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Star Trek Design Part I: The Good The Bad & The iPad

Topics: Popular Media | Add A CommentBy admin | March 30, 2011

A look at the “Hilton in space” aesthetic, how Star Trek DIDN’T predict the iPad, and a preview of how Star Trek perpetuates race and gender exploitation with hot green chicks and bullet bras.

Spock laments the state of Desktop
computing in the 23rd century.

I’ve confessed this before, but here it goes again. I’m secretly a bit of a Star Trek fan. However, there’s a good reason for this that I don’t always share, which is the little-known fact that at one time I was actually captain of a starship. Only, of course, if I was the first one to the jungle jim, or otherwise engineered the demotion of one of my fellow officers during recess in second grade, but a starship captain all the same. These days, as an aspiring adult, I occasionally still get a kick out of watching episodes from various Star Trek franchises, but mostly as a sort of historical review of production and story trends over the years. For me, the original series is the most resilient, primarily because – in part due to budget constraints but in part due to Gene Roddenberry’s unique vision – it was more like theatre than television. The fact that a man with funny eyebrows, sinister facial hair, and a dark complexion was an evil alien, or that a bank of blinking lights with no discernible function was a supercomputer, were perfect production elements, and perfect environments for the overwrought, scenery-chomping acting that delivered the usually high-concept stories that Roddenberry and his writers created. This simplicity of props and sets served the series well, especially when it came to devices. The fewer the details demonstrated the better, because then one would just accept that the device did what it did, without breaking the suspension of disbelief with critical analysis. A perfect example of this is the PADD devices, the various handheld gizmos used by characters over the years. In the original series, it was just a mysterious tablet-like device with a few blinking lights. No attempt was made to show what it really did, or what its display looked like. This was smart, because it’s a safe bet that they would have made it look like an Etch A Sketch. Which is where I think a lot of the later franchises began to fail in little ways. Characters with big rubbery heads just make you wonder what their big rubbery heads are made of, and props, sets, ansd costumes with decade-specific designs just make the show look like it’s from a specific decade. Which is something I’m going to explore over the course of a few articles, because one side effect of re-watching these old shows on today’s digital devices for me is that I obsessively create screen grabs of things that jump out at me, to document the thoughts I’m having. I’m going to start with my low-level irritation with the tendency for tech writers and sci-fi fans to suggest that the Star Trek franchise somehow “predicted” the iPad (that’s otherwise a really interesting article by the way). While I have tremendous admiration for the concept and design work of Michael Okuda, who, among other things, developed the look of the user interfaces (which fans call Okudagrams)seen in the later series, I recently learned that the main original designer – Matt Jefferies – shared my mild contempt for the PADD devices and later “updated” set designs. I’ve always had a hard time accepting that 300 years from now, we’ll still be carrying around little PDA’s when technology is otherwise so sufficiently developed as to enable us to bend space and disassemble and reassemble objects on an atomic level. It’s said that Jefferies didn’t approve of the inclusion of the original series’ “captain’s tablet”, fell asleep while watching the first movie, and referred to the later bridge design as a Hilton in space. Below are some screen grabs that demonstrate how – at least in my opinion – all the PADDs and other handheld devices predicted nothing, and in fact very much reflected the design aesthetic of the decade of the show in which they were utilized. I’ve also included a few screen grabs to preview some upcoming pieces that will touch on fashion, sexism, and general design.

One problem I have whenever I see an episode of Next Generation is that many of the handheld devices remind me of 80′s ATT cordless phones:

ATT Star Trek

And I have to agree with original Star Trek designer Matt Jeffries’ observation that the later sets looked like a “Hilton in space“. I mean c’mon. James Kirk wouldn’t be caught DEAD in a PINK CAPTAIN’S CHAIR.

Hilton In Space

And the bleach-blonde perms, 80′s bodybuilder hairdos, and arcade game computer displays didn’t help things much:

80's Star Trek Hair

Although I have to give the captain’s tablet a pass; it looks like a netbook for your DeLorean:

Delorean Star Trek Tablet

In general though, in spite of attractive design work, I feel the devices were more of a distraction than anything. First of all, what’s up with those 23rd century desktop computers that look like 1990′s laptops? And why so many additional devices? The last series, Enterprise, had a pretty decent iPad thing going on, but tablets were already reaching the real world market by this time. I think the oldest and newest PADD’s work best, simply by being ignorable props with no detail to ponder.

Star Trek Devices

While in general, Spock lamented the state of technology centuries from now, he seemed perfectly happy with his portable TV/cassette combo from Sony.

Spock's Devices

To tell you the truth, I’d pay extra on my Verizon bill if they could provide me with a phone that looks like this:

Original Star Trek Communicator

And although many of the original sets could have almost been built with Lite Brites, they manage to look pretty cool almost fifty years later.

Transporter Lite Brites

In our next piece: gender and race exploitation fueled by green chicks and bullet bras:

green chicks bullet bras