Why Technobabble Makes Star Trek Suck

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Why Technobabble Makes Star Trek Suck

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Award-winning UK science fiction author Charlie Stross hates Star Trek, and it's mostly because of the idea of "technobabble."

I'm not sure if Star Trek invented the idea of technobabble or if it merely popularized it, but the franchise and the concept have become so intertwined in popular culture that it's honestly hard to imagine one existing without the other. Where would we be without Scotty telling Kirk that the Enterprise couldn't go any faster because the subspace stress on the dilithium matrix core was destabilizing the refractory alignment of the power couplings - and if it kept up, the ship was going to tear itself apart!

Thanks to a speech given by former Star Trek writer and Battlestar Galactica remake creator Ron Moore, noted sci-fi author Charlie Stross realized that this concept of technobabble - or more precisely, how it fit into the episode scripts - was at the core of his dislike of Star Trek, as he related on his blog:

At his recent keynote speech at the New York Television Festival, former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek.

He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they'd have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."

Moore then went on to describe how a typical script might read before the science consultants did their thing:

La Forge: "Captain, the tech is overteching."

Picard: "Well, route the auxiliary tech to the tech, Mr. La Forge."

La Forge: "No, Captain. Captain, I've tried to tech the tech, and it won't work."

Picard: "Well, then we're doomed."

"And then Data pops up and says, 'Captain, there is a theory that if you tech the other tech ... '" Moore said. "It's a rhythm and it's a structure, and the words are meaningless. It's not about anything except just sort of going through this dance of how they tech their way out of it."

That, says Stross, is "the antithesis of everything I enjoy in an SF novel." Science fiction, explained Stross, is interesting because it has the ability to explore "the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist."

In other words, it's important to envision characters that are a byproduct of a society that possesses advanced technology - and has been shaped by said technology. For example, says Stross, is the modern-day idea of "sexting," which only exists due to the ubiquity of advanced mobile phones - an idea that thirty years ago would have been seen as very much "sci-fi."

By inserting random words into the script as (tech), what good does that do to establish characters in a society that should be irrevocably changed by this advanced technology? It doesn't do that at all, says Stross. "You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech - make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail - without changing the scripts significantly."

You know what? I'd actually probably watch that.

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the ability to explore "the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist."

Either ST doesn't do this in a way he thinks is sufficient for him to enjoy it, or he's missing the point.

I don't mind technobabble, except when they use real terms in a contexts where it makes no sense whatsoever. CSI, anyone?

Yeah, technobabble can get a bit ridiculous at times... And it is rather meaningless, (star trek RPG books can manage just as well with a random technobabble chart) but that entirely misses the point of what star trek is about.

Star Trek may not be pure Sci-fi, but it is very much about the human condition.
Technology is a supplement, not the core of the story.

It's 'wagon train to the stars' after all.
The fact that you can describe the concept in terms of a wild west setting should demonstrate that.

Yes, writing 'tech' in the scripts is pretty awkward, but consider the difficulty in writing a long-running television series; Inevitably, some episodes are going to be rather formulaic, just because there isn't enough time to write something better.

In any event, the best episodes of the show barely have any explicit technology in them at all...

It's bad only if you compare it to a certain, very specific notion of what science fiction should be...

And that was why Firefly was so damn good... (but clearly not good enough for FOX)

Well,Star Trek is not hard sci-fi. It's about how society shapes technology (by making it user-friendly),not how technology shapes society. In reality tech-society relationship works both ways.

And technobabble can be plausible if writers are competent/have competent advice (see Futurama and it's many nerdy in-jokes).

I sympathize with you. I can't watch Jurassic Park without crying at the scientific errors.

Technobabble alienates newcomers and can and will bore veterans.

Hmmm, well to be honest this article bugs me on a number of levels.

One thing I'm going to get reamed for, but feel the need to point out is the differance between science-fiction and fantasy, and why they are seperate generes.

Real science fiction exists to explain hypothetical concepts and how a given set of principles might work. The storyline oftentimes being secondary to the tech. This is why REAL science fiction authors will spend pages explaining why ships are a certain shape, how gravity planes work, and the principles on which weapons function within a given area of technological development. For example in the first book of "Bio Of A Space Tyrant" Piers Anthony explains why "the bubble is the king of space" for ship shapes, how once mounts weapons on such things (when a space pirate shows up), and how the gravity systems work is illustrated by examples within the story. A good REAL science fiction writer manages to entwine these things and make both the tech and the story entertaining.

Fantasy is when people pretty much figure "well don't worry, it all just works, go with it" and only bother to try and explain something if they absolutly have to, perhaps even pulling it out as Ex-deus-Machina later. Some people specifically use terms like "Space Fantasy" to help diffentiate the "ray guns and aliens" from the "swords and orcs" genere even though it ultimatly comes down to the same thing.

Truthfully, it can be argued that underlying Star Trek is a genuine science fiction premise, not that many people get it. All of that "tech" is thus important and why they need consultants, and yes the fact that writers began to make the tech subserviant to the storylines in many cases has caused some serious questions over the years. I seem to remember (back when the differentiation mattered more) that some fanboys would say things like how Star Trek is fantasy, but talking to Roddenberry can make it science fiction. Basically everything in Trek (at least to begin with) was fairly consistant once you established certain principes like oh say... acess to power sources (Dilithium) that are far better than what we have today. A lot of what he did if I remember was based largely off of the idea of lithium batteries acting on a much higher level, hence the name of the "magic crystals".

One of the reasons why Trek did not have space fighters or anything similar for a very long time was because they made no sense. In space mass and weight are irrelevent, things move purely on power. A bigger ship can produce more energy for it's energy and weapons, and thus moves faster. A space fighter could never catch a big ship moving full speed.

Fighters at one time being a key method of explaining the differance between Star Wars and Star Trek. Star Wars being (at least early on) pure fantasy. It didn't matter how anything worked, it did, and what was cool ruled beyond what was practical. How do space fighters move faster than a Star Destroyer at combat speeds? It doesn't matter, space fighters are cool. Why do they explode in fireballs in a vaccum? It looks cool. Of course things have gotten mixed up over the years and both have gone in the opposite direction (some explanation has gone into Star Wars, and Star Trek has had fiery WTF ship explosions in space).

But hey, I get it, a lot of people don't like science fiction or care why things work. They just want to see fighters, and space marines, and huge plantary invasions. Big explosions, cool guns, and war machines that catch the eye. I can enjoy this myself.

I also enjoy the works of good science fiction authors who can manage to entertain me while teaching me something about a hypothetical technology. When I ran PnP RPGs this was one of the reasons why I could wing answering questions by players because I had some basic knowlege to draw on that couple be applied to hypothetical technologies when specifics were needed.

Truth be told though, I'd immediatly guess that the father of Space Fantasy is probably James Scmidt, author of "The Federation Of The Hub" stories (if you can find collections of his short stories I recommend reading the... NOW). He was unique at the time he was writing for treating futuristic themes like fantasy, and making his world feel lived in. He didn't explain how a teleporter worked, or the principles by which a car could fly, he just pretty much treated it as "it happens" and like real people his protaganists like Telezy Amberdon or Trigger Argee (some of the first futuristic heroines) just took it for granted, without themselves knowing a whole lot about it, nor did they wind up listening to 10 page lectures as some more learned character explained it.

There might be someone earlier, but in reading about the man behind the stories, I think Schmidt was supposed to have stood out specifically for that.

I always heard the rule of thumb is that if you can strip out a few words and set the story in present times, then it's not really SF. Technobabble does not science fiction make. That being said, I still like certain Star Trek series. I'm not a Trekkie by any means, but Voyager and Deep Space Nine are definitely guilty pleasures, more for their characters than their daring look at the future. If I want something that will make me think, I'll go read a Dick novel.

cononking:
And that was why Firefly was so damn good... (but clearly not good enough for FOX)

I will say this to my dying day. Firefly was not a sci-fi show. It was a western that just happened to have a spaceship in it.

OT: Ugh the technobabble in Star Trek drove me nuts, hence why I didn't watch it for too long. The lack of excessive technobabble in SG-1 worked though, especially since they used theoretical laws of physics to formulate their technobabble.

Technobabble was I think a way of getting round having to actually make drama or story. Deep Space 9 got around this by, shock of shocks, actually having a long-running story arc, the Dominion War. And also shocking was that it was an excellent story. In many cases, though especially throughout Voyager, they never even bothered to try anything risky. Just another Anomaly X causes Crisis Y and is resolved by Tech Z.

There was a review somewhere I once read that summed this up very nicely. I can't remember where I read it, but it was about the Voyager episode Alliances, wherin Janeway finally decides to attempt a pact with the Delta Quadrant races, specifically, the Kazon. The whole episode ran up to this eventuality, with Tuvok even chipping in some guff about how a flower he grafted from two others struggled at first, but then coped and thrived in its new hybrid state.

Then all when to shit, Janeway's allies turned out to be dirty liars and traitors, the Kazon gladly went back to their evil ways and Janeway pontificated on how they must continue to keep to their by-the-book, inflexible ways and keep their technology out of the hands of the Delta Quadrant bumpkins. Welcome to Star Trek Inc., next week, see us emasculate the Borg over the course of several agonising seasons and turn them into bumbling stooges with a catty scowling diva for a Queen.

At least Enterprise tried to get around this with the Xindi war. Many people panned the crap out of this series because of how bad it was, and to a point I agree, but during the later stages of the Xindi War story arc, the Enterprise was a chundering can of bolts, sparks flying everywhere, heavily scarred from battle damage and a crew that had seen many of their own die - and they even acknowledged these deaths as time went by. Unlike TOS and TNGs "Ensign Expendables" where someone dies and is casually brushed off.

So I think the whole tech issue is because the writers were just too chicken to try plots with any real bite or risk. Its a shame because when they did they either worked well or ended up having promise.

Having tried to watch several Star Trek episodes over the years, I can't help but agree with the article. I liken it to the same problem I have with the show House.

House has some really funny and dramatic moments and I think I could like it. However, I just can't get into it because every episode is just one long string of the characters spouting off different (and increasingly obscure) diseases/conditions that almost no one in the viewing audience would understand. It's uninteresting to me because being able to follow along and know what's being said is crucial to a TV show for me.

Shows like House and Star Trek basically just sit there and say "Everything you're hearing is correct, just trust us." I find that House's medical "mysteries" are just a vehicle for portraying the characters and their relationships, similar to Star Trek's "tech".

If there wasn't technobabble this amazing song wouldn't exist though. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2v6rXs5J9M

TheGreenManalishi:

the ability to explore "the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist."

Either ST doesn't do this in a way he thinks is sufficient for him to enjoy it, or he's missing the point.

CrystalShadow:
Star Trek may not be pure Sci-fi, but it is very much about the human condition.
Technology is a supplement, not the core of the story.

It's 'wagon train to the stars' after all.
The fact that you can describe the concept in terms of a wild west setting should demonstrate that.

Exactly these.

The tech is a vehicle for telling the story, but the story isn't about the tech; it's about how the people live. It's about how the crew of the Enterprise react to their captain and friend being stolen from them and turned against them by a seemingly all-powerful enemy, and how they risk everything to save him. It's about diplomacy and trying to avoid war, not about phaser battles. It's about how they find "new life and new civilizations" and reconcile differences between these new cultures and their own. The tech is just the tool to tell the story.

If it were a "real" western, I'm sure people would just see fit to pick it apart for historical inaccuracies instead of technological ones anyway.

cononking:
And that was why Firefly was so damn good... (but clearly not good enough for FOX)

I agree here, too; Firefly did it even better, as the tech was even more backgrounded -- the show was even more focused on the characters.

cononking:
And that was why Firefly was so damn good... (but clearly not good enough for FOX)

The Firefly RPG came with a complete random technobabble generator for GMs who wanted to break a ship down in space. Has your Flange sprung a sprocket and is now leaking gas?

OH SHIT! Reverse the polarity. That always works.

Yeah, Trek goes overboard. I like Galactica because it's real. There are phones, and keyboards, and locks on the door. The Star Trek comm system, absurd keyless computer interface (LCARS), and lets not forget the two-dimensional nature of space in Trek... All these things detract from the show. And why can you fly the entire ship from the captain's chair some times? If any computer can control any system, why the need for a bridge. Why doesn't Picard command from the shower, or why isn't the helm in engineering where all hell always breaks loose?

CantFaketheFunk:
"You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech - make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail - without changing the scripts significantly."

You know what, I'd watch it too....

And I agree that technobabble doesn't do anything good for Star Trek...but it set the tone and it just ran with it to great success....well success up until Deep Space Nine and Voyager....arguable...

TNG FOREVER!

CantFaketheFunk:
"You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech - make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail - without changing the scripts significantly."

You know what? I'd actually probably watch that.

Be careful what you wish for...

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Generations... *Shudder*

i think he's wrong, the technobabble was necessary, sure you can remove it but it's needed for that type of scene. TNG and later were actually based on real science or at least science theory.

it also gives it a bit of credibility, i mean how else would you describe the stuff they are using?

The Federation had the most inept security force in the known universe. Someone with a toothpick, a Gameboy Advance and a bit of sticky-back plastic could overthrow the Captians commands and lock out everyon from the main computer.

Seriously, how the hell did humanity surivive with such crap security measures?

Can anyone name me an instance when "Seal the shuttlebay doors!" or "Block their transport attempt!" or "Lock them out of the computer!" actually worked?

wadark:
Having tried to watch several Star Trek episodes over the years, I can't help but agree with the article. I liken it to the same problem I have with the show House.

House has some really funny and dramatic moments and I think I could like it. However, I just can't get into it because every episode is just one long string of the characters spouting off different (and increasingly obscure) diseases/conditions that almost no one in the viewing audience would understand. It's uninteresting to me because being able to follow along and know what's being said is crucial to a TV show for me.

Shows like House and Star Trek basically just sit there and say "Everything you're hearing is correct, just trust us." I find that House's medical "mysteries" are just a vehicle for portraying the characters and their relationships, similar to Star Trek's "tech".

House: "It's not medical! There was no medical on the medical test!"
Foreman: "In some cases, it has been shown that medical isn't always linked to medical. We should test the medical, and find out if the are any medical present."

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what the first draft looked like.

Be careful what you wish for...

image

Generations... *Shudder*

I liked that movie. I'd totally watch it, too.

Lvl 64 Klutz:

House: "It's not medical! There was no medical on the medical test!"
Foreman: "In some cases, it has been shown that medical isn't always linked to medical. We should test the medical, and find out if the are any medical present."

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what the first draft looked like.

Whew, and I was afraid no one would agree with me. Seriously, though, Hugh Laurie does a great job in his role, and I like the characters and the relationships that go on, but that makes up about 10-15% of any given episode with the rest consisting of basically just that dialogue.

CantFaketheFunk:

That, says Stross, is "the antithesis of everything I enjoy in an SF novel." Science fiction, explained Stross, is interesting because it has the ability to explore "the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist."

I see his point, and very much agree with it. And that's exactly why I'm such a MAAAAAASSIVE fanboy of Battlestar Galactica, that's exactly what Battlestar is: a story about humanity, unlike Star Trek. And to think that the guy who wrote for Star Trek also wrote my much loved re-imagined Battlestar series. He must've gone through some big ass revelation.

But still: Picard is awesome.

Tinq:

Be careful what you wish for...

image

Generations... *Shudder*

I liked that movie. I'd totally watch it, too.

.... Ok I really want to see that now. They're just so awesome.

Lvl 64 Klutz:

wadark:
Having tried to watch several Star Trek episodes over the years, I can't help but agree with the article. I liken it to the same problem I have with the show House.

House has some really funny and dramatic moments and I think I could like it. However, I just can't get into it because every episode is just one long string of the characters spouting off different (and increasingly obscure) diseases/conditions that almost no one in the viewing audience would understand. It's uninteresting to me because being able to follow along and know what's being said is crucial to a TV show for me.

Shows like House and Star Trek basically just sit there and say "Everything you're hearing is correct, just trust us." I find that House's medical "mysteries" are just a vehicle for portraying the characters and their relationships, similar to Star Trek's "tech".

House: "It's not medical! There was no medical on the medical test!"
Foreman: "In some cases, it has been shown that medical isn't always linked to medical. We should test the medical, and find out if the are any medical present."

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what the first draft looked like.

Dave Chappelle: You know what I can't stand? [Racist_Comment]! A [Racist_Comment] can't get a [Expletive][Expletive] in this country without some [Racist_Comment][Racist_Comment][Racist Comment] getting all [Expletive][Racist_Comment] about his [Racist_Comment][Expletive][Racist Comment]. Damn, stupid [Racist_Comment]...

Khell_Sennet:

Dave Chappelle: You know what I can't stand? [Racist_Comment]! A [Racist_Comment] can't get a [Expletive][Expletive] in this country without some [Racist_Comment][Racist_Comment][Racist Comment] getting all [Expletive][Racist_Comment] about his [Racist_Comment][Expletive][Racist Comment]. Damn, stupid [Racist_Comment]...

Is this "mad lib"-style dialogue becoming the norm for TV now?

This guy really needs to reverse the polarity on his deflector shield.

................................................................... Star Trek's technobabble makes it suck? I think the millions, maybe billions of fans would disagree XD

Also, technobabble sure didn't prevent our primitive ancestors from enjoying good ol flash gordon or other sci-fi movies where technobabble was EXTREMELY prominent.

At that, sadly, Most of the Technobabble actually is relevant. When they mention Dilithium crystals, you know they are mentioning something that has to do with the warp core.

Now move on to Stargate, ANOTHER technobabble heavy movie + series and you will see they LOVE their technobabble, and so do the fans, and at that, their technobabble is literally just random shit off the top of the actress' head (It's not scripted she has stated, she just thinks up random technical terms and strings them together :p) and the series can easily rival star trek.

CantFaketheFunk:

By inserting random words into the script as (tech), what good does that do to establish characters in a society that should be irrevocably changed by this advanced technology? It doesn't do that at all, says Stross. "You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech - make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail - without changing the scripts significantly."

You know what? I'd actually probably watch that.

What the shows ex writer seems to not realize is.... THATS EXACTLY WHAT STAR TREK FUCKING IS! god ignorance pisses me right the hell off XD

Star Trek is pretty much navy in space. They are submarines with cushier insides. Thats why Picard to me was always better then anyone else, he really captured the feel of a classic naval captain, voyaging to new lands, and encountering the many cultures there were.

Next that writer is going to say "Well star trek should have based the alien species on actual real life cultures or races" Or maybe claim that Star wars should have mixed themes like the Civil War, Samurai, And Cowboys....

wadark:

Lvl 64 Klutz:

House: "It's not medical! There was no medical on the medical test!"
Foreman: "In some cases, it has been shown that medical isn't always linked to medical. We should test the medical, and find out if the are any medical present."

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what the first draft looked like.

Whew, and I was afraid no one would agree with me. Seriously, though, Hugh Laurie does a great job in his role, and I like the characters and the relationships that go on, but that makes up about 10-15% of any given episode with the rest consisting of basically just that dialogue.

If technobabble, obscure, or made up disease, and long dialouge bores you... I am betting your favorite shows are Jack Ass and any PBS show.

Watch a war movie, watch a horror movie, watch a sports movie, watch an action movie, watch any sci-fi movie, watch a drama.. there will always be some sort of babble in it.

And how the fuck are you expecting a Medical Drama show NOT to be based heavily on dialouge? What? Does your shows comedic moments then consist of people taking pies to the face? Dry humor is dialouge heavy so you MUST hate that... I bet you would dread listening to a Comedian do standup XD

wadark:

Lvl 64 Klutz:

House: "It's not medical! There was no medical on the medical test!"
Foreman: "In some cases, it has been shown that medical isn't always linked to medical. We should test the medical, and find out if the are any medical present."

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what the first draft looked like.

Whew, and I was afraid no one would agree with me. Seriously, though, Hugh Laurie does a great job in his role, and I like the characters and the relationships that go on, but that makes up about 10-15% of any given episode with the rest consisting of basically just that dialogue.

House is pretty formulaic, but it seems like there are a lot of jokes referencing the medical babble, and even if 99% of viewers don't understand it, I have a feeling it IS based on actual medical conditions. By the end of the show they've carefully explained whatever condition it was.

In ST they just make **** up. I'm not saying that they don't just insert <medical> into the script, but replacing that with real words is probably a multi-part process that requires a lot more work than an episode of ST.

cononking:
And that was why Firefly was so damn good... (but clearly not good enough for FOX)

Well... Fox is kinda notorious for cancelling reletivally good shows...

And that is why most of the original episodes were not about that kind of thing...

WhiteTiger225:

If technobabble, obscure, or made up disease, and long dialouge bores you... I am betting your favorite shows are Jack Ass and any PBS show.

Watch a war movie, watch a horror movie, watch a sports movie, watch an action movie, watch any sci-fi movie, watch a drama.. there will always be some sort of babble in it.

And how the fuck are you expecting a Medical Drama show NOT to be based heavily on dialouge? What? Does your shows comedic moments then consist of people taking pies to the face? Dry humor is dialouge heavy so you MUST hate that... I bet you would dread listening to a Comedian do standup XD

Every single thing you just claimed about me is incorrect. Jackass is freaking stupid (appropriately), and I don't care for PBS. Of course there is a bit of technobabble in basically everything, but that doesn't mean it has to make up 75%+ of a show.

I'm not expecting a medical drama to NOT have heavily medical dialogue. But having appropriately themed dialogue does NOT mean having a whole bunch of ridiculously technical jargon that only someone familiar with that terminology would understand (that's the definition of technobabble). I watched ER for years and was able to understand the MEDICAL in the medical drama with little to no trouble. I watch House and can't follow a damn thing because they use such obscure diseases, symptoms, and treatments that it might as well be, as someone said: "We should test the medical to see if there's any medical in the medical." Because that's all I hear.

Long story, short is: There's a difference between "appropriate dialogue" and "technobabble".

Appropriate dialogue is using correct terminology for your subject matter but using terms in a way that people can reasonably understand. This DOES NOT mean making your show 100% laymens-termed and being dumbed down.

Technobabble is using correct terminology for your subject matter but using obscure terms and language that only someone who has extensive training in your subject will understand.

rize:

House is pretty formulaic, but it seems like there are a lot of jokes referencing the medical babble, and even if 99% of viewers don't understand it, I have a feeling it IS based on actual medical conditions. By the end of the show they've carefully explained whatever condition it was.

In ST they just make **** up. I'm not saying that they don't just insert <medical> into the script, but replacing that with real words is probably a multi-part process that requires a lot more work than an episode of ST.

Oh, I totally agree. House is very smart, and they probably do copious amounts of research when replacing the "medical" in their dialogue. However, even if what they do is correct, that doesn't make it any easier to understand or get into for me.

Sorry for double post.

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