Saturday, January 16, 2010

Things I still find charming about the original “Star Trek”

In a mood of indulgence doubtless fueled by pizza and wine and small-batch bourbon, I used AppleTV’s unimpeachable user interface tonight to download and watch a couple of episodes of the original Star Trek.  (Sure, it’s $1.99 per episode for something that is still broadcast on my cheap analog cable, but they’re delivered in digitally-remastered form, the sound is awesome, and I can start watching in about a minute—all unlike TiVo/Amazon wretched, indefensibly bad video-on-demand from TiVo DVR2’s).

The old Star Trek episodes are wonderful morality tales. And hey, it’s not their fault that special effects in the late 60’s weren’t very advanced, and the effects budget per episode was apparently about $50.

I smile at the cheesy effects and appreciate the storyline, but I can’t help but enumerate a few effects things that particularly tickle me as a computer scientist.  I’m blogging these so that someone blogging in 2020 can smile at my comments, and all while giving the original Star Trek the largest possible credit for couching great stories in something that the 60’s thought the future would look like (remember, the final Star Trek episodes were taped a full 2 years before the moon landing):

  1. The analog dials on the ship’s computers

  2. Computers with AI-complete speech recognition, but synthesized voices that sound terrible

  3. Computers that actually emit smoke when they fail

  4. Audio communications that fail as analog radio would (analog static and high-Q artifacts, not digital dropouts)

  5. Video that fails by getting snow or loss of analog sync (I still can’t believe people used to do all this with analog signals.  That is some studly engineering.)

  6. “Video” displays that are clearly posters

  7. Mechanical switches for controlling solid-state devices, including the transporter and the “computer”

  8. Printers that make mechanical noise when they print (like dot matrix and band printers)

  9. The presence of physical books rather than ebooksat various official proceedings

  10. Avionics that fail by bursting into flame, yet are apparently repairable at the board or component level

Note that a great many of these effects were actually accurate when viewed from the standpoint of the first computers in spaceflight—see Computers In Spaceflight: The NASA Experience for a most excellent overview and retrospective.