Modern Star Trek Needs More Technobabble

Okay, fine. Because absolutely nobody asked for yet another Star Trek hot take from some random nobody on the internet, here we go. This is the stuff that I don’t like about modern Trek:

Warping within solar systems is risky at best (Kirk in TMP: “…we must now risk engaging Warp drive while still within the solar system…”). Ex Astris Scientia has a good rundown of when that’s been mentioned, when broken, and theories as to both situations. But while classic Trek shows were inconsistent, modern trek (Abramsverse, Kurtzman revival) appears to have entirely given up on this. Which I think is a shame both for canon/continuity reasons (even with the inconsistencies), and for suspense/plotting reasons.

If warp is limited or constrained within gravity wells (planetary or systemwide), there’s an extra element of travel time that has to be figured in. This could be used for suspense (are impulse speeds enough to get them there in time?), for final discussions on strategy, or just for giving space travel the more realistic feel that is one of the things that drew me into Trek as a kid. There was so much about Trek’s technobabble and the design of the Enterprise that made this feel like a real, considered, thought-out universe.

With modern Trek, much of it feels more like magic. (Yes, any sufficiently advanced tech etc., but still.) Ships just “poof” in and out of wherever they need to be, even to the point of entire fleets popping into existence with relatively inconsequential separation among ships. Impulse engines seem to be practically inconsequential; warp travel is almost at (possibly already at) the point of just being an oversized cargo transporter. The only thing defining how long it takes to get from point A to point B is how many pages of dialog have been written.

In the words of Douglas Adams: “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” And modern Trek seems to have forgotten that, or at least forgotten how to use that as a restriction that can be used to enhance the plots (like how 280 (or remember 140?) characters forces us to carefully consider how to structure our Tweets to make the most impact, break in the right places, etc.).

Okay, next complaint: The public transporter booths in #Picard (mostly S1, but I think a few times early in S2?). People just casually stroll in and out of them willy-nilly. Are there set destinations? I don’t remember seeing any signage, how do they know where they’re going? And more importantly, since the booths appear to be bidirectional (not just in outgoing or incoming, but regarding which side you walk in or out of): How in the world are they not constantly colliding with other users? Those things must have caused so many bumps and bruises. And what if you’re walking in right at the same time as someone is beaming in? What if two people walk in from opposite sides at the same time? Does the destination get a new Tuvix? I have so many questions about the implementation and safety of these things.

Next: I can cope with holographic technology being more widespread and advanced than we’ve seen before. At least they (very amusingly) handwaved that away in DIS with Pike declaring that all holographic tech be removed from the Enterprise after it caused problems. But I’m absolutely baffled by the level of telepresence that the holograms apparently have. We’ll see a hologram not just able to see the environment they’re being projected into (even though the person on our end doesn’t see the other corresponding environment), but even able to do things like “sit” on a desk. I can’t point to exactly where in DIS this happens off the top of my head, but it happens more than once, and it jumps out at me every time, because they would have to be in near-identical environments on both ends.

I guess the person on the other side might be using a holosuite that is duplicating the environment of the person we’re seeing, but 1) that seems contextually unlikely for most, if not all, of these conversations, and 2) holographic technology (usually) doesn’t seem to be as advanced in DIS S1/S2 as we see in the TNG holodeck (and it was presented as new and amazing at the time, so that’s a good nod to continuity; holograms might be common, but not at that level of realism) so it seems unlikely that a TNG/DS9-style holosuite would be in use for these conversations. So we go back to it making no sense that the holographic conversations can have that level of cross-environmental interactivity.

Next: I would love to know if the DIS S3/S4 designers put any thought into the detached nacelles of the DISCO redesign (and the many other ships designed in that way) beyond “it looks cool”. I mean, yes, it does, but…why/how does it work that way? Part of why the original Enterprise felt so real is that Jeffries drew upon his aeronautic background and put a lot of thought into how the vessel might work, and (as may be obvious from this thread) a lot of what fascinated me for years were the tech manuals and related geekery. Because (for those of us who were interested), it wasn’t just “a rocketship”; it was “matter/antimatter annihilation energy focused by the dilithium crystals into power that flows up the struts to the engines that generate the warp field” and on and on and on…. Sure, it was fantastical, sci-fi pseudotechnology, but it was thought-out, considered, understandable fantastical sci-fi pseudotechnology. Sure, much of that was developed over time and retconned when necessary, but the basic pieces were there, and it felt possible.

Basically, I want more than “looks cool”. There’s nothing wrong with “looks cool”, but I also want the technobabble, the geeking out over how the technology works, the “pieces that fit together in this way do this”, and even if we can’t do it now, someday we might be able to. So, what’s the benefit to the detached nacelles? Is it safer? If the warp core and primary power generation is still in the engineering hull/body of the ship, how does the power get to the nacelles? Why are they attached when not at warp? I want there to be reasons.

Last one (for now), also DIS S3/S4: How do the personal transporters know where to transport people to? They regularly just go tap-“poof” and show up where they want to be, but how is that decided? How are they setting destinations? Again: Make it feel real, please.

Scaling Back Star Trek

Adapted from a Twitter thread:

My biggest hope for Star Trek going forward (Strange New Worlds, Discovery S5, whatever else comes out) is that the writers rediscover the ability to tell small stories.

Disco S1 was the Klingon/Federation war, with a half-season jaunt into the Mirror Universe that removed the Emperor of the Terran Empire, returning to a decimated Federation. S2 was the Red Angel and the battle against Section 31’s Control to save all life in the galaxy. S3 had a shattered Federation because of the Burn, which destroyed most of Starfleet and nearly entirely wiped out warp drive; the actual damage and death toll (both immediate and long-term from the lack of intersystem transportation) is never specified but likely isn’t small. And then S4 had the entire galaxy at risk from a randomly moving literally-planet-shattering device, with at least one inhabited planet destroyed and Ni’Var and Earth under threat (because, of course, Earth must be under threat of destruction fairly regularly).

Then in Star Trek Picard S1 we have synthetics on a mission to destroy all organic life before they can be destroyed. S2 ups the stakes from there with a timeline variant that has altered the course of the entire known galaxy.

It seems like every season of every show has to have some sort of Big Bad that is Bigger and Badder than the last Big Bad. The stakes are always so high that it’s become virtually meaningless. One death is a tragedy, millions are a statistic, billions are a plot device.

This is part of where the first season of Prodigy has been a bit of a breath of fresh air. So far, at least, it’s been relatively small-scale: One group of young adventurers finding a ship and trying to escape their captor. There are signs, of course, that this may change, with the Protostar apparently carrying some sort of viral doomsday weapon that could wipe out Starfleet. Which…well. Here we go again. Why must everything be super-sized?

Lower Decks is the sole entry that has been doing well at having a more focused, smaller scale. Whether intentional or a side effect of having lower deck crew for main characters, it hasn’t gone too large-scale (or when it has, it’s been in the background and we only get hints for comedic effect).

Maybe the stated goal of going back to a more “planet of the week” format for Strange New Worlds will also mean that not every event will be an EVENT. I really hope so. Because while yes, sometimes it can be fun to have a Big Bad that’s Very Big and Very Bad, if you do that every time, it ceases to be particularly interesting.

Big drama can come from small events. Not every threat has to be planet-, system-, galaxy-, or universe-spanning to be threatening.

None of this is to say that I haven’t been enjoying the modern reinvigoration of the Star Trek universe. I have, quite a bit! I just find myself wishing that the stakes weren’t always turned up to 11. That’s good for Spinal Tap. Less so for Star Trek.

Star Trek Technobabble vs. Magic

So in last week’s Star Trek: Discovery, the ship got a major upgrade (in just three weeks). What we’ve seen so far includes programmable matter bridge and spore drive interfaces, detached nacelles, and even (though not yet seen on screen) holodecks.

Discovery 1031-A

Today I noticed one thing in the new promo pic (embedded above) that I hadn’t noticed while watching the episode: apparently the four corridors connecting the saucer’s inner section to its outer ring have been removed. Here’s a top view of the original design for comparison.

Discovery 1031

This seems like a really odd design decision to me. Before, while getting from the inner to outer sections may not have been super convenient if on foot and not using a turbolift (especially given the size difference between the Disco and any non-Abramsverse version of the Enterprise…and geez, I hadn’t realized just how huge all the Disco ships were), at least if it needed to be done they wouldn’t have had to go more than a quarter of the way around the gap. And there must be times when a turbolift isn’t practical — for instance, moving material, supplies, machinery, or other such things too large to fit in a turbolift around the ship.

I guess it all relies on everyone using those fancy new site-to-site personal transporters embedded in the new badges. But what if they’re not wearing a badge (taken off, fallen off, forcibly removed, etc.)? What if something goes wrong and the transporter system isn’t working properly (which, I know, never happens in Star Trek, but allow it for the sake of argument)? Now the only way to get from the inner ring to the outer ring is to take the primary corridor at the back of the inner ring towards the body of the ship, and then go around the outer ring to your destination. I just hope they don’t have to go from a point on the front of the inner ring to the front of the outer ring! Heck, now I wonder how hard it would be to estimate just how far that distance actually is….

Anyway. It looks cool, sure. But there are practicality considerations.

In a similar vein, how is maintenance done on those fancy new detached nacelles? In our first glimpse, it looked like they can be attached to the body of the ship, and were in the process of detaching in the shot, but what if something goes wrong while they’re detached?

One of the things I absolutely loved about Star Trek when I was a kid, and part of what has always fascinated me about it, was how real everything felt. Even fantastical elements, like the warp drive or transporters, always felt like there could be real, logical science behind them. And obviously, I’m not the only one who was drawn to this part of Trek, as I wouldn’t have all these Star Trek technical manuals and blueprints on my shelves if there weren’t enough of a market for them to get them published in the first place.

Trek Manuals and Blueprints

But so much of modern Trek (both Abramsverse and Discovery) seems to fall into the hand-wavey, might as well be magic, “because it looks cool” school of thought that breaks my suspension of disbelief.

Programmable matter I’m fine with — I want to know more about it, sure, but so far, I’m cool with how they’ve presented it. Detached nacelles (and other ship parts) could really use some serious work on defining what makes them desirable, possible, and accounting for practical considerations. We’ve seen lots of equipment, from space suits to prisoner anonymity hoods to asteroid-catching gravity platforms that just seem to fold open and create matter out of nothing — how is that explained? Where are all these fold-away pieces being stored when they’re not in use? Specifically regarding the asteroid-catching gravity platform, how do you get that much matter and mass into a suitcase that a human can carry around when it’s not in use?

And sure, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“, and sure, we’ve jumped another 900-some years into the future, and yes, we’ve just been introduced to these things, so there’s still plenty of time to develop the technobabble to justify them (or write scenes and scripts that deal with the situations outlined above). And, of course, these are modern shows, and I in no way expect them to be slavishly beholden to the set designs and special effects of the 1960s or 1980s.

But for me, at least, they’re really dancing on the line of believable technology vs. magic. And going too far towards magic is very likely to break a fundamental part of what has defined Trek for me for my entire life.

📚 thirty of 2020: Die Standing by John Jackson Miller ⭐️⭐️⭐️ #startrek #dis

A thoroughly entertaining romp with Emperor Georgiou between seasons one and two of DIS, as she adjusts to her new universe and gets recruited by Section 31. Plus ties to TOS and DS9. Fun! 🖖

🖖 #StarTrekDiscovery S02E14 (Late, because I was at Norwescon.) So many explosions! I’m not exactly opposed to getting a little Star Wars in my Star Trek, but this may have been a bit much. Ending on the Enterprise was pretty, but odd. Overall: imperfect, but satisfactory.

🖖 #StarTrekDiscovery S02E13 So many questions; quite glad there’s still one more episode. Enjoying the Short Treks tie-ins (maybe even Calypso?). But…wow. The Enterprise bridge! That was an incredible modernization that still obviously respected the original. I was blown away.

🖖 #StarTrekDiscovery S02E12 Klingons that didn’t annoy me (L’Rell’s dress was great)! The time crystals are a bit too magic-y (much like the dark matter that seems able to do whatever the plot needs), but okay. Pike’s vision was a pleasant surprise. And Control is a T-1000 now?

Another ST:DIS Theory

After watching tonight’s episode of Discovery (S02E11), Prairie and I came up with what we think is a very possible theory about where this season might go in the next few episodes, and it’s one that impacts a fair amount of the future Trek universe.

Details behind the cut, as this will be in definite spoiler territory, both for tonight’s episode, and potentially for the next three episodes if we’re right (though my last theory didn’t pan out, so keep that in mind).

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