The Deeper Side of Trek: Technobabble
By Jamahl Epsicokhan
September 19, 2000
Note: This article was originally published as a freelance piece for Space.com. They have removed the article from their website, so I've reposted it here.
Last time on Deeper Side, I ventured a bit into the mostly uncharted territory known as "average" civilian Federation society — realizing we really don't know a whole lot about it. And as I said, there's probably no real reason we need to — it exists as a distant background element for the stories about the people on the starships.
But the workings of society as depicted on Trek can be hard to understand from the perspective of the year 2000. This time, I'd like to single out a specific subset of that which we can't fully comprehend: the technology.
Naturally, the technology is only a function of story, and the shows are full of contradictions and unexplored technical possibilities. But this column is sometimes about imagining things beyond what the shows would like to give us. I generally look at the source material, but I see that the material hasn't covered all bases about the tech. And of course it hasn't; it's TV. But we can still have some fun with it.
Fun with molecules
Warp drive was invented circa 2063 by Zefram Cochrane in the aftermath of the third world war. I'm certainly no physics expert, but I'd imagine approaching the threshold of light speed is not something one does casually. Even if you could find some way to approach the speed of light, chances are you're not going to survive the process. Never mind, though, because such concerns — and rightly so — are not anywhere on the minds of the creators of Star Trek stories. Cochrane invented the warp drive — we're not even sure how or with what resources. It's just there. First Contact didn't even explain Cochrane's scientific background. And yet the warp drive is the cornerstone of Star Trek technology, just as faster-than-light velocity is central to any space opera involving interstellar travel. It's the barrier that must be overcome if you're going to tell these stories. The audience easily goes along because it's fiction.
So if we can accept warp speed at face value, logic suggests we could accept almost anything. The writers' dilemma has always been finding the balance in using technology and trying not to open dangerous cans of worms that undercut the dramatic value or cross the hazy line separating suspension of disbelief and total incredulity.
For example, there's the whole issue of replicators and transporters, devices that have the ability to manipulate objects at a molecular level. With transporters, we have the ability to dismantle a person at the molecular level, send them thousands of kilometers to another location, and then precisely reassemble their molecular being. And they survive this process? Just where does your consciousness go when you've been dismantled molecularly?
Don't get me wrong — the transporter is an ingenious narrative tool (said to have been conceived when Gene Roddenberry realized it would've been prohibitively expensive to show the Enterprise landing on planets), but it demonstrates a great technical power that could be used and abused if the writers wished to do so.
In the Deep Space Nine episode "Field of Fire," a crazed Vulcan uses transporter technology in conjunction with a projectile firearm to beam a speeding bullet through walls into a room on the other side of the station, where it continues its course at full speed and hits its victim. My logic suggests that the firearm could be removed from the equation entirely. Why not just use transporter technology itself as a weapon? Why not just lock on to a vital organ in someone's body and beam it out? That would be exceptionally clean murder, performed at the molecular level.
For that matter, wouldn't molecular-level precision surgery with transporter technology solve a lot of problems? Yet the medical staple on Trek is still the updated version of a shot in the arm.
As for replicators, I'd be interested in finding out what kind of limits these things have. Replicators can apparently create objects with some sort of energy-to-matter conversion, but what kinds of objects will it and won't it create? You'd need to find the raw energy somewhere, but once you do, couldn't you use a replicator to build almost anything? Can it create charged energy weapons? Surely there are lockouts that would prevent a child or other unauthorized user from replicating a phaser. (Of course, this assumes that anybody has access to replicator technology, which may not be the case in a lot of the Federation that we don't see.)
Indeed, the best way to explain something in terms of Trek tech is to not explain it: It can do X for the purposes of this story, but it will not do Y because Y is simply not what the writers want it to do.
Technology and storytelling
In some of the newer incarnations of Trek, Voyager in particular, stories have had a tendency to over-rely on arbitrary technology. Trek's worst applications of technology can generally be found when they're used to magically resolve plot points. Fans and critics are quick to use the term "technobabble" to describe dialogue that doesn't really mean anything but is inserted to move a story quickly from A to B. Truth be told, I have zero interest in technobabble and generally tune it out. The story has to work on its own merits, because tech generally cannot drive a Star Trek story.
But occasionally we will get a good techno-thriller. Trek's general position on advanced technology is that it's a good thing that has made the world a better place with improved quality of life. But on occasion, the Trek scribes have supplied us with stories that comment on the dangers of technology when applied irresponsibly.
The Original Series in particular maintained a certain level of caution when it came to the issue of mass arbitrary automation. In "The Ultimate Computer," Starfleet plans to replace starship captains with the M-5 supercomputer. The episode of course ends in disaster, with the computer making decisions that cannot be overruled and taking drastic actions that cannot be prevented. Other episodes like "The Changeling," "The Apple," and "The Return of the Archons" feature stories about machines imposing their will over helpless people. To offset the notion of machines overwhelming man, a running gag on TOS was the way Kirk could outsmart the computer by trapping it within its own contradictory and inflexible logic.
I've always wondered why, if these computers are so advanced, they haven't been given the ability to see beyond absolute directives. I guess it wouldn't be as dramatic if they could. The intimidation factor is a good selling point, and if one cannot negotiate with something, it's pretty intimidating.
In the end, like everything else in Trek, it comes down to the simple matter of telling the story at hand. As for technology as a Trek "issue," it really isn't one. When I think about it, I for one find it amazing that the technological societal infrastructure of today works as well as it does considering how complex it is. In Trek it must be a hundred times as complex, and yet it still must work — and the people living in the era probably still take it for granted.