Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Polyspectral Quantum Gentrification: Or, how I learned to hate Star Trek and love science

This might shock all ten of my readers, but I hate Star Trek.Why I hate Star Trek might seem strange, but I hope that I can explain this in a way that makes sense. You see...I hate Star Trek because it is too good.

Lets take some examples from TNG, which I've been watching a lot of. The Inner Light is one of the most beautifully touching 45 minutes of television ever produced. The Face of the Enemy is a tense thriller that actually gives Councilor Troi something interesting to do. And, of course, who can forget The Best of Both Worlds: A chilling showdown with the second best villain of any Star Trek, The Borg.

The best villains, of course, being the Kazon!

 Awww yeaaahhhh.

These are great episodes, with great storytelling and great acting and great music and some of the worst science ever depicted. For a show that prides itself on "predicting" things like the cellphone or non-invasive medical procedures, Star Trek has about as good a track record with science as it does with feminism. And this was the show that kept one of it's two female leads in a skintight bodysuit for six out of seven years...then went on to do the same thing. Again

So, the best example I can think of to illustrate this are two episodes. 

The first is great: Starship Mine. It's an awesome premise. The Captain (the heroically bald Jean-Luc Picard) is stuck on the ship while terrorists have broke onto it to steal something valuable to sell on the black market. However, the whole ship is being bathed with a baryon sweep, which will kill anything it touches. Don't ask me what a baryon is. Instead, ask wikipedia!

So, ignoring for the moment that I don't think baryons work this way or would be useful in maintenance, here is what gets me about this episode: The terrorists are here to steal stuff from the engine of the Enterprise to sell on the black market as a bomb. This is actually a really sound idea, as the Enterprise uses an anti-matter reactor to produce energy. Anti-matter is actually quite possibly the most destructive ANYTHING in the universe, so it makes perfect sense to be stolen by terrorists in a high risk mission like this. 

Except for one thing.

They're NOT here to steal the anti-matter. They're here to steal "Trilithium Resin." 

Say that out loud.




I would say something very loud right here, but my grandparents read this blog. Seriously, what the flying donglewangle were these writers thinking?! Resin? Resin is hydrocarbons produced by trees! There are synthetic resins, but those are created from manipulating polymers, or fiddling with biological processes. They're not made as the byproduct of a anti-matter reactor, which should only produce energy and some subatomic particles. 

And lithium? Lithium is a metal, most commonly used to treat bipolar disorders! 

Put it together, and you get something that makes LESS sense the MORE you think about it. And the real kicker is the entire episode acts as though it is anti-matter: The storage unit has to be "stabilized" to keep it from exploding (to contain anti-matter, one would need a magnetic bottle to keep the anti-matter from touching any actual matter and thus creating a huge explosion), and the climax of the episode comes when Picard tricks the bad guy into beaming away with the container, unaware that he has disabled the stabilizing device and...


All of this wouldn't have been changed if they had just stolen some damn anti-matter from the reactor. Which leads to the question of why do I care so freaking much? Well, lets save that for a moment to discuss the next episode: Homeward. In this, we find a planet that is having it's atmosphere stripped away by deadly "plasmonic" reactions. This episode pisses me off because it's another one of those forced, "Oh, we can't intervene in the destruction of this sentient species because PRIME DIRECTIVE!" discussions, but lets leave that aside and instead look at the main crux of the matter.

Atmospheres can be stripped off of planets. It's happened: Look at Mars. It has lost it's magnetosphere (the protective magnetic "bubble" created by the rotation of it's iron core) and this has in turn let the blistering radiation of our sun strip away the atmosphere bit by bit over eons. This can happen. It will happen to our planet, if our iron core ever stops rotating (and it won't for a long time, don't worry) and it could happen even if we didn't lose our magnetosphere if we got hit by a particularly huge burst of radiation. 

Now, in the episode, technological failures are a plot point. In the show, they claim it is because of "plasmonic" energies being released by the dissipation of the planets atmosphere. But, in real life, if a planet was losing it's atmosphere due to radiation exposure, this would create lots of ionizing radiation, which would and could cause technological (not to mention biological) failures, thereby giving the exact same story-based effects as this made up hooey. 

And this leads to why this pisses me off so much.

It is anti-science. Good science fiction uses SCIENCE to create interesting FICTION. And the SCIENCE in Star Trek is so thin, so laughably bad, that it actively gets in the WAY of the FICTION. So many episodes of Star Trek are nothing more than a series of scenes where Geordi or 7 of 9 or Trip or whoever is playing the Royal Smart Person for that episode shout jibberish at the screen until they find the right sequence of jibberish that causes the problem to be not there anymore. 

This isn't showing your characters thinking their way out of tricky solutions. 

This is just being lazy.

And in both of these cases, actual science wouldn't have just made the stories more accurate: They would have made any interested person able to actually learn something. See, this is what real science has over "technobabble" can pick apart Tri-Lithium Resin and only get a headache trying to understand what drugs the authors were smoking. 

But you can study anti-matter. You can learn about it and realize that the universe is just that much more complex and interesting and REAL than any fakery thrown your way. And, moreover, it would mean that the actors and writers would have to portray characters struggling through actual stories with actual drama, not "I can't believe it's not drama" provided by "I can't believe it's not science." 

If only there was a show about a bunch of real characters, handling real issues that make sense, with science that's at the very least plausible, and when it's not plausible, they don't make it the centerpiece of their show...a show where the rules of their made up technology is consistent and logical, where you actually learn something when you watch it.

If only...



  1. Speaking of feminism, there's this video featuring ST/TOS scenes, "Lust On The Bridge" ...

    I saw something from a tweet in the last day or two, maybe one of Tor's tweets, an article with a few letters between Roddenberry and Asimov about TOS, and a line about being "one and a half light years outside a galaxy." NG perhaps could have been better in many ways, but TOS was revolutionary in how Roddenberry kept it from being watered down (any more than it was) by the network, and making it the first "real" SF show on TV, or certainly the closest thing to pass for one at the time.

    Maybe I should check out Babylon 5, except that I've spent so much time online the last 17 years that I haven't had time to watch much TV.

    1. Well, Bab5 is VERY worth it. It's easily the best sci-fi show to ever hit the marketplace...ever.