Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Horrendously bad science of Star Trek(2009)

Speaking of Star Trek(2009), it was just cited as a "good science" example on Discover Magazine's list of good and bad science in movies. And to think I used to respect Discover Magazine.

Discover's list had five good and bad mentions apiece from all sorts of films. In my opinion, the "science" in Star Trek (2009) was so bad, I could create a list of 5 (if not more) just to encompass it all.

And here it is!

1. Red Matter - for some reason, Red Matter is a substance so potent it can stop a "galaxy threatening" supernova (don't worry, I'll get there). One drop of this magical goo is enough for this, as well as enough to destroy Vulcan. Yet, for some reason, Spock carts around a giant blob of this stuff. Why? Because it looks cool, apparently. Then, when this giant blob is detonated, what do we get? The same black hole that one drop of it caused earlier. Why does Red Matter cause black holes? Because it DOES, stupid. Somehow, a substance dense enough to prevent light from escaping its gravitational pull could be 1. transported around in a nifty force field (or something) and 2. would not increase the mass of its transporting vessel to such a degree that it can no longer move. Seriously, if they had enough power in one dinky ship to move this gigantic, hyper-massive blob of black hole fuel (let alone to create it), why would any supernova be a threat to them?

2. Galaxy threatening supernovae - say WHAT? Any regular star that could release this much energy just wouldn't be a regular star. How did this star interact with our galaxy BEFORE it threatened us with universal annihilation?

3. Blowing up your warp drive to escape a black hole - OK. Let's see. We're INSIDE the event horizon of a newly created black hole. Nothing which moves slower than light can possibly escape, owing to those pesky things we know as the laws of physics (this sets aside the fact that we do not know the escape velocity of this particular black hole, since the value could be any number of velocities faster than light, based on its mass and density). So how do we escape? I've got it! let's detonate our FASTER THAN LIGHT propulsion system, in the hopes that the expanding gases (which, like any normal matter in space, travel slower than light) of the explosion will somehow 1. not destroy our ship and 2. propel us at some rate of speed which is fast enough to escape the ultra-massive gravity well we're trapped in. Let me put it this way - the velocity of my facepalm at witnessing this scene was nearly the escape velocity of a black hole.

4. Delta Vega's view of Vulcan - So we've marooned Spock on some ice planet (the one with the Starfleet base on it, naturally). In order to force him to witness Vulcan's destruction (whoops, spoiler alert!). Now, we know both from canon as well as the establishing shot WITHIN THIS FILM that Vulcan has no moons. Yet, somehow, we are to believe that Spock can witness the "winking out" of Vulcan's planetary disc as if he were as close to it as we are to our moon. Orci and Kurtzman have since stated that this scene was intended to be "impressionistic." I'd like to leave an impression on one or both of them, all right...

5. Orbital skydiving- I don't have an issue with a spacesuit somehow surviving atmospheric entry. Future materials, whatever. What I have a problem with is the complete and total lack of atmospheric interaction. All three skydivers should have been surrounded by a giant ball of flame, which would obscure their view of their target and probably their communications ability. Add to this the fact that they're somehow reaching their target within a reasonable amount of time, despite not being propelled in any way (they are depicted as being dropped from a magnetic pad that is turned off by Pike to allow "free fall"). Anyone who's seen footage of a space walk should also understand that a geosynchronous orbiting vessel (like a space shuttle, for instance) is actually traveling extremely fast, fast enough to keep it in an orbital trajectory and prevent the gravity well of the planet from pulling it downwards. Thus, anyone stepping out of a shuttle like this would also be traveling at such a speed, and be prevented from free fall. If anything, they should be moving fast enough to ESCAPE the gravity well of Vulcan, given the fact that Pike's shuttle is moving from one geosynchronous vessel to another.

I could probably come up with more, but I'm so dejected at the thought of crap like this being nominated for a writing award, that I'll just end it now. This post, that is.


  1. To be fair, Discover Magazine wasn't saying all science in Star Trek was good. It was only pointing out the scene at the beginning of the movie where space is shown as silent. The same article list Deep Impact as both good and bad science. I'm surprised that the black hole treatment in Star Trek didn't land it on the bad science list. I guess maybe scientists are used to pop culture misrepresenting black holes by that point.

  2. I know this is an old blog post, but I just found out about your blog and just posted on Kevin's FB wall that I'm stymied by the level of bile I see directed towards the 2009 film. He then directed me to post to your blog, that wily fox. I'm not one who usually posts comments on blogs, but I suppose that testifies to the degree of my curiosity about your guys' position on the movie.

    I will start out by admitting that my level of Trekkie-ness reaches nowhere near your guys' hardcore limits, so my opinion is easily dismissed. I'm just surprised that one can't accept what I thought was an exciting 21st century reboot of a franchise that desperately needed rebooting since, in my own opinion, the very last episode of TNG. (No, sorry, not a fan of DS9, Voyager, or Enterprise. I'm sure I'd like them enough if I gave them a chance, but there are soooo many things on the bucket list before that.)

    Like I said, my hardcore-ness is nowhere near the level of your own, so I've yet to know what issues it is that you seem to take, other than the points you list above, and several bitter asides in various other blog posts. My confusion was ratcheted up several notches by what I felt was a comparatively benign review of ST:TMP. I mean, seriously -- the one with the bald chick got NOWHERE near the level of anger I read in this particular post?! (When did "serious" Trek fans start to give the odd-numbered ST movies a pass?)

    Like I said, stymied. Stymied and confused and interested. I could wait until you guys review the 2009 film, but I feel I have to know now. But I'm asking: please be gentle. :-9

  3. Correction to my prior post: The ST franchise probably needed rebooting BEFORE the last episode of TNG. One must be willing to admit that the last couple of seasons were kind of lamers. Ha ha ha.

  4. First, feel free to respond to a post regardless of age. Matt and I get email notices when someone comments anywhere.

    Second, there is no entry bar to Star Trek or the blog here at Treknobabble. One of our metrics for gauging a good episode is how accessible it is to a casual viewer. We tend to go gaga over episodes that honor continuity without requiring previous viewing to enjoy the episode.

    Third, Matt and I agree that the odd-number "curse" has pretty much got to be the invention of a reporter looking for an easy way to review the movies. I agree that the twenty superfluous minutes of effects shots come within an Angstrom's length of derailing the whole film, but the basics were otherwise solid. It's a very Rodenberry plot, anchored by the familiar and well displayed relationship of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. And Search for Spock is flatly an excellent film, with our only major complaints being the lack of Uhura and a fairly drawn own denouement. Final Frontier sucked really hard, but no one is defending it. And Nemesis was an even numbered one that may or may not be more hated by Matt and me than ST2009.

    Lastly, and I will admit my vitriol is less intense than Matthew's, but there is a fundamental shift in tone and construction of the universe in the new film. If you review our reviews (heh) of TOS, something we keep coming back to is how much the Enterprise, Starfleet, and the Federation feel like a real place with real people. Once you accept as read the existence of FTL engines, the rest of the universe is pretty realistic. People have careers and friends and understandable motivations and responses to events. It makes the show better that Kirk is a real person, albeit in an unreal situation. ST2009 altered that. The characters had the jobs they had at the end of the film because the script said so, not because their careers would organically be at that point. No matter how talented, a third year cadet is not going to be given command of the flagship. There's a decade or two of learning the day to day grunt work of being a leader he can't possibly know. It pulls me out of the story, and it shows a lack of respect to the viewer. Why not have them return to the Academy, and trust the audience will understand we will pick up the story later in their careers and we're smart enough to understand the non-filmed intermediate events that would have taken place?

    It's not that ST2009 reset continuity, something I could have lived with; it's that the way this universe is portrayed, it seems that continuity is not important at all. Characters don't have complicated partially revealed back stories that play off each other; there's just the two line description from the back of the action figure package. Even if they were to paint themselves into a narrative corner, they can just get some more "red matter."

    I will concede that while the movie was on the screen I was entertained. It was possessed of a certain energy that Enterprise, certainly in its earlier seasons lacked. But if re-watching Seasons 3 and 4 of TNG has shown us anything, it's that dramatic, high-energy story-telling is enhanced, not handicapped, by credibly developed three dimensional characters, and attention to continuity related detail. See Yesterday's Enterprise.

    PS: I just saw the additional comment. Seasons 6 and 7 may lack the breakneck pace of awesomeness that 3, 4, and 5 had, but there are some great episodes in there, and none of them destroy the good things about the universe, so there is no need for a reboot. Also, I would hold "All Good Things..." against the series finale of any series, sci-fi or not. The only series finale that moved me comparably was the series finale of Golden Girls.

    I will defend DS9 at a later date, after I have some coffee.

  5. Emily, I won't pretend to speak for Matthew, although I have certainly heard Matthew talk about the 2009 movie enough to know a lot of what he would say. (We walked 8 miles home from the theater after seeing that movie, and he spent the entire time talking about it, and that was just the beginning!)

    I will say for me, a relatively new Trekkie with nowhere near the Trek chops that others have, that the 2009 movie is *okay* as an action film. It's not great, but then, neither are any of the other action films out there. It's probably not as bad as the Transformers movies (although, to be fair, I haven't seen those), but it's not as good as something like Inception.

    Where is fails miserably is as Star Trek. Say what you will about ST:TMP (which I liked a lot, other than the pacing), it's Star Trek to its core. It's a great sci-fi story, and I like the characters. Also, yeah, the odd/even thing is ridiculous and doesn't bear out.

    I wouldn't agree at all that Star Trek needed re-booting. You really need to give Voyager, DS9, and even Enterprise (especially Season 4) a chance before saying that the series needed re-booting. The great thing about the Star Trek universe is that you can keep creating new content *without* re-booting. There's always more timeline and more of space to explore. Someday we'll post all of the ideas we've thought of for new series, and every one of them manages to keep the universe intact.

    Kevin already said it, but honestly, they could have saved the 2009 movie for me in the last 5 minutes by sending them back to school. It would have been that easy, and I honestly expected that to be what happened. It's ludicrous that Kirk is given command of the Enterprise at the end. Why? I don't care about a universe where that can happen. I *like* Chris Pine as Kirk (although not as much as I like Shatner as Kirk), but he's not written well.

    In the end, I'd rather re-watch anything in TOS, TNG, or Voyager (even the clunkers) than the 2009 movie. It's not the kind of movie I'd enjoy without it being Star Trek, and I like it even less as Star Trek. (Note: I'm not a huge fan of DS9, but it's a personal preference thing, and I do think Enterprise was underrated, but I'll grant that it has problems.)

  6. This is a clip from my review of ST2009 on I spend the first half of the review talking about the Blu-Ray, and the fact that it's a competent, noisy, entertaining action movie.

    Now, for the Trekkies:

    "Star Trek (2009)" is the product of Hollywood corporate committees, shedding "baggage" in such a way that it dilutes some of the core concepts and appeal of the show which gave rise to the Trekkie faithful in the first place.

    The characters from the original series are brought together in a way which feels quite far from organic, presumably because Hollywood executives were worried that a slower tale that realistically developed their relationships would fail to satisfy audiences unused to thinking and realism. Instead of being members of a logically coherent military organization, each with careers and internal lives of their own, all of our principal characters are roughly the same age and have the same amount of experience, despite the fact that by the end of the film, they all have different ranks and specialties. Especially galling at the end is the instantaneous promotion of Kirk from 25-year-old Starfleet cadet (not even a graduate, as he is in his third year of studies) directly to Captain of the fleet's newest and most advanced flagship. It would be akin to a fresh West Point graduate being given command of the invasion of Afghanistan, or an Annapolis cadet being given command of an aircraft carrier. Why would anyone who had invested a lifetime in this organization respect any order that escapes his lips? Equally puzzling are the promotions of all the other crew members at the end as well - why is Kirk a Captain, but McCoy a Commander, Uhura a Lieutenant, Chekov an Ensign? They all have the same amount of experience and "seasoning" (i.e. none).

    This is the sort of world-breaking contrivance that litters the film (want some more examples? "Transwarp Beaming" immediately springs to mind...). Which is too bad, because "Star Trek (2009)" ably captures the feel of the previous shows, mixing humor, fisticuffs, and dazzling gadgetry in nearly the perfect proportions. It fails, however, to add the integral piece - a logically consistent world, one that creates and follows its own rules, one that is similar enough to our own to be comprehensible, but different and better enough that it inspires admiration and wonder, and makes you yearn to live in it. It is a bit of a tragedy, since just a few tweaks and edits could have turned a story full of world-breaking holes and missteps into pretty much the best Trek movie ever.

    The quality of special effects is above that of the other films and series, and will definitely impress Trek veterans who are used to less. Many in-jokes and subtler references abound, and will no doubt elicit smiles and chuckles from those who are "in the know."

    But that certain something is missing. That special thing which makes something "Trek," and not just "Generic Space Opera #12." There isn't much "Real" science fiction, for one thing - black holes and space ships could have been substituted with quicksand and stage coaches - they are not concepts that drive the plot or the characters or the world, instead they are generic perils, and devices to surmount those dangers. But heck, that could be said of some of the other films, those films that, despite their failings, we would still call "real" Trek. What is missing is the logical consistency of the world. Continuity. "Baggage." In stripping "Star Trek (2009)" down to something that will appeal to a "mass" audience, the producers of this film have denatured it into something reminiscent, but not recognizable.

  7. And here is one of my comments on the same review (which spawned a nearly 100 comment-long discussion):

    The level of story illogic here is sickening.

    -What do the Romulans do for 25 years? Seriously: TWENTY-FIVE YEARS. Why not build a second ship in that time? Or a hundred, for that matter? Why not equip the entire Romulan empire with future weapons? Even with the prison cut-scene, these questions fail to be answered - Why didn't the Klingons reverse engineer the Narada and take over the galaxy?

    -Why does every Romulan on board agree with Nero's plan to kill TRILLIONS of people? Seriously? There was no debate? No one stood up and said "let's go home, warn Romulus, and have sex with pretty Romulan ladies?"

    -Why does Nero sabotage his 25-years-in-the-making master plan by dumping Old Spock on a planet with a Starfleet base on it?

    -How does destroying your only means of propulsion rescue you from a Black Hole?

    -Why does ONE DROP of "red matter," cause a reality-distorting, time traveling singularity, while an ENTIRE BUCKET of it doesn't do something much worse?

    -If you can beam yourself across interstellar distances, why do you need starships any more?

    -What the hell is the whole fleet doing in "the Laurentzian system" while EARTH is being threatened with destruction? (Besides filling a need in the plot, that is...) This whole plot seems to take a good 2 or 3 days. They really didn't tell anyone to head back?

    None of these are issues of canon. All of them are issues of poor writing. Any first year intern could have asked these questions, and any screen writer worth their salt could have answered them in 2 minutes of expository dialogue. But this sort of crap-tastic writing is a feature of everything Abrams has ever done. No doubt it will be on glorious display in the sequel, as well.

    PS - I'm okay with reinvention. I'm not okay with a wholesale dumbing-down. Make no mistake, that's what this movie is.

  8. One of the most egregious sins of "writing by committee" was the clear decision to "sex it up" by putting Spock and Uhura together. But what does that do to the characters?

    Instead of being a shy, revserved, and internally conflicted person (not to mention ENGAGED to t'Pring), who is isolated by his own choice, Spock becomes a creepy lecherous college instructor who bangs one of his own students, WHILE she is his student. Really listen to the dialogue they exchange. Uhura wants the Enterprise for some reason, and Spock demurs because he does not want to show "favoritism."

    This kind of bullshit is being perpetrated by people who don't give a fuck about Star Trek or its characters. There is no love. It is all formula.

    Look at what these three (Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman) have created. Felicity. Alias. Lost. Hawaii Five-Oh. Fringe. Cloverfield.

    What marks all of these productions? Not good writing, that's for sure. In fact, in every one of these shows or movies, characters speak in unrealistic ways, only revealing what is needed for the scene, as opposed to talking like humans. Plots advance by the creakiest, most contrived logic possible. "Twists" are sprung on the viewers with no precedent, and forgotten when they become inconvenient.

    The simple fact of the matter is that these people are bad writers. And they've brought their bullshit rodeo to Star Trek, and fucked with things they don't care a whit about. They've jammed something wonderful into their sausage-maker of a formula, and cranked its carcass through a grinder to turn it into the kind of chum that passes for entertainment these days.

  9. I don't want to be one of those nerds who balks at any change that is introduced into the thing he loved when he was 12. I really don't. And I don't think I am. I think Star Trek is a vital thing that can change and grow over time. It did in the 80s, and it did in the 90s. There were people then who hated every second of it because it "changed" the 60s iteration, and I think they missed out on a lot.

    But I'm not going to eat shit and call it ice cream. The movie was stupid, stupid, stupid, and no number of pretty pictures is going to make me turn off the kind of brain for drama and science fiction that previous Star Trek had helped me to cultivate.

    I'd like to think we're just as hard on "real" Star Trek that fails to adhere to sound principles of writing and characterization. What do you think, Kevin?

  10. By the way, Emily, I should take pains to stress that a diversity of opinion is not only tolerated at Treknobabble, but is desired.

    Even favorable opinions of the 2009 movie. :)

  11. I like Star Trek, especially TNG, but a few things bother me...

    1. The Enterprise can go from a standing start to Warp 1 (speed of light) almost instantly. This would require an almost infinite acceleration and infinite g forces on the crew - totally not survivable. Even if you restricted yourself to pulling 10g, from a standing start it would take about 3 X 10(7) seconds, or about 347 days. Nobody could survive 10g for that long.

    2. No matter how much battering the Enterprise takes, or no matter how low its energy level become, there is always exactly 1g of gravity in the entire vessel.

    3. Every planet the Enterprise visits is Class M, and has a perfectly breathable atmosphere. I would like to see them wearing suits at least some times because the atmosphere is not breathable. Also, the planets always seem to be exactly 1g of gravity.

    4. Almost every alien or life form is humanoid. What an amazing coincidence this is.

    Mulga Bill

    1. That's a really great point on number 1. I take it that "inertial dampeners" are the hand-waving explanation of this, just as the Heisenberg Compensator "compensates" for the impossibility of determining both the position and the motion of a subatomic particle during transport.

    2. Number 4 is explained in TNG's "The Chase" as being the result of world-seeding by a progenitor race of humanoids. Of course it is explained in the real world by limited budgets and a decided lack of non-bipedal actors.

    3. And the same real world explanations apply to 2 and 3.

      The difference is that the writers were forced into these situations by budgets and technology. Abrams et al *chose* their scientifically bogus situations despite having practically unlimited budgets and time.

  12. Items 1 and 2 in this article were what stood out to me the most as the most egregious representation of the science. I will attempt to stick to the good ideas of the plot and provide an alternative to the monkeying around with the science that would allow for similar story-beats.

    Good ideas:

    -- Deus ex machina red matter that can generate black holes. This is a neat concept; but their motivation for the existence of the stuff was lacking.

    Bad Idea:
    -- A galaxy destroying Supernova. Erm... what!? There are a few things that we know about that could threaten the galaxy; another rogue galaxy or galaxy sized black hole that is on a collision course with our galaxy. (This kind of an issue would probably be beyond the technical capability of the Federation) Or... something that messed with the gravitational stability of our galaxy, given that our current understanding of astrophysics really doesn't explain how our galaxy is held together very well (Newtonian physics doesn't explain it, and even from the perspective of General Relativity, the orbital speed of stars at the outer fringes of galaxies is too damn high, and we do *NOT* know why); which would make this an interesting story point.

    Story Idea (feel free to criticize):

    -- What if Ambassador Spock was a key advocate for a research program that would perform a perturbation study of the Galactic center. All of their computer models suggested that the perturbation study would be perfectly safe. The mechanism for perturbation was to be the Red Matter; a newly synthesized substance from some of the most highly decorated scientists in the Federation. The reason for the study is that it has the potential to reveal a revolutionary new form of Warp Drive that could take the federation much further than ever previously thought possible. It has the potential to form warp gates to take the Federation beyond the Milky Way galaxy.

    The key thing to understand about the Red Matter is that 'Red Matter' != 'Black Hole'. The Red Matter is it's own substance with it's own mass that is substantially less than that of a black hole. It is a substance that acts as a catalyst in a reaction that creates a bridge between multiple existing realities. It has to be held together in a chronometric matrix to keep it apart from the current space-time in order to prevent it from interacting with the current surrounding space-time. It is through that interaction with the surrounding space-time

    The 'Red Matter' is used in the perturbation experiment with the Milky Way's Galactic Core. But, due to reasons unknown, unforeseen, and unpredicted; the 'Red Matter' interacts much more strongly with the surrounding spacetime than what had been predicted in the simulated models. A secondary Galactic Center ends up being formed in the perturbation experiment; and the interaction between the two Galactic Centers leads to gravitational shockwaves that threaten to tear the Galaxy apart.

    The shockwaves could be compared to plate tectonics. Two immense bodies are interacting with each other to produce shockwaves (like earth quakes from plates). In addition to the shockwaves, gravitational solitons are formed and are sprayed in random directions across the galaxy. One of the gravitational solitons collides with Romulus - destroying it immediately and providing Nero with motivation to want to attack Spock and the Federation.

    Ambassador Spock races to the center of the galaxy in a last ditch effort to release the Red Matter with the improved metrics from the perturbation experiment to use the Red Matter to create a bridge to close the gap between the two galactic centers. Nero pursues Spock's research vessel with vengeance on his mind. Spock successfully manages to close the gap between the two galactic centers; but generates a wormhole in the process, with parameters that throws him and Nero back in time.

    1. I find your ideas intriguing and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  13. "It is through that interaction with the surrounding space-time"

    ... I never finished this sentence:

    It is through that interaction with the surrounding space-time that a black hole is formed.