Monday, April 09, 2007


Technology in Star Trek

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....


Maggie said...

My twelve-year-old daughter is furiously doing her homework so she can watch the two Voyager episodes I DVR'd. (I think one is still airing right now.) She has recently become obsessed with ST, as I was when I was a child (but my obsession was with reruns, as I was 4 when the original series aired).

(You might enjoy an episode of DS9 called "Trials and Tribble-ations," in which the DS9 crew time-travels back to "The Trouble with Tribbles." Very cool special effects as the DS9 crew is put into the old ST scenes. We made our children watch both tribble episodes, although I don't think they were as impressed, seeing them all at once, as we were with the DS9 episode when we first saw it. There are some technology issues with the DS9 crew not knowing how to work the old technology that are humorous.)

I was thinking about the comm system the other day. I think on the original series, they had to press a button to talk to a person in another part of the ship. I can picture Kirk talking into a comm panel.

Starting with TNG, or possibly even the movies (I don't remember), they just sort of yell into the air. (I guess they're talking into their comm badges, so I guess it's starting with TNG.) It's really very funny, because they talk to a person over the comm system, then talk to a person next to them, then back to the person over the comm system. It feels natural but I wonder how it works. I think sometimes that intermediate conversation with the person in the room is not intended for the person over the comm system. How does the computer know? Is it all broadcast over the comm system? I can't remember how many people have to press their comm badges for this to work -- whether it's just the originator, or if the person answering also has to press his/her badge. I'll have to watch for that today, if K ever finishes her homework before her cello lesson...

But I've also been thinking about literature/the arts and the value to us as human beings, and I wonder how much Star Trek, as trite as the stories sometimes were, shaped my ethical development. I realize that we have ethics hard-wired in, but Star Trek made me think about it, and it's allowed me to have some interesting conversations with my daughters.

I think you picked the best of the modern series to watch. I never really watched Enterprise -- maybe I was "over" Star Trek by then. TNG was really boring. I don't think there would have even been a series if Picard had simply raised the shields once in a while. DS9 had some good episodes but some very one-dimensional characters -- the Bajorans (they're religious, get it?), Worf (a warrior who would be honored in song and story, if he weren't always the first taken out in a fight), and Dax (two characters who aren't deep enough to be one). The only interesting character on that show was Odo. There were a few semi-good movies, but most were awful. The one with the Borg was pretty good -- I think it was called First Contact, and features the eternally dull TNG crew.

Maggie said...

Okay, the person initiating the conversation presses his/her com badge, and the other person simply answers into the air.

James tells me that since they can talk to the computer anyway, the computer clearly knows when they're speaking to the person on the other end of the comm signal and when they're speaking to somebody in the room -- or the computer can tell by the tone of voice. Okay, I'll buy that.

Now I'm going to have to listen and see if they address the person after each aside. Maybe it's as simple as that.

*click* Janeway to Paris.
Paris here, captain.
Do you have those trajectories yet?
*muttering* I don't have those trajectories yet.
*loud* I'll have them soon, Captain.

Maybe there's a delay, and the computer waits for the person on the other end of the communication to be addressed before deciding what to send. That wouldn't work too well in those sticky situations, though. Must be tone of voice.

By the way, a recent article I read in which the authors had found a way to predict programming success concluded that good programmers are people who "have a different attitude toward meaninglessness." Which is why, I think, programmers enjoy figuring out how the technology works on a TV show.