Star Trek just revealed a glaring problem with its most pervasive tech – and how to fix it


why aliens in Star Trek all speak English? The answer is simple: they don’t, we just hear English because of an innocuous sci-fi technology that permeates the entirety of Trek Canon, the Universal Translator. Even when we don’t see it happening, Trek’s nifty translation tool allows everyone to speak to each other with very few hiccups. Or does it? In the last Star Trek: Discovery episode, “The Galactic Barrier,” Kovich points out that this near-magical technology has a fatal flaw: confirmation bias. Here’s why Star Trek just postulated that the real final frontier might be extra-galactic communication.

The episode’s cold open finds the mysterious Dr. Kovich (David Cronenberg) lecturing Starfleet Command on the biggest problem they face: a complete inability to imagine what the enigmatic alien species “Ten” might look like. -VS”. So far, most of Discovery Season 4 was all about figuring out and stopping the massive, destructive space thingy known as DMA, or Dark Matter Anomaly. Previously, Starfleet discovered that the DMA was actually a huge dredge mining a substance called boronite. The destructive nature of DMA is just a side effect of a mining operation in outer space, but entire planets are being destroyed. So what’s everybody in Discovery know these aliens who built a super destructive space anomaly only as a mining tool?

Phumzile Sitole as General Ndoye and Hiro Kanagawa as Dr. Hirai.CBS/Paramount

The short answer is nothing. In a somewhat new move for Star Trek, the extraterrestrial intelligence behind DMA is extra-galactic, meaning it exists outside the confines of the Milky Way. Yes, Trek has left the Milky Way before, but not as often as you might think. The vast majority of aliens in Trek come from “our” galaxy. Kovich describes the problem like this:

“Whatever we think we know about the Ten-C species, we are wrong. However, we think first contact will work, it won’t.

Earth representative General Ndoye (Phumzile Sitole) questions Kovich, pointing out that all the translators in the room are there to help everyone understand each other. Couldn’t the same technology help them understand the Ten-C species?

Kovich counters by saying, “[the translators] are here if you fancy translating the confirmation bias of the Federation standard into Klingon. In this scene, we actually see almost any version of Starfleet technology that could contain a Universal Translator, including several Starfleet combadges from different eras. Historically, all of these gadgets still act as translators for almost everyone within Star Trek. But Kovich collected all of these Easter Eggs to prove a point. None of this is going to cut it anymore.

Kovich’s colleague Dr. Hirai (Hiro Kanagawa) explains why this is a huge problem.

“The reason the Universal Translator has been so successful is that we tend to seek out and find what is familiar to us. we. Species that communicate verbally, for example. Since we don’t know anything about Ten-C, it’s naive to assume that the translator would work!

A variety of combadges and translators from different eras. CBS/Paramount+

This is a big deal. With a few notable exceptions, Trek tends to take communication with aliens for granted. Other than the times when the Universal Translator breaks or fails to understand the context, it’s the technology that usually goes unnoticed. For storytelling purposes, most aliens are easy to understand.

But, with this episode of Discovery, Star Trek is moving towards a realistic approach to extraterrestrial communication. In the Trek canon, part of the reason aliens all tend to be “humanoid” (i.e. look like humans in fun prosthetics) is that an ancient alien species has ” seeded” the galaxy with various versions of itself. As revealed in the GNT episode “The Chase”, Klingons, Humans, Vulcans and many more share a common ancestor who influenced evolution on countless planets. But this explanation is limited to our galaxy. With “The Galactic Barrier,” Trek seems to be heading into different theoretical territory. What about aliens who are not part of this “great family” of humanoids? How do we talk to them?

This has long been a serious question for science fiction writers and scholars. In fact, Dr. Kovich’s assertion about confirmation bias in Trek’s Universal Translator is very similar to what famed SF author Paul Park wrote in his essay on fictional aliens, “If Lions Could Talk.” .

“The words we put in a foreign mouth, the feeling in a foreign heart, the tools in foreign hands, what can they be but imitations of our words, feelings, [and] tools?”

Star Trek has been here before, but not as often as you might think. Generally speaking, when Star Trek characters encounter non-humanoid aliens, those species tend to be either confused space animals (like Horta or Gormagander) or super advanced beings (like Q or The Prophets), the latter can generally understand how to communicate with we.

At first, Star Trek was created to portray “aliens” in a somewhat allegorical light. One of Gene Roddenberry’s early concepts was the idea that the crew would explore “Parallel Earths”, not literally, but metaphorically. The idea that the classic Business would primarily encounter aliens who looked like humans was a storytelling necessity, and the biggest canon simply embraced the preponderance of human-looking aliens.

Again, there are exceptions to verbal humanoid alien species in Star Trek, but not many. And even when Trek has encountered alien intelligences beyond the capabilities of the Universal Translator, the shortcut is almost always telepathy. What if telepathy wasn’t an option either?

Starfleet, the Klingon Empire, the Romulans and the Cardassians all discover their common extraterrestrial ancestry in The next generation episode “The Chase”. CBS/Paramount

What’s great about this conversation in Discovery does it nod to something good that science fiction always struggles with: how do we portray aliens without just making them look like humans from another planet? This could possibly bring interactions with Ten-C species closer to something like in the movie Arrival rather than the kind of stories Star Trek has told before.

The issues with this Discovery episode are high. Perhaps, for the very first time, the Star Trek franchise could tackle extraterrestrial life beyond the galaxy and portray it as something truly unimaginable. We tend to think of Star Trek aliens as our own mirrors, but what if Discovery doing something new here? If the intention is to portray aliens as, well, aliens, Trek can go where it has never gone before.

Perhaps the boldest thing Discovery could do is for the crew to encounter the Ten-C, but be completely unable to communicate with the species. Trek isn’t usually praised for its realism, but if the Ten-C remains truly unreachable and mysterious, it might be the most realistic thing the franchise has done in years.

Star Trek: Discovery three episodes remain in Season 4, airing Thursdays on Paramount+. Here’s the Star Trek schedule breakdown for the rest of the year.


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