Myths: Star Trek

Written: 1998.11.08
Last Revised: 1999.04.25

There are a number of myths which are widely held among Star Trek fans. Some of them are interesting but clearly incorrect. Others are simply ridiculous.

  1. Star Trek has predicted many developments in science and technology.

  2. Star Trek is the most scientifically realistic science fiction series.

  3. The Borg can assimilate virtually anything they come into contact with.

  4. The Borg can adapt to any weapon, and become immune to it.


1. Star Trek has predicted many developments in science and technology.

Many Star Trek fans believe that numerous real-life technological developments have occurred because of Star Trek. A recent post by yet another scientifically ignorant trekkie (who refused to divulge his real name, which is always a good indicator of poor credibility) included the following:

"Nothing in SW has actually happened whereas ST predicted such things as cell phones (communicators, including shape and physics behind it), creation of antimatter (using Lithium, rather than Dilithium [which would logically be more efficient]), transporters (although at present we are limited to subatomic particles), the finding of Quasars, fiber optics, what are affectionately known as 'Okudagrams' (after the ST design artist who created them), finding of 'Dark Matter', not to mention numerous other things...)"

Star Trek predicts nothing of consequence. People who think it "predicted" real scientific or technological developments are simply ignorant of how venerable some of these developments really are. Star Trek is written by people who like to keep up with current developments, but they do not predict developments.


2. Star Trek is the most scientifically realistic science fiction series.

There appears to be a common conceit that Star Trek is the most scientifically realistic science fiction series in existence. The sentiment has been repeated in newsgroups and E-mail with statements such as the following:

  1. "All Star Trek technology is based on real physics, researched by the scientists who work for the show."

  2. "Read 'The Physics of Star Trek' by Lawrence Krauss. He's a PhD, you know. He says that warp drive and transporters are both possible."

As you can clearly see, there seem to be a lot of Star Trek fans who actually think that Star Trek is realistic! This notion deserves to be brutally cut down. Star Trek differs from other science fiction series in that it makes a greater effort to create the illusion of realism, but make no mistake: once you get past the over-use (and abuse) of scientific terms, Star Trek is no more realistic than Star Wars, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, or even cartoon series like Voltron and Transformers.

It may be best to address these trekkie statements separately:

If you are interested in any more trivia about Star Trek realism, go to Star Trek Realism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.


3. The Borg can assimilate virtually anything they come into contact with.

This myth is unusually irksome. Unlike some of the myths described on these pages (particularly the various silly anti-SW myths), it is not restricted to a small minority of Star Trek fans. Instead, it is accepted by a lot of Star Trek fans, perhaps most of them.

Cracking the myth

First, the obvious question: is this really a myth? Or is it the reality of Star Trek? Well, it is pretty obviously a myth. The Borg were unable to assimilate Species 8472 life forms or bioships in "Scorpion". They were unable to assimilate Data when they captured him in STFC. The Hirogen border their territory and have resisted assimilation for thousands of years. The Dyson Sphere seen in "Relics" has undoubtedly been sitting around for millions of years, given the extent to which its star's aging process had progressed, yet it showed no signs of Borg encroachment. The Voth also border Borg territory, and appear to have no fear of Borg assimilation whatsoever. We have several concrete examples of their inability to assimilate biological life forms and/or technologies. Is any more evidence necessary? The Borg obviously cannot assimilate any and every life form or technology, and we have canon proof for this conclusion.

The response

The standard trekkie response is that these were "special cases", and they then go on to explain why these cases were unique and in no way a disproof of Borg godlike and omnipotent assimilation capabilities. I have heard literally dozens of variations upon this excuse, expounding upon the precise reasons why these particular incidents would never ever be replicated anywhere, for any reason, under any circumstances. But the people who write such rebuttals fail to see the point: once we know that their assimilation techniques are not omnipotent, then the myth is broken.
It doesn't matter how "special" their failures were; they were still failures. And as long as we know that they can fail to assimilate a life form or technological object, then we know that they cannot automatically be assumed to be capable of assimilating any and every alien race or technology that they encounter. They might be able to do it, but they might not. It certainly is not a foregone conclusion.

The Borg and Kal'el?

This myth probably stems from a superhero-style mentality on the part of some Star Trek fans. I've said this numerous times- it isn't necessarily a stiff-necked adherence to real science that characterizes a scientific approach to science fiction. It is a mentality. Science is all about determining cause, effect, and limits. If we don't know how something works, we can at least derive lower and upper limits for it. If we cannot derive these limits from theory, we can generate preliminary limits by simply looking at what they've done or failed to do. In any case, we do not simply say that if we're not sure what the limit is, then there not be any limit at all!
Why do I call this a superhero-style mentality? Because that's basically the way that superheroes and their superpowers are described. Look at Superman's power of flight. He can fly, but does anyone ever worry about what his maximum speed in atmosphere is? How about his maximum speed in space? Does he have any altitude limits? No one ever asks these questions because flight is one of his "special powers." Similarly, look at his laser vision. Does anyone ever worry about what his maximum power output is? Does he have a maximum firing duration? Does he have a recharge time? Does he have a minimum power output? Are there limits to how tightly he can control the frequency and/or power of the beam? No one ever asks these questions because laser vision is one of his "special powers." So what about the Borg? Is their assimilation an actual technology, complete with capabilities, restrictions, and limits, or it is a "special power?" From the comments of some of my E-mail correspondents, it's quite clear that it is regarded as a "special power" rather than an actual technology. "Silly" is about as apt a description as I can come up with.

4. The Borg can adapt to any weapon, and become immune to it.

Where did this myth come from?

I'm still trying to figure out exactly how the idea spread that the Borg become godlike, invincible and immune to a weapon once they figure out what it is. While it is true that the Borg seem to be able to resist Federation weapons quite well once they figure out what they are, there is no indication that this means they are completely immune to any and all weapons once they figure out what they are. Obviously, this is just another example of the Star Trek fan "superhero" mentality, as applied to another Star Trek concept (see previous section).
I am guessing that the myth spread because the Borg were seemingly impervious to the attacks of a single Federation starship in "Q Who?". However, the clash between the scientific mentality and the superhero mentality again rears its ugly head. Rather than describe the ability to resist the weapons of a single Federation starship as a lower limit, the fans have instead decided that it is proof of godlike omnipotence! Why worry about limits when you can simply assume that "adaptation" is a "special power" and that they can adapt to anything? The most stunning example of this nonsense is the recurring trekkie claim that a Borg cube could shake off a Death Star superlaser blast once a previous cube had been destroyed, because it would have "transmitted enough information to the collective to make the other cubes immune." If you can read and understand the various multi-syllable words in this paragraph, then I am sure that you can see how obviously unscientific and oversimplistic the "superhero Borg" mentality is.

Cracking the myth

This myth is clearly refuted by the canon films and episodes. In STFC, we see that although a Borg cube can become seemingly impervious to the weapons of a single Federation starship, it cannot withstand the massed attack of dozens of Federation starships. This demonstrates that Borg "adapted shield" lower limits are somewhere above the firepower of a GCS and below the massed firepower of a fleet containing dozens of Federation starships. We can also see Borg cubes being blasted into fragments by Species 8472 bio-ships and destroyed by simple planetary debris in "Scorpion". And of course, we all know that Borg drones are helpless against any sort of physical attack, whether it's the claws of Species 8472, the bullets of Picard's tommy-gun in STFC, a well-thrown elbow, or one of Worf's various artfully sculpted slicin' and dicin' toys.
Slice

The response

As usual, the Star Trek fans who espouse this particular myth complain vigorously that these are "special cases" and should not be taken as disproof of the omnipotent, godlike, invincible, unlimited abilities of the Borg special "adaptation" superpowers. They can come up with an endless string of rationalizations about why these special cases should be ignored. The phrase "self-deception" comes to mind ... they obviously don't want to relinquish their superhero interpretation of the Borg, so they pretend that the various incidents which contradict their preconceived notions "don't count."
As noted in the previous section, it doesn't matter how "special" the Borg failures were. They were failures, therefore they disprove facetious claims about the omnipotence of Borg "adaptation" superpowers. Furthermore, the very assumption that the technology has no upper limits is like a banner, declaring that they are incapable of applying the scientific mentality to their favourite science fiction show.


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