September 8, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek The Original Series (TOS), and as I write this piece (with my Tasha Yar and Hugh the Borg action figures staring back at me from my desk), it’s hard not to dwell on the legacy of this franchise with which I have a borderline odd preoccupation, going to the lengths of getting B&H’s head editorial honcho to agree to let me write a piece that discusses my action figures.
Star Trek, for those of you who had significant others in high school, is creator Gene Roddenberry’s implausibly utopian vision of the future, where we’ve ended war, poverty, inequity, and all the “isms,” leaving us free to explore the universe and make allies. However, in the 50 years since the airing of the original series, much of what the franchise presented as science fiction has become science fact, in the form of technology we now use on a daily basis.
1. What was it on Star Trek? Communicators
What has it given us? GPS-Enabled Smartphones
Starting out as handheld units you’d flip open on TOS, only to evolve into shirt-worn badges in the later shows, Communicators played a vital role to the various crews over the years, allowing those aboard the Enterprise to communicate with parties on whatever planet happened to be below them in that episode. You’d be hard-pressed to find an episode of The Next Generation (TNG) where the phrase “lock on to his communicator” isn’t heard, as it would provide engineering coordinates to beam someone back to the ship, like GPS, but on a universal scale.
While the modern smartphone boasts a sleek, unibody design, ’90s kids will remember the popularity of the flip phone, and the striking resemblance they bore to those original communicators. No longer a luxury, GPS is a standard feature in most smartphones, along with the ability to transmit your global coordinates via SMS.
2. What was it on Star Trek? Touchscreens
What has it given us? Tablets
This one’s a little obvious, but arguably the most significant. Starting with the electronic clipboard Lieutenant Uhura used constantly on TOS, to, well, basically every control panel on the Enterprise D on TNG, touch interfaces are the norm throughout the Star Trek universe. Where the influence on the iPad becomes readily apparent are the personal computing devices seen on TNG called PADDs. For all intents and purposes, these are iPads, being tablet-sized, touch-based computers with vivid displays, helping Commander Riker complete the weekly duty roster and helping you watch Netflix in bed.
What became one of the most significant computing advances in history, ironically enough, found its origins in set design budget constraints from Star Trek. Reportedly, the touchscreens on the Enterprise D (which naturally were non-functional) were designed to look sophisticated without the need for knobs, switches, and blinking lights.
3. What was it on Star Trek? Replicators
What has it given us? 3D Printers
Any Star Trek viewer is familiar with what a Replicator is, but for those who deny themselves the geeky pleasure of late night Voyager viewings, a Replicator is a device that essentially can conjure up anything you program into it. It’s explained that, in the future, they’ve figured out how to transfer energy into matter, so as long as you have a power source, Replicators can spit out anything from your morning coffee to the carpet in your officer’s quarters (they’ve also been known to miraculously seal up gaping plot holes on more than one occasion). With the advent of 3D printing, we are beginning to get a taste of what this fictional device could be like, and the potential ranges from knickknack to artificial limbs. Printing food is the next (highly) logical step and we are seeing the beginnings of that with some 3D printers being able to spit out candy from spun sugar.
4. What was it on Star Trek? Holodecks
What has it given us? Virtual Reality
In Star Trek’s future, traditional televised entertainment evidently has gone the way of all of Earth’s problems. When the crews of the Enterprise D, Voyager, or Deep Space 9 need some rest and relaxation, they enter a Holodeck (or, in the case of Deep Space 9, one of Quark’s Holosuites) for a fully immersive adventure. Over the years, the franchise has used them as a plot device to get the characters outside the setting of space and into any number of shenanigans, ranging from visits from Professor Moriarity, to fights in Sherwood Forest, and famous battles of World War II. At least one episode a season, it would seem, would feature the “malfunctioning Holodeck” trope, and anachronistic characters would run amok on the ship.
This time of entertainment, where you are completely immersed in the action, (and in the case of games, participating in it) clearly finds its parallel in virtual reality, which continues to expand as a medium for viewing and gaming.
Star Trek has proven itself to be a deep well for inspiring the minds that go on to make the fictional technology of the show a modern day reality. As the franchise turns 50, we Trekkies will celebrate the heritage of the Trek universe by arguing which series is the best (it’s Deep Space 9, and don’t let anyone tell you different) and looking forward to the upcoming series Discovery. Who knows what future tech it will help inspire?