How the new Star Trek failed
1. Solid Setting
2. Good Characters
3. Excellent Plots (well, sometimes)
Gene Roddenbury got some things wrong. David Gerrold covered several of these in his book The World of Star Trek. While I don’t agree with all of his conclusions (you don’t take children on a warship), the book is well worth reading, and several of his suggestions were adopted (including taking children on a warship).
The original Star Trek has been in constant syndication since it was taken out of production, and along with Doctor Who is one of the most culturally significant television shows ever produced.
Star Trek spawned further television series.
This happened over a 40 year time span, and in addition there were ten movies. There is also a successful book line, a wide range of fan made television episodes and movies, a thriving fan fiction community, and Science Fiction Conventions devoted to Star Trek.
I’m intimately familiar with Star Trek. I watched it when it first aired, attended my first Star Trek convention in 1976, played Star Fleet Battles, the starship combat board game, wrote Trek Fan Fiction, and even watched the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Degeneration (no disrespect meant to the actors, but when Roddenbury was pushed out, the show lost its spark).
In this case, it all comes down to setting.
Mistake Number 1
But according to The Making of Star Trek “the Enterprise-class starships have been in existence for about forty years” at the time of the original series. The ship’s components were built at the Starfleet Division of the San Francisco Navy Yards and assembled in orbit.
Assembled in orbit. Now why do you think that they’d do that? Simple. The ship is not designed for atmospheric operations. To quote the Memory Alpha Wiki:
Though not an aerodynamic craft, in emergencies, Constitution-class vessels were able to break orbit and enter a Class M planet‘s upper atmosphere (and maintain altitude control while passing through it) for a limited period of time, conditional on the ship’s ability to re-achieve escape velocity.
Components came from the Navy Yards, not the entire ship. Most of the ship was probably assembled from materials mined in the asteroids. Why boost materials to orbit, when you don’t have to? Build the hi-tech components on Earth, build the low-tech structural materials in space, where you probably have a less capable infrastructure, and a smaller workforce.
This also reduces the need to mine Earth for materials. For some metals it may be necessary to mine one hundred tons of ore to produce one ton of finished metal. The Enterprise NCC-1701 is supposed to weigh 799,400 metric tons, and could require up to 8,000,000 metric tons of ore! That’s a lot of ore. For comparison USS Enterprise CVN-65 weighs only 93,284 metric tons!
Memory Alpha has a list of Starfleet ships portrayed in the Star Trek movie. We can assume that it is incomplete, that there are more ships than mentioned. We cal also assume that at least some ships were built on Vulcan or Andoria, but it is impressive.
- USS Antares
- USS Armstrong
- USS Enterprise
- USS Farragut
- USS Hood
- USS Kelvin (destroyed early in the video)
- USS Mayflower
- USS Newton
- USS Truman
- USS Wolcott
It is extremely unlikely that they mined the ores for these ships from the asteroid belt, and landed them at Earth side shipyards. It would be the equivalent of dropping a hundred thousand Dinosaur Killers on the planet every year. Yes, I know, they’d use tractor beams to control the drop. Would you want to take the chance of a terrorist gaining control of the system, and dropping the load on a city instead? And of course, accidents do happen. Remember Fukushima? How about Chernobyl?
Mistake Number 2
But it gets worse.
In the old series episode The Doomsday Machine, we learn that an Impulse Engine overload will cause a fusion explosion of 97 megatons. The largest fusion explosion ever generated by the human race was the Russian Tsar Bomba Fusion Bomb test at 100 megatons.
Do you really want to be building something that could cause an explosion that large anywhere close to an inhabited area? You do? Are you insane?
Abrams has the new Enterprise being built in Riverside Iowa in the 23rd Century. I’ve been in 21st Century Iowa. Yes, it’s not that crowded compared to California or New York State, with a statewide population of 3,000,000, but set off a 97 megaton explosion, and you’ll have a lot of casualties. A lot of casualties. If you think 23rd Century terrorists wouldn’t drool over the chance to target Starship building sites, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you…
Build the ship in space, you can control access to it, and an explosion is far less likely to kill millions of people.
Mistake Number 3
We haven’t even touched on the worst part yet, the warp drive. The warp drive is powered by a matter-antimatter reaction. Antimatter has this nasty issue. It reacts with matter releasing energy. Total conversion to energy. It makes a fusion reaction look like a safety match.
Small amounts of antimatter aren’t bad. Really small amounts. Amounts too small to do any damage. Amounts too small to see and measure without sensitive laboratory instruments.
The amount needed to power a starship is too dangerous to have on a planetary surface, at least if you want the planet to remain habitable. I personally think that this is a damned good idea, especially since we currently have no where to move to!
All it takes is one terrorist who is willing to die, and we have a new ocean basin where Riverside Iowa used to be.
Mistake Number 4
This doesn’t even get into things like the Phaser Banks. In the episode Balance of Terror one crew member died from poisoning, after a leak occurred in the Phaser banks. There are probably other substances onboard a starship which aren’t safe for humans. Go out to your automobile, and try to drink motor oil, automatic transmission oil, differential oil, windshield washer antifreeze, or engine coolant antifreeze. Make sure you have an ambulance handy. You’ll need it.
Then there’s the power costs. We don’t know that they built the Enterprise using welding, but we know that however they built it, there was almost certainly an exothermic reaction involved. Unless they used rivets. Which is extremely costly, and wouldn’t seal worth a damn, which is why riveted construction has been abandoned for years. Oh, and you have to heat rivets to install them...
Exothermic is a fancy way of saying that it gives off heat. The larger the project, the more heat you have to get rid of. Large construction projects in Canada often continue into the winter, because the heat given off is sufficient to melt the snow accumulation, while small projects stop.
So you have a heat issue. Heat is always an issue. The environment can soak some up, but too much can cause problems for indigenous species. Of course it can also extend agricultural growing seasons. Is this good? Ask the animals it displaces, they’ll give a different answer than the farmers will.
You don't take chances with the planet that holds a large proportion of your population. In the movie we are told that only 10,000 Vulcans escape the destruction of the planet. That means that the Vulcans don’t have a lot of colonies. Does Earth? So far, we’ve seen little evidence of that, and no evidence of L5 or asteroid belt colonies.
Do you want to take a chance of destroying your planetary egg basket.
Mistake Number 5
A starship classifies as a very large project. Compare it to the CN Tower, which has a total weight of 116,136 metric tons, and is incapable of movement. The Burj Khalifa is even heavier, weighing well over 165,000 metric tons. The Canton Tower is a lightweight, at a mere 100,000 metric tons! None of them move, unlike CVN-65 or NCC-1701.
Admittedly these were built with 20th Century and 21st Century technologies, but it gives some background. Each was an enormous project, taking hundreds, if not thousands of workers. Not one of them was as complex as a starship, nor did any of them have any of the dangerous features that a starship has. The CN Tower is mainly structural materials, no warp or impulse engines. It can’t be made to blow up. Nor can it have an accident on lift-off, possibly taking out the shipyard that it is being built at.
A starship can.
Then there’s all the other pollution. The 23rd Century may have retired MIG and TIG welding by that time. Maybe. They are damned efficient. But they pollute. Plasma and laser cutting are also very efficient. But those processes pollute too.
Possibly they’ll build structural panels out of a single crystal. Unfortunately building large single crystals under gravitational conditions isn’t possible. You have to build them in space, in zero gee. Then there’s that nasty problem of getting them down from orbit. Lose a package during re-entry, and blam!
Mistake Number 6
They resized the Enterprise. Seriously. The ship in the original series was 304 meters long, and weighed 790,400 metric tons.
Somehow the new ship became 725.5 meters long. There are ways to estimate ship weights, but I’m not an expert, so I’m going to cheat.
|Name||Number||Length M.||Width M.||Height M.||Weight KT.|
Nothing like a spreadsheet. The Special Effects crew claimed that when they tried to render the ship, that they ran into issues with the shuttles, which meant that the ship had to be larger.
You buy a rendering package, or download one of the increasingly powerful and popular Free Software ones, and odds are one of the things you’ll try to render is the Enterprise. The ship is an icon. Millions of fans have rendered images of the Enterprise. Some of those fans went on to produce high-quality fan films.
Guess what folks. The ‘professional’ special effects people think you are all idiots, because none of you resized the Enterprise years ago. It was only the ‘professionals’ who realized that the shuttle bay scale was off. Oh dear, that means that these ‘professionals’ are also insulting all the professionals who worked on the earlier television shows and movies…
Gotta lotta Gaul?
The closest ship to size is the Enterprise D. Remember everything I said above about the difficulties of building a 790,400 metric ton starship on a planetary surface. It just got way worse. Instead you’re going to be building something that weighs a minimum of 4,500,000 metric tons, and may actually come in closer to 5,000,000 metric tons. The NCC-1701D was a heavily built ship compared to the NCC-1701, so maybe it is only 4,750,000 metric tons.
I wouldn’t want it falling on my foot. Or my city.
Mistake Number 7
Did you know that Gene Roddenbury co-authored a book about Star Trek, in which he covers the history of how the show came to be made, and a lot of the design decisions? It’s out of print now, but used copies are still available on Amazon. With Stephen E. Whitfield as co-author, Roddenbury covered all the stuff you’d need to know to make a new Star Trek series. Anyone with brains would read it.
Oh, right. We are dealing with Abrams. He didn’t read it. That was obvious to me when I saw the first trailer, while I was standing in an Apple store. I told my wife then that I wasn’t going to bother seeing it in the theaters, that the movie was a disaster.
Because I recognized the scene. It’s the same ship building scene you see in the amazingly funny Babylon 5/Star Trek parody Star Wreck VI: In the Pirkinning. Watch the trailer, it’s a laugh. Then order the DVD, it’s a must for your collection. Yes, it’s in Finnish, with English or German sub-titles. Believe me, five minutes in you won’t even notice they’re speaking Finnish, because you’ll be rolling on the floor laughing.
The problem is that the ship building scene in Star Wreck VI made sense. They had a landed Vulgar spaceship they could strip for materials, and use to build a P-Fleet starship design that Commander Info (the Commander Data analogue) had in his memory banks. Since they were Earth-bound, they had to built it on Earth, and the one they built, was relatively small. Later construction was depicted as taking place in space.
Get Star Wreck VI, watch the Star Wreck VI ship construction scenes, then watch and compare the Star Trek movie construction scenes. They are very, very similar. Not identical. They couldn't be. They are building different ships. But the likeness are striking.
It isn't hard to put two plus two together. Maybe I'm getting fifteen, and the answer really is that Abrams came up with the idea of building a starship on a planetary surface himself.
Mistake Number 8
What started this rant was actually the release of the one of the early trailers. If I thought Abrams was incompetent before, well, my opinion of his just got worse. Near the end of the trailer we have a starship, which I'm guessing is the Enterprise, doing an uncontrolled re-entry and crashing on a city.
Problem is, that isn't what an uncontrolled re-entry looks like. We've already seen one in the third movie, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Or how about a video of a real life bad re-entry? This one is horrifying, terrifying, and it made me cry to watch it. But it did make one huge point.
No where in the new trailer do we see debris coming off the hull of the crashing ship. This is an impossibility. Unless the ship is made of Neutronium, or is a General Products Puppeteer designed hull, there will be debris. When debris breaks off, the airstream will be perturbed, causing further damage at the site of break off, which in turn causes further damage, and often causes course changes as the aerodynamics are altered by material losses.
The Space Shuttle used an ablative tile shield. The problems that Columbia suffered on re-entry were caused by damage to that shield that occurred at launch, and the break up started when the damaged ablative tiles broke down, admitting plasma into the shuttle wing.
The starship shown performing the uncontrolled re-entry doesn't appear to carry an ablative heat shield. On entering atmosphere, the outer hull will begin to heat, and when parts reach a point where their structure starts to break down, they fail. The ship wouldn't fail all at once, but would leave a large debris stream over a long distance, as components with different failure temperatures reached their heat limits at different times, based on when the components outboard of them failed. The ship could have been coming in at a near vertical angle, which would change things, but it isn't depicted that way.
So the starship crash scene as filmed COULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED. It is scientifically impossible.
Note that I didn't cover the use of shields. There was no indication that the shields were in operation on that ship. There was no indication that there was anyone in control on that ship.
Mistake Number 9
Gene Roddenberry served in the Air Force during World War II. Several other people involved with the original series served in the military in World War II and Korea. The depiction of Star Fleet as a military force was realistic.
The same thing happened with Perry Rhodan. Walter Ernsting and K. H. Scheer both served in the military during World War II. The military as depicted in the original Perry Rhodan series is realistic.
J. J. Abrams has no military experience, and it shows. Effectively the 2009 movie was the equivalent to what is known in FanDom as Mary Sue FanFic. Rather than being sent back to the academy to finish their education, the crew of the Enterprise is given the newest ship in the fleet. Ask anyone you know with military experience how likely that would be...
Setting is Important
It really is. That's why people loved the original Star Trek, loved Perry Rhodan, and loved Lord of the Rings. Strong consistent setting as a background for compelling characters, and good plots, makes a worthwhile book to read, or show to watch.
An unrealistic setting, like what we see in the 2009 and 2013 Star Trek films, kills the story. Yes, a lot of people went and saw both films. Both made money. Neither will ever be considered the classic that the original was.
I've heard people exclaim, "Oh but it is Trek, we have to love it." No we don't. We loved the original because it was so well done.
I've also heard people comment, "Oh, but Abrams will do better with Star Wars, where he doesn't have to be realistic." Actually the first Star Wars movie, before it got edited several times, was fairly realistic. It wasn't perfect. The orignal Star Trek wasn't perfect. But it was pretty good.
By building a setting that isn't realistic, Abrams has done a lot of damage to Star Trek. Will the franchise survive? I don't know. I'd like to see someone who understands scientific and military basics take it over, and see what happens.
Oh, and Roddenbury made heavy use of scientists to make sure that Star Trek was scientifically accurate, and it has held up fairly well technically because of that.
Where am I Wrong?
I don't expect everyone to agree with me. So tell me where I'm wrong. Specifically PROVE TO ME I'M WRONG. Give me citations, showing me that I've got numbers wrong, that I've overestimated the dangers, that it would be cheaper and safer to build the Enterprise on Earth. Show me that a crew that hasn't graduated from the academy would get given the newest, and best starship in the fleet. Prove it to me.
But I want numbers.
PS: An earlier version of this article was published in March 2013. I've re-written parts of it since then to include suggestions from several people.
I know I may have just made myself the least popular Star Trek fan in existence. That's life