They work just fine, thank you.
– Michael Okuda, Star Trek technical adviser's answer to the question: 'How do the Heisenberg compensators1
Long before there were mobile phones, families who couldn't afford to have their own landline installed had no choice but to trek out in all weathers to find a public phone box. It was Murphy's law that you couldn't find one in working order during an emergency, or that the only one that hadn't been vandalised had just been used as a makeshift toilet.
During the 1960s one far-sighted science fiction writer called Gene Roddenberry gave his characters in Star Trek a hand-held device for communicating with their starship and each other. Whether the idea for today's mobile phones came from this original conception matters not; the fact is that flip-top mobiles are remarkably similar to the original series' communication devices. Another idea of Roddenberry's was the matter transporter: a 'matter-energy conversion device used to provide a convenient method of transportation'. It was thought up because the show's producers couldn't or didn't want to land the starship on a different planet each week. The Transporter let them get on with the rest of the plot much faster, and without monopolising the special effects budget.
It's a simple enough device, based on trust. Someone stands on the transporter pad and the Transporter Chief operates the controls. Molecules scatter and re-materialisation takes place at the destination, hopefully in the correct order and the subject completely compus mentis. Speculation by physicists propose that it doesn't actually transport but rather makes a perfect copy, with the original being destroyed to create the illusion of transportation, something to do with quantum duality.
A landing pad wasn't required, subjects could be beamed straight onto a planet's surface or even inside a building. The reverse journey required the use of portable bands known as armlets or bracelets, upon which the Transporter Chief would 'lock on'. Loss of the bracelet meant almost certain death, or a fate worse than death, like spending the rest of your life mining salt on some godforsaken desolate moon.
The Transporter had a built-in virus scanner and smuggled weapons were disarmed. It saved multiple lives in hazardous situations, and indeed (in Star Trek IV) it saved the Earth itself. In the 23rd Century an alien probe, which can only recognise whalesong, disables all Earth's technological systems because whales are extinct by that century. The outlook was extremely grim. In the end, two humpback whales from 1986 were beamed aboard the Klingon Bird of Prey spaceship for the journey to the human future where no whales exist thanks to whaling.
The Transporter was also used to get rid of troublesome terrors like Tribbles, an alien creature resembling a ball of fluff which made a pleasant purring sound. Unfortunately they were born pregnant and soon took up any available spare space. Once they had invaded the Enterprise and even commandeered the captain's chair, Kirk ordered them off the ship. The Transporter Chief beamed them across to a departing vessel belonging to the Klingons, who hated tribbles more than humans. Such a method of disposal would no doubt come in handy for the residents of Australia, in one fell swoop they could solve their Cane Toad problem by trading them with the Ferengi, who no doubt would consider them a delicacy.
Should the traveller have failed to materialise, or one of the away team was wearing a red top2 or something else untoward occurred during the journey, an investigation into what went wrong would be conducted. Hopefully lessons would be learned and new safeguards put into place to prevent a recurrence.
A certain amount of distrust in the Transporter was displayed by Doctor Leonard 'Bones' McCoy, who preferred a more conventional means of getting around, and often took a shuttlecraft if he could. McCoy had no doubt seen many horrific results of Transporter malfunctions during the course of his vocation.
Some of the mishaps which occurred during the different series of the Trek genre were the stuff of nightmares. A few famous Transporter 'incidents' are catalogued here:
- People transported together merged into a new entity, possibly inspired by the horror film The Fly. This premise was explored in the episode 'Tuvix' from Star Trek: Voyager, when Tuvok, Neelix and a rare orchid were 'joined'. This opened a philosophical can of worms when a way was discovered to reverse the accident. Tuvix had ingratiated himself with the crew but his request to remain that entity was turned down in favour of bringing Tuvok and Neelix back.
- The Transporter became the gateway to a parallel universe, where other, mirror-personality selves dwelt. Spock's alternate self sported a goatee, which quite suited him. In the Deep Space Nine crossovers, Kira Nerys met her 'other self', the Intendent, who liked Kira so much that she wanted her for her sex slave. In that universe Quark the Ferengi fought for the Resistance and died for the cause, which was quite a joke as 'our' bar owner Quark would sell his own grandmother if it would make him a profit.
- Power surge creates duplicate transportee (with the possibility of meeting the 'other self' another time). This happened in TNG to Will Riker, whose duplicate 'Thomas' was left behind because no-one realised what had happened. Things were further complicated when the two eventually met up and Counsellor Deanna Troi, Riker's ex, fell in love with Thomas when he declared he loved her.
- The Buffer Zone, where Lt Reg Barclay saw huge creepy crawly things, invoked something known as Transporter Psychosis, which meant he required counselling sessions with the gorgeous Counsellor Troi.
The Non-fictional Transporter
So far this way of beaming oneself around the planet remains well within the bounds of fiction; perhaps just as well. But the subject is being discussed and tested. This is where we come down to the nitty gritty: travelling around is a pain, whether you're going from home to work or visiting relatives and friends. The increasingly-gridlocked roads are full of bad drivers and there are graphic TV news reports of plane crashes to scare you witless. If such a transporting device were invented, someone would have to test it. Would you develop 'Transporter phobia' (a recognised medical condition in the Trek universe), or be prepared to try it out?