Future Technology in the 'Star Trek' Reboots

Complex Future(s)

by Carl Wilson and Garrath T. Wilson

13 October 2016

Star Trek doesn’t foretell a type of future as a concrete inevitable outcome and final destination, it presents us with a fictional diegetic vision of how the world could be.
Construction of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek (2009) 

With our first explorative adventure in Future Technology in the ‘Star Trek’ Reboots: Tethered and Performative, we examined how, through looking at future cultures and locations brimming with advanced, shining examples of gadgetry that are tethered to our own contemporary reality, one might grasp that future technology across the Star Trek reboots—Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and Star Trek Beyond (2016)—doesn’t necessarily reflect a better way of living, or a more sophisticated culture, but can be one way in which, as “performative artifacts” within a fictional diegesis, they may reflect upon our own place within society and the governing ideological structure of society itself.

As a part of this introspective endeavor, when focusing on the technology used within the Star Trek franchise, there’s usually an attempt to lay out communicators, teleporters, phaser weapons, and hand-held tricorder devices as a prediction of future technology and as an attainable final goal. This is problematic because science fiction is not a terminus point; it doesn’t act as the end point of a straight line according to how we perceive the world will be from today, but rather it can be used as a lens for us to probe, reflect and actively shape today into the future that we want it to become. Star Trek doesn’t foretell a type of future as a concrete inevitable outcome and final destination, it presents us with a fictional diegetic vision of how the world could be.

Future(s) Technology

When considering the fluctuating probabilities presented by future worlds in the Star Trek reboots, perhaps nowhere is more at the forefront of this issue than the creation of the Kelvin Timeline, an alternate universe from the Prime Universe continuity of Star Trek: The Original Series, caused by Nero’s (Eric Bana) time-travelling attack on the USS Kelvin in the opening scenes of the Star Trek film (2009). As the events play out, Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) is able to bring technology (red matter and his ship, the Jellyfish) and information (such as the equation for transwarp beaming) from not only a different point in time, but also an entirely impossible to replicate future place of existence from within the Kelvin Timeline. 

According to visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, production designer Scott Chambliss (who worked on the design of the Jellyfish), imagined the ship’s exterior surface as “sophisticated technology married with organic things” as “It might even be a technology Vulcan’s ‘grow’, like a plant of high tensile steel.” Guyett also explains that the ship’s warp signature was intended to evoke clean “green” energy, in contrast to the “burned dirty fuel” aesthetic of the Narada (Star Trek: The Art of the Film, Cotta Vaz, 2009: 138 and 139). In the reboots, the planet Vulcan is destroyed, which suggests that the technological advancements enjoyed by an unhindered species would not likely be repeated in the Kelvin Timeline, but it’s equally significant that the notion of growing organic materials (and Spock Prime’s “human” response to using it: that it can’t solve the problem he was given, so technology still has limitations much like himself) is given space to breathe in a hypothetical future scenario where voice activated controls and a rotating tail section do not seem, to employ a double-negative, illogical. After all, bio-inspired structures are currently taking-off for optimizing support material in 3D printing and load bearing applications (such as bridges or medical splints) primarily as a result of the advancement in CAD and the high order of computations needed. Vulcan technology, in this respect, doesn’t seem that far-fetched, although the “growing” aspect is probably a long way off.

The Jellyfish and the Narada are excellent examples of hypothetical future ship designs. The Romulan ship, which is demonstrative of asymmetric organic design and chaotic nature, counterbalances the Vulcan ship which, with its symmetric design, represents a culture of ordered nature from the same future time period. The evolution of spacecraft in itself is also quite significant here, evolving across a timeline from boxy (retro), to iPad minimalistic (modern) to biological (future). In designing future scenarios for Star Trek, one might presume that the USS Enterprise is “the” future end point (as it has to look the “coolest” for the viewer who has paid to see the film), but actually the bio-mimetic design is far more complex and effective. This explains why Nero can destroy Federation vessels so easily, and why the drones (which are from the past but technologically more advanced) in Beyond are equally beyond the capacities of the Federation ships.

It also emphasizes how Star Trek is not a prediction of “the” future. Indeed, this approach is incredibly limiting as “Most futurists ... forecast a wide variety of ‘alternative futures’ rather than predicting ‘the future’”, to help people move towards their “preferred future”, while “monitoring their progress towards it, and reconsidering their preference in the light of new information [over time]” (Advancing Futures: Future Studies in Higher Education, Dator, 2002: 6). Those seeking to understand the future, tend to work with possibilities, not probabilities, and as such cultivate a range of evolving scenarios based on current knowledge and available trend data. 

Nero’s ship was designed to be a mining craft, and was used as such in the Prime universe, but given that it has only appeared in the Kelvin Timeline as a vessel for war and his ship, or its technology, have possibly not yet been invented, in an abstract sense, the Narada has never been a mining ship and the repurposed mining drill has only ever been used to destroy planets. It’s poignantly fitting that in travelling through time, Nero is also able to (mis)appropriate the alternative “future” technology of the black-hole creating red matter that was intended to be used as a method of saving Romulus Prime (Nero’s home planet), to destroy Vulcan (reboot Spock’s [Zachary Quinto] home planet) in the alternative past. These are fitting science fiction metaphors for the potential perils of harvesting and repurposing future technologies and expectations to fit contemporary culture: sometimes you get flip-phones and sometimes you get an off-brand variation on the Death Star that can wipe out your home world at the push of a (bio-mimetic) button.

To complicate matters further, the drill design “referenced particle collider technology”, according to Chambliss, which also further inverts the noble uses of (modern) advanced technology for exploratory purposes within the Star Trek universe. Combined with modern technological achievements, the Narada was also purposefully designed with the biological architecture of Antoni Gaudi in mind, with the exposed wiring being like sinewy tendons. The Romulan race were seen by the film’s designers as being especially emotional (certainly more emotional than the Vulcans) and they wanted to express this in the ship’s aesthetics specifically through the relatable touchstone of a 19th / 20th century Modernist designer from our collective past. As with Star Trek’s vision of Future-London and the interiors of the Starfleet ships, the past is just as crucial in anchoring the future, but in this example we can also see that the technology doesn’t have to remain believable through being strictly utilitarian and practical: it can also have a more overtly fantastical element tethered to the future possibilities and permutations of our current reality.

Without resorting to planet shattering black-holes, there are two distinct ways in which Star Trek’s “alternative futures” can help to shape the world today: 

It can be something to aim towards. Hence, communicators have become flip-phones, but in a way that is more advanced and suitable for contemporary living than the original ‘60s design anticipated. As Bruce Sterling points out: “If you successfully predicted 1975 while you were writing in 1960, there’s no reason why anyone nowadays would know or care about that” (Make It So: interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, Shedroff and Noessel, 2012: xix). This is why innovation and inspiration should not use a fixed influence from the past as a limitation, explaining why current mobile phone design has already moved away from the clam-shell Star Trek design to benefit touchscreen devices. NASA, for example, has also developed technology explicitly to reach its influenced future vision and is happy to move beyond it with real world applications (which is why there’s a whole section about the science of Star Trek on NASA’s official website).

Additionally, alternative futures can be used as a lens to view how future technologies can be used and appropriated within future worlds and contexts. So, for example, we don’t have image manipulation devices like we can see in Into Darkness when Kirk (Chris Pine) is looking at the John Harrison / Khan bombing footage (which in itself has echoes of Blade Runner [1982]), but crucially, this doesn’t prohibit the film from showing us ways in which such technology could be used (in this instance, a touchscreen interface on a handheld tablet), helping us to understand how they can be used (by law enforcement to review footage), the problems they solve (real time playback through three-dimensional space), and the problems that they raise (how many cameras would be required for such technology to be feasible, how precise can touch controls be, etc.).

The reboots are particularly interesting because they are not only a representation of a possible, plausible future, they also knowingly reference the original ‘60s television series (which also shows various potential futures). This explains why communicators in the reboots are still quite clunky in comparison to mobile phones in popular use circa 2009 (especially when it’s worth noting that communicators became small badges in Star Trek: The Next Generation, presumably in an attempt to move beyond the near-future mobile technology of the late ‘80s, when the show was produced). Obviously, how we read and respond to the ‘60s vision of the future is viewed through a contemporary lens, just as the ‘00s Enterprise of the Star Trek reboots can already be seen to be roughly analogous to the shiny and sleek iPad aesthetic of Apple—which the company has already refined and evolved in different directions by 2016. A subtler example of repurposing, instead of entirely overhauling, retro-futuristic Star Trek technology, would be the “dome atop the original [‘60s] Enterprise dish” that “seemed to only have a decorative purpose” but for the reboots was “rethought along the lines of a sensor bubble on the nose of an airplane” (Star Trek: The Art of the Film, Cotta Vaz, 2009: 90). This marriage of future possibilities with relatable contemporary design logic helps to make the franchise feel more relevant and comprehensible, even if it is currently impossible to replicate.

Naturally, “Our frame of reference unavoidably and unconsciously biases our interpretation of the world” (“Looking Past Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Using Future Studies Methods to Extend the Research Horizon”, Mankoff, Rode, and Faste, 2013: 1629), and this is certainly true for what may also be one of the most incongruous areas for the reboots: the occasional use of contemporary vehicles. From the vintage red 1965 Corvette Sting Ray C2, which young Kirk is seen driving at the outset of the 2009 Star Trek film, through to the contemporary BMW dirt bike Kirk inexplicably finds in an immaculately preserved condition in the USS Franklin mess hall of Beyond, the action-adventure genre roots of the franchise unabashedly show as the stitching to the seams of the future technology patchwork laid before the viewer. (“Will JJ Abrams or Justin Lin be directing a forthcoming Indiana Jones film?” one might wonder.) These vehicles are supposed to be anchored to our collective pasts, with, in the case of the Corvette, an extra nod to the ‘60s era when The Original Series aired.

It also makes sense that Kirk would have an appreciation for the 20th century in the same way that all Star Trek Captains before and parallel-future-in-front-of-him have had, but when the theatrical trailer and poster for Beyond foregrounds the bike (although in the poster it’s found at the opposite end from the Enterprise to make a pointed visual statement about having to traverse the technological divide), and more significantly, the film features bike stunt scenes that could have come from the World War II-based film, The Great Escape (1963), then the overt intrusion of realistic modern technology arguably works against the realism of the diegesis as it is directly competing with the future instead of being a sympathetic part of it (in the way that World War II aerial dog-fights can be upgraded into spaceship battles). While Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry stated that “If you wouldn’t believe it in the twentieth century, then our audience won’t believe it in the twenty-fourth” (Writer/Director’s Guide, Roddenberry, 1987: 9), you can also reverse the sentiment: sometimes not all technology in the hypothetical far-future feels futuristic enough, creating a type of diegetic-dissonance with our own reality—which has a value for insight (Why does the Federation pride itself on looking backwards or insist on clinging to the past while its looking into the future? Where would you obtain fuel?), but may be a little too jarring or evocative of Hollywood genre compromises to satisfy the demands of the viewer.

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