Monday, October 19, 2009

The perils of sci-fi technobabble

If there's one thing I really dislike about sci-fi and fantasy it's that often writers take too many liberties with the fact that those genres give their creators a lot of latitude to make up the rules on the spot. I really hate "magic" solutions to story problems. In a fantasy script, you might have a character solve their way out of a tight spot simply by having them produce a magic spell that negates the danger. In sci-fi, essentially the same cheat is used, except instead of magic incantations, the characters offer a lot of gobbledegook about "remodulating the main deflector dish to produce an inverse tacheyon pulse and an interplexing beacon."

Naturally, in something like Star Trek, it makes sense to come up with a certain amount of explanation for the "magic" properties of the space ship. As long as the writer doesn't abuse the basic premise too much, the audience will follow and it's fair to mine that science for drama. For instance, we accept that warp drive is what propells the Enterprise through space, and that the nacelles are what makes this possible. It's also fair to say that the engines somehow operate through the use of special crystals and a mix of matter and anti-matter to produce the needed energy to move the ship. Thus, if you're writing for Star Trek, and you decide to do a story about one of the nacelles being disabled in battle, or the engine crystals running, few people would probably call foul. Presumably, the drama is going to come from how the characters react to that situation.

My beef is when the problems are both created and then solved by the magic tech. You know the situation - when the Enterprise has become trapped in an anomoly and can't get out under it's own power. Captain Picard calls down to the engine room, where LaForge suggests they try energizing the main defector dish and produce a beam to get them out. He tries it. It fails. Then Data pipes up, offering that they could "remodulate" (everything on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager can be solved by "remodulating") shield mutations to produce a static warp shell, thus separating the "time particles" of the anomoly from the "anti-time" particles which should cause the anomoly to collapse upon itself. Loo and behold, they try it and it works! Problem solved.

As a climax, that's pretty weak - and they might as well have had Data say "abracadabra" and make everything go away. And in fact, the writer's have all but admitted as such. But (as Mr. LaForge might have once said in a different life) "don't take my word for it." Watch this video of former Trek writer Ron Moore explaining how the technobabble scenes were written on the show.

I see the same sorts of problems now and then in sci-fi and fantasy specs written by first-time writers. Magic and magic-like advanced technology should only be the means for telling an interesting story - they shouldn't become the story themselves. Yes, every now and then a writer is going to have to fall back on using technobabble to get out of a problem, but if there's some solid character work, or that cheating is in service to a deeper story that develops the main characters, it will feel a lot less like a cheap gimmick.

Take a look at Star Wars. The climax hinges on the main character using a mystical power to shoot a torpedo into a small gap in a space-station's defenses. In the wrong hands, this easily could have turned into one of those TNG moments I decried above. However, in this case, Luke's use of the Force isn't just about the magic solving the big plot problem - it's the resolution of Luke's internal arc. He embraces Obi-Wan's teachings and let's go of his conscious mind. He reaches out and accepts that there are things greater than him. In doing so, he's able to perform a task that should be impossible. Thus, all that technobabble about the "thermal exhaust port" being only two meters wide and vulnerable only to proton torpedos that can't be targeted that precisely is all just to set the stage for Luke using this ability to accomplish what shouldn't be possible.

Good writing comes from the characters. It's easy to lose sight of that when you get into writing big epic space battles, or massive fantasy quests where a handy wizard is able to accomplish plotting miracles.


  1. Great thought proving post, bitter script reader -- especially since right now I've got a sci-fi script I've put on the back burner, while I finish a sports comedy spec. No miracles, solutions to problems using characters and plausible things SET-UP eariler in the script. Check. Got it. Now can can I actually pull that off? Hmmm... Well, I'll try.

    Right now there is such a lack of sci-fi ANYTHING, I'm kinda surprised you even posted on this. MAYBE the genre is showing some life with "District 9" and the new upcoming "V" TV series. But this genre has been down for SO LONG that at this point I'm willing to conceed a few mistakes: something is better than nothing.

    But just out of curioustiy, bitter script reader, how do you see the current state of the sci-fi genre as pertains to features and TV?

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  2. See also... HOUSE.

    If it was just diagnose it wrong three times with diseases I've never heard of, but the forth time they get it right with another disease I've never heard of, it'd be a pretty boring show.

    But they're being tricky on that one. They've secretly swapped the A and B plots. It's always really about the B plot, not the disease.

  3. I totally agree with Grant on House. What normally would be wtf and from out of left field, is accepted because Hugh Laurie and the character House are so entertaining to watch. One doesn't even feel the need to check the validity of the symptoms/diagnosis/cures.

    I'm currently writing a sci-fi themed story and I've definitely ran into the "keeping it believable" and not having too much 'made-up science' running the show, but like said above, having 'it come from the characters'.

  4. They're in space, which is not a safe and normal place for mammals to be. It took lots of tech to get them there. Only tech keeps them alive. Only tech gets them home. There's a reason that most first attempts on Star Trek fail, and that was to illustrate that human drive and creativity are needed as well. Also because you have to have an upfront setback to give an emotional provocation for growth and adaptation which gives you forty minutes or so of on screen time per hour.

    Technobabble is to be expected.

    However, ST:TNG was very much more accurate on its science than people generally think and purely by accident. Metastable superheavy elements, crystal channeling of charged particles, and more are all areas of current study.

  5. I should add that if you're going to avoid technobabble and stick with current known science, you're not going farther than Mars and we did that in Red Planet and Mission to Mars and those were technobabble light and the latter pretty good with the emotional subtext and the former with the classic underdog fighting to get back to the girl, and we know how those went.

  6. The climax in Star Wars also works because it's visual. We see the torpedo hitting the exhaust port, so we know first-hand that it works.

    In ST:TNG, we never see the time and anti-time particles being separated or the anomoly collapsing in on itself so we have to accept that it works on faith. Very unsatisfying.

  7. I agree. It's all about character.

    What makes fantasy/sci fi interesting is the COST. In a good story, magic has to be paid for. Luke had to give up his conscious mind to use the magic. On House, one of the characters usually has to give up their pride/assumptions/prejudices/fear/etc. before they can see the answer.

    Many NextGen episodes were simply puzzles. When they worked, they did so because the crew had to PAY for the answer (a death, trusting an untrustworthy theory or person, etc.)

  8. I absolutely have this problem with a lot of sci-fi. I read something, though I don't remember where, in which the writer referred to good sci-fi as simply fiction based on the premise "if." As in, if we were given X technology or Y magic, how would the world function assuming that all else (most importantly, human nature) remained consistant. And like any type of good fiction, you must have a fundamental thematic premise, characters, etc., that would hold up in a world without the aliens/tech/magic.

    I think when a writer holds firmly to that concept we are willing to make the imaginative leaps in terms of technology/magic, but when they lose that groundwork, the thinking members of audience starts calling BS.

    I can't stand people who watch sci-fi exclusively because they like explosions, technobabble, and hot alien chicks in catsuits, and think that they are being betrayed, as an audience, when those things aren't present. As though THAT's what sci-fi is for, and is fundamentally about.

  9. E.C. - I'm honestly not sure what to think of the status of sci-fi TV these days. Networks generally are run by people who seem determined to prove every "pinhead" insult accurate. They're also scared to death of sci-fi because they're apparently still living in 1974 when the popular vision of a sci-fi fan is a basement dweller with bad teeth.

    The biggest evidence they don't get it: ABC has made a ton of money off of LOST - a show that absolutely is sci-fi, despite all network efforts to rebrand it otherwise. There was even a rumor that they are terrified of people thinking that V - a series about people from another planet who come to Earth in an interstellar ship - will get pegged as a sci-fi series. It's a rumor that sounds so stupid it HAS to be true.

    Fox seems less skittish about sci-fi. They gave The Sarah Conner Chronicles two seasons - which is about a season and a half longer than ABC or CBS would have. They're also sticking with DOLLHOUSE through the full 13 episodes ordered for Season 2, and they're nurturing FRINGE. It's no longer being run by the regime that ensured FIREFLY crashed and burned, so if I was running a network sci-fi series these days, I'd probably feel safest at Fox.

    Grant - Actually as I was writing, HOUSE was a show that came to mind with a similar issue, but I've only seen maybe two episodes of the series. I didn't want to tar the whole series based on that, but it's interesting to see that you have the same issue with it. For what it's worth, I think you're probably on target with your hypothesis about why people don't cry foul.

  10. As per usual, Bitter, you've nailed it. This one cuts deep for me because I feel like the genre has become so infested with this kind of geekish Trek-worship that if you tell anybody you wrote a scifi script they immediately roll their eyes (trust me, I know).

    For me, this relates to most of my problems with the horror genre, which is that nobody bothers to go back and look at where any of the scifi templates came from to know why they were done the way they were for that time period. Instead, I think that writers tend to fall in love with the geekish peripheral details of one particular franchise and try to replicate those instead of looking at the concept as a whole and reimagining it toward what their story is actually about.

    btw, the Death Star trench sequence is pretty much lifted verbatim from an old World War 2 movie (can't think of the name) where the pilot is flying down a canal to strike a bridge with a bomb. it's pretty hairy, I can see why Lucas liked it.

  11. It's really funny and ironic. I sold a couple scripts to the Trek franchises for a writer client, and they used to put out a bible that forbade submitting writers from "tech-ing" their way out of "the" problem of the script. Yet the staff writers did it repeatedly.