Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Naturalistic Star Trek

Although I don't always agree with the way the characters behave, I'm a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica's "naturalistic" approach to science fiction. It was a conscious decision on Ron Moore's part to break from the genre's status quo of bumpy-headed aliens, endless reams of technobabble, stock characters, thespian histronics, and utter disregard for the laws of physics, a status quo represented primarily by Star Trek's many spinoffs.

What many people forget, though, is that when Star Trek began in the 1960s it was as much a departure from the science fiction status quo as Battlestar Galactica is today. Back then, filmed science fiction was seen as cartoony, unsophisticated kiddie fare. Showrunner Gene Roddenberry, along with artists like Matt Jefferies, set out to change that. When designing the Enterprise, Jefferies was instructed to stay away from rockets, fins, or anything that would date the design. The final design was, in many ways, rooted in realism. Jeffries reasoned that, since space is an inhospitable place, it didn't make sense for important machinery to be located on the outside of the hull, hence its smooth appearance. And since the "warp" engines that powered the ship had to be incredibly powerful, Jefferies placed them away from the main body of the ship so they could be jettisoned in case of emergency. On the bridge, workstations were designed with controls in a comfortable arc within reach of the operator's hands. The design of the Command Chair was even based on the captain's chair on new U.S. Navy vessels of the time. Although the prop and costume budget was extremely limited, the people who worked on Star Trek were careful to steer clear of a Flash Gordon design sensibility. The costumes and props looked functional and real for the time. Even Isaac Asimov was impressed by the attention the show paid to real science.

In later years, though, Star Trek became a victim of its own success. New starships, sets, and costumes were designed with an eye toward updating whatever had come immediately before, each iteration becoming farther removed from the realism that Matt Jefferies had worked for. Realism, in fact, was consistently abandoned in favor of whatever looked "cool". The technical details of Star Trek's technology were so endlessly expounded upon to the point that "Star Trek science" became its own separate thing. If there was a conflict between previously-established Star Trek technical dogma and actual science, writers were expected to adhere to the Trekkian technical dogma. With a new movie set to premiere in less than four months, I think now is a good time to look at how realism could be injected back into Star Trek. Most of these things involve the look and behavior of the technology, and the way that real scientific principles are utilized.

There is no sound in space: I know that sound in the vacuum of space is a convention of sci-fi TV and cinema that only 2001 had the gumption to ignore (although Nicholas Meyer said in the directors commentary for Star Trek VI that he wanted to) but it simply isn't realistic and it doesn't add that much to the experience. Especially egregious is when something explodes in space and the characters watching on a viewscreen actually hear the explosion. It's stupid, it insults the audience's intelligence, and it won't kill the box office returns if you leave it out. Really.

Objects in space should be bound by Newtonian physics: At some point, the folks in charge of Star Trek decided that viewers wanted to see Star Wars-style space battles, and perhaps they were correct. These days, though, it takes more than pretty CGI to impress an audience. We've seen it all. It's time for Star Trek to impress us with realistic depictions of how objects in space actually behave.

Weapons should function believably: I don't think Star Trek should mimic BSG and use guns that fire metal bullets, but the behavior of phasers and other energy weapons could stand a dose of realism. Virtually every time someone fires a phaser on Star Trek, we can see the energy beam leave the weapon and strike the target a second later. Phaser beams move so slowly that it's actually possible for people to dodge them, even at fairly short range. This is patently ridiculous. Have you ever used a laser pointer in a foggy or smoky environment? If so, when you pressed the button, could you actually see the laser beam shoot out of the end and hit the first thing in its path a few seconds later? Of course not, unless you're The Flash. Laser beams move at the speed of light. Logically, phasers and other Star Trek energy weapons should behave similarly. When Captain Kirk pulls the trigger on his phaser, there should be a brief flash of light, an accompanying sound effect, and the thing he's aiming at should be hit instantly. This would simplify things on the production side, as well. Phaser effects would be easier and (one assumes) cheaper. Also, FX artists wouldn't have to "draw" an oddly angled phaser beam in situations where the actor isn't aiming the phaser at exactly the right point.

Stop using the bridge viewscreen as a window: The very earliest sketches of the Enterpise bridge included a prominent, window-like viewscreen at the front of the room. Fairly early on, it was established that the viewer was not a window, but a large, high-resolution "TV screen" that was capable of displaying a wide variety of information. Except for a very few exceptions however, the main viewer is pretty much only used to show a forward view of space directly ahead of the ship, or as a videophone. That's like having a Blackberry but only using it to make telephone calls. The stupidity of the way the viewscreen is used became apparent to me when I played the 1997 Starfleet Academy video game on my PC. Most of the game's missions are space battles, and the game's AI was good enough that enemy ships didn't just sit directly in front of you and wait for you to shoot them. They were constantly moving, rendering the forward viewscreen almost completely useless. The crude-but-effective "radar" display was far more effective at giving you a picture of what was going on in space around your ship. On the "real" Enterprise, of course, the Captain doesn't have access to such a display. He's dependent on someone else to look at a sensor display and relay information to him. It seems to me that in a battle or some other critical situation, those are precious seconds that could mean life or death. I'm a big fan of BSG's DRADIS displays. They simply yet realistically give a three dimensional picture of objects in the space around the ship, and since there are large ones mounted in the center of CIC, Admiral Adama doesn't have to wait for Gaeta or an equivalent person to relay information to him before making a decision. We've seen Star Trek's viewscreens used this way before, most notably in the opening scene of Star Trek II, and in my opinion they should be used that way again. And speaking of sensors:

Place realistic limits on the sensors: Gene Roddenberry very wisely instructed his writers to never try to explain how the Enterprise sensors worked. Unfortunately, he never placed any kind of limits on their capabilities. Thus, sensors have generally been able to do whatever the writers want them to, and generally the writers have wanted them to give way too much information. The idea that our science officer can look at his magic sensor display and learn everything
about a situation, down to the DNA of the aliens aboard an approaching ship, has robbed many a Star Trek epsiode of the mystery and danger of space exploration from which the franchise theoretically derives much of its appeal. The capabilities of the sensors should be extrapolated from things our science is capable of currently. Additionally, I think that the degree to which sensor data is useful should depend on the skill of the science officer who's interpreting it. Thus, Spock would be able to get more out of the sensors than Chekov, for example.

No more canned plots: The alien with godlike powers. The culture that's controlled by a computer. Evil twins, time travel, time-travelling evil twins, mind control, technobabble-driven plots and other tired cliches of the genre need to go away. Why? Because Star Trek has done them over and over. The stories were good the first few times, but they quickly devolved into tired repetitious dreck, especially in the post-Original Series era. It wasn't worth watching Voyager and Enterprise because we'd seen these stories before, and we already knew how they'd end.

It's especially important for Star Trek to stay away from any excessive unreality because of the inherent unreality in its core premise: that space is as densely populated as Queens, New York. Whereas BSG can totally eschew "planet of the week" stories, Star Trek cannot. Seeking out new life and new civilizations isn't too interesting, after all, if you never find any. I think the first season of the Original Series struck a good balance in this regard, especially the early epsiodes. Space was a big and lonely place. Most planets were barely liveable, even if you could breathe the air. Some of them had once harbored intelligent life, but it had died out centuries earlier. Every once in a while, the crew would encounter a new alien race, but it was a fairly rare occurrence.

I doubt very much that we'll ever see a Star Trek production that follows all these rules. After all, the viewscreen on J.J. Abrams' Enterprise bridge is actually a window. Still, there's lots of evidence that Abrams isn't afraid to break the Star Trek mold a little bit. Will the resulting Trek be believable, or so stupid it makes your head hurt? Come May 8, we'll find out.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting entry. I've read a couple of those "Physics of Star Trek" books (there may BE only two) and I like the idea of injecting more actual science in their science fiction.


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