Monday, October 12, 2009


A couple of Star Trek related notes:

:: Ron Moore confirms what many have suspected over the years: that the technobabble on Star Trek: The Next Generation was just made up, fill-in-the-blanks type stuff.

"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."

This comes as absolutely no surprise, obviously. The over-reliance on technobabble has always been what keeps me from ranking TNG as high as The Original Series or Deep Space Nine, both of which had much greater emphasis on their characters. TNG was at its best when it used character to its advantage, but so often it felt as if the producers just didn't trust their characters and their cast to carry the weight fully, which is why we ended up with so many episodes where a problem is discovered, we investigate the problem for a while, and then wait until the last ten minutes when Data or Wesley would come up with the pulse or beam or blast of some kind of particle that would fix the problem with the space-time continuum.

:: That said, I was recently discussing Star Trek '09 (which is how I now refer to the recent movie, which I discussed some months ago) with a friend at work, who was baffled as to why I had such a hard time buying into the events of the movie when I would cheerfully swallow the idea of, say, the Genesis Device. I thought that a fair question: why did I have such a hard time with the notion of a drop of "red matter" creating a black hole in the middle of a planet, while I would accept the idea of a torpedo the size of a refrigerator converting a dead planet into one with a nice biosphere?

Well, I don't know, really. Part of it is probably how the ideas are treated. The Genesis Device is constantly referred to as an "experiment" in Trek II and shown as an outright failure in Trek III, for one thing. For another, though, the Genesis Device didn't come on the heels of a long list of Star Trek doomsday devices, substances, and elements. The Genesis device was a new item, but now, with Trek '09, I've heard a lot more along the way. Trilithium, which can halt the nuclear reactions in a star. The Tox Uthat, which does the same thing. There are many more in that vein. It gets harder and harder for Star Trek to come up with threats like these.

It also hurts the cause of the "Red Matter" when the film in question is chock-full of all manner of SF whoppers. I've generally found that I'll accept something that is clearly bollocks as long as it's not literally bollocks. That's another part of why I can accept the Genesis Device: my brain accepts it as a fully fictional item, and I'm fine. But Trek '09 gives us things like black holes taking one back in time, supernovas that threaten to destroy the entire galaxy, and so on. By the time we get to an explanation of "red matter", Trek '09 has, for me, worn out its quota of scientific-implausibility forgiveness.

:: A tiny detail also glared out at me upon re-watching the movie. At one point, Kirk, and the rest of our heroes, are at Starfleet Academy, where he decides to take the Kobayashi Maru test for the third time. In a scene with McCoy, he says he's taking it "tomorrow". That night, though, he's making out with a green-skinned cadet who happens to be Nyota Uhura's roommate. Uhura comes in and describes a distress call she's just intercepted from the Klingons, in which an entire Klingon armada has been destroyed by a Romulan ship. OK.

Cut to the next morning, when Kirk is beating the Kobayashi Maru test after reprogramming it. This causes scandal, so there is a full tribunal of, it appears, all of the Starfleet cadets in Kirk's class. As the tribunal goes on, a distress call from Vulcan comes through, causing Starfleet to mobilize its fleet. Off everyone goes to their ships, with cadets first being assigned to various vessels, then flying to them by shuttle. Some legerdemain on McCoy's part gets Kirk on board the Enterprise, and after some more stuff surrounding the launch, Kirk listens to the ship's briefing on what's happening and realizes that Vulcan is under attack. He races to the bridge to tell Captain Pike what he's learned...citing the attack on the Klingon fleet as evidence. So far so good...except that he says that the attack happened last night.

Wait a minute.

So, all of the above has happened in one day. Kirk's reprogramming of the Kobayashi Maru test, his taking of the test, the suspicion and investigation of his possible cheating, the mobilization of Starfleet and the launch of an entire fleet whose crews haven't even been assigned yet. Yeah, I have trouble with that.

:: I've decided that, at long last, I believe the entire Kobayashi Maru test to be complete BS.

We've seen the Kobayashi Maru test twice now: in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and in Star Trek '09. The idea seems pretty simple: it puts a cadet into a situation from which there is no possibility of a "win", and thereby tests what the cadets do in a "no-win" situation.

The scenario depicted in both instances is the same: a distress call is received from a damaged ship, the Kobayashi Maru, in the Neutral Zone. It's illegal to enter the Zone and is seen by Klingons as an act of war, so the cadets have a hard choice: respect the Neutral Zone and allow the Kobayashi Maru to die, or embark on a rescue mission. Both films establish, through dialog, that rescue is impossible, so then the choice becomes fight-or-flee. So the possible resolutions seem to be these: attempt no rescue, attempt a rescue but abandon it as soon as the shooting starts, and attempt a rescue and go down in flames with the ship. Hence the "no-win" scenario.

In Wrath of Khan, Admiral Kirk tells Saavik that the Kobayashi Maru test is a "test of character", presumably to see how cadets deal with the "no-win scenario". It's "facing death", Kirk says: "How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life". And later on, when Saavik learns that Kirk actually cheated to beat the test, she replies: "Then you never have faced that situation. Faced death." I've always found that line extremely odd. Kirk hasn't "faced death"? The guy who stood and watched as Edith Keeler died, who had to kill his own best friend (Gary Mitchell), and so on and so forth? He never "faced death" because he cheated his way out of a fake test? Right.

In Trek '09, we have the afore-mentioned tribunal after Kirk cheats. Spock tells Kirk that he has failed to grasp the point of the test: it is to ensure that cadets in command situations have "experience fear" and dealt with it in a command situation.

So, the Kobayashi Maru test is, basically, a device to make cadets "face death" and "experience fear". But the problem is this: by its very nature, the Kobayashi Maru test can do neither of those things.

If you're a Starfleet cadet taking the Kobayashi Maru test, the problem is this: you know you're taking a test. How can you "experience fear" or "face death" in any kind of meaningful way when you know that you are not on the bridge of a starship but in a simulator on the planet Earth? You are not facing death when you know that you're not actually ordering a starship into the Neutral Zone to rescue a ship that doesn't exist, and you can not be filled with fear -- other than the typical kinds of academic fear, such as what will my fellow cadets think of me when I fail this again or how embarrassing will the post-test talk with the professors be -- when you know that you're not facing any kind of real situation.

Basically, the Kobayashi Maru test by its very nature can reveal nothing meaningful about those who take it. It's an interesting diversion and nothing more. (And really, the only reason they came up with it in the first place was so that Trek II could fake us out at the beginning, since everybody knew that Spock was going to die at the end of the flick -- I know that when I saw the movie as a ten-year-old kid, I saw Spock "perish" as the bridge burned after the Klingon attack, and I thought, "Wait, they killed him in the first five minutes?!")

Interestingly, this kind of test was actually handled in much more convincing fashion in an early episode of The Next Generation, called "Coming of Age". In this episode, Wesley Crusher is undergoing testing to see if he makes it into Starfleet Academy yet. It's all typical academic stuff, although there's something called a "Psych Test", which is tailored to each student individually based on their psychological profile. The day comes for Wesley's, and he goes into the room where he's to take it, whereupon he hears a distant explosion. Getting up and leaving to investigate, he finds that a laboratory down the hall has erupted into fire, endangering two scientists. The room is about to be sealed, and Wesley can only get one guy out himself, so he makes his choice and drags the one guy he can out before the room is sealed, killing the other scientist.

Of course, the whole explosion was the test, and both scientists are fine. The test for Wesley was to see if he could, in a desperate situation, make the kind of decision that cost someone their life (since his father had died years before when another officer had made a similar decision). But what made it effective was that at no point during the test did Wesley ever realize that this was the test itself. The Kobayashi Maru test isn't like that at all; especially not in Trek '09, when the cadet in the Captain's chair can actually see the professors watching him, in the overhead galleries.

:: Finally, I hope the next movie reveals that Gaila, Uhura's green-skinned roommate, wasn't killed in the incredibly-short Battle of Vulcan. I found her both hot and cute. For a green-skinned Orion girl.

OK, I'm done geeking out for now.


jason said...

"For a green-skinned Orion girl?!"

You say that as if there is something wrong with green-skinned Orion girls. You disappoint me, sir... :)

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

This answers the question of your choice of green body dye as a sweetest day gift.

Charlie said...

The Diane Carey ST novel Dreadnaught opens with the protagonist taking the Kobayashi Maru. She's been hypnotized or drugged or something - medical technobabble - to believe she's actually in the situation. Absent something like that, I agree - it's a meaningless test.