On ‘science!’ On ‘fiction!’ On ‘science fiction!’ Now dash away, all!

Abstract: The author originally posted this at TrekWeb (now defunct 2018/01/02). The author takes the position that demanding a lot of science in Star Trek misses a lot of Star Trek. (Word count: ±1,000 words)

Quote (from TrekWeb member Cylykon):
If the “future” is that Star Trek is to be written by those numb-nutz, Orci and Kurtzman, from now on, then I don’t think I’ll accept it at all. They’ve already aptly demonstrated that they have less of a grasp of the “science” in “science fiction” than the writers for Space 1999. I wish I could personally thank Andre Bormanis for doing one hell of a job for keeping the “science” in “science fiction” for “Classic Trek”.


I don’t know about insisting upon a high degree of emphasis on ‘science’ in the ‘science fiction’ of Star Trek as the sole (or even most important) criterion for judging good Star Trek. A science advisor, even one who’s a good fiction writer, is potentially always hamstrung by both the ‘science’ part of ‘science fiction’ and by the needs of the ‘fiction’ part. We, as viewers (readers, consumers of the product), have to choose what level of plausibility we require to enjoy what we’ve been presented with. It sounds like you, Cylykon, require a very high degree of scientific backstopping for Star Trek, which is fine. I find most of the science and technology presented in Star Trek most of the time to be minimally plausible in terms of the science. In terms of moving a story forward, if the technology does what is needed to maintain the dramatic tension or propel the narative, then I’m OK with it, pretty much no matter what.

Faster-than-light travel? AOK. Beaming? I’m there. Tricorders? Communicators? Magic wands in the kit bag of the ship’s medical officer? You betcha. I’m OK with what the technology does, but I don’t really care about the explanations for how it works, because I expect that if current or future real-world technology does the same things (has the same effects), it will do it for different reasons than the scripted drama offers me today.

But, in any case, I never really thought that the science in Star Trek had to do any of the shows’ heavy lifting. Star Trek, for me, has never been about the science; it’s been about the people. And this is especially true of the Classic Trek Kirk-Spock-McCoy stories. It’s been a while since I watched the original series, but I don’t recall it having a terribly strong grip on science. (Engrams?) Spock’s extra eyelids was a pretty good example, I think, of pretty good science in Star Trek. No doubt there were others.

In Star Trek: The Motion Picture the characters talk about how V’Ger fell into what “they used to call a black hole.” In the new movie Nero and Spock also fall into a black hole. It seems Star Trek means something different by the term ‘black hole’ than our current science does; my understanding is that if something ‘falls into a black hole’ then it doesn’t come out–not on the far side of the galaxy, and not in the past. And I’m perfectly willing to accept that the use of the term ‘black hole’ in both movies was a MacGuffin; in neither movie does the story hinge on the real-world science of ‘black holes,’ it hinges on our heroes’ response to some other problem made possible by the ‘black hole,’ whatever a ‘black hole’ in the movie actually is.

Similarly, in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home we get our lecture on time travel from Dr. McCoy, and it’s more of a sketch of a lecture at best, but it keys into an episode from the original series–it may be bad science, but at least it’s consistent. In this movie, our heroes travel back in time and make at least four significant changes: they take someone into the future (even if she wasn’t ‘supposed’ to have descendants, who knows what else she was ‘supposed’ to do, and our heroes didn’t even ask (not that I’d expect the Klingon computers to be any help)– it’s the Edith Keeler situation revisited); they take two whales into the future (possibly not significant for human history, but clearly the whales have something going on, or else there wouldn’t be a probe looking for them; George and Gracie’s absence might have a significant effect on the time line); Dr. McCoy gives an old woman a pill and she grows a new kidney (again, the Edith Keeler problem presents itself even aside from the odd science of McCoy keeping a ready supply of organ-growing pills handy, and the odd narrative mechanic of him having such a supply at this point in the larger multi-movie cycle; what was that woman ‘supposed’ to do as a dialysis patient that she won’t do now?); our heroes introduce transparent aluminum (the incursion of advanced technology into the past; this is one of the explanations for why the technology in the new movie’s time line is significantly different from the original series’s technology, so we might expect a significant alteration of the time line from this event alone). Yet, with all these interferences with the flow of events (and with only a passing nod to the fact that they’re interfering when McCoy and Scotty talk about the aluminum–after they’ve let the cat out of the bag, by the way), when they return home, our heroes find themselves in an unaltered time line.

My point isn’t to nitpick the science in these shows and movies (though it might be to poke a little on the ‘time travel is fraught with existential danger to the time line’ threads we’ve seen so much of here at TrekWeb lately). My point is that the storytellers pick the level of scientific verisimilitude they need to tell the story at hand. But if the science is going to get in the way of the story, it seems to be let go. (And I realize that TNG and DS9 certainly have a better grip on the science than the original series; but they also suffer from the ‘critique of technobabble.’ For me technobabble isn’t just a term for bad or made-up science, it’s a term for relying too much on science of any sort in order to keep the viewer oriented within the story or to keep the story moving.)

And here’s the science-y reason why the story tellers have to pick their level of scientific verisimilitude: real-world science is always going to outstrip the story science. In ten years much of the science in any given story will be outdated from the point of view of the viewers. And if not in ten years, then eventually it will be. No matter how good the science is, unless it’s both firmly settled, and easy to present to a layman, eventually it’s going to be wrong. Or misguided, or incomplete. Which is to say implausible as science. So the storyteller’s first obligation is to the story, because if the story is good, I think most viewers will be willing to give the science a pass, like I do with the ‘black holes’ and the changes in the time line business from the above examples.

If someone can tell a good Star Trek story with good science, then great! I’m all for that. But to hold that Star Trek is somehow harmed–or that the writers are somehow failures, or that the fans have been presented with a disservice–by the presentation of otherwise entertaining stories with, at best, questionable science seems to ignore a major thread in the way Star Trek has done stories from the very beginning–after all, even “The Cage” relied on interstellar telepathy as its MacGuffin.

Take care

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