The Computers of Star Trek

Discussion in 'Star Trek - The Original & Animated Series' started by ZapBrannigan, Jul 27, 2013.

  1. ZapBrannigan

    ZapBrannigan Commodore Commodore

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    Sci-fi from the time of TOS often used real computer hardware. Check out "The B-205 in Movies & T.V." link on this page:

    http://www.angelfire.com/scifi/B205/

    Only computer-savvy viewers, who were very rare at the time, knew that those photogenic panels of blinking lights were already obsolete by the mid-Sixties. That's what made used units affordable as studio props.

    And some of that stuff still looks really good to me. It's ironic given how primitive they were, but late-1950s institutional computers, from certain angles, are gorgeous.

    Star Trek went another way of course, building most of their computers from scratch with varying results. Spock's built-in unit at the Briefing Room table is nice and sleek, but the judicial computers in "The Menagerie" and "Court-Martial" are boxy and clunky, and other desktop units throughout the series seldom look very good.

    I'd say the best-looking computers were the M-5 in "The Ultimate Computer" and the Beta 5 in "Assignment Earth," while the worst was Landru in "Return of the Archons."

    One of McCoy's little computers was actually a slightly modified portable radio if I'm not mistaken. It's at the bottom of this image:

    http://tos.trekcore.com/hd/albums/2x19hd/aprivatelittlewarhd0009.jpg

    There's a 7-part feature here on the "PC Props of Star Trek" that illustrates a lot of things:

    http://theomegasector.com/index.php?/blog/1-trekcore-blog/

    Having to portray things way beyond current technology prevented Star Trek from using much real hardware. Sometimes a great look was achieved, but at their worst, Star Trek computers looked a lot less real than the used business machines on other shows, but no more futuristic.
     
  2. Metryq

    Metryq Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    What? No Rayna Capek from "Requiem for Methuselah" or Andrea ("Androida"?) from "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" Alice from "I, Mudd"?

    That is a constant concern for any sci-fi. I've read that McCoy got his "surgical salt shakers" after it was decided the props would not be recognized as salt shakers for the episode "The Man Trap." Even today, many of the "computers" in TOS strike me as nothing more than controls and lights (following the "PC Props" article linked above). Those are mere control panels, not "computers."

    And there are other considerations. Many times in TOS the audience sees textual data displayed on a computer screen that is actually the image of a typewritten page—with penned underlining, as seen in "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Computer fonts have improved as display technology has increased, but even then there is a limit to how much can be comfortably displayed on a video screen. While working as a video engineer in the '90s, I recall student journalists often using a shot of a local paper as filler for a story. Newspapers are an entirely different breed from video screens. And in order to get an entire headline in frame, the student reporter would have to zoom out so far that everything else turned into gray mush. I was constantly telling the reporters, "This is a very boring image. Try to think graphically. Isn't there anything else you can use?"

    Today's audiences are a little more sophisticated. Also, big cinema screens or HDTVs allow an actor to casually display fictional technology in action without requiring an overt close-up to insure the audience sees it. STAR TREK was trying to depict technology 300 years ahead in terms that would be recognizable to '60s audiences. The communicators from TOS were very small and streamlined compared to walkie-talkies from the period. TNG introduced the comm badges, which also looked slick then, but entirely practical and possible now. If TOS had leaped ahead of even Google Glass and posited "cyber brain" implants like those from the GHOST IN THE SHELL series (which today's audiences would recognize as akin to built-in "smartphones" with Web capabilities and HUD augmented reality), would '60s audiences have understood it, even with an actor stepping out of character to explain it with a long dissertation on the technology?
     
  3. Warped9

    Warped9 Admiral Admiral

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    As mentioned above depicting future tech is always going to have a dating problem unless you can think way out of the box, and even then it's iffy because you're still influenced by what you're familiar with.

    I still like the briefing room console and it would have been nice to have seen that style reused or adapted more. I like a lot of the shuttlecraft's main control console. Conceptually there is still a good amount of very advanced tech in TOS even if it could be displayed better. If I were to really go whole hog on enhancing TOS some of the control panels could be cleaned up.

    Two props I still really like are the lighting panel Reger uncovers in "Return Of The Archons" and Flint's viewing panel in "Requiem For Methuselah"---both are very sleek and simple. Today a lot of flat panel TV's have no visible controls (they're usually discreetly along the side or back) primarily because everyone uses the remote.

    I think we can assume that while it isn't really shown or directly referenced there is a lot of stuff being done automatically by a variety of computer systems (in universe). There would have to be for a starship to be truly functional. Kirk mentions (in "Wolf In The Fold") that the computer runs the ship, but I think there has to be be more than one at work. It's possible the reference could be taken as referring to the main computer which exhibits a limited form of artificial intelligence as opposed to a more advanced form as seen with HAL in 2001.

    For the general public computers were still essentially magic technology and while a lot of ideas were no doubt floating around in research labs and universities there mightn't have been much understanding as to just how far computer science could go.

    Then again in some episodes we did see advanced computer systems. The war computers in "A Taste Of Armageddon" shouldn't be much different than gaming computers we have today. The androids seen on TOS particularly in "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" and "Requiem For Methuselah" show a good measure of sophistication. The Landru computer and Val are two other advanced computer systems.

    As referenced upthread the M5 and Gary Seven's computer are more like what we should have seen aboard the Enterprise, not only in how they looked but in how they appeared to function.

    It has been said that we are likely to see evermore computer integration into our everyday lives and possibly to the point where we'll take it so much for granted we won't consciously recognize it anymore. Indeed a lot of stuff we use everyday has computer tech in it even if we don't recognize it as such. Our cars (and ships and aircraft) have onboard computers. Tablets and smart phones are small handheld computers as are gaming consoles. We have desktops and laptops and our televisions are becoming more computerized as are our home appliances. We're going to see computers integrated in ways a lot of us can't even imagine yet.

    This line of thinking has been explored in SF literature, but (as usual) film and television is generally lagging in that respect.
     
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2013
  4. feek61

    feek61 Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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  5. ZapBrannigan

    ZapBrannigan Commodore Commodore

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    :lol: I laughed out loud at that. How could I have missed those? They're easily the finest builds in all of Star Trek computing.
     
  6. Shawnster

    Shawnster Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Additionally, they had no concept of computer networks in the 1960s. The idea of saying "computers" plural was probably not even considered. It'd be like saying "brains" plural run a single human body.
     
  7. Warped9

    Warped9 Admiral Admiral

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    Yeah, back then the idea seemed to be for a single and evermore sophisticated computer to do everything.
     
  8. Mr. Adventure

    Mr. Adventure Admiral Admiral

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    ^^ With the promise (threat?) of cloud computing constantly popping up maybe that idea isn't so far-fetched. Granted, it's a network of computers behind the scenes but essentially it's treated as if connecting to a single entity.
     
  9. The Old Building & Loan

    The Old Building & Loan Auld Lang Mod Moderator

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    A single computer that was so sophisticated that, if one altered records, it could be taken as a given that the chess program wouldn't work properly anymore.

    (Not to mention that it made punch card sounds....)
     
  10. Push The Button

    Push The Button Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Ben Finney must have been a little sloppy when he was messing with the "Fortran for Duotronic Processors" code that the ship's computer was running. Probably wrote past the end of an array.
     
  11. Unicron

    Unicron Continuity Spackle Moderator

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    I'll admit, I've always had a certain fondness for blinky light computers. :D
     
  12. The Old Building & Loan

    The Old Building & Loan Auld Lang Mod Moderator

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    It's not that it just happened coincidentally and Spock stumbled upon it....after Kirk's offhand reference to playing chess, Spock goes to play chess against the computer specifically to test if it's been tampered with...he says as much to McCoy. It was presented as a foregone conclusion that if you messed with one thing in the computer, then other, unrelated things would go wonky....

    This "made sense" to me as a kid...today it's a big WTF.
     
  13. robau

    robau Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

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    I think there's a gritty charm to it. Instead of clean touchscreens, they were pushing real physical buttons all over the place. It made the characters look more active IMO.
     
  14. Metryq

    Metryq Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    In other words, real men don't touchscreen for quiche from the replicator. (They punched buttons the way they "punched" cows. Yaahh!)

    As for those punchcard sounds, let's not forget the high amp relays in Robby's face in FORBIDDEN PLANET.
     
  15. ZapBrannigan

    ZapBrannigan Commodore Commodore

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    Of all TOS sound fx, the chattering electric typewriter is surely the most dated.

    Robbie was intended to represent super-high tech in his day, and now he's basically steampunk. But still gorgeous.
     
  16. The Old Building & Loan

    The Old Building & Loan Auld Lang Mod Moderator

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    I'll take your word for it, I was looking at Anne Francis. :p
     
  17. Redfern

    Redfern Commodore Commodore

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    Concerning "antiquated" sound effects for indicating computer operation, one that really "telegraphed" the point was a movie that debuted some 13 years after TOS wrapped production, BladeRunner. Remember the scene when Deckard analyzes the photos (snapped by one of the replicants of their hideout). He feeds the image into a slot of his machine and when displayed upon the screen, he issues verbal commands, such as "zoom", "pan", etc. along with grid coordinates. Each time he does this, we hear a shutter release styled "clack, clack, clack". I just find that amusing since we use scanners (which make a slight "hum" at worst) and image editors like PhotoShop which are completely silent unless we purposely rig "sound events" for "shiggles". Plus by using a "pointer" system like a mouse, the whole process is silent unless we just like talking to ourselves.

    Sincerely,

    Bill
     
  18. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    Then again, people all over the world deliberately choose, and even insist on, artificially produced shutter noises on their cameras and camera phones. Plus they insist on these things making all sorts of other noise as well. It's sometimes damned difficult to tell whether a machine is really doing what it's expected to do otherwise.

    And why should a mouse be superior to a voice interface? People thirty years back wouldn't understand why anybody would want to move a hand controller around if one can simply talk to the computer instead; it's not difficult to see people thirty years forward considering that insane, too.

    Timo Saloniemi
     
  19. Richard Baker

    Richard Baker Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    'Scotty picks up the mouse "Helloo computer..." (ST4)

    To this day most computers make noises, usually beeping, when text is appearing on a screen. I have been using computers since the old 8088 days and not one did a screen display make a noise with a display (or for that matter, having text appear one word at a time...).

    I do like the big glowy light panels on TOS computers like the M5- you got the impression imporant things were happening, you just could tell what exactly.
     
  20. publiusr

    publiusr Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Agreed. Seeing the ball head spit out--on paper--the words ANDROMEDA STRAIN in the movie of the same name..added gavitas to the scene. The chatter we used to hear in newsrooms, etc. All the President's Men was lovely to not only watch, but hear. It was a loud movie. Haptics are needed...we are adding sound effects to cars after all, to show they are working. MEMs might allow a return to virus proof mechanical computers..who knows?

    My way of explaining this is that pre-TOS, we did have the cyberpunk future, but there was a new focus on austerity to keep folks on task.

    You can travel on your bullet train where no one talks to each other---download Mars on your touchscreen devices--or you can join us in starfleet.

    No glamour here...not so many diversions--except the destination itself. Want your vid-coms? stay home. Our communicators are voice only--to keep your eyes open to your surroundings.

    Here you must remember buttons withoust displays, like old SEAL teams used to throw folks in water to half drown them.

    In return...we will take you to the stars.