Wednesday, May 13, 2009

An Inherently Counterfictional Star Trek

The whole intent of this most recent Star Trek film is to provide a counterfictional environment in which to tell stories using the classic Trek characters without the burden of hewing to continuity of the myriad existing properties. Additionally, as the filmakers desired to get the entire crew together years earlier than within the existing timeline, new events must occur to thrust them together.

Basically, it's right up this blog's alley.

The mechanism which the filmmakers chose is reasonable in its basic conception, and perhaps the best available. The execution of this mechanism, as well as some of the ramifications for future stories within this rebooted universe are the subject of this post. This is in part critique of the movie, but moreover it's an examination of storytelling, physics and The Rules of the Game as established or discounted by the film.

Those avoiding spoilers should stop reading NOW.

Seriously, there are tons of spoilers below.

Okay. They must be gone. Let's proceed.


Physics and Star Trek.

One main difference between Star Trek and, say, Star Wars, is that Trek always tried to come up with a plausible explanation for things, even if it ended up wildly wrong. In the original series (TOS) this technical continuity was sometimes as simple as a button on the helm doing the same thing each week. And, given that hard science articles were probably a bit harder to track down during the writing of what began as a western in space, I tend to forgive a lot of the issues in The Original Series. When you're breaking new ground, sometimes you misstep. They tried. And things did get better by the time The Next Generation (TNG) rolled around.

For movies made today, with so much good science as close as the internet, I'm way less forgiving when physics are thrown out the window.

Here's the thing. Star Trek has always been intended to be our future. It's not a fairy tale. It needs to take place within a plausible version of our universe or it loses a fair amount of its power.

Continuity and a reboot

The writers of the movie committed to a choice which prevented them from giving over continuity altogether: Ambassador Spock travels from the 24th century. Because they're using a character from the accepted timeline, there is an expectation that everything that is “canon” has actually occurred to Spock. That is, he made the necessary calculations for time travel in “The Naked Time” in 15 minutes. He died in ST II and Returned in ST III. He traveled back in time in a rickety Bird of Prey in Star Trek IV.

I can understand adjusting issues of time ine to make this Star Trek relevant to us (clearly the Eugenics Wars of the '90s did not produce Khan. Unless I missed it), but the essential events that make him the Spock we know and love must needs be true, otherwise this older fellow named Spock carries no weight when he tells us things.

Part 1: The Inciting Incident.

The incident which allows the reboot is a supernova in the 24th century. Spock tells us that it needed to be stopped or it could destroy all life in the galaxy. I buy this... He's over simplifying, but a very powerful supernova could threaten life throughout Star Trek's alpha quadrant with its intense radiation.

But the star that novas cannot be the main star in the Romulan system, if we believe Spock's version of events. If it were to suddenly go supernova, Romulus would have only minutes to react, and collapsing the star with a singularity would do the citizens no good; without starlight, they'd all be dead anyway.

So if we take Spock at his word, that he tried and failed to save Romulus, the star has to be at least a few lightmonths away from the Romulan system, which gives plenty of time to begin an evacuation. As much as I admire Spock, were I a Romulan I'd make double sure of my survival and get off the planet while Spock works his magic.

Additionally, as this is the Spock who has been through TOS, the movies, TNG, etc. he is fairly adept at time travel. Failing to stop the Supernova by minutes or hours should be no problem for him, because he can zip back in time and make things better, especially considering he's in the fastest ship available, made by the Vulcan
Science academy. The one possible explanation would be that one cannot time travel with red matter, but that is proven false by subsequent events.

Here's what I think may have happened: studies showed that the Romulan star was approaching Nova (there is precedent for monitoring things like this, I believe, in TNG episodes) and Spock planned to stabilize the star and save the Romulans from having to give up their home world. But his plan went horribly wrong. He caused the star to go supernova, thus destroying Romulus. He had to act quickly to prevent the supernova from threatening the rest of the quadrant.

This direct guilt makes the case for Nero's lust for vengeance even more compelling. As it is, he is seeking retribution against someone who failed to be a hero, rather than someone directly responsible for an event. Which makes Nero more crazy than he really needs to be.

And, perhaps Spock's guilt for what he has done (having doomed both Romulus and Vulcan) plagues him, and has shaken his confidence in his ability to do rapid time travel calculations, etc. This is why he accepts a self-imposed exile in this alternate timeline in the 23rd century.

Or, as my brother points out: Spock could be lying. For all we truly know, he may be the evil Spock from the mirror universe who has cleverly shaved his goatee. Think about it.

Part 2: Troubles with the Physical Universe

One of the things that TOS and TNG were both pretty good at is conveying the notion that space is big. Super big. And empty. It takes time to get places. One of my huge problems with the Star Wars prequels is that because it takes very little time to get to places that are supposedly far flung, it shrinks that galaxy in an unfortunate way. But in ST, we're used to hearing things like “The nearest ship is two weeks away.”

There's a compression of time in the new Star Trek that is difficult to parse; it seems that the journey from earth to Vulcan takes only a few hours. It's conceivable that Kirk is unconscious in sick bay for quite some time, but that's not the “hurry, hurry” feel that is implied.

Traditionally, Vulcan is 16 light years from Earth. Even traveling at warp factor 9 on the TNG scale (where v=[W^(10/3)]c ) it would take the Enterprise around 4 days to cover that distance. If that is reduced to mere hours, it compresses the Alpha quadrant in an uncomfortable way. The mission to seek out and new life and new
civilizations loses a lot of down time when you can go places so quickly, but it's often in the down time that we actually get to see non-action related character growth: the poker games in TNG, the holodeck, etc.

So it's not the specifics of how fast the ship can go that bother me; it's how it makes the vast emptiness of space less imposing. You could say that they moved Vulcan closer, but the likelihood of Vulcan being closer to us than 16 light years given the universe we can observe in the 21st century is very small. Again, ST should, as much as possible, take place in our future.

This compression of space is carried over to the end of the film, when the Enterprise hides from Nero's ship in the atmosphere of Titan. While the image of the Starship emerging from the clouds is absolutely beautiful, the Enterprise is a hell of a long way from Nero. If they wanted to hide within striking range, they should be behind the
Earth's moon. They've got a several hour trip from Saturn, unless they do some crazy point to point warp thing, which has traditionally been unacceptable in the ST universe. But perhaps the filmmakers are changing that for this retelling. If in this technological timeline it's perfectly acceptable to warp from one planet to another within a solar system, this point is moot.

In other physical problems, there's an inconsistency in the treatment of atmospheric reentry. Kirk, Sulu and the ill-fated red-shirt are able to dive into Vulcan's atmosphere with no ill effects, while the escape pod that carries Kirk later shows definite thermal effects on reentry. This is one decision that I just don't understand. It would have been a relatively simple effect to give the space jumping crew members an exterior shell that burned off upon reentry, leaving them in their sleeker action suits by the time they had to open their chutes.

Related to gravity and atmosphere: starships need to be built in space, not Iowa. There is no plausible way to get the Enterprise off its moorings and into orbit. The image of Kirk overlooking the construction is great, but I wish that writers had embraced the similarities with Star Wars on this point and given the farm boy a set of powerful binoculars which he could use to observe the orbital construction.

There are other physical points to nit pick, but I'll end with this: When an enormous piece of metal falls from a great height into San Francisco Bay right next to the Golden Gate Bridge, the bridge will not survive. Even if it chunk of metal misses. The bridge will be severely damaged, as will bits of the city, from the resulting ground and water shockwaves.

Part 3: The Vulcans, The Romulans, The Klingons, and Star Fleet

In the movie, it is a huge revelation to Captain Pike that Uhura overheard that 50 Klingon ships have been destroyed by Romulans. If she had intercepted this message, every captain in Star Fleet should know about that. Losing double digit starships is a big deal, no matter whose they are. And it's especially significant if you're in a cold/occasionally hot war with the Empire in question. Perhaps Nero's appearance significantly changed the Federation/Klingon dynamic: it doesn't matter. Every captain needs to know that the Romulans suddenly have some serious fire power and are using it.

In conventional Trek timeline, no one knew that Romulans looked like Vulcans until Balance of Terror. Here, everyone knows what they look like. I'm presuming that's because Nero showed up 25 years earlier, some of the survivors from the Kelvin's bridge saw that he was a Romulan who looked like a Vulcan and brought word back to Starfleet. Then the Vulcans had to have a very awkward conversation with the rest
of the Federation.

This would actually explain a number of differences in Vulcan behavior. Perhaps it made them a more solitary race, which prompted Spock to be taunted more for his human side, which in turn led him to embrace that nature more thoroughly in this timeline. A significant shift in Vulcan behavior could also partially ameliorate some of the

It was unclear to me on one viewing of the movie whether the report of a natural disaster on Vulcan is specifically related to the “lightning storm in space” that brings Spock's ship into the 23rd century, or if it is directly related to Nero beginning to drill. I presume the former.

Because the Vulcans should know what Nero is doing. They have the most advanced science academy in the Fedearation, and they can't see that he's drilling into their planet? Additionally, once it's detected that something untoward is happening, why don't the Vulcans begin to evacuate? They're being attacked by one ship which is in
geostationary orbit: surely a number of evacuation vessels could get thousands of people, if not millions, off the planet from other locations. Nero wouldn't be able to destroy them all. Additionally, there's no good reason presented why the Vulcan's don't try to do something about the planet drill themselves... For all the talk afterward of a population of six billion, the whole place looks pretty abandoned in the shots before its destruction.

The counter argument is that perhaps in this timeline the Vulcans feel that they are somehow deserving of punishment and are submitting to what comes. The problem is, the argument isn't very logical. It's also not particularly logical for the elders to be standing around big statues in meditation while the planet is in crisis. They should be taking action.

The problem with the treatment of the Vulcans continues into the denouement. The Vulcans have been a space faring race for thousands, of years (this is not something that should be affected by the chosen reboot device), warp capable for at least hundreds. It is absurd that only 10,000 were off planet at the time of attack; there should be millions in colonies around the alpha quadrant. Unless, of course,
the discovery of the common heritage with the Romulans caused them to withdraw to their home world. Again, this is not a logical action.

Part 4: Nero, his ship, singularities, and red matter.

Nero being a miner gives a casualness to his character which is great; he's not the stuffy captain we're used to seeing on the view screen. But here is where I come across another issue: yes, his ship is from the 24th century, but it's a mining ship. How does a mining ship have such advanced weapons that it can take out dozens of Klingon warships? In a one on one battle, I grant that it probably has an upper hand, not least due to advances in shield technology, but as portrayed in the movie it is nigh invincible, even against a great many ships. If it were a TNG era Romulan warbird, I would feel its superiority totally justified (those things are both huge and Bad Ass), but it is a non-military vessel.

I also find it interesting that it is the creation of singularities that provide the answer to the exploding Supernova, given that Romulan ships in the TNG era (which again we must accept, since Ambassador Spock is from that timeline) are powered by singularities. Perhaps the Red Matter is how they initiate the power for their ships.

That said, if all it takes is a little globule of it, why does Spock have such a huge orb of it on his ship? It is a decision made for no other reason than aesthetics.

By the end of the movie, we have a few smallish black holes floating around Earth's neighborhood. Which is why it's fortunate that Hawking radiation causes relatively small blackholes to evaporate over time. Otherwise they would float around warp corridors being the Worst Potholes Ever.

Part 5: Star Trek and Alternate Timelines.

In the past Star Trek has had a tendency to collapse alternate timelines into the existing narrative thread: ST IV, “Yesterday's Enterprise,” First Contact. The only ongoing alternate timeline that I can think of offhand is the Dark Mirror universe, which occurred in TOS and on multiple occasions in DS9.

The conventional Trek Universe must still exist in an alternate reality, because it's produced Ambassador Spock, who is clearly here... But this reboot produces a branching which is, I believe, unique to the franchise. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.

I fully support having an alternate timeline, but the idea that it would essentially overwrite all of the Star Trek I know and love makes me a little queasy.

As does the loss of Vulcan within this timeline. Not having the Vulcan Science Academy should, theoretically, delay a great number of technological developments that were found in later branches of the ST Universe. Perhaps it won't matter as much since the starting point of their technology is much shinier due to advanced special effects (and lens flare).

Closing: The counterfictional crew

While a number of the preceding issues are troubling, the movie's premise did successfully throw together the compelling characters that we know and love, while giving them slightly different back stories that will allow relationships to develop in unexpected ways. The friendship between this Spock and this Kirk is based on very different grounds. They're both rebels, and both somewhat more reckless than
their conventional counterparts. This Kirk is more inherently cocky, a bit more of an ass, and his story will be one of finding maturity. He was always the youngest captain in Star Fleet. Now he's bested himself by several years.

What the movie does very well is show us why this crew is the best in the Federation, why they are deserving of our attention. Each character gets a chance to show off mad skills, even if only briefly, and the casting is spot on. I will gladly watch this crew on their counterfictional voyages... And I'm fairly confident that now that they've got the complications of resetting the timeline out of the way, future outings will be far more satisfying to me.

Provided they stick to the rules they've established.


Tim said...

So very nice, Andrew, and well worth the wait. One of Saul Kripke's rules about counterFACTUAL possible worlds is that they must obey all the same laws of nature as our own. It is heuristically satisfying that counterfictionals need to obey a version of this rule as well. Stories can break continuity, but they cannot violate the physical rules and facts without becoming something else. Star Trek has a double burden: it must uphold the physical laws that its own canon has established, and as itself a counterfiction of our own future, it cannot flagrantly violate established physical facts in our universe.

Let me mention something else, though. I confess that even with your warning, I didn't pick up on most of what you mention here. Uhuru's translation of the Klingon distress signal DID bother me, though -- since in ST VI, her Klingon is lousy.


1. Uhuru in canon forgot all of her Klingon. (Unlikely.)
2. Uhuru in canon only knows how to read Klingon, not write it. Also unlikely because her gift is described as aural.
3. Nero's appearance changed the relationship between the Klingon, Romulan, and Federation planets, such that this Uhuru had either more motivation or more opportunity to learn Klingon. However, given that in the canon universe the communications officer has to consult a phonemic dictionary to carry out a routine conversation with a Klingon ship, we can assume that knowledge in this universe is rare, or new, making Uhuru perhaps the only linguist capable of hearing and deciphering the internal distress signal.

That's my take anyways. It's still a problem.

Roadmap Blogger said...

Very well written.

One comment - the answer I'd come up with on the very large amount of red matter is to infer that red matter is only stable for long periods of time (beyond minutes) if it is kept in such large amounts. That also explains why Nero (and Spock) are always "preparing the red matter" at the last minute just before using it.

Tim said...

Here's an idea about Nero-as-miner. Nero's ship isn't a landing and exploratory vessel. It has a gigantic and powerful drill that can be deployed from space and fairly quickly tunnel to the core of an M-class planet.

So here's my thesis: Nero's ship is essentially used to strip-mine whole planets, moons, or asteroids, blasting them apart for their component elements. Its MO is to get into orbit, drill into the center of the planet, and shoot its hollow-point torpedo mines into the core, blasting it to smithereens. Those aren't really tactical weapons, which is why the Kelvin and later the rest of the federation are completely at a loss when defending themselves.

Let's assume, too, that the Romulans being an aggressive and imperialist culture, that these mining activities aren't just confined to uninhabited worlds, but occasionally Nero and his crew have to fight off some pre-warp but technologically advanced species, or even other miners, to harvest their resources. This would explain in part why Nero and his men are such capable fighters, especially when they have the technological advantage on their adversaries.

A better word, then, for what Nero and his crew are, is "pirates." Or, to push the literary connection, they're whalers: this time Nero, not Khan, is Ahab.

Andrew said...


Re: Laws.

Your summation of the double burden is very well put, Tim.

In a number of ways, the filmmakers behind this new Trek invited this double burden on themselves. I suspect that I may have been more forgiving of the film if it presented itself as a completely new story using existing characters. A different possible future. But through the use of our Ambassador Spock, they're treating the Trek canon as an existing future history. Another approach might have allowed them to present the film as a new, coexisting story rather than something that overwrites future historical fact.

This is an ambiguous distinction. I'll try to come up with a better way to articulate what I mean.

In any case, if they had ignored the existing canon outright it may have alienated casual fans. Still, I think that others would have appreciated keeping the properties separate in a more defined way.

This is what some ardent fans are already doing. As my friend Matt recently wrote, "I will buy it, likely the day it comes out, on blu-ray. However, I won't put it on my Star Trek shelf."

Re: Uhura and ST VI

In ST VI, I always assumed that they were consulting dictionaries because to use any sort of Universal Translator would have given them away as a Federation ship. Also, it's a great scene.

I really like the idea of Uhura as a brilliant exo-linguist, and it does seem that's what her role should have been in TOS. I appreciate that it gives her position on the bridge even more importance.

But it does provide a very sticky wicket continuity wise. A couple more possibilities: Klingon has a some really bizarre dialects that are quite different from Standard Klingon. (Much like some Klingons have forehead ridges and some don't, some speak an RP or Ambassadorial version of Klingon, others speak Warrior Klingon).

The Klingons on the freighter in ST VI could be speaking in such an obscure dialect that Uhura doesn't want to trust her, at that point, somewhat rusty skills.

Varying dialects are also tough to justify using canon materials, but any attempt to reconcile these things will demand some compromises.

One more point: Uhura may not have been the only one who could have translated the distress signal, but perhaps she's the only one with the aural sensitivity to have picked a meaningful signal from the noise.

Andrew said...

@ Tim

Re: Nero's ship.

I think your interpretation of Nero and his crew as piratical strip miners is a good one.

The number of missiles at their disposal still strikes me as a bit crazy, but it helps. And I suppose they've had 25 years to sit around manufacturing more.

The plot of the companion comic book Star Trek: Countdown has another explanation for the weapons: Borg technology (tried and true). While the plot of the comic helps in that respect, other elements of it look to be Pretty Dumb, and seem to contradict Spock's explanation of events in the film.

And it only exacerbates the problem of not having evacuated Romulus: according to the comic, they did indeed have plenty of time.

Anonymous said...

Yes there was time for the evacuation of Romulus. It is important to note that that the Romulan Senate voted not to evacuate. They believed that Spock was full of crap. Also, how quickly do you think planetwide evacuation can be carried out?

Also, Vulcan has never been portrayed as bustling hub of interplanetary activity. At least not in TOS or TNG. It's possible that there were ZERO starships available to evacuate Vulcan within the time they had.

Regarding Uhura. The scene in STVI is for comic relief, but also, listening to and understanding a language you learned in the past is easier than speaking it. Also, the UT would explain all discrepancies.

Tim said...

1) At least the way the story's presented in the film, it's the Romulans who reach out to Spock for help;

2) If the Vulcan homeworld were sparsely populated -- let's say that the council itself remained with a small support staff -- that would support Andy's contention that there ought to be sizable colonies offworld. At any rate, that doesn't square with the six billion population figure Spock gives in his log. Six billion people on the planet, without any starships to evacuate or ability to detect a giant drill tunneling to the planetary core? It is not logical.

3) The scene in VI is for comic relief, but it's highly memorable, one of Uhura's great moments. It's weird for continuity to have a HUGE element of the plot dependent upon the ONE alien language that Uhura demonstrably does not know. And it still doesn't solve the problem of why the rest of Star Fleet doesn't know about the Klingon transmission. Either they didn't hear it (couldn't make it out from noise) or they couldn't descramble it.

Maybe Uhura is more like a sonar operator in a submarine - her real skill is in her ear, detecting signals or audible evidence where nobody else could hear it. (Cf. Jonesy in The Hunt For Red October.) She studies xenolinguistics as a means to identifying and classifying languages -- but that doesn't mean that she has a conversational knowledge of these languages.

Of course, then we're told in the new movie that she's fluent in all three dialects of Romulan or some jive. So whatever.

Andrew said...


According to wikipedia: "The 40 Eridani-A Starfleet Construction Yards are located in Vulcan's star system, perhaps in orbit of Vulcan or elsewhere in the system. These yards are one of the larger starship construction facilities in the Federation."

So in theory there should be a bunch of starships in the area. Additionally, the Vulcan Science Academy is one of the premiere institutions of learning in the Federation... I would think there would be considerable traffic to and from. And, Vulcan is traditionally seen as one of the leaders in space exploration... it's certainly not a backwater planet.

One could argue that Nero blew up every Starship in the system, but again, I think it would be hard for him to get every single ship before they went into warp.

Re: Time to evacuate a planet.

Yes, it would take a long time. But all you need is 100 ships with a capacity of 500 (which doesn't seem an unreasonable expectation for a race that's been spacefaring for centuries) and you have another 50,000 survivors.

To evacuate a population of 6x10^9 using say 200 ships that can each cram 3,000 refugees onto them, with say 1 day of warp speed turnaround, it could take ~25 years to evacuate the whole planet.

But you can still get a whole lot of Romulans off in the time from when the star goes supernova to when it reaches Romulus, especially if the Federation contributed ships to evacuation efforts.

And this is the thing I'd like to re-emphasize: the star that goes supernova is, at its closest, a few light months away from the Romulan system. Presumably if it looks like it's going to blow, someone has deployed a subspace monitoring system near by so that they know as soon as it goes. The destruction of their planet should not be the first incontestable sign of disaster for the Romulan Senate.

Tim said...

The guys who wrote & edited ST VI probably used a version of Andy's math -- the time estimate given by the unnamed Federation President (awesomely played by Kurtwood Smith, aka the dad from That 70s Show, with a crazy wig + double mustache) for the total evacuation of the Klingon Homeworld Kronos is fifty years. Presumably they're doing things at a slightly more measured rate.

Tim said...

Also, just to note the relative scientific precision with which the fifty-year figure was floated -- the line even specifies "fifty EARTH years."

Andrew said...

More reasons why my love for ST VI is deep and abiding.

I originally used a value of 1,500 refugees per ship and came up with the same 50 year estimate. But then I remembered just how damn big the 24th century Romulan warbirds are and fudged it upwards.

Andrew said...

Tim, I like your Uhura as sonar operator analogy a lot.

One thing that this Star Trek movie did w/r/t the transporter technology that I wish they had carried over in other respects: making it clear that these things are hard to do. This technology is complicated. It requires serious skills.

It should really be impressive enough that Uhura can actually distinguish a Klingon distress call that was not intended for her ears from many light years away through all manner of subspace interference. She's already Bad Ass, even without being a crazy xenolinguist.

Tim said...

Star Trek VI is terrific -- just solid from top to bottom. Hammy in a few places, sure, but deservedly so, and it's altogether more grown-up than any of the other Star Trek movies.

If you watch it, though -- as I did last night after I woke up at 1 AM -- it is clear that Uhura is conceived from top to bottom AS a sonar operator. And in 1991, post-Hunt For Red October and post-Cold War, that's the analogy that makes sense: the sonarman, the analyst, the spy. For us, it's the translator, the terrorist, the torturer, the victim of genocide and catastrophe. Star Trek is updating its metaphors, and doing it well. But it should work twice as hard to update its science too.

rbnn said...

(1) The star that went nova was not in the Romulus system.

(2) The platform on the drill over Vulcan was too high, and the suits too streamlined, for thermal effects to have become apparent.

(3) There is no indication that transport time from Earth to Vulcan was only a few hours.

(4) Nero's ship, the Narada, had obviously been modified from its original configuration.

Tim said...

1 and 2 - sure. Maybe. I don't know.

For 3, I think Andy's right that the FEEL is off. Even if it's days, the trip feels too fast. Even if it's scientifically plausible (which it is only in the sense that it doesn't SAY that it didn't take a really long time), it's dramaturgically false.

And 4, I think is just not true. 1) Romulus is destroyed, 2) the Narada pursues Spock, 3) they get sucked into the black hole that Spock created, 4) they go through time and come up firing on the Kelvin like some almighty man o' war. The ship doesn't seem significantly MORE devastating when the Enterprise encounters it later.

So even if they keep modifying it AFTER they go through the black hole - using technology picked up where, I don't know, since they're isolated from all systems and the Romulan Empire and stuck in the past -- they've got major firepower already.

Andrew said...

@rbnn Thanks for your comments.

1) Yes... which leads us back to the evacuation argument.

My other point is that it would be dramatically sound, and potentially more satisfying, for the star to actually be in the Romulan system and for the planet's destruction to REALLY be Spock's fault.

2) More aerodynamic suits don't really help us here. The temperature experienced on reentry, if I'm remembering correctly, is inversely proportional to the drag coefficient: this is why space capsules reenter blunt end first, and what caused such trouble for the USA and USSR in trying to figure out how to solve the ICBM reentry issue.

When they Starfleet officers first jumped out of the ship during the movie, my girlfriend turned to me and asked "Is this even possible?" At the time my response was "It depends how far they go." Given that Kirk and Sulu end up being transported back to the enterprise just before hitting the ground, they go pretty far.

So unless the shuttle craft went pretty far into the atmosphere itself before they jumped, our heroes would encounter not insignificant thermal effects during the course of their fall.

3&4) Tim's responses are spot on.

I think that the companion comic makes a case for some time elapsing between the destruction of Romulus and when Spock succeeds in collapsing the star. During this lull, Nero refits his ship with Borg gear.

But that's not how it is played in the movie at all... cinematically, all of those events follow hard upon.

Anonymous said...

About all I can say is this...I like this review. Pretty "on the fence" and not biased. Some of the science you speak of, or how you try to view the "real science" and how the movie got it wrong is kinda off since the "real" science you speak of is a little wrong in itself. I somehow doubt you're an astrophysicist with a PhD, so this is not a huge issue. I still liked the review overall.

Andrew said...


I appreciate your comments.

The challenge, of course, is to interpret events in the film both within the context of science as we understand it today and the fictional science of technologies that are accepted within the Star Trek universe.

My stance is basically that rules are important. If the story breaks a known law of physics, there needs to be a plausible future technology that explains that. And then the story must work within the constraints that the technology allows.

I do have an undergraduate degree in Astrophysics (alas, no Phd), but my last physics classes were a long time ago. So if you have corrections to any of my fact based science, please post them. I'd love to have you add to the discussion.

Rick W said...

Regarding Uhura's skills. She does in fact make reference to her exceptional ability to pick out important sounds from static or background noise or some such (can't remember her exact words) when she is discussing her ship assignment with Spock.
So, yes "super sonar nerd" or whatever. Weird that she doesn't report it to anyone, though. She seems like a pretty "by the book" cadet (or at least a serious one).

Derek said...

@Tim, Regarding Uhura... The Uhura you reference as being unskilled at Klingon (STVI) and the Uhura that intercepted the Klingon distress (ST) grew up and were trained on completely different timelines.


Anonymous said...

Probably the most innaccurate review I've read about this movie. You obviously doesn't really know anything about physics, the size of the universe, distance, movie run-times, time travel (whether is be fictional or not), the Star Trek universe or it's history, and clearly has no common sense.

Let's begin where you begin with the distance between Vulcan and Earth. They never stated in the movie how long they had been traveling. It could have been quite a while. It does seem quite fast, I will give him that, but it is a movie. In the show, the would give us a shot of the ship traveling through space and that would cover the three year trip to God-knows-where and everyone was happy. In an action movie, that's not as acceptable, but from this outcry of fans, it seems the should have done it anyway.

Your second moot point was that it wasn't accurate to hide behind Titan because they had a "several hour trip" from Saturn to Earth. Since when? I thought it was a several hour trip to Vulcan, 16 light-years away. So why would it be a several hour trip from Saturn to Earth, which is 94,000,000 miles away? At warp 1, a ship would make it from Saturn to Earth in a little over 8 minutes. With a much more capable engine, as stated many times before, this is a nice tactical advantage.

Now let's move on to the space Jump. You obviously didn't use the Internet to at least research your disbeliefs before rushing to the Internet to complain about them. I read this article in a Popular Science issue a while back. A good point to have made would have been that without rigorous excercise and training (they never would have been trained for anything like this, right?) they would have passed out or died at such high velocities of entry. Terminal velocity while diving head first on Earth is around 240 mph and Vulcan has higher gravity and a thinner atmosphere, so their terminal velocity would be at least 300 mph, maybe 400 mph.

Your next point was probably the one that pissed me off the most. "...starships need to be built in space, not Iowa." Have you ever watched Star Trek. They land on planets all the damn time. They land on planets four or five times in TNG and four or five times in VOY. Why the hell couldn't a ship be built in Iowa and simply, I don't know, take off. Andrew, if you are reading this, NO! You, sir, are not allowed to write a review ever again.

How about your next point about the Golden Gate Bridge? In the next 250 years no one could think of a way to outfit a bridge in an Earthquake ridden city to withstand large waves and earthquakes. Wait, it already is. So is the city. Maybe in the next 250 years they discovered something like Impact Gel and outfit the bridge to withstand meteor strikes. Besides part of the drill that fell into the water would amount to the size of the space shuttle, at largest, falling into the bay.

Why is it that everyone think Uhura is hiding the fact that she intercepted the message from the Klingons? Maybe she was the one working the shift at the time the message came.
Uhura: "Sir, I'm picking up a distress call in Klingon."
Random Senior Officer: "Can you dicipher it?"
Uhura: "Yes sir, I believe so."
Random Senior Officer: "Good, what does it say?"
Uhura: "Sir, they've been attacked. Forty-seven ships lost ..."
Random Senior Officer: "Oh my God, cadet. Have this translated and sent to Star Fleet HQ immediately."

From there anything could have happened. Maybe SFHQ wasn't ready to had the message out to all the captains until they figured out what the hell had happened. Or maybe they were going tto wait until the end of the week and the attack on Vulcan came first. Or maybe they were going to tell everyone when they received the distress call from Vulcan and decided that Vulcan was more important.

I'm not going to divulge into the Vulcan/Romulan section because that would all be speculation based on folklore and interspecies relations anyways. Not something I care to go into.

Nero's ship is a doozie. A lot of speculation goes into this one to but I like this part. Nero does have a mining ship, yes, but it seems to be able to take on a number (47) of warships anyways. Mining accidents occur all the time. So for that reason, I would, myself, assume that a mining ship would have highly advanced shielding and strengthened hull. Not to mention this thing is massive. As for their weapons, I would also expect them to be higly advanced as well. There were a lot of episodes in VOY where the crew ran into the 24th century and they always blew the hell out of everything. In the final episode, they used 24th century technology, to outfit torpedoes to destroy borg cubes and spheres in a few hits, despite the borg's own, highly advanced technology. And to this regard, I have to mention that the U.S.S. Kelvin took quite a few hits from those torpedoes before taking a dive. 25 years later, the Enterprise could only take 2. This points toward 25 years of developing and stockpiling weapons, meaning that it is probable that they could take out a *beep* ton of war birds.

As to the questions about red matter, who knows? In an episode the crew would stand around for half and hour and explain everything about red matter, but this is movie, so we are left only with assumptions.

You also asked to be corrected on his assumption of the branching universes being unique to this movie. I will do so. See the series finale of VOY. Janeway returns to the day when she looked passed an opportunity to return home and helps her old self and crew to not only return home, but seriously cripple the borg and kill the queen. Other than killing herself, she also still existed after the changes.

-Hiro TDK

Tim said...

yes, Derek, I agree; and if you read my many comments, I offer several explanations as to why the differences in this timeline might result in Uhura having a better knowledge of Klingon. None of these, however, explain why Uhura didn't notify anyone else besides her roommate and Kirk about what she heard.

Andrew said...


1) Earth to Vulcan.

The point is that dramatically it is treated as though very little time has passed. It would have been easy to acknowledge some passage of time with just a couple of words.

e.g. McCoy to Kirk: "You've been out for two days."

2) Titan to Earth

I acknowledge that the distance doesn't matter if they do a quick point to point intrasystem warp jump. But this hasn't traditionally been allowed using Star Trek's Warp technology.

3)Space Jump

Thanks for the link. According to my quick skim of the article, those suits are proposed for Sub Orbital jumps, which is not exactly what the movie implies, but it may well be what they meant.

Still, it's not a hard effect to show a little atmospheric heating on the suits as they fall, and that alone would have made me happy.

4) Landing on Planets

There are certain models of ships that are designed to land on planets. Voyager is one of them: it is a very small ship. In TNG and DS9 it is only small ships that land on planets, ships that are designed to have things like, say, landing gear.

The design of the Enterprise is not conducive to landing on a planet or any sort of atmospheric flight, and I believe was never intended to be except in case of emergency landing.

4)Golden Gate Bridge

Yes, I'm sure that it's had significant reinforcement over the centuries (though impact gel specifically designed to help withstand meteor strikes is probably not something they would plan for).

Even with reinforcement, it seems ridiculous that the drill section, falling from a very great height and landing right next to the bridge did it no damage. Especially with the very long chain that came whipping down after it.

5) Weapons

You're misstating time here: Voyager and TNG both take place in the 24th century. Barring some sort of major breakthrough post DS9 Dominion war, The weapons that Nero has should be comparable to, or somewhat more advanced than, the things that we saw in those series.

I'm not denying that Nero's ship is huge, better armored, and better armed. But the Klingons are a warrior culture that has been kicking ass and taking names for quite some time. It's hard to imagine nearly fifty of their ships going down so easily.

5) Voyager.

In my opinion the end of Voyager is not one of Trek's finer moments. It indulged in all sorts of time travel shenanigans which, frankly, became ridiculous. I haven't watched it since it aired. In some future day when I actually have the time, I'll revisit it.

Andrew said...

@ Hiro

One more thing about the space jump:

Actually, I had the impression from the movie that they've definitely trained for these sort of jumps.

Anonymous said...


1) Dramatically, who cares. It still actually took a while dramatically to get back. So what's the problem. Yeah, they could have emphasized that it took a while to get there, but it would have sounded as cheezy as Uhura emphasizing that they didn't technically screw with the cannon. It took the a while to get back, dramatically, so it shouldn't matter. The distance was somewhat clarified as being long. It's a movie; they cut the boring parts.

2) Since when.

3) If they coated the suits with teflon, or something better, then there really wouldn't be that visible heating.

4) I was reading somewhere that both the producers and the fans have always assumed that the Enterprise had landing gear. I believe it was an article about designing the Enterprise D, but I can't find it. Either way, the ship could still take off, I have seen a few episodes where the different Enterprises have flown inside the atmosphere, meaning it can get out again.

4-G?) The piece still only fell in the water, and it still wasnt that big. Even from a great distance, it wouldn't be great enough to damage such a sturdy bridge. Remember the scene when Sulu and Kirk were fighting on drill. The drill couldn't be more than thirty feet in diameter. It wasn't even the size of one of the bridges support beams. Not to mention that the chain following it wasn't putting all of it's force into the fall of the drill. The chain's force was applied seperately to its own smaller crash into the water. The second crash was like an aftershock.

5) You're right about the time. It has been a while since I watched it so I had the time stamps mixed up in my head. Nero's ship stil comes from nine years after Voyager's return. Even then, the weapons cannot be judged from Voyager, aside from the new additions from future Janeway, because it takes place in the wrong part of the galaxy.

And what shenanigans are you refering to. 'Endgame' was probably the most appropriate use of time travel in the entire ST universe. Janeway went back in time to help her old crew get home faster. She used the future technology to kill the Borg. How did that, in any way, become ridiculous.

Tim said...

Someone tipped me off about this: when the Enterprise is approaching Vulcan, Kirk specifically states that the Klingon fleet was destroyed "yesterday at 1100 hours" -- i.e., everything that takes place between Kirk hiding under Uhura's gorgeous roommate's bed and the Enterprise encountering Nero's ship takes place in about a single day.

Can we agree that this is both physically and dramaturgically false?

Tim said...

Let me alao recall Andy's earlier point -- if Starfleet ships can travel through space as fast as they'd need to travel to get to Vulcan as quickly as they do, then nearly every single plot point that depends on the Enterprise being "the only ship in the sector" is nullified. These include many of the big ones -- The Wrath of Khan, Generations, etc.

Derek said...

I want to give you all swirlies and wedgies.

Anonymous said...



Andrew said...


Thanks for settling this point.


2) Typically we see ships warp into and out of a system, not within a system... within the system they rely an impulse drive which is pretty quick, but slower than light speed.

Intrasystem warp is not, I suppose, expressly forbidden (although I do recall a number of prescriptions about not entering warp too close to a planet) but not something they do very often (as portrayed in existing material).

3) I won't argue the virtues of different heat shielding materials here (though nearly all contemporary reentry techniques involve ablative materials of some kind). It's not the suits themselves that I'm talking about showing the heating effects, necessarily: it's the gas surrounding them.

If we were to see thermal effects happening around the space jumpers, but they're clearly surviving, the signal is: Ah, they have super high-tech suits that allow them to withstand the thermal effects of reentry. With no effects it looks like the filmmakers are ignoring physics for convenience.

Again, consistency within the physical model is my primary issue here.

4) I believe that you're thinking of landing gear on the saucer section, which has traditionally been designed for reentry in case of emergency (see ST: Generations) ... but not necessarily designed to take off again. When the Enterprise was redesigned for the Motion Picture, the designer included landing gear on the saucer.

4-G) As I'm sure you're aware, it's not the size of the thing falling that matters so much as the mass.

Also, as the Golden Gate is a suspension bridge: even if it's not explicitly damaged, I would expect to see some effects of a big, heavy thing crashing right near it from pretty high up.

Additionally, my point with the chain's fall is not that it would cause an additional shockwave of significance, but that it rather conveniently failed to hit the bridge.

Basically, it seems like the producers were willing to let Vulcan be destroyed, but they drew the line at damaging an Earthly landmark.

5) My use of "shenanigans" refers to Voyager's time travel plot lines as a whole. Whenever the writers couldn't think of something interesting to do they resorted to either Time Travel or The Borg.

And frankly, having Janeway travel back in time to singlehandedly defeat the Borg in the finale caused some serious eye-rolling on my part.

Partially because my prefered association is --

Kirk:Klingons::Picard:Borg .

The Borg are Picard's enemy in a very personal way, as both TNG as a series and First Contact as a film demonstrated. Voyager's heavy use of the Borg sort of dilutes that.

But a discussion of Voyager is for another time... and I really haven't watched Voyager recently enough to either speak from a position of authority on its peculiarities or to care about it that much.

Tim said...

Andrew, that SAT analogy (is there a mathematical term for this kind of symbol sequence? Am I the one who ought to know if there is) is really interesting to me, not least because if you invert it, you get:

Kirk:Picard :: Klingons:Borg

which, since Picard is generally regarded as being cooler, more rational/deliberate than Kirk, actually works as an analogy, but violates our sense of "natural enemies." Instead, it works more psychoanalytically: Kirk wrestles with his passions, anger, and inflamed sense of honor (especially at his son's death), while Picard strives to atone for a certain loss of humanity - his absence of children, romantic relationships, his lack of connection to land or place (e.g. the family vineyard). They fight the enemy who is an even more extreme manifestation of their own exaggerated tendencies.

Forgive me if this is all old news. I am a total amateur when it comes to being a Star Trek fan. I was lucky enough to be a jock AND a nerd at a school with a lot of combination jock-nerds, so I never had the swirlie experience either, from either end.

Anonymous said...

Alright, I'd like to list one of my favorite nitpicks that no one has mentioned yet.

Kirk and Sulu successfully napalm the drill. Neither of them have a working parachute and are plunging to their death and have fallen several thousand meters before Chekov can get a transporter lock on them. He succeeds, and Kirk and Sulu hit the transporter pad with the force of a ~1,500 meter fall. Unless energy from a fall can be removed in the pattern buffer, there should be broken bones, a broken transporter pad, or some combination thereof.

As for Voyager's Endgame, my huge issue wasn't the use of time travel (which I agree was about the best use of the plot device in the series), but in the way they got home. You're going to tell me that the borg - a race bent on assimilating mankind to the point where they've had several TNG episodes, half of Voyager's run, and a movie - have a galaxy-wide plumbing system that can FedEx cubes right to Earth's doorstep...and they HAVEN'T sent 20-30 cubes to do the job already? The only plausible reason for earth to *not* have been assimilated was the distance. Take that away, and we should be drones by 2379...but Janeway made it back, Kim and Chakotay survived for 15 years, and Captain Braxton came from the 29th century. Did the borg randomly lose interest?

Anonymous said...


2) In an emergency situation it wouldn't matter what the general rules dictate.

3) There's not really much else to say here other than, "We'll find out when we do it. They're going to do it in a few months, if not already.

4) Okay, I found that article. The landing gear is on the saucer. But that still doesn't mean that the full ship can't take off. It can fly in and ou of a planets atmosphere, there for it could theoretically leave. Just because they've never done it before in the series, doesn't mean they can't. It would however be more logical in some cases to build it in space. In space it could be built with greater ease, but on the surface, more engineers could work on it.

Gaolden Gate Bridge - I was actually quite happy that it didn't land on the bridge. I'm so tired of seeing the bridge destroyed in moives. They could practically use stock footage of it by now.


They constantly modify their targets in transport. They've done it to remove everything from gravity to weapon's fire to diseases. Some times it gets a little ridiculous but hey, it's T.V..

As for Voyager's Endgame, anything said would be pure speculation. The transwarp hub wasn't introduced in Endgame. The idea was somewhat introduced in an episode of TNG. Maybe the borg queen isn't quite interested enough to fully conquer Earth. Doing so would accomplish nothing. She would conquer Earth and subsequently lose it to the massive amounts of other species in the federeation and the rest of the Alph Quadrant that come to pound the Borg.

Anonymous said...

If she's not interested enough to fully conquer earth, then she's got some splanin' to do!

The two most bleeding obvious examples were in the Voyager episode "Dark Frontier", where the queen presents the method of assimilation by infection, and she's willing to wait 20 years to do it. It's implied that she hasn't had to do it this way before, since brute force has worked quite well for them.

The other example is First Contact, where they try to ix-nay humanity before we meet the Vulcans. If you're gonna travel through time to destroy a civilization, increased brute force would be the more obvious first choice.

As for motive, humanity has been shown to be one of the more resistant races to assimilation. Even though there were distinct differences between the queen in First Contact and Voyager (the former being a more seductive presence who did alot through nuance, while the latter had the subtlety of a bull in a china shop), she had one piss-ant starship outwitting her for four seasons. She destroyed entire cubes because one person on the cube could access Unamatrix Zero. Clearly cubes are dispensible items. So FedEx 100 cubes to the Alpha Quadrant, assimilate earth to send the federation into chaos, and the rest is gravy.

If they can send massive armies all over the galaxy in a matter of minutes, there shouldn't be a non-borg lifeform left.

Pink Raine said...

I just saw this movie so here goes. Probably not in order.

Uhura- I beleive Pike (and Star Fleet) was aware of the information she overheard but was unaware Uhura was the one who found it. Also, such info should not be known to Kirk, hence Pike's surprise and Uhura confirming it herself. Now he probably did not think it was relevant since apparently he didn't know the importance of the lightning storms and the rest of Kirk's explanation.

The jump onto Vulcan - I admit I was expecting to see some kind or thermal glow on them from atmospheric entry. If from nothing else but their hair and dustparticles around them.

Timelines - those are messy, there's no other way to put it. About the only movie it ever made any kind of sense in to me was Terminator 2.

And the following refers to any and all comments --> regardless of what Star Trek stood for in the past, you should remember it was intended for a different audience. Even if the facts, and I use that term loosely, remain the same, they have to be put to us, now, in a way that will capture our attention and keep it, hence the seeming one-way contration of spacetime to Vulcan, the bridge surviving and for most of your critique I think you're confusing and error in film with an error in physics. And besides, in a world that can harness singularities, energise living bodies and acheive warp speed, what sense does it make to bemaon the continued existence of the bridge and accept time travel?

My main point is that some things must be sacrificed if the movie is to reach everybody, and to be honest I feel you are being kind of a snob. I mean you point out these things as minus points, but the average person wouldn't even get half the jargon, much less know it's wrong. The physics won't pan out across the board because it doesnt need to. Hey maybe supernovas in another part of the universe do actually occur that fast, you don't know do you? When you start asking for explanations in a science fiction movie, you're bound to find things that don't add up, especially when it tries to. So as far as critiquing the movie goes, your review doesn't really help to give an overall sense of the movie, but it does give a Star Trek zealot alot to debate over and generally have fun with. I've seen everything on film with the name Star Trek attached to it and I dunno what the hell you people are talking about regarding the Trek universe events, so I'll just call myself a fan.

Andrew said...

@Pink Raine

I'm sorry if this is coming off as snobbery, because that's not the intent. So please do keep that in mind for the following:

I inherently disagree with your statement that "some things must be sacrificed" for a movie to reach everybody.

I care about quality. I care about storytelling. I care about details. And, yes, I care about physics.

Regarding quality: if hundreds of millions of dollars are going to be spent making a movie, especially using a property that I have great affection for, I want that movie to be the best it can possibly be. If thousands of collective hours of labor are going into creating something, I nearly always want that thing to be unequivacably great.

Here's my deal: I'm sick of mediocrity. I'm sick of artists, writers, and manufacturers of pop culture, being lazy. As creators of work, art, content, whatever, we owe our audiences our best.

I actually have a really high tolerance for bad but well meaning work. It's when things fall just short of being great that I get really irked.

If that's what you call snobbery, then so be it.

Given critical and popular response, it's true that the problems that I had with the movie didn't bother the majority of audiences. But they did bother a significant fraction of audiences.

Fixing many of those issues would have been relatively easy, and made the story and overall film better. This end result, making the film better, would not have disrupted the enjoyment of all those people who enjoyed it as is.

Nothing is lost by fixing plot holes or rectifying things that don't make sense. Nothing is lost by creating a work of higher quality.

My post here isn't intended as a review of the movie in the traditional sense. That's not what this blog is for.

I'm interested in the counterfictional ramifications of the choices that were made, exploring if and how those can or should be reconciled with other material, and examining what those choices mean for storytelling.

If you have a few minutes, look around the rest of the blog. This is what we do here.

Andrew said...

And now the specifics... ;-)

@Pink Raine

Re: Uhura

Your point that perhaps Pike was just surprised that Kirk and Uhura knew about the Klingon attack is well taken. Having only seen the movie once, and that being over a week ago, my memory of the nuances is fading.

Pike has some awareness of the importance of the "lightning storm in space" as Kirk cribbed that from Pike's own dissertation. That is, as I recall, why he allows himself to be convinced... it's just more personal for Kirk, so Jim was better able to make the connection.

Re: Timelines

Yes, always messy. But, things that happened in independent timelines before the crossover occurs still happened.

Re: Supernovas

Actually, yes we do know. Matter cannot travel faster than the speed of light (without some fictional technological means). If you break that law, you're no longer in our universe. And, as pointed out, Star Trek should be our future.

Re: nitpicking

As you say, one is bound to find plot holes in nearly any movie if one digs enough. But most of the points I make in the initial post bothered me in at least rudimentary form while I was still watching the movie. And in many ways, that's the real issue.

Pink Raine said...

Oh I see. To tell the truth when I was watching it I had to tell my brain to shut up(Star trek fan as I said and Physics major too) so I could enjoy the movie, but you actually let the questions flow and try to answer them. Which means most of my former post made no sense at all. Ha. Still, of the things you mentioned, about the only thing I really had trouble with was the fate of Vulcan. I can think of no reason the planet and people were destroyed in such a manner, but to eventually give Kirk command of the ship,in which case that scene definitely needed something more.

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