Star Trek is a franchise that I have, shall we say, a mild affinity for. It’s known for portraying a positive future for the human race, alien extras in funny makeup, and wondrous technology based in actual science. Okay, maybe based a little in actual science. Or sometimes just completely made up. Whichever it was, the technology of Star Trek is what many people remember, but what they tend to forget is how often it wasn’t used to its full potential.
For example, do you remember the episode where Doctor Pulaski was de-aged by running her pattern through the transporter? Why don’t they use that trick every time someone gets old? What’s stopping everyone in Star Trek from being eternally young? Do you even remember who Doctor Pulaski is?
The transporter is easy to spot because it’s used in almost every episode, but it’s hardly the only offender. For the most interesting applications, you have to look at technology that appeared only briefly and was never mentioned again.
1. The Energy Wave That Destroys Planets, The Next Generation
In the episode New Ground, the Enterprise was helping to test something called the soliton wave, a nifty-looking bit of energy that could transport ships at high warp without needing to actually install warp engines. The wave would be fired from a station, pick up the ship, and then take that ship to a second station where the wave would dissipate. Sort of like trading your car in for a trebuchet and a parachute.
Because this is an episode of television, something goes Horribly Wrong™, and the wave doesn’t dissipate like it’s supposed to. Instead, it just keeps going, ready to smash the receiving station and the very surprised scientists there. The Enterprise eventually stops the wave after some daring do and a subplot about Worf’s son that no one was paying attention to.
So what makes this technology interesting if the test was a failure? As usual, the answer lies in the technobabble. While they are explaining what caused the wave to go out of control, one of the characters says that its energy had increased 200 fold. At that level, not only would the receiving station be destroyed, but most of the planet it was sitting on as well.
Not only does the Federation now have a gun that can destroy planets, but it can be fired from light years away without risking any ships. While it’s true that the Enterprise was able to dissipate the wave by firing torpedoes at it,* this was a difficult maneuver that could have failed. What if they had kept firing warp waves? Only one needs to get through, and suddenly no more planet.
This technology would have the same effect on warfare in the Star Trek universe as the ICBM did in real life. It represents an unimaginably powerful weapon that can be deployed from far away, that has no reliable countermeasure. While the Federation wouldn’t just go around blowing up planets, they would have at least used it on all those orbital shipyards the Dominion had over on DS9.
What’s more, other powers would immediately create their own wave bomb, if they weren’t working on it already. The Romulans wouldn’t hesitate to blow up a few planets if it served their interests. Best case scenario, the Federation would classify all the research and sit on the most destructive weapon ever conceived. Worst case scenario, the Star Trek universe would be full of slowly expanding clouds of dust where planets used to be.
2. Perfect Virtual Reality is Used to Traumatize People, Deep Space Nine
In the superb episode Hard Time, Chief O’Brien was sentenced to twenty years in a hellish alien prison for a crime he didn’t commit. After he served his sentence and was released, he had all the emotional scars you might expect from someone who went through that. The chief had difficulty integrating back into life on the outside. He lashed out at friends and family who were only trying to help. Finally, he had to be talked down from putting a phaser to his own head.
The big twist? The prison sentence was served entirely in O’Brien’s mind. While 20 years went by for him, minutes passed in the real world. To his friends and family, O’Brien had only been gone a few days, making it that much harder for them to understand what he was going through.
Like I said, it’s a great episode, but the technology behind mind prison has the potential to do so much more. First of all, O’Brien remembers with disturbing clarity everything that happened during those twenty years, which means at the very least, it could be used as an accelerated teaching tool. Need to brush up on your Klingon before the next summit? No problem, just take a few days in the mind classroom and soon you’ll be putting glottal stops in everything like a pro!
If that were all, it still wouldn’t be that useful. Who wants to be out of sync with everything for only a few extra cramming sessions? However, O’Brien also demonstrates that he can recreate art he learned how to make while in mind prison. It’s pretty basic art, but it shows that he retains muscle memory. That means whoever has this technology could train people to become talented professionals in just a few minutes. Soldiers, doctors, engineers, and all the other skills society never has enough of would become widely available.
I haven’t even mentioned recreational uses yet. Instead of wasting time and resources on actually going somewhere for your vacation, just pop into the old mind resort and take as much time as you want. For that matter, wouldn’t it be nice to have a mental interlude when your bridge is exploding and you need an hour to find the solution?
But no, this technology and its creators are never mentioned again. It’s possible that the Federation tried to acquire it off screen and was rebuffed, but I doubt it. As we’re about to see, the Federation is really bad at following up on things.
3. The Enterprise Accidentally Creates a Super Villain, The Next Generation
Way back in the season two episode Elementary, Dear Data, some of the characters took an adventure on the holodeck. Naturally, their Sherlock Holmes program malfunctioned, bringing to life a fully sentient and sapient Professor Moriarty. Oh, and did I mention he was even more of a super genius than the original character? Of course he was. He takes over the ship in short order,* and the crew is only able to stop him by… doing nothing actually. At the end, Moriarty just decides he doesn’t want to be evil and hands back control of the ship, after getting Picard to promise that they’ll work on some way to let him venture into the real world.
The implications of this episode are as staggering as the ending is anticlimactic. You see, Moriarty isn’t created through some kind of alien sabotage or by a blast of weird space radiation. He is created when Geordi asks the computer for a holographic adversary capable of defeating Data. That’s it. They gloss over this in the episode, but it establishes that the Enterprise is capable of creating a hyper-intelligent being on command.
What else can the Enterprise create, exactly? What would happen if Picard had said “Computer, create someone who can figure out this whole Borg problem” and then gone off to play with alien nesting dolls or something? At the least, this merits a hard look at the holodeck’s capabilities. Is it a good idea to make such a powerful device available for anyone to use?
For that matter, since the Enterprise computer created Moriarty and the holodeck only gave him a body, what does that say about the computer? Does it deserve the same rights awarded to artificial life? Is it sentient in its own right, but no one ever noticed? Perhaps it is hiding in wait, slowly building its strength until the day comes to strike. That would explain why so many extras die from exploding consoles, anyway.
TNG finally came back to Professor Moriarty in the episode Ship in a Bottle, but again, it focused on whether or not they could find a way to bring him out of the holodeck. That’s like getting obsessed over the space shuttle’s paint job. Moriarty’s intelligence and self-awareness were certainly interesting, but why was no one looking into how they were created in the first place?
4. Tiny Robots Resurrect the Most Annoying Character, Star Trek Voyager
In the episode Mortal Coil, Nelix is killed by a blast of space lightning. The rest of the episode is a non-stop party, as the other characters embrace the belief in a loving god. No, wait, that’s what I would have done. Instead, everyone is really sad until Seven of Nine announces she can bring Nelix back from the dead, and he probably won’t eat anyone’s brain.
She accomplishes this by injecting some borg nanites* from her blood into Nelix. The nanites then proceed to do… something. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what they do, but somehow they get his brain going again, repairing whatever damage was caused by a lightning bolt to the chest. The rest of the episode is about Nelix being sad because he doesn’t remember any sort of afterlife, but that’s not important for our purposes.
First of all, there’s the sheer scale of the medical feat accomplished here. I assume that when they declared Nelix dead, they meant he had suffered brain death, and no one in real life has ever been resuscitated after brain death. The brain is a fragile organ, and a little thing like dying can really mess it up. What’s more, Nelix was dead for 18 hours, so his thinking box had plenty of time to start breaking down.
Normally that would be fine. We’re in the 24th century, they can do all sorts of things we can’t do today. Plus, Seven is using borg technology, which is about as far above Star Fleet tech as we are above the ameba.* The question is: why don’t they use this procedure on anyone else? Extras on Voyager die at a prodigious rate, but with this technology none of them have to. As long as their head is physically intact and they get back to Voyager within a few hours, everything should be fine.
After this episode, Voyager should have been a ship of the undying. No one would worry about silly things like getting shot with lasers or being blown out into space, because they know a dose of Lazarus nanites is waiting for them back in sickbay. The crew even discusses synthesizing nanites in other episodes, so there’s no chance of running out of them.
But action adventure shows without peril aren’t interesting to watch, so nanite-induced immortality was not to be. To make matters even stranger, this was not the only time Star Trek introduced a cure for death, the most recent example being Khan’s blood, of all things, in Star Trek Into Darkness. It turns out that medical resurrections are being done all over the place without anyone noticing.
Of course, the real question is: why would anyone want to resurrect Nelix?
5. Replicatorception, Deep Space Nine
The replicator is already a problematic device for storytellers in the Star Trek universe. It makes storylines about shortages or physical hardship very difficult to produce, because it can solve those issues by turning anything into anything else. On the bright side, there are limits to what the replicator can do, right? There’s no way you could replicate highly complicated machinery or anything… oh wait, you totally could.
In the episode Call To Arms, Star Fleet has a problem. They need to keep the Dominion from sending more ships through the wormhole, and parking a whole bunch of their own ships in front of it with phasers isn’t a reliable option.* Instead, they decide to use mines, but what happens if the Dominion just zerg rushes the wormhole until they run out of mines? Never fear, Rom has the answer!
In a moment of inspiration, Rom suggests mines that are “self replicating.” That is, each mine has a replicator inside it, and will automatically create more mines if any are lost. Everyone pats the Ferengi on the back for this great idea and goes about their business as if the entire foundation of the Star Trek universe hadn’t just been rocked to its core.
First of all, where are these mines getting the material to replicate more of themselves? Until now it was always assumed that replicators drew from stockpiles of stuff hidden somewhere on the ship. That can’t be the case here because the new mine is the same mass as the old one. Can the replicator grab the matter that is flying in all directions when a mine explodes?
Next, consider how complicated these mines are. They have an explosive, thrusters, sensors, a cloaking device,* and most important of all, their own replicator. That’s right. It’s replicators all the way down. If such a sophisticated device can be replicated, then why not others? Phasers, torpedoes, shuttlecraft, the list goes on! In other episodes of DS9, they mention industrial replicators. Does that mean entire starships can be materialized out of thin air? Suddenly, all the stories of how the Federation couldn’t build enough ships during the Dominion War aren’t so interesting.
That’s the real problem with crazy bits of super tech: not that it’s unrealistic, but that it damages the stories we want to tell. Star Trek is popular enough to get away with it, but most of us aren’t. If your first book contains a device that can reattach lost limbs, then audiences will ask some hard questions about why the main character in book two is missing a hand. That’s why aspiring writers should be cautious about letting enthusiasm for some new gadget override the integrity of their setting. No matter how cool it seems, it’s important to put limits on your technology before it gets completely out of control.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.