The Warp Drive and Other Hyper Light Technologies in Star Trek, Part V
written and diagramed by Tim Farley
first published in Stardate 14, March 1982
In the previous article in this series, we explored the effect that the warp drive apparently has on the flow of time on board the Enterprise. We found that time on board often passes at millions or time the normal rate. Let us now examine the manner in which the impulse drive fits into this scenario.
Specific instances from various episodes of the show were cited to demonstrate how time on board is accelerated relative to that outside the ship, this effect being caused by the warp drive. But some of these instances, notable the battle scene from "Elaan of Troyius" and possibly the attack scene from the beginning of "The Changeling," occurred at times when the warp drive was shut down or inoperative.
In several episodes, warp-related effects or actions requiring the use of time warps were performed during times of warp engine failure. In "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and "Mudd's Women," the transporter and subspace radio were used with the engines out of action, and in "The Apple," the main phasers and subspace radio were unavailable when the main engines were dead.
Several ships equipped only with impulse drive have performed tasks requiring the use of time warps. The Romulans can fire their plasma torpedos at better than Warp 8, and they seem to utilize subspace radio. Indeed, for the Romulans to be anything close to the formidable interstellar power they are made out to be, they would have to have hyper light travel. But the "praetor's finest flagship is powered by "simple impulse." The S.S. Valiant of the second pilot made it to the edge of the galaxy with only impulse drives. And in several other episodes, Federation craft have been said to have traveled hundreds of light years in journeys before the invention of warp drive ("A Piece of the Action" and "A Taste of Armageddon," among others).
All of this evidence suggests that the impulse drive can be used to provide time warps and that these time warps could be used to produce hyper light velocities. The latter result could be achieved by using a time warp to multiply the apparent velocity achieved by an impulse rocket. But this is contrary to long-standing assumptions about the impulse drive.
It is commonly supposed by most fans that the impulse drive is a type of nuclear rocket, capable of propelling the ship at velocities less than that of light only. However, what actual basis is there for this conception in the show as aired? As mentioned above, reference was made in "Where No Man" to the fact that "the old impulse drive" was weaker that the warp drive.
In "Balance of Terror," when Scotty reports they type of engines the Romulans have, Kirk immediately says, "Good, then we can outrun them." And in "Elaan of Troyius," Scotty states that maneuvering under impulse power is like "wallow(ing) like a garbage scow."
So we must have several references to impulse power as slow, weak and generally less desirable than warp drive. But that's itno references at all as to whether impulse engines are limited to sublight speeds. I submit that never has it been expressly stated in the show that impulse power always implies speed less than that of light.
Given this fact and the volume of evidence presented earlier, we must conclude that both time warps and hyper light velocities are possible with impulse engines. Without them, the events of "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and "Balance of Terror" would be utterly ludicrous, and some of the Enterprise's actions in certain episodes would have been quite difficult. This introduces a new concept to the Star Trek universe: the idea of two separate and distinct ways to exceed the speed of light. This idea is not unknown in science fiction, but it has been virtually ignored by treknologists.
In order to be consistent with comments made in the series, hyperlight velocities attainable with impulse power must be quite low compared to those of the warp drive. Thus, although they preceded the warp drive and were quite useful in their time, impulse powered hyperlight drives are quite slow by warp drive standards and probably have been all but abandoned by Star Trek's time in favor of the much more effective (and perhaps safer) warp drive. However, although starships no longer have hyper light impulse engines, the time warp capability of the impulse drive was retained for use in emergency situationsso the starship would at least have a chance to fight after the warp drive was knocked out.
There you have it: another explanation of an apparent inconsistency in Star Trek technology that not only clears up some problems, but also enriches the background of the Star Trek universe.
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