulty getting away, and I can only assume the dead Klingons were really drunk when they crashed.
As a species, Voyager’s Ocampa are pretty inexplicable, but it’s their planet we’re talking about today. Which is also called Ocampa. How do you do, fellow humans from the planet Humans?
Anyway, Ocampa’s most distinctive feature is the entire surface being a desert. This is explained with dialogue about how the atmosphere lacks “nucleogenic particles,” which apparently makes rain impossible. We learn later that nucleogenic particles were accidentally destroyed by some very advanced aliens, but that doesn’t matter because nucleogenic particles aren’t a thing. There is such a thing as nucleogenic isotopes, but that term refers to particles created in naturally occurring nuclear reactors. Which is all very cool, but none of it has anything to do with rain.
My best guess is that the writers are referring to the microscopic particles of dust that raindrops condense around, which are often called “nuclei.” Those particles are essential for rainfall, but for there not to be any, Ocampa would have to be completely free of dust. I promise there is still dust on Ocampa. Neelix helpfully kicks some up while he’s nearly getting everyone killed by the Kazon. Instead, what the writers have done is invent a completely fictional substance that’s supposedly required for rain and then say the planet doesn’t have any. Next, we’ll probably learn you can’t start fires on Ocampa because there’s no phlogiston.
This also leaves the question of where all the evaporating water goes now that it can’t fall as rain. I suspect some of it would condense as dew, but the most dramatic effect would be constant cloud cover. Rather than a blue-sky desert, Ocampa would be uniformly overcast and probably a lot colder. The relationship between clouds and climate is complicated, but on the whole, more clouds means cooler temperatures.
Finally, why do all the Ocampa (the species) live underground? We’re told that they were moved down there by a powerful alien called the Caretaker because the planet’s remaining water is several miles below the surface. Let’s accept this premise and not ask about setting up giant condensers to catch all the water floating around as clouds, because we’re feeling generous. It still raises the question: Has the Caretaker never heard of a pipe?
To be sure, it’s no easy feat to run pipes several miles underground, but you know what’s way harder? Moving an entire civilization several miles underground! Just pump the water up to where the people already are so the whole population doesn’t have to go apartment hunting at once.
The other possible explanation for moving underground is defense. Indeed, the first episode shows us some very angry Kazon camped out on the surface, unable to reach the subterranean Ocampa civilization. How would aboveground Ocampa defend themselves from the Kazon and other hostile aliens? The same way they did before it stopped raining, I imagine. Or maybe the Caretaker can handle that, since he has a giant space station full of guns.
The list isn’t even over, and we already have a second planet destroyed before we ever get to see it. This one is from Enterprise, and it’s the homeworld of the fearsome Xindi. Early in season three, our heroes* spend an entire episode searching for Xindus, only to end with the dramatic reveal of a debris field instead. Very interesting. Intercut with that storyline, we also have the beginnings of the plot where Tucker and T’Pol give each other sexy massages, which is significantly less interesting. But I digress.
Unlike Ceti Alpha VI, we actually get some exposition on how Xindus was destroyed. The planet was apparently “geologically unstable,” and the Xindi who lived there were constantly at war. As the war dragged on, some of them* planted powerful explosives along “seismic fissures,” and that’s what did it.
The main problem with this explanation is that it fundamentally misunderstands how planets work. Geological instability generally refers to the frequency of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other seismic events. It’s completely possible to create such events artificially, though thankfully we humans haven’t yet figured out how to weaponize them. Natural or artificial, seismic activity can be absolutely devastating for anyone living on the planet, but the planet itself isn’t in any danger. Planets are held together by gravity, not by the action of tectonic plates. The Xindi’s explosives could certainly have rearranged their planet’s surface, but that’s it.
To destroy a planet, geologically unstable or not, you need enough energy to overcome the gravity of all those tons of rock pressing down on itself. And unless you can somehow start your explosion in the planet’s core, you probably need to peel it apart one layer at a time. First the crust, then the mantle, etc. We know the Xindi don’t have explosives powerful enough to do that for two reasons. First, if they did, then the geological instability wouldn’t have mattered. Second, the entire plot of season three is about the Xindi trying to invent a planet-destroying weapon.
One last oddity about Xindus is the Xindi themselves. They’re not a single species at all, but six different species that evolved sapience independently and from completely different lineages, but also at the same time. That’s pretty unlikely, but the really weird part is that one of them has gone extinct by the time the show starts. These are the Avian Xindi, and we’re told that they didn’t survive Xindus’s destruction like the other five Xindi species did. But we’re also told that the Avians had several off-world colonies, one of which is a major set piece. So… did they just not have a stable breeding population after Xindus exploded? It’s only been a century or so; there should still be at least some of them left!
5. Earth Duplicates
The Original Series features a number of planets that appear to be duplicates of Earth, or at least certain slices of Earth’s history. The most famous are probably Mobster Planet and Cowboy Planet,* but those two both have scifi explanations. The mobster aliens were using their super mimicry to copy a book about 1920s gangs, while Cowboy Planet was created by powerful beings to test Kirk’s morality.
Much weirder are the planets that clearly duplicate Earth with no explanation at all. That’s right: planets, plural. This happens not once, not twice, but three times. Our three lucky contestants are:
- Miri: a 1960s planet where all adults died and all kids stopped aging
- Omega IV: a planet where the Cold War turned hot
- 892-IV: a planet where the Roman Empire never fell
Each time the crew encounters one of these worlds, everyone is astonished at how Earthlike it is. Then they get on with the episode, never addressing how this could possibly have happened. It’s puzzling from a storytelling perspective as well, since none of these episodes require an alternate-Earth premise to work.
Miri’s episode is about a world with no adults, and that could happen pretty much anywhere. The Enterprise could easily have encountered an alien world where all the grown-ups died, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Omega IV gets a little more use out of its premise since it’s supposed to be teaching a lesson about the Cold War, but again, an alien parallel would have worked just as well. Star Trek is famous for its parallels to real-world issues, and that wouldn’t have had viewers wondering why this guy from another planet knows the Pledge of Allegiance.*
Rome Planet is by far the weirdest, since I’m not at all sure what point the writers are trying to make. Most of the story is about Kirk resisting the temptations of wealth and power* that another Federation captain has already succumbed to. Again, this could happen with any alien empire; it doesn’t have to be Rome specifically. Near the end, we are told that Space Rome will eventually be brought down by the worship of Space Jesus. That’s a blatant misreading of Roman history, but maybe the writers wanted to do a puff piece about Christianity?
It’s also possible that the writers just really liked period pieces and wrote them into Star Trek regardless of justification. This type of planet is completely absent from The Next Generation, as in that show, the writers could simply use the holodeck when they wanted to visit Earth’s history. While TOS and TNG had largely different creative teams, there was enough overlap that I can imagine such a transition taking place.*
There was a time when I thought Star Trek’s most inexplicable planets were all behind us, but the new era has given me hope. Prodigy has already entered the ring with Murder Planet; will we see the other shows step up as well? Strange New Worlds seems like a particularly strong contender, with its heavy dose of TOS nostalgia. Maybe Pike will visit a planet that’s just like Earth from the distant past of the 1990s. How historical!
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