Monday, May 16, 2016

A Hard (SF) Look at Star Trek: Scope

Full sized version here.  Notice how few planets there actually are?
“Space, the final frontier”-

Actually, I better stop there.  After all, I don’t want to get sued

But that ‘final frontier’ is arguably the main character of the Star Trek franchise.  We’ve seen Star Trek done without the original crew, without the Enterprise, without the known universe, and without the Federation, but space, the endless unknown of opportunity and danger, is the one constant that always remains.  Today, RocketFans, we will be looking at the setting of Star Trek and wondering how the setting be different with we adhered to Hard SF technology, and how big does the setting need to be to make something that feels like Star Trek?

Star Trek, for those of you who may not be aware, was the first prime-time science fiction television series to have a regular cast.  Before Trek, you had shows like the Twilight Zone where each episode was a self-contained vignette.  The logistics making a television series with advanced special effects - and make no mistake, the visual effects on the original series were among the most advanced of the time - made airing episodes in a set order impossible. Post- production on Star Trek was so time consuming that there was a real possibility that the show simply couldn’t be made on a weekly basis.  Star Trek was also ruinously expensive, so much so that it would be hard for any level of ratings to make the show worth the expense in terms of the advertising you could sell during the program.  And that’s before several sponsors dropped out due the controversial nature of the show’s treatment of sexism, racism, and other hot-button topics.

What does this have to do with the “scope” of the Star Trek setting?  By itself, not much, but it helps to explain why most of the aliens look human, and most of the planets look the same.  You see, my dear RocketFans, for all that Star Trek is meant to be set in a vast galaxy with a huge Federation, the scope of the franchise is surprisingly narrow.

Naturally, a lot of criticism has been leveled at Trek and other SF shows and movies for showing us so many so-called “rubber-forehead” aliens who otherwise appear and act human.  The whole “planet of hats” phenomenon is another example of narrow scope.  In order to disguise the re-used sets and props that television production made necessary, most of the “strange new worlds” visited by the intrepid crew of Enterprise were made unique and easily recognizable by making everyone and everything on said planet an example of an easily recognized cliche.  I mean, do you remember the planet Sigma Iota II?  How about the planet of gangsters from “A Piece of the Action”?  They’re one and the same.

Besides mono-cultures and human looking aliens, Star Trek used - and help codify - the trope of technology doing whatever the plot required.  Nowhere was this more apparent than speed of a starship at warp and the speed of interstellar communication.  While the Starfleet’s supporting government, the United Federation of Planets, was meant to be an enormous collection stars covering a vast swath of the galaxy.  In practice it wasn’t all that big.  I won’t go into the reasons why - that ground has been covered extensively and by better scholars than I.  But sufficed to say, a science fiction setting may often say that it’s vast and epic in scope, but in practice focus on a handful of planets and alien species.  Just look at Star Wars - galaxy-wide Republic/Empire, yet everything seems to happen on Tatooine…

So, let’s put a little thought in how big a universe we actually need to tell Star Trek stories, in terms of travel times, communication times, and number of worlds we can make contact with, and “evil empires of space-commies” lurking in the shadows of space.

  • A multi-word government that sponsors our protagonists. While arguments have been made that such a government would be communist in practice, its leaders are democratically elected.  It is idealistic to the point of being Utopian, depending on what generation you prefer. In any case, it would be multicultural, tolerant, and egalitarian.   An important point is that it this government be supported by an economic system that eliminates or vastly reduces poverty, and a technological base that eliminates or vastly reduces mortality from accident and disease.

  • The setting needs to be home to several alien species of intelligent life,  while a couple can be starfish aliens or hyper-intelligent shade of blue, most should be close enough to humans that interbreeding is possible under certain circumstances.  Many will live in mono-cultural societies.  Often on single biome planets.
Can you hear me now?

  • The setting needs to be big enough that our hero ship is the only one in the area, far from assistance.  They need to be able to communicate with Command, but have such communication be delayed and/or delivered in messages, not real-time.  Civilization should oftentimes seem to be no more than a radio channel.

  • The setting should have many - several dozen in fact - settlements on the frontier that are a) isolated colonies, b) frontier forts, c) un-contacted aliens, or d) home to elder gods and/or ancient aliens.

  • A couple of multi-planet governments that are ideologically/militarily opposed to our protagonists’ government.  Traditionally, they have been dominated by a single race/culture.  Their borders should be close to those of our protagonists’ government, and they should all squabble over neutral colonies and unoccupied planets in the border region.

The above list seems to require a large volume of galactic space in order to contain it. Perhaps a quarter of the galaxy - the size of the actual Star Trek setting - or at least the volume of the Local Bubble.  This means we need FTL drives and radios and other physics breaking technology, and some sort of explanation for why aliens are so similar and planets so monotonous.  In other words, everything that’s already been done.


This is not a Hard SF setting by any far stretch of the imagination.  FTL?  Single biomes?  Interbreeding aliens?  This are the realms of space fantasy.  Hard SF rejects them all.  But that’s okay - in our next post I’ll show you all how we can have everything on the above list, from Federations to forehead aliens, in a Hard SF setting.

By putting it all in our own solar system.

1 comment:

  1. Special thanks to Bernd Schneider at Ex Astris Scientia. I adsorbed far more good info on the Star Trek universe than the single link above implies. The site will repay careful study.


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