When I was a child, I loved science fiction movies. The original Star Trek TV series aired when I was around 10 years old, and I just ate it up. The special effects were quite good at the time, especially for television (compare it with its contemporaries, like Lost in Space and the short-lived The Time Tunnel), and it didn't bother me, at that age, that the acting was over the top and some of the stories were pretty trite.
I was sad when the original series left after three seasons, and was disappointed in the movies. By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation came around, about 20 years later, I wasn't interested. I saw a couple of episiodes, they didn't grab me, and I didn't pursue it. Neither did I watch the other versions, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise.
But in December a US cable TV channel, Spike TV, started re-airing the Voyager series from the beginning, and, as I happened to catch it at the first episode and am now armed with TiVo, I decided to record it and watch it. I've just finished watching the fourth season of the series. The special effects are still quite good, especially for television, the acting is still over the top, and some of the stories are still pretty trite. We still have our diverse crew, a true mark of the original series, where the senior officers included a black woman, an Asian man, a Russian, a Scotsman, a man from another planet, and a “good ol' country doctor.” In Voyager, the captain is a woman, we have a black man from another planet, a Native American, all manner of other mixtures... and the doctor is a computer-generated hologram.
The stories, too, follow the pattern from the original of highlighting diversity, tolerance, and enlightenment. But that's not what I want to focus on here. I thought it'd be interesting to look, in a series of posts, at some of the technology presented in the two — the original series and Voyager — and see what's changed, for the better or worse, and what's stayed the same.
With that introduction, I'll start simply, with the communications systems.
In the original series, everyone — even alien races never before encountered — generally spoke English. Sometimes there were explanations for that, as with worlds modelled on some image of Earth (“A Piece of the Action”, “The Omega Glory”, “Patterns of Force”, “Bread and Circuses”), or with super-intelligent beings or telepathy. But most often, there was simply no explanation. Voyager gave us an explanation, with the “universal translator” that's built into their “comm badges”. They don't explain how the translator also makes it look like the aliens' lips are moving in English as well, but we'll let that go.
The comm badges are quite nice, little hands-free devices that double as the decorative insignia on the shirts, as well as being translators, communicators, and tracking devices. The communicators in the original series, though, were more fun for kids to play with. They were very much like “flip phone” style mobile phones of today (and it wouldn't surprise me if the phone designers used the Star Trek communicators as their prototype), and we used to make our own toy versions out of wood and rubber bands. (We also used to beset each other with “Vulcan nerve pinches”, but that's not a technology issue.)
For long-range communication, they thought to explain the lack of propagation delay over the enormous distances by creating “sub-space radio” that bridged the light years for radio signals the way the warp drive did for the ship itself. Even so, there were limitations. When the Enterprise was far enough from Star Fleet outposts, it did take time to get messages through and responses back, and that sometimes fed into the story lines, requiring Captain Kirk to make field decisions without orders from above. Voyager had the same issues: sub-space communication won't go all the way to the far end of the galaxy where they've wound up, 60,000 light years from home, leaving them out of contact completely.
It's time to end this entry before it gets over-long, but I have notes about other Star Trek technology things to post about. One, not surprisingly, will be about the computer systems. So this series will be continued, as we continue our five-year mission: to explore strange, new worlds; to seek out new life, and new civilizations....