Thursday, January 30, 2014

Technobabble Kudzu

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

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 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.
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 seriously 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

A lot 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.

To help the production staff keep up with all the technical information that had been established in previous episodes, 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 haven’t been knighted by the Queen of England 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 dirt on his clothes and it made the transporter act all funny”. 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 (and complain) 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. You can't get away with that on Star Trek. Imagine this scene:

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.

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. 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. 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 the prime role in the creative direction of the show.

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.

One of Star Trek's 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:
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 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.

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