Friday, April 22, 2011

What Happened to Star Trek's Holographic Bridge Viewscreen?

There are almost always dramatic changes in storyline and details from a film or television series in its early planning stages to its final airing. But is it possible that any production changed more than the first Trek film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture?

In the March 1978 issue of Starlog (#12), the magazine tries valiantly to keep up with Trek's rapidly evolving situation. It is a new TV series, then it is to be a feature film, then it is to be a TV series again with its premiere episode released theatrically overseas, then – just before the issue went to press – Paramount announces that it will, in fact, be a feature film, with a possible new series to follow a year later. In three different articles, the reader gets a sense of the madness of what it must have been like to work on that production. Sets were being built, actors hired, scripts written, directors hired – and the studio wasn't even sure if it would all be for a two-hour movie or an ongoing series.

But tucked into all of the reporting on the moving-train that was Star Trek in 1977 and 1978, this issue of Starlog includes an interesting one-page report on some of the updated technology and features of the refitted starship Enterprise.

The article, written by Starlog's resident special effects expert, David Hutchison, is an overview of the ways in which the Enterprise had changed since the 1960s TV series. Some of the changes – such as a sonic shower and the improved instrumentation at work stations – we would see in the final film when it was released in 1979. But in the middle of the article, Hutchison notes something that would have been great to see but which never made it into Trek on any screen:
Though a lot of little viewers have been added [on the bridge], the main view-plate has been removed. Visual communications will be achieved via large 'holographic' projections suspended in the area in front of the captain's chair. Additionally, it will no longer be necessary for officers to come in person to the conference room, but [they] will be able to 'attend' via a 'holographic projection.'
When ST:TMP premiered, of course, we all saw that there was no holographic projection in the conference room or on the bridge. In fact, the bridge had the familiar viewscreen at the front. I don't recall ever learning the reason for this lack of change. It could have been practical concerns over the cost and logistics of creating a holographic image every time Captain (oops, Admiral) Kirk wanted to speak with someone from his captain's chair. Or it could have been a lack of courage, a fear that the holograph would be too unfamiliar and uncomfortable for audiences who presumably would prefer that the bridge crew stare at a big-screen TV to steer the ship.

Whatever the answer, I think an opportunity was lost. As physicist Dr. Michio Kaku has pointed out in his book Physics of the Future, a lot of what Trek creator Gene Roddenberry predicted back in the 1960s about technological advancement in the 23rd century has already been achieved. Tricorders, advanced interactive computers, cell phones, wrist communicators, toupees for the captain. Roddenberry just didn't see how fast technology would proceed in a much shorter period of time. So, though it was correct for Roddenberry to update the Enterprise for a series or movie set a decade after the original series ended, he once again failed to deliver a vision that was far enough ahead.

In his Culture series of far-advanced civilization novels, Iain M. Banks arguably does the best job of extrapolating technological advances and how they would (and wouldn't) affect human behavior and opportunities and politics. But Star Trek has probably been the most accessible vision of the future for people, and it's a shame to see it passed up on some interesting elements of that possible future.

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