In the TNG opening credits the Enterprise-D stretches for a second when jumping to warp then returns to normal. I've got a short video with a scene where it is shown:

I always thought it was simply because the ship warped space around the ship, so from our viewing perspective the ship appeared to stretch, but it really hadn't. When you watch this scene closely, though, the Enterprise stretches, then un-stretches to normal whilst still at warp.

What is the in-universe reason for this 'stretching' effect?

  • 4
    appereantly we've got some kind of a joker who is downvoting EVERYTHING
    – Petersaber
    Jun 24, 2015 at 7:38
  • @Petersaber I've noticed with my last couple of questions have all been downvoted without much explanation provided - very annoying indeed! Jun 24, 2015 at 7:39
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    @Petersaber : Indeed, it seems that way. I think this person, whoever it is, has more than one account, because sometimes two lone downvotes come in almost simultaneously.
    – Praxis
    Jun 24, 2015 at 14:26

4 Answers 4


The Star Trek warp drive is similar to the Alcubierre drive, a theoretical faster-than-light drive proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994.

From the Wikipedia article on the Alcubierre drive:

The Star Trek television series used the term "warp drive" to describe their method of faster-than-light travel. Neither the Alcubierre theory, nor anything similar, existed when the series was conceived, but Alcubierre stated in an email to William Shatner that his theory was directly inspired by the term used in the show, and references it in his 1994 paper.

In particular, the Alcubierre drive uses a "warp bubble", and is the best model we currently have for understanding Star Trek's warp drive at a mathematical / general relativistic level. The idea has been revisited more recently by other theoretical physicists, as also stated in the article above:

In 2012, physicist Harold White and collaborators announced that modifying the geometry of exotic matter could reduce the mass–energy requirements for a macroscopic space ship from the equivalent of the planet Jupiter to that of the Voyager 1 spacecraft (~700 kg) or less, and stated their intent to perform small-scale experiments in constructing warp fields. White proposed changing the shape of the warp bubble from a sphere to a torus. Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warp can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more. According to White, a modified Michelson–Morley interferometer could test the idea: one of the legs of the interferometer would appear to be a slightly different length when the test devices were energized.

The implication is that an object moving in a warp bubble should appear to have a length differential (relative to its usual appearance) when viewed by an observer at rest — such as ourselves when we watch a starship go to warp.

(Note : I checked the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual before investigating the Alcubierre model.)

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    Very interesting, especially considering that the proposed drive existed before TNG did! +1 Jun 24, 2015 at 3:07
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    I don't see how this answers the question. See my answer. Jun 24, 2015 at 14:22
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    @ThePopMachine : It does. An object moving in an Alcubierre warp bubble should have a length differential when viewed by an observer at rest (such as ourselves, when we watch the Enterprise go to warp).
    – Praxis
    Jun 24, 2015 at 14:27
  • @Praxis: A small length differential doesn't explain long trails. Jun 24, 2015 at 14:30
  • @ThePopMachine : It's not clear that the differential would be small for a starship...but let me say that I do like your answer too...see further comment below it. :-)
    – Praxis
    Jun 24, 2015 at 14:32

In the first season episode "The Battle", the Picard Maneuver is described. The entire point of this maneuver is to jump to high warp so that the ship appears to be in two places at once. This is because if you travel faster than light, then your light from the two positions can arrive at an observer at the same time. In some ways, this is like a sonic boom, where the sound arrives at an observer at the same time or reinforces itself from multiple points of or a smeared out area of issue. The stretch you're seeing makes sense as the artifact of light from a ship all along that trail arriving at you at the same time.

Below are three captures during the process of the Picard Maneuver showing the trails in universe

Before warp During warp After warp

(Out of universe: If you think about it, this should only happen if the ship is coming towards you. Chalk the rest up to artistic license.)

  • This is a nice, simple explanation. It doesn't explain why some starships don't exhibit the stretching when they go to warp (e.g the original Enterprise, or the Enterprise-E in the later TNG films), whereas variances in the shape of the warp field could explain why the effect might not be seen in some ships (e.g. White's spherical vs. toroidal warp bubbles). Regardless, I have +1'ed your answer --- nice work, PopMachine. :-)
    – Praxis
    Jun 24, 2015 at 14:36
  • @Praxis: Not true-- The geometry or the direction of warp vs. the location of the observer could create many different effects or lack of. Jun 24, 2015 at 14:42
  • In-universe, we see any particular vessel (original Enterprise, Enterprise-D, etc.) from many different orientations and the effect seems fairly constant for a particular vessel. But what you say is fair, nonetheless.
    – Praxis
    Jun 24, 2015 at 14:46
  • Actually, I think the Picard Maneuver is stupid for two reasons. (1) Ships clearly have faster-than-light sensors and (2) Anyone with half a brain would know that if you see two images of the same ship and the trails between them, then the closer image and the one with its tail pointed to the other's nose is the newer one. Don't fire on the old one. Duh! This is high-school warp mechanics stuff. Jun 24, 2015 at 15:02
  • I completely agree with you. Nice use of screenshots, by the way. :-)
    – Praxis
    Jun 24, 2015 at 15:14

Okay, this is shaky ground on my part because the only thing I know about warp drive I read back before TNG and I don't recall where I read it. But as I understand, the warp effect actually makes the distances between things shorter. It has something to do with wormholes, as evidenced in the first TOS film when something went wrong and the ship nearly fell into a wormhole accidentally created by an out of balance engine.

The ship enters warp space, where everything is closer together. The stretching effect shows the visual effect from the pov of an observer watching as the ship enters this "condensed universe" while in motion. The ship appears to stretch because of the difference between the fore and aft of the ship during transition into warp space. Once the ship has finished entering warp, those differences disappear and the ship appears normal again, but seems to be moving very fast.

Think of it as something like watching a stick enter a glass of water. The stick seems to bend and actually looks slightly bigger because of the water's refractory properties, but once it's fully emerged it just looks like an ordinary stick again, just larger.

The problem with bringing the speed of light into it is that there should be a color shift in that case. Picard's account of one ship becoming two can't be right because an observer would notice a color difference. Therefore I suggest that the Captain was speaking in layman's terms, or that he himself understood the mechanics involved too poorly to give a proper accounting of them.

As to why no stretching effect on older model ships, I suggest that the effect was there but not as noticeable because warp fields were less powerful and ships entered warp less smoothly.

Unless of course I understood wrongly, in which case forget about all of the above.

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    I like the answer about how from an outer perspective, the ship appears to stretch. It makes sense. I have also enjoyed the 'light streaks' warp effect from the Kirk era - the first 6 Star Trek movies. ![enter image description here](i.stack.imgur.com/vOLi2.jpg)
    – user66050
    May 13, 2016 at 0:30

Actually as I understand it this is backwards. The ship should contract and there should be a general light lensing effect around the bubble.

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