Tech on Trek

I can't say I'm as big a Star Trek fan as some. I love the stories and characters, but I'm not into the minutiae. I don't know which deck sickbay is on, couldn't tell you the date the first Enterprise was launched (actually it was Stardate 1814, if you can believe Wikipedia), and don't know a word of Klingon.

I'm also far different than most fans in that my favorite Star Trek series is Voyager (the only Trek to really put its crew totally on their own), and I actually, sort of, enjoyed Enterprise (which, incidentally, looks so good on its HDNet HD widescreen reruns that even the nay-sayers might enjoy it). I also feel that the best Trek film after First Contact was Galaxy Quest. What, you didn't think that was a Trek film? Oh ye of little imagination. In any event, such radical opinions would get me tossed out of any self-respecting Trek convention, unless I went disguised as a Tribble.

But my topic here is not a general discussion of Trek and other sci-fi movies and television. Rather, it's the lack of imagination that writers, producers, and production designers display when it comes to showing how audio and video technology might advance in a few hundred years.

A lot of these limitations, of course, are budget related. Special effects and props can be expensive. That's probably why Enterprise (and before that, an episode of the briefly revived Outer Limits) once used a thinly disguised Radio Shack sound level meter as a phase thingy or something (in Outer Limits, as I recall, it was a time-travel controller). And let's not forget the salt shaker Dr. McCoy used to scan his patients.

When the original series (known to devotees as ST: TOS, as opposed to ST: TNG, ST: DS9, etc.) debuted in 1966, few envisioned powerful computers the size of a book. But the producers were smart enough to dream up computers that could communicate verbally with humans. In fact, Kirk disabled runaway computers with reckless abandon, burning out their circuits nearly every week simply by confusing their basic sense of logic.

But it's the Star Trek video world that fascinates me. No Trek captain ever looked directly out the front window. There was no front window. Instead, all their ships had viewscreens, which allowed them to gravely command "On Screen!" at least once a week. Presumably, the source of the display was a battery of cameras stationed on various parts of the ship's exterior, but I don't recall any time when the cameras went out. There was never an Episode X: Flying Blind.

Nor did they ever target the viewscreen cameras in an enemy ship. It was always "Target their engines!" never, "Target their cameras!" The adversary would almost certainly use the same video technology as Enterprise. All alien races in the Trek universe, in fact, appeared to use similar technologies. Ship-to-ship docking devices were always compatible, no matter how alien the other race. And in a pinch, Scotty or Geordi or B'Elanna or Trip could rig a Klingon Phaserator or a Romulan Plasmatronic Inverter to work just fine in Enterprise or Voyager.

The bridge viewscreens evolved over time. The screen in ST: TOS wasn't much larger than one of today's 60" flat panels. In ST: TNG, however, the entire front wall is a giant screen.

Even the smallest screens in that first series were clearly CRTs, with their bulbous depths. But you could envision that bridge viewscreen as a flat panel. Even the flat-panel computer monitors in Enterprise, however, were thicker than today's thinnest displays. There's no hint of the wafer-thin screens that we're certain to see in the near future in any of the Trek shows.

Only Deep Space Nine, the only Trek series to Boldly Stay Where No Trek has Stayed Before, didn't employ a viewscreen as a regular "character."

But the apparent nearsightedness of much Trek technology, apart from the innovative transporters and holodecks, may have been deliberate. If you make things too far out (as in, for example, the brilliant Farscape) you may intrigue the adventurous viewer but confuse the unimaginative. In pop culture sci-fi, you need to make the future appear to be at least a reasonable extension of the present. Go too far and you loose the audience.

Possibly the weirdest sci-fi concept I've seen in any sci-fi movie or television series lately was the "biological telephone" that two Necromongers used to speak to each other across space in 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick. That certainly didn't help this underrated film at the box office.

But in reaching just far enough into a potential future to intrigue audiences, Trek and most other sci-fi productions may actually have inspired innovation. It's impossible to know, of course, if those big Star Trek viewscreens ultimately pushed the market in that direction as soon as video technology was available. But it's certainly possible. Trek might even have inspired HDTV. If we hadn't switched to high definition, Jean-Luc Picard's video wall might well have topped out at 540p!