Sunday, March 17, 2019

Making Sense of Star Trek

So I've been thinking about Star Trek recently. It's actually something I do a lot, despite the fact I don't talk about it much, and the reason I don't talk about it a lot is because while I can enjoy the series for what it is, there's still a part of my brain that wants to make it into a role-playing game.

And I'm sure some of you are wondering Well, what's the problem with that, Erin? There have been many role-playing games set in the Star Trek universe. Just use one of those. Except the problem with that suggestion is that when you start digging into it -- as a GM must do in order to make a setting into a role-playing game -- there are things about it which make no sense whatsoever.

No, I don't mean the things you're expecting, like all the anachronisms or the technology that's basically miraculous. I'm not even talking about the numerous discontinuities within the setting (although that's something else I'd have to eventually deal with).

No, in this case I'm talking about starship design. Look at the various Federation designs since Next Generation came out. Why are some sleek and some squat? Why do some ships have warp nacelles that rise up from the engineering hull, and why do some have nacelles that curve down?

Why even build the Galaxy class when the Nebula class has 90% of its capability plus a configurable mission pod plus a much smaller cross-section (a definite advantage in combat)?

And don't even get me started on Trek's ship classification system wherein they apparently think that a frigate (traditionally smaller than a destroyer) is second in size only to a cruiser.

This is the kind of thing which bothers me when I'm trying to sleep.

And then, I re-discovered Prelude to Axanar. I'd seen it before, of course, and was awed at how amazing it was in terms of writing and special effects. But when I saw it again, I noticed something else which floored me: the ships made sense. 

If you haven't seen it yet, you must. Clear 21 minutes from your calendar and watch this masterpiece fictional documentary.

If you don't have the time or desire, then just watch this clip of absolutely gorgeous ships fighting each other.

I have a bunch of thoughts trying to get out all at once, and I'll try to make sense of them for you.

First, you need to understand that Gene Roddenberry is a World War 2 veteran. He flew in the Air Force (the Army Air Corps at the time), which partly explains why there are so many officers onboard Federation ships and not many enlisted. His understanding of the Navy also seems rooted in that area, and it carried over into Star Trek.

For example, the warp nacelles. They are ostensibly mounted on struts because they are dangerously radioactive and they might need to be ejected. However, this makes no sense to anyone who knows that there's an antimatter reactor at the heart of all Starfleet ships and no one seems to give two flips about how dangerous, explosive, and radioactive that obviously is...

... except hold up one minute. The whole antimatter core is fully a product of the motion picture series and later TV shows. In the original 1966-1969 series there was no reference to any reactor at all! Dilithium crystals, yes, and they were somehow necessary for powering the ship, but it wasn't explained. It was all very vague. In fact, if you look at the engineering room in TOS it almost looks like that nacelles are the reactors, feeding down to engineering to distribute power across the rest of the ship.

Once you realize that Roddenberry has simply extrapolated 1940s and 1950s technology into space, suddenly things make more sense. For example, the nacelles are quite obviously boilers, machines which power the ship and everything else on board. Without it, a ship cannot move, fire, or do anything else.

Boilers are also hot and dangerous, which explains why Roddenberry would want them kept away from the crew. And of course, the more boilers you have, the faster and more powerful the ship is, which means that more nacelles mean a beefier ship and therefore fewer nacelles mean a weaker one. Some of you no doubt recall the old one-nacelle Saladin class ship from Franz Joseph's Star Fleet Technical Manual and others the Larson class from the old FASA Star Trek RPG as examples of ships both smaller and weaker than the Enterprise, but if you want something more canonical, how about the TNG-era Freedom class or the alternate timeline USS Kelvin? And in the opposite direction, we have the four-nacelled Cheyanne, Constellation and Prometheus ships.

How does this all tie in with Prelude to Axanar? This article is already getting long, so I'll save that explanation for next time, but here's a teaser:


  1. The 1967 guide for writers submitting to Star Trek actually specifically states that the matter-antimatter reaction occurs in the nacelles. Which makes perfect sense and makes me wonder what dimwit put matter-antimatter reactors in the heart of a starship in the Next Generation.


      See page 11.


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