When Gene Roddenberry and his team first put Star Trek on the air, there was no way he could know just how far Moore’s Law would take us. How could he have any conceptualization of what computers, cell phones, tablets, and cars would be like 300 years in the future?
He couldn’t. No one can know the future, not for certain.
Trek returned to TV twenty years later, in 1987, and though everything was highly upgraded, there were still technological advancements that were completely unexpected that have since made TNG into something of a dinosaur. Here are ten of them.
1. Communicators That Only Communicate
Captain Kirk and company had what, in 2000, you thought of as a cellphone. It was a flip-top device with a few buttons and a tiny screen. Captain Picard and his crew used badges that you simply tapped and gave a voice command to. I compared communicators to my cellphone back in 2011 (and in the same article predicted that that year’s iPhone would be the 4S, not the 5) and found communicators to be on the losing side of nearly every equation. Some of the tie-in writers have done cool stuff with them — Daffyd ab Hugh’s part of the Invasion series shows just what Janeway can do with a little badge — but overall they’re the Trek equivalent of dumbphones. I admit that my phone is kind of an amalgamation of tricorder and communicator, but then, why would you need both devices in the future when you can have only one that does both right now?
2. Addiction in General
Addiction was most notably explored in “Symbiosis” and “The Game”, and pretty much ignored the rest of the time. The thing is, when TNG was airing was the same time that the U.S. was hitting “don’t do drugs” really heavily. These days there are still anti-drug programs as well as those ubiquitous “not even once” anti-meth ads, but the concept of drugs being our biggest problem has fallen by the wayside. I know for people who are (or have been) addicted it’s a huge part of their lives — either giving in or resisting — but the big push these days seems to be stopping people from getting addicted to prescription drugs that they started taking out of need (such as painkillers) and stopping people from sharing mental performance enhancement drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall. Maybe this is a personal thing, but to me the episodes about addiction feel horribly dated and heavy-handed.
3. The Lack of Money
In Gene Roddenberry’s future, no one used money. Sure, you could buy stuff with “credits”, whatever those were, but it was famously put in several TNG episodes (and First Contact) that the Federation didn’t use money. The problem the writers ran into, though, was that it was really hard to write bar scenes and frontier worlds if there was no way for money to change hands. So even before TNG was off the air the producers and writers invented “gold-pressed latinum” as a form of currency. I imagine the Ferengi were involved. No matter how advanced we get, either as a culture or a united planet, we’re still going to need to trade goods for services and vice versa. The barter system doesn’t really work on a massive scale — just how many chairs does it take to buy a car, anyway? — and we’re going to need money to keep track of it.
4. Memory in a Computer
TNG’s best example of this is “The Schizoid Man”, and I’ve hung a major lampshade on it in my review of “Our Man Bashir”, but at this point we’ve learned that no computer will be big enough, powerful enough, or have enough memory to hold the entirety of one human’s knowledge. While the concept is very cool, it’s definitely a sci-fi conceit that won’t go away no matter how many times we disprove it. It does, however, lead to a lot of good sci-fi. Not that “Our Man Bashir” was good sci-fi, per se, but “The Schizoid Man” wasn’t a bad episode. Of course, then you also have “11001001”, where the entire computer memory of an entire race of beings was put into the Enterprise computer, and I’m not sure that I bought into the idea even back in 1988.
5. The Transporter
As a corollary to the previous, if it takes that much memory just to pattern a human brain, imagine how much memory it would take to pattern a brain plus a body? I mean, it takes DirecTV two hours to download a two-hour film in HD from the internet to my DVR, and that’s just so I can watch the antics of the American Pie gang in their latest adventure*. Even at the fastest speed over fiber-optic cable, it would still take a few minutes to get the movie to me… but when you’re going down to an alien planet, there’s no wire. It’s all over-the-air. It’s fast, sure, but it’s not that fast. Plus, you have to scan a person into the machine, send the data, and reassemble said person at the other end. How exactly are we going to send that many molecules in anything resembling a good clip? I know it’s just Star Trek, but the more we learn about what exactly it would take to transport a person, the less likely it becomes. Unfortunate but true.
6. The Effects of Terrorism
Terrorism is addressed a few times in TNG, including the addition of a former terrorist/freedom fighter to the crew. Again, it’s not until DS9 that the concept of the two things being synonymous is truly addressed (the Cardassian opinion of the Bajoran Resistance), but the thing about TNG was that we never really saw how pervasive an effect terrorism has on cultures. Sure, in episodes like “The High Ground” we saw increased security, but what about the cumulative effect? How much has your life been changed by terrorist attacks in your country? September 11, London, and so on were more than just an attack on a specific place — they were an attack on an entire people, and its effects are still being felt today in the continued erosion of privacy and security in the name of freedom and safety. And I live in a country where terrorism doesn’t happen very often; imagine how much different this paragraph would’ve been if I lived in the Middle East? I wonder how people who live there feel about TNG‘s portrayal of terrorism.
7. The Lack of Social Networks
No writer in the TNG era could possibly have predicted anything like Twitter and Facebook. The voluntary announcement of everything we do (and the photographs of everything we eat) was a completely alien idea. However, some Trek did occur during the rise of social networking — to wit, Enterprise — and yet it was completely ignored. I guess it would’ve been difficult to extrapolate out just how much of an influence social chat, video, and photos would have on that world. I can hope that, by 2364, we’ve gotten ourselves under control, but I think it has to get worse before it gets better.
8. Bans on Genetic Engineering
Throughout the entire run of Star Trek, the concept of genetically engineering humans to be better, faster, stronger, and smarter has been looked down upon. In fact, one of the best villains in all of Trek, Khan Noonien Singh, was genetically engineered. Even now debates rage over the ethics of enhancing humanity, and the technology isn’t far behind. We can already use drugs to improve mental and physical conditioning, and the moment a drug becomes available to treat a condition that exists due to laziness, it gets used. With obesity as big a problem as it is, if you had the chance to change your child’s genetics so s/he would never have to deal with that, would you? I know it can be somewhat of a slippery slope to go from something that simple to actually improving a person to be “better” than everyone else — again, dealt with much more ably in DS9 than TNG — but in the TNG era, genetic engineering was still completely verboten in the Federation, and that’s not going to last.
9. Weird Computer Keyboards
The QWERTY-vs-Dvorak argument notwithstanding, what do you think the odds are that your keyboard will look like this [[insert image to right]]? Ever? But even with the popularity of personal computers in the 80s and 90s, the TNG production designers chose instead to modernize the TOS keyboards. No one has a QWERTY anything; instead, they use what must be some form of T9 typing to input commands. Who still uses T9, anyway? Every phone has a full keyboard, and many can use something like Swype so you don’t even have to type the whole word. I predict that QWERTY (or its Chinese equivalent, if the Chinese culture takes over Western civilization) will still be in existence by the time we get to the 2300s. I mean, if you think about it, they still have QWERTY keyboards on Serenity, don’t they?
10. Heterosexual Sex is the Only Sex
“The Host” and “The Outcast” were TNG‘s only real efforts at exploring nontraditional relationships during the run of the show (although if you believe the tie-in novels, Lt. Hawk from First Contact was openly gay and in a relationship with a security officer named Ranul Keru). And, to my mind, they really failed at it. “The Host” had a huge missed opportunity at the end. I mean, it’s 2012 now and I work with several openly gay and lesbian people, some of whom are in committed relationships. I have to think that, 350 years down the line, the concept of it being strange and weird will have gone away (I realize Beverly’s issue was with Odan’s changing forms, not his/her sex, but still). And then, in “The Outcast”, the writing was treated as such a heavy-handed dose of morality that was so clearly supposed to be about homosexuality that I just couldn’t deal with it. Later, DS9 did explore the concept of Trill hosts and sexuality in a much better fashion, but I can’t think of a single canon Trek that dared to even try and address male homosexuality. I realize that TNG ran from 1987 to 1994, and back then it was much harder to address these issues on TV, but remember that the original series did get Kirk and Uhura to kiss when it was taboo for a white person to even think about being romantically involved with a black person.
* It was actually a pretty decent movie. Better than the direct-to-video ones, that’s for sure.