Computers In Science Fiction: The Basics
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Predictably, there are certain rules in science fiction that most TV shows1 and films follow and elements that they include. In general, the best science fiction is at least consistent with itself and follows the rules it has established, although it's fair to say that when a show breaks a rule, it's usually in an attempt to rebuild a diminishing audience. A show or series breaking the rules is usually a show in serious trouble. Sci-Fi follows these rules in the same way that cartoons and Hollywood Film do.
This entry covers mostly science fiction up to the early 1990s. After that, we enter the era of 'post-modern irony', where many science fiction shows and films started breaking the rules in an attempt to keep the audiences surprised, run longer plot lines over entire series and to put across the message that 'actions have consequences'.
Never Explain Anything
The golden rule of science fiction is: Never explain anything you don't have to2. This rule exists for several reasons:
It takes a lot of effort to invent fictional technology.
Science may prove you wrong very shortly, making the show look dated3.
It allows more freedom for future episodes.
The more 'canonical'4 rules created, the higher the chance of accidentally breaking one in a future episode.
- Most sci-fi fans don't really care how it works5.
An example of explaining too much: Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry originally said the Enterprise warp reactor used lithium as an inhibitor. As far as he was concerned he just invented the word out of thin air, but as anyone with a watch knows, lithium is used in watch batteries. That is why it was changed to di-lithium in the show.
Doctor Who was famous for inventing the most meaningless garbage for technology. It was one of the first popular airings of wonderfully overplayed techno-babble6. Likewise, Star Trek: The Next Generation was often criticised for using too much techno-babble and Voyager was positively roasted for it.
The main staple of sci-fi is that ships can travel faster than light (FTL) to travel beyond the solar system to more interesting places where the crew can battle aliens, negotiate with aliens, escape from aliens and have sex with aliens.
The principle of the FTL-drive is rarely explained, and even when it is, its usually in the vaguest terms possible. For example: warp drive from Star Trek warps space to propel the spaceship. Although parts of the drive are explained in more detail in other episodes and the technical manual, the main principle remains vague. As a result, a lot of fans spend a lot of time debating how it works. The main rule of the FTL is that there is no time dilation - ie, time passes at the same rate for the crew as for stationary observers, like Earth.
This involves travelling faster than light while in normal space (sort of; actually you warp real space around you using a subspace bubble). Star Trek uses this method. Ships can travel faster by expending more energy. Most have a theoretical and a practical limit; in Star Trek the practical limit is usually about warp 9, as the ship's engines are strained past this point. The theoretical is warp 10, as a ship at this speed would occupy every point in the universe simultaneously.
Many sci-fi series and films use the principle of hyperspace (or 'subspace') for their FTL means. There are two commonly-used principles:
Theory One: Hyperspace exists at the same point as normal space, but it highly compressed, so that, for example, 100,000 metres = one light year. Hyperspace is one of the highly-compressed 'other' dimensions to our universe that current quantum theory says should exist.
Theory Two: Hyperspace is an alternate space in which the two spaces coincide, but the hyperspace one usually has a faster light speed. Depending on which theory you use, it can be many times faster. In some theories (such as Iain M Banks' universe), you can have multiple spaces, each with different light speeds, so the extra energy would be used to move you into the right space.
Usually a ship needs to 'jump' to hyperspace. In Star Wars, a ship needs to accelerate to light speed to enter hyperspace. In Babylon 5 a jump point needs to be opened. Large ships can generate their own jump points, but small ships and shuttles must use jump gates, stationary three or four pronged structures that open a jump point.
Wormholes are connecting 'tunnels' in space that bypass the distance they traverse, allowing instantaneous travel between two points. Many sci-fi series employ them either all the time or on an ad hoc basis. Some are extremely stable, others are inherently unstable.
Stargate: SG1 gets around the problem entirely by using wormholes to connect two planet's stargates together long enough to transit between the worlds. Some series go as far as to never show the ship travelling faster than light, Space: Above and Beyond is a prime example. They used known wormholes to navigate, but the viewers themselves never sees them.
Star Systems and Planets in Sci-Fi TV
Regardless of the situation, the regular characters in TV sci-fi shows usually visit a different star system every week. Most stars visited are stable yellow stars, just like our own. This part is a little more believable as our Sun is an average, middle-aged star, fairly common in our galaxy.
Every star system visited has at least one Earth-like planet that either already supports - or can potentially support - human life and has a gravitation field close to 1G. It has the same climate all over. It rarely has any harmful bacteria or viruses, nor do the viruses or bacteria the crew bring with them affect the inhabitants. Given the information about explorers on Earth visiting civilisations that have never had contact before (like Easter island) and that astronomers have yet to find any Earth-size planets outside out own solar system (not through want of looking), this part is mostly for plot line convenience. It would get very boring if every time a crew member sneezed on a planet, he/she killed off half the local population.
Nebulae are usually the place where something goes wrong and the crew have to struggle to survive. There is a lot we don't know about nebula, so there is plenty of room for speculation. Examples include:
In Star Trek:
Star Trek II: Kirk enters the Mutara nebula to even the odds against Khan, his ship gets beaten up and he barely escapes.
TNG episode Hero Worship: A nebula's ability to reflect back shield energy destroys the Vico and almost destroys the Enterprise.
In the Voyager episode: One, Seven of Nine must work alone to keep Voyager working as the crew stay in stasis to traverse a nebula that would otherwise kill them. She goes slightly mad on her own.
- The crew travel back in time and sabotage the Nietzcheans' ambush of the last remnants of the Highguard fleet, in a nebula.
Almost all sci-fi uses humans (or 'humanoids') as part or the entire main cast. This is to allow the audience to have someone to relate to as well as to keep the latex masks and make-up costs down. Any exceptions to this rule are usually for the purposes of the 'token' alien character.
Every human wears either long, flowing robes, or skin-tight one piece body-hugging suits which show every contour (everyone in the future is buffed). This is to distinguish it from the present, where neither of these is common in western culture (except possibly Los Angeles). People from the same planet can always be identified, as fashions are planet-wide.
Relationships never last longer than one episode, due to the fact that most shows are structured with stories lasting one episode at a time rather than on-going as with serials/soap operas. With only a few exceptions, cast members do not 'get it on', although 'sexual tension' might be present just to give characters extra motivation to risk their own lives for others. In each episode, the person the lead character falls in love with will either:
Be intent on galaxy domination and is only using him/her for the information they possess.
Die in an unlikely, sudden and very poignantly tragic accident.
Leave for a distant planet where they will never meet again because she's the queen, betrothed, dying or destined to be somewhere else for miscellaneous reasons.
Stay on the ship as a regular purely to create sexual tension that is usually released in a comedy episode.
This last option is another of those 'flagging audience' choices a production team can make - if the viewers are dropping, bring in some sexy new cast members.
Even when standing right next to a force field that is the only thing between them and the vacuum of space, the crew never look anxious or afraid, freak out or suffer from vertigo7.
If a previously unseen or unnamed member of the crew suddenly acquires a name, or joins the regular characters on an away mission, it's a given that they will be the one who won't be present on the return journey. This is best exemplified by the original Star Trek; when Kirk beams down to a planet with a security detail, who wear red shirts, it's obvious one of them is going to get killed - as spotlighted by an episode of Family Guy that contained this exchange:
Kirk: We're beaming down to the planet where one of us will almost certainly be killed. On the mission will be myself, Mr Spock, Dr McCoy and Ensign Ricky.
Ensign Ricky: Aww crap.
Characters with no surname in Star Trek were prime candidates for getting killed before the first commercial break. The character of Guy in Galaxy Quest is the ultimate parody of this rule.
Guy: Let me go in there, maybe I can distract them long enough for you to save the others.
Fred: That's a suicide mission.
Guy: I'm a glorified extra Fred. I'm a dead man anyway.
Death is either never dwelt on in sci-fi, or they devote an entire episode to it. The crew are never seen grieving for crewman #5, but always do for the main character who isn't really dead but has just made invisible for some reason.
The crew almost never talk about the guy who died in the last episode. Andromeda made a refreshing break from the norm in this respect.
Trance: Hey, what happened to him [Her predecessor]? Didn't you say he retired and bought a farm?
Harper: No, he bought the farm.
Trance: What's the difference?
Valentine: Tear in his spacesuit and a bad O2 valve.
Trance: Oh, that is different.
Although ostensibly the tone of Doctor Who was different, in that the lead characters often took a few brief moments to lament the passing of that episode's extras, generally there was little continuity between episodes. After one of the highest death counts in the series' history ('Resurrection of the Daleks'), the Doctor was more upset that his companion Tegan had left him than by the scores of soldiers that had been slaughtered in the battle against his arch enemies the daleks.
Part of the reason for this attitude is the fact that the central character himself has a handy get-out clause for death - at the point of expiration he has the ability to change into a completely new body. Although the deaths of guest characters such as Sara Kingdom and Edward Waterfield affected the surviving characters well after that particular instalment had finished, only one regular character in the series' run was killed off. The teenage stowaway Adric, who died in the story 'Earthshock', would come back to haunt the fifth Doctor when he himself 'died' and gave way to his sixth persona.
Aliens and Artificial Lifeforms
Aliens exist to provide antagonists, allies or romantic encounters. Not all sci-fi has aliens in it, but most of the ones that deal with travel outside the solar system usually have to incorporate aliens in some way. They are used as a mirror to explore the nature of the crew.
Aliens almost always speak English, usually with an accent that mirrors that of the country of the show's production. Hence Doctor Who always features aliens with cut-glass English diction, while Star Trek's aliens are American - often West-coast American at that. Some shows, like Star Trek or Farscape have an explanation. Most do not. Aliens always have one government, one religion and one language - except where the plot of the episode demands that there are warring factions of aliens, in which case they have two governments, religions or whatever it is they're diametrically opposed to.
One recurring theme is to have the last member of a colony as part of the crew, who eventually finds a long lost part of his civilisation. Examples include Data from Star Trek, Hawk from Buck Rogers and Odo from Deep Space Nine. Spock also falls into this category as his half Vulcan/human breeding means he is an outcast from both societies, although in his case, he is not searching for others of his kind, he is searching for a way to reconcile the two sides, which he does.
Yes, it might surprise you to learn that aliens and humans can cross-breed, despite having very different DNA. Later series of Star Trek seem obsessed with the idea of inter-species mating, especially among its regular characters, many of whom are described as 'half-' something-or-other. The justification for this is that it offers the audience a level of familiarity while giving the production team a get-out clause if the character is atypical of their race.
Aliens, artificial life forms or genetically engineered life forms (GELFs), are often used to inject a little exotic mix into the crew; Spock, Data, Odo, Dax, the Doctor, T'Pol (Star Trek), D'Argo and pilot (Farscape) and Romy (Andromeda) are all used to give a little diversity to the crew. Data's Pinocchio-like attitude allowed a lot of character development during the show. This is a central characteristic of any good series. Characters that never change are intensely boring for the audience.
Good and Evil
Aliens are usually used as both the good natured side-kick and the evil overlord. The evil alien is usually easily identifiable, drawing on society's perception of evil. The less human looking, the more the sense of 'I don't want to meet him on a dark night', hence the Klingons from Star Trek8. It was the nature of most TV shows, until recently, to have characters with basic black-and-white attitudes. This extends that principle. Often the challenge posed to the heroes is to convince the aliens to see the middle ground in a given dispute and accept compromise. Whether or not the aliens accept this premise really dictates whether or not they are genuinely evil 'villains'. Most of the aliens in Doctor Who come under the 'extremely evil' banner in their very simplistic preferences for domination of the 'lesser races' over mutual acceptance.
It is worth noting that the character of Spock was originally going to have red skin in addition to his pointed ears. Leonard Nimoy asked 'Why not a pointed tail and a pitch-fork too?'
Not every series deals with this - it refers to either:
Aliens' first contact with humans.
Humans' first contact with aliens.
The distinction lies in who travelled across inter-stellar space to meet whom. Humans meeting their first aliens are usually portrayed as panicking, hysterical and angry9.
Aliens meeting humans for the first time express a wide range of reactions. Star Trek's prime directive is a rule for the crew to follow. It prevents them from meeting, interfering or assisting a race that has not yet achieved warp flight. It is arguably a difficult rule to follow, as it requires them to stand by and do nothing if a civilisation is about to be destroyed by a natural catastrophe that they cannot prevent. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Picard had to watch a planet's atmosphere completely consume itself, killing millions of tribal hunter-gatherers.
Medicine in the future is effectively perfect. Only a few diseases and conditions are incurable and usually one crew member suffers from one of them like Geordi's blindness in TNG. Any serious disease that threatens the crew can be cured by the doctor or by trading with a nearby alien. He always double crosses them.
The good guys' ship can get as beaten up as much as is possible and still be fine next week. Voyager took this to the most extreme when one of two versions of the ship was wrecked, almost nothing left working. But the next week the ship was working as good as new.
The computer can predict very accurately how long until structural collapse, accurate to a tenth of a second. Yet no matter how damaged the ship is the artificial gravity never goes on the blink10. When the crew go over to a derelict ship, if it explodes it always does so just after the regular cast escape. You never see bodies floating in space, just hull fragments. There's always a fragment with the entire ship's name on it.
The bridge is usually located in the most obvious place imaginable, all Star Trek ships have it at the very top, deck one. It seems an obvious place for any alien to shoot at, but most seem to shoot at the engines, weapons or the engineering section. Bridge stations are never fitted with seat belts, despite the regularity with which bridge staff are flung from their posts.
Most technical problems are accomplished by reversing the polarity, recalibrating the field, or reconfiguring/rotating the shield harmonics. Despite the 'inside' shots of the elevator taking ages to go between decks, there's always enough time to summon the weapons officer from the recreation room to the bridge or transporter room, even if the fighting has already begun.
Everyone on the ship knows how to work everything, even pilots know how to play about with the transporter settings. Even when the crew visit an alien ship, they always understand the technology and can repair/sabotage the appropriate part.
Surge protectors are never used. As already explained, an anonymous crewman on the ship is likely to be killed off by an exploding screen or control panel. Star Trek openly admits that the plasma used to power the ship is a bad idea, because when superheated (like an energy weapon hitting the ship) it explodes. There just isn't anything better that is also safer to use.
Few sci-fi shows are complete without talking computers. See Computers in Science Fiction. There is always an episode when the computer goes mad.
No-one ever wanders off the bridge to go to the bathroom. The captain is never caught short when the red alert siren goes off. No-one ever seems to acknowledge the need for everyday bodily functions.
When the shuttlecraft was invented for Star Trek: The Original Series, it was created as a plot device to get part of the crew stranded on a planet. The transporter effect was created as a 'cheap and fast' way to get the crew on and off the planet surface, because special effect shots of the ship landing were expensive. Although, even by today's standards, it still looks fairly impressive, it was created using nothing more complex than a standard two shot fade and a handful of glitter thrown in.
With the advent of computer-generated (CG) effects, the price became irrelevant, so shows could choose which to use based on plot rather than dictated by budget. Although the transporter effect in TNG, Voyager, etc looks more impressive, it is accomplished using exactly the same principles as the original series - the only difference is that a CG effect has replaced the glitter.
The characters never use the transporter to beam people out of the shower 'for a laugh11'
Human handheld weapons always have two modes, lethal and non-lethal ('set phasers to stun'). Most aliens don't bother with the second mode - unless shooting at one of the regular cast. The handheld weapons always make a noise when fired, yet no serious research seems to have been done into fitting a silencer to them. Shooting the control panels while chasing a felon appears to cause no damage. Humans usually have ethics about using weapons of mass destruction like sub-space weapons and nova bombs, aliens don't give a hoot.
Most sci-fi steers clear of time travel. There are a few exceptions;
Doctor Who - it's kind of the whole point.
Quantum Leap - it's the premise of the show.
Seven Days - see above.
Star Trek - Even though it's theoretically impossible according to their technology limits, they do it so often, you have to forgive them just for sheer cheek.
Babylon 5 - They only did it twice and it was done very well, tying into the main plot arc nicely.
Most sci-fi series that attempt to do a time travel episode usually do so in acts of desperation to surprise their audience. Gerry Anderson's Space Precinct, did a time travel episode as one of their last ever episodes. It was highly predictable and even a half-concussed gym teacher12 could have predicted the ending.
A popular alternative to the time travel episode is the 'groundhog day' episode. This sees the crew, or part of the crew reliving the same day or days over and over again. Successful versions have been done by Star Trek: The Next Generation, Farscape, Stargate: SG1, Seven Days, The X-Files and Xena: Warrior Princess13.
The plot of these usually involves preventing something from happening, although the characters usually do not know what they are trying to prevent. In TNG it is the destruction of the Enterprise, in Stargate it is an alien trying to return to the past to have a few more days with his dying wife.
Contemporary Earth (read USA)
There's always an episode when the crew travel back in time to modern-day Earth. Examples include Battlestar Galactica, Lexx, Voyager and Star Trek: The Original Series.
Vacuum Of Space
Everyone who knows anything about physics knows that explosions in space are silent. However, silent explosions make very boring television, so the producers let you hear the battle in glorious stereo. An interesting note is that Gene Roddenberry tried showing them with and without booms (and swooshing spaceship noises), and it didn't work - the audience wouldn't believe in them.
Few shows or films deal with the effects of vacuum on an exposed human body, usually because it's messy. Even the ones that do, like Mission To Mars generally don't get it right - Event Horizon succeeds though.
Another staple of the sci-fi show is the alternative, or mirror, universe. The crew is usually transported there due to an error or a mechanical failure. The alternate universe is slightly or very different from the real one. The mirror universe is exactly the opposite from the real one.
Captain Kirk's trip to the mirror universe had him commanding an imperial warship for an oppressive empire. As Spock explains:
It was easier for you to act like a barbarian than it was for the barbarians to act like civilised people.
Shows like Sliders use alternative universes as their premise. The cast travel from universe to universe, trying the get home, but they are lost and there are an infinite number to choose from. Some alternate Earths they leave better (like curing disease) others they leave worse and some are 50/50 (like when they invented nuclear bombs to destroy an approaching asteroid).
Related to the alternate universe is the alternate timeline. This is a version of reality created when a character travels back in time and affects something in the past. Many believe that Star Trek's 'The City on the Edge of Forever' to be the definitive alternate timeline. It revolves around the idea that a single person must die in an accident to create the future that Kirk and McCoy come from. If she survives, she creates a pacifist movement that eventually prevents the space race14. The theme is that one person can make a difference (which is key to other shows like Knight Rider, Quantum Leap, and Doctor Who).
Most shows that deal with time travel use alternative timelines at some point. They are a great method of changing all the rules for a single episode.
Sci-fi writers tend to be well educated, who like making obscure jokes.
Many sci-fi series using jokes about casting. Examples:
In Enterprise Dean Stockwell played opposite lead Scott Bakula - they worked together in Quantum Leap
In Andromeda, Kevin Sorbo's character of Captain Hunt was referred to as 'like a Greek god' - he played Hercules.
In Stargate: SG1, a technician tells Richard Dean Anderson's character Colonel O'Neill that they had to 'MacGuyver' the interface for the gate - Richard Dean Anderson played MacGuyver in the TV series of the same name15.
Jokes About the Crew
This includes things like, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, every time Deanna Troy drives the ship, she crashes it, or Data stoking the face of the cleanly shaved Riker and indicating that it was not as smooth as an android's bottom; in Star Wars, C3PO is fluent in six million languages and can readily... (he never gets further into the sentence, no matter how many times he starts it); when Romy from Andromeda gets her android body, she mentions that she has seen Captain Hunt getting out of the shower on numerous occasions.
Enterprise has one of the biggest pools to make jokes from. The tactical officer, called Lt Reed, is trying to think of a name for 'battle stations', but isn't allowed to call it 'battle stations'. He almost calls it Reed Alert (Sic - Red Alert). Archer also asks T'Paul if a human and Vulcan had a child, would it have pointed ears - a reference to Spock, who has yet to be conceived.
A few shows can even parody themselves, notable mentions are The X-Files, Xena and Stargate: SG1. Stargate's parody had an alien with amnesia working as a producer on a show called 'Wormhole Extreme'. When he realises what he's done, he's shocked.
Alien: Oh no! 'Wormhole Extreme', it's about you guys. How many people have seen it?
O'Neill: Don't worry. It's on cable.
Alien: Oh thank god...
Stuff That Gets Stuck
Perhaps this should be called 'Stuff that was supposed to be fixed earlier, but we never got round to it and now it's too late'. Every show has something that was added as a temporary fix to a problem and got left in. Some of it is very good, such as the Vulcan neck pinch, invented by Leonard Nimoy. The scene it was invented for had Spock hitting a guard with a phaser butt. He thought this was a bit violent and presented the neck pinch as an alternative. It made the grade and was then used as often as possible from then on.
The registry number of 1701 for the USS Enterprise was chosen because it was recognisable at a much greater distance than any other number. The NCC part of NCC 1701 was added from the current method of building warships, and stands for National Construction Contract. But in the Star Trek universe NCC is meaningless in itself.
The best example of this, though, is the TARDIS, the time-travelling vehicle in Doctor Who. Originally conceived as a machine that can blend into its surroundings (a stone column when in ancient Greece, a grandfather clock for Victorian journeys), it was thought that building a new prop every episode would become very expensive very quickly. Enter the 'broken chameleon circuit' idea, which explained why, for 26 years, the TARDIS took the appearance of an obsolete London Police Call Box.
The reason for some of these rules, particularly stuff that gets stuck, is that the actors feel the need to keep their character consistent, whereas the writers come and go, producers leave, and directors are hired on an episode-by-episode basis. Without the actor, the characters would 'wander' all over the place, with no real consistency.
Babylon 5 intentionally broke a lot of Star Trek's rules. Take the episode where an entire species died. Trek crews had always been the saviours up till then, but the B5 crew had to realise that you don't always win. Fortunately the writers of Deep Space Nine learnt the same lesson as the B5 writers, that actions have consequences, and started to make their characters flawed as well.
Farscape also broke a lot of rules. John Crichton starts out as a scientist and something of a pacifist. But this nasty end of the galaxy changes him so much that, in the penultimate episode, he wins by setting off a nuclear bomb that kills thousands. He is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress. He is considered by many to be one of the most human characters ever presented on television. He suffered for every success he had and it was this that gave the show its cult status.
For more 'rules', check out 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord and The List Of Things A Hero Should Do.