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Conventions of Star Trek

No, not Star Trek Conventions like you go to.

Star Trek is a setting for stories. There are various "givens" of this setting, such as the existence of the Federation, Starfleet, the Romulans, and the Klingons, etc., or the existence of warp drive. However there are also some less obvious conventions. They aren't necessarily logical but they are part of the background. For example, time travel stories work in a particular way in terms of timelines.

The point is important because quite a lot of fan (and other) discourse seems not to get that these are stories and the givens have to be accepted. So, here are some of the conventions. (Suggestions about other conventions are welcome.)


The Universal Translator

There are various theories about how it works with new languages. But we just assume that it does. Most Star Trek stories require communication, and making communication a problem would be an irrelevant complication. Of course, sometimes the story does involve language, and then of course the Universal Translator doesn't work, or doesn't work adequately, or something (e.g. "Darmok", TNG).

One village is the whole planet

There are many stories where the crew interact with a small group of people on an inhabited planet, and these interactions somehow decide the fate of the whole planet. An example is the (rather bad) episode "Who Watches the Watchers" (TNG) in which the accidental introduction of a religious belief into a small village will, we are told, inevitably transform the entire planet.

This does not, of course, make sense if taken literally. But dealing with a whole global society isn't possible in most such stories. Taking the village they beam down to as a microcosm makes stories possible. The convention is that the village is the planet's society.

We occasionally see something comparable with Starfleet. In "Children of Time" (DS9) the crew of the Defiant has to make a very difficult decision. It seems to be made by collective decision of the main characters. Did the rest have a say? (There were 49 on board.) Maybe, but they're extras. The group of Sisko, Dax, Kira, and the rest are the crew here.[1]

Security is useless

This one isn't restricted to Star Trek. Stories often require characters to escape custody, or get into secure areas, or at least not get hit by gunfire. So the guards need to be easily overcome. I suppose it's hard to get good staff for Redshirts.

Shuttles can be taken at will

It seems that anyone can walk into the shuttle bay and take one. The notification of an unauthorized launch is always too late. (Perhaps because the economics of the future are different, it seems natural to leave the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition.) This one is well-established and is often useful for stories (e.g. Q's taking a shuttle in "Deja Q", TNG).

It's also usually possibly to beam out at will, but it's actually more common to get stopped in the transporter room than the shuttle bay as far as I can remember (I haven't attempted a count).

Starships are like ships

In the original series, the starship Enterprise was a sort of space-age version of a traditional ship. There's a bridge. Steering is done by a helmsman. Down below in the engine room is a Scottish engineer. Phasers require a crew to operate them ("Balance of Terror", TOS), like naval guns. There is weather in space, with "ion storms". There is a ship's computer though, to do difficult things when the story requires.

By the time of TNG, though, it was obvious that the real world was not going to be anything like this. More and more would be controlled by computer. In any sort of realistic future, the Enterprise would be like Dr Crusher's vision in "Remember Me" (TNG) where she is alone with Captain Picard. "We've never needed a crew before," he says when she asks about it. But if starships were like that, the sort of stories available would radically change, and the ship itself would become an irrelevant background to stories about other things. We want stories where travel is dependent on pilots, engineers, and so on—characters who have important tasks. So Star Trek has continued with starships that are like ships of the sea, with large crews, who even do manual steering. It's a world everyone understands, even though it is now obviously out of alignment even with our own technology.

The convention that human skill is needed can also be seen, for example, in the classic "Future's End" (VOY). Starling, the twentieth century inventor who has stolen a future time-ship, may be a genius but "he is not a trained pilot from the twenty ninth century" and "without the exact calibration, that ship will rip the time-space continuum apart": hence the disaster when he tried to travel to the future. Compare by contrast the ship in Clarke's Against the Fall of Night, which just needs to be told where you want to go.

The rival species are at roughly the same technological level

A lot of stories assume that the Federation, the Klingon Empire, the Romulans, etc., are like nation states or empires on Earth. For these stories to work, they all have to be about at the same technological level. This is a bit unlikely if you think about it, assuming that technology continues to improve and that these societies are of different ages. Perhaps the oldest space-faring society gave its technology to everyone else, so there is a level playing field. However, there are a few exceptions. There are various pre-warp species. There are god-like or super-powerful beings like the Organians ("Errand of Mercy", TOS). Also, though, the Borg seem to be a bit ahead of the rest, though the advantage is relative: Admiral Janeway, from only twenty years in the future, has technology that beats the Borg of the Voyager period ("Endgame", VOY).

Alien species are monocultural

This largely follows on from the convention that extraterrestrial entities like the Klingon Empire are like foreign states. There is a Klingon language and culture, a Romulan language and culture, and so on. The Federation is more variable: it includes different planets, but even within Earth seems to be at least multilingual: Uhura speaks Swahili and Chekhov has a Russian accent. There does seem to be a general Federation culture. It's possible that in other societies cultural and linguistic differences have been flattened or allowed to die out, but we don't really need an explanation. Klingons are Klingons: we don't want to complicate the story with south-eastern Klingons who are peaceful and polar Klingons who are commercial, or whatever.

Captain Kirk beams down

I've seen complaints that it is not logical that Captain Kirk is always beaming down into dangerous situations rather than remaining with the ship. This rather Vulcan approach misses the point. Star Trek is a setting for stories, which normally take place on the planets they visit, and Captain Kirk is the leading character. Therefore, it is obvious that he needs to beam down, and that Spock and McCoy should normally come with him.

However Captain Picard doesn't beam down as much. This reflects two differences from TOS in the situation. (1) There is a larger, ensemble cast which is less focused on one or two people. There are quite a few episodes which focus on various characters in which Picard plays only a small part: in TOS comparable episodes are very rare. ("The Galileo Seven" and "The Tholian Web" would be examples.) (2) A lot of action takes place on the Enterprise and there is more for Picard to do without leaving the ship. It's true though that the original idea was apparently that Picard would sit back more and Riker would be the swashbuckling Kirk-like figure leading much of the action.

Barrels can fall on you (TNG)

The Enterprise D (TNG) has piles of heavy barrels in the cargo bays, stacked up on upper levels. They are not secured, so they can fall off and strike people, or nearly strike them, especially whenever the Enterprise is shaken for whatever reason. Barrels fall on people (or narrowly miss them) on a number of occasions, but no one ever ties them down. Apparently Star Fleet doesn't have safety officers. Taken literally it's a bit silly, but these barrels are actually very convenient for plots where only the fact of the accident is relevant (e.g. "Ethics" TNG). Rather than having to set up particular accidents or incidents, which would waste time and perhaps distract the viewer, you can just put your characters in the cargo bay and drop a barrel, and Bob's your uncle.


[1] There is something comparable in "The Wounded" (TNG). Captain Maxwell has gone off the rails and his ship, the Phoenix, is making unauthorized attacks. We never see any of his crew, and there is just a brief mention of the first officer. If they were on screen, we might start to wonder what on earth they were doing when he gives all these illegal orders, or what he told them, etc. But the story isn't about them, so they are kept out of sight, out of mind. Captain Maxwell makes attacks; his crew are not much more than part of his ship. [Return]


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