Science and Pseudoscience at the Movies: Star Trek

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Rating Symbols

HBS

Hot Babe Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this. Hollywood is now capable of dealing with a woman scientist. Someday they will be capable of portraying a plain, middle-aged or overweight woman scientist. Rent Andromeda Strain for a movie where they actually did it well.

SK

Superfluous Kids. Kids (generally repugnant) who serve no real dramatic purpose except to generate audience sympathy. I root for the monsters, especially when the kids do something stupid after they've been told not to.


General Observations

How Star Trek Resolves Problems

Five minutes before the end credits roll. The Federation is facing the combined might of the Granfaloonian Empire. The mad Federation admiral who is trying to plunge the Galaxy into war is confronted by KirkPicardSiskoJanewayArcher:

Mad Federation Admiral: I hate the Granfaloonians! They burned my village, murdered my parents, raped my sister, kicked my dog, and installed Windows 2350 on my computer! I want to boil them in oil, skin them alive, cut their eyes out and give them all wedgies!

KirkPicardSiskoJanewayArcher: Stop it! That isn't nice!

Mad Federation Admiral: Okay.

Roll credits.

How Star Trek Resolves Problems II

Klingon: The Klingon Empire will fight to the last Klingon rather than surrender this planet!

Romulan: Romulans prefer death to dishonor. We will never surrender!

KirkPicardSiskoJanewayArcher: Why don't you just share nice? 

Klingon and Romulan: We never thought of that. Thanks!

Why is Spock Such a Threat?

The original Star Trek went to some trouble to create Spock and even more effort to ridicule him at every opportunity. In episode after episode, Spock is portrayed as emotionally crippled by his rationality, and secretly longing to have the emotions of humans. Meanwhile, Kirk and McCoy get into one stupid bind after another because of their emotional immaturity.

Vulcans played only a minor role in Star Trek: Next Generation, but the role of Spock was carried on by the android Data, who proved repeatedly to be more human than most humans, but who still wanted to experience emotions. All together now: "If I only had a heart..."

Voyager was the next series to feature a Vulcan, Tuvok, but in that series, the rational Janeway treated Tuvok with respect as a friend and colleague. Seven of Nine to some extent played the role of Spock.

Enterprise, the latest series, goes back to the roots, in a number of ways. Scott Bakula plays Jonathan Archer in this prequel to Star Trek. In the mid 22nd century, humans are just novices at interstellar travel, and have been patronizingly treated by Vulcans for nearly a century. Watching Archer run his ship, you understand what's to patronize. He clearly studied Shatner's acting style. His foil is a beautiful but icy Vulcan female officer who is constantly nagging him to do picky stuff like reconnoiter situations before charging in with an away team, not put all his key people in danger, stuff like that. In other words, things any military person in the 21st century (or Hannibal's army, for that matter) would regard as simple common sense.

The nagging question to me is why Vulcan rationality is treated like such a threat. We live in a society full of people who buy blindly into beliefs that would embarrass a Cro-Magnon shaman, and a world full of people who can't let go of defeats that happened centuries ago. It's not like rationality is an overpowering force in the world. The problem in our society is not that people are out of touch with their emotions. The problem in our society is precisely that people need to get out of touch with their emotions for a while.

I suspect, in fact, the problem is an inferiority complex. People who can't deal rationally with life need constant reassurance that their way is better. The reassurance has to be constant because it rests solely on emotion and can't be sustained in the face of uncertainty like rational beliefs can. Folks, you don't have an inferiority complex. You're really inferior. 

Military Organization of the 23rd Century

Star Trek I

If it weren't for the magic of the name "Star Trek", this film would go down in film history along with Ishtar and Heaven's Gate. Science fiction is at its best when it concentrates on telling a good story. When the author gets too heavy handed about using sci-fi as a platform for philosophy, the result is plodding, pretentious crap like Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, and this film. For some strange reason, Gene Roddenberry had a lot of trouble recapturing the fun of the original Star Trek in the film versions.

The confrontations between Kirk and the new commander of the Enterprise are just painful to watch. Both of them come across as so immature you wouldn't trust them to pilot a rubber duck around a bathtub, much less a starship.

The plot revolves around a mysterious entity called Veeger. Supposedly, some advanced civilization gets hold of the still-to-be-launched Voyager VI spacecraft. How any Voyager craft, past or future, manage to cover interstellar distances is a mystery. The builders of Veeger apparently can find a dead spacecraft in interstellar space, build structures thousands of kilometers in size, but can't decipher the carefully-encoded record on the probe. They somehow know how the symbols "V ger" are pronounced but can't figure out anything else about the origins of the spacecraft. For that matter, they can't even dust off the name plate to reveal the full name. The visual style is dark and gloomy throughout.

Nothing demonstrates the loyalty of Star Trek fans more than that the movie sequels continued after such a dreary, dreadful beginning.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

A classic Star Trek villain is brought out of retirement. Ricardo Montalban reprises his TV role as a 21st century dictator and would-be world conqueror exiled by Kirk to a remote planet. The neighboring planet, in a geophysical cataclysm known only to science-fiction, exploded, and turned the exiles' planet into something a long way down in class from Ricardo's previous home on Fantasy Island. Khan lures the Enterprise back to exact his revenge on Kirk.

In the ensuing battle, Spock enters a lethal radiation zone to save the ship and temporarily dies.

Star Trek III: In Search of Spock (SK, HBS)

Oh right, like they're really going to let Spock stay dead. The neat thing is that the producers actually accounted for Spock having his old memories: before dying (the first time) he mind-melded with McCoy, transferring all his memories. We'll let the physical problems of downloading terabytes of data from brain to brain slide.

When Spock's father realizes Spock's mind is still alive, he hints to Kirk that it would really be nice to have body and soul together in one neat package ("I'm a nut for neatness," he says in the Mad magazine parody). So Kirk recruits his old crew for a mission. They:

  1. Have Spock's father use his diplomatic clout to get the Federation to approve an official mission.
  2. Buy or hire a private vessel.
  3. Use a Vulcan ship.
  4. Steal the Enterprise out of dry dock and sabotage the only other ship around capable of catching it.

Duh.

Kirk has a son, it turns out, the result of a long-ago liaison with the beautiful leading lady scientist. Although he's a bit old to be a kid, I give the film an SK anyway because even as an adult, the kid is a brat.

The Klingons are out looking for the Genesis Device, a device that can instantly terraform an entire planet, unfortunately wiping out whatever was previously there. It's sort of like formatting a hard drive on a planetary scale. The beautiful lady scientist is appalled to find out her son has cut corners by using "quasi matter," a still to be discovered dangerously unstable form of matter. The Klingons take over the planet where the research is being conducted and in the process, kill Kirk's son. From Kirk's perspective this is bad, although personally I can't see a down side. I was about to do it myself before the Klingons saved me the trouble.

The Genesis Device gets triggered, the planet gets instantly terraformed, life starts evolving even faster than in my refrigerator, and - get ready for a surprise - of all the planets in the Galaxy, this just happens to be the one where Spock's coffin landed. The coffin is moving fast enough to cover interplanetary, maybe interstellar distances in only a few months, hits a planet, and doesn't make a crater. It's lying flat on the surface. Paint isn't even scuffed.

Of course, the Genesis Device restores Spock to life. Spock comes back as a baby but grows fast. That speeds up breast-feeding and toilet training, but puberty is rough, even by Vulcan standards. Kirk slugs it out with the head Klingon as the planet disintegrates. Kirk tricks the Klingons into boarding the Enterprise just as it self destructs, and cons the one Klingon still aboard the Klingon vessel into beaming them aboard, so the crew sets off to return Spock to Vulcan in a captured Klingon ship. Something like that.

Star Trek IV (HBS)

It's back to episode I for one ingredient: an alien craft comes to Earth looking for the source of a long-lost artifact, in this case, a recording of humpback whale sounds. Unfortunately, humpback whales went extinct in the 21st century. So the alien ship begins raising havoc on Earth. The Enterprise crew, returning from its adventures in II and III in a captured Klingon vessel, returns to Twentieth century Earth to retrieve some humpback whales. It all involves a gravitational slingshot around the Sun to propel them back in time. In the 23rd century, kids do this for high school science fair projects.

This is the final in a three-part story, one of the best (some call it the best) of all the Star Trek films, and a joyous tongue-in-cheek romp throughout. Spock mind-melds with a whale, Scotty thinks a computer keyboard is "quaint" and tries to talk into a mouse, Chekhov is arrested at a naval base as a Russian spy, McCoy dismisses dialysis as being on the same level as using leeches, and the Klingon vessel makes the ultimate anti-whaling statement.

Oh, the HBS rating. There's a cute lady oceanographer for Kirk to flirt with. When the Enterprise crew swipes her whales from a marine park, she decides to come along with them, probably figuring the lost whales will come out of her paycheck until at least the 23rd century anyway.

Star Trek V:

The producers forget everything they've learned in the previous three films and have another go at philosophy. Spock's long-lost brother turns up pushing the need to get in touch with our emotional sides (when are people going to get in touch with their rational sides? Why is Spock's rationality so threatening to so many people?) The film goes from dull to just plain excruciatingly sappy at the end, where Kirk, McCoy and Spock sit around a campfire singing "Row Row Row Your Boat." The visual atmosphere is dreary, the conflict is dreary, the philosophy is dreary and cliched. Rating: five gray blobs for dullness.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Back to sound story telling. I rate this one as one of the best of the series. A technological disaster for the Klingons leads to peace overtures, which a lot of people on both sides don't want to succeed. Kirk has to overcome his loathing for Klingons over killing his son in Star Trek III. Frankly, what's to loathe? The kid was an obnoxious twerp.

Kirk hosts a Klingon delegation on the Enterprise. At dinner, one of the Klingons gets off the best line in the whole movie. After quoting Shakespeare, he says "Of course, it's better in the original Klingon." But a secret conspiracy massacres the Klingons. Kirk and McCoy are tried for murder by the Klingons and exiled to an icy penal colony. Spock and Scotty unravel the conspiracy, rescue Kirk and McCoy, and with the aid of Sulu, who now has his own command, get to the conference in the nick of time.

Star Trek VII: Generations

The first crossover film where the original cast links up with the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. A warp in space time creates havoc as it orbits the Galaxy. In one of its passes it collides with the Enterprise, sucking Kirk and a number of other folks into the Nexus, an idyllic Nirvana-like alternate universe. One of the victims doesn't fall all the way in, and becomes so obsessed with returning to Nirvana that he plots the destruction of an entire solar system to do it.

As Mike Nelson points out in Movie Megacheese, the time-space anomaly looks like a giant drier spark. Rather than reroute its orbit, simply re-create it by drying a very large load of sweatshirts.

And what's the deal with trying to get back to the Nexus? In the Nexus, you're perpetually stuck outside of time at the most idyllic point of your existence. So once you're in the Nexus, you're always in the Nexus. Even if you leave, there's still a you in the Nexus. The you a minute before you leave will still be there.

The villain reroutes the anomaly by changing the mass of a star. He does this by firing a missile that halts the energy production in the star's core, thereby creating some of the worst scientific absurdities in all of Star Trek:

The first time around, he succeeds, but the spark propels Picard into Nirvana, where he realizes that, although pleasant, it isn't real. He realizes he can find Kirk; then Picard, Kirk, and the Velveteen Rabbit decide to become real. They return in time (if they told us how, they'd have to kill us), do battle with the villain, foil his plans, but Kirk dies in the process. But then Picard wouldn't have been launched into Nirvana to meet Kirk, which means they wouldn't have come back, which means the villain would have succeeded, which means Picard would have been launched into Nirvana ... I have to lie down for a while. The Velveteen Rabbit, meanwhile, gets a lucrative endorsement contract and keeps going and going ....

Some people really loathe this film. Sure, Shatner eats the scenery during his death scene, but we expect Shatner to chew the scenery. It wouldn't be Star Trek without it. Scott Bakula, as Jonathan Archer in the new series Enterprise, carries on the tradition. Overall, I thought it wasn't too bad.

Star Trek Next Generation: First Contact

The Borg travel back in time to try to prevent Earth from making contact with other races. A good film marred by the most obnoxious and irritating character ever. We meet Zephraim Cochrane, inventor of the warp drive, and his female assistant Lily. Lily soon starts telling Picard how to fight the Borg, a concept as arrogant and preposterous as Columbus trying to tell a pilot how to land a 747. At one point, Picard gives Lily a view from space, protected only by a force field. I kept wishing Picard would shut the force field off for just a second.

Some people might accuse me of not liking Lily because she's a forceful black female character. Not true. I don't like her because she's a stupid forceful black female character.

Star Trek Insurrection

A renegade Starfleet commander teams up with an alien race to abduct the entire population of a planet so they can exploit the mysterious life-prolonging radiation emitted by the planet's ring system. One of the more idiotic scientific concepts of the series. Why not try to synthesize whatever it is in the rings that prolongs life? Or, since only a few hundred people live on the planet, just find a big uninhabited island and develop the living daylights out of it as a health spa?

Nemesis

This film was bombed by the critics for reasons I don't get. It was far better than Insurrection and no worse than First Contact.

Romulus, home world of the Romulans (duh) has a sister world called - prepare to be totally blind-sided here - Remus. In this film we meet the Remans, who are really ugly. A Reman leader, Shinzan, stages a coup and takes over Romulus. Apparently that's fairly easy to do. The weather forecasts on Romulus say "mostly sunny with scattered coup attempts and a 70% chance of a takeover by morning." You'd think a world ruled by the military would have better security.

Turns out Shinzan is a human - an exact clone of Jean-Luc Picard, in fact. The Romulans cloned Picard (probably scavenged an old toothbrush) and planned to insert his replica into Starfleet, except that the government changed, the plot was abandoned, and Shinzan was sent to slave in the dilithium mines of Remus. Environmentalists would like these mines, since apparently they produce no waste. At least none is visible on the surface around the pits.

Shinzan has a ship that emits "theleron" radiation. The Federation has banned research on theleron radiation because it destroys all life. Good plan. Here we have a type of radiation that is lethal to everything. Let's do no research on it. That way we won't know how to counteract it, shield against it, or defeat it (this is pretty much how the state of Wisconsin deals with mining). Shinzan doesn't merely want to defeat Starfleet - he wants to annihilate Earth. Two Romulan leaders realize that's over the top, even for them, and help Picard battle Shinzan. The problem is how to find a perfectly cloaked ship. The hard way, it turns out. The film ends with hints that the Federation and the Romulans might begin talking.

I have always wondered why the Romulans are such implacable enemies. They are unstable but a lot more rational than the Klingons, and don't seem to be impelled by an insatiable desire for conquest.

The film ends with Data sacrificing himself, and Riker and Deanna Troy getting married and moving to another ship. Star Trek can get around these problems, but I suspect this is the last film.

Star Trek: The Reboot

Star

Trek

Is

Back

I thought Return of the King was good when there were scenes where I just wanted to stand up in the theater and cheer. I was like that pretty much for this whole movie. Right from the beginning, with the redesigned logo and new theme music, we get the point. This is not your momma's Star Trek.

A Federation attempt to warn the Romulans that their star is about to go supernova fails to get there in time. Nero, a vengeful Romulan, blames the Federation for the loss of his home world (because the Romulans can apparently build starships but not detect the signs of an impending supernova on their own sun?) and flies through a singularity back in time to get his revenge. He destroys the U.S.S. Kelvin and Kirk's father.

As long as we're back in time, why don't we just warn the home world that the sun is about to go supernova in the future, thereby sparing the planet and our loved ones from destruction? Because that would create a paradox, and the one thing you can't have in time travel is a paradox. They'd breed like crazy and you'd be knee deep in docklings before you knew it. But the time warp device serves the purpose of shunting Star Trek down an alternative time line not bound to The Canon. And if you think the Inquisition was bad, you haven't messed with Trekkies who know their Canon. So there's no point in quibbling about the time travel inconsistencies since the time travel serves to reboot the franchise.

So Kirk is a rootless punk who is finally enticed to enlist in Star Fleet by Christopher Pike. Three years later, all Star Fleet cadets are summoned to active duty when a distress call is received. Kirk is already off to a frosty start with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) who, as it turns out, has a thing for Spock (Zachary Quinto). Quinto is very good as Spock. He has just the right level of dignity and sardonic wit to be a good foil to the impulsive Kirk. Saldana is good, Quinto is very good, but Karl Urban, as young Leonard McCoy, is brilliant. He captures the mannerisms of McCoy so perfectly you have to imagine DeForest Kelley looking down and smiling.

Kirk convinces Admiral Pike that the distress call is a trap, so the Enterprise tiptoes in to discover the rest of the rescue armada destroyed. The baddie is next off to Vulcan in his quest to destroy the Federation. He lowers a huge energy device capable of drilling to the core of a planet, and though Kirk and Sulu (John Cho) deactivate the device, it has already drilled to Vulcan's core. Vulcan apparently doesn't have a defense force capable of shooting the drill down. Nero launches a bomb containing a drop of "red matter" (raspberry Jello?) which, when detonated, will trigger the implosion of Vulcan into a black hole.

About the drill, I as a geologist have only one comment. Want. Although drilling to the core of a planet is a bit much, I wouldn't mind something that could punch a couple of miles deep, especially if I could beam back samples. But if a drop of red matter can collapse a planet, why does Nero need a glob of it several feet across? Anyway, if you triggered the formation of a mini black hole at the core of a planet, it would be far tinier than an atom. Since the red matter weighed so little it could be easily handled, the gravitational field even a proton diameter away would be negligible. (Conservation of mass is for sissies)

Nero demands that Christopher Pike come over by shuttle craft, leaving Spock in command. Spock and Kirk argue about whether to try to save earth or rendezvous with the rest of Star Fleet. Spock dumps Kirk on ice planet Delta Vega where he meets Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy). Spock Prime is Spock from 129 years in the future in the original time line. He followed Nero back in time, and though the gap was only seconds to Spock, it was 25 years of our time. Nero had spared Spock and dumped him here to watch the destruction of Vulcan. Spock Prime convinces Kirk that he has to convince Spock to step down from command and takes him to a Star Fleet outpost where he meets Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg). Scott has been exiled to this post because he performed a transporter experiment on "Admiral Archer's favorite beagle." Priceless. Scotty, aided by Spock Prime, contrives a way to beam aboard the Enterprise even while it's in warp. Kirk and Spock have it out, Spock realizes he's emotionally compromised and relinquishes command. Since Pike had made Kirk First Officer, Kirk takes over.

By this time Nero is over Earth and preparing to bore a hole in the Golden Gate. Enterprise destroys the drill and its interference with transporters. Spock returns to the bridge (apparently just having been on a time-out) and volunteers to help rescue Christopher Pike. Spock and Kirk beam over to Nero's ship alone because back-up is for sissies (one thing not changed from the old story line). They find Spock Prime's ship in the cargo bay, and when Kirk asks if he can fly it, Spock, who is beginning to catch on to the time-travel implications, replies "I have a feeling I already have." Scotty proves himself a virtuoso of the transporter by rescuing Kirk, Pike and Spock in the nick of time. Kirk gets a major medal (Saving the World, First Class) and replaces the disabled Pike as captain of the Enterprise. Spock and Spock Prime finally meet and Spock Prime convinces Spock that he and Kirk share a destiny (having previously convinced Kirk of the same thing). So Spock joins the Enterprise as First Officer.

Star Trek is back. We get to do it all over again, in a new time line with room for departure from the original plot lines. Live long and prosper.


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Created 8 July 1998, Last Update 02 June 2010

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