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Star Trek - Original Series The one that started it all...

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Old January 28 2014, 04:43 PM   #1
BMariner
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In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

Has anybody bothered to formulate a plausible in-universe explanation for the crude analog technology in TOS-- specifically the panel and computer interfaces?

If we assume the Prime trek universe is, in fact, our universe, this seems like a tall order. It would require rationalizing a complete reversion of materials, interface, and culture from today's tech back to 60's tech in the 23rd Century. How and why would that happen? That's a larger philosophical question that-- while probably a stretch-- could be attributed to the fact that tech is increasingly driven not by function, but style. I suppose it's possible that, just like photography trends now, that design culture drove a stylistic reversion to knobs and switches.

Of course that doesn't explain why Spock must look into the viewfinder to read scientific data, or what that round, b&w kaleidoscopic screen tells him, or how the navigator gleans a detailed planetary analyses from the static, screenless console.

Fans like to play the duotronics card at this point, which I find lame. So you've transitioned to a totally different computing paradigm, fair enough. Why should that require a functional devolution? Why the dot matrix printers, tapes, various cartridges, and room-size computers?

It gets even worse (or better, depending on your POV) in the movies when each console is decked out with wheel-spoke Lite Brite panels. Eventually we transition back to touch interfaces and digital read-outs. By the way, I loved Voyager's nod to the knob and switch era with the Delta Flyer. Nicely handled there.

This brings up a separate question about production. Did the producers intend to make the interfaces as plausible as possible, based on their best guesses about futuristic technology and budget constraints? Did they expect the audience to "believe" the science officer could plausibly glean an atmospheric analysis from an array of 4 multicolored lights? Or did they take the more theatrical approach, purposely using simplistic interfaces and expecting the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps?

Don't get me wrong, I love the retro tech (RIP, Cage gooseneck viewers). I just think it would be fun to postulate on the reversion from an in-universe perspective.

Last edited by BMariner; January 28 2014 at 04:46 PM. Reason: Formatting
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Old January 28 2014, 05:10 PM   #2
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

Non-canonically, I believe the Romulan War novels explain that the onboard technology was regressed to harden it against a telecapture system that the Romulans had been using against Earth vessels.
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Old January 28 2014, 05:19 PM   #3
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

DonIago wrote: View Post
Non-canonically, I believe the Romulan War novels explain that the onboard technology was regressed to harden it against a telecapture system that the Romulans had been using against Earth vessels.
I don't think an explanation is really necessary and would be completely unsatisfying anyway. Sometimes it's more fun for the man behind the curtain to remain behind the curtain.
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Old January 28 2014, 05:21 PM   #4
golddragon71
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

That's Interesting. Did Ron Moore write any of those because that sounds like the plot point in Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) Where the Battlestars were all retrograded to prevent Computer virus attacks by the Cylons.
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Old January 28 2014, 05:26 PM   #5
Lance
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

Realistically, we can assume things were always 'slightly' more advanced than they actually appeared to be on screen.

For example, the 'electronic clipboard' props from TOS might look rather dated in their styling, but we can theorize that in practical function they are at least as advanced as your average Tablet computer. There certainly was no evidence to suggest the contrary.

Everything else we could chalk up as just practical licence.

Around the time of the movies there was a push to suggest that the props, sets, Klingon make-up etc in the movies are how TOS 'really' looked all along. Some of the spin-off media took that to heart.

But later TV shows like DS9 and ENT made it crystal clear that the 1960s era designs *are* canonical. It isn't a case of us making allowances as viewers: in the 'real' Star Trek universe, the ship designs, the uniforms and so on really did go swingin' 60s retro for a few years there in the 23rd century.

So a back-up theory: the Enterprise (and perhaps Starfleet in general) in TOS has got a deliberate 'retro chic' as a part of its design. Starships before and since may have erred more on the side of practicality, but for their own reasons the designers of the then new Constitution Class decided upon this as a statement of intent, or perhaps because it was a fashionable trend.

Likewise a century later, when the Galaxy Class was being designed with that beige color scheme, and things like that wooden horse-shoe as a central fixture on their bridges... just because it was a design asthetic that pleased the powers that be, and made some kind of visual statement to the other galactic powers about how Starfleet wanted to be perceived at the time.

If true, it was evidently a passing fad, as later ships like the Intrepid or Sovereign classes went for much more "utilitarian" designs.
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Old January 28 2014, 05:27 PM   #6
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

golddragon71 wrote: View Post
That's Interesting. Did Ron Moore write any of those because that sounds like the plot point in Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) Where the Battlestars were all retrograded to prevent Computer virus attacks by the Cylons.
I thought that was how the Cylons destroyed the fleet so easily? All the Battlestars had been upgraded except for Galactica, which is why it was still operational during the opening attacks.
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Old January 28 2014, 05:34 PM   #7
F. King Daniel
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

BMariner wrote: View Post
Has anybody bothered to formulate a plausible in-universe explanation for the crude analog technology in TOS-- specifically the panel and computer interfaces?

If we assume the Prime trek universe is, in fact, our universe, this seems like a tall order. It would require rationalizing a complete reversion of materials, interface, and culture from today's tech back to 60's tech in the 23rd Century. How and why would that happen? That's a larger philosophical question that-- while probably a stretch-- could be attributed to the fact that tech is increasingly driven not by function, but style. I suppose it's possible that, just like photography trends now, that design culture drove a stylistic reversion to knobs and switches.

Of course that doesn't explain why Spock must look into the viewfinder to read scientific data, or what that round, b&w kaleidoscopic screen tells him, or how the navigator gleans a detailed planetary analyses from the static, screenless console.

Fans like to play the duotronics card at this point, which I find lame. So you've transitioned to a totally different computing paradigm, fair enough. Why should that require a functional devolution? Why the dot matrix printers, tapes, various cartridges, and room-size computers?

It gets even worse (or better, depending on your POV) in the movies when each console is decked out with wheel-spoke Lite Brite panels. Eventually we transition back to touch interfaces and digital read-outs. By the way, I loved Voyager's nod to the knob and switch era with the Delta Flyer. Nicely handled there.

This brings up a separate question about production. Did the producers intend to make the interfaces as plausible as possible, based on their best guesses about futuristic technology and budget constraints? Did they expect the audience to "believe" the science officer could plausibly glean an atmospheric analysis from an array of 4 multicolored lights? Or did they take the more theatrical approach, purposely using simplistic interfaces and expecting the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps?

Don't get me wrong, I love the retro tech (RIP, Cage gooseneck viewers). I just think it would be fun to postulate on the reversion from an in-universe perspective.
Watch the Enterprise two-parter "In a Mirror, Darkly" - when the crew of the mirrorverse Enterprise NX-01 board the USS Defiant (fresh from vanishing in "The Tholian Web") they are amazed at what they're seeing. It's not crude analogue technology at all, but technology meeting art in the 23rd century.
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Old January 28 2014, 05:37 PM   #8
Lance
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

King Daniel Into Darkness wrote: View Post
Watch the Enterprise two-parter "In a Mirror, Darkly" - when the crew of the mirrorverse Enterprise NX-01 board the USS Defiant (fresh from vanishing in "The Tholian Web") they are amazed at what they're seeing. It's not crude analogue technology at all, but technology meeting art in the 23rd century.
This is exactly what I was trying to say in my post above, but King Daniel has phrased it far more eloquently than I ever could.

In-universe, the TOS era Constitution Class ships have got a deliberate 'retro chic' design. That's the only sensible way to explain it. Acknowledge that it's meant to look that way, and that the designers of the ship in-universe were making an artistic statement of some kind with that design.
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Old January 28 2014, 05:47 PM   #9
SchwEnt
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

I'd also add that any ST depiction of future tech will only go so far in terms of plausible extrapolation.

Ultimately ST is entertainment, a TV series, movies.
Any "realism" of future tech will give way to interesting visuals and such.

TOS bridge is filled with multi-colored lights to make full use of the new color TVs in people's homes... not necessarily because experts decided that future computers will relay info in series of blinking color indicators.

Spock's viewer made for interesting camera angles and saved money and time by not having to insert an optical shot on a standard viewscreen... not necessarily because technology extrapolation determined science station data needs to be read via a single-person stand-up hooded viewer.

This happens even today, when computer users in movies have clickety-clack keyboards and giant "ACCESS DENIED" graphics on monitors and so on. That's not true to life now. Real-life computing is boring on-screen, future tech probably will be, too.

So for artistic license, for budget concerns, for time factors, for visual appeal... take ST tech with a grain of salt.
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Old January 28 2014, 05:49 PM   #10
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

BMariner wrote: View Post
Has anybody bothered to formulate a plausible in-universe explanation for the crude analog technology in TOS-- specifically the panel and computer interfaces?

If we assume the Prime trek universe is, in fact, our universe, this seems like a tall order. It would require rationalizing a complete reversion of materials, interface, and culture from today's tech back to 60's tech in the 23rd Century. How and why would that happen? That's a larger philosophical question that-- while probably a stretch-- could be attributed to the fact that tech is increasingly driven not by function, but style. I suppose it's possible that, just like photography trends now, that design culture drove a stylistic reversion to knobs and switches.

Of course that doesn't explain why Spock must look into the viewfinder to read scientific data, or what that round, b&w kaleidoscopic screen tells him, or how the navigator gleans a detailed planetary analyses from the static, screenless console.

Fans like to play the duotronics card at this point, which I find lame. So you've transitioned to a totally different computing paradigm, fair enough. Why should that require a functional devolution? Why the dot matrix printers, tapes, various cartridges, and room-size computers?

It gets even worse (or better, depending on your POV) in the movies when each console is decked out with wheel-spoke Lite Brite panels. Eventually we transition back to touch interfaces and digital read-outs. By the way, I loved Voyager's nod to the knob and switch era with the Delta Flyer. Nicely handled there.

This brings up a separate question about production. Did the producers intend to make the interfaces as plausible as possible, based on their best guesses about futuristic technology and budget constraints? Did they expect the audience to "believe" the science officer could plausibly glean an atmospheric analysis from an array of 4 multicolored lights? Or did they take the more theatrical approach, purposely using simplistic interfaces and expecting the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps?

Don't get me wrong, I love the retro tech (RIP, Cage gooseneck viewers). I just think it would be fun to postulate on the reversion from an in-universe perspective.

There is really no good way to rationalize it so why bother. Personally, I've long been fascinated by vintage sci-fi use of computers. They were all aesthetics with no practicality. Remember these were all developed in a world where most people had never seen let alone used a real computer. Thus computers had lots of blinking lights and buttons but no readouts. It was not unusual to see someone standing in front of a wall of blinking lights and yelling out information as if the computer were actually telling them something. TOS had the distinction of occasionally having screens in place thus providing a means of actually conveying information.

As people became more familiar with computers hollywood get better at depicting how they are actually used. (Though in fairness Doctor Who still features the Doctor getting information from his sonic screwdriver without the benefit of any readouts).
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Old January 28 2014, 06:07 PM   #11
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

^ Doctor Who is an interesting case study.

The 'original' TARDIS control room was arguably a little "groovy" in its design, with it's giant roundel motif on the walls, but the control console itself depicted in the 1960s episodes was consistently plausible and realistic. Covered with switches that are actually visibly labelled on screen (as demonstrated with the 'Fast Return' switch in 1964's "The Edge Of Destruction"), or with conventional read-outs and gauges (like the radiation meter seen at the start of "The Daleks").

Not only did it look plausible, it was realistically shown, fully working, on-screen. I never found it less than 100% believable.

The revamp of the design in the 1980s saw the console's physical levers replaced with conventional computer keyboards of a type that might be seen on any home computer of the period (think 'Commodore 64'), but it was still plausible that the Doctor was getting information from the display screens, even if the actual asthetics depicted therein do look a little dated today.

The new series consoles are where it failed for me. Only Smith's revamped console room convinces me. The Eccleston/Tennant/early Smith model technology always seemed ridiculously impractical.

The original Sonic Screwdriver was literally a device for fixing things or unlocking doors, not the multi-purpose "anything goes!" device depicted in New Who which is often treated like a tricorder from Star Trek. That's what makes it implausible.
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Old January 28 2014, 06:09 PM   #12
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

Gotham Central wrote: View Post
Thus computers had lots of blinking lights and buttons but no readouts. It was not unusual to see someone standing in front of a wall of blinking lights and yelling out information as if the computer were actually telling them something. TOS had the distinction of occasionally having screens in place thus providing a means of actually conveying information.
To be fair, there were machines that you could actually get information from without need of a readout that had a light panel pretty similar to the TOS panels on the bridge. I use to run an IBM 3890 document processor that was designed before monitors were used for information purposes.
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Old January 28 2014, 06:24 PM   #13
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

BillJ, Gotham Central- I wasn't asking about the need for a plausible in-universe explanation, per se. I personally see no need for a klingon forehead type retcon on this. I also completely understand why they did what they did (budget, limited technological perspective, optics, etc.). This tech was really a black box for them.

I was just curious to see what, if anything, was out there-- especially given that, as Lance pointed out above, the 60's retro look is very much canon.

I also wonder how NuTrek would address this if they felt the need. Is the design of JJ Trek supposed to represent what TOS would have (or should have) looked like? Or did something take place resultant from the creation of the new timeline that propelled tech design from a 1960's focus to a late 2000's focus?

Again, not necessary. I get it. But speculation is fun.
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Old January 28 2014, 06:42 PM   #14
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

I always just chalked it up that some things go in and out of fashion and even come back again. During the TOS era, there was a certain look that probably could be considered inspired by the 1960s but was at the time thought to be just the new style of the day.

While the TOS technology might be considered clunky and anachronistic in comparison to the 2010s, it's probably a lot more durable & powerful and ideally suited to the ruggedness of space travel (desktop computers would be preferred over comparatively fragile smartphones in such a case, ditto for larger and more sturdy PADDs over today's wafer-thin tablets).

There's even a case to be made that Starfleet and other space agencies put more faith in simplicity with rugged audio-only communicators than more elaborate multi-media handhelds that could easily break or go on the fritz during a landing party, IMO (those devices exist, but they may require an existing infrastructure to support them that audio-only communicators don't need when our heroes visit a new alien planet).
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Old January 28 2014, 06:45 PM   #15
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Re: In-Universe Explanation for TOS Retro Tech

BMariner wrote: View Post
I also wonder how NuTrek would address this if they felt the need. Is the design of JJ Trek supposed to represent what TOS would have (or should have) looked like? Or did something take place resultant from the creation of the new timeline that propelled tech design from a 1960's focus to a late 2000's focus?
I think the Kelvin of 2233 that we see on screen answers this question. From the Abramsverse perspective, TOS always looked the way we see it in the films.
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