Jun 06 2013

Star Trek – Into Bad Science

On the SGU this week, the episode that will be released on Saturday June 8th, we do an extended review of the new Star Trek movie, Into Darkness (STID). so – this is a warning to SGU listeners, if you want to hear the episode without spoilers, see the movie before Saturday (or whenever you typically listen to the episode).

We talk about the science in the movie, the characters, the writing, its overall quality as a film and how well it lives up to the Star Trek franchise.

Here I am just going to delve into some aspects of the science in the movie. I am a fan of science fiction, and I am unapologetic in desiring good science in my science fiction. I have no problem suspending my disbelief, and allow writers to invent new science and technology as needed for the story, but there are limits. The unwritten rule-of-thumb in science fiction writing is that you get one huge gimmie, but not more than that.

Regardless of your preference for hard science fiction, there is no reason for gratuitously bad science in science fiction. Science howlers can take you out of a movie, it’s lazy writing, and often that also translates to bad storytelling.

Overall STID was not bad with the science, but there were a few annoying moments, and one unnecessary howler that did immediately take me out of the movie.

(Spoilers below the fold)

The opening scene involves the Enterprise attempting to save a primitive society that is threatened by a volcano. The scene is horribly contrived so that Kirk must save Spock by violating the prime directive of non-interference. Spock is in the process of manually setting a “cold fusion” bomb in the caldera of an active volcano (because they don’t have robots 200 years in the future). The “cold fusion” bomb is not what you think – it’s a device that can instantly freeze lava into solid rock.

Here’s the problem – this wouldn’t work. I don’t mean the unfortunately-named cold fusion bomb – let’s assume the device creates a fantastically endothermic reaction that will freeze a volcano solid. The real problem, of course, is the build up of magma pressure beneath the volcano. Spock just corked the bottle, but it’s eventually going to explode, and be even more destructive to the local village.

My next point is a bit of a nitpick, but I have noticed that it is now a sci-fi movie cliche – the broken-apart moon. We saw this in the recent Oblivon movie, for example. In STID the crew go to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, which has a moon that is shattered into pieces. This is visually stunning, but makes no sense. The mutual gravity of the pieces would pull the moon back together. What they are depicting in the equivalent of a large boulder suspended a mile above the ground. Even asteroids that are big enough will pull themselves back together by mutual gravity – something large enough to pull itself into a sphere certainly would.

Speaking of gravity – toward the end of the movie the Enterprise finds itself near the Earth in a battle with a more powerful ship. Damage takes the warp core off-line, and the Enterprise loses power. At this point the ship immediately starts to plummet to the Earth, and within a few minutes is entering the atmosphere.

First, it was never clear how close the ship was to the Earth in the first place. Even if it were fairly close, why would it plummet just because it lost power? If it were in any kind of orbit (and why wouldn’t it be) it would simply stay in its orbit and not be in any immediate danger. Even an unstable orbit might last for hours.

The only situation that makes any physical sense is that the Enterprise was actively hovering – using rockets to suspend itself, so that when these rocket went out the ship immediately would begin to fall. Such rockets were not displayed, however – but they were when the ship eventually restores power, in order to stop its descent. There is nothing in the series to indicate that warp technology is used for antigravity, and impulse drive is oriented in the forward direction, not to lift the ship up. There is simply no way to make sense of this, short of contriving new elements never displayed or referred to in the series.

Far worse than falling quickly out of orbit, however, is what happens when the ship is in free-fall. The ship’s artificial gravity goes out with the power. The ship is in free-fall. This means that conditions inside the ship should be weightless (technically, microgravity). Instead there appears to be 1G of gravity oriented in whatever direction the ship is oriented with respect to the Earth.

This was the worst science blunder in the movie, in my opinion. This is a violation of basic spaceflight physics, and was completely unnecessary.

The scenes of Kirk and others running through the ship as it rolls around were cool, but they could have made the physical challenge just as interesting if they had to make their way through the ship with microgravity. Or, if they really wanted the rolling gravity, they could have blamed it on malfunctioning, rather than simply non-functioning, artificial gravity. This is a bit hard to justify also (why would it work that way), but with a little creativity they could have contrived a technical reason for it.

My last peeve is the way technology is generally handled in the movie. This is a problem for Star Trek in general, and it has become one of the things that Trek fans have learned to deal with – fantastic technology is some ways, with primitive technology in others, in a way that makes no sense.

Related to this is the fact that the writers frequently write themselves into a corner by coming up with advanced technology and then ignoring all the obvious implications of that technology.

The big piece of advanced tech that creates plot problems for Trek is the transporter. If you can beam in and out of dangerous situations, it makes it difficult to have your characters in true danger. The transporter can be a useful plot device also, getting characters quickly to the scene of action, but it’s also the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card.

In order to deal with this problem the writers should be going out of their way to establish that the transporter is a finicky piece of technology that only works in ideal situations. They sort of do this, but not consistently. It seems that the transporter works whenever they want it to work, and doesn’t work whenever they don’t want it to work. McCoy has his arm stuck in a bomb, and that’s enough to prevent beaming. In one scene they need “line of sight” on the target. Sometimes they can beam moving targets, but not others.  A little consistency here would be nice.

I think the writers made a huge mistake, however, in introducing advanced transporter technology that can allow beaming across light years (even onto a moving Star Ship in warp). The implications of this technology for the Federation and Star Fleet are massive, and utterly ignored.

There is also no consistency in medical technology. Apparently, 300 years prior to the events in STID, we developed stem cells that can repair massive damage, even to the point of bringing someone back to life from extensive radiation damage. Yet, after three further centuries of medical science nothing like this apparently exists. People still die of mundane wounds.

There is also a conspicuous absence of any robotic technology, even in engineering, even, apparently, in locations where radiation is at lethal levels.

The bottom line is that it is obvious no serious thought was given to creating a society with a consistent level of technological advancement. I am not asking for accurate futurism, but give us something that at least feels genuine and well thought out.


Despite all this, I actually enjoyed watching the movie. I am a big Trek fan, and the movie was fun.

But it was simultaneously disappointing. Trek is iconic science fiction with a huge cultural impact. It has a great legacy of interesting characters, compelling stories, and at times a deeper meaning. The Trek universe is often a positive portrayal of the future, which celebrates intelligence, competence, courage, exploration, and loyalty . It is a generally positive portrayal of science and technology.

It has also been used as a vehicle to explore societal and personal themes, something which science fiction as a genre can do very well. STID tried to address themes of post 9/11 fears, warmongering, and security vs freedom, but I feel it did a very superficial job of doing so. The key villains turned out to be too one-dimensional and the allegory never really gelled.

So while STID had some good action and eye-candy, and the familiar characters were all there, it did not live up to the potential of the Star Trek franchise. We need better writing, more thought-out technology, and more accurate science.

44 responses so far