Has Star Trek Technology gotten out of control?

Carol Kane as Pelia of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Photo Cr: Kharen Hill/Paramount+ TM & © 2022 CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Carol Kane as Pelia of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Photo Cr: Kharen Hill/Paramount+ TM & © 2022 CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

Star Trek technology is so well-defined with what the future looks like, we may have taken the imagination out of its potential future.

“Smooth, sleek, functional, and simple” describes Star Trek’s original and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s technology.

Matt Jefferies, the original Enterprise designer, created a very new construct, a revolutionary spaceship design in 1966.  As an aviator, he envisioned our favorite starship as simplistic in form and function.  The sleek and relatively featureless hull offered a “less is more” vibe which Jefferies suggested would be the future.  Outside access hatches, cumbersome equipment, and service ports, the “de rigueur” of real 1960’s spaceflight, weren’t needed in the far future since everything, he surmised, would be serviced from inside the futuristic spacecraft.

On top of this, he made another interesting engineering design statement.  Specifically, the starship engine struts.  They were very thin – almost fragile.  This was deliberate.  Were they  made of some unknown metal?  The tenuous struts seemed like they would fly apart when any stress was applied.  Yet, week after week, our Enterprise was “tough as nails” – surviving adventure after adventure.  Jefferies statement was clear, “This is the future!”

So, too, Andrew Probert, designer of Next Generation’s Enterprise-D saw the future in a similarly unfettered and evolved form.  His vision offered an Enterprise with no “hard edges” where everything was “organic and curved”.  That’s easy to see; there’s not a single straight line on the “D”.   Interestingly, architecture 30+ years later now reflect this same sensibility; elegantly curved bridges using ultra-strong materials now replace straight, metal girder designs from the past.  Star Trek: The Next Generation correctly predicted this freer formed engineering aesthetic derived from stronger non-metal (perhaps organic) materials.

Then something happened.

When Star Trek: The Motion Picture arrived in 1979 our refit Enterprise saw a dramatic design change.  Its smooth surface was replaced with a patchwork of welded panels, resembling a more space shuttle sensibility.  The refit Enterprise also bolstered, thick winged engine struts, and while she was beautiful on the big screen, she departed from Jefferies simplistic “form and function” design which came before it.

Later starship designs followed this new motif adding detail to starship models, driven by more elaborate special effects, bigger budgets, and higher picture resolutions.  It would seem our original Enterprise just wouldn’t be all that interesting on a big television (or movie) screen.

Now let’s venture inside and look at our starship bridge design. We went from a minimalistic original series design to, over a period of decades of increasing complexity to what we now have in Star Trek: Picard’s 25th century.

Season 3 introduced the new “Enterprise G” complete with bridge consoles crowding out every visual “nook and cranny” with some form of dynamic readout.  We have floor to ceiling displays overwhelming and dwarfing our bridge personnel.  Simplicity is no longer a working norm. Now, dozens of screens demand our attention, scattered across a wall of digital readouts.  Our crews are now presented with lots of eyeball movement with every display shouting “look at me.”  I don’t know about you, but if I were stationed at one of these digital walls, I’d want a very dark and dimly lit R&R away from Enterprise-G’s eyeball busting displays.  Here’s a Youtube clip from Picard showing off the very “showy” displays.

Interestingly, the Next Generation bridge also followed the original series design in that the displays were simple and uncluttered.  Of course, we know the reality here, neither early series enjoyed the benefit of amazing computer readouts because, well computers just weren’t around or complex enough to pull off an articulated display interface.  Today we can do a lot with computers – maybe too much.

Let’s investigate an actual cinematic example where “more” isn’t necessarily “better”.

Let’s start with “2001: A Space Odyssey” and its interior spaceship designs.  They seem very futuristic, even now.  2001 even predicted what might come with sleek and colorful displays, intuitive readouts, and interactive interfaces which are easy to read and yet are unobtrusive.  Space industry experts were called in to help make best guess “futuristic” production choices.

Compare 2001 to its sequel “2010: The Year We Make Contact”.  That movie employed CRT displays complete with Atari-like 8-bit screen readouts.  The display choices just shout really outdated (and primitive) 1980’s technology, a far cry from Stanley Kubrick’s carefully constructed vision of the future.

Star Trek currently suffers from this creative temptation, exhaustively using contemporary computer technology to delight audiences.   That’s probably a bad idea.

“Simplify” is what aircraft designers say, Star Trek creatives want the opposite.

When we compare a 1960’s aircraft flight deck complete with many dials, gauges, and readouts to its today’s equivalent, the newer designs are simple and uncluttered.  Aircraft computers now only display what’s needed at the moment instead of a dedicated gauge or dial for every possible aircraft situation.  Even us ordinary non-pilot folks recognize today’s flight deck as more akin to our automobiles than the intimidating flying button factories of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Why would Star Trek go into this more complex design direction? Because our hi-resolution television screens demand it.  Somehow our simple “less is more” strategy won’t cut it in today’s “make it look cool” productions.

Yet the real technological world is going in the opposite direction, simplifying everything.  Also, it won’t be long before the average person will finally get their flying car, and we know the inside won’t look or function like a classic Boeing 707.  It will look more like your current SUV.  In fact, many car features such as shifter, steering wheel, and console controls may not even be needed in a consumer aircraft as computers will monitor and act on flying complexities.

Maybe future Star Trek should seriously consider what the future will potentially look like by taking a quick “smoke break” and realistically reassess the potential future.  if they don’t, futurists who work on today’s Star Trek will be critically judged by a future generation of fans.  Somehow, I don’t think those giant projection screens on Enterprise-G crammed with a zillion readouts will be as graciously received in the future.  In fact, they might mocked as a hilariously “over-plumbed” Rube Goldberg monstrosity.  That might be a legacy we don’t want to create.

Next. Five Star Trek technologies/situations we should ignore. dark