December 18, 2009
Stupid on "Star Trek" stilts (1)
The latest iteration of Star Trek isn't so much SF as DF: "dumb fun." Along with movies like Independence Day and Live Free or Die Hard, the science isn't merely fictionized, it's a magic wand. A prop to be chewed on. And yet done in a way that the rest of the rational mind goes along for the ride and enjoys itself.
I'm not talking about the MacGuffins. In Star Trek, the whole "red matter" silliness belongs alongside other impossibilities like warp drives and transporters, far enough removed from reality to not disturb the integrity of any actual science. The problem here isn't the physics, but the logical implications of the physics as stipulated.
As in Star Wars, if you make blowing up stars and planets that easy (lining up a contractor and the budget), the arms race implications become horrifying. And if a Death Star can pulverize an entire planet, then the Mini-Me version should be able to vaporize a continent or two, which would obviate the whole first act of The Empire Strikes Back.
Which brings us to the favorite kamikaze tactic in Star Trek: ramming the bad guys with a starship. Because starship engines run on antimatter, rupturing the magnetic containment vessels would trigger an explosion more powerful than a hydrogen bomb. This actually qualifies as valid science.
One reason I give the dumber-than-dirt Independence Day a big pass (besides Bill Pullman's rah-rah Americanized version of the St. Crispian speech) is that even if you've got yourself a super-armored spaceship the size of Rhode Island, setting off a thermonuclear device inside it will indeed turn it into so much Jiffy Pop.
At the end of Star Trek, Scotty dumps the engine cores, which go kaboom, and they ride the shock wave away from the black hole created by rupturing the containment vessel holding the "red matter." All fine and dandy, but why didn't it work for Spock or Kirk Senior? Their ships were smaller, but either should have blown Nero's to kingdom come.
This is one of those MacGuffins whose implications were never thought through from the start. Let's say that, at the end of the day, starships can only run on Chernobyl-grade power sources. A calculated risk taken by daredevil risk-takers. But in that case, you wouldn't populate the ship with families and the occasional pregnant woman.
In science fiction, the demands of objective science can take you only so far. Keeping a narrative's internally-created realities--however non-scientific--consistent with each other will create many more interesting story possibilities than if they are lazily glossed over.