Suspension of disbelief caught fire and exploded


I didn’t like the premiere episode of the new Star Trek at all. I was so repelled that I felt no desire at all to see the second — but I know, other people feel otherwise. Even some scientists are still enthusiastic. For instance, Jeremy Yoder lists all the bad biology in past and present episodes of the show, and still recommends it, even after the galactic fungus and space-hopping tardigrade story, which makes me nauseous to even listen to the video clip explaining it with outrageous technobabble. I guess his ability to suspend disbelief is far more robust than mine.

So, honestly, it’s hard to watch almost any episode of Star Trek without my biology-sense tingling. But here’s the thing: the bio-bollocks is often deeply entangled with what makes Trek great. The episode of Voyager in which two characters are temporarily transmuted into one touches on questions of personhood, and what makes us unique, self-determining individuals. The shape-shifting villains of Deep Space Nine created innumerable opportunities for stories about paranoia and power in wartime and the risks of trading freedom for security. The biological impossibility of Mr. Spock’s parentage makes him a touchstone for anyone who’s lived with dual identities or a sense of alienation from their community. The de-evolution virus … well, okay, that one I can’t justify. But by and large, when Star Trek has stretched and often broken the limits of biological realism, it’s done so to tell stories that are worth the telling — and that inspired many a nerdy kid to stick with science long enough to learn how fictional Star Trek really is.

I agree that the pseudoscience isn’t the point of a Star Trek story. I just feel like, if the writers cared, they could take the time to get the science right, and that good science wouldn’t detract from a good story.

Comments

  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Or, y’know, just call it magic.

    There’s no reason that a lot of these things couldn’t be left up to “unfamiliar technology” or “uncertain etiology” or just meddling by members of the Q Continuum. It’s the desperate attempt to create a plausible sounding explanation when, for the purposes of discussing safety and paranoia in wartime, we don’t NEED an explanation of anything other than, well, safety and paranoia in wartime.

    It’s the fact that they put so much obvious effort into creating something that is supposed to sound plausible that makes those of us to whom it is clearly *not* plausible feel as if our collective intelligence is being insulted.

  2. tacitus says

    Not saying they couldn’t have come up with a completely different premise for the series, but once they opted for some kind of innovative propulsion system as a core conceit of the show, they had to solve the problem of it being nowhere to be found in all future Treks.

    A physics-based solution probably gives them less leeway to create a scenario where the technology is not only abandoned, but never spoken of again, as well as the lack of any other space-faring civilization independently coming up with the same technology.

    Given that, a biological solution kind of makes sense — something so completely out of left-field that it might never be discovered except through some freak accident or eureka moment, and that eventually (at the end of the series, presumably), has to be abandoned for some reason, and hushed it up.

    That’s the generous explanation, of course. More likely, someone came up with the idea, and everyone on the team thought it was new and innovative, and something they could create some cool stories and visuals around, without much thought about the science aspect.

  3. laurentweppe says

    There’s no reason that a lot of these things couldn’t be left up to “unfamiliar technology” or “uncertain etiology” or just meddling by members of the Q Continuum

    It’s even part of the fungus/tardigrade storyline: “It’s made of exotic particles”. So you have the “It’s magic, don’t ask” explanation PLUS technobabble on top of it.

  4. says

    The initial concept of Stargate: SG1 gave us a convincing reason for the galaxy being filled with humans. Humans make good hosts for the parasitic Goa’uld, and more general slaves, so the Goa’uld transplanted them all over the galaxy. Unfortunately the writers eventually came up with the Ancients, who were recognisably human and may have created the human race on Earth and human races elsewhere.

  5. A. Noyd says

    Compounding the insultingly bad science is how most of the characters are irrational to an extreme—even when they’re supposed to be super smart and capable. Because, like all the deus-ex-machina tech, the ridiculous decisions the characters make are being used to push the plot in certain directions without regard for plausibility.

  6. fentex says

    I too watched the first episode of Star Trek:Discovery, and have no wish to see any more. Which is an impressive trick to achieve – I’m essentially the same age as doctor Who and Star Trek (in that I was born just before doctor Who started broadcasting, a couple of years before Star Trek) and I grew up with the Apollo program – managing to make me disinterested in Star Trek required impressively bad work.

    Except I’m not disinterested in Star Trek, I still love to watch it. It just, oddly, has changed it’s name to The Orville.

  7. microraptor says

    The bad science in Star Trek doesn’t bother me so much as how utterly inconsistent it is. If writers could actually remember the stuff they do on the USS Make Sh*t Up between episodes, it would be great.

  8. piscador says

    The thing is with all the iterations of Star Trek is that nobody could ever accuse it of being good science fiction. There’s just too much bad science and techno-babble. Nevertheless, the various series had enough redeeming values to make me feel a degree of affection for them – the general note of optimism, quirky and interesting characters and the fact that they were by far the most progressive mainstream TV shows on American TV.

    The Star Trek cinematic reboot and Star Trek: Discovery lack the good points and left in the bad science. I’ve tried not to be an old fogey (I saw the original series on TV when it was first telecast in the late sixties) but I just can’t make myself like the new Star Trek. At least we have Orville.

  9. Callinectes says

    One of the problems is that it is impossible to write a character who is smarter than you are. The best you can do is tell the audience that they are smart and then imply that all their intelligent actions and achievements occur off-screen.

  10. says

    I’ll have to admit, I’ve always much preferred George Lucas’ approach to technobabble — or at least his approach pre-Midichlorians.

  11. Matthew Herron says

    What I’ve never understood is with the massive budgets these shows (and sci-fi movies) carry, why don’t they set aside a measly $10k and hire a grad student to read through the script.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    This is the best show in the Star Trek franchise, by a country mile. That’s because it’s about characters who are recognizably human. Saying it’s “bad science” is a joke, since FTL has been a given since day one, just for starters. I’ll take bad science with real characters over lame attempts at “explanations” with two-dimensional idiots occupying a utopian Federation any day.

    For me, TNG reached its nadir with the utterly sociopathic final state of the Prime Directive. But it did serve the purpose of demonstrating that Patrick Stewart could spout the most vile crap with a straight face, as well as the most banal crap. Such versatility.

    It’s no Babylon 5 (or even Stargate SG-1), but I’ll keep watching Discovery for now anyway.

  13. gijoel says

    I’m enjoying Discovery, though I feel there’s a lot Star Trek lore they’re abandoning for no good reason. The Klingons look wrong, and talk like they’re eating a box of chalk.

  14. whheydt says

    Re: Post title.

    Marion Zimmer Bradley used to say that “suspension of disbelief” *didn’t* mean hanging it by the neck until dead.

  15. Bruce H says

    I’m enjoying the show, but I have to admit that it lost me a few times. One of the most egregious WTF moments was when Michael set the tardigrade free into the vacuum of span, and then it rehydrated. Where did it get the water to do that?!

  16. unclefrogy says

    there is no sci-fi that is perfect star trek is set in some future which from this vantage point seems very remote.
    For get the magical science and the technobabble the idea of a federation of stars and an earth society that is egalitarian that is some futurism right there.
    It is what sets it apart from star wars which is some kind of civil war, the daily news with a fantasy space and magic powers fighting an evil king it is about power.
    I have not seen the new one yet but if they solve all the problems John Wayne style it will become monotonous.
    I have been watching the netflix serial dark matter, it is in to the third season and good action and the conventional unrealistic space sci-fy stuff good action but what makes it stand out is it is a serial and has some of the well made cliff hangers I personalty have ever seen lots of mystery what will happen next

  17. microraptor says

    unclefrogy @17:

    Dark Matter is a Sci-Fi/Sy-Fi Channel series. And it got the ax after the third season, so those remaining cliffhangers aren’t going to get resolved.

  18. codeslinger2001 says

    Yeah.
    Hate-watching. It’s awful. Put up with it ’cause I get it free in my country.

    Lost me at a HUMAN performing the neck pinch.
    Really lost me at a STARFLEET OFFICER assaulting her captain.
    Really, REALLY lost me when a graduate of the bloody VULCAN SCIENCE ACADEMY tried to commit mass-murder.

    May the Great Bird of the Galaxy shit on the people responsible.

  19. codeslinger2001 says

    And @Rob Grigjanis #12
    “That’s because it’s about characters who are recognizably human.” I understand why this appeals, but it’s also one of my biggest hates about this show.

    Because the people of Star Trek aren’t SUPPOSED to be recognizably human.

    They’re supposed to be BETTER than we are. They are supposed to have chosen to improve themselves. To actively work at co-operation and pacifism. They are meant to represent what WE might build to make the future better.

    That was Q’s accusation wasn’t it? That for all their technological advancement humanity was still bestial, still blood thirsty? Still petty, still small minded, still emotionally immature. That we could never escape our nature?

    Star Trek is supposed to be a shouted “No!” against all that is small and hateful in humanity. I’m sorry if that makes for poor television.

  20. unclefrogy says

    microraptor
    I do not know if that is helpful or not but it reminds me of a much older program
    Blake 7 as in that one there is no way that it could ever be plausibly resolved. they did get to do a final bit which was very fun.
    in this one the principles are not going to “win” ultimately the vision of the future is not a very optimistic one but it is a fun ride with sometimes sympathetic human characters in an impossible situation
    uncle frogy

  21. auraboy says

    It has some great actors and set design/vfx but those self same actors aren’t given much to work with.
    I’m giving some of the a-typical Starfleet bellicosity a pass as it’s set pre-Kirk when even Starfleet was up for a bit of punch something until first contact is established. I quite enjoy the clash of the militaristic Captain, who refers to everyone as ‘soldier’ with the more idealistic elements of his crew.

    But, yes, the writing needs to step up a good few warp factors. And what was with all the swearing in the recent episode? I have nothing against making a more adult-themed Trek but to confine it to one episode was… strange…

  22. Dunc says

    I just feel like, if the writers cared, they could take the time to get the science right, and that good science wouldn’t detract from a good story.

    If you get the science right, the core premise of Star Trek (and most other sci-fi) disappears entirely. Sure, there are plenty of stories that don’t require ludicrously mangled science, but almost none of them involve space travel of any kind, and the ones that do tend to be pretty boring, what with the very long travel times and the almost total lack of anything interesting happening. The adventures of robot geologists do not make for gripping TV.

    Sure, there are lots of valid criticisms to be made – but they all apply in spades to every other iteration of Star Trek too. I get the feeling that a lot of people criticising it haven’t rewatched any of the other shows in the franchise recently, or with anything like the same critical eye. Or just don’t like Star Trek, which is fine…

  23. Dunc says

    Because the people of Star Trek aren’t SUPPOSED to be recognizably human.

    They’re supposed to be BETTER than we are. They are supposed to have chosen to improve themselves. To actively work at co-operation and pacifism. They are meant to represent what WE might build to make the future better.

    […]

    Star Trek is supposed to be a shouted “No!” against all that is small and hateful in humanity.

    Remember how McCoy was always making overtly racist jokes about Vulcans?

    I’m guessing you probably didn’t like DS9 much either.

  24. says

    “space-hopping tardigrade story”
    SPACE-HOPPING TARDIGRADE!!!
    SPACE-HOPPING TARDIGRADE!!!!!!!
    S P A C E – H O P P I N G T A R D I G R A D E ! ! ! ! ! ! !

    How could that NOT be true. Tardigrades can do ANYTHING!

  25. says

    There is speculation that everything from the number on the ship, to the entirely not at all Star Fleet behavior is because Discovery isn’t about the Star Fleet we know, but the beginnings of section 31. Basically, the show is about the invention of the rogue agency inside Star Fleet who, in nearly every series, except the original, ends up using everything from bioweapons to alien tech to, “protect the Federation from dangerous aliens”. If true, these people are not meant to be likeable, their actions are likely to be paranoid and nuts, in many cases, and the tech they use is invariably going to be borderline dangerous, and nothing any real Star Fleet ship ever implements on their own ships. If this is the case, and they can manage to pull it off as a show, without dragging it out so far that *everyone* stops watching, because it doesn’t “fit” anything else in Star Trek lore, is anyone’s guess.

  26. birgerjohansson says

    “What I’ve never understood is with the massive budgets these shows (and sci-fi movies) carry, why don’t they set aside a measly $10k and hire a grad student to read through the script.”

    Myself, I would suggest every SF TV show or film must be vetted by a group of tech-savvy 15-year-old SF fans who will scrutinize it for logic flaws and loopholes, and then suggest believable fixes.
    Imagine what that would have done to “Lost”!

  27. JoeBuddha says

    I watched the original on black and white when it came out as well. I’ve always had to shift into Comic Book mode and ignore most of the “science”. Even so, I still cringe every time the transporter does anything. It’s necessary to the story, but probably the worst “science” of all, not counting the phasers that make folx disappear.

  28. Dunc says

    Kagehi, @ #27: To nitpick, Section 31 appeared in Enterprise, so this can’t be about their beginnings. But yeah, Lorca’s got a very heavy S31 vibe about him, and the registry number certainly looks like a clue.

  29. whheydt says

    Re: birgerjohanson @ #28…
    My wife visited the set of the original Star Trek a couple of times. On one such visit, she asked about the obvious scientific howlers and inquired if they had a research department–and, if so–how did said howlers get through? She was informed that, yes, they did have a research department. It’s job was to answer one, and only one, question: Will this get us sued? If the answer was “no”, then the script was approved as is. (FYI…she would up compiling the concordance data for the first two seasons which was later combined with similar work for the third season and the animated series and published.)

  30. says

    Wait, what? What? Are you F’ing kiddin’me? Is this some kind of Vulcan pull-my-finger-joke? Teleportation by tardigrades and inter-dimensional fungus? WHAT? Did the writers consume ‘shrooms while writing the basic plot?

    I know the basic premise of sci-fi tends to be a bit out there, but come on.

    Well at least I know what NOT to watch while I wait for season 3 of The Expanse.

  31. Vivec says

    Personally, I couldn’t give less of a shit how realistic the science in Sci Fi is. I watch it for fun escapism and weird aliens, not for boring and depressing “deconstructions” where FTL and silly aliens don’t exist.

    Give me more Flash Gordon and less The Martian pls

  32. John Morales says

    Vivec, fair enough, but that’s like not caring at all about historical accuracy in historical fiction.

    But I agree much so-called science fiction is plain fantasy fiction.

  33. Vivec says

    I largely don’t care about historical accuracy in historical fiction either. I’d take a hundred “Jason and the Argonauts” over a single dreary biopic.

  34. fentex says

    Inability to suspend disbelief is not the problem with Discovery – it’s a story told it’s own way that anyone could suspend their disbelief for.

    It just isn’t in keeping with the ethos of Star Trek (so that reason for liking Star Trek is missing from Discovery) and it isn’t well written (a judgement call, but that’s my judgement – an example; a first officer striking their captain in an effort to countermand their orders is mutiny, the mutineer should not have a career after that, at all. It was drama without consequence, which is poor writing ).

    Discovery is trying to be Battlestar Galactica, not Star Trek, and in doing so has – along with nu-Trek at the movies, killed Star Trek. Some may like what is left but it’s not Star Trek, it is not bold people going forth to seek out strange new worlds, it is a thing of it’s time: paranoia, fear and violence.

  35. consciousness razor says

    John Morales:

    Vivec, fair enough, but that’s like not caring at all about historical accuracy in historical fiction.

    There’s also something to be said for the fact that we’re talking about science fiction, which isn’t nonfiction. PZ and others don’t really mind when fundamental physics is blatantly violated for the story (e.g., no Star Trek at all without FTL travel). It’s a fictional universe after all, so no problem, right? But when it’s about tardigrades or whatever, then you’ve crossed some kind of a line. Then it better be nonfictional fiction … or something.

    Unless it’s supposed to be funny perhaps, I don’t think writers are going to have their characters telling you it’s all make-believe/magic/fantasy every time wacky stuff happens. That would become very boring, first of all, but it would also take you out of the story. They’ll probably try to write technical-sounding/sciencey types of descriptions and explanations, which maintain a somewhat serious tone, because that’s how realistic people (according to the writers) would talk/behave in such situations. It’s not done to present the real world (or science) accurately, but in order for their fictional world to presented in an interesting/compelling way. Science isn’t the big all-important thing that must be served — things just need to work for the story, because these are writers, who write stories. In that sense, something resembling science can play a similar role as it does in the real world, but all sorts of liberties might be taken with particular facts.

  36. consciousness razor says

    a first officer striking their captain in an effort to countermand their orders is mutiny, the mutineer should not have a career after that, at all.

    Many characters on the show say exactly that. The (new) captain doesn’t agree.

    It was drama without consequence, which is poor writing

    There have been various consequences (apparently more to come), but not the specific one you expect/demand for a mutineer. They sentenced her to prison, assorted people have acted very coldly around her, it’s one reason that admiral has stopped trusting the captain (a friend-with-benefits or who knows what), a eugenics experiment may or may not have gone awry because the Lt. still couldn’t trust her while he was in command. Lots of shit happened because of it.

    They also say it’s a first time for the fleet, so it’s not as if they have a lot of precedent to work with.

  37. sarah00 says

    I’m slowly starting to enjoy it, now I’ve given up thinking of it as a Star Trek series. The fight in the mess after Michael arrived on Discovery was the last straw for me. I realised the writers had no understanding of what makes Trek special but if you forget that universe then it’s kinda fun in a dumb way.

  38. John Morales says

    cr @39,

    There’s also something to be said for the fact that we’re talking about science fiction, which isn’t nonfiction. PZ and others don’t really mind when fundamental physics is blatantly violated for the story (e.g., no Star Trek at all without FTL travel). It’s a fictional universe after all, so no problem, right? But when it’s about tardigrades or whatever, then you’ve crossed some kind of a line. Then it better be nonfictional fiction … or something.

    Yes. it’s fiction, but it’s supposed to be science fiction. Liberties are not just allowed in that genre, but expected — some fundamental breakthrough that vitiates current theoretical limitations is fine, but blatantly breaking empirical rules is not. And for it to be SF, it has to at least try to be internally consistent within its own rules.

    But I realise I am extreme in that I prefer my SF hard rather than squishy, and in that I don’t lump science fiction with speculative fiction. de gustibus and all that.

    (Remember the potion that gave ordinary people TK abilities and which was never mentioned again in TOS? :) )

  39. khms says

    I’ve read the argument – multiple times from various people, a number of them SF authors – that for good SF, you pick a small number of violations of known science, and then try to get everything else correctly, try to get the consequences of your changes correctly, and in general get the story consistent.

    You should, of course, also do all the other stuff that makes for a good story, this is just what makes that story good SF. (One of which is, incidentally, not too obviously preaching your personal politics to the audience – for some reason, I’m seeing that more and more often recently.)

    Personally, I’ve long believed (pretty much since I’ve first seen some examples) that one of the more important bits is (where appropriate) correctly depicting the process of science. Traditionally, that’s something SF often gets wrong. That excludes stuff like the super-scientist who makes all the important discoveries, personally constructs all the important gadgets, and so on; or wiping away the kind of established science that is fundamental to almost everything (such as ignoring that evolution tells us all life on Earth is related, and inventing an off-planet origin for humans – that’s a popular one).

    Galaxy-wide compatible biology is a tricky thing. It can be done reasonably well, I think I’ve seen two or three examples – but usually, it’s done badly, either by completely ignoring the problem, or by coming up with an “explanation” that doesn’t really work. And can we lay off the completely unjustified human-alien hybrids, please? (And yes, sometimes, you can justify them … mostly by claiming that we were related in the first place, and then handwaving the remaining problems – or possibly (many authors seem to not be aware of this option) by just explaining that scientists are completely baffled by how this can possibly happen, and keeping that stance.)

  40. anchor says

    Let’s face it. Crap is crap. Sturgeon’s law suggests the general preponderance of crap. Star Trek never elevates itself out of the popular interstellar space-opera police force dominated by humanoids habit. It always belonged in the crap category. It is pseudo science fiction, and that’s always crap.

  41. fentex says

    Re:Mutiny…

    They also say it’s a first time for the fleet, so it’s not as if they have a lot of precedent to work with.

    You are doing a better job at suspending your disbelief than I if you can swallow that. We have centuries of precedence with Mutiny.

    When writers try nonsense like that it’s evident they’re the ones with a problem, not the notional Starfleet they write of – and it’s a signal to an audience that the writers don’t care about their reality, it isn’t real to them, they don’t care if it functions like a ‘real’ world. Their only interested in their characters and will bend not only our reality but the fictional world as well to any lengths to have things work as they please for their characters.

    It’s childish, it’s juvenile and if I wanted that kind of story telling I’d read baby books written by babies.

  42. petrander says

    Also, you gotta give Star Trek some credit for trying to promote diversity and gender/race/nationality equality from day one, even if done imperfectly. Not only did the original series’ deliberately feature -in leading roles- a Japanese officer (remember WWII was only decades ago), a Russian officer (Cold War was at its peak) and -no less- an African American WOMAN officer (Civil Rights Movement was still ongoing as well as Second Wave Feminism) on the bridge. Clearly, Roddenberry was on the right side of history with Star Trek from its very inception. And this tradition has pervaded all subsequent movies and series of the franchise.

    I just started re-watching ST: TNG and although the earlier episodes make me cringe at the short skirts of many female crew members, and the sexualisation of officer Deanna Troi, it also features a great diversity of strong women and some effort to include people of different ethnicities, even if white dudes are still over-represented. Also remember how ST: DS9 had a Black captain and a strong-willed female major calling the shots. The latest series is no exception with an African (American?) women in the lead role and even casually exposing the homosexual relationship og two of the main characters.

    I saw a comment on facebook from someone who admitted he enjoyed the new series except for “all the social justice bullshit”, which he tried to ignore. Maybe an example of suspension of disbelief applied incorrectly? I mean. Seriously? Star Trek has always been about social justice!

Leave a Reply