Ah, the humble Transporter! The most ubiquitous and well-known technological innovation of the Star Trek universe…better known than even phasers or warp drive. It’s not just Trekkies and sci-fi nerds who know the Transporter: You can say the phrase “Beam me up, Scotty!”to anyone on the street, and they’ll know immediately what you’re talking about–despite the fact that those words were NEVER uttered in that order on the show. If the random person you say this to points out that Kirk always said “Scotty–beam me up!”, congratulations: You’ve found a fellow geek. Go get some coffee and debate Kirk vs. Picard.
Developed by the original Trek writers as a way to get around the budget problems of landing the ship each time an episode took place on a planet, the Transporter has been the source of some of the franchise’s most interesting stories, and raises a number of fascinating philosophical questions: Like, who REALLY comes out on the other side? A Transported person is reduced to atoms, sent instantaneously to another location, and then reassembled…But is that really YOU? Or is it an exact duplicate that has all your memories and believes it’s you? There’s no way to be sure. You could have died when the beam dematerialized you…and NO ONE WOULD EVER KNOW!
Well, now that I’ve ruined your day, take a look at ten delightful, innovative, thought-provoking, and sometimes disturbing examples of how the Transporter can be more than just a means of getting from point “A” to point “B”. Including ways the infernal machine can really piss in your Cheerios.
10. Phobia (Star Trek: The Next Generation–“Realm Of Fear”)
Season Six’s Realm Of Fear stars my favorite Trek character of all time: Lt. Reginald Barclay (portrayed by Dwight Schultz, AKA “Howlin’ Mad” Murdoch of The A-Team)–apparently the last neurotic, insecure, antisocial geek left in the entire human race. Everyone else always seems so confident, well-adjusted, sociable, and popular…how am I supposed to identify with THAT? Barclay spoke to me on an intimately personal level: Other characters might represent people I’d like to be–Barclay was who I AM.
In this ep, it is revealed that Barclay, among his dozens of problems, has a crippling fear of Transporters–and why not? Remember what I said in the intro? I’m wondering why more people weren’t terrified by the things! Sure, Bones had his trademark Luddite grumbling about having his atoms scattered about the universe, but we never got the sense he was afraid. As an engineer, Barclay knew exactly all the things that COULD go wrong during transporting, and he was imaginative to a fault–even to the point of believing he was suffering from a long forgotten condition called “Transporter Psychosis” when he saw strange, wormlike shapes floating in the Transporter beam (this was the first time we got to see the POV of a person being transported). Turns out, Barclay’s fears save the day when he convinces the crew something is wrong, and it is discovered the shapes are crewmembers of the USS Yosemite who were trapped in the beam.
9. Reality De-Phaser (Star Trek: The Next Generation–“The Next Phase”)
In Season Five’s The Next Phase, a Transporter glitch causes Geordi and Ensign Ro to be thrown out of phase with normal reality while answering a distress call from a Romulan ship. The crew believes they died in the accident…and, unfortunately, so does Ro–despite Geordi’s protests to the contrary (damn superstitious Bajorans!). It seems the problem was caused by a “phase-inverter” the Romulans were monkeying around with (silly Romulans!), which also de-phased one of them.
We’ll be here until next Christmas if I get all technical. Suffice to say Geordi found a way to make his and Ro’s presence traceable, Data figured out what happened, and they were restored to our reality just in time to party down at their own funeral.
8. De-Ager (Star Trek: The Next Generation–“Rascals”)
Another Season Six offering–Rascals is, to be frank, a rather silly episode: An “anomaly” causes Picard, Ro (The Transporter seems to have it in for her), Guinan, and Keiko O’Brien to re-materialize as 12 year old children.
The fun part is seeing how each of them deals with this condition: Picard is frustrated by how his new age affects his ability to command–to the point that he eventually hands the ship over to Riker. Ro had a miserable childhood in a Bajoran labor camp, and is thus not anxious to relive her youth, while Guinan is delighted by the chance to experience childhood again. Meanwhile, Chief O’Brien has the unenviable task of coming to terms with the fact that his wife is now a preteen…THAT’S a can of worms I’m not even gonna think about opening right there.
In the end, the de-aged crewmembers save the ship from an attempted takeover by the Ferengi (who had been demoted from antagonist to comic relief at this point in the series, so it’s not like they had to fight off the Dominion or anything), and are restored to their proper ages.
7. Disease Cure (Star Trek: The Next Generation–“Unnatural Selection”)
In Season Two, TNG was still trying to find itself, and retreads of TOS episodes popped up now and again. Unnatural Selection was clearly “inspired” by The Deadly Years (just not as good). Dr. Pulaski (herself a TOS retread) catches a disease from a group of genetically engineered children on a science station that causes rapid aging. The Enterprise crew are able to save her by taking some of her DNA from before she was infected (via a hairbrush), and using it to design a Transporter “filter” that would remove the disease and restore her to her original state.
Now, clever as this may seem, it raises all sorts of questions: Why did they never do this again? It would seem to me you could cure most any illness this way. And what about the aging factor? If I had DNA from when I was 18, could the Transporter use it to make me younger?
Fact is, the Transporter proved time and again to be a useful deus ex machina…and thinking too much about the implications of these quick-fix plot resolutions is a one way ticket to a migraine, or a screaming fight with a fellow nerd. Don’t bother.
6. Suspended Animation (Star Trek: The Next Generation–“Relics”)
One of the most anticipated episodes of Season Six, Relics marked the return of everyone’s favorite argumentative Chief Engineer/Miracle Worker: Captain Montgomery Scott. Around 75 years before Season Six of TNG, the ship Scotty was on crashed into the surface of a Dyson Sphere. To stay alive, Scotty did something that ONLY Scotty could have thought of: He juiced up the Transporter’s pattern buffer (the doowhacky that stores your “blueprint”–the thing that tells the atoms of your body how to reassemble themselves), and beamed himself inside.
Think about this: For 75 years, this man was nothing more than data in a computer memory–a series of ones and zeroes. He didn’t save his dematerialized atoms–just his pattern. Atoms are atoms: The Transporter can “recruit” matter to re-materialize a pattern stored in the buffer….but, like I asked in the intro, is it really YOU?
Don’t answer yet–shit’s about to get a whole lot weirder.
5. Horrible Way To Die (Star Trek: The Motion Picture)
There isn’t a whole lot to say about this one, and no broader philosophical implications….it’s just fucking gnarly!
Apparently there were all sorts of odd little quirks with the systems of the refitted Enterprise….like the one that turns transported crewmembers into screaming piles of meat. I’m wondering if Barclay read about this incident…
4. Gene Splicer (Star Trek: Voyager–“Tuvix”)
Now HERE’S some serious shit, and one of the best episodes of Voyager’s second Season. The technical details are unimportant: A Transporter accident somehow merges Lt. Tuvok and Neelix into a composite being that calls himself “Tuvix”. Keep in mind, this isn’t Tuvok and Neelix’s independent personas sharing one body: This is a unique individual who has the memories of both men, but a completely separate personality created from the fusion of both their psyches. Essentially, he’s the offspring, physically and psychologically, of Tuvok and Neelix (and a strong argument against Vulcan/Talaxian mating….Rule 34 must have had a field day with this episode).
Now, Voyager’s crew CAN separate them back into Tuvok and Neelix–the question is, should they? Doing so would “kill” Tuvix, and doesn’t he have as much right to live as they? He ends up literally begging the crew for mercy, and the ship’s Doctor refuses to perform the procedure, citing his oath to do no harm–but Janeway acts to insure the survival of Tuvok and Neelix, making it a numbers game: sacrificing one to save two.
This episode pulls no punches and offers no simple, convenient answers to the question of Tuvix. The viewer is left to make his or her own moral decisions on what the right thing to do would be.
3. Parallel Universe Travel (Star Trek: The Original Series–“Mirror, Mirror”)
One of the most famous episodes of TOS or any Trek series, Season Two’s Mirror, Mirror introduced fans to not only the Mirror Universe, but the whole concept of parallel realities within Star Trek. While beaming up during an ion storm, Kirk, Uhura, Scotty, and McCoy become “switched” with their counterparts in a parallel, “evil” universe–who were beaming at exactly the same time in the exact same place. Apparently, key differences in history caused humanity to form the brutal, oppressive Terran Empire–rather than cooperating with other intelligent species and forming the United Federation of Planets.
All is resolved in the end, naturally: But good Kirk’s parting advice to evil Spock about the self-destructive direction the Empire was heading in had disastrous consequences. In the DS9 episode “Crossover”, we learn that Mirror Spock rose to power in the Empire, and attempted many reforms….which only made it easier for the human race to be conquered and enslaved by the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance.
You might argue the Empire had it coming–but still, it’s never a good idea to screw with parallel universes…just sayin’
2. Cloner (Star Trek: The Next Generation–“Second Chances”)
No Transporter-based TNG episode posed more interesting questions than Second Chances (yet another Season Six offering). Here’s how it went down: 8 years ago, while Will Riker was a Lieutenant aboard the USS Potemkin, he was the last person to beam up from the planet Nervala IV. The inhospitable planet was the site of a Federation research station, but it was abandoned due to a “disruption field”. Somehow, this field caused Riker’s matter stream and pattern to be split in two: The Riker we know beamed aboard the Potemkin safe and sound, while a second Riker rematerialized back on Nervala IV. Since no one knew anything was amiss, this Riker spent the next 8 years by himself on an abandoned station.
Long story short, the Enterprise rescues this second Riker, determines that biologically and mentally he is as much Will Riker as their First Officer, and then tries to figure out what to do with him. You could debate the implications of this episode from now until doomsday: Which is really Riker? Both? Neither? How do you judge? If only one of the two patterns re-materialized, would that mean that the second Riker died? You see where I’m going.
Anyway, the Rikers eventually come to terms with each other: Lt. Riker differentiates himself by going by their middle name–Thomas, and goes his own way…but he’d be back a few years later on DS9, impersonating his duplicate in order to help steal the USS Defiant for the Maquis: A stunt that earns him hard time in a Cardassian labor camp (stupid Transporter clone).
1. Psyche Splitter (Star Trek: The Original Series–“The Enemy Within”)
Like Mirror, Mirror; TOS Season One’s The Enemy Within is one of the most famous episodes of the entire franchise. It’s quite similar in some senses to Second Chances: Both eps concern a Transporter fluke splitting a character in two. But The Enemy Within goes much further–the two Kirks created aren’t exact duplicates: Instead, one contains the Ego–intelligence, rationality, compassion….while the other is pure Id–rage, lust, impulse.
While “Id Kirk” lurks about the ship, causing mayhem, “Ego Kirk” seems no worse for the accident–until it becomes clear that without his Id, he has no “nerve”, no spine….he can’t make decisions and has no force of will. After studying the mishap, it is determined that unless the two Kirks are recombined, both will die, as they cannot live without each other…which, of course, is how the episode ends (the recombining, that is–not the dying).
This episode has sparked debate and discussion for over 40 years. Psychology students write term papers about it, and it’s been parodied and referenced on TV shows such as Family Guy and Ren And Stimpy–to name just two.
Watch it, then give your “Evil Side” a hug, and tell him how much you appreciate him (or just buy him a beer).