Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.
Anachronism. This is a word we apply to something that doesn’t belong in a given time period. Usually, we spot anachronisms when we watch historical movies and notice something in a scene that had not been invented in the time period being recreated. In the case of creating a future world, inevitably there will be cases where either a lack of imagination or resources will result in something being shown that ultimately doesn’t belong because it will have been superseded by a more pervasive technology. I’m not sure if the word anachronism applies to the future case, but I will be directing your attention to these instances in Star Trek’s Original Series.
The prequel series Enterprise opted to design its look in accordance with all the new technology that had been developed since the time the Original Series had been produced. Because of the longer time span between the Original Series and now, we’ve had more of a chance to come up with new technology, so I won’t be dealing with the later, more contemporary series in this article.
10. Cup Holder
Take a look at the above photo with Uhura’s coffee perched at an angle on her console. Her hand is beside the coffee cup as she converses with Captain Kirk. This is an accident waiting to happen. Take a look inside your automobile and you will notice various configurations of cup holders that could easily have been incorporated on the Enterprise bridge for the convenience of bridge personnel.
Cup holders had been around since their invention by James Guillow in 1943. There was a gradual acceptance before automobiles began incorporating them in the 1980s. The fast-paced lifestyle along with long commute times made having coffee and breakfast in the car normal by then. And the advent of drive-through coffee shops and restaurants accommodated this. Supposedly, the lawsuit involving an old lady suing McDonald’s for scalding her lap with hot coffee hastened the installation of cup holders.
By the way, I’m not expecting the new movie’s Enterprise bridge to have cup holders. To maintain the pristine look of Star Trek’s future, I would expect a “no drink and food” policy for the bridge. Have you ever tried to bring a drink into an Apple Store?
9. Seat Belt
This is one invention that the first Star Trek movie tried to rectify by giving Captain Kirk some fold-over leg restraints that we saw Kirk use when the Enterprise accidentally triggered a wormhole. But we all saw how boring it was not being able to see people fly from their seats and tumble all over the place, so we never saw any seat belt device attempted again on Star Trek bridge sets.
We should thank Volvo for considering safety since they had the first safety belts back in 1849 and they introduced the modern three-point seat belt in 1959. So, really, it wasn’t a lack of foresight, but probably a deliberate omission by the Enterprise designers.
Should the Enterprise have seat belts? Buses don’t have seat belts. I guess you could argue that there were only a few times that the Enterprise got thrown about. I mean places like California occasionally have earthquakes, but you don?t see people there strapping themselves in for breakfast.
8. Winter Coat
Okay, I admit that I’m being silly with these first couple of entries. The lack of budget for the television show prevented Starfleet from having much of a wardrobe. But the sight of crewmembers in their velour uniforms warming themselves around a phaser-heated rock does seem rather silly.
The absurd plot contrivance of creating jeopardy with crew on harsh weather planets doesn?t make any sense to me. The episode in which Sulu and a landing party find themselves stranded on a freezing planet because of a transporter malfunction is really stretching the suspension of disbelief. Disregarding the use of a shuttlecraft which had not been introduced, yet, surely the crew of the Enterprise could have transported down portable heaters and portable living structures since they were able to transport down other supplies. Instead, we see Sulu wrapping himself with a futuristic blanket as icicles form on his eyebrows.
Look at the huge cables that were jury-rigged in the Jefferies Tube by a saboteur in the above photograph. (Not exactly discreet or covert.) To be fair, the cables and wires shown in the Original Series could have been bundled optic fibers, but for lack of better evidence, I’m going to assume they were of the copper wire variety.
Optical fiber development grew rapidly in the 1950s, but along with the development of lasers, it wasn?t until the mid-1960s that refinements started to make it be considered as a practical medium for communication. Efforts by researchers at companies like the British company Standard Telephones and Cables, and American glass maker Corning Glass Works made it possible for the first commercial fiber-optic communication system to be produced by the late 1970s. Because signals can transmit with lower attenuation and interference in optical fibers, fiber-optics has been gradually replacing copper wire as costs have dropped.
6. Membrane Switch
Enterprise control panels and equipment including computers used flip switches, toggle switches, and large protruding push buttons. Many of the type shown in Star Trek have virtually disappeared to be replaced by membrane switches. (The rotary knob hasn’t been done away with, yet.) Membrane switches came to public attention through television remote controls, microwave oven panels and air conditioner control panels.
5. Touch Screen
The clunky arm pad buttons, text labels, and bulb indicator lights on Captain Kirk’s command chair seem particularly antiquated when compared with Apple’s Touch interface. And the communicator’s three button control pad seems lacking when held up against Apple’s iPhone.
Early touch screen devices were developed in the 1970s and became familiar to us through bank machine kiosks. Recently, self-serve cashiers have used this technology. Touch screens were used by early PDAs, but required a stylus. Many improvements have been made since their first introduction, but the multi-touch capability provided by Apple’s iPhone may be the impetus that makes the touch screen ubiquitous.
4. Flat Panel Display
The monitors shown in crew quarters and in sickbay resembled monitors based on tube technology. Although the rudimentary technology for plasma televisions and LCD displays gained momentum in the 1960s, no one apparently imagined that monitor screens could one day become thin. Since the images on the Star Trek monitors were an optical effect anyway, having the physical displays be an inch or two thick would not have added to the budget.
Laptops in the mid-1980s used LCD flat panels, and stand-alone LCD flat panels for desktop computers would be available in the mid-1990s.
It should be said that at least the monitors on Star Trek appeared to be flat screen monitors although the small monitor on the tricorder was not. It would not be until 1981 when Zenith would file a patent for a flat CRT and construct a working one in 1984.
3. Miniaturization (Integrated Circuits)
On the few occasions where we saw Kirk, Spock or Uhura working inside the bridge consoles, we would see boards with resistors and other discrete electrical components now made obsolete by integrated circuits. I think it would have been easy enough to fake complicated circuitry without showing actual electrical components even given the low budget. (To see how small the set budget was, take a look at the engineering wall displays that used sliding boards behind boards with circular holes to fake the look of an updating display!)
Early development in integrated circuits began in the 1950s. The space program boosted the development of small scale integration in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s, medium scale integration was resulting in hundreds of transistors on a chip. This development process has been growing exponentially over the years. It seems like a major oversight for Star Trek not to take this into account.
2. Digital Display (LED and LCD)
If there’s one thing that instantly dates Star Trek, it’s the non-existence of digital displays. I grant that technology in the 1960s would have made this hard to fake, but I suppose they could have animated the displays. There weren?t that many instances where a number display was shown, so it wouldn’t have been unreasonable from a budget standpoint to animate a digital display.
Light emitting diode (LED) research advanced rapidly in the 1960s, so the research institutes that Roddenberry consulted should have been aware of possible applications for this technology. However, it wasn’t until after the Original Series had ended that LEDs were used for electronics test equipment, and later became ubiquitous in household appliances like alarm clock radios.
Liquid crystal research also advanced rapidly in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1972 that the first liquid crystal display (LCD) was produced. I became aware of LCD technology as I’m sure most of you born before the 1970s did when the technology was soon used for math calculator displays.
One of the things that made the original Star Trek look futuristic was all the blinking lights. Having numerical or character displays composed of lights would have added to the prescient nature of Star Trek.
I admit that I was stumped in coming up with a tenth entry in this list. Rather than burst a blood vessel in my brain, I thought I would invite you to help me out. Does anyone have any suggestions for a technology that we use today that has rendered something we saw in Star Trek as obsolete?
None of the movies has managed to introduce new inventions. Even the television series after the Original Series demonstrated a lack of imagination with only a few innovations. The Next Generation introduced the holodeck and nanotechnology. Voyager introduced bio-neural gel packs.
When we watch the Original Series nowadays, we immediately notice the crudeness of the visual effects and the cheapness that pervades the sets and planetary landscapes. The new Star Trek movie will no doubt rectify these problems. As well, it will most likely be updating the technology without introducing anything that is not commonplace now. But since we will be seeing mini-skirts in the new movie, maybe the new movie will retain other retro-futuristic touches.