This is a rant about an aspect of Star Trek that always bugged me: the deadly, dangerous, ridiculous Holodeck! If it seems familiar, you may have encountered it before. I wrote it back when the show (Star Trek: The Next Generation) was still running (1987-1994) and published versions of it then and later in various online venues (FidoNet, USENET, some websites). Long-time friends will certainly recognize the rant if not the writing. If you were on the net before the web, and you hung out in Star Trek places, you might have stumbled over this.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved my Star Trek then, and I love it still! It occupies a huge space in my heart as well as on my shelves. Recently I posted articles about science fiction in general and how I measure its character. I love science fiction; I’m a fan and heavy consumer going way back to kidhood years. The first Star Trek (The Original Series: Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, ‘and the rest’) was—pun intended—astronomical in my Wonder Bread days. There was a time I could identify a given show after seeing less than a minute of any part of any episode (and the bookshelf real estate is its own story).
Then Captain Picard came along with his crew, and it was a whole new deal. After a rough start, after the first two seasons really, The Next Generation went on to become the best of class. In part because it had such class. Patrick Stewart was class on legs, but he didn’t outclass the other actors or the writing or the directing.
[True story: when the first show aired back in 1987, after the first fifteen minutes ended, and the first commercial started, I called my friend and said, “It’s awful, I hate it!” But after that rough period, about when Crusher returned, it did go on to completely win my heart.]
It’s just my contention that the holodeck was a mistake. It was a fly in the ointment that made me say “blurg” instead of “wow!” And while the seasons of the show have long passed, the rant lives on. Here’s the deal…
Why I hated the Holodeck in Star Trek
I tend to lean towards benefit of the doubt when it comes to books and videos for entertainment. All I ask is that a story not make me mad. The problem with the holodeck was that it made me mad; really mad. It disrespected two important rules I have regarding science fiction. I want the science to not be so preposterous it ruins the moment. I want the fiction to not be so preposterous it ruins the moment, either.
When it came to the holodeck, the science seemed silly and logically loopy. It’s going to be difficult to avoid using the obvious pun, “Hoist by their own Picard” (got it in anyway!), but as presented the holodeck is confounded by its own logic. And it violated other key elements of the surrounding reality. In sum, the science was bad and so was the fiction.
The problem, simply put, is that the holodeck usually gave me a bad case of the “Yeah, buts!”
The holodeck is said to use replicator and transporter technology. Yeah, but… what about the sparkle effect? Transporters and Replicators sparkle and make noise when you use them. Holodeck: no noise, no sparkle. And we see stuff appear and disappear nearly instantly.
Yeah, but… what about the time delay? Transporters and Replicators take a few seconds; they aren’t instantaneous. Even the transporters of other species (different noise and sparkle effects!) are never instantaneous.
The holodeck can apparently simulate large virtual spaces, including the outdoors. Yeah, but… what happens when people can see each other from a distance? If you can see each other, but you’re pretty far apart, the other person should look small. What if someone is yelling at you from a four-story window or across a field? (Can you play baseball in the holodeck? Actually, Picard might be more likely to play Cricket.)
The holodeck can apparently simulate motion over a large virtual distance. Yeah, but… what about inertia? If magic transporter effects move the scenery around you, your body has no velocity, no momentum. You can tell when you’re moving when you speed up, slow down or change direction!
Yeah, but… how did it make Moriarty? Data is considered unique in the Trek Universe, in part because he is a machine intelligence. But apparently the holodeck’s computer can make a pretty good one based on very simple specs.
The holodeck has a safety mechanism that prevents it from harming humans.
Yeah, but it seems to break frequently, and it can be disengaged. There are some very clever children on the Enterprise. You’d think the “holodeck safeties” would be at least as hard to disengage as, say, your cable box parental controls. Really, you’d think it would be extremely difficult; something that requires the Captain’s authorization and special codes, rather than something that seems to happen almost accidentally.
How do you manage to build something that dangerous and not have a big, honking OFF switch? Why isn’t there an OFF switch? Why is it so hard to shut down?
It has to be getting power from somewhere; there must be circuit breakers somewhere. Otherwise, get a phaser; cut some power conduits. (Sometimes I wonder why Picard didn’t just weld shut the doors.)
Bottom line, the holodeck physics seemed to contradict other Star Trek physics, it’s was a foolishly dangerous “entertainment,” and even if we grant the goofy science and shrug off the stupid risk, they still didn’t use it like it could have been used. (They did come close in one of the TNG movies.)
Matter Of Perspective
This episode relies heavily on the holodeck and its almost magic power to be real,… but not that real.
Commander Riker is accused of killing a scientist to break a love triangle. Picard and company hold an investigation in a holodeck version of the scientist’s lab. A very accurate version of the lab.
It turns out that the holodeck representation of the scientist’s machine is so accurate, it actually works! You have to wonder why anyone would bother to use a physical lab if holo-technology works that well. Scientists increasingly use computer simulations now. Given holo-tech, imagine what might be possible! Assuming holo-tech makes sense. Which it doesn’t. (Although 3D printing is very interesting!)
Anyway, the story is hoist by its own you know what. Geordi tells us the machine needs coils made of a special material (dicosilium!), which the scientist had ordered in large quantities. (Seems like he would have been smarter to just use a holodeck–no backordering.)
In the end, the holodeck version works so well it explodes–just as the real one did at the start of the episode. Turns out that rascal scientist was up to no good and blew him self to pieces.
But while the first explosion destroyed a space station and killed the scientist. The holo-explosion of the machine in the holodeck… does nothing. It all just vanishes, leaving Picard and company sitting in their chairs in the familiar yellow-grid of the idle holodeck.
Presumably they were holo-chairs and a holo-desk; why bring in real furniture! Although if they were holo-chairs and the computer crashed, so would you! Just notice how the holo-computer is able to instantly vanish the holo-lab while leaving the holo-furniture.
On the one hand, things in the holodeck are as solid and lifelike as the items on the bridge. You can sit on the chairs and climb the trees. But on the other hand, they can vanish harmlessly in a nano-jiffy. Transporter and Replicator technology sparkles, makes noise and isn’t instantaneous. It can’t be both ways.
Elementary, Dear Data
Ship In A Bottle
(seasons 2 & 6)
In the season two episode, Geordi tells the holodeck to create an “adversary capable of defeating Data.”
The computer creates Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Moriarty. Pretty amazing trick for the computer; all it took was a single command from Geordi.
I guess you had to get the wording just exactly right.
In the much later one, Moriarty returns to plague the Enterprise. Lesson to be learned: be really, really careful what you ask the computer to do. It might create a virtual enemy that can beat you!
If Moriarty is considered an intelligent life form with whom Picard negotiates, what does that suggest about his giving orders to the Enterprise computer? After all, the computer created Moriarty; what does that make the computer?
Picard and Riker and Minuet. Another amazingly lifelike simulation.
Granted, it did turn out to be advanced programming by the Binars, but still, the holo-technology apparently allows pretty damn real simulations of people. That’s something we find very hard; simulating people realistically is hard.
Now,… when you kiss a hologram… what’s that like? How real does it feel? Does the flesh of holo-people actually feel soft and warm? Does the holo-computer generate lipstick and saliva? Maybe that was all the Binars.
But what about off the Enterprise? Is there such a thing as holo-porn? Quark’s bar (in Deep Space Nine) had holo-suites where I think it was implied.
The Big Goodbye
A one-in-a-million freak event causes the holodeck safeties fail and endanger Picard, et alii.
A Dixon Hill story. My question about bullets is: does the holodeck simulate the gunpowder exploding? Holo-objects do have mass (otherwise, hand me that piano); do holo-bullets in holo-guns have mass? What happens with any fast-moving object with mass (throw me that piano)? Holo-chairs are real, you can sit on them; what about that holo-gun, how real is it? How about a nail gun? Can you use one to build a holo-house?
Fistful Of Datas
A one-in-a-million freak event causes the holodeck safeties fail and endanger Worf, et alii.
Some think a Western episode indicates the death knell of a show with spaceships. (However, Firefly was a Western with spaceships—totally different concept.) How about a Western in the holodeck? Combine that with a holodeck malfunction, and you gots yer se’f a rip-rootin’ ol’ time!
I can think of many good stories that could take place on a real holodeck!
By “real” I mean a holodeck that doesn’t rely on magic transporter-replicator technology. All we need to assume is advanced 3D photo and display capabilities. Assume big improvements on image processing and the ability to project a real 3D image. Even a transparent image would work in the following ideas, but if we imagine solid image projection, they would look even better.
Would you trade any of the episodes mentioned above for:
» Suppose they displayed an image of every solar system they visited (as they entered the system), and a view of any planet they orbited. This could have been a semi-regular feature, like 10-Forward; a background for scenes. Imagine Bev and Troi apparently walking around, in space, in orbit, around this week’s planet!
» Mount a holo-camera on a probe, and fire it off into something interesting. The visuals could be very creative. The holodeck is an “effect” in real life, so it can look like an effect.
» There was an episode where Geordi used the holodeck to save the Enterprise and fell in love with the holo-image of a scientist. I would have liked to see Geordi walking around inside the engines! Wouldn’t you have liked to see that?
» We have CAT-scan machines now that generate 3D images of the inside of your body. Imagine Doctor Crusher walking around inside a patient’s body before surgery! What if it had been a really weird alien!
» In one episode, a hull-eating space virus infected the Enterprise. Imagine Picard and Geordi taking a walk around the Enterprise. Imagine the two of them standing on nothing beneath the gentle curve of the saucer!
I can see so many ways to add fiction to the science without completely compromising the science. I’ve always believed science fiction can be both popular and critically robust. I believe that science fiction, in particular, can sometimes even be educational!