Do We Need To Know What They're Talking About?
Technobabble is a bit of a buzzword in fan circles at the moment. I think if narrowly defined, it's a very useful concept to describe, oh, say, Voyager. But we need to be careful.
First of all, most of the technology that makes sf shows work is either magic or just plain impossible. Faster-than-light travel is one obvious example; it just can't be done; see Einstein for details. Now, if you bother to dress it up with terms like "hyperspace" or "jump point," well, you get points for trying, but the amount of energy to create a hyperspatial tunnel is the same as the amount required to accelerate an object to above the speed of light: transfinite. Not MERELY infinite, mind you, but MORE than infinite.
But they're cool stories. Cool enough, in fact, to warrant some sheer fantasy in the guise of science.
So where does science-fantasy become technobabble? Speaking scientifically, it's when technology of the future stops behaving like technology today. When machines routinely break down for no reason, that's realistic; after all, you're reading this on a computer, which are the exemplars of finicky tech. Indeed, gadgets that disassemble matter and beam it across miles of space, reintegrating it so smoothly that the characters can continue a sentence they began before beaming ... well, that's pretty darn reliable. Devices THAT reliable aren't machines at all; they're Plot Devices.
Which is okay with me, too. Technobabble isn't a scientific pejorative (since even the transporter can have some shred of logical justification, assuming a technology higher than the Monolith Builders from 2001) but a dramatic one. If you have the transporter, and it's as safe as you say (recall that Dr. McCoy's fear of the process was considered quaint, not even partially sensible the way a fear of flying would be), then your characters have an easy out from any unpleasant situation. If you don't beam them out, your characters are acting criminally stupid, like guys who die of thirst in the desert when they have a fully gassed Land Rover right next to them.
So they make up some reason why the transporter can't get us out of This Week's Pickle. The explanations don't often mesh, as most hastily constructed lies don't, because they're made up on the spot by lazy writers.
And don't get me started on particle physics! Star Trek tech is complicated enough, with transporters, phasers, photon torpedoes, tractor beams and shields; why do we have to posit "chronoton particles," "anti-time," and sixty bazillion kinds of forcefield on top of what we already have?
Technobabble arises when you can see the "INSERT TECHTALK HERE" in the script. There's a problem; one of the Science Guys identifies the problem as INSERT TECHTALK HERE. The solution arrived at by the heroes is INSERT TECHTALK HERE. But it doesn't work out as planned, because INSERT TECHTALK HERE. So they try INSERT TECHTALK HERE instead, and that works out. Problem solved.
Yeah, okay, okay, I know that science isn't the focus of these shows. I don't love Babylon 5 because of jumpgates and PPGs, and I prefer Voyager's characters to Deep Space Nine's even though the latter show makes way more sense.
But it's like the glaring, massive flaws in Independence Day; with a couple lines of dialogue, and half a minute of effort, they could be fixed. There's no excuse for falling down on the job here, any more than there would be in forgetting to fill in a patch of sky with stars, or sending Captain Sisko out with the wrong number of collar pips.
Hey, when Newton was alive, everything Einstein hypothesized would have been dismissed as magic or just plain impossible, so it is rare for me to have a big problem with the science in science fiction unless it contradicts something most 20th century humans know and understand extensively already...like on Voyager when Tom Paris "evolved" into an amphibian. Technobabble almost rarely bothers me as such: I can listen to people complain about verduron particle emissions and transwarp conduit polarity on and off, as long as there's a story around it.
I do get a little testy when the shows reuse the SAME technobabble over and over (like chronoton particles, which seem to show up on Star Trek whenever anything vaguely time travel-related is occurring, yet no one ever thinks to use them when they NEED to travel through time). Thing is that the more attention a series draws to its tech, the more sense that tech had better make.
For instance, it was clearly established in TNG's "The Host" that Trills can't use the transporters. That is apparently no longer the case, not only for Dax but for any Trill we've ever seen on any Trek series. How hard would it have been to throw in one line of explanation about complications in joining or some other reason that Odan and certain of his species couldn't use the transporters, but Dax and Lenara and others can? Then there's the infamous beaming-through-the-shields issue. It can't be done, except that it is, all the time. I don't care if someone wants to posit a reason that mythological transport can take place through mythological shields while traveling at mythological warp speed. But if you're going to tell us that it can or can't be done, please at least be consistent.
The tech on Babylon 5 has always been so vague as to be quite pleasant. I have no idea how jumpgates work and I don't want to know. Nor have I heard about the Babylonian equivalent of the Universal Translator, which I am sure must exist, though it's possible that I just missed the episode. These are things I'm willing to accept in the name of storytelling.
It's a lot easier to swallow whatever alleged technical "facts" I'm given on a show set in the far future in space than it is, say, on The X-Files, where I get lost when the science gets a tad too outrageous for our twentieth-century understanding...I mean, clones are OK, but an entire colony of them which has been in existence since just after World War II, and retroviruses with manipulated protein-coats being used to deliver deadly infections in tests in obscure places in the U.S.? It's not that those things aren't theoretically possible with our current science: it's that our scientists probably could have cured cancer and the common cold with that technology, so the idea that every single one of them is in the corrupt employ of our government is increasingly comical unless one is the sort of person who really believes in every giant conspiracy theory out there.
I'll take technobabble. I just won't take it as a substitute for characterization, politics, or drama.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.