Worldbuilding

Three Technologies Dropped for Breaking the Show

Sometimes technology is too good to be true. It might be so powerful that problems become trivial. Get into a jam? Just pull out that deus ex machina, it’ll clear it right up for you. Or the tech’s power level is fine, but taken to its logical conclusion, it would lead to a different story than the writers want to tell. Whatever the problem, a little creative worldbuilding is all that’s needed to head off a potential source of plot holes. The writers make sure that the problem is resolved in-world and won’t try to brush it under the rug. Right…?

1. Zat’Nik’Tels – Stargate SG-1

A Zat’Nik’Tel is an energy-based sidearm used by the Goa’uld’s armies in the long-running series Stargate SG-1. It’s a powerful weapon with a cumulative effect. The first shot of a Zat gun stuns the target, the second kills, and third disintegrates.

Colonel O'Neill and Teal'c using Zats. Colonel O’Neill and Teal’c using Zats.

From a writer’s perspective, the Zat is a perfect weapon to arm your enemy. It allows our heroes to be captured in a firefight without requiring debilitating injury. It can also be used to raise the stakes. A prisoner that is shot once experiences a lot of pain, and if they are shot again they will be killed.

Stargate Command quickly captured a large stock of Zats and began using them in place of their sidearms, even on Earth. It was a big boon to have a phaser-like stun weapon when most of their technology was contemporary.* Overall the Zat became one of the most widely used weapons in the series.

But that third shot, while sometimes convenient for destroying a McGuffin, became a problem for the writers. Can any door, wall, or [insert obstacle here] be completely disintegrated just by shooting it three times? If so, physical obstructions will no longer be a realistic problem for the heroes.

The writers had a choice. They could either nerf the Zat gun by introducing a counter, leave it and work harder to write satisfying conflicts, or… they can stop mentioning it? Yes, somewhere in the middle of SG-1’s run, people simply stop mentioning that a Zat can disintegrate things. Eventually, because the writers were decently self-aware, they brought up this foible and made fun of themselves in a self parodying “Wormhole X-Treme!” episode.

Captain Carter giving a demonstration of the P-90 submachine gun. She succeeds in convincing the Jaffa that they should become dependent on Earthling handouts. Captain Carter demonstrating the P-90 submachine gun and convincing the Jaffa to become dependent on Earthling handouts.

Beyond the Zat, Stargate also pretended in its later years that modern Earth weaponry was superior to the technology of an interstellar empire.* Stargate Command convinces rebelling slaves to trade in their advanced energy weapons with unlimited ammo for Belgian firearms circa 1990. This has all sorts of problematic implications, but that’s a topic for a different article.

2. Initiative Tech – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In the Buffy-verse, the Initiative is a secret government organization tasked with capturing and studying the supernatural. They are led by a psychology professor and exclusively recruit University of California, Sunnydale graduate students for their black ops teams. Go figure. Despite being located next to a Hellmouth and having a limited and stressed out recruiting pool, the Initiative seems to be at the top of the food chain when we meet them in Season 4. That’s because they have an array of non-lethal tech that allows them to capture and essentially defang vampires and other demons.

Forrest using an Initiative rifle on a demon. Forrest using an Initiative rifle on a demon.

Their primary firearm, which we’ll call the zapper, looks like a typical assault rifle with some shiny aftermarket parts. The first time we see it in use, the Initiative zaps Spike with a wave of energy that completely spoils his “I’m back and badder than ever!” speech. Once Spike has been captured, the Initiative puts a “chip” in his head that causes massive pain if he attempts to harm a human. For Spike, it’s the first step in a long and painful rehabilitation from villain to protagonist.

At the end of the season, the Initiative is hoisted on its own evil-science petard. While many of the faculty and students running this government black ops program were killed, the base itself was left intact (if a bit infested with demons). Surely the Scoobies could have picked up some of those zappers on their way out to add to their arsenal. At least grab one for Xander, who is the butt of all jokes for being so “normal.” With his years of being backup for the Slayer, and memories of how to be a soldier from “Halloween” in Season 1, Xander would have been a better black ops operative than all those grad students who failed to survive even one season. Sadly, despite the Scoobies’ habit of hoarding an arsenal of medieval weaponry that would make museums envious, no one thinks to add a zapper to the weapons chest.

Remember to spay and neuter your vampires! Remember to spay and neuter your vampires!

Then there’s the chip technology. If our heroes had been able to convince at least one of those Initiative surgeons to work with them, it would have been a game changer. Rather than killing vampires on sight, Buffy could capture them and give them the choice of getting a stake in the heart or a chip in the head. If they agree to the chip, they’re set free. Just like cat catch-and-release programs, the now harmless vampires would help keep the feral vampire population in check.* If only the writers had been willing to embrace change, we could have had an Animal Cops – Sunnydale spin off!

3. Transporting Through Shields – Voyager

Before Voyager, it was well established that transporting through shields was impossible, but for the first few seasons of the show they can miraculously beam people aboard without dropping their shields.

To be fair, I'd break continuity to get away from these guys faster too. To be fair, I’d also break continuity to get away from these guys faster.

This is used for many last second escapes, starting as early as the pilot episode, “Caretakers: Part 2.” Voyager is outgunned by multiple Kazon ships, damaged and losing the fight. Chakotay decides he will even the odds by ramming his Maquis ship into one of the Kazon ships. Voyager never appears to drop their shields to transport the Maquis off their doomed ship, a fact which Chakotay manages to draw attention to by ordering Torres to drop their own shields for beam out. Chakotay then makes Paris wait for the last possible second before he is beamed over.*

Voyager would have been sitting with their shields down for a full minute before getting Chakotay aboard. But according to how the scene was framed, dropping their shields for even a fraction of that would mean certain destruction. Clearly one of the state of the art technologies Voyager was equipped with was a new transporter that could bypass their own shields. This would be a game changer for Starfleet, worth several more lines of exposition than some bio-neural circuitry.

Which we find out has a ship-crippling cheese allergy Which we find out has a ship-crippling cheese allergy.

Voyager continues to beam people through their shields and the enemy’s in combat situations for the next few seasons. Chakotay is beamed (again) off a Kazon ship they’re fighting, and they even take Kazon captains captive at one point to force a “diplomatic” solution.

Finally towards the end of Season 3, it seems someone reminded the writers about Star Trek continuity. In the episode “Rise,” the crew of Voyager communicates that a ground team is on their own, because Voyager can’t risk dropping their shields for an emergency beam out. And from then on it seems the writers of Voyager grudgingly decided to stick with continuity and restrict transporting technology to non-combat scenarios.

On the one hand it’s good of them to realize three seasons in that they’ve been breaking their own rules without providing the appropriate techno-babble justification. On the other hand, it’s a bit embarrassing that it took nearly three years to notice they were misapplying a technology that was critical to 30 years of Star Trek history.


Television franchises may quietly drop broken tech on a regular basis, but it’s not the best practice. If we want our audience to think our world is consistent and believable, then there should be in-world resolutions to any plot holes that arise from broken tech. Don’t quietly discard it and expect your audience won’t notice.

Each of the examples above are exceptions for series that more often trump, destroy, or find a justification to weaken overpowered tech. But because the writers tried to quietly sweep these technologies under the rug, they end up being what audiences remember. Storytellers can avoid this fate by addressing issues head-on with in-universe resolutions.

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Comments

  1. Edgar

    In reference to the SG-1 species, they were simply called “The Asgard”, where “Asgardians” typically refers to Thor’s race in the Marvel universe.

    • Mike Hernandez

      Thanks Edgar, it appears that I’ve been steeping myself too deep in Marvel recently. The correction has been made.

  2. Krssven

    I love your simplistic evaluation in some of these. In Buffy, the Initiative did NOT just recruit from the UC Sunnydale grad students. The university was the cover for the Initiative, not its recruiting ground. Later episodes showed Riley and co were still military. Riley even leaves Sunnydale in Season 5 to rejoin the Initiative that has shifted away from experimenting on demons to simply eliminating them. Plus, the characters rarely got an opportunity to ‘just take’ the stun-gun weapons (the only chance they had was during an intense battle), much less just ‘convince a surgeon’ to side with them. ‘Yes, operate on these vampires, please. What do you mean, you need equipment and a hospital?’

    Stargate I found did well to simply write the Zatguns out, though I think just coming up with a reason would’ve been better. It would’ve been quite easy to do what I’ve had to do in an RPG, and declare the weapons dangerous in some way. Maybe the zats leaked radiation, or overusing them wore out their power sources too fast. Whatever, just have SOME reason rather than ‘they were OP, so the teams stopped using them’. Yeah, right.

    I also disagree with the assessment of the energy weapons vs the P90. The episode you refer to demonstrates very, very succinctly exactly why Jaffa use the staves – they are big, imposing terror weapons that not only kill you, but also double as a melee weapon. When the populace sees the Jaffa, they can’t help but see their weapons too. Carter demonstrates however that despite being ‘inferior’ tech, a P90 in the hands of a trained soldier is far more effective. Even a few rounds puts Jaffa down thanks to a little AP ammo, and the scope allows greater accuracy. All Jaffa do is eyeball their shots, because the staves are close-range terror weapons not designed for actual soldiering like human guns are.

    This is a surprising assumption to find on this site; that somehow more advanced = better. It’s a common misconception – the basic technology for firearms has remained mostly unchanged in the last century. A 1915 bolt-action rifle will kill you just as dead as a 2015 weapon in the hands of a good sniper. A subversion of the trope can be found in the RPG Fading Suns, where futuristic laser and plasma weapons are effective, but have not generally replaced old-fashioned magazine-fed pistols and rifles because they aren’t really more effective and are generally much more expensive. It’s also entirely possible for a ship using hand-loaded, cannon-style slug weapons to destroy another equipped with lasers or blasters – it isn’t what you’ve got on your ship, but how well you actually use it. A ship can be shot full of little holes by a barrage of metal rounds just as easily as with powerful lasers.

    • Cay Reet

      Reminds me of the flashback in Area 52 (yup, 52, not 51) … where aliens have come to conquer earth by controlling all electronically controlled weapons, but it’s the early 1950s and there’s no electronically controlled weapons, so the military shoots down the starship and stores everything in Area 52 where it creates chaos and almost ends the world decades later.
      The aliens were extremely advanced, but their starship wasn’t protected from old-fashioned tanks and their weapons. They only possessed a shield against energy weapons. Advanced technology doesn’t always make one more invincible.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Yeah, but if you were gonna place bets on the US army from 1915 and the US army from 2015, where do you think the smart money is?

        • Melanie

          Not to butt in, but considering how effective we were at fighting and the proximity to our entry into WWI. I think I will say that we were on equal footing to where we are now. Fighting isn’t all about tech, but takes strategy and the ability to properly judge acceptable losses and manage risks to the best of people’s ability too.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Fighting isn’t all about tech, it’s true, but tech is hugely important. There’s a reason, for example, that in 1990-91, the US (and coalition, but mostly US) military defeated the Iraqi military and took barely any casualties in the process. It wasn’t because the Iraqis were bad at fighting, it was because we had far superior weapons and technology.

            There’s also a reason that when Hilaire Belloc was talking about why European forces would always triumph over African resistance in the 19th century, he said…

            “Whatever happens we have got,
            the Maxim Gun and they have not.”

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