Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thalaron radiation!

I just learned about this by watching Star Trek: Nemesis. See, it's this radiation whose existence is only hypothetical, even though Geordi LaFarge knows how to detect it using plain old standard-issue Starfleet detectors (detect-ores), and research on it was outlawed by the Federation because it has the ability to - shiver! - destroy organic matter at the subatomic level!

Which leads me to wonder why it wouldn't destroy any matter at the subatomic level, because at that level, there's no difference. But what do I know? I didn't graduate from the prestigious Engineering School at Starfleet Academy with an advanced degree in technobabble.


TGirsch said...

Dude, the day you start really thinking about it is the day you lose your ability to really enjoy the overwhelming majority of science fiction, especially in film.

You object to that, but the ability to have real-time conversations with other ships / planets that are thousands of light years away doesn't bother you in the slightest? What about the fact that they often shoot lasers at each other while at warp? And never mind the laws of momentum, so beautifully parodied in Spaceballs...

David said...

But those aren't lasers, they're phasers! For that matter, we don't know how warp speed would affect lasers, because we don't know what warp is.

Long-distance communication and faster-than-light travel have been accepted in science fiction for a long time. They're the magic -- er, advanced science -- that allow more entertaining stories. I've seen those in books and movies, and used them myself, for so long that I no longer think about it.

I think what bothers me in Star Trek -- not the original ST, but the later, synthetic knockoffs, like The Next Generation -- is the unnecessary use of technobabble. Why invent something silly, like Thalaron radiation? I think it's just laziness on the part of the writers.

Oh, and here's another problem. The chief bad guy is a clone of Jean-Luc Picard, but he's stronger than/as strong as the Romulans around him. But we know from the old show that Romulans are a branch of Vulcans, who are much stronger than human beings.

TGirsch said...

Honestly, I never saw Nemesis or Insurrection, so I can't say too much about them. I was never a huge fan of TNG, though. That said, your complaint about technobabble is really no different than the valid complaint about the original series, in which the insurmountable problem was solved by Spock's special power or ability that nobody knew about and had never before been mentioned. :)

I think Enterprise was a lot better about being less reliant on technobabble, but it had an annoying habit of being over-reliant on (sorry) time travel as a plot device.

Also, I honestly have no idea what the difference between a laser and a "phaser" is. I imagine some 50-year-old Sci Fi geeks who still live in their parents' basement have documented this thoroughly, but I'm too afraid to look. :)

Regarding warp, I do recall a pretty good episode of one of the knock-offs -- Voyager, maybe? -- where they actually started researching the impact of warp on the galaxy, and learning that they were actually permanently damaging the fabric of space-time by the excessive use of warp drive. But of course, they never actually went any further than that.

David said...

I was enough of a fan of TOS at the time that I was willing to be uncritical. The one complaint I did have at the time was the use of false deadlines to create tension. Spock would calculate that the intrepid gang had exactly 19 minutes and 53.794351 seconds to avert catastrophe (Roddenberry didn't know about uncertainties in calculations, apparently), and then they'd succeed with only .003 second to go!

I think the difference between phasers and lasers is that lasers are real.

TGirsch said...

I think the difference between phasers and lasers is that lasers are real.

And you really can't blow shit up with lasers, no matter what Reagan says, so they're just not very much fun. They are, however, very entertaining as a cat toy...

Back on-topic a bit more, Sci Fi really does present a wonderfully interesting exercise in suspension of disbelief. Fans are willing to look the other way on all sorts of wildly implausible things, while simultaneously nitpicking the tiniest details of other aspects.

For me personally, I think it has to do with how well (or poorly) they stick to internal consistency. If you establish your "laws" of physics, and stick to them, I'm cool with that, even if it's completely impossible in OUR universe. But when you start deviating from your own rules for convenience or plot effect or whatever, you've lost me.

There was an episode of Enterprise which very much annoyed me in this regard. The Enterprise was deep in Klingon space, and had been sabotaged by genetically modified Klingons, such that it kept accelerating. The warp engines can only safely handle warp 5, and if they got too much over that, the warp core would breach and it's adios, muchachos. So far, so good.

Well, the engineer determines that the only way to fix the problem is to essentially "reset" the warp drive. Doing so, however, would be catastrophic while you're at warp. The solution? The Enterprise's newly-minted sister ship, the Columbia, is dispatched from Earth so that it could basically pull up alongside the Enterprise, close enough that the Enterprise would fall inside Columbia's warp field. At that point, the Enterprise could safely shut down its warp drive long enough to reset and clear out the virus/sabotage/whatever.

The glaring problem here, of course, is that if Enterprise is quickly approaching its maximum speed (it is), and Columbia has the same maximum speed (it does), then how the hell does Columbia catch up?

And it gets worse, of course, because the only engineer qualified to do the "reset" has recently transferred to the Columbia, and thus has to perform a dangerous tethered spacewalk to get from one ship to the other while at near-maximum warp -- apparently, the transporters don't work at warp speed, except that people in past episodes have transported on and off Enterprise at warp any number of times.

Enter, of course, the arbitrary timetables you talk about. The spacewalk is limited in time because the tether between the two warp ships can only hold up for a certain amount of time (unsurprisingly, the guy makes it with only seconds to spare!); and once Enterprise shuts down her warp drive, Columbia can only take the added strain of Enterprise piggybacking off its warp drive for a very limited period of time -- barely enough to do the "reset," of course -- and they pull it off with only seconds to spare!

But what's most irritating to me about all of this was that it occupied maybe 10 or 15 minutes of what was otherwise a VERY good multi-part episode of the show.

Anyway, I've ranted long enough.

David said...

That was a great rant, and it makes me think of something tangentially related.

In sf, or in fiction in general, the reader/audience starts out granting one gimme. That's the basic suspension of disbelief. E.g., okay, let's pretend that time travel is possible. Every time the writer asks for another gimme, the suspension of disbelief gets strained a bit more. Too many of those, and it snaps.

TGirsch said...

Oh, I forgot to mention another annoyance from that episode: the Enterprise was somehow -- they don't say how -- able to alter its warp signature such that they would look like a Klingon cruiser on long-range scans, and thus avoid attention. Seems to me this would be an INCREDIBLY USEFUL thing to be able to do, and that they'd do stuff like that all the time! But nope, just for this one episode, so that they could explain how Enterprise could gallivant around Klingon space without getting the shit kicked out of them by fleets of angry Klingons...

There was another very good story arc which concerned the initially strained relationship the humans had with the Vulcans, and how the Vulcan ideology had been corrupted by the High Command, as Archer and the humans join with separatist Vulcans to help overthrow the council. An exceptionally good story arc, except for the fact that the head of the Vulcan High Command kept losing his temper, and none of the other Vulcans around him says anything at all about this or seems the slightest bit disturbed by it! And it was totally unnecessary to the story arc; I think it was just the result of having a bad actor play the role: how do you convey forcefulness and strong-mindedness without conveying emotion? Not easy for a two-bit TV character actor like this guy (who actually played the Vulcan leader in question).

David said...

Obviously they needed someone with much more acting experience than that Foxworth guy.

I don't know if you already knew this, but a standard guideline when writing TV series is that nothing should carry over from one episode to another. Everything must end back at Square One at episode's end.

The networks have to put up with story arcs because fans like them, but the networks hate them. That's because so much money is made in syndication, where episodes aren't shown in the original order.

TGirsch said...

I've only ever watched Enterprise in reruns. Believe it or not, when the series was originally running, my cable network didn't carry the local UPN affiliate.

SciFi is pretty good about showing the reruns in order. In fact, for a while there, they were playing four episodes every Monday, and running the entire series in order Surprising, but it made it very easy for me to get into it. I actually found it to be the best Trek knockoff, and was a little disappointed that it never made it to the big screen. Among other things, I think it did a better job of having multi-dimensional characters and actually addressing complex moral issues, perhaps because at least half the series was written and filmed post-9/11. (And yes, I believe Enterprise would meet your babe factor requirement, over and above most of the other knockoffs.)

I thought about buying the series on DVD, but I'm pretty sure I've seen all the episodes now, and I almost never actually watch DVDs. :)

By the way, I'm pretty sure the network objection you mention applies to all series television, not just Sci Fi. BSG, for example, is VERY order-dependent.

And while we're on that topic, I usually don't like that. I can't generally be relied upon to watch a show "religiously," so I tend to prefer shows that are truly episodic in nature. If I can't watch a single episode in a vacuum, I have a really hard time getting into a show.

David said...

I watched Enterprise when it began and thought it had a lot of promise. And Blalock certainly took care of the babe factor requirement.

The beginning of Deep Space 9 was promising, too. Both spinoffs lost their way at some point.


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TGirsch said...

I was in the minority, but I actually liked DS9.

David said...

By then, the series was getting such a cluttered mythology, that it was hard to tell straightforward stories.

I'm looking forward to the new movie. A fresh start, I hope.

TGirsch said...

I hope they don't make to many nods to appease the fanboys.

TGirsch said...

Ugh, too many.

*hangs head in eternal shame*

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