LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER: Whatcha got?Did you guess CSI? One of the NCISes? 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.
CRIME LAB TECH: Well, I took the suspect's laptop and I hacked into the BIOS by pinging an IP address with bundles of irregularly sliced RAM.
TECH: And I found out where the bad guys are hiding! They're in that abandoned warehouse on the 34th street dock!
OFFICER: Good work. Let's get ready to roll!
Now let’s do another one. See if you can guess where this scene comes from:
CAPTAIN: Report!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.
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!
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.
You see, even though the crime procedural scene had plenty of nonsensical technobabble, there were still recognizable character types with an easily understandable problem that could plausibly exist in the real world. The Law Enforcement Officer was trying to catch some criminals, and the Lab Tech gave him some information to help with that. But what the heck is going on in the Star Trek scene? The character types and situation are familiar enough to sci-fi fans, but to the average viewer it's nigh-incomprehensible. And here's a fun tidbit from Television Writing 101: if your show makes no sense to 85% of the viewing public, you have a problem.
Strangely enough, Star Trek didn't 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.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:
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.
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 seriously attempt this, and as a result it attracted a lot of fans from technical, scientific, and engineering fields.
CAPTAIN PICARD: Give me analysis of this weird thing that's happening.
GEORDI: Beats me.
DATA: No idea.
PICARD: Aren't you at least going to try to figure it out?
DATA: Aren't we going to what now?
Since our Star Trek characters' whole reason for being out in space is to seek out and analyze strange stuff, that wouldn't exactly work. 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 using a Space PowerPoint presentation. Then we got more technobabble as they devised a plan to resolve the problem caused by the Weird Thing, and even more technobabble (often shouted while the characters frantically tapped on control panels) as the plan was implemented.
Unfortunately for Berman, Voyager was the flagship show for Paramount's new TV network: UPN. He was under incredible pressure to make the show a hit. And the only way he knew to do that was to stick to whatever had seemed to work in the past without understanding why it had worked. (Although to be fair, he did push back against UPN's suggestion that contempary boy bands should play in the mess hall on Enterprise) 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. Not all of this was all Rick Berman’s fault; for one thing, he did the very best he could with the creative abilities he had. Also, Star Trek is not easy to write for. It's hard enough to assemble one Star Trek writing staff, and Voyager was the second of two Trek series that were in production at the same time. Its writing staff was basically comprised of TNG second-and-third-stringers.
"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.netJ.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 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.