STAR TREK: MARK TWO
Justin B Rye [MAIL] 1992–1998

Section 1: TECHNOLOGY

1.0 QUASISCIENCE (see footnotes, postscripts)

First I'd better explain this bit of SF-library jargon.  Quasiscience is plausible fictional science, consciously made up by an author for plot purposes, not to fool anyone.  Quasisciences (like tachyonics) are okay in SF.  But pseudoscience (e.g. astrology) is bogus science, peddled by loonies who actually believe in it and wish we did too.  Why do people always muddle the two?  A taste for pseudoscience is no more welcome in an SF scriptwriter than blindness would be in a TV cameraman.  See 9.6.

The trouble with Star Trek technology is its scrappiness… meaning both (A) unevenness – i.e. the way the major starfaring races mix archaic and magical devices (manual gunnery and replicated food) in an identical patchy manner, and at improbably evenly matched levels (see section 4.3) – and (B) incoherence in the quasisciences: each McGuffin, each Strange Form of Energy Never Previously Encountered, is explained (if at all!) by a separate line of ad hoc doubletalk, and a separate hitherto-unknown law of physics.  This is the clumsy way to do it; the elegant approach, adopted in my revisions, posits as few novel scientific principles as possible, making each one serve several non-contradictory functions.  Now on to some specific cases of Star Trek technology with poorly designed quasiscience rationales, starting with the alltime classic example:

1.1 TRANSPORTERS (see postscripts)

Transporters are a last minute addition to the Star Trek Universe (a cheaper effect than shuttle landings); and it shows.  The explanation given is that they break down matter into data and energy, beam that energy to the chosen destination, and reassemble it as per data.  This, unluckily, is the wrong kind of teleport.  All they needed was a way to flick objects from A to Z skipping B; what they got is a souped-up long-range replicator which kills you and constructs a replacement elsewhere.  For a full analysis of the technological and ethical ramifications (total-conversion cannons and transporter pattern resurrection, for a start) see section 7.

Back to the drawing board.  The Star Trek: Mark Two solution is to invoke a true A‑to‑Z teleport, using the existing Star Trek idea of subspace (the medium of their Faster-Than-Light communications).  My transporter fields flick their contents through subspace like tiddlywinks, with no need for any matter-to-energy conversion or reconstruction.  This alters the likely operating limits, but towards those evident in ST:TOS: it makes sense that it's an open system requiring no receiver and not much power; but a transponder on the cargo helps, and subspace shields hinder it.  It thus contradicts only plots like Unnatural Selection (ST:TNG2; best ignored).  Further questions to be answered include whether potential energy gets conserved (so it's cheaper to teleport downhill than up), and/or whether disappearances leave a vacuum (appearances are even more baffling).

1.2 PHASERS (see footnotes, postscripts)

As Roddenberry said at every opportunity, a TV cop doesn't pause in a chase scene to explain how his gun works.  But then, nor does he use it to phone home; it has reasonable limitations.  I'm not asking for explanations; just explicability.  What kind of beam could function as:

  1. A non-thermal, almost-any-metabolism stunner with no ill effects;
  2. A localised cutting ray (its normal effect against starship hulls);
  3. A deathray, leaving a scorchless corpse for relatives to weep over;
  4. A beam of warmth, useful for heating up rocks or cups of coffee; or
  5. A no-mess no-fuss hygieno-vanisher, causing its victims to glow red and disappear, not leaving behind searing-hot clouds of reeking gases?

The only plausible answer is to tie it in as a military application of transporters; Mark-two phaser beams put a transporter field around the target and project it permanently into subspace (but an undersized field simply dissipates as heat).  The field may in fact include and annihilate the phaser itself; watch those suicides in What are Little Girls Made of? (ST:TOS1), and The Wrath of Khan (ST:TMP2).  I'm ignoring the questions raised (e.g., ST:TNG3) in The Vengeance Factor (knockback with no recoil, plus (A) and (E) on a sliding scale – i.e. a difference purely of degree!); nor have I explained stun yet.  Perhaps it's a neurological (or psionic) side-effect of intense transporter fields, nullified somehow in normal transporters?

1.3 SUBSPACE FIELDS (see footnotes, postscripts)

Firstly, is subspace radio instantaneous (to allow delayless chats with Starfleet admirals) or merely Faster-Than-Light (as implied by Uhura's cries of our SOS won't reach anyone for weeks)?  One might rationalise that it varies depending on what you can afford; starbase can manage tightbeam calls on the ansible level of subspace, while broadcasts have to use the slower (less warped?) levels… but it sounds horribly forced.

The Star Trek Universe features many different impossible energy effects that show a family resemblance; tractor beams, deflectors, invisible forcewalls, shields, impulse drives, reactionless thrusters, ship gravitics (which never fail), and inertia dampers (which often fail, if not enough to turn them to smears).  One new bit of quasiscience will suffice; they're all forces-at-a-distance propagated via subspace and powered by those trusty impulse engines.  Inertial damping may be unnecessary for some forms of stardrive pseudo-acceleration, and it's automatic for routine manoeuvres, whereas missile impacts and emergency turns tend to catch it unprepared.

1.4 WARPDRIVE (see postscripts)

Faster-Than-Light travel is of course impossible, but an essential Space-Operatic convention.  The problem with warpdrive's quasiscience basis is that it hasn't got one; it was given no coherent explanation or indeed jargon.  The first ST:TOS pilot talks about hyperdrive and the time warp (not to mention rockets); the second calls it a space warpST:TMP1 introduces a Star-Wars-hyperjump effect, plus that mysterious visual smear – used in-atmosphere in The Voyage Home (ST:TMP4), so it can't be warp.  See section 6 for more about warp speeds, and established SF stardrives; for now, note that in the Star Trek Universe:

Devising a drive rationale consistent with both my subspace-teleport theory and ST:TOS evidence is easy.  If the whole ship can flick itself a metre forward through instantaneous subspace every picosecond that's a pseudo-velocity thousands of times faster than light!  There are no time dilation or inertial effects, as you aren't accelerated; it feels like you're just moving impossibly fast with an imperceptible flicker.  Some details remain to be worked out (Why that warp-ten theoretical maximum?  What's warped?  How about collisions?) but this would do for a start.

1.5 CYBERNETICS (see footnotes, postscripts)

ST:TOS computers, whether servile or insane, were always standard voice-interactive Space Opera Artificial Brains, with black box internal workings.  Nobody considered the possibility that AIs had any rights to Federation citizenship – okay, so they live in boxes, show little imagination or emotion, and sometimes go mad; but cf. Medusans, Tellarites, Vulcans, and Humans!  The NCC1701 ran into plenty of perfectly humanoid androids, not to mention gynoids (the feminine).  What makes Data so special?  See 3.1.

By ST:TNG, things have regressed in some ways.  Computers are now largely key-operated, without Genuine People Personalities, and have obtrusively fallible workings.  NCC1701D's computers are notably full of squatters, such as the holo-Moriarty (see 8.2), nanites, and alien data-viruses (no wonder, when Geordie takes so long to think of pressing reset – watch Contagion, ST:TNG2).  The cybercliché stories call unwelcome attention to the relative datedness of ST:TOS, fit the Star Trek Universe poorly, are very predictable for anybody who read any eighties SF, and are still remarkably technophobic – for instance you know that the Borg are evil because they're cyborged.  Why then are Federation computers so primitive?  Haven't they got subspatial (instantaneous!) processors?  If they're still advancing in ST:TNG, why was ST:TOS cybernetics barely ahead of our own?  The natural answer for a Space Opera universe is that AI in ST:TOS had gone as far as it safely can; when you trust computers to make your decisions, your race ends up ruled by a computer-deity.  This should have remained true in ST:TNG; extra progress is an anomaly, like Data's Starfleet rank (an AI giving orders?).

1.6 BIOTECHNOLOGY (see postscripts)

The Star Trek Universe's attitude to biotechnology is equally conservative.  Genetic engineering, cloning, elective surgery etc. are distrusted – perhaps due to the Eugenics Wars, though this only explains it for Terrans.  Again, the convention of limitations on (so-called) dehumanising technology is a fair one in Space Opera; Star Trek isn't trying to be cyberpunk.  ST:TNG still treats biotech with superstitious dread, but muddles things on occasion (see 5.2).  The trouble appears to be a total lack of soft-(quasi)science vetting.  So in ST:TNG2 Up the Long Ladder talks rubbish about cloning; Unnatural Selection features anti-genetic-engineering alarmism, plus the DNA for wrinkles.  Possibly the worst offender is Evolution (ST:TNG3), which mixes accurate but irrelevant (educational) astrophysics scenery with a plot based on the nineteenth-century ladder-of-creation misinterpretation of natural selection; the idea that if I do enough evolving I'll eventually become superior on some absolute scale.

1.7 JARGON (see footnotes)

Lots of Star Trek Universe quasiscience terminology is fairly obscure and/or silly.  And why not?  Here are some examples, with my suggested explanations.


1993 Footnotes

1.0 McGuffin is Hitchcockian jargon for a black-box plot device.
1.2 For examples of (C), try The Conscience of the King (ST:TOS1) or The Undiscovered Country (ST:TMP6).
1.3 Ansible is a widely used Le Guinism for instantaneous communicator.  I should also like to publicise my own label gravity-carpet for the system of deck-adhesion apparently in use on all sci-fi starships.
1.5 Genuine People Personalities are another Hitchhiker's Guide reference.
1.7 I've heard official answers to some of these, but I'm doing Star Trek the favour of ignoring them.

1997+ Postscripts

1.0 B5 quasiscience is much less uneven and more coherent.  The Minbari may have artificial gravity – a spin-off of their fancy drives – but Earth hasn't; a point which is immediately evident from the design of the station (this was my first clue that I was going to like B5).  DS9's circular construction is purely decorative, copied blindly from SF cliché.
1.1 B5 has no transporters.  Would you believe I've heard it criticised for omitting such an essential sci-fi ingredient?  Star Trek really does addle the mind.  New evidence of this (March 1999): an amusingly lame flame asserting that Yousound like you are trying to convince yourself that ST Technolgy is actually science-fiction and not fact
1.2 It was a long time before we were told how B5's PPGs work, but they were always obviously explicable.
1.3 Tractor beams and jumppoint disruptors have turned up in the B5 universe, but they're still considered a big deal.  Communication apparently involves tachyon relays through hyperspace, which sounds about right.
1.4 B5 jump drive is rather complicated, but well designed and well introduced.  Do you realise it was season two before we saw a vessel in transit?
1.5 There is quite a lot of technoparanoia in B5, starting with the smuggler in the pilot – part of the Vorlon conservative influence?  By the way, Ken MacLeod seems to have adopted my word gynoid!
1.6 Mind you, Evolution is a gem compared to episodes like Genesis (ST:TNG7).

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