Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.
This is the 21st century. It is the year 2008. There are no moon bases. There is no outpost on Mars. Tourists are not being ferried to our space stations. This Treknobabble is about Star Trek’s failure to inspire humanity to explore.
With my infinite wisdom as a teenager in the 1970s, I thought about the original Star Trek series being set in the 23rd century. I thought that this was another case of short-sightedness.
I had laughed with everyone in retrospect at all the “intelligent” people who had made predictions that underestimated humanity’s ingenuity. Scientists in the 19th century thought that it was preposterous to think that man would be able to fly. (Actually, I still find it hard to believe that we achieved this.) The most famous case of short-sightedness was from the head of the American patent office at the end of the 19th century. He believed that all the important discoveries had been made and that only details needed to be explained.
The author of The Physics of Star Trek gives a convincing argument that a transporter to transport human beings will never be invented. Basically, the amount of energy required to demolecularize a person is a lot. Gene Roddenberry had consulted scientists when developing Star Trek. But the transporter was not anything anyone was seriously considering as a viable technology. It was simply a science fiction clichÃƒÂ© that he used to save money so that they wouldn’t have to show a spaceship landing and taking off from a planet surface. It also was a story-telling device to get the characters quickly into the action. But they soon discovered that it could also save them from any predicament, so it was necessary to have the transporter be conveniently disabled at appropriate times. Who really thinks nothing will breakdown in the future?
There are also metaphysical questions about being transported, because we don’t know where our consciousness resides. I imagine someone will somehow circumvent the energy expenditure and we will have a transporter in the future. And we still won’t know where consciousness resides. It will miraculously still exist intact after the body is transported. When we pass a barrier, we always wonder if the human body can survive.
There was a popular book called Future Shock that spoke about the coming advances and how people would react to them. People have said that Trekkies suffered the least because Star Trek eased the transition by showing people interacting with computers, sliding doors, wireless communication devices, non-invasive medical devices, and large television screens.
So when man landed on the moon shortly after Star Trek had been cancelled and even before all the technological advances we have today that we all take for granted, I was sure that when I died, I would die in outer space. Now my only hope of dying in outer space is stowing away on a space shuttle.
I guess Star Trek’s optimism was linked with all the hope that the youth of the 1960s was generating. And the failure of “flower power” to create any lasting change is a legacy that Star Trek is part of. When John Lennon was murdered at the beginning of the 1980s, people thought “the dream was over,” appropriating one of his song lyrics.
I know I’m being unduly harsh on Star Trek. I even wonder if we would be as technologically advanced if we are to believe that a large proportion of scientists were inspired by Star Trek as kids. On the other hand, there seems to be a large percentage of the population who don’t trust technology and are more spiritually minded. Some people would rather save the Earth than to find out what exists beyond our atmosphere.
To be sure, the idea of exploring space is daunting. There seems to be so much… space out there. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before someone discovers “warp technology.” In Star Trek lore, it is this demonstration of warp technology that attracts the attention of the Vulcans, and begins our enlightenment with all that is out there. This sequence of events is portrayed in the movie Star Trek: First Contact, culminating with the Vulcan visitors invited to party with a group of people in the woods. It would have been interesting to see all of humanity’s reaction to the visitors, but unfortunately, the movie was not concerned with that.
Maybe Roddenberry was wise in setting Star Trek in the 23rd century. Roddenberry believed in humanity, but he probably realized that it would take time for us to get off this planet. We need visionaries like Roddenberry.
It just occurred to me that the crucial difference between Star Trek and Star Wars is that Star Trek represents a vision of humanity’s future whereas Star Wars takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We need our children to make Star Trek’s vision a reality rather than grow up, set aside their fantasies, and indulge in the morass of daily life.
Realistically, we’ll always have people who want to stay at home and those who want to get out of the house. Hopefully, we’ll all get a chance to leave home and come back anytime we want. And as for the schedule, it really doesn’t matter when we go off into space, as long as we don’t procrastinate until the day our sun burns out.
I don’t think the hippies who ended up becoming part of the establishment should have any regrets or should have to make any apologies. Life ends up having a life of its own. Even Star Trek ended up as a business franchise. Remember, Captain Kirk was considered to be a “Herbert.”
Note: The title of this Treknobabble came from William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” It’s taken from Benedick’s dialogue in Act I, Scene I. I have no idea what it means.