Star Trek movies

Movie made: 1979-1999 | Set in: late 23rd & 24th centuries

Summary Table
Event Likelihood Time frame
Regular interstellar travel in a multispecies galaxy very low? beyond 2100
Interstellar warfare extremely low beyond 2100
Matter transporter extremely low beyond 2100
Holodeck very low 2075+
Sophisticated androids medium 2030+
Handheld energy weapons very low 2030+
Replicators low 2050+
Shields medium 2040+
Cloaks low 2040+
Universal translators impossible never
Time travel extremely low? 2030+
Genetically engineered superhumans medium 2040+

Note: The Physics of Star Trek and Beyond Star Trek by Lawrence M. Krauss are invaluable sources for evaluating technologies depicted in these movies.

Approach to the future

Scenario exploration with storytelling compromises.


Futurism: 7

Entertainment: 5 to 8
Some have been good, some not.

Plausibility: 3
This is the plausibility of the overall world of Star Trek. The distant setting prevents dismissal of any technologies that do not violate the laws of physics or basic logic.

Interesting depictions

The creators of the Star Trek universe acknowledge that they mix extremely advanced technologies like the transporter and warp drive with other technologies they have deliberately held back so that the audience will find them comprehensible.

Virtual Reality:
The holodeck is the ultimate virtual reality: everything in it can be sensed in every way, including touch. The computer can generate seamless artificial worlds to any specification, and make them respond in real time to participants.

The ability to control matter and energy interchangeably, coupled with immense computing power, make this possible.

Because the computer has full control over all objects and circumstances it generates, people can enjoy apparently risky scenarios when “safeties” are engaged. Safeties can be turned off as well: Picard disengages them in Star Trek: First Contact and machine-guns two alien Borg in a simulated 1920s nightclub.

Virtual reality technology is advancing, and the scenes it generates will become visually indistinguishable from film within decades. With retinal projection, immersion booths, and holography, it will be hard to tell them from reality. This will gradually be supplemented by tactile systems, such as gloves that simulate pressure and texture.

AI will make simulations more responsive and complex. Holodecks, however, sometimes show a level of understanding that would require awareness rather than just processing power. That kind of sophistication is decades away, if it ever arrives at all.

The full manipulation of matter, rather than just images, would require enormous technological leaps. They are not likely in the 21st century, and might be achieved with nanotechnology rather than matter-energy manipulation.

Other technologies/topics depicted

Space travel:
Humans have spread widely by the 24th century, and roam throughout the Alpha Quadrant, our corner of the Milky Way galaxy. Federation ships employ warp drive, using antimatter reactions to travel faster than the speed of light.

Warp drive warps space-time, so that distances are effectively made shorter. Physicist Krauss thinks such a technology is unlikely, at least with objects larger than atoms, citing the immense energy required to bend space time.

Antimatter might be used for sub-light speeds, and might be the best source of energy available. Nevertheless, Krauss calculates that even a 20-year trip to and from a nearby star at near light speed would require 16 times the mass of the spaceship. Krauss judges the difficulties of accumulating that much antimatter to be insurmountable.

See: A note on space travel.

Most aliens in Star Trek movies are unimaginative: humanoid and less diverse in behavior and motivations than humanity. Klingons, Vulcans, and other species are slight variants on Earth cultures, garnished with a particular emotional tendency, such as belligerence or logic.

The prevalence of humanoids has been addressed, at least on “Star Trek: the Next Generation” — ancient aliens seeded Earth and other worlds with organisms that would tend to evolve toward a common form. However unlikely, we understand genetics too little to rule out the presence of embedded instructions that guide the overall process.

The Borg are the most interesting aliens in the movie series. A collective, they assimilate other species, hijacking their bodies and minds with nanoprobes and implants to create subservient “drones.” Drones are unimportant as individuals, and their consciousness is subsumed in a larger whole.

This arrangement is partly familiar among our own Earth relatives, such as ants and naked mole rats, but it could be carried much further. Communication through magnetic fields or other nonverbal means could enable aliens to achieve a true collective consciousness.

See also “Aliens / telepathy” below, and A note on aliens.

Aliens / telepathy:
Telepathic aliens are common in the Star Trek universe. Vulcans can influence and share thoughts, and Betazoids like Deanna Troi can detect emotion even at great distances.

In reality, intelligent aliens could appear to be telepathic. They might communicate by modulated emissions of magnetic fields or non-visible light, for instance. This would be invisible to humans, but detectable with instruments.

It is unlikely that they could directly read human thoughts, however. Language seems to be hardwired into the human brain, so what we think of as the essence of language–sound, discrete units, and the connection of sound to thought–may all be human peculiarities. The same applies to emotion.

Even if an alien could monitor the human brain closely, it is unlikely that it could connect those processes with any exact meaning. With practice and study, an alien might be able to detect anger or other emotions or thought processes that use specific brain regions.

Artificial intelligence:
Data is a sentient android assigned to The Enterprise, the unique creation (along with his brother Lor) of a brilliant inventor. His consciousness is based on a neural net, and is constrained by his programming. He was not able to experience feelings, for instance, until an emotion chip was installed in Star Trek: First Contact.

It is possible this could be achieved by the 24th century. See: A note on artificial intelligence.

Personal combat relies on the handheld phaser, an energy weapon capable of everything from stun bursts to vaporization of large objects.

An energy source powerful and compact enough for a phaser will not be available for some time. Even if one were, no known emissions have a phaser’s range of effects.

Star Trek created the conventions of space warfare: phasers, photon torpedoes, and protective shields. Ship-mounted phasers are powerful enough to devastate planets. Photon torpedoes appear to have begun as energy weapons, but by the later movies they are mechanical devices.

Space warfare in these movies resembles historic naval fighting, which is unlikely, given the probable peculiarities of combat with energy weapons and projectiles while traveling faster than light.

Real combat lasers have not advanced beyond experiments, in which they have destroyed short-range missiles. More exotic energy weapons are still theoretical. Generating enough power is such a problem that some energy weapons were designed to be powered by nuclear explosions.

The Klingons and Romulans use cloaking technology to make their ships invisible and nearly impossible to detect. This could be achieved if all internal energies could be contained, gravitational signature hidden, and incoming radiation redirected around the ship.

Current cloaking technologies are limited to partial absorption of some parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Breakthroughs in physics are needed before more is possible.

Breakthroughs are likewise necessary to enable the energy shields that ships in Star Trek use to protect themselves in combat. These shields reportedly consist of coherent graviton emissions. Physicist Michio Kaku suggests shields are unlikely, as there is no known force that could repel all forms of matter and energy. A more limited protective technology is more likely, though it too would be difficult.

Matter transporters:
By the 23rd century, matter-energy conversion has been mastered. Transporters are the most dramatic outcome of this technology: they can move people and objects across thousands of miles in the form of disassembled matter. Krauss suggests that this is impossible: measurement of the subatomic states necessary to replicate objects and particularly the human mind could not be achieved. Our minds are based on the energy configurations of atoms, and quantum mechanics prohibits gathering sufficient information. If the information could be gathered, he notes that it would amount to a million billion billion megabytes, daunting for any information system.

Krauss also calculates that disassembling a human being to the subatomic level would require the energy equivalent of a hundred one-megaton hydrogen bombs.

Matter-energy conversion allows most objects to be recreated in replicators. Any object, from a guitar to a glass of wine, can be created instantly, and is identical to the real thing down to the atomic level. The energy requirements would be immense, Krauss suggests.

Perhaps that will be possible in the 24th century, but a more likely route is nanotechnology. Advances in this field may culminate in atom-by-atom recreation of objects, perhaps in the late 21st century.

Everyone in Star Trek has tiny devices that translate all languages into their own. They work both with known languages and newly encountered forms of communication.

Translation of completely unfamiliar languages is impossible. There is no inherent meaning in any form of communication; some link to prior knowledge is necessary.

Information technology:
Infotech in Star Trek is oddly primitive. Computer interface is via touch screens and voice, with capabilities little advanced from today. Displays are small and uncommon, and usually show text and simple graphics. Reports are carried around in relatively bulky notepads.

These capabilities will be surpassed during the 21st century. Interface will become highly flexible and intuitive. Display technologies will be immersive, ubiquitous, and image-rich. The bridge crew might watch a 3-D hologram of their ship and its environs, rather than rely on one screen and verbal descriptions.

The exception to this is computing power, revealed on the holodeck, which can generate realistic characters and fully coherent worlds for many users simultaneously. This will not be possible for decades, and may never be, given the near-sentient awareness that required. See “Virtual reality,” above.

Medical technology is also comparatively underdeveloped. People age, suffer from a variety of ailments, and die of injuries.

Complete mastery of the genome will be centuries old by this point, and it is likely that people will have the option of not aging. Nanotechnology could be used much more extensively than it is to repair injuries and ailments. Replication and matter transport could also be employed, particularly for emergency medicine: an injured part could be replaced by a replicated replacement, as needed.

In Star Trek: Insurrection, personal cloaking devices are used to spy on an alien culture. They would require a way to precisely bend all light around the cloaked person.

This might be possible using technology related to antigravity, which has been mastered by this time, but it would require physics that we do not yet understand.

Genetic engineering:
In Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise re-encounters an old adversary. Khan had led an attempt to conquer Earth by genetically engineered “supermen” in the 1990s. Defeated, they were put in cryonic sleep and exiled into space, until revived by Captain Kirk centuries later.

It will be possible to begin “improving” humans soon, as genetic knowledge expands rapidly in the 21st century. Some societies will reject the idea completely, and progress will be slow. The technology will first be applied to disease prevention, opening the door to other changes. If one nation bans genetic manipulation, some parents will go elsewhere.

The improved are likely to form an invisible minority rather than a separate society, and may be more a matter of degree than kind, as genetic intervention spreads.

Time travel:
Ships achieve time travel at several points in the Star Trek movies, which take the stance that the past can be changed.

As Star Trek employs physics that we do not yet understand, time travel cannot be dismissed as impossible. Lawrence Krauss suggests that a theory of quantum gravity is necessary to resolve the issue. He and others favor wormholes as a way to travel through time, but notes that stable wormholes might be difficult to achieve. Holding one open might require immense negative energy. Other physicists think time travel may be prohibited, or that general relativity might allow a time machine to go back only to the point at which it was created.

Given that the world is universally prosperous and unified, people of European ancestry are far too numerous, and there is little sign of the racial blending that is already underway.

Gravity manipulation has been perfected. They can cancel gravity’s effects, and create artificial gravity that allows walking on the decks of space ships.

There are now controversial experiments that hint that the strength of gravity can be changed, though only slightly. Antigravity might prove possible by the 23rd century—we don’t understand the fundamental physics enough to rule it out, and the technology to warp space might also be applicable to gravity.

very low?

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The futures depicted in the movies