John Ostrander: Old Star Trek Tech
I’m a Star Trek fan. Not a rabid fan, but a fan. I‘ve at least sampled all the shows and some I liked better than others. I’ve seen all the films and some I really liked; the first Trek film – not so much. I even enjoyed the two most recent films although I have a nephew who may disown me for saying so.
I’m not a big tech sort of guy (just ask ComicMix’s own Glenn Hauman) but I do have a major tech gripe with the series. The original communicators very much influenced the design of cel phones – mine still flips open, thank you very much, and I don’t know how many times I’ve asked Scotty to beam me out of some situations. Unfortunately, all the communicators are good for is audio. No video. Star Trek is set in our future. My antiquated Trekfone can take pictures. We have cel phones that can take movies. ST communicators cannot.
You would think that having video capability would be valuable for away teams stepping foot on new planets and meeting new civilizations. Their space ships have sensors that can pick up life forms on planets below or peer long distances into space and throw up the image on the bridge’s screen but they can’t do video from the planet surface to the ship orbiting overhead. Here today we can get video to and from the International Space Station. Our probes can throw back images from distant planets.
I understand why that had to happen that way in the Original Series. The show didn’t have the CGI or the budget to make it work. Why not update the tech in the later series? Why not in the movies, especially the most recent ones?
They have teleporters, for cryin’ out loud. Figuring out how to get video from planet surface to an orbiting ship is harder than disassembling someone’s atoms, beaming them somewhere and re-assembling them? Seriously?
Are they keeping to the audio-only rule because that’s the way it’s always been? They’ve already alienated the hardcore Trek fans with the re-boot; are the fans going to get more cheesed off because now the communicators can send pictures? Are they afraid all the ST characters are going to start doing selfies? Although I could see Kirk doing an Anthony Weiner with his.
Why does this bug me? Because, in my book, it’s a failure of imagination.
I remember a great scene in Galaxy Quest (one of the best non-ST Star Trek films ever made). IMDB does the pocket synopsis this way: “The alumni cast of a cult space TV show have to play their roles as the real thing when an alien race needs their help.” Their fake TV ship has been lovingly created by a race of aliens who believe the TV episodes (which have found their way into outer space) to be a “historical record.”
In one scene, Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver have to get to the manual off switch for the self destruct button and are confronted with a corridor of large pistons slamming together from side to side and up and down at an alarming speed. Weaver’s character balks; there’s no reason for those chompers to be there. Allen says it’s because it was in an episode. Weaver screams, “That scene was badly written!” She snarls that those writers should have been shot; this always makes me giggle.
That’s my point. The aliens put the banging pistons in the corridor not because they make any sense but because they were there before. Same problem with the communicators for me: they don’t make any sense.
The early communicators were way ahead of their time and that’s part of what Star Trek tech has always done – inspired us and given us a sense of wonder, of possibilities. That stimulates the imagination. Communicators shouldn’t be able to do less than our cel phones; they should be able to do more.
The stories should also be more than re-makes of past stories. Tell us new ones. Take us boldly to where we’ve never been before.
You might want to read Jeffrey Deavers recent attempt at James Bond. A good portion of his mission was spent downloading apps and
Looking into his IPhone as opposed to doing James Bond stuff. When I emailed him to ask to not write another JB story he mentioned that even the Fleming stories didn’t have any more action in them than his story did. So as far as Star Trek goes …. Maybe the TV series ended before the phone and app industry kicked off. And the movies have focused more on the story line than the minutiae . Just thinking out loud
I’m not going to even pretend to defend the ‘realism’ or logic of Star Trek technology. There are a hell of a lot of hallway phaser fights that could have been ended with a WWII grenade.
I take J. J. Abrams and Next Generation Star Trek as examples of retro-futurism. Just like any reboot of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers has technology that doesn’t make sense. It’s part of the charm, part of the space opera tradition.
While mounting a grenade launcher under a phaser RIFLE would make perfect sense, it ruins the fun of the series for me when they get all “special ops”: the invasion of Klingon space in Into Darkness and all of the Next Generation movie Insurrection. Those are awful stories.
Complaining is easy: how would YOU integrate futuristic AV gear into a Star Trek setting? Seriously, I bet you have some interesting answers. What would the equipment look like? How would it change the stories? What story possibilities does it open up?
Why don’t we have video phones as a default? I mean right now? We have the technology, we have (close to) the required bandwidth. It’s just because for most calls, voice is enough. Heck, we don’t even use voice that much, everybody’s texting. When we’re in a nice chair, or having a long protracted conversation, we’ll pull up Skype, and have that face to face. But most of the time, voice or a few tested and abbreviated words will do.
Seems like that might be the case in a couple centuries. I wouldn’t be surprised if the new communicator did do video, but as an option.
We can come up with all these clever theories we like, but we all know the reason is ” ’twas ever thus”. This is how it looked in the original series, if they tried to change it substantively, they’d catch hell for it. Heck, they tried to update the tech in the movies and they got bitched at. Remember that big belt buckle all the outfits had in the first film? That was a mini sickbay sensor – it was supposed to constantly beam medical data back to the ship, and the wrist communicator was slaved to it. Nobody liked it, so wonder of wonders, the handheld returned in the second film.