Thursday, December 27, 2007

Quark Would Be Proud - STR on "Unnecesarry" Quotation Marks and Blogshares

Well, it started when I saw a sign warning of a "Speed Bump" that I sent over to The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. So I had a link back to my blog, and the next thing I knew I'm getting traffic from a strange place I had never heard of: Blogshares.

It's a fantasy blog stock market. And evidently people are buying "stock" (unnecessary quotation marks or not - you decide) in Star Trek Ruminations. At least one person is anyhow. Now, here's a fantasy game that would make a Ferengi's lobes tingle. Or maybe not. It's not like there's any real profit in it.

On second thought, a Ferengi would find a way to turn those shares into gold pressed latinum.

Anyhow, thanks for the link, Bethany.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Lost in Translation—Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Up to this point we have analyzed the inner workings of the Universal Translator—how pattern analysis and neural analysis might allow the device to work. Now, let’s discuss the outer workings of the device—how users would interact with it.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country does a nice job of showing translation at work, with out letting it get in the way of the story. In the process there are some scenes that illustrate the realities of using a translation device.

To Subtitle, or Not to Subtitle

One interesting scene starts with the Federation president communicating with Azetbur over subspace. We hear the conversation in English. When their conversation ends, Azetbur’s aide unrolls a map on her desk and begins talking to her in Klingon. We see English subtitles.

Either she was actually speaking to the President in English, or we were hearing things through the President’s UT. But when the Klingons speak privately, they logically are speaking their own language.

After this has gone on long enough to convey the shift from English/UT to Klingon, Chang interjects in English. At this point we understand that in reality they are still speaking Klingon, but rather than being forced to wade through an entire scene of subtitles, the UT in our own television set has kindly been activated for us.

While this scene doesn’t exactly tell us anything new about the UT, it illustrates how the translation process can be acknowledged without letting it interfere with the story itself.

“I’m Sorry, the Universal Translator Was Confiscated”

When Kirk and McCoy arrive at Rura Penthe, a large alien starts harassing Kirk, but Kirk can’t understand him because he doesn’t have his UT anymore (which he tries to communicate by making a talking gesture with his hand). An alien named Martia—later revealed to be a shapeshifter—intervenes. She explains this creature wants Kirk’s obedience to the brotherhood of aliens…and his coat.

The exchange has some interesting implications. The prisoners are evidently not allowed to have UTs. This prison is “known throughout the galaxy as the alien’s graveyard.” So restricting UTs would keep large portions of the prison population from being able to communicate with each other. In turn, it would be much more difficult to stage some kind of large-scale uprising. This would also tend to demoralize the prisoners, and create tension among the different language groups, focusing at least some of their frustration and aggression on each other rather than on the prison personnel.

On the other hand, the guards must have UTs so they can address this mixed company of aliens and be understood. So the use of translation devices in the prison is evidently selective and at the guards’ discretion.

This makes Martia an interesting character because it means she knows English, and she knows it well, along with whatever language the big guy was using. She must have spent some time around humans or studying humans before being taken to Rura Penthe. It makes you wonder why Kirk didn’t ask about it: “What’s a girl that speaks English like you doing in a place like this?” Her English was likely one of the reasons she was chosen to help Kirk and McCoy escape and then betray them. It may also have been an unspoken reason why Kirk became suspicious of her (in addition to the blankets, clothes, and “standard prison issue” flares).

“Don’t Wait for the Translation, Answer Me Now!”

The courtroom scenes provide one of the most believable and insightful moments of translation in Star Trek. First, we see General Chang speaking to the court in Klingon. The camera cuts to a booth where there are Klingons translating Chang’s words into English. Finally, we return to Kirk and McCoy who are holding Klingon walkie-talkies up to their ears, listening to the translation. From this point on we hear the Anglicized dialog.

So we’ve been shown that there is translating going on in a believable way—actually the same way it happens today at the United Nations—but we don’t get bogged down in the process. (As a side thought it subtly adds some dimension to Klingon culture. There are actually Klingons who have studied alien languages well enough to become translators. These would be some interesting Klingons to talk to. How did they end up pursuing this line of work? What do other Klingons think of the work they do? It’s not exactly a warrior kind of a job.)

The only difficulty in accepting this scene is explaining why they were using people (Klingons) to do the translating instead of the UT. But if we allow for the possibility that the UT wasn’t available or wasn’t functioning or that the Klingons chose to use their own translators for some other reason (maybe intimidating their prisoners), the effect is very nice. And it sets up a great line: “Don’t wait for the translation, answer me now!”

Dramatically, I love the line, and I love how it calls attention to the translation process we saw at the outset. But at the same time it exposes a basic logical flaw of the UT. Chang’s statement makes it clear that you have to wait for a translation. He was referring to using people to translate, but the principle would apply universally: there is no such thing as instantaneous translation.

It’s true, with a sufficiently advanced UT you could approach instantaneous translation in the sense that you could translate a word as soon as it was spoken, with only the slightest of delays. You could even imagine an analog to predictive typing where the UT anticipates the word before you finish saying it, but this would involve some obvious risks. But the problem is a word for word translation will never sound correct in the target language.

For one thing, word order will rarely match between two languages. So the Spanish “cielo alzúl” is word for word “sky blue” (which in English sounds like a specific color—I painted my room sky blue), but the phrase actually means “blue sky,” as in “Look at the blue sky!” That’s a simplistic example, but the point is while you might be able to decipher a word for word translation, it would certainly not be as seamless as the kind of translation the UT is capable of. It would sound like baby talk, or more precisely like someone reading an interlinear translation out loud.

The truth is, even the most literal translation must involve the adding of words (perhaps a definite or indefinite article or an implied pronoun or verb), and/or the taking away of words, and/or the rearranging of words. It’s the only way to properly and clearly convey the thought. Good translation involves the translating of complete thoughts, not words.

So to do it’s job, the UT, like a human translator, would need to buffer enough of a sentence to reconstruct the thought in the target language. This would take time. Processing time aside, it would take time just to wait for the person to talk long enough to capture the complete thought.

The only advantage we might give the UT is that it has some ability to scan brain activity. So perhaps this would aid it in capturing a complete thought before it is completely spoken. But as mentioned before, for dramatic and logistical reasons the brain scanning capacity of the UT must be seriously limited. After all, it would be a poor device to use in diplomatic situations if it might accidentally translate something you were about to say, but realize was better left unsaid.

Generally we do not see this kind of delay when the UT is used. No one has to “wait for the translation.” (Well, almost no one, I’ll discuss some exception(s) in the future.) This may generally fall under the category of story telling convention—we might assume that there is a delay, we just aren’t bothered with it on screen because it would distract from the story telling. But there are also times when the delay is clearly not supposed to be happening at all, which is very difficult to explain away. (Again, a matter for future discussion.)

The Undiscovered Country also contributes one more significant UT scene that I’ll analyze (and nitpick) on its own. See Chekov's line: “We must respond personally. The Universal Translator would be recognized.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

"True Q" and the Continuity of the Contiuum (TNG)

I think I always considered “True Q” one of the least consequential Q episodes of TNG. Q is most interesting when he is directly facing off with Picard—whether it is something as sweeping and menacing as introducing the Borg (“Q Who?”), or something as quiet and personal as letting Picard revisit his youth (“Tapestry”).

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. It has some great moments: Amanda throwing the omnipotent Q across the room, Crusher being turned into an Irish setter, a game of hide-and-seek that ends with Amanda and Q standing on the hull of the Enterprise, and plenty of snide remarks from Q. But it still seemed sort of like Q-lite.

For one thing, the whole situation is based on the incredible coincidence that this girl just happened to be sent to the Enterprise at the same time that Q just happened to be sent by the Continuum to determine her fate. It’s as if the story couldn’t have been told if Q showed up on earth and we had only marginal involvement from the main characters.

Watching it years later I have formed a somewhat different opinion. I think the issues raised in the episode are more significant than it seems at first glance. This is a story that both creates and challenges continuity, but in the process may provide significant insight into the Q continuum.

Hiding “Hide and Q”

To start with, there’s a nice opportunity to create some continuity that was completely missed. At one point Crusher tells Amanda she “can’t imagine” what she’s going through. And who could?

Well, actually Riker could.

He was granted all the powers of Q back in the first season episode “Hide and Q.” Amazingly no one on whole ship even mentions it, not even Troi. In “The Bond” she wanted Wesley to talk to Jeremy Aster, because they shared the experience of losing parents in the line of duty. But she doesn’t coach Riker to do something similar here.

This oversight is most glaring when Amanda whisks Riker away into her romantic fantasy, and he tries to explain to her the implications of using her powers this way—that none of it is real. Even at that moment, with the issue forced upon him, he doesn’t mention his own experience with that kind of power. Here she is talking to the one human who has actually been a Q, and we don’t get single line of dialogue to even imply that he ever had such an experience.

Being Human

In his Nitpickers Guide, Phil Farrand points out another seeming inconsistency:
Q gives Amanda only two choices at the end of the episode: Return to the Continuum, or refrain from user her powers. Isn’t there another choice? Earlier in this episode, Amanda claimed that she just wanted to become a normal human again. Isn’t that the third choice? In “Déjà Q,” the Continuum turned Q into a human, stripped him of his powers, and dumped him on the Enterprise. Why couldn’t they do the same to Amanda, if that’s what she really wants?
To be fair there is also a fourth option—she could have been imprisoned like Quinn in the Voyager episode “Death Wish.” In any event, clearly they could have done the same for Amanda, so the answer must be that they did not want to do this for Amanda. But why not? Why did they strong-arm her into joining the Continuum? I would suggest it has something to do with Picard’s response to Q’s claims of the Continuum’s “superior morality”:
Your arrogant pretense at being the moral guardians of the universe strikes me as being hollow, Q. I see no evidence that you are guided by a superior moral code or any code whatsoever. You may be nearly omnipotent, and I don't deny that your parlor tricks are impressive. But morality - I don't see it. I don't acknowledge it, Q. I would put human morality against the Q's any day.

And perhaps that's the reason that we fascinate you so. Because our puny behavior shows you a glimpse of the one thing that eludes your omnipotence - a moral center. And if so, I can think of no crueler irony than that you should destroy this young woman, whose only crime is that she's too human.
Q responds with the wonderfully dismissive comment, "Jean Luc, sometimes I think the only reason I come here is to listen to these wonderful speeches of yours."

But maybe Picard was on to something. Maybe his assessment of the Continuum was closer to the truth than Q was willing to acknowledge. In fact, in “The Q and the Grey” (VOY) Q as much as admits that human morality is what is missing from the Continuum. He wants Janeway to have his child, some kind of human-Q hybrid, a Messiah.

Could it be that Amanda was the Continuum’s first attempt at something like this? They didn’t offer her the option of becoming fully human because they wanted someone human to become Q and bring human compassion and kindness into the Continuum.

Oh Where, Oh Where has Amanda Gone?

Whether or not that’s exactly what they had in mind, the question remains: What happened to Amanda? Her story is alluded to in “Death Wish” and “The Q and the Grey,” but any direct mention of Amanda is notably absent.

In “Death Wish” Quinn submits the Continuum’s use of capitol punishment as evidence that the death of a Q—even if self-inflicted—will not create a destructive disturbance in the Continuum. Although it’s certainly possible that Amanda’s parents aren’t the only Q to have been executed, as the audience we naturally take it as reference to them. So there’s this subtle nod to the events described in “True Q,” but when Janeway and Tuvok are taken to the Continuum, there’s no sign of Amanda.

Now it’s true, we cannot insist that we saw every Q in what was really just a representation or the Continuum anyways. Still, it is reasonable to think Amanda would be interested in these visitors from Starfleet. Well, maybe she was “walking the road” at the time. She may have a more active interest in the universe than the older, apathetic Q that we saw.

Or perhaps like Quinn, she had angered some elements within the Continuum. Could it be that her desire to see her parents led her to try to bring them back to life against the wishes of the Continuum and so she had been banished, imprisoned, or even executed? (Hey, worrying about his mother got Anakin too.)

Then we move ahead to “The Q and the Grey.” As mentioned above, Q wanted to have a son. Ultimately he has one with the help of a lady-Q. One minor continuity problem is that Q spoke of Amanda’s parents with disgust for conceiving a child in ‘vulgar human fashion,’ but here he turns around and does basically the same thing.

Well could it be he was just saying that as part of his whole routine of trivializing puny human behavior? Or perhaps Q was just parroting the official position of the Continuum even thought he didn’t truly agree with them? On the other hand, can’t a Q change his mind sometimes?

In any event, we know Amanda’s parents had a child while in human form, which seems like a unique event in the history of the Continuum, and we know that Q (and Q) had a child while in Q-form, a similarly landmark event. So the question becomes, did Amanda inspire Q’s plan to introduce humanity into the Continuum? Did his respect for Quinn the irrepressible translate into respect for Amanda’s parents the irrepressible and a desire to accomplish something similar?

Obviously her presence alone had not brought peace to the Continuum, or Q wouldn’t have felt the need to have a son himself. But did he see some potential in whatever impact she did have on the Continuum? ‘She would have accomplished so much good if only . . . fill in the blank.’

Perhaps when the civil war broke out, she took sides with Q, but was killed in the fighting early on, and that’s when Q set out to recreate the kind of influence her humanity was having (or could have had) on the Continuum.

It would have been nice to have some of these loose ends tied up, but combining Picard’s comments from “True Q” with Q’s plan in “The Q and the Grey” I think we can draw some reasonable conclusions. This in turn casts an interesting light on all of Q’s visits. Sure, they want to teach us—about our limitations (see the Borg), about ourselves (see Picard gets stabbed by a Naussican), and about the universe (see an anti-time paradox)—but underneath all the pomp and pretense and humanity-on-trial business may well be some genuine respect and a real desire to learn something from us in the process.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lost in Translation—Scanning Brain Activity

“Metamorphosis” (TOS) gives us another significant detail about how the Universal Translator (UT) functions: it scans brain activity. As far as I know, this concept is not mentioned in any other episode (but please correct me if I’m missing something). The idea that the UT can scan a person’s thoughts might help solve some of the translation problems based on pure pattern recognition and contextual clues. But some other problems are potentially created in the process.

Universal Thought Patterns

Kirk explains that there are certain universal thought patterns that the UT can detect. Is this a plausible idea? Could diverse races, with disparate nervous systems, and divergent forms of communication, have certain universal convergent brain activity?

On one hand this seems hard to accept. We know, for example, the Ferengi four-lobed brain structure (as well as that of their cousins the Dopterians) is different enough that Betazoids cannot read their thoughts (except when they can - scroll down to the section "Reading Ferengi Minds"). And you would think there are other species with even more exotic brain structures and through patterns that are correspondingly more unrecognizable.

On the other hand, we have Kirk’s clear statement that this is the case, and there are a few factors that can help us accept the statement as generally true. We know that in the Star Trek universe the humanoid races have a common genetic heritage from a race of humanoid progenitors (“The Chase”, TNG). So we might expect that the biological similarities carry over into the basic way their brains function. However this cannot be a complete explanation because Kirk made the statement in reference to a non-corporeal cloud that clearly did not share that line of descent.

But we also have a line of thought presented in “Emergence” (TNG), where Data shows that there are fundamental similarities between biological neurology, his own positronic brain, and the emerging intelligence developing from the Enterprise computer systems. Perhaps those patterns of organization are also true even in non-corporeal beings.

In other words, these universal thought patterns may basically be a kind of convergent evolution—a case of form follows function. While dragonfly wings and butterfly wings are quite different in some respects, in other respects they share certain basic characteristics because they do basically the same thing. They are both wings and we immediately recognize them as such. Now compare those wings to the wings of bird or a bat, and you will see even greater structural differences, but the same high level similarities.

So perhaps whatever conditions make consciousness possible fall within a certain range of combinations that can be detected and understood by the UT. This would certainly make the task of translating easier, but we have to be careful how powerful we make this ability.

Reading Minds

Assuming there are universal thought patterns, and assuming you can scan and recognize them, we have to ask how powerful and precise this method is. If the UT can perfectly recognize what you are thinking of as you say it, then it can perfectly recognize what you are thinking of but choose not to say.

Various episodes suggest there are certain aggressive, invasive, and generally unscrupulous methods of extracting information from someone’s mind, but this is never presented as a simple or widely used technology. This places serious limits on what exactly the UT can learn from your brain activity. In other words, it is doubtful that the UT can scan your brain for specific words, as much as it must gain some of the contextual clues that would normally have to be supplied by extensive observation. This in turn aids the verbal pattern recognition.

Consider the example Kirk used. He said that the UT can detect gender this way and assign an appropriate voice. (It is difficult to explain how a cloud entity has gender, which is certainly not a fundamental requirement for life. Even many biological life forms are asexual.) Perhaps the universal thought patterns that the UT can recognize are along these lines: categories of thought, rather than specific thoughts.

For example, perhaps in all intelligent beings there are certain thought patterns associated with nouns that are quite distinct from the patterns associated with verbs. Even noun-thoughts may come in distinct categories: people, animals, food, numbers. Each might relate to certain general thought patterns.

Really, this kind of categorical approach is essential since many specific words could not be translated anyways. Consider the word wolf. It refers to a specific animal only found on Earth (as far as we know, anyways). There simply would be no word for wolf in an extraterrestrial language – it isn’t a universal concept. But predator probably is a universal (or near-universal) concept. So perhaps the UT could detect that this untranslatable word “wolf” falls into the category of predator (or has a certain probability of being a predator). Based on this conclusion, other words in the sentence, which might correspond to other recognizable thought patters, might be easier to translate.

So restricting the UT’s brain scanning abilities to categories of thought, rather than allowing it to become a universal mind-reading device, not only makes good sense dramatically, but is also reasonably consistent with the realities of translation. There are only so many truly universal experiences, and therefore only so many truly universal concepts, and therefore only so many truly universal thought patterns. Those patterns might fall within the realm of categories and probabilities that could guide translation, rather than providing direct access to someone’s thoughts all on their own.

Next: Lost in Translation-Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Lost in Translation—Verbal Pattern Analysis

There are a number of episodes of Enterprise (such as “Vox Sola”) that describe the Universal Translator (UT) in terms of analyzing patterns in the spoken word. Few details are given regarding the process, but we can draw some reasonable conclusions.

First, let’s start with the easiest task—translating between two known languages. There are already computer systems that can recognize written and even spoken words and translate them into other languages. While there are limitations to the accuracy of such systems, we should expect vast improvements as we enter the 22nd – 24th centuries. But what about a computer learning a new language through pattern recognition?

This is also something that has already started to happen. Franz Josef Och, a specialist in computer translation, has developed systems that use statistical models allowing computers to learn new languages. The computer is given a document that has already been translated into two different languages. It then compares the two, and identifies corresponding patterns. Words that show up the same number of times and in roughly the same part of the document are matched up. Nearby words are then compared and the process continues. The computer can then be given new text in one of the languages, and translate it to the other.

The accuracy of this method depends upon the quantity and quality of the document the computer learns from. For example, researchers use the text of the Bible because of the volume of information and the availability of translations in many languages.

As impressive as this method its, it still depends on the existence of a previously translated work—a Rosetta Stone of some kind. But how do you boldly translate what no one has translated before?

This is where things get more difficult. Earth languages are remarkably diverse. While American language students struggle with conjugation and gender in a Spanish class, they likely have no concept of declension of nouns and adjectives in Russian, or more “exotic” agglutinative languages that can transform entire English sentences into single words. Navajo differs from English so greatly that it was used during WWII as an “unbreakable code.” And we haven’t even left Earth yet. (For a nice survey of linguistic concepts, read Chapter 7, “Alien Language,” in the book Aliens and Alien Societies, by Stanley Schmidt.)

A computer might identify that an alien said queseppy seventeen times in a conversation. But recognizing that pattern doesn’t get us very far. We don’t know if it’s a noun, a verb, an adjective, a proper name. Placement in the sentence isn’t going to help since there are no universal rules for where different parts of speech appear in a sentence, nor any guarantee that any given language even has the same parts of speech as another.

So in the absence of an existing translation, you can’t rely on statistical analysis alone. You need some other point of reference. And that’s exactly what happens when people learn a previously unknown language.

If two people were stranded together and had no language in common, they might eventually communicate with each other. How? By seeing how what a person says relates to his surroundings, actions, and interactions. Which isn’t to say it would be easy.

In “The Ensigns of Command” (TNG), Counselor Troi used this kind of scenario to illustrate the difficulty of establishing meaningful communication with aliens. She tests Picard by saying a single word and letting him guess what it means. He struggles to do it. The point is somewhat exaggerated, but very true. Even with environmental cues – pointing to an object for example – a single word, phrase, or even sentence simply cannot be understood out of context. There has to be extensive exposure and shared experiences for meaningful, accurate communication.

Any translation device would have to be able to process such information. Schmidt explains it this way: “Furthermore, merely analyzing the structure of a language is not enough—you also have to know how it relates to is subject matter. So science-fictional translators that learn a language simply by learning a sample of it are unconvincing. Such a machine would also have to analyze the speakers, and their surrounding and activities for quite a while. Given the opportunity and ability to do that, a highly sophisticated artificial intelligence might be able to do it.”

We rarely see the UT being given the opportunity for this kind of analysis. One notable exception is the DS9 episode “Sanctuary.” The Skrreeans have to speak in the presence of the computer for quite some time before it can identify their unique speech pattern. We can assume in other instances this has happened, but we just have not witnessed it. But on many occasions we are introduced to an alien race for the very first time and this is glossed over. The UT simply works flawlessly from the very beginning.

The TNG Technical Manual basically acknowledges all of these issues in its explanation of how the UT works. Below is a diagram based on the one in the book showing how it is all supposed to work.
Admittedly this is a non-canon source, but it does not seem to contradict anything shown on screen and is reasonably consistent with what we know of translation technology. However, the diagram neglects to include something that has been mentioned on screen: scanning brain activity. This aspect of the UT will be considered next.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"The Mark of Gideon" (TOS)

Somehow, in spite of all my reading of Star Trek reviews, the Star Trek Chronology, and the like, I managed to stay insulated from what happens in "The Mark of Gideon," so I was able to enjoy seeing it without any real expectations - without knowing what was really going on. That alone made it enjoyable, as these days it is increasingly hard to find unfamiliar Trek.

The story starts with a great twilight zone feel as Kirk finds himself all alone on the Enterprise. Is it a parallel universe, a temporal anomaly, some elaborate alien deception? (Of course, it turns out to be the latter.)

Spock's struggle to get permission to rescue the captain is also well played out. His intense loyalty to Kirk leads him to fight against the Federation, Starfleet, and the Gideon Prime Minister Hodin. The diplomatic sparring with Hodin is especially interesting to watch.

And what is the point of this elaborate alien deception? Why, the planet is horribly overpopulated because the inhabitants have become all but immortal, and they what to extract a deadly illness from Kirk's blood to thin out the herd. Unfortunately this premise - and the Gideons solution - suffer in part from a lack of plausibility, but much more so from a lack of explanation.

I have already commented at length on the idea that aging is not a biological necessity as it relates to the Drayan in the Voyager episode "Innocence." But like the episode "Innocence," it seems like too much time is spent on the build up to revealing the Big Secret, and not enough time is spent helping us believe this is actually happening.

There's also some internal inconsistency in that Hodin looks much older than his daughter Odona. But if these people don't age, then shouldn't they look to be about the same age? That would have made the revelation that Odona is his daughter genuinely surprising and would elevate the portrayal of these very human looking aliens to something truly alien.

And if this culture has the resources to create a flawless replica of the Enterprise, wouldn't they have the resources to . . . well, fill in the blank? For example, why haven't they expanded their population to other planets? Perhaps it is an idea that runs counter to their deeply ingrained culture of isolationism. But since we don't get to really understand their culture the answer to that question remains ambiguous.

I doubt the term "ecological footprint" had been coined when the episode first aired, but it is hard to accept the idea that a planet could support people shoulder to shoulder from sea to sea without suffering a complete ecological collapse of its life systems. Even if this is left unexplained it would be worthy of some throwaway line. McCoy says, "I wonder how a planet could even support so many people?"

In fact, I wonder if the episode could have been stronger had McCoy been the focus of the story. What if the Gideons had requested a Starfleet doctor to assist them with developing an inoculation against some deadly disease(s). McCoy arrives with equipment and medical samples, only to make the horrifying discovery that they are not inoculating people against a plague, they are try to create one. But are they murdering their own people, or are they are combating a cancerous growth problem? The ethical debate is on, and you can be sure that McCoy would have plenty of fiery things to say about it. (Of course the down side of this approach is we don't get to see Kirk running around with another space-babe-in-pajamas, but certainly we've seen enough of this already.)

Perhaps the episodes greatest weakness is that it simply never settles on any one concept to explore. There are some great concepts directly or indirectly brought up in this story: agelessness, overpopulation, euthanasia, what it really means to respect life, Kirk's readiness to advocate not only contraception, but government organized sterilization. There could be a great episode about any one of these issues, but in the end too much time is spent on the effectively eerie, but ultimately irrelevant puzzle of the duplicate Enterprise. (Where did they have room for such a huge structure anyways? Underground I suppose.)

Whatever the shortcomings, I will say this - the glimpse of Gideon's population outside the council chamber is a chilling portrayal of a future civilization gone wrong. In some strange way it reminds me of something out of the movie Logan's Run. These people in simple, one-color suits, pushing and shoving past each other in sickly green light - it's really very creepy, and very claustrophobic. It may not make sense under scrutiny, but it's an effective visual metaphor for the problem of extreme overpopulation.

And if we accept the premise for a moment, there is something striking about the question of whether Hodin is a heartless father who uses his daughter as a guinea pig in a lethal experiment, or a selfless father who lets his daughter choose to make the ultimate sacrifice for her people.

So somehow "The Mark of Gideon" manages to rise above it's own shortcomings to be a good story, and to suggest that with a couple more drafts there could even have been a truly great story here.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Minor Upgrade - And Reflections on Blogging

Well, the Bynars stopped by and helped me make some enhancements. Okay, so really I just finally took the time to finish upgrading my blogger account. Beyond the aesthetic change, the newer archiving feature should make it easier to navigate older posts.

The article "Where Have all the Star Trek Sites Gone?" over at Ex Astris Scientia was exciting for me to read for the self-serving reason that Bernd Schneider says he is "fond of" reading my blog. I consider that a real compliment. And as I try to update my blog I see the truth of his further statement: " . . . a personal website . . . requires the webmaster to conceive a design and structure that is custom-tailored for the topic and the equally custom-created content." A third-party blog just doesn't allow the level of customization a "real website" needs.

For example, the new layout options also allows you to show an index of your labels, but it seems I've used too many different labels to make such a list practical. It's just too cumbersome at this point.

So will I ever create an actual custom website? We'll see. For now I lack the personal dedication, time, and mental energy to make one. Which is why I chose the blog route in the first place.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Lost in Translation—Communication with Aliens in Star Trek

Index of "Lost in Translation" Articles

Also see an older post about translation in Star Trek:

The Universal Translator is a vital piece of technology in Star Trek. Without the Universal Translator we would probably never get to the stories themselves.

In his book, Aliens and Alien Societies, Stanley Schmidt writes:

Any time two independently evolved species come into contact, [a writer] must decide how, if at all, they’re going to learn to talk to each other…That’s likely to be a tedious process that the reader [or viewer] doesn’t care to spend much time on, so you may have to gloss over it…Science fiction writers have invented a number of more or less plausible ways to shortcut that awkward necessity. One of the most convenient is the translator, a “black box” or highly sophisticated computer that automatically translates one language into another.

So when we examine the Universal Translator (UT), we must remember that it is first and foremost a storytelling device that is “more or less plausible” (often less plausible) but necessary. Therefore, it would be unfair to subject it to rigorous scientific scrutiny.

At the same time, Star Trek is not written as pure fantasy. The UT is surely not supposed to be as whimsical as the Babel Fish of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example. Rather it is presented as the extrapolation of real-world translation technology that we have today. So there is some room for peeking under the hood, for trying to understand how the UT works, and for expecting some broad level on consistency in how it works.

Additionally, as much as we may want to gloss over issues of translation for the sake of getting to the story, sometimes the process of establishing communication is the story, or at least it can add some texture to a story.

So I am introducing an ongoing examination of issues of communication and translation in the Star Trek universe: A brief look at how the UT works (or may work). Examples where plausibility has been stretched beyond belief. Examples where issues of communication (with or without the UT) were handled quite well, or added some depth to a story.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Denobulan Psychosis

As I was re-watching the Xindi arc recently I stumbled upon a nice bit of continuity.

As the episode "Exile" begins it seems that Hoshi is hallucinating. Of course, we know she's not crazy. She's being contacted telepathically by an alien named Tarquin. Interestingly, Phlox tells her that for Denobulans, hallucinating is the sign of healthy mind - it's a healthy release for the subconscious. He muses that he wishes he could hallucinate rather than keeping things bottled up inside.

Ten episodes later we have "Doctor's Orders" - which mostly consists of Phlox hallucinating while the rest of the crew is in a comatose state. It seems that he isn't keeping things bottled up so much anymore.

Star Trek has never done a great job seeding story ideas early on and developing them at a later time. For example, Phlox' puffer-face-trick that comes out of nowhere in "Home," or like Daniels showing up like the proverbial Vulcan third eyelid. (If this had been Babylon 5 he would have been a recurring character from the pilot episode forward who suddenly took on a much more meaningful role.)

But here it seems - I will choose to believe - that as silly as "Doctor's Orders" may have been there was actually some planning and forethought. The Denobulan propensity for hallucination was not introduced in "Doctor's Orders" and then reverse engineered into subsequent episodes. Instead it was set-up ten episodes earlier.

If only the Temporal Cold War had been so well thought out . . .

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Duras Forehead Problem - "Judgment" (ENT)

No, this isn't a discussion of the more sweeping Klingon forehead problem. This is simply a problem with Duras' forehead in the episode "Judgement" (ENT).

There is a very strange discrepancy between the flashback sequences where he is on board his ship, and the courtroom scenes. In the flashback sequences his forehead looks normal. The distinctive family ridge that runs around the outside of his forehead is symmetrical.

In the courtroom sequences the ridge seems to be incomplete along the right-hand side of his face (our left). Looking at the screen captures from TrekCore you can see that it isn't likely that his hair is just covering the upper part of the ridge; the hair is actually deeper in his skull than the ridge.

With no evidence of trauma or scarring it's hard to explain away as a battle injury, but I suppose that's a possibility. The real-world explanation would seem to be that sometime between the filming of the flashback and the courtroom scene the prosthetic was damaged and not repaired.

Any real-world or Trek universe explanations/theories are welcome.

Check out the screen captures in context here.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

"I, Mudd" (TOS)

I can't personally comment on how "I, Mudd" compares to the first episode featuring Harry Mudd, but the comic overtones in this episode seem right on target. Not only is there some great banter between Mudd and Kirk, but the solution to overload the androids involves some all-out silliness that's plain entertaining.

(In fact this episode contributes some great footage to the "Python's Camelot interlude, by Kirk and crew," which I also happened upon recently.)

But aside from all the silliness, it struck me that this episode lays the groundwork for a lot of modern Trek. What I mean is this: The androids in this episode have a kind of collective consciousness that almost anticipates the Borg collective. Norman is basically the Borg Queen of his day. He processes and controls the other "drones." If you can put all the silliness aside and consider the implications of what the androids were attempting to do, their objective to control biological life is ultimately as menacing as the Borg trying to assimilate biological life. It's just handled with a degree of levity that prevents us from feeling that level of peril.

Then place "I, Mudd" (TOS) side by side with "I, Borg" (TNG). The goofy, illogical stunts that Kirk and company use to fry the androids' circuits are the light-hearted precursor to the impossible, illogical diagram Picard and company plan on implanting in the Borg Collective to fry their circuits.

If First Contact had been made in the sixties the Borg Queen would have had a flashing necklace and go-go boots. Picard and Data would do a little jig in the engine room until her head started smoking. Then the whole collective would be reprogrammed to host cocktail parties and nag Zefram Chocrane for drinking too much.

Cinematically it's not quite as interesting as liquefying her organic components and snapping her neck, but, hey, it worked for Kirk!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Nomad Gets Pluto-ed - "The Changeling" (TOS)

I recently saw "The Changeling" for the first time. I had read summaries of it before, and basically knew what to expect - V'Ger-lite - but I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of its execution. When Scotty was pronounced dead and it cut to a commercial my attention was captured. Sure, I knew Scotty would come back somehow, and I could guess that Nomad would be the one to bring him back, but somehow it still managed to be shocking. Scotty was dead! And perhaps in an even more daring move for which Nomad did not have a magic reset button, Uhura's mind had been erased!

I also enjoyed some of the camera work - particularly when the camera followed right along side Nomad. On one hand it was smart from a technical standpoint because Nomad could appear to be floating without having to find some way to conceal the strings or rods that held him up. But from an aesthetic standpoint it created a very eerie almost claustrophobic feeling, a very real sense that this deadly device was roaming the ship just waiting to discover a reason not to spare the Enterprise any longer.

Unfortunately, the show suffers from a minor, unforeseeable anachronism. It's everybody's favorite underdog (pun) planet (or not), Pluto.

The Problem with Pluto

When Kirk shows Nomad the Sol system, he pulls up a diagram that shows nine planets, including Pluto. You can see its irregular orbit traced out on the screen, passing inside of Neptune's.

Because we have grown up knowing that Pluto is a planet, we find it hard to think of it any other way. We have an almost sentimental attachment to the planet. But the truth is the definition of planet is rather arbitrary, and historically was strongly influenced by our efforts to understand our solar system from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.

If we were to fly into a solar system from the outside, we would first encounter the many small icy bodies of the Oort cloud and the numerous "dwarf planets" that clearly would not have the same "status" as the larger bodies in more or less circular orbits closer to the Sun. Pluto and Charon would probably not even be given formal names by an extra-terrestrial intelligence looking in. At best they might receive some catalog number as two of the many small-ish items in our solar system.

Or to turn the situation around. In recent decades we have been able to detect planets in other star systems for the first time. Invariably the early discoveries were all of super-gas giants. Our detection methods were simply not refined enough to detect planets much smaller than that. But even as our methods of detection improve, it is unlikely we would ever identify and classify a Pluto-like object as a new planet. By the time Starfleet has explored so many "strange new worlds" - and under the guidance of the Vulcans who don't exactly cling to sentimental notions of anything - I simply don't believe that Pluto would be on any respectable 23rd century diagram of the Solar System. At best such diagrams would only appear deep in the historical archives.

In fact I would suggest this scene would be a fine candidate for being updated in the remastered Trek episodes. Using a more accurate - and perhaps better looking - display would eliminate the inconsistency.

Would Nomad Have Known?

The Nomad probe was supposed to have been launched in 2002. Would it have recognized Pluto as a planet or not?

An article over at has a fairly thorough discussion of the history of the Pluto debate. The Kupier Belt was confirmed to exist in 1992. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) was compelled to re-examine Pluto's status. The article reports: "In early 1999, the IAU wrangled over giving Pluto dual status -- both as a planet and as a Trans-Neptunian Object, reflecting its distant location. The plan was dropped after a public outcry led to hundreds of e-mails to the IAU."

By the time the article was written in 2000 the general consensus among astronomers seemed to be that whatever Pluto is, it is not a planet. Popular opinion has clearly lagged behind, but I would imagine that a forward thinking individual such as Jackson Roykirk would have programmed Nomad with a more enlightened view of the solar system. So Nomad probably should have known that Pluto is not a planet, at least assuming that information wasn't stored in the damaged portion of its memory banks. But Nomad doesn't object to the diagram Kirk shows it.

Why it Matters - Sort Of

While the Pluto debate seems largely a matter of semantics, there are some (almost) important reasons for us to think clearly about the topic-reasons that are to some extent illustrated with this episode.

Nomad identifies its point of origin based on a description of a star system. Similarly the SETI program has often used representations of our solar system to convey to ETs what star system we live in. Pioneer 10 and 11 both have a plaque engraved with a diagram of our solar system, including Pluto. Similarly, transmissions from the Arecibo, Puerto Rico radio telescope have contained encoded data representing our solar system that include Pluto.

But as described above, ETs viewing our star system from the outside in would likely never consider Pluto to be a major planet. Does this mean they would conclude we aren't the star system they're looking for? Maybe not. After all, if eight of the nine planets match the description given, what are the odds that they won't recognize the overall pattern? At the same time, an intelligence with Nomad's demand for perfection may reject the match.

Some of these messages contain very rudimentary descriptions of the solar system - barely more than some dots of slightly different sizes representing the different planets. If the message says nine and the aliens see eight, what might they think? Well, hopefully they have enough sense to check for other evidence of intelligent life.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Strange New Worlds 9 - "The Smallest Choices"

This review of "The Smallest Choices" from Strange New Worlds 9 contains some major spoilers.

There are stories in the Strange New Worlds 9 collection with incredible cosmic scope, fantastic amounts of StarTrek trivia woven into the story, or just plain creative story-telling methods. But the story that resonated the most with me emotionally was this one: "The Smallest Choices" by Jeremy Yoder.

To say it had an emotional impact is something of a paradox since this quiet story has only two characters and both are Vulcans: T'Pring and Spock. But Yoder deftly handles the nuances of the Vulcan psyche in a way that is true to what we know of Vulcans and yet dramatically compelling.

I see no way to comment on what made this story so great without giving away significant details, so be warned, significant spoilers follow.

"Amok Time" is one of the most celebrated episodes of Star Trek. It is a landmark, indispensable moment in Trek lore. To tell a short story rooted in the events of "Amok Time" is therefore a tricky thing to do well. For example, I mentioned my misgivings about the way the Guardian of Forever was treated in another story in this collection. Similarly, to start commenting on the story behind the story of "Amok Time" could cross the line from touching homage to a lack of respect for the original. In my opinion, this story never even approaches that line. It reveals nothing incongruent with what we know of Spock and T'Pring or of Vulcans in general and yet manages to be fresh and even touching. In other words, it is a logical (in true Vulcan fashion) outgrowth of everything we know while still providing us insight we didn't have before we sat down to read the story.

The story is told in the third person, but from T'Pring's point of view. As the story unfolds we mostly see her reflecting on her choice to reject Spock and choose Stonn as her mate. A story about a human marriage called off at the last minute would represent a completely different set of parameters - and stories like that are told over and over again in Hollywood. But here we see a Vulcan woman whose decisions were not based on following her heart or true love or infatuation or lust. She simply follows logic. She follows her logic to a decision that a century later she is still wrestling with.

She is a Vulcan woman who has achieved Kolinahr, the complete purging of emotions. Yet she is married to a Vulcan man who has difficulty controlling his emotions. He is certainly unemotional from a human point of view, but she is endlessly frustrated because he is so often motivated by love for her. Well, frustrated may be too strong, too emotional of a word for a Vulcan, but the point is the same. The dynamics of Vulcan relationships are counter-intuitive to everything we know as humans, and yet somehow we can read this story and relate to it. We can see that as alien as the pattern of thinking may be, as deeply suppressed as their emotions may be, there is something compelling, something human about them.

And now she is on her way to see Spock as a representative of the Vulcan government to acquire information on his efforts to promote reunification with the Romulans. The references to Spock's appearance in The Next Generation two-part "Unification" and to Kirk's death in Generations are handled well. They don't come across as obvious efforts to force a cross-over between elements of the various series, but instead are the realistic backdrop against which this story is told. That's where Spock is and what he has been doing, and it is natural that he would come to mourn Kirk's death (in his own stoic, Vulcan way). At the same time, Vulcan-Romulan reunification becomes a nice metaphor for the paths T'Pring and Spock have chosen.

The story ends with what reminded me of Sarek's appearance in the TNG episode bearing his name. Sarek shed a tear - only a single tear, as he forcefully reminds Picard later in the episode. But what did that tear represent? Picard's effusion of emotions following a mind-meld with Sarek where we see the intensity of Sarek's deep, intense love for his family gives us some idea. Yoder captures the power of Sarek's ordeal, as embodied in a single Vulcan tear, in a few simple lines:
In her lifetime, she had only cried a few times as a child. Otherwise, even at the grave of her family members, she never flinched. Never gave in to emotion. To do so would have been disgraceful, especially to one who had achieved the purity of Kolinahr.

So how odd that now, in the quiet stillness of her cabin, a single tear escaped and slid down her cheek. She willed no more to come, yet she did not wipe it away.
This is a story of unrequited, Vulcan love. It is a story of "The Smallest Choices" we make and how they can haunt us for years to come. While it may not have had the photon torpedoes, time travel, or Tribbles of a Grand Prize winner, it's treatment of just two characters is so well done it wins my personal pick as the best story in the collection.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

“Renaissance Man” (VOY)

It’s light on philosophical pondering, heavy on eye-candy, and throws in a cliché or two, but for me it’s still one of the most entertaining installments of Voyager.

“Renaissance Man” starts by creating a suspenseful atmosphere. Bodies are piling up in the morgue as the Doctor renders the senior staff unconscious one by one. We feel the tension rise as he juggles impersonating more and more people. And it all builds to his showdown with Tuvok in sickbay.

Now Worf seemed like the chief of security long before he became the chief of security. In any given episode you knew that was his function on the ship. Tuvok on the other hand lives in the shadow of Spock and Data—making him seem more like a science officer than chief of security. But make no mistake about it, Vulcans can be very menacing security forces. They have the brains and the brawn, and in this scene there is no question that Tuvok is in charge.

He anticipates and deflects the Doctor’s attempt to render him unconscious. And when he starts destroying holo-emitters there is no mistaking that he is a force to be reckoned with. Without the human sentimentality to get in the way, there is no doubt in his mind that the Doctor has been compromised in some way and is a threat to the ship.

Enter the eye-candy and one of the greatest chase sequences on a starship.

First the Doctor leaps through a window and his desk, before donning his mobile emmiter. Then he lures Tuvok into a holodeck full of copies of himself. He commandeers engineering and ejects the core.

In the corridor he takes on the form of B’Ellana, and again confronts Tuvok. This is another great moment where Tuvok’s no-nonsense approach with the faux pregnant woman leaves no doubt that his is the chief of security.

And the Doctor makes what is probably the only Matrix-like move in any Star Trek installment, running up the wall, across the ceiling, and down the other side of the corridor.

It’s over the top, but it’s just fun. So are the Doctor’s “deathbed confessions” about his list of the Captain’s most questionable command decisions, Tuvok’s sub-cutaneous eruption on his Vulcan nether-regions, and his undying love for Seven of Nine.

Sure, the story plays on the old ruthless-criminal-undone-by-his-partner-with-a-conscience cliché, but with everything else going on, I can excuse it. Besides, one of the aliens gets to make a great Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference: “We’ll drop you off in the Vinri system. The inhabitants are mostly harmless.”

As a slight aside on the Heirarchy aliens—or as my friend calls them “the-hippo-butt-guys”—I have a pet theory about their make-up. Star Trek: The Next Generation—The Continuing Mission by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, shows a Michael Westmore sketch of an early concept for the Pakleds from the TNG episode “Samaritain Snare.” (See page 84 if you have copy of the book.) The Pakleds ultimately were given a much simpler look, I’m guessing for budgetary reasons. But I think Michael Westmore hung onto that concept. Although the book never says so, this early, more elaborate version of Pakleds appears to be the inspiration for the Heirarchy aliens.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about “Renaissance Man” is the idea that each member of the crew has a holographic template. Is that a standard Starfleet practice? (If it is, it would explain how Barcaly was able to replicate the crew so easily in TNG, “Hollow Pursuits,” but it just seems like such a bad idea.) I suppose these may be scans the Doctor had taken for medical reasons, along the lines of what he was doing in the episode “Latent Image.”

For the sake of the story, we’ll just assume the templates must exist, and that the crew had all signed consent forms for the likeness to be used within the terms of certain contractual obligations . . .

The episode also made me wonder why the Doctor is such a poor fighter. When he’s struggling hand-to-hand with aliens he really seems to be struggling. I know, he’s a doctor, not a solider . . . But it seems like he should be able to make himself stronger than any biological life-form. While he may have been unprepared to do that back in season one (as in trying to pick up a sword in “Heroes and Demons”), it seems like physical strength is the kind of thing an Emergency Command Hologram might have given a little thought to.

It occurred to me that his tactic of losing his “substance” and allowing his attacker to pass through him (again, see “Heroes and Demons”) couldn’t have worked here. If he lacked substance his mobile emitter would fall off. So that’s probably a trick he has to reserve for sickbay or the holodeck.

While this may not have contributed anything of real significance to the Doctor’s ongoing quest to be recognized as a real person, it certainly took those basic ideas and spun them into an entertaining way to spend 40 minutes.

Monday, May 21, 2007

What's in a Unimatrix?

Earlier, while discussing the fractal-like organization of the Borg collective, I raised the following issue:
On the Matter of Unimatricies - The term Unimatrix has been thrown around as a unit or division within the collective. Each unimatrix is a miniature collective, much as I have described above. We know that the Unicomplex is called Unimatrix 001. Beyond that, I am not certain if the term has been used consistently enough to be precisely defined. Is each Borg ship a Unimatrix, or does a Unimatrix encompass multiple ships? In other words, where does a Unimatrix fit in the layers of collectives? Any thoughts or observations on this would be appreciated.
Recently I saw "Dark Frontier" (VOY) again and drew a significant conclusion: I don't think the writers had any clue what a Unimatrix is.

The episode manages to use the term in at least two different and seemingly contradictory ways. In the opening sequence the Borg "coffin" ship says, "A vessel has been detected at Unimatrix 422, Grid 03." Later the Borg sphere sounds the alert, "A vessel has been detected at Unimatrix 422, Grid 116."

So it's first use makes a Unimatrix seem to be some kind of coordinate system used to identify the location of objects in space, analogous to the Starfleet use of the term sector. Just as Earth is located at sector 001, the Borg Unicomplex is located at Unimatrix 001. Each Unimatrix appears to be subdived into more than 100 'grids' of some kind.

So far so good.

Then we see a flashback where the Hansens examine a sleeping drone they have transported over to their ship. Studying the drone's "proximity tranciever" they learn that its previous designation was "3 of 5, tertiary adjunct of Unimatrix 1" - and firmly believe this means he once served very close to the fabled Borg Queen. So here, the term Unimatrix appears to refer to a division within the collective.

I've tried to reconcile these two conflicting uses of the term. Perhaps there is a relationship between the "geographic" use of Unimatrix, and the organizational use of Unimatrix. So all the Borg in a particular spatial Unimatrix are given a matching Unimatrix designation. This works well for the Unicomplex itself - it's location is Unimatix 001, and the group of drones living there are all part of Unimatrix 001. But the picture gets far more complicated when you start adding in all the Borg ships that are constantly moving around.

As a ship traveled through different spatial Unimatricies, the drones would constantly change their Unimatrix designation. This begins to explain why the Hansens spoke of the drone's previous designation - implying that it has changed over time. But how was it that of all the drones they studied on that cube just one, had ever been located near the Unicomplex? It's possible, but seems strange.

Then we have to contend with the fact that Seven of Nine's designation at the time she was freed from the collective was "tertiary adjunct of Unimatrix 01" even though she was geographically no where near the Unicomplex at the time. (Maybe the Borg hadn't gotten around to changing her designation. So much for Borg efficiency . . . )

The more I've tried to explain away the inconsistencies, the more my head hurts. So either the writers were just throwing the term around because it sounded cool, or as Borg adapted their use of the term changed so that back in the days of the Hansen's it meant one thing, but "now" it means something else.

Again, any thoughts, theories, or relevant information is welcome.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Strange New Worlds 9 - "Orphans" (Grand Prize Winner)

This is a review of the Grand Prize winner from the Strange New Worlds 9 collection. It is therefore more thorough and contains significant spoilers.

One of the draw backs of many episodes of Star Trek is that in the end our heroes fly off into the galaxy and completely leave behind the alien/planet/problem-of-the-week never to be heard of again. The grand prize winning stories picks up one of these dropped story lines and follows through. Consider the episode"The Hunted" ( TNG).

In this story the Angosian government created genetically enhanced soldiers. When the war was over, the soldier were discarded, confined to a penal moon because they were too violent to be reintegrated into society. We learn all of this when one of these soldiers, Roga Danar, escapes and runs amok on the Enterprise. But when the episode is over, Picard literally beams off of the planet when these super-soldiers storm the Angosian capital.

And we never hear of the Angosians again . . .

. . . until now.

Now we get find out what became of Roga Danar and the rest of his fellow warriors. The story is called "Orphans" by R. S. Belcher. Like many stories in this collection, it pulls together threads from various series (DS9 and TOS in particular). As the story opens Dr. Bashir and Admiral Pressman (from the TNG episode "Pegasus") approach Danar and his fellow soldiers on the behest of Section 31. They want to recruit them for a special mission against the Jem'Hadar.

The combination of characters is brilliantRoga Danar and the other Angosian soldiers, Dr. Bashir, and the Jem'Hadarall genetically enhanced to some degree. It leads to a show down between the two groups of super-soldiers, but along the way allows Danar and Bashir to confront their uncertanties about their own identities. The Jem'Hadar are completely genetically engineered - they are manufactured, given their identity as ruthless, relentless warriors. But for Danar and Bashir it isn't as clear where what is really them stops and where the genetic enhancements start.

Their identity crisis culminates on a mission to keep the Guardian of Forever from the hands of the Dominion, which adds another layer to this theme. The Guardian itself is a constructed entity of some kind, and we get at least a glimpse of its self-concept as well.

The set up is great, the theme is compelling, having the Angosians face off with the Jem'Hadar is a stroke of brilliance. However I do have some minor complaints about how the story plays out.

First, the story is told in the third person, but basically from Roga Danar's point of view. However, at some points the story delves into Bashir's inner thoughts. In a novel it is a lot easier to sustain a change in point of view like that, but in a short story it can be a little bit disorienting. I just wonder if there could have been another way to give insight into Bashir's feelings without leaving Danar's point of view.

Second, the ending bothers me a little on a couple of levels. (Here's where some of the biggest spoilers come in - don't say you weren't warned.) At the end of the story the Guardian of Forever vanishes - it moves through itself and is gone. Now, I'm not going to claim the Guardian couldn't do that, but to me it's just a matter of respect. The Guardian is one of the most enduring and beloved icons of all of Star Trek from one of it's strongest episodes. To me you can't just make an icon disappear like that, especially not the Guardian of Forever. It should be there . . . well, forever.

To quote Pressman: "So let me get this straight. You just let one of the most ancient and powerful creations in the universe off its leash. We have no idea what it will do or what its agenda is." Something about loosing the Guardian just rubs me the wrong way.

Also, Danar's resolution is a little ambiguous. He feels like he has finally learned to accept himself for who he is. But I don't know how that addresses the chemical-biological-behavioral Pandora's Box that these soldiers have opened up inside them. Coming to terms with yourself is a great theme, but I just wonder how well it could actually solve Danar's problems.

But take that criticism as it is intended, as small points of concern in a very strong story, with a great premise. The follow-up to Angosian history, tying in Section 31, Admiral Pressman, and the Jem'Hadar, the inner turmoil of the characters, the competing agendas of everyone involved in this missionit is all great story telling.

Reviews of other stories to follow . . .

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Star Trek Ruminations on Ex Astris Scientia

Ex Astris Scientia's list of links was recently updated. I was thrilled (and surprised) to find my little blog on that very selective list (down at the bottom under "Personal Sites"). I consider that a real honor. Bernd - thanks for adding me to your list.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Strange New Worlds 9 - Other Highlights

Reviews of stories from Strange New Worlds 9 may contain minor spoilers.

"Staying the Course"
is an excellent story about Worf and Alexander by Paul C. Tseng. The episode "Firstborn" (TNG) gave us a glimpse into a possible future where Alexander became a Klingon diplomat (a seeming contradiction of terms), but came back in time to make himself more of a warrior, believing this could prevent his father's death. In that episode Worf said he now realized that Alexander had his own destiny, and that it would be a great one. We get to see that great destiny in this story.

It's a touching portrayal of Klingon honor and the loyalty between father and son. Tseng succesfully draws on what we already know of Worf and Alexanders past and portrays a plausible, and very moving future.

"Solace in Bloom" by Jeff D. Jaques reintroduces Picard's friend Louis and the Atlantis project from the episode "Family" (TNG). It takes place during the war with the Dominion. When I first read the story I thought it was a great idea to take that character and that project and use them as the basis for a story. When I had a chance to watch "Family" again, I appreciated "Solace in Bloom" even more.

The story features flashbacks of Louis and Picard growing up. In "Family" there is an exchange between Louis and Picard refering to the very events portrayed in the flashbacks. Jaques succesfully takes a couple of obscure lines of dialogue and turns them into a great character story.

In terms of sheer entertainment value, one of the real highlights of this book is the Enterprise story "Rounding a Corner Already Turned" by Allison Cain. If you don't know what happens in this story, don't let anyone tell you untill you read it for yourself. By the third page you will know what I mean.

Reviews of other stories to follow . . .

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Strange New Worlds 9 - The Long Road Getting From There to Here

Reviews of stories from Strange New Worlds 9 may contain minor spoilers.

At least three stories deal with Earth's formative years that paved the way for Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets.

The Enterprise episode "Carbon Creek" introduced the character Mestral, a Vulcan science officer who elected to stay on Earth in 1957. "Mestral" by Ben Guilfoy takes place a century later. The long-lived Vulcan has a significant impact on the events that paved the way for Star Trek:First Contact. It's a great use of the character and won third place in the collection.

"The Rules of War" by Kevin Lauderdale opens with the line "A spray of bullets sent chips of cement flying from the building's wall across Archer's face." That very gritty opening leads into a story about the start of the Eugenics War and Jonathan Archer's grandfather. Archer described this incident briefly in the episode "Hatchery." Now we get to see it fleshed out.

What did it take to get from the world as we see it today to the virtual utopia of the twenty-third and twenty-fourth centuries? This is a story that helps answer that question, showing a time when national flags and the United Nations still exist, and one of the battles that got us from here to there.

"The Immortality Blues" by Marc Carlson is another take on the pre-First Contact time period. In this instance it's told from the point of view of the immortal Flint from "Requiem for Methusela" (TOS). We even get to see an earlier incarnation of Rayna (as a computer, not an android). The story nicely weaves together many pieces of Star Trek pre-history that are scattered throughout the dialogue and events of the various series. Reading this story I finnally understood what Lily yelled in First Contact when the Borg attacked the missle complex: "It's the E-Con!" (Which stands for the Easter Coalition of Nations - countries that orginally banded together under the leadership of Kahn Noonian Singh.) Mestral is also mentioned in passing as one of the many people Flint met during his life.

Reviews of other stories to follow . . .

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The "Origin" of the Mystery Enterprise in ST:TMP

"All these ships were called Enterprise," Decker said to Ilia. The mysterious ship with the hoop-shaped warp drive has hovered around in non-canon Trek lore ever since. It even made a brief appearance on Enterprise in the episode "Home." (Look for it toward the end of the episode Archer has his last conversation with Soval. On the wall of Forrest's office, behind Archer's head, there is a picture of a ship with the distinctive ring structure.)

When we finally saw ships from the Vulcan fleet on Enterprise, they also had hoop-shaped warp drive. The suggestion seemed to be that this was a Vulcan design that human tried to emulate, then gave up on, returning to Zefram Chocrane's twin nacelle design.

I recently came across this article which confirms that idea, albeit not from Star Trek cannon, but from Doug Drexler who designed the Vulcan ship in the first place. That was his basic idea behind the distinctive design.

You can check out the article here: [Link has been updated.]

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Strange New Worlds 9 - Old Testament Trek and Ferengi Fables

Reviews of stories from Strange New Worlds 9 may contain minor spoilers.

Two stories in this collection are worth reading not only because of the stories themselves, but becuase of the unique ways that they are told.

"Book of Fulfillment" by Steven Costa is written in an excellent approximation of King James vintage Old Testament prose. It begins with a nice tip of that hat to The Next Generation with a reference to professor Galen, seen in "The Chase," and mentioned in "Gambit I,II." The story is a translation of a fragment of an ancient manuscript. This race describes their encounter with "the Liberator" who "came from beyond the sky," and his attendants: the Healer at his left hand, the Sage at his right, the Wayfinder, the Armsman, the Proclaimer, and the Machinist. According to the scroll, "the Sage spoke quiet words of counsel in the ear of the Liberator, speaking of the oath. And the Healer spoke fiery words of counsel in the ear of the Liberator, speaking of the suffering of the people."

In terms of style this is probably one of the most innovative stories in the collection. As you read this 'ancient scroll,' your mind reconstructs the events it describes as they would have been portrayed in an episode of Star Trek. It effectively captures the essence of TOS, and provides some nice continuity with some of the other series as well. What's so delightful about this story is that it really could not be enjoyed on the screen the way it is intended - it is captured much more effectively on the printed page. And this is evidence of the author's mastery of the craft.

A second story told in a unique style is "The Last Tree on Ferenginar: A Ferengi Fable From the Future" by Mike McDevitt. As the title suggests it is told as a fable for Ferengi children. The storyteller tells us the tale began "long, long ago, probably more than a thousand fiscal cycles hence . . ." From the opening lines to the end of the story McDevitt expertly captures the essence of Ferengi thinking and culture.

By the second page of the story we are treated to an inspired moment of Douglas Adams-esque commentary on Leeta's name: "As many of your children may have heard, a lita is a unit of currency on the planet Bajor, where Leeta happened to be from. I merely point this out because it is considered as ironically amusing as when Throk the Pusillanimous of the Ninth Era married an Earth banker whose name was Penny. Or Glint the Rotund who took as mate a Klingon accountant named D'Arsik. Actually this sort of thing happens a lot, but it is not really the point of this story."

There's a great moment of satire, worthy of Chauser's Canterbury Tales, when we learn about Ferengi priests who perform the "mystic money-meld." The story explains, "The money-meld in an ancient ritual where the priest grasps key points of one's wallet and intones, 'My money to your money, your cash to my cash. Our money is now one.' Whereupon the worthy evangelist would run away very fast and leave one's wallet empty."

I could list many other great bits from this story, but I'll let you discover the rest of the humor for yourself. The Ferengi are often used as comic relief, but often the comedy itself is not worth laughing at. Here the quality of the comedy is solid from beginning to end, and the storytelling style only makes it stronger. I won't spoil the ending for you, but let me give you something to compare it to. Once Doctor Bashir explained the story of the boy who cried wolf to Garek and explained the lesson: If you lie all the time, people won't believe you even when you do tell the truth. Garek asked, "Are you sure that's the moral, Doctor?" Bashir asked him what else it could be. Garek replied, "Never tell the same lie twice."

Well just as Garek taught us a very Cardassian moral, "The Last Tree on Ferenginar" concludes by teaching us a very Ferengi moral.

Reviews of other stories to follow . . .