Star Trek Technology: Starfleet’s Famous Five

To Boldly Go . . .

In Brief: Over the years there some of the most imaginative creations of the mind have come from the genre of Science Fiction. There are debates over what the term may mean, and if some stories, shows, films or comics constitute being labeled such. There are few arguments imaginable that could hold much truck against Star Trek being classed Sci-fi. So, looking at what “makes it so” (sorry; not sorry . . .) warrants a look at the inventions and gadgets that have helped to bring us some of the best stories to ever grace our screens. From romance, barriers being broken down, to malfunctions and system meltdowns, they’re all there, as well as some moral conundrums, too. So, whenever you’re ready, engage — Warp 9!

The Transporter

Where would they be without it? Mostly aboard the ship. Of course, the crew could land on planets, but how would they get from ship to ship, and what would the franchise be without those last-minute escapes, as a phaser is fired but our heroes have already begun to dematerialize, to safety. The very concept of scattering atoms and then reassembling them at another point in space is alone incredible. It’s made all the more wonderful when the very real possibilities of it going wrong are explored. Mostly the world of Star Trek has supposedly ironed out most of the moral implications of advancing technology and making it work for the benefit of all; but, there are some examples of error, and those who don’t quite buy into it as much as others . . .

It seems fair to call upon the case of bumbling, ever nervy Lieutenant Reg Barclay, played Dwight Schulz of The A-Team fame when discussing Starfleet transporter tech. He’s not the only one to ever fall foul of failures in tech, but he does get one of his big moments in the episode “Realm of Fear”. Barclay has a phobia of the transporter, which is an extension of his somewhat neurotic persona. As a recurring character, he’s only peripheral to Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he is still a firm fan favorite. It seems that his fears of the transporter aren’t entirely unfounded. In the episode, he records seeing strange worm-like beings within the environment the transporter creates. His experiences are written off as figments of his imagination but later discovered to be important. In a rare “focus” episode of the human side of technology, this episode stands out as one that goes on to prove that whist the transporter is essential to Starfleet operations, the use of it isn’t without problems.

Other incidents that the transporter tech features in heavily include the TOS episode “The Enemy Within”, that sees Captain Kirk divided into two halves of his own psyche, a “light” and “dark” half. This is further evidence of the potential for errors to cause catastrophe for Starfleet. Another fusion-based scenario occurs in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Tuvix”. Ship’s cook and morale boosting chirp chappy Neelix becomes quantum entangled with Science Officer, the Vulcan, Tuvok. The result is a single being. Captain Janeway must decide whether this entity has a right to live, at the expense of the other two. Just goes to show that when the transporter is “cranky” (as Scotty once called it) there can be serious repercussions.


The Universal Translator

The question of how an alien species can understand humans had to be addressed. Without it, the answer would be that all aliens miraculously know English (presumably still the standard and dominant Starfleet tongue). As well as being implausible, it would give a sense of absolute arrogance to humanity’s role and place n the wider universe. The answer is a piece of technology that translates all known language, in real-time. This is one of those inventions that’s almost available today (electronic translators have existed for some time, but soon they will work almost instantly, rendering previous language barriers little more than a distant memory. But what happens when it doesn’t work, or a crew member is without access to one, or if a species don’t use a method of communication that is translatable to perceived norms. Well, Captain Picard found out exactly that . . .

“Darmok” sees Picard trapped on a planet with a Tamarian. The species understand life via stories and allegories. In some ways they can be said to speak “poetry”, that is language outside of a speech-based system relying on linear sentences and individually strung words that give clear indications of intent and instruction. Picard finds he is ill-equipped to communicate with the alien. He feels powerless and begins to get frustrated. Soon, it becomes clear that Dathon is similarly frustrated. The situation cleverly shows that even with a device that can decipher words spoken, the meaning isn’t known. This important aspect of the show gives Starfleet a rare telling off on-screen, for being arrogant enough to assume all beings and species communicate in a similar manner. It’s a wonderful example of the importance of cultural tolerance and a lesson in not viewing your own way of life as superior. It’s about difference and diversity, something that Star Trek has always dealt in, with varying levels of success and respectable representation.

By the end of the episode what becomes is apparent is that the failings of the Universal Translator are compensated, surpassed even,  by the human ability to transcend divisions. In realizing the limitations of the device, Picard actually learns more about himself than he imagined possible. As for the technology itself, as a plot device and idea, it’s been hijacked by almost everyone. Whilst Star Trek’s Gene Rodenberry can’t be credited with inventing the idea (the concept is first mentioned in a 1945 Story by Murray Leinster aptly called “First Contact”) it’s still attributed to Star Trek as being widely known on screen because of its use. So, Star Trek gets to claim it, after all; perhaps it’s fair to say that without Star Trek popularising it then it wouldn’t almost be a reality now.


Warp Speed

Another “where would they be without it” one. They’d be where they were in space, or at least very close, by comparison. This is where the show took what physics might be able to do, at least theoretically, and took it to the next step. There will be many in the know about the feasibility of such concepts, and if indeed they do behave with Newton and Einstein’s ) others, too. Freeman Dyson, for example, who postulated “thought experiments”) limitations and knowledge. For the rest of us, we just pretend and enjoy hearing Spock, Scotty, Geordi La Forge or Data attempt to explain really cool sounding stuff. Reality and the limits of it are dull and boring anyway!



Throughout the years there have been some monumental chases conducted at Warp Speed, daring escapes made when the warp coils have been brought back online just in time. There have been breaches too when even currently available mastery of the laws of physics can’t get the crew out of a tight spot. Talking of getting out of tight spots, this is a neat (warp) jumping point into the ongoing theme of morality, surrounding Star Trek tech, and if it is ever responsible for collateral damage. Turns out, it might just be . . .

The TNG episode Force of Nature explores the “cost” of light-speed travel. When a Federation vessel is reported to have disappeared, The Enterprise D and crew go and investigate. What ensues is a startling discovery about the nature of such technology. The very fabric of space is ripped when ships travel at velocities allowing them to reach far off worlds at what should really take years, or perhaps even centuries. There’s very much an undertone of what is supposed to be exploration, by the Federation — Starfleet, specifically, actually being exploitative to other life. Whilst it might not be deliberate, the convenience of technology for one set of people is at the expense of another way of life suffering, because of it. Again, Star Trek, having asked “what if” in the way that it does best, must answer the implications. The result is of course not ” Okay, sorry we’ll stop zipping about the universe at silly speed”, but there is at least a pledge to attempt to limit the damage done, and to only go really fast when it’s an emergency. As we know that turns out to be pretty much every other episode, so is sort of an empty gesture; still, at least they’re aware now and have tried to do something.

Someone who must be mentioned in any serious discussion about Warp Speed is Zefram Cochrane, the pioneer of it. In recent times Cochrane is depicted by James Cromwell, as a hard-drinking self-destructive obsessive sort; yet, his first appearance was by Glenn Corbett in the TOS episode “Metamorphosis”, an altogether different characterization. What matters is that without him, none of it would be possible. The travel, exploration, and drama. But he can’t take all the credit, as we have Riker and co. to thank for giving him the impetus to get to things moving. Oh, and Deanna Troi, too, for having a drink with him; real, hard booze that is (synthehol wasn’t invented yet, but it would be soon enough). The rest is Star Trek history . . .


The Replicator

How do you eat on a Starship? Of course, you use a plate, bowl, knife and fork, your hands, or whatever other cultural cutlery and crockery is appropriate! Okay, to the serious stuff. There are many people, entire families (on the Enterprise D onwards, anyway). They all have to eat. Star Trek has shown us many “interesting” dishes from alien species, and beverages, too (blood pie, anyone?). Where would Major Kira Nerys be without her regular morning Raktajino (Klingon coffee, for those not in the know); another famous lover of hot drinks also had his favourite, too — we’ll get to him in a minute. Mostly, all food is synthetically manufactured by one of the ships many replicators. They almost always work . . .

“Tea, Earl Grey. Hot”. Trekkies everywhere know that’s Jean Luc Picard’s standard order from the replicator. In the TNG episode “Contagion”, instead of a delicious, hot cup of fragrant tea, the replicator served him a potted plant. Of course, he couldn’t drink that. He declared that it isn’t supposed to happen. So, the replicator isn’t perfect. Even when it is working, there are those who just don’t rate synthetic food as much as the real thing. Commander Riker shows off his egg cooking skills, in Time Squared. Similarly, Neelix in Star Trek: Voyager often uses real food to rustle up hearty dishes to get the feel-good factor going aboard the crew. It seems that even though the data banks have a massive combination of dishes, and can pretty much make everything in a few seconds, there really doesn’t seem to be any substitute for the real thing. Talking of which, there are certain things that some swear just can’t be reproduced the same.

Alcohol. There’s no shortage of it in Starfleet. Picard loves his red wine, that he occasionally enjoys when his brother sends him “the good stuff” from the family vineyard. When he does visit him, in the TNG episode “Family”, he gets a telling off for drinking too much synthehol, which has hindered his ability to determine what year the grapes are from in real wine. Again, more evidence that artificial can’t do what genuine, organic matter can; certainly, the effects are different. Synthehol doesn’t have the intoxicating factor. A fine example of a person thinking what’s the point then, is Scotty. He’s known to enjoy Scotch (invented by a little old lady in Leningrad, according to Chekov), to put it mildly. When he miraculously turns up in the TNG episode “Relics”, he wastes no time in poo-pooing synthehol. Fortunately, Guinan has a small supply of real alcohol, that she keeps under the counter of Ten Forward. Scotty makes short work of it. Another Starfleet bar-tender, Quark, also keeps a little by, of some of what customers really want, when only the real thing will do. Whilst there isn’t perhaps a strictly moral question, as with the other types of technology, what the replicators do pose is a philosophical question, on the nature of reality itself. That probably sounds like a familiar concept, especially to more modern Trekkies . . .


The Holodeck

When Star Trek: The Next Generation was announced, questions were asked, eagerly. What would the show do differently? How would things be the same? Who would pay what roles? Would the original crew be honoured and remembered? All of those things were answered, and the answers came about in all sorts of interesting ways. Something that was new was the Holodeck (homage is paid to the original Enterprise, as it is seen, reconstructed by Scotty, who guests in the already referenced episode “Relics”. That’s not the only use of the technology to bring back pre-holodeck Starfleet personnel ). An advanced version of virtual reality, where people and other species can program things to simulate a version of what they’d like to be real. So many possibilities, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps, at the beginning.

In the two-part (shown as one 90 minutes long episode) pilot “Encounter at Far Point”, the then-new TNG’s Commander Riker first encounters Lt. Commander Data on the holodeck, attempting to learn to whistle. This is referred to in the final film with the TNG in it, Star Trek: Nemesis 2002), in a poignant moment where his friends (more like family, really) are paying tribute to him. A youthful Wesley Crusher is taking advantage of the new technology, goofing about, like any teenager would, who had a world like this to make their plaything, at their disposal. Fair enough Wesley (we’d go on to see him “meet” his father, Jack, on the Holodeck, in the previously mentioned episode “Family”. His mother, Dr. Beverley Crusher gives him a program that his father recorded, in the event of his death before Wesley’s coming of age. She has been holding on to it, as she wasn’t sure when the time was right. She decides to give it Wesley and let him decide. Regarding morality and the Holodeck, there’s a whole host of episodes that explore it, as well as some of the most fun parts of the show’s history being played out in virtual reality.

In  “Elementary Dear Data” and “Ship in a Bottle”, the intelligence of a created program of Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty is questioned and the subject of him being a sentient being is put forward. It’s here that Star Trek asks the important question about new life. That’s not the last time it comes up, either. Star Trek: Voyager also deals with this. The episode “Fair Haven” is a good example. It takes things further than Picard and his Dixon Hill stories (who he so brilliantly relies on to kill invading Borg drones in Star Trek: First Contact, as he disengages safety protocols ), with Tom Paris creating a whole village and backstories for the characters. Again, the question looms of who is and isn’t real. It’s also Voyager where that same question is posed by the ship’s doctor, who argues he has gone beyond his original programming, as he is relied on so heavily. Captain Janeway is forced into a response. The question can no longer be ignored.

Other fun characters and moments over the years include the legendary baseball game aboard DS9, in “Take Me Out to The Holosuite”, Julian Bashir’s suave James Bond-type spy and Reg Barclay’s foray into command, in “Hollow Pursuits”. The question that many Trek fans really want to know though is what would the browsing history of Riker’s Holodeck visits show? And so, to end on a moral note (sorry Riker, when it comes to you and women we think you’re morals are at the least questionable; at worst entirely devoid), perhaps it’s best that in the world of Star Trek, after all, some things really are best left to the imagination . . .



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