Star Trek science

I've seen a couple of people complain about the new Trek movies not being very scientific, which led me to write the following in a comment thread. Figured I might as well turn it into a blog post.

I think a lot of Trek fans misremember the degree of scientific accuracy in the original series. I was really really annoyed by the Red Matter business in ST09, but I had to admit it was no worse than a hundred other sciencey things from all of the Trek series. Scientific accuracy has never really been a goal of Star Trek.

The first seven broadcast episodes of TOS (which I recently rewatched and took notes on) included, among other things:

  • A telepathic creature that can shapeshift and can near-instantly suck all of the salt out of a human body.
  • A beam weapon (phaser) that can cause people to fall unconscious, without causing them any lasting harm, but can also be set to kill them or even vaporize them. It can also cut through bulkheads.
  • A truth serum.
  • A warp drive.
  • Sound in space.
  • Aliens who look basically like humans.
  • Force fields.
  • At least two different kinds of basically omnipotent people who can use mind power to do things like teleporting themselves and others (apparently across interstellar distances), creating solid objects (such as gravestones) out of thin air, and using (essentially) Force lightning to attack people.
  • Interspecies reproduction.
  • The galaxy having an “edge” and weird things happening when you get too close to it. Also, sitting at the edge of the galaxy and seeing stars ahead of them.
  • Artificial gravity.
  • A planet that's getting smaller and less massive by the minute, so they keep having to fly closer to it to remain the same distance above the surface.
  • Stuff based on polywater. (Which, to be fair, at the time was believed to be real science.)
  • Suddenly going backwards in time. “Since the formula worked, we can go back in time, to any planet, any era.”
  • A transporter accident splitting Kirk into Good Kirk and Bad Kirk.
  • A way to briefly pinch someone's shoulder/neck that causes them to immediately fall unconscious.
  • An asteroid belt in apparently interstellar space.
  • A ship's computer that can detect lies by listening to people speak.
  • A pill that causes women to look beautiful: “the Venus drug.” According to one of the characters, the drug gives you more of whatever you have: Men get more muscular and aggressive, women more rounded (or maybe he said curved?) and feminine.
  • Sentient androids, the ability to create exact-looking android duplicates of a person, and the ability to transfer a human's “soul” into an android. (Though arguably the person who said the soul thing was deluded, and it was really “only” the person's memories and such that got transferred.)

And so on.

It's not that all of those things are scientifically implausible; I can imagine that some of them might be feasible with less-than-magic-level tech. It's more that I don't feel like Trek ever took the science seriously as science. That wasn't what they cared about; they set out to make (iIrc) Wagon Train in space. TOS was, imo, primarily an adventure series with science fiction trappings, and some investigation of philosophical/moral/political issues that gave it some depth.

This isn't really a criticism. There's a long tradition of popular adventurey science fiction that doesn't especially care about scientific accuracy. But it does mean that I think criticisms of Abrams on grounds of scientific implausibility are failing to take into account the history of the show.

4 Responses to “Star Trek science”

  1. allogenes

    I get where you are coming from with this. Complaining about “scientific inaccuracy” in Star Trek is right up there with people who complain about any central concept of any movie or TV show. Kind of like all those people I know who got mad at the TV series House MD because every week he figures out why someone is sick. C’est la façon dont il est. Star Trek is whatever Star Trek is; and it has not been scientifically accurate in any incarnation.

    That being said, the new Star Trek franchise has tried (hard) to distinguish itself as its own thing, sui generis. I mean, its creator apparently didn’t even like TOS. Thus, it deserves the criticism from those who actually criticize it. Plus, I’m all for piling on as I am sick of people stealing and then re-treading my childhood memories! 🙂

  2. Jed

    That’s another thing I’ve been responding to a lot; maybe I’ll make that my next entry. On the Daily Show (starting around 02:30 in the first video on that page), Abrams said he didn’t like Trek as a kid but that some of the writers of the new movies did love Trek, so when he and the others were all happy with it, they figured they’d gotten it right. His comment is being interpreted by the fan community as “Abrams hates Trek and is therefore ruining it,’ but it came across to me as him saying “The new movies are intended to work both for longtime fans and for newcomers,” and I think that’s an awesome intent (setting aside the question of whether he succeeds).

    I kind of feel like most of the people who saw that clip did just what Jon Stewart joked that he was doing, and stopped listening after the part where Abrams said he hadn’t liked Trek as a kid.

    Anyway, I disagree that it’s trying to distance itself from the original; I think in this second movie in particular, the echoes are very strong and very intentional.

  3. allogenes

    Well, Abrams did emphasize the dislike of the philosophical aspect of the franchise and didn’t seem to say that he changed his mind on that. So I’m dinging him some points for that, the anti-philosophy bent, not for the not liking it as a kid part. I like the philosophical overtones. 🙂

    Nonetheless, my main complaint (or rant more likely) is against the constant retreading of franchises. In the case of ST it may work out; certainly there were those who cried that it was the end of the world when STTNG started, and now that appears (at least to me) to be the default ST universe. (I mean that in the sense of being “more canonical” in the resolution of debatable points; I realize that technically they are the same fictive universe.)

    But I am just tired of all the retreads. Why cannot these supposedly creative people just try stuff that is new? I agree that there is little that is new in a deep sense, but ST, Doctor Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide, all the Marvel comics, even the A Team? It is not clear to me why we cannot just try new stuff. I am reminded of the cybernetician Ashby’s theorem about “requisite variety.” This is not how to get it.

    If Abrams wants to try something new and fail I’m a lot more forgiving if he’s trying something new. Smashing my childhood comes with an extra load of my personal bias against him, and all the others, for stealing my youth. 🙂

    • allogenes

      Obviously I meant: “If Abrams wants to try something new and fail I’m a lot more forgiving than if he is perverting some fond childhood memory.” Or words to that effect. Damnable lack of an edit button!


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