Is Star Trek’s transporter room a chamber of horrors…?

Trauma of the G-rated “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

When I was a kid, some million and a half years ago, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) made its big screen debut. The film took the low-budget spartan sci-fi TV series and upgraded it into an A-list Hollywood feature…even going so far as to hire Robert Wise (“Sound of Music”) as director. To assure audiences that the film would be family-friendly, the movie received a G-rating (General Audiences) in the United States. At age 12 (just shy of 13), I was at that age where going to see G-rated movies was “for kids,” but this was Star Trek, so it was an exception, of course. Unlike the then-recent “Star Wars,” Star Trek-TMP was much more hard science-fiction—dealing with themes of machine intelligence as well as the very nature of sentience. TMP was more “2001: A Space Odyssey” than space opera. At any rate, it wasn’t exactly “Pete’s Dragon.”

Body horror worthy of Cronenberg: Mind you, this was a G-rated movie, folks…

As I watched this big-screen treatment of Star Trek unfold, I was awed by the gorgeous redesigns of the USS Enterprise’s exteriors and interiors. I was also struck by the new transporter room set, which was unveiled in a most–um, interesting way. The whole room was now bathed in dim, blue/purple lighting, with translucent shielding between the operator and the transporter stage. There were also eerie new sound effects when the system engaged. The first time we see the new transporter chamber also happens to be the most horrific scene of this G-rated movie; when Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Engineer Scott (James Doohan) and transporter chief Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) try in vain to beam aboard Commander Sonak and crew member Lori Ciana. Kirk and Scotty rush into the darkened room, where they see a panicked Rand at the console, pleading for Starfleet to “pull them back!” But it’s too late. We see two frighteningly distorted humanoid shapes materializing on the platform. Sonak and Ciana appear to be inside out, with their hearts and other organs nearly visible through the shimmer. There’s the muffled sounds of distorted screams just before the two fade from the chamber. There’s a beat of stunned silence, as Kirk composes himself enough to ask if Starfleet Control received them. On the other end, we hear a shaken voice (editor Todd Ramsay) saying, “Enterprise…what we got back didn’t live long. Fortunately.”

Note: Lori Ciana (a character who wasn’t named in the credits) was a former lover of Kirk’s, according to the novelization by Gene Roddenberry.

Kirk assures Rand that it “wasn’t (her) fault” even though he was the one who blundered his way into the transporter room to ‘take charge.’

This was David Cronenberg-style body horror—in a G-rated movie! Even though I’d seen the transporter safely used many times in the original Star Trek series, the movie made me look at the device in a whole new way. A simple pair of “faulty modules” (as Commander Decker pointed out earlier) were responsible for turning two would-be crewmen into hideously distorted blobs of protoplasm. While I long accepted Star Trek’s transporter storytelling device as “safe”, TMP made me rethink all of my previous assumptions about this admittedly fictional machine. If they ever create a chamber that could break down a human body into a data stream and reassemble it elsewhere, would I ever want to step into such a device? Could I ever trust it? All it takes is a power hiccup, or a blown circuit and one is turned into a bloody, agonized mess.

Star Trek: TMP turned Star Trek’s reliable ol’ transporter into a nightmare fuel generator…

“Call me ‘Heisenberg’ “…

One of the greatest obstacles to transporting mass as you would radio waves or other forms of light/energy is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle:

Uncertainty principle, also called Heisenberg uncertainty principleor indeterminacy principle, statement, articulated (1927) by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, that the position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory. The very concepts of exact position and exact velocity together, in fact, have no meaning in nature.

~Britannica.com

It’s impossible to know the exact state of an atom (the relative positions of its protons, neutrons and electrons) because our measurements of relative movement/position have no meaning at such a scale. It’s the Schrödinger’s cat problem; the unseen cat in a box is either alive or dead—opening the box makes one or the other guess true. So long as the box remains closed, both states are possible–the cat is alive and dead. In order to ‘freeze’ atoms long enough to break them down into energy and reassemble them into their previous state, you’d need to know their exact quantum states all at once. According to physics, that’s kinda impossible. But of course, Star Trek has that magical hand-wave technobabble known as “the Heisenberg compensator” (something introduced in “The Next Generation” later on). Presumably, this makes those pesky problems of observed quantum states meaningless somehow…?

“The Fly” in the ointment.

The 1958 and 1986 versions of “The Fly” (both based on a 1957 short story by George Langelaan) dealt with crude, 20th century versions of Star Trek’s famed transporter. The 1958 version saw happily married scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison) swapping a head and left hand with a common housefly, which buzzed into his glass walled transport chamber during a live test (this was after he’d already turned his son’s cat into a disembodied spectral-pet). Despite having a fly’s head, Delambre somehow inexplicably retained his identity, at least for a while, until madness finally overcame him, and he begged his obliging wife (Patricia Owens) to crush his fly head in a hydraulic press. Meanwhile, his human head and hand were shrunken and swapped with the fly’s tiny body—which is trapped in a spider’s web in his own front yard during the film’s memorable finale (“Help meee!”). Both the encroaching spider and its would-be human/fly victim are killed with a rock mindlessly tossed by Delambre’s brother Francois (Vincent Price), who is repulsed by Andre’s abominable state. Of course, the 1958 movie makes no mention of Heisenberg compensators or other technobabble for its transporter device; it just works…somehow.

The 1958 version of “The Fly” (left) was more a typical cautionary tale of obsessed scientist treading upon ‘God’s domain.’ The 1986 reimagining was a timely and adult allergy of the AIDS pandemic.

The 1986 version of “The Fly” was directed by David Cronenberg (famous for his body-horror films such as “The Brood” and “Videodrome”). Cronenberg’s earlier works were warmups for the horrors seen in his bold, AIDS-allegory of “The Fly.” Bachelor scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldberg, in an Oscar-worthy performance) creates a set of “telepods”, devices which resemble oversized motorcycle cylinders. These telepods can theoretically compress a human being into a data stream and reassemble them into a nearby pod. It’s the dream of teleportation! Brundle meets science magazine journalist Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (Geena Davis) at a party, and the two begin an intense relationship. Jealousy erupts when Seth learns that Ronnie went to see her ex beau and editor Stathis Borans (Jon Getz). After a series of failures (including the horrific mutilation of a test baboon), a drunken Seth unwisely decides to re-test his newly refined chamber using himself as the test subject—as the titular fly joins him in his pod. Instead of emerging with a fly head & hand, Brundle exits the other chamber looking and feeling great. He is stronger, more agile and has far greater stamina than before; after they reconcile, the reassembled Brundle utterly exhausts his lover, Ronnie. Brundle’s newfound physical/mental awakening goes south, as his body eventually begins to change and turn grotesque. Before long, his skin blisters, thick hairs grow on his back, and he begins to shed body parts, such as ears, and other now ‘useless’ human organs. Reviewing the logs of his transport, Brundle discovers that his device ‘got confused’ by the presence of a second test subject and somehow genetically spliced the two subjects together. The final hideous mutation of “Brundlefly” is later euthanized by a shotgun blast to the head. The 1986 version of “The Fly” is superior in every way to its 1958 predecessor, from revised concept to casting. Jeff Goldblum would memorably play other such nerdy-scientist roles (“Jurassic Park”, “Independence Day”). Goldblum was so good in “The Fly” that the film almost saw him permanently typecast.

Note: The famed writer/director David Cronenberg would later costar in “Star Trek: Discovery” (2017-present) as the enigmatic, bespectacled 32nd century interrogator known only as Kovich. As an appreciator of Cronenberg’s work, seeing him guest star on Star Trek was a bit strange—almost like seeing Alfred Hitchcock manning the helm of Kirk’s USS Enterprise.

Presumably, Star Trek’s computers and technology are infinitely more sophisticated than the 20th century tech of Brundle’s bachelor loft laboratory, but mistakes can always happen. Any system created by flawed human beings is potentially fallible itself.

“Step into my parlor…”

In the fall of 1966, there was a new sci-fi kid on the television block. Unlike the juvenile “Lost in Space”, “Star Trek” was a more sophisticated series, using spec scripts from established sci-fi writers of the time such as Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad and Jerome Bixby. Stories dealt with life aboard the Federation starship USS Enterprise, as its 430-member crew explored the galaxy, boldly going “where no man has gone before.”

“Be afraid…be very afraid.” This way to the Transporter Section of the Star Trek Tour in Ticonderoga, New York.

Early in the writing stages of the first pilot (“The Cage”), Gene Roddenberry realized that the visual effects of the time would be unable to show the massive starship landing on different alien planets every week. So, a solution was written into the story; the ship would feature a practical teleportation chamber called “the transporter room,” which would feature a much more evolved version of the technology seen in “The Fly” eight years earlier. With centuries of refinement, this futuristic teleporter would be as routine as stepping onto an escalator today. Week after week, we’d see Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and company ‘beam down’ to various planets, stay awhile, and then call to their starship (with handy flip-top communicators) to be beamed back—without needing a duplicate transporter chamber on the planets they visited. The transporter had an unspecified range of a few hundred miles or so, roughly the distance from a planet’s orbit to its surface. Easy-peasy…

The transporter room as it appeared in Star Trek’s 2nd pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1965).

Even this ‘routine’ transporter technology had hiccups, however. Early in the first season, there was a Jekyll and Hyde-story called “The Enemy Within,” which saw Capt. Kirk duplicated by a malfunction in the ship’s transporter. The first Kirk to appear in the transporter was benign, but ineffective as a leader—lacking the captain’s usual decisiveness. The second Kirk embodied all of the good captain’s repressed negative traits—he was boozing, combative, and a would-be rapist (the scene where Kirk attacks Yeoman Rand in her quarters was very shocking for 1966). Despite his negativity, the ‘evil’ Kirk also possessed much of what made the captain such a strong leader; he had backbone, guts and gall. The two halves are eventually rejoined after a bit of repair and bypassing, but many unanswered questions surround this episode. Where did the transporter cough up the extra mass to make another Kirk? If transport is truly a one-for-one process, then a duplicate Kirk should’ve weighed exactly half as much as the original. Or it should’ve never happened at all. These questions are hand-waved away, as is the cause of the transporter’s malfunction–a strange yellow ore with “unusual magnetic properties.” So, mere magnetism can foul up a transporter? Um, yeah… good to know. Just how much magnetism? Odd that a device which can scan the exact quantum state of every atom in one’s body (somehow) can’t tell an operator it accidentally duplicated the mass of a transported subject. This confirms my personal belief that a transported subject isn’t the same person who steps onto the device for the first time; they are a facsimile which uses rearranged matter (like a replicator) and the transported subject’s DNA information only. This is disturbing on countless levels. It’s no wonder the ship’s doctor, Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) hated to use the damn things…

The updated transporter room of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987). It really isn’t all that different from its 1960s predecessor; in fact, its ceiling uses the original floor pads of the original set.

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) would debut some 21 years after the premiere of the original, and the story took place roughly a century afterward. Surprisingly, TNG’s transporter was very similar in overall design to its 1966 counterpart, with no great leaps visible in the technology, save for easier site-to-site transportation, which allowed users to bypass the transporter room completely (in TOS Star Trek, site-to-site was considered a bit more risky). Even the actual beaming took roughly the same time. TNG however, became famous (or infamous) for its heavier use of ‘technobabble’; the tech-speak inserted into scripts whenever a fictional bit of 24th century hardware was explained to the 20th century audience. This was where we first learned of “targeting scanners,” “pattern buffers” (which kept a perfect record of the beamed subject) and of course, the infamous “Heisenberg compensators,” which somehow made the uncertainty principle irrelevant for transportation. TNG’s transporters, like those seen in the 1960s, were also subject to malfunction when used during solar events, magnetic space storms or when trying to penetrate an enemy’s shields.

From TNG’s “Realm of Fear”: Lt. Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) has an understandable phobia of transporters–and he’s an engineer.

Since TNG ran four seasons longer than TOS, there were many more transporter malfunction stories as well. First officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) was duplicated in “Second Chances,” though his duplicate possessed none of the rapacious or belligerent qualities of evil-Kirk. Neurotic crewman Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) had to overcome his own transporter phobia in “Realm of Fear,” when he sees large wormlike beings caught in the matter-stream during transport (which looks like being caught in a downpour of thick silvery snow). The ‘worms’ are actually distorted images of crewman from a research vessel who were caught in the transporter somehow during a rescue—don’t even ask. Poor Barclay overcomes his fears and saves the day when he literally pulls them out from their limbo state, and into our world. TNG seems to simultaneously imply that a transportee is both a duplicate and an original person converted to a signal. If the transporter duplicates people (like Kirk and Riker) then it functions more as a replicator—recreating people instead of transporting them. But if people can be ‘stuck’ in the matter stream, then the transporter system is converting their actual selves into energy, as promised, and not replicating them. Given these highly conflicting explanations of the technology, it’s not surprising that TNG had another transporterphobe in its ranks; the show’s second season-only doctor, Kate Pulaski (Diana Muldaur), whose own reluctance to use “that damn thing” was very similar to that of Dr. McCoy.

Note: According to Lawrence Krauss’ must-read book “The Physics of Star Trek,” the energy required to heat every single molecule of a person’s body into a reciprocal amount of energy, per Einstein, would require roughly 330 megatons of energy. Needless to say, this amount of energy used on a single human being would destroy them, not convert them.

A new life is created and destroyed in Star Trek: Voyager’s ethically questionable episode “Tuvix” (1996).

After the success of TNG and the less conventional spinoff “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”, Paramount rolled the dice yet again with “Star Trek: Voyager” (VGR). VGR took place shortly after the events of TNG, following the exploits of the smaller, sleeker starship USS Voyager, which was stranded roughly 70,000 light years from home—a journey of 75 years at maximum warp (spoiler alert: they make it in seven). VGR’s transporter was very similar to TNG’s, with many of the same limitations and no apparent advances. Few episodes of Star Trek highlight the unintended horrors of transporters better than the episode “Tuvix,” which sees a transporter malfunction fuse Vulcan Security Chief Tuvok (Tim Russ) with Talaxian morale officer Neelix (Ethan Phillips). The resultant combined entity is named Tuvix (Tom Wright). Tuvix has memories of both persons, which means Neelix’s humor lightens up the more stoic Vulcan aspects of his personality, while Tuvok’s mental discipline gives the being more focus and control. Complications ensue when Tuvix finds he retains Neelix’s affections towards Kes (Jennifer Lien), which threatens Lt. Tuvok’s own fidelity to his Vulcan wife back home. After several weeks, the crew begins to warm up to Tuvix—that is, until Ops Officer Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) finds a means of separating Tuvix back into their original states. What happens next creates what is arguably the most controversial decision of VGR when Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) gives the order to divide Tuvix back into Neelix and Tuvok. When the decision is made, we see Tuvix on the bridge, literally pleading for his life as security guards strong-arm him back to sickbay. A surprise twist occurs the ship’s holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo) refuses to perform the division, since it would kill Tuvix and violate the physician’s Hippocratic oath of ‘do no harm.’ No problem. Janeway takes the console and performs the procedure herself. Tuvok and Neelix are then returned to their individual states, but “Tuvix” is effectively destroyed—it is the opposite of the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC (“Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” uniting to create something greater than the sum of both). Tuvix, despite his artificial origins, was a functioning, thriving being. Janeway executed him to get her friends back. One could argue that ‘the needs of the many’ (two people) outweighed the needs of one Tuvix. However, it’s hard to rationalize that otherwise logical position when a man is standing before his shipmates begging for them not to kill him. Once again, the ship’s transporter dishes out a uniquely horrifying ethical challenge for the crew.

Note: Actor Tom Wright (“Tales from the Hood”) turns in such a powerful and effective performance as Tuvix that part of me wishes he could’ve stayed on as a regular through the end of the series.

Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Strange New World” (2001) shows that the early transporter still had some bugs (and leaves and rocks) to work out…

After VGR ended its seven year run, the Star Trek spinoff factory gave us “Star Trek: Enterprise” (ENT) a four-season prequel which took the show back one hundred years before the original series, when the United Federation of Planets was still a dream to be realized. In this series’ 22nd century, Starfleet technology, including warp drive and transporters, was still in its relative infancy. Shortly before the NX-01 Enterprise is launched, we learn that it carries a new transporter system that is rated “safe for bio-transport.” While transporter technology is already a few decades old in this era, it is primarily used for cargo transport, not people. Like Dr. McCoy and Dr. Pulaski centuries later, the entire crew of the NX-01 shares a sense of transporter hesitancy. It’s only in the last couple seasons of the show do we see the crew becoming gradually more comfortable with the device. Even so, accidents still occur. In the first season episode, “Strange New World,” a crewman is beamed back to the ship during a storm, and he materializes on the transporter pad with leaves and rocks embedded in his skin (and presumably inside of his body as well). Ship’s physician Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley) assures the captain that he can heal the crewman with microsurgery. A closeup of the unconscious crewman’s horribly mutilated face leaves a nice bit of transporter body horror to fixate on. Later during the show’s run, ship’s comm officer Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) is stuck in mid-transport during a tricky evacuation (“Vanishing Point”). In her briefly suspended state (a matter of seconds), she experiences an hours-long hallucination of her body dissolving, as well as her own imminent death, before she is snatched back from the transporter beam’s clutches. While a shaken Hoshi isn’t left mutilated or deformed, her experience is still enough to send one running to a therapist (something Starfleet ships would wisely bring with them 200 years later…).

“Bigger is back!” The USS Shenzhou’s bulkier transporter, as seen in Star Trek: Discovery’s “Battle at the Binary Stars” (2017).

Televised Star Trek would take a 12 year break after the end of ENT to return in 2017 with the CBS-All Access/Paramount Plus streaming series “Star Trek Discovery” (DSC). Discovery would be set in the 23rd century, only a few years before the time of Kirk and Spock’s tour of duty aboard the USS Enterprise. In fact, we’d see the Enterprise herself under command of Capt. Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) in the show’s second season. The first transporter we see in DSC’s pilot episode (“The Vulcan Hello”) is the one aboard an older starship, USS Shenzhou, under the command of Capt. Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and her First Officer, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green). The transporter system aboard the Shenzhou is bigger and somewhat clunkier-looking than the more streamlined units seen aboard the starship Discovery or even Kirk’s Enterprise in TOS. The Shenzhou transporter’s walls have several large focusing dishes aimed at the staging pads (looking like the revolving dish on 1960’s “The Time Machine”). Obviously the visual effects and sets in DSC are far in advance of the 1966 series, yet the large dishes of DSC’s transporter chamber effectively suggest something more ‘crude.’ It would be another couple of episodes into the first season before we are actually introduced to the titular starship Discovery in “Context is for Kings”, and the sleek science ship’s interior is befitting an advanced breed of research vessel designed to use a new “spore drive” propulsion system (which would later be highly classified, deliberately buried and more or less forgotten). Discovery’s transporter room is somewhat larger than the ones seen on future Federation starships, but doesn’t seem to have any appreciable or obvious advantages, other than its size.

Back to the Future: A time-jump into Star Trek’s 32nd century reveals that insta-transportation (minus a transporter chamber) is now commonplace in “That Hope is You,” Part 1 (2020).

Season 3 of DSC would see Michael Burnham lead newly promoted Captain Saru (Doug Jones) and the Discovery crew 900 years into the future, into the 32nd century ( “That Hope is You, Part 1,”). The 32nd century sees a fallen Federation still reeling from a 120 year old cataclysm called “the Burn”, which effectively destroyed dilithium-powered warp drive throughout the galaxy—effectively quarantining former Federation planets from each other. The time-traveling Discovery lands in this future with the unique ability to bring together long-separated former allies, using her instantaneous spore-drive. After locating a cloaked region of space containing the last functioning hub of Starfleet, the Discovery herself is refitted with highly advanced 32nd century technology. One of these upgrades includes instantaneous transporters, which no longer require a transporter room at all—only a multi-tasking com badge. Transporting subjects can also move freely, and even run, during transport. That last advance was apparently made sometime very late in the 24th century (see: Star Trek: Picard, S1.1: “Remembrance”). The only ‘horror’ we see with Discovery’s new insta-transporting is the unannounced dropping in of unexpected visitors right in your face. While not exactly horrific, it still amounts to a minor annoyance. But hey—at least the kinks of teleportation have been worked out, right?

For now, anyway…

“To boldly go…”

If you’ve ever been to the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, you might just get the chance to be ‘beamed’ yourself. There is a transporter set in one of the Rio hotel’s corridors where visitors can take photos and make videos of themselves being beamed, or just take the random pic of yourself posing in the set.

Living the dream (or nightmare): Mac Cosmetics’ transporter room set promo in the Dealer’s Hall at the Star Trek Las Vegas Convention of 2016. Guests could take their pictures in the chamber, and even make a video of their ‘beaming up.’

In 2016, for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, the Mac Cosmetics company had specially touring Star Trek sets, including recreations of TOS’ transporter room and TNG’s ‘Ten-Forward’ lounge. My wife and I once took a video of ourselves being beamed up in the Mac transporter room set, which also features professional Star Trek cosplayers (wearing special Mac cosmetics, of course) who are on hand to augment the scenery if you wish. While I haven’t seen the Mac Cosmetics Star Trek touring exhibits for awhile, here’s hoping they make a return someday…assuming they haven’t been permanently dismantled, of course. With things slowly returning to a post COVID pandemic-normal (whatever that will be), I am booked to return to the Star Trek Las Vegas convention this August, and I promise to write all about it here in this column.

Viewing Options.

All Star Trek TV series and most of the movies can be streamed on ParamountPlus (aka Paramount+). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just over 594,381 as of this writing.  Meanwhile, several vaccines are available and inoculations are finally widespread (whew!), which is greatly slowing the US mortality rate (though numbers in Europe, Brazil and India are spiking dramatically). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy, it may take a while longer for for eventual herd immunity. Even vaccinated, it may still be possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill from it are slim-to-none.  So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible (I myself have been fully vaccinated now for over two months now), and let us vaccinate our way out of the COVID pandemic.

Let’s get vaccinated so we can all live long and prosper!

Images: Trekcore.com, CBS/Paramount+, Denofgeek.com, 20th Century Fox, Author.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Yipes! Thank you sooooo much for reminding me of one of my worst childhood memories!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha!
      I thought I was the only one traumatized by that scene!

      Thanks for reading, Ben!

      Liked by 1 person

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