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John Scalzi’s Guide to Epic SciFi Design FAILs – Star Trek Edition

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So, before I bang on bad design choices in Star Trek, let’s recap what happened last week when I discussed bad design choices in Star Wars:

Me: Star Wars design is so bad that people have to come up with elaborate and contrived rationales to explain it.


It’s a little much to hope for (or fear) the same result two weeks in a row, but nevertheless I promised everyone I’d point and laugh at Star Trek design, so here we go. I’ll confine myself to things in the movies. There are eleven of those, so it’s not like this will be a problem.

In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a Voyager space probe gets sucked into a black hole and survives (GAAAAH), and is discovered by denizens of a machine planet who think the logical thing to do is to take a bus-size machine with the processing power of a couple of Speak and Spells and upgrade it to a spaceship the size of small moon, wrap that in an energy field the size of a solar system, and then send it merrily on its way. This is like you assisting a brain-damaged raccoon trapped on a suburban traffic island by giving him Ecuador.

The Alien Probe of Star Trek IV
star-trek-iv-probe-125.jpgThe programming of this probe is even more simple than that of V’Ger, and could be written in four lines in the BASIC programming language:

10. GOTO Earth
20. INPUT “I can has humpback whalez?” A$
30. IF A$=”no” THEN GOTO 40

I’m pretty sure this is not optimal design.

The Borg
Featured in First Contact, these are the most fearsome aliens in the galaxy, and look like the Tin Man on Goth Night at the local leather bar. You don’t know whether to fear the Borg or to ask them if they think that upcoming AFI album will be, like, awesome.

Bad design, or awesome? Evidence for awesome: They can very precisely vaporize living creatures — and their clothes! — whilst leaving everything else (floors, walls, objects people are sitting on) untouched. Evidence for bad: Inconsistent power output. In Star Trek II, a phaser vaporizes a mind-controlling eel of Ceti Alpha V (also, the Starfleet officer it’s inside of — and his clothes!), but then turns another such eel into a smoky smear. Yes, one can dial down phaser power, but I’m pretty sure you can’t actually set a phaser to “smudge.”

star_trek_uniforms_125.jpgYou have your choice: Velouresque pajamas and miniskirts (resurrected for the 2009 reboot), burgundy jackets with puffy blouses (Treks II – VI), or progressively unflattering jumpsuits (Treks VII – X). Do Starfleet personnel ever stop what they’re doing, look at each other, and ask, “Who dresses us?” They should. But all of the above are at least better than the eye-poking fashions of the first movie. Speaking of which:

The Enterprise of The Motion Picture
It’s a deathtrap. The science officer is killed beaming up because the transporter is screwy, the warp engines throw the ship into a wormhole (GAAAAH) and the phasers route through the engines, because, well, who doesn’t like a power bottleneck? Now, the Enterprise is newly redesigned and it still hasn’t had a “shakeout” cruise, fine. But someone really should have nipped the “let’s route the phasers through the engines” design choice in the CAD stage. Also, I for one wouldn’t let them beam me up if the words coming out of the transporter technician’s mouth were “Guess we’ll find out if these work now.”

star-trek-holodeck-125.jpgIn fact brilliantly designed (except for the fact that it’s a little too easy to override the safety protocols, and, you know, die), but none of the movies ever addresses what anyone who’s ever thought seriously about holodecks knows: Given that it’s hard enough to get some MMORPG players today to take care of their basic bodily needs with Cheetos and moist towelettes, what’s keeping the entire population of the Federation from queuing up the “Roman orgy” recreation, stepping into a holodeck, and never ever coming out again? If you say “they have to eat,” allow me to introduce you to the magic of the food replicator.

Red Matter
I’m sorry, I can’t even begin to coherently explain everything that is wrong and bad with “red matter.” Every time I try I just end up sputtering and gibbering and making plans to beat J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to death with the works of Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman. Suffice to say that when a deus ex machina looks exactly like Sasquatch’s ball gag, you might as well put up a sign that says “abandon all logic, ye who enter here.” Or, more compactly: GAAAAH.


Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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