Cladograms are a versatile diagramming tool for tracking changing events with heritable consequences. They were developed for biology and are used primarily to track evolution and speciation, showing how different organisms, genes, or populations are related to each other and which events caused them to become distinct. Although cladograms are best known for their increasing prevalence in biological literature, their logic is flexible enough to be used in numerous other fields as well. In particular, linguistics, archaeology, and computer engineering all have roles for cladograms, because all these fields have something in common with biology: an interest in tracking shared past events through future divergence.
This connection to the ideas of past and future gives cladograms another, surprising purpose: they can be used to map the mess of time-travel-related parallel universes in the Dragon Ball franchise.
Spoilers ahoy for the second two-thirds of Dragon Ball Z and the first half of Dragon Ball Super as presented in their anime adaptations.
The Dragon Ball franchise starts as a fantastical exploration of Shinto mythology and martial-arts shenanigans, featuring a core cast strongly themed on characters from the Chinese epic novel Journey to the West. Protagonist Son Goku is patterned after Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and various quests take Goku on a path of martial-arts prowess that culminates in defeating magical demon kings bent on global conquest. The sequel series Dragon Ball Z is more grounded in theme and less grounded in scope, setting aside a lot of the martial-arts mysticism in favor of turning the series in a more science-fiction direction with space travel, aliens, robots, and genetic engineering and cranking characters’ personal power and ability to launch energy attacks at each other to a planet-destroying scale. In third installment Dragon Ball Super, the spacefaring and technological elements are retained and an additional emphasis is added to the Shinto-inspired cosmic hierarchy of gods and angels that supervises and maintains the cosmos. Throughout, the Dragon Ball franchise maintains a tradition of giving characters names with specific silly patterns: Saiyans are named after vegetables, members of the galactic tyrant Frieza’s species are all named after devices or concepts associated with cold, destroyer gods are named after varieties of alcohol, the billionaire inventor’s family surname is “Brief” and every member thereof is named after some sort of undergarment, and so on. It is an epic, deeply silly, thrilling, high-spectacle show that in no way deserves the seriousness with which I will treat it today. And it adds time travel about halfway through Dragon Ball Z.
In order to avoid time-travel paradoxes but still enable travel into the past, the Dragon Ball franchise ascribes to a version of time-travel multiverse theory. In time-travel multiverse theory, a time traveler arriving in the past (but not the future) effectively spawns a parallel timeline. The result of time travel into the past is two distinct timelines: one in which the time traveler arrived in the past, and one in which they did not. Each timeline contains a complete cosmos, including realms not directly affected by the time traveler’s arrival. In this way, causality is kept intact. This means that a basic map of time-travel-related timeline creation starts with the timeline in which no time travelers from the future ever arrive and grows ever more time-traveler-laden from there, with all branches persisting thereafter. It’s a cladogram! What’s more, where a biologist could mark traits that appear at specific points in a lineage’s evolutionary history, we can mark events that define each timeline as they continue to split and multiply.
What’s interesting about time travel in the Dragon Ball franchise is that it is possible for characters to migrate between specific, known timelines once they become aware of their existence and to carry information between them. In the cladogram analogy, this is the same kind of thing as horizontal gene transfer in biology, loanwords and sprachbund effects in linguistics, trade in archaeology, and so on: ways for timelines to influence each other without being each other’s immediate antecedent. These make identifying the exact points of divergence between timelines a little complicated but do not fundamentally prevent a cladogram from demonstrating the general layout of the Dragon Ball franchise’s timescape.
Note that, in the Dragon Ball franchise, “universe” is used to refer to each of twelve discrete realms, all of which exist in every timeline unless destroyed somehow. Because this becomes relevant later, this article maintains a strict distinction between universes and timelines, the term “multiverse theory” notwithstanding.
Since this exercise deals with time travel and most events in Dragon Ball canon have canonical (if not always exact) dates, it feels natural to turn this cladogram into a chronogram / ultrametric tree, with a list of years marking the noteworthy events.
Our four time travelers are Trunks, Cell, Whis, and Zamasu.
Trunks is hero traveling from an apocalyptic timeline he hopes to avert. As the time traveler who makes the most trips into the past by far, Trunks is responsible for most of the timelines observed in Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Super and those postulated here but not directly seen.
Cell is a genetically engineered cyber-being combining traits and abilities from all the most powerful beings to inhabit or visit Earth within the lifetime of the evil scientist Dr. Gero. Cell makes one trip, but it is momentous enough to affect multiple timelines.
Whis is an angel who is empowered to travel through time to a limited degree to assist the destruction god Beerus in his duty to preserve the divine order of the cosmos.
Zamasu is a Kai, part of the divine hierarchy of the Dragon Ball franchise, who turns to omnicidal evil and uses time travel to attempt to achieve his goals. Zamasu is from the Tenth Universe.
One might expect the divergence points in the Dragon Ball Timeline Cladogram to relate to the specific years in which past-bound time travelers arrive, but that does not appear to be the case. Instead, the divergences appear to happen in an order related to those time travelers’ departures. In particular, even though Cell is the first of these time travelers to arrive chronologically, the branch his arrival creates seems to presuppose Trunks’s subsequent arrival.
The six timelines that have appeared so far will be called the Prime Timeline, Remote Timeline, Black Timeline, Cell Timeline, Doomed Timeline, and Refuge Timeline in this article. Prior to their divergence, the as-yet-unsplit timelines will bear hyphenated names. For example, the segment that the Cell, Doomed, and Refuge Timelines share before each timeline diverges is called the Cell-Doomed-Refuge Timeline.
A Trunk Full of Time
The first divergence point in the Dragon Ball Timeline Cladogram is whether Trunks makes his earliest time-travel arrival in the in-universe year 764. There are three timelines on either side of this question, precipitated by later events, but this single moment fractures what was, as far as we the viewer are concerned, a single timeline and starts the cascading evolution to come. The timeline in which no Trunks arrives in the past is the Cell-Doomed-Refuge Timeline and the one in which he arrives is the Remote-Black-Prime Timeline. Prior to this divergence, all of Dragon Ball and the first two sagas of Dragon Ball Z unfold, including main character Goku defeating the galactic tyrant Frieza on the dying planet Namek and Frieza, now a cyborg, arriving on Earth to seek revenge. Also shared between all timelines at this point in the continuity is the beginning of Zamasu’s moral downfall, in which he becomes disillusioned with mortals’ ability to live upright lives and begins to think the cosmos would be better off without them.
Because the Cell-Doomed-Refuge Timeline is, at this point in the process, not yet affected by time travel, it provides a baseline against which to understand the events of its counterpart. In the Cell-Doomed-Refuge Timeline, Goku defeats Frieza a second time but later succumbs to a virus that damages his heart. A few months later, two cyborgs named Android 17 and Android 18 destroy most of human civilization and kill most of the other named characters. It is this apocalypse that Trunks heads into the past hoping to avert. Tragically, multiverse theory means that he cannot prevent these events in his own timeline, but he can precipitate another (the Remote-Black-Prime Timeline) in which they do not happen. Unbeknownst to Trunks or anyone else, Cell is also present in the Cell-Doomed-Refuge timeline, looking for Android 17 and Android 18 so that he can capture and absorb them into his body.
In the Remote-Black-Prime Timeline, Trunks defeats the restored Frieza himself, brings Goku medicine for his oncoming heart virus, and warns the other main characters of the incoming cyborg threat. This time-travel interference results in the androids that appear on the appointed day not being 17 and 18, however, but new threats named Android 19 and Android 20, who are summarily defeated. Late-coming Android 17 and Android 18 (both much more powerful than their iterations in the Cell-Doomed-Refuge Timeline) and an additional new Android 16 then join the fray, severely challenging the heroes even with Goku and Trunks present and healthy. With the help of schematics looted from the laboratory in which the cyborgs were created, the team creates a remote that can cause Androids 17 and 18 to self-destruct if it is used close to them.
Technically, Trunks makes two trips here (one to provide warning and a second to join the fight against the Androids), but his second trip appears to have had no consequences for the timeline that his first trip is not sufficient to explain.
It is from here that two more events calve off two more timelines.
A Fated Pair
The key divergence event is the arrival of Cell. Technically, Cell arrives a year before Trunks’s first visit to the past, but the timeline only makes sense if this is where Cell begins to affect the course of events and this is where he appears in the narrative. As before, it seems to be the order of departures, rather than arrivals, that matters. Cell, as stated earlier, is a time traveler hailing from the Cell-Doomed-Refuge Timeline, just as Trunks is. Cell’s arrival splits the Remote-Black-Prime Timeline. In the Remote Timeline, cell never arrives, and Trunks takes the remote back to the Cell-Doomed-Refuge Timeline. In so doing, Trunks creates the Cell Timeline as a branch of the Cell-Doomed-Refuge Timeline.
In the Cell Timeline, Trunks destroys that timeline’s Android 17 and Android 18 with the remote (or by other means; canon is unclear and Trunks was strong enough to defeat them on his own, but the remote is highly likely). This ends their rampage across the planet and unwittingly thwarts Cell’s plan to absorb them. Cell retaliates by killing Trunks and stealing his time machine. His arrival marks the Black-Prime Timeline.
The Cell Timeline and the Remote Timeline are not explored in any detail in Dragon Ball franchise canon. It stands to reason that the Cell Timeline might involve the people of Earth rebuilding civilization, since in this timeline the various cyborgs are dead, departed to other timelines, or never created. The Remote Timeline is a greater mystery. Without the absolutely massive effect Cell has on the Black-Prime Timeline, how the defeat of Android 16, Android 17, and Android 18, as well as other future events, transpires is hard to predict with any certainty. One fact is certain, however: thanks to an action the destruction god Beerus takes soon, neither of these timelines has to deal with the appearance of Goku Black.
Similarly, the next timelines to diverge again do so because of a paired event.
In the Black-Prime Timeline, the heroes defeat Cell and also destroy his fetal form gestating in the same laboratory that spawned the other cyborgs, preventing the Black-Prime Timeline from having its own Cell to manage. Now more powerful than before, Trunks returns to the Doomed-Refuge Timeline, removing him from subsequent events in the Black-Prime Timeline for several years. In this span, the main characters of the Black-Prime Timeline defeat various threats, including the supernatural weapon Majin Buu and a resurrected, newly empowered Frieza, and also form an ersatz friendship with Beerus, the destroyer god assigned to their universe.
In the Doomed-Refuge Timeline, Trunks was able to deal with Android 17, Android 18, and Cell and prevent the appearance of Majin Buu with his now far-greater strength. Eventually, a new threat emerged to ravage his apocalyptic timeline, appearing to be this timeline’s long-dead Goku dressed uncharacteristically in black and wielding unusual divine powers. Unable to deal with this “Goku Black” himself and without powerful allies thanks to the Androids’ rampage, he has come to the Black-Prime Timeline to ask for some of its powerful fighters to return with him to help. In so doing, he split the timeline again, into the Black Timeline and the Prime Timeline.
In the Prime Timeline, Trunks’s arrival enables Beerus to notice something about Goku Black that gets him thinking. The team visits the Prime Timeline’s Tenth Universe to check in with its cosmic leadership, the Supreme Kai Gowasu and his apprentice Zamasu. This investigation reveals that Zamasu is definitely connected to Goku Black in some way. Whis and Beerus watch from hiding as Zamasu kills Gowasu. Satisfied that this divine crime must now be averted, Whis uses his ability to travel backward in time to restore the moment before Zamasu killed Gowasu and Beerus uses his abilities as a destruction god to destroy Zamasu in all timelines. Or rather, most.
Unfortunately, in the Black Timeline, Trunks never arrived with his warning and Beerus never destroyed Zamasu. Without Beerus to destroy him, Zamasu used a magic item (the Black Timeline’s Super Dragon Balls) to steal Goku’s body for himself and another magic item (a Time Ring) to travel to the Doomed-Refuge Timeline, render himself immune to timeline meddling, and ally with that timeline’s Zamasu. This second Zamasu uses the Doomed-Refuge Timeline’s Super Dragon Balls to render himself indestructible even by divine means. The two Zamasus implement “Project Zero Mortals,” aiming to destroy every mortal being in the Doomed-Refuge Timeline as well as the cosmic hierarchy of all twelve of that timeline’s universes, trying to create a timeline completely devoid of life. These two events meant that, when the Prime Timeline’s Beerus purged every version of Zamasu from across the timelines, these two iterations of Zamasu were unaffected. The Prime Timeline would be free of Zamasu’s betrayal, but thanks to the Black Timeline’s existence, the Doomed-Refuge Timeline would still be subject to the two Zamasus’ omnicidal onslaught and they might yet emerge to threaten other timelines. Nothing else is known about the Black Timeline, although since it, like the Prime Timeline, does not have a Zamasu or a Goku Black in it, it is probably very similar to the Prime Timeline.
In the Doomed-Refuge Timeline, Goku, Trunks, and the other main characters face off against the Black Timeline’s Goku Black and the Doomed-Refuge Timeline’s Zamasu, eventually killing Goku Black. Zamasu’s divine indestructibility ultimately means that their only option is to call for help from the Doomed-Refuge Timeline’s Grand Zeno, the Omni-King and the sole being in the cosmos to which no rules apply. Grand Zeno erases the entire Doomed-Refuge Timeline from existence, including Zamasu, and Goku and the other heroes escape only through divine intervention.
As an additional act of divine justice, Whis and Beerus travel to before the Black-Prime Timeline split and eliminate Zamasu then. Since the versions of Zamasu and Goku Black that the team battled in the Doomed-Refuge Timeline are still immune to such destruction, this splits the timeline one last time. One timeline, the Doomed Timeline, is the one that Grand Zeno ultimately erases, while the other, the Refuge Timeline, is one whose Zamasu was destroyed before he could rebel and into which Goku Black never arrived. The Refuge Timeline would provide a familiar home for the handful of survivors of the Doomed Timeline, in particular Trunks the incorrigible timeline-splitter. The Doomed Timeline’s Grand Zeno, however, migrates to the Prime Timeline to reign alongside the Prime Timeline’s Grand Zeno. (The events that precipitate the Refuge Timeline in the manga are different.)
This is as much time-travel tomfoolery as my current watch of the Dragon Ball franchise has shown me, and my limited reading of fan wiki entries tells me there is relatively little more in what remains. The result is a surprisingly symmetrical set of diverging timelines that matches the number of Time Rings (canonically one for each timeline) seen on screen in Dragon Ball Super. It is also an interesting exercise in how the logic of cladograms is sufficiently robust to analogize to even very unlikely subject matter, up to and including tracking a multiverse of timelines full of people with names like “King Cold,” “Piccolo,” and “Garlic Junior.” Here’s hoping I can find even sillier examples to test out in the future.
And none of this even acknowledges that the 12 Dragon Ball Z movies effectively exist in a separate continuity whose relationship to this cladogram is best described with a noncommittal shrug. Gotta love time travel.