My Favourite Trekkie Arguments

Written: 2000.04.29

In this website, I have discussed many Trekkie pseudoscience claims, and I have attempted to explain how they tend to violate basic principles of logic and science (particularly in the area of thermodynamics and energy management in general). However, some Trekkie arguments don't use pseudoscience at all. This is actually a good thing; pseudoscience is a truly despicable blight upon the world. It underlies stupidities like Creationism and New Age mysticism (such as the moronic "mind over matter" explanation of firewalking). In the minds of such laypeople, it replaces real science because they would rather hear scientific-sounding "proofs" of what they want to believe, as opposed to truly scientific disproofs of their cherished superstitions.

Like many technical people, I am absolutely disgusted by pseudoscience. In fact, when I think about it, I suspect that much of my distaste for recent Star Trek (and the annoying arguments of its advocacy fans) is related to my abhorrence for pseudoscience.

However, the arguments which don't rely on pseudoscience can be just as flawed in their own way, and because I don't address them in the technology areas of my website, they can go unanswered. I grow fatigued of answering the same repetitive non-tech arguments over and over again via E-mail, so I decided to list a few of my favourites here:

  1. Good Guys Always Win

  2. The Rebels Won, So We Can Too

  3. Give Us Fifty Thousand Years

  4. We Learn Faster

  5. Time Travel



Good Guys Always Win

I hear this argument all the time. It usually sounds like this:

"You've produced a lot of numbers and calculations and theories to explain why the Empire should be able to beat the Federation, but this is fiction, not reality. In fiction, the good guys always win. Therefore, the Federation would destroy the Empire."

Other variations sound like:

"The Federation always finds a way out of every bad situation. This would be no exception."
"The Federation has a lot of ingenuity and has always used that ingenuity to succeed."

This is a cute argument, but it grows a bit tiresome with repetition, and it's really not much of an argument. Yes, good guys always win. But that's because they're always pitted against bad guys that they can handle. Pit them against bad guys that are out of their league, and that situation changes.

For example, let's take John McClane from "Die Hard" versus Megatron from "the Transformers." If some insane person wanted to imagine a fight between the two, would you take McClane's side? Would you argue that he'd use his ingenuity to somehow defeat a 60 foot tall armoured robot that can crumple tanks with his bare hands?



The Rebels Won, So We Can Too

A minor alteration upon the previous argument goes as follows:

"If the Empire is so great, then why did they lose to a bunch of rebels? If a bunch of rebels can defeat the Empire, then the Federation can obviously wipe the floor with them."

This argument seems a bit more clever than the last one, but it still doesn't make sense. If the Empire has superior weapons technology compared to the Federation, then the Rebels would also have superior weapons, albeit in smaller numbers (and we should remember that Ackbar's fleet and massive 3 mile long Home One warship refutes the "half-assed backwater rebels" myth).

This argument is based on the completely unsupported assumption that the Federation is superior to the Rebel Alliance (not to mention some severe oversimplifications, such as ignoring the role of Palpatine's arrogance in the Empire's fall). But it silently incorporates this assumption into its premise without calling attention to it. This is the clever part of the argument. It is designed to cloak the fact that your opponent assumes the Federation to be superior to the Rebel Alliance without bothering to provide a shred of proof.

You can't take a defeat at the hands of a technologically equal enemy and equate it to futility against a technologically inferior enemy. If I argued that the mighty Japanese battleship Yamato would easily destroy the entire Spanish Armada, would you retort that the Yamato was destroyed by a bunch of tiny American carrier planes, so the Spanish Armada would therefore have no problem? Such a retort wouldn't make any sense at all.



Give us Fifty Thousand Years

I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard this argument:

"The Empire may be more powerful than the Federation, but they've been exploring space for tens of thousands of years. The Federation has only been exploring for a few hundred years, so it's not a fair fight. Give the Federation tens of thousands of years, and then we'll talk."

This argument basically claims that because the Empire has numerous built-in advantages over the Federation, it's not a fair fight. But this is a pretty strange definition of "fair fight." If we decide that a fight is only fair when the two contestants are evenly matched, then all fair fights will end in a draw. Does this make sense? I don't know about everyone else, but my definition of a fair fight is one in which the two contestants have to play by the same rules. The two contestants don't have to be evenly matched. If Lennox Lewis fights Pee Wee Herman, I consider it a fair fight as long as both fighters wear the same gloves and obey the same rules. It would be an incredible mismatch, but it would still be a fair fight.

Our Trekkie friend is trying to take a fair fight and turn it into an unfair fight. Instead of taking the Empire and the Federation and simply pitting them against one another as they are, he wants to give the Federation tens of thousands of years to prepare. This is ridiculous. If I asked whether the 21st century American armed forces could crush Julius Caesar's Roman army, would you answer that the Americans have an unfair advantage? If you do, you would be evading the question. Of course they have an advantage; that's why they would win!



We Learn Faster

I find that this is a common argument among the more intelligent-sounding Trek debaters:

"The Empire may have faster propulsion and bigger weapons, but the Federation has superior research abilities. Look at how much they advanced in the last 80 years! They learn very quickly and adapt new technologies very quickly, and that would give them the edge in a war. It wouldn't take long for the Federation to reverse-engineer Imperial technology and start incorporating it into their own ships, but the Empire doesn't seem to have any R&D at all."

There are several problems with this argument:

  1. It assumes that the technological stasis of Star Wars (and presumably, other ancient technologically static sci-fi groups like the Vorlons and Shadows from B5) must be due to incompetent scientists. It ignores the fact that everything has limits, and Star Wars may have reached the limits of technology. For all we know, the people of Star Wars (and the Vorlons, and the Shadows) might have discovered all of physics. Any technologies which they don't use would presumably be due to apathy or mistrust (eg. their established prejudice against droids, and the obvious philosophical problems with transporters).

  2. It exaggerates the rate of technological advancement in Star Trek by confusing incremental improvements with genuine developments. Transwarp research began in the Federation during Captain Kirk's era (before ST3), but after nearly a century of work, they still haven't got a working prototype. In fact, if we look at the improvements of TNG over TOS, we find precious few genuine new technologies. Phasers, photon torpedoes, warp drive, impulse drive, and transporters all work the same, with nothing but incremental improvements between TOS and TNG. Replicators and holodecks are merely creative implementations of transporter technology. Data has sentient AI, but so did M5. Quantum torpedoes seem to be the only genuine new development, and their importance is questionable: in practice, they're just more powerful photorps.

  3. It assumes that a war would drag on for so long that research and development would be a major factor. However, the delay between the start of research and the production of a working prototype is far too long to fit within the duration of the sort of monstrous blitzkrieg that the Empire would unleash upon the Federation. WW2 is often brought up as an example of wartime technological development, but we must remember that WW2 lasted for more than half a decade, and we must also remember that the most famous developments of WW2 (nuclear fission bombs, jet aircraft) were the fruition of research that began long before the war. It's not as if scientists suddenly started working on the entirely unfamiliar concepts of nuclear physics and rocketry in 1939! And since the Federation has been working on transwarp for more than 80 years without success, it's downright ridiculous to expect them to go from concept to prototype on hyperdrive in a few weeks or months.

  4. It assumes that reverse-engineering of highly advanced, totally alien technoloy is realistically feasible in a short timeframe. Arthur C. Clarke once said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and we might add the addendum that this means we'll have a hell of a time reverse engineering it! In order to successfully reverse engineer an unfamiliar piece of technology, you must first understand the underlying scientific concepts. You must also possess sufficient technology to permit analysis. Without a similar level of advancement and scientific comprehension, the job is hopeless. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci would be hopelessly overmatched if he attempted to reverse engineer a modern computer CPU, because he wouldn't even be able to see the thing in detail. He also would have no idea how they built it, and he wouldn't have the necessary materials or tools even if he understood the process.

Contrary to the oversimplistic expectations of many Trekkies, reverse engineering is neither quick or easy. It's difficult enough even without the added hurdle of a general technology gap, but when you throw in the effect of such a gap, it becomes hopeless. Consider the example of Leonardo Da Vinci given above, or if you want a Star Trek example, consider Voyager's "7 of 9." She's part of the crew, but she was a Borg drone. She understands all of the concepts underlying Borg transwarp drive. She knows how it works, and how it's built. But even with all of this formidable knowledge, the crew of Voyager have failed to incorporate transwarp into their ship after years of trying. Why? Because their technology isn't up to the task. Even when 7 of 9 modified the ship to support transwarp, it was found that their systems lacked the necessary precision and control to make it work. I can't imagine how someone could possibly believe that an advanced, alien technology could be reverse-engineered and then duplicated in a matter of weeks or months, either in real life or in Star Trek.



Time Travel

Ah, time travel. As a good Trekkie might say, "our last, best hope." I'm sure you've heard this argument before:

"The Federation would use time travel to jump into the past, and wipe out the Empire before it was ever created."

I left this for last because it requires a lengthy explanation. This argument is quite persuasive upon first glance, but upon reflection, a few obvious problems appear:

  1. Why so rare? If time travel can be used as a panacea for every mistake, battlefield defeat, and ill turn of fortune, then why is it used so rarely on the show? Why were crushing defeats like Wolf 359 or the Romulan/Cardassian massacre in TDIC not reversed by time travellers? Federation law? Let's not be silly; if any ship with warp drive can use the slingshot, this opens up time travel to every half-assed starship captain in the galaxy.

  2. Can they pull it off? We know starships can use the slingshot effect to travel several centuries into the past. However, this act requires fuel. It puts strain on the ship (serious strain, as we saw in ST4). So who's to say it could survive a much longer trip, say, a thousand years instead of a few hundred? What about ten thousand years? What about a hundred thousand?

  3. What's the point? In the universe of Star Trek, there are an infinite number of parallel timelines (as seen in "Parallels" and "Mirror, Mirror"). When a ship performs a time-jump, it must create a divergent timeline (more on this later). It can wreak havoc in this divergent timeline, but why would its departure have any effect on its original timeline?

It may be helpful to list known examples of Federation time travel, all of which fall into a small number of categories:

  1. Accidents

    • Too many to list. They usually involve some natural phenomenon, such as black holes, wormholes, or "temporal anomalies".

  2. Assistance by outside forces.

    • Guardian of Forever: Seen in "City on the Edge of Forever". Not large enough for a starship, with a lower range limit of at least a few millenia. It cycles through a list of "permissible" destinations, generated through some unknown algorithm. Doctor McCoy inadvertently used it to go back to the 20th century.

    • Borg Sphere: Seen in STFC. Capable of moving entire starships, with a lower range limit of roughly three centuries. It sent itself back to the early 21st century in an attempt to assimilate Earth's past, and the Enterprise rode its "temporal wake".

    • Bajoran Orb of Time: Seen in "Trials and Tribble-ations". Capable of moving entire starships, with a lower range limit of roughly one century. It was used to send the USS Defiant 105 years back in time, as part of a failed assassination attempt against Captain Kirk. The use of this device, as with all of the Bajoran orbs, is presumably contingent upon the forbearance of the so-called "Prophets".

    • Atoz's time portal: Seen in "All our Yesterdays". Not large enough for a starship, with a lower range limit of many millenia, perhaps even millions of years. It was used on Kirk, McCoy and Spock, who all suffered loss of reasoning faculties when moved to a prehistoric era.

    • Timeships: Specialized time travel vehicles from the future or from alien civilizations. Seen in "A Matter of Time", "Future's End", and "Year of Hell". The latter two examples are Voyager episodes in which the writers' abuse of time travel finally reached the "ludicrous" stage, making TNG seem downright reasonable by comparison.

  3. Slingshot effect.

    • The slingshot effect uses some horribly unrealistic pseudoscience to explain how one might use the Sun to travel backwards in time. It was used to send the Enterprise forward from the 20th century to the 23rd century in "Tomorrow is Yesterday."

    • A slingshot effect was used to send the Enterprise back to the 20th century in "Assignment Earth".

    • A slingshot effect was used to send a Bird of Prey back to the 20th century in ST4.

  4. Transporters.

    • First seen in "Mirror, Mirror." A transporter accident (how many of these have we seen in Trek?) threw Captain Kirk into an alternate timeline. This timeline was visited again in the DS9 episodes "Crossover", "Through the Looking Glass", and "Shattered Mirror", again using the transporter.

    • Transporters were also used for time travel in "Time's Arrow", "Past Tense", and probably several other episodes, always to travel just a few centuries back in time.

As we can see, most Trek time travel has been limited to a few centuries of "temporal displacement". The small handful of long-range time travel incidents have involved technologies which can only move a person, not an entire ship (thus suggesting that movement through time is similar to movement through space; the bigger the object, the more difficult the move).

When we look through the list, we find that once we eliminate small-scale techniques and outside intervention, the only viable method of Federation time travel is the slingshot effect. This creates serious constraints. The slingshot effect places great strain on a starship, and long-range use of this technique has never been observed (or even attempted). The process consumes fuel at an undetermined rate. It places an undetermined stress on the ship. Given these problems, how can the Trekkies insist that there are no limits to the duration of time travel using the slingshot? How long must we suffer Trekkies who insist on assuming that every process is limitless and free unless proven otherwise?

In any case, even if they can somehow resolve the "how" part of the question, we must still wrestle with the "why" part of the question. It is widely assumed that problems can be "solved" through time travel, ie- if something went wrong, you can go back and make it "right". But does this make sense? How does time travel affect the timeline? This question affects the potential usefulness of time travel as a solution for problems, and it leads directly to the infamous "grandfather paradox."

The Grandfather Paradox

We've all heard about the Grandfather Paradox. You step into your handy-dandy time machine. You jump back in time. You murder your grandfather. Now he's dead, and he won't ever sire your father, who in turn won't sire you. This means that you won't be born. But if you were never born, then how could you go back in time and kill your grandfather?

This is an old question, pondered by scientists, philosophers, and anybody who watched "Back to the Future" or "The Terminator". One obvious solution is that time travel might simply be impossible, thus eliminating the problem. However, general relativity predicts the existence of wormholes, and wormholes would theoretically permit time travel. Stephen Hawking has suggested a sort of "cosmic censor" who acts as a universal timecop and ensures that causality paradoxes never happen. This timecop might kill you before you can kill your grandfather, or make him duck to tie his showlaces just as you pull the trigger, etc. And of course, those who optimistically predict the eventual feasibility of time travel tend to resort to the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Now, I must preface this with the very important caveat that the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics has been widely discredited. However, if we are using suspension of disbelief, then we must assume that it is valid anyway, because the parallel universes predicted by the "many worlds" theory have actually been observed in Star Trek. Parallel universes were seen first in "Mirror, Mirror" and then more spectacularly in "Parallels", where hundreds of thousands of Enterprise-D's from parallel universes could be seen.

Now, how does the "many worlds" theory explain the Grandfather Paradox? Well, if an infinite number of parallel timelines exist, then the Grandfather Paradox can be explained quite easily. You step into your handy-dandy time machine. You jump back in time, but in the process, you create (or enter) a divergent timeline. You murder your grandfather, but this happens in the new timeline. Back in your original timeline, your grandfather was never murdered, so you still exist. In effect, you are an alien visitor to this new timeline, having come from a different universe.

This solution is not without problems. If you move from one universe to another, then mass/energy conservation laws will be violated because both universes will experience a mass/energy change. However, this can be solved if an equal amount of mass/energy goes the other way, to take your place. Interestingly enough, this is precisely what happened in "Mirror, Mirror". Kirk and his mirror-universe alter ego changed places, thus preserving symmetry. This symmetry is not seen in the TNG and DS9 time travel incidents, but that's merely another example of how TOS is superior to its bastard stepchildren. One could always rationalize it by saying that the return mass/energy was dispersed widely across space etc., but the symmetry shown in "Mirror, Mirror" is a better solution.

"Many worlds" in Star Trek

Some serious problems with Star Trek time travel can be solved once you accept the "many worlds" theory:

Although the "many worlds" theory may have been discredited in real life, it seems to be the only way to explain Star Trek time travel as we've seen it on the show. It explains causality paradoxes in "City on the Edge of Forever" and STFC, and it also explains why time travel is not being used to solve problems, because it means that time travel doesn't really change anything. It only moves the traveller into an alternate universe where events unfold more to his liking. An interesting consequence of this explanation is that we've really been following a group of characters as they move from timeline to timeline, so we haven't stayed in a single universe throughout the series run of Star Trek.

Conclusion

We can now answer the original three questions posed at the top of this section:

  1. Why so rare? This question can be answered by concluding that it probably is not so rare; it simply isn't perceived. There are probably countless time travellers, but each time a traveller leaves, he simply moves to a divergent timeline and disappears from his original timeline. Since we don't follow any timeline jumpers but the main characters, we don't perceive their activities. At best, we might perceive unexplained disappearances of starships, or mysterious "transporter accidents".

  2. Can they pull it off? That's an open question. We know that the only viable method is the slingshot, and we have evidence that there may be range and durability issues. However, the evidence allows us to establish lower limits but not upper limits. This remains an open question.

  3. What's the point? This is the real problem. The "many worlds" solution to the causality paradox leads us to conclude that a time traveller cannot change his original timeline. He can only move to a different timeline, in which events unfold more to his liking. For a soldier losing a war, it would be an act of cowardice since he would quite literally be running away from his defeat. That explains why they only use it when they've been moved to a different timeline against their will or by accident, since they can't get home but they can at least get to a timeline which they find preferable.

This appears to be a very long-winded answer to a simple argument. But the original argument is only simple because it deliberately overlooks numerous complexities affecting Trek time travel. When we take a more serious look at it, the time travel argument doesn't work.



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