Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Spock Search Recollection

Thirty years and a few weeks ago, I saw the most important movie of my life. You see, I’ve been a huge Star Trek fan pretty much since birth. But during my early-1980s childhood, the world was much different. There were no Internet streaming services or Blu-Ray players to allow you to watch the show whenever you wanted in glorious high definition. And although selected episodes were available on VHS as early as 1980, my family didn’t have access to a VCR. Heck, I didn’t even know what a VCR was until 1985 or so. All we had, in fact, was a 15-inch black-and-white TV set with a pair of rabbit-ear antennae perched atop it. When we watched the show weeknights at 6PM on WAWS Channel 30 out of Jacksonville, Florida, it looked something like this:

TrekBW1

And let me remind you that until 1987, there was only one show called “Star Trek”. There was only one Captain and crew of a single USS Enterprise. During my early childhood, of course, I had no idea how long ago the show had been on the air, how many episodes there were, or even the fact that there were movies. My only inkling that additional Star Trek stories existed beyond the confines of television were occasional glimpses of odd-looking early novels in the Waldenbooks at our local mall:

IshmaelThis book was a crossover with the early-1960s comedy-Western series Here Come The Brides. I am not making this up.

So you can imagine how surprised and excited I was 30 years ago, in early June 1984, when my parents said that we were going to the mall see a Star Trek movie (in those days, movie theaters were commonly located in malls). While we were waiting to get in, I gazed up in wonder at the first movie poster I can clearly remember:

tsfs_onesheet

Now, since I’d had no idea that Star Trek movies even existed before that day, I had some questions. Why were they searching for Spock? How did he get lost? I recognized the Enterprise in the upper-left corner of the poster, and I imagined that the unfamiliar-looking spaceship at the lower-right was a shuttlecraft the crew was using to look for Spock. I was going into this movie totally blind, with no idea what to expect. Once it started, I didn’t know what the heck was going on. Spock was dead? Kirk had a son? And who was this Saavik person? Probably 90% of the plot sailed right over my 6-year-old-head.

And it was the most awesome filmgoing experience of my life. I mean it; Star Trek III: The Search For Spock completely blew me away.

A large part of that was the visuals. Remember, the vast majority of my Star Trek viewing experience had been on a little black-and-white TV. It was a huge treat just to see the show in color when I visited my grandparents. I was used to the Enterprise looking like this:

EnterpriseBW1

And now it looked like this:

TSFS_Enterprise1

I was used to a starship bridge that looked like this:

BridgeBW

But now it looked like this:

TSFS_bridge

Even the Excelsior bridge set—which by today’s standards looks like something a low-budget fan film would be embarrassed to have—was just about the most hi-tech looking thing I’d ever seen.

TSFS_excelsiorFor some reason, Starfleet’s newest flagship was controlled from inside a 23rd-century Radio Shack

On the TV show, the rare glimpse of a space station looked like this:

K7BW

But Star Trek III showed me a space station that looked like this:

TSFS_Spacedock

I was used to Klingons that looked like this:

KlingonBW

But now they looked like this:

TSFS_Klingons

Even though I only saw the movie a couple times, Star Trek III’s late 70s/early 80s futurist aesthetic was burned onto my brain. The huge impression it made on me was only reinforced when I visited EPCOT Center for the first time a few months later. As I’ve written before, EPCOT’s Future World shared that same late 70s/early 80s futurist aesthetic, and to see it fully realized in three dimensions was an amazing experience and was a huge reason why I became so obsessed with the place. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that The Search For Spock is the reason this blog exists. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you look at it.

But it wasn’t only the visuals. The Search For Spock was the biggest, most unique Star Trek story I’d ever seen. The TV episodes followed a predictable pattern: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would beam down to a planet, the natives would capture them and take away their phasers and communicators, and eventually they’d escape captivity and get their stuff back, while solving whatever societal ill affected the planet. Kirk would give the aliens a speech about freedom, then the landing party would beam up and the Enterprise would fly off into the end credits.

But movie started in the middle of a story already in progress. Some bad stuff had gone down, and Spock was dead. In order to set things right, Kirk and the remaining crew zoomed from Earth to the Genesis Planet, and then to Vulcan. Compared to the television episodes I was used to, The Search For Spock was a sprawling epic! It really expanded my idea of what Star Trek could be. It also turned me on to the existence of the film series. After all, if there was a Star Trek III, then there must’ve been a Star Trek II and a Star Trek I, right? Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see those earlier films until many years later (my parents maintained that The Wrath of Khan was too violent for children and that The Motion Picture was too boring) but the movie left me eagerly anticipating Star Trek IV, and I was not disappointed when The Voyage Home premiered two years later.

I didn’t become aware of the “odd-numbered curse” (the idea that all the even-numbered films are all good and the odd-numbered ones are all bad) until I got onto the Internet in the mid-‘90s. And even though it’s obvious today that Star Trek III was a medium-budget film trying to pass as a blockbuster, it remains one of my favorites. It’s not as groundbreaking as The Wrath of Khan or a rollicking caper like The Voyage Home, but its heart and the way it remains true to the characters will always make it one of my favorite Star Trek stories of all time.

By the way, you should really check out Vonda McIntyre’s novelization. (Available used on Amazon or electronically in the iBooks store) It fleshes out characters like Captain Esteban of the Grissom that came across as rather cartoonish and one-dimensional onscreen and has a touching subplot for Carol Marcus, who was completely absent from this and all future films.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Disneyland-Superman Replication

The grand opening of Disneyland in the summer 1955 was a huge event that sent ripples through the pop culture of the day. For example, the story that appeared in Action Comics #210 from late 1955.

These days comics are mostly aimed at an adult male audience, but in the 1950s they were strictly kid stuff. In fact, thanks to the Fredrick Wertham-inspired moral panic in the early 50s, comic publishers went out of their way to make their publications as square, nonthreatening, and kid-friendly as possible. (They still managed to make them totally psychotic and weird, but we’ll get to that later) And since kids were excited about Walt Disney’s new theme park, it was perhaps inevitable that DC’s writers would come up with a story about their flagship character getting a theme park of his own: Superman Land!

1

The plot of the story is pretty simple: Clark, Lois, and Jimmy are assigned to cover the grand opening of Superman Land, and Clark keeps slipping away to change into Superman and help out with the park’s various opening-day problems. All the while, a disguised Lex Luthor is lurking about thinking menacing thoughts like “Everyone thinks Superman is invincible, but I’ll change their minds soon enough!” and “I’ll stop Superman permanently! And I’m going to do it tonight, with what I’ve got in this box!”

Superman Land has a lot of similarities to Disneyland. It’s like the writers glanced at a map of Disneyland and adapted some of its attractions to fit the Superman theme. For example, Disneyland had Rocket To The Moon, and Superman Land had the Rocket to Krypton:

3

This one is actually amazingly prescient. It’s basically an Eisenhower-era Star Tours 2. By the way, you may notice that the Kryptonians in that last panel are flying around like Superman. That’s because the writers hadn’t established that Superman’s powers came from Earth’s yellow sun. Supposedly everyone on Krypton had super powers. This idea was abandoned a short time later because the writers realized that it was hard to explained why they all died if they could have just flown away when Krypton exploded.

From here, though, Superman Land veers from the eerily prescient into the deeply weird and criminally negligent. For example, you know how Disneyland has the Frontierland shooting gallery? Well, Superman Land has a shooting gallery, too! Why, you ask? So park visitors can experience Superman’s invulnerablity for themselves by shooting at a steel Superman dummy. With real guns. Loaded with live ammo. Obviously, we’re in an NRA fever dream. And what’s even more funny/disturbing is that, in one of Superman Land’s many opening-day mishaps, the steel Superman dummy’s delivery is late. So guess how Superman handles it?

6a

Yes! He stands in for the the dummy, and the people firing live ammo at him never even notice! It’s one thing to have a theme park attraction where guests can pick up a loaded firearm and go to town, it’s something else when those guests can’t even tell the difference between a steel dummy and a real person.

But the ability to distinguish between a live human and an inanimate object is a common failing in this world. Later on, Clark needs to sneak away from Lois and Jimmy to deal with a problem at the post office as Superman. (Yes, the park has a Superman-themed post office. Don’t ask why.) How does he manage it? By plopping a Clark Kent dummy onto the most awkward-looking merry-go-round ever, helping at the post office, then replacing the dummy with himself before the ride is over:

8a

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that investigative reporter Lois Lane couldn’t tell the difference between Clark and a wax statue. After all, this is a universe where a pair of glasses is an impenetrable disguise. But the weirdest thing is the merry-go-round itself. Whose idea was it to have a ride that requires people—mostly children—to mount a replica of a large spandex-clad man like they were one half of the Ambiguously Gay Duo? That’s pretty edgy for 1955. Then again, the Batman comics of the same era had Bruce Wayne and young Dick Grayson sleeping in the same bed and showering together, so what do I know?

batman-robin-whaaaThis is not Photoshopped. It actually appeared in a comic marketed to children.

But the Disney theme park experience is about more than just rides. Disneyland had the Main Street Cinema, and Superman Land has its own cinema that plays (what else?) Superman cartoons.

6b

And what’s a theme park without gift shops selling themed merchandise?

6cWhy do I get the feeling that Superman’s Health-Food-In-A-Can is not a big seller?

And finally, just like Disneyland has a nighttime fireworks show, Superman Land would have its own pyrotechnic spectacular. But where Disney fireworks are charming, whimsical shows about wishes, dreams, and licensed characters, Superman Land’s fireworks are psychotically insane:

10a

Remember, in the universe where these stories take place, Krypton was a real planet, and its explosion extinguished billions of lives and wiped out an entire civilization. And every night, Superman Land is going to re-create this tragic cataclysm for cheering crowds! It’s like reenacting the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at a theme park called Japan Land, or reenacting the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents at Batman Land. And don’t get me started on how they plan on using pre-Sputnik technology to launch a rocket into space as part of the show every night. How did they get the FAA to sign off on this? It’s like this comic was written by alien creatures playacting as humans with no understanding of actual human behavior or emotions.

Tommy-WiseauIn other words, this guy.

Compared to Superman Land, the Disneyland of 1955 may seem like a pretty dull place. There’s no nightly rocket launches, no 3-D space simulator, no real guns in the Frontierland Shooting Gallery, no place to pick up a can of Superman Health Food, and the carousel only gives you the opportunity to mount plain old boring horses and not tights-wearing flying muscle-men.

But—and you can call me old-fashioned—I still think I prefer Disneyland.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Habst and the Disney Saboteurs

I rarely read reviews of things before I experience them. More often I watch or read the movie, TV show, book, or whatever and then I read the reviews to see if I agree with them. I think it’s got something to do with left-handed people doing everything backwards. My point is that this is not going to be one of those spoiler-free reviews that dances around major plot points and only speaks in generalities. If that’s not the kind of review you want to read, pull the handle and bail out. Otherwise, join me after the jump.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Expanded Universe Overreaction

Sometime last week, in a secret bunker deep beneath Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas pressed a big red button labeled EXPANDED UNIVERSE SELF DESTRUCT as Disney CEO Bob Iger looked on approvingly. All around the world, Star Wars fans cried out in terror as all their Expanded Universe novels, comics, video games, and action figures vanished in a puff of smoke.

Wait, that is what happened, right? Because otherwise all the Internet outrage about Lucasfilm “nuking” the Expanded Universe would be kind of silly. You know what, why don’t I just read the official announcement so I don’t jump to any conclusions. Hang on, this should only take a few minutes:

Lucasfilm’s official announcement on the Expanded Universe.

I realize that a large portion of the Internet can hardly be bothered to read a sentence fragment superimposed over an amusing picture of a cat before taking to their online commenting forum of choice to vent their extreme anger and outrage. So let me explain in as few words as possible what the announcement basically means:

The Expanded Universe is cool, but the new movies are going to do their own thing.

No rational person would have a problem with this.

After all, back when the Expanded Universe really got going in 1991 with Timothy Zahn’s novel Heir To The Empire, Star Wars was pretty much dead. George Lucas had moved on to other things, like rolling around in giant piles of money, and the Star Wars universe was an abandoned sandbox full of cool toys that nobody was playing with. The success of Zahn’s “Thrawn trilogy” opened the floodgates for a whole series of novels, comics, and video games all set in the same continuity. Some of it was good, but a whole lot of it was crap, as pointed out by veteran Internet comedian Lore Sj√∂berg:

Does anyone really believe that J.J. Abrams or the folks at Disney would allow their new movies to be bogged down by 25 years of largely awful continuity? Not only is a lot of it just plain bad, it’s also terribly convoluted and downright weird. Over the years, as story has built upon story, the Expanded Universe has drifted farther and farther away from that classic Star Wars “flavor” and kind of become its own thing. And, whereas a casual Star Wars fan could pick up one of Timothy Zahn’s early Star Wars novels and instantly enjoy it, the newer stuff is totally incomprehensible unless you’re versed on a quarter-century of earlier novels, comics, and even video games.

Of course, some folks on the Internet don’t see it that way. One comment I read (either on Twitter or the comments section of an article on the subject, I can’t remember which) sternly reproved Lucasfilm for not “remaining true to the source material” the way Marvel films do. Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: the Expanded Universe stuff is not source material. The characters in the Marvel films first appeared in comics. Star Wars began as a series of movies. The six Star Wars movies are the source material here. All the other licensed fiction, be it novels, comics, or video games is just ancillary stuff based on that source material.

I’m sure that the premiere of Episode 7 in 2015 will give all us People of the Internet plenty of legitimate things to complain about. But the decision to cut things like Lord Heathrir, Darth Vader’s magic glove, Bendorion the Jedi Hutt, or Wilford Brimley’s character from that one made-for-TV Ewoks movie out of the official Star Wars universe? That’s cause for celebration.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Disney Affinity Clarification

A little housekeeping before I get started with today’s topic: To date, the most-read post on this blog has been The Walt Disney World Ticket Price Inflation, my article on how Walt Disney World ticket prices have changed over time. It contained a lot of charts and numbers, and in an explanatory paragraph at the very beginning of the article I linked to the sources of my information and explained how I arrived at the figures that appeared below. The idea behind this was to allow any reader to verify the figures for themselves if they wished, and to demonstrate that I had not just made everything up.

I’m happy to report that even though I’ve always been prone to math errors, the information in the original version of the article was 99% correct. Unfortunately I did make one mistake, and it was a whopper. I might never have realized it, except that an online article in Bloomberg Businessweek, an actual grown-up organization that presumably employs real journalists, ran an article in which they quoted the passage from my blog post that contained the mistake. A nice person left a comment alerting me to what had happened, and I corrected my post and emailed the Bloomberg reporter to let him know about the mistake. I never heard back, but the article has been corrected, so I guess he got the message.

I have to tell you, I’m very flattered that a reporter for an established business magazine considered me, a random blogger, to be a reliable-enough source that he simply quoted my math without checking it even though I had provided the means to easily do so. Or maybe it makes me weep for the once-proud profession of journalism, I’m not really sure.

And now on to today’s topic: personal branding!

Thanks to social media, anyone can have a platform to broadcast their random neural firings to the entire Internet. With a little forethought, you can sign up for multiple social media services—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.—and create a sort of cross-platform alternate identity for yourself. Social media experts call this a “personal brand”. The thing is, unless you’re already famous nobody is going to care about your personal brand. So what a lot of people do is associate their online persona with a famous, previously-existing brand that people like. For example, Disney.

Just about anyone can start a social media account that focuses mainly on Disney and quickly attract at least a small audience. I found this out by accident; I started with this blog and regular posting on a Disney message board, and now I have over 1,260 Twitter followers and over 200 followers apiece on both Tumblr and Instagram. And—I can’t emphasize this strongly enough—I’m not really trying to attract people. Whereas many bloggers pay careful attention to which of their posts get the most hits, and then tailor future posts along those lines to maximize their pageviews, my creative process goes more like this:

The most popular social media post I ever made is a picture on my Tumblr of Cinderella’s Castle in 1972 that I got from an old family photo album. I just scanned it and posted it without any attempt at witty commentary, and it’s been liked or reblogged over 4100 times. That’s a pretty tiny number in Internet terms, but for me it’s huge because (and I emphasize this) I am not really trying to attract an audience. And it underscores the point I’m making, which is that any social media post associated with a beloved brand will automatically attract some level of attention. It has nothing to do with the person making the post.

But a lot of bloggers are trying to attract and grow an audience. The truth is that this Internet version of attention can be a little seductive. It’s nice to make some kind of social media post and instantly have several likes or retweets or whatever. And since most companies are aware of the power of social media but don’t really understand it, someone who’s really good at attaching their “personal brand” to a corporation may even be seen as a powerful influencer and treated to free stuff by that corporation, in hopes that they can somehow reach a huge audience that the company with its multimillion-dollar advertising budget cannot. But in order to enjoy that level of popularity in the world of Disney-oriented social media you pretty much have to be at the theme parks constantly, posting pictures and tweeting tidbits of “news”, like a sign at Pecos Bill’s getting a new coat of paint. And if you’re at the parks that much it’s hard not to notice how they’re getting continually worse. The fact is that for many years now the American parks—especially the ones in Florida—have been run according to this flowchart:

flowchart

It’s impossible to spend a lot of time at the parks—or participate in the online Disney fan community—without figuring this out. For the average person whose “personal brand” isn’t inextricably linked to the Walt Disney Company, this would completely turn them off the place. “To heck with those dirtbags!” they’d say to themselves. “I’m going to take my vacations elsewhere from now on!”

But what if your entire Internet identity and social media following is predicated on a constant stream of pictures and news Disney theme parks? Then you have a couple options:

  1. Stop going to the parks and run the risk of losing most, if not all, of your social media followers.
  2. Keep going to the parks, ignore the bad things that are happening, and continue posting pretty pictures of Cinderella Castle or the Citrus Swirl you’re having in front of the Tiki Room.

So why am I saying all of this? Well, my online identity is very much associated with Disney. In the past I may have even called myself a “Disney fan”. But, if you’ve followed my postings and tweetings for a little while, you’ll notice that I’ve become progressively more disillusioned and disgusted with the way the Parks and Resorts division of the company is run. The Cut Costs/Raise Prices/Repeat business model has, for me, made the parks a simultaneously unpleasant and expensive place to be. I haven’t set foot on Disney property since 2011 and have no plans to do so in the near or distant future. But I’ve learned something from all this: I was never really a Disney fan at all.

Although I’ve been exposed to Disney entertainment all my life and usually liked it well enough, the first Disney-related thing I really obsessed over was EPCOT Center’s Future World. Why? Because it so perfectly spoke to my preexisting interest in science fiction and futurism. And as Disney’s focus on that kind of thing died away and attractions with that theme were removed forever, my interest in the parks atrophied. Believe me, I would love nothing better than for them to be great again. But the company would need totally new executive leadership and a complete restructuring of the Parks and Resorts division, not to mention an investment of billions upon billions of dollars to reverse the damage from the last 20 years or so, for that to happen.

So I have a choice to make. I can keep writing the same few posts about what’s wrong with Disney World, which would just bore us all to death. Or I can write about other stuff, instead. After all, the little “What is futureprobe?” box at the top of the sidebar says that, in addition to being about EPCOT Center, this blog is also about Star Trek and other optimistic visions of the future. So I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to branch out a little. Don’t worry, I’ll still write about Disney-related things now and then and I’ll continue to talk about the company on Twitter and post pictures of the parks as they once were on my Tumblr. But the focus of this blog will shift.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride. If not, then that’s okay, too. It is, after all, a very big Internet.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Technobabble Kudzu

Let’s play a little game. Guess which TV show this scene is from:

FEDERAL AGENT: Whatcha got?

CRIME LAB TECH: Well, I went through the victim’s laptop, but I didn’t find anything at first. Then I noticed that there were some encrypted files stored away in a hidden partition of RAM.

AGENT: And?

TECH: And our victim knew what the terrorists are planning. They’re going to hack the Internet!

AGENT: Which part?

TECH: All of it.

AGENT: That’s good work. I have to go tell the Director.

Did you guess CSI? NCIS? NCIS: Los Angeles? 24? Criminal Minds? Something from the Law and Order franchise? It could be any of those, couldn’t it? You can find this basic scene (complete with technical lingo written by someone who doesn’t understand computers) in at least one episode of any crime procedural that’s been on the air in the last decade or so.

Now let’s do another one. See if you can guess where this scene comes from:

CAPTAIN: Report!

ENSIGN GREENHORN: We’re trapped in an inverse quantum field distortion! If we don’t get out in five minutes it’ll reduce us to thermolytic particles!

CAPTAIN: Options?

LT. COMMANDER ENGINEER: We could modify the main deflector with an array of phase discriminators, then use them to generate a modulated anti-tachyon pulse that should create an ionic resonance in the event horizon.

CAPTAIN: Like a stockbroker popping a balloon in a winery?

ENGINEER: Exactly! With any luck, the dekyon field modulation should be enough to break us free.

CAPTAIN: Make it so.

Any guesses? Of course it’s one of the Star Treks. It could only be one of the Star Treks. And from that scene it’s pretty easy to see why most of the Star Trek shows are totally inaccessible to all but a tiny core of devoted fans.

You see, even though the crime procedural scene had plenty of nonsensical technobabble, there were still recognizable characters with an easily understandable problem. The Federal Agent character was trying to catch the bad guys, and the Lab Tech gave him some information to help him do that.

But in the Star Trek scene, what exactly is going on? The ship is caught in an “inverse quantum field distortion”? And if they can’t get out they’re going to be “reduced to thermolytic particles”? Is this a bad thing? The characters certainly act like it is, but since the normal human members of the audience don’t know what any of that stuff is we have no way to gauge how bad. It might be excusable if the characters’ problem was based in reality, but it’s not. Basically, they’re ensnared by a 100% made-up phenomenon, and their solution is to use imaginary, 100% made-up technology to do some kind of 100% made-up psuedoscientific thing that will get them out of it. It’s not exciting, it’s not interesting, it’s just boring, boring, BORING!

Amazingly, Star Trek did not start out this way. Originally it was a show on NBC in the late ‘60s, a time before cable TV and Netflix when there were only three TV channels. Every show was designed to appeal to a large audience, because otherwise it simply couldn’t stay on the air. With that in mind, the original Star Trek show “bible”—the guide for writers and directors that outlined the format of the show and gave details about the characters—had this to say about the use of sci-fi technical lingo:

Tell your story about people, not about science and gadgetry. Joe Friday doesn't stop to explain the mechanics of his .38 before he uses it; Kildare never did a monologue about the theory of anesthetics; Matt Dillon never identifies and discusses the breed of his horse before he rides off on it.

How much science fiction terminology do you want?
The less you use, the better. We limit complex terminology as much as possible, use it only where necessary to maintain the flavor of the show and encourage believability. IMPORTANT: The writer must know what he means when he uses science or projected science terminology. A scattergun confusion of meaningless phrases only detracts from believability.

For the most part, the people who wrote for the Original Series followed these guidelines. And since that show launched a multibillion-dollar entertainment franchise that we’re still talking about today, they were obviously doing something right. So what happened? How did Star Trek’s spinoffs get taken over by technobabble? The first culprit is:

1. The Fans

From the very beginning, Gene Roddenberry and his production team set out to make serious science fiction, not a goofy kiddie show like Lost In Space. One of the ways they went about this was to make sure that Star Trek’s futuristic technology was depicted as believably and consistently as possible. Star Trek was the first televised science fiction to even attempt this, and as a result it attracted a lot of fans from technical, scientific, and engineering fields.

marinerv_oct67_controlNASA Mission Control technicians in 1967 wearing Spock ears. Source: Trekcore

Some of these fans didn’t just see these technical details for what they were: necessary window-dressing to make the Star Trek universe feel like a real place. These details were, in themselves, the main reason they watched the show. I’m not saying they were enjoying Star Trek wrong; part of the show’s genius is that it can be enjoyed simultaneously by different people on different levels. But I believe that their passion for the technical details for Star Trek affected how the spinoffs were produced.

These more technically-minded fans peppered Gene Roddenberry (and sometimes even James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty) with technical questions about the Enterprise and how it worked, both in person and through letters. And they were quick to point out any mistakes and inconsistencies. So when work started on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1986, the production staff was keenly aware that their work was going to be endlessly scrutinized and freeze-framed, and any little mistake that might be made in the rush of television production would be instantly noticed. So if there was a throwaway line of dialogue referring to the main Hydroponics Lab on Deck 25, then that piece of information had to be preserved and added to some kind of a knowledge base so a future writer wouldn’t mess up and mention the main Hydroponics Lab being located on Deck 11. (Actually, the writers didn’t really need to know this information; the scripts would usually be checked by a continuity person who would correct any little details.)

To help the production staff keep up with all the technical information that had been established in previous episodes and thus help maintain Star Trek’s famed internal consistency, Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda took it upon themselves to draft a series of memos which were eventually collected into a document called the Writers Technical Manual. (Early in TNG’s fifth season, the Manual was expanded and sold commercially by Pocket Books) It was full of information about how the warp drive, the transporters, and the holodecks “really” worked. Now, I’m not criticizing Sternbach and Okuda here. I think they’re awesome, and the fact that they Queen of England hasn’t knighted them is one of the great injustices of our time. But a lot of that stuff they established in the Technical Manual just served to bog the show down.

For example, in the sixth-season episode “Second Chances” we meet a transporter-created duplicate of Will Riker. Something similar happened in the Original Series episode “The Enemy Within” and the technical explanation was basically “a guy beamed up with some weird alien ore on his clothes and it made the transporter start duplicating stuff”. But on TNG we had to sit through a wordy, complex explanation involving annular confinement beams, pattern buffers, distortion fields, and phase differentials. Why? Because the transporter was no longer the “black box” it had been on the Original Series. The Technical Manual explained its inner workings in great detail, and therefore those details had to be present in the obligatory “where Riker’s duplicate came from” scene. Because the fans would notice if they weren’t. Another problem was:

2. The Star Trek: The Next Generation Plot Formula

Every episodic TV series has a basic plot formula that it follows probably 85% of the time. Gene Roddenberry didn’t want his characters on Star Trek: The Next Generation constantly shooting or punching their way out of problems. They also weren’t allowed to have normal human personality flaws (only Worf could do that, because he was a Klingon). So how do you write for an alleged action-adventure show that doesn’t revolve around the characters getting into conflicts with villains or each other? Enter the Technobabble Mystery Plot.

The way the Technobabble Mystery Plot worked was, a Weird Thing would happen that threatened the ship or crew, and our characters would have to figure out why the Weird Thing was happening and how to escape from it or make it stop. Of course, the “Weird Thing Happening” plot device is a staple of science fiction, and was used to great effect on The Twilight Zone. But on that show, it was used to expose hidden flaws in the characters and examine the human condition. And the Weird Thing was almost never explained. That wouldn’t work on Star Trek, since it was about a group of explorers whose whole reason for being out in space was to seek out and analyze strange stuff. And so there was always a technobabble-filled scene where Data or Geordi figured out the scientific explanation for the Weird Thing and explained it to everyone else. Then we got more technobabble as they devised a plan to resolve the problem caused by the Weird Thing, followed by even more technobabble as they implemented the plan.

The frequent use of this plot formula served to divorce Star Trek even more from reality and make it less relatable to casual fans. You see, when a writer came up with a Weird Thing that he/she wanted to happen, like the crew de-evolving into animals, getting turned into children, or frozen in time, the technical and science consultants had to come up with a “scientific” way of making that happen. Only there is no scientific way that most of that stuff could happen, so the consultants had to make up some technobabble that sounded scientific. This technobabble would then become part of the show’s official continuity. Over time, this led to “Star Trek science” becoming an almost totally separate thing from real science.

Fortunately, The Next Generation had an excellent writing staff, (starting in Season Three, anyway) one of the best ever assembled, and they were mostly able to keep the scripts fresh and accessible, at least until the show’s last couple seasons. Deep Space Nine avoided the technobabble trap as well as any 1990s Star Trek production could, thanks to showrunner Ira Steven Behr, the excellent writers, and the fact that the studio largely ignored it. The third spinoff, Voyager, was not so lucky. Partially because it inherited the some of the most technobabble-prone writers from TNG, like Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky. But mainly because of:

3. Rick Berman

When Gene Roddenberry became too ill to oversee TNG, producer Rick Berman took over Executive Producer duties after winning a power struggle with Gene’s lawyer. Unlike Gene, Berman was not a creative person. His talents lay in getting TV shows produced on time and under budget; he had no creative vision for Star Trek or anything else. At first, this was okay. Starting with the third season of TNG, head writer Michael Piller was mostly responsible for the creative side of things, and in addition to being a major factor in TNG’s success he also co-created Deep Space Nine and Voyager. But then Piller left the franchise very early in Voyager’s run and Berman assumed a bigger role in the creative direction of the show.

This was bad because, as I mentioned, Rick Berman had no creative vision. He just wanted to keep his employer’s golden Star Trek goose alive. And the only way he knew to make sure Star Trek would be successful in the future was to stick to whatever had seemed to work in the past. Thus, Voyager pretty much restricted itself to two things that had worked on The Next Generation: Technobabble Mystery Plots and the Borg. But I’m not saying it ran those things into the ground, I’m saying it ran them way down into the ground, broke through the crust, and went down into the mantle. It got to the point where if all the technobabble were subtracted from an average episode, it would shrink to a five-minute skit. I’m not saying it was all Rick Berman’s fault; Voyager’s writing staff was basically comprised of TNG second-and-third-stringers. But even TNG’s top writers couldn’t have worked under Rick Berman’s restrictions that had nothing to do with making good TV and everything to do with protecting his own hindquarters.

One of those top writers, Ronald D. Moore (who went on to create the reimagined Battlestar Galactica) worked on Voyager very briefly after Deep Space Nine went off the air, and he left in disgust after only two episodes. After the dust from his departure settled, he gave an interview in which he had this to say about the technobabble kudzu that had taken over Star Trek:

"How many space anomalies of the week can you really stomach? How many time paradoxes can you do? When I was studying [VOYAGER], getting ready to work on it, I was watching the episodes, and the technobabble was just enervating; it was just soul sapping. Vast chunks of scenes would go by, and I had no idea what was going on. I write this stuff; I live this stuff. I do know the difference between the shields and the deflectors, and the ODN conduits and plasma tubes. If I can’t tell what’s going on, I know the audience has no idea what’s going on. Everyone will say the same thing. From the top down, you bring up this point, and everybody will say, ‘I am the biggest opponent of techno-babble. I hate technobabble. I am the one who is always saying, less technobabble.’ They all say that. None of them do it. I’ve always felt that you never impress the audience. The audience doesn’t sit there and go, ‘[Wow], they know science. That is really cool. Look how they figured that out. Hey Edna! Come here. You want to see how Chakotay is going to figure this out. He’s onto this thing with the quantum tech particles; it’s really interesting. I don’t know how he is going to do it, but he is going to reroute something. Oh my God, he found the anti-protons!’ Who cares? Nobody watches STAR TREK for those scenes. The actors hate those scenes; the directors hate those scenes; and the writers hate those scenes. But it’s the easiest card to go to. It’s a lot easier to tech your way out of a situation than to really think your way out of a situation, or make it dramatic, or make the characters go through some kind of decision or crisis. It’s a lot easier if you can just plant one of them at a console and start banging on the thing, and flash some Okudagrams, and then come up with the magic solution that is going to make all this week’s problems go away."-Source: Lcarscom.net

J.J. Abrams did a lot of things wrong when he rebooted Star Trek in 2009. But one thing he did absolutely right was reduce the technobabble. There’s almost none. Yes, the dire situations the characters get into are mostly contrived, illogical, and ripped off from earlier Star Treks. But, to Abrams’ and his team’s credit, the solution to their problem is never to push buttons while shouting technobabble, it’s always to do something active, kinetic, and pretty easily understandable. And as much as hardcore fans complain about how his movies get the technical details “wrong”, those movies have been the two biggest-grossing ones in the series, which means that Star Trek won’t take a financial hit if it ignores them.

So as much as I complain about the ridiculous amounts of technobabble that filled most of the Rick-Berman produced Star Trek shows and movies, it did serve a purpose: it showed future stewards of Star Trek what not to do. Whatever happens with Star Trek in the future, I’m willing to bet that its days of substituting technobabble for good dramatic writing are in the past.

At least I hope they are.