Problems with Star Trek Discovery from a scifi writer's perspective
Saturday, December 5th, 2020 7:03pm

For those of you who have seen the TV series Star Trek Discovery, you will notice with the 3rd season that an interesting new technology has come on the scene.  Namely, programmable matter.  For anyone who studies science, you'll understand that this is not a new concept.  The idea of programmable matter has been around since 1991 and was first pioneered by by Toffoli and Margolus to refer to an ensemble of fine-grained computing elements arranged in space.[1]  That being said, the idea itself is very interesting and, from a real world application, has some rather curious near future potential applications.  So, in the end, my gripe with the idea isn't its use, so much as HOW it's used in the series.

Case in point.  If you watch the first episode alone, the absolutely ridiculous and ubiquitous use of it everywhere within the universe is, to me, overkill, and lazy writing.  That's not to say you can't use it.  I mean, even I use something similar to programmable matter in the form of Fluidic Armor that is used extensively by Earthfleet to protect their ships as it's durable and self healing, can change shape, and much more.  As an armor system, it's the perfect answer.  Defeating a ship with working fluidic armor, while not impossible, is greatly difficult due to its durable, and self healing nature.  That's why the fleet loves using it because of that exact reason.  So, if you shields go down, you still have a chance of surviving a firefight.

However, in my universe (and this isn't meant to preen my own feathers, btw, but rather provide an example to reinforce my point) "Programmable Matter" is not ubiquitous.  It's used in a few other places, but is primarily reserved for armor systems where it serves best.  For other applications, either mechanical systems, or holographic, are used instead.  The primary reasons for this are as such:

1.  Reliability and ease of repair.  This is one of the reasons that Fluidic Armor has its own self regeneration system.  Primarily because, in its truest form, Programmable Matter is transient, which creates a whole shopping list of problems, both in real life, and in world creating/writing.  As a general rule of thumb, never make things more complicated than they need to be, and Programmable Matter definitely doesn't do that, either on a writing, or technical level. Now, I'm not saying that Fluidic Armor doesn't.  But at least it's salf maintaining by design, which takes a load off you as a writer, as well as your characters.

2.  Mass.  I can't say it enough.  To achieve believable writing, we have to stick as close to reality as we can, be that theoretical, or proven science.  This includes material mass.  Programmable Matter might be able to appear, disappear, and change shape all day long like you see it doing in STD, but at some point that matter has to be stored somewhere, which creates not just issues with persistent mass, but also questions on where you're going to store it all.

3.  Energy usage.  Even if you can somehow convert matter to energy and back again when necessary to make the programmable matter on demand, you still have issues of excessive energy use (it takes a LOT more energy to make something from nothing, or convert matter to energy and back again vs simply manipulating what's already there) when rendering programmable matter on demand.  My Fluidic armor has that weakness too.  IE, it can change form and reshuffle itself all day long, switch from hard to liquid and back again, etc with low energy use.  But, as soon as you start having to regenerate destroyed or vaporized armor, you quickly begin to tax the power systems.  In real life that would be just as true.  If you don't believe me, ask yourself this.  What takes more energy?  Smelting and forging, or simply machining an existing piece of metal?  That should be self explanatory.

And, I admit the example in #3 above isn't the best, it does relay the basic idea.  So, if ubiquitous Programmable Matter isn't the answer, what is?  Well, further taking from the Star Trek Universe, let's use the TNG series as an example.  What was the energy usage for holograms?  Surprisingly low, believe it or not.  It'd certainly be less than manipulating matter.  And I back that up by pointing at how much energy was required to operate the transporters vs the holodecks.  And, if you look at the holodeck and hologram technology, didn't those create actual objects that were so perfect that they were completely indistinguishable from the real thing?  So why not use holographics to replace the programmable matter?  After all, didn't some of the ships at Starfleet Headquarters have entirely holographic shields?  So why not do that with all the other more mundate places where Programmable Matter was employed?

And now, I'm not saying that it's 100% possible to create a good story and adhere to science, proven or theoretical (just look at FTL technology for example), with an iron adherence.  However, it's my humble opinion that the STD writers, while they have a tough job, and have done a bangup job with what they have to work with, have also sorta broken the cardinal rule of writing.  Namely, believability.  They haven't shattered that wall entirely to the point of ludicracy, but they have made some sizeable dents in that wall IMHO.  Another great example of where they've done this is with the badge transporters.  The other toys they have included in the badges is fine.  I can see them doing most of that with micro technology and minimalization to the quantum level.

However, the Transporters go back to my previous statement.  To move matter from place to place in the volume and quantity that they're suggesting would require far greater energy than a tiny little badge like that could either store or use without destroying itself.  So again, that by itself exceeds the boundaries of believability, and thus should be avoided.  Now, that badge having the holographic emitters, while somewhat stretching it, I do think that it's still possible, depending on how the holograpics are employed.  The tricorder part is doable too, but again, at what cost of energy, and what would be the upper limit of usage before the badge goes poof?  Even if this stuff is hyper advanced, there are still upper limits to physics that can't be ignored, which goes back to the whole idea of believability.

So, were just the tricorder and transporter elements of the badge to be brought to a more believable level, for the tricorder functions, attaching it to a belt worn base unit would make that feature more believable and would make suspension of belief less shocking and harsh.  The transporter part, that would have to be entirely external to the user for the previously stated energy requirement reasons.  And again, I'm probably splitting hairs.  But, as I've stated numerous times, if you're to do your job correctly as a writer, you need to stay, as much as you can, within the realm of believability, within the realms of what physics says is either possible, or probably.  Going too far outside that sucks all the fun out of the story. :(

Anyhow, that's my little rant.  I'd be interested in your thoughts on the writing for Star Trek Discovery, and the newly introduced technologies I've mentioned in this post.  What's your feelings on this?  Did the writers destroy the suspension of belief by doing what they did, and thus somewhat ruin the story, or do you think that, yes, they went a bit far, but not enough to ruin the enjoyment of the show?  I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.