The Kelvin timeline movies have changed Star Trek in ways that may seem at first like dumbing the franchise down. But it makes for a show that respects its fans’ intelligence.
Let’s face it. We’re not going to see another Kelvin timeline Star Trek movie, and with Celia Rose Gooding, Ethan Peck, and now Paul Wesley taking over the roles of Uhura, Spock, and Kirk in Strange New Worlds, I think that’s it for the Kelvin timeline cast, too. So I think it’s time we assessed the lasting legacy of the Kelvin timeline movies. Its greatest legacy is a controversial one. Ever since the first Kelvin timeline movie back in 2009, Star Trek hasn’t had to pretend its technology makes sense.
I personally went into the 2009 Star Trek movie with no expectations whatsoever. The previous two entries in the franchise, the TV series Star Trek: Enterprise, and the movie Star Trek Nemesis were both duds and suffered from franchise fatigue turning off fans. To get people interested in Star Trek again, they had to do something different. As such, all I knew going in was that this would be something completely different from the franchise I knew and loved.
I was prepared to be surprised, but the biggest surprise I remember was loving a plot point that I’d have hated if you’d told me about it beforehand. A plot point that represented a pretty significant change to how Star Trek is written—red matter.
As you’ll remember, the Romulan sun was about to go supernova. Spock was on a mission to reignite the sun using red matter. He was unsuccessful, and the explosion threw him and a Romulan mining ship back through time, which is how they reset the continuity.
What was the Red Matter in the Star Trek reboot of 2009?
Well, it’s matter that’s red. It can reignite dying stars, but if you get caught in the explosion, you go back in time. That’s all you need to know. It reminds me of Arthur C. Clark’s famous adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic”. Red Matter is so nonsensical that it may as well have been magic, but that’s the point. Because advanced technology would look like magic, incomprehensible technology is totally justifiable in sci-fi.
Nineties Star Trek would’ve felt the need to explain that red matter worked by “generating a verteron field that stimulated tetryon particles to form a quantum singularity in subspace”, or something. But by doing away with such explanations, the 2009 Star Trek script felt light, free, and propulsive.
Such explanations are what we call technobabble, and they are pointless when you consider that they’re basically explaining nonsense with more nonsense, as if two doses of nonsense cancel each other out. The Star Trek scripts even treated them as interchangeable meaningless noises. For instance, if Geordi said “We could use the deflector dish to create a narrow-band chroniton stream. I’ll need four hours to modify the lateral vector emitters”, the script would simply say “We could [tech] I’ll need four hours to [tech]”.
But shouldn’t stories make sense? you ask. Not when it comes to sci-fi technology. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the role of sci-fi to predict future technology, it’s to use hypothetical fictional technology to tell a good story. If sci-fi features technology that can not or will not ever exist, it’s not a failure, as long as the story is good, that’s all that matters.
The very first work of modern sci-fi, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein features science and technology so erroneous that it’s an object lesson in the primitive beliefs we once held about how the human body works. Frankenstein is still one of the greatest works of fiction ever written.
Technobabble insults our intelligence by presuming that we need to hear big sciency words every so often to understand that we’re watching a smart show. Ironic that the big dumb action movie of the franchise is the first one to respect our intelligence in this way. Doing away with technobabble doesn’t render Trek tech nonsensical, it merely drops the pretense that a few lines of incomprehensible dialogue make it make sense.
I don’t remember hearing much technobabble in the modern shows. Star Trek is now in the post-technobabble phase, thanks to the Kelvin timeline movies. Imagine if Star Trek: Discovery’s already incomprehensible spore drive had been further weighed down with meaningless explanations for how it worked!