An Inherently Counterfictional Star Trek: Additional Notes and Further Conversation

Notes

On Vulcan’s ability to evacuate

According to wikipedia: “The 40 Eridani-A Starfleet Construction Yards are located in Vulcan’s star system, perhaps in orbit of Vulcan or elsewhere in the system. These yards are one of the larger starship construction facilities in the Federation.”

So in theory there should be a bunch of starships in the area. Additionally, the Vulcan Science Academy is one of the premiere institutions of learning in the Federation. I would think there would be considerable traffic to and from. And, Vulcan is traditionally seen as one of the leaders in space exploration… it’s certainly not a backwater planet.

One could argue that Nero blew up every Starship in the system, but again, I think it would be hard for him to get every single ship before they went into warp.

On the time required to evacuate a planet

Yes, it would take a long time. But all you need is 100 ships with a capacity of 500 (which doesn’t seem an unreasonable expectation for a race that’s been spacefaring for centuries) and you have another 50,000 survivors.

To evacuate a population of 6x10⁹ using say 200 ships that can each cram 3,000 refugees onto them, with say 1 day of warp speed turnaround, it could take ~25 years to evacuate the whole planet.

But you can still get a whole lot of Romulans off in the time from when the star goes supernova to when it reaches Romulus, especially if the Federation contributed ships to evacuation efforts.

And this is the thing I’d like to re-emphasize: the star that goes supernova is, at its closest, a few light months away from the Romulan system. Presumably if it looks like it’s going to blow, someone has deployed a subspace monitoring system near by so that they know as soon as it goes. The destruction of their planet should not be the first incontestable sign of disaster for the Romulan Senate.

Conversation

Tim:

One of Saul Kripke’s rules about counterFACTUAL possible worlds is that they must obey all the same laws of nature as our own. It is heuristically satisfying that counterfictionals need to obey a version of this rule as well. Stories can break continuity, but they cannot violate the physical rules and facts without becoming something else. Star Trek has a double burden: it must uphold the physical laws that its own canon has established, and as itself a counterfiction of our own future, it cannot flagrantly violate established physical facts in our universe.
Let me mention something else, though. I confess that even with your warning, I didn’t pick up on most of what you mention here. Uhuru’s translation of the Klingon distress signal DID bother me, though — since in ST VI, her Klingon is lousy.
Possibilities:
1. Uhuru in canon forgot all of her Klingon. (Unlikely.)
2. Uhuru in canon only knows how to read Klingon, not write it. Also unlikely because her gift is described as aural. 
3. Nero’s appearance changed the relationship between the Klingon, Romulan, and Federation planets, such that this Uhuru had either more motivation or more opportunity to learn Klingon. However, given that in the canon universe the communications officer has to consult a phonemic dictionary to carry out a routine conversation with a Klingon ship, we can assume that knowledge in this universe is rare, or new, making Uhuru perhaps the only linguist capable of hearing and deciphering the internal distress signal.
That’s my take anyways. It’s still a problem.

Andrew:

Re: Laws.
Your summation of the double burden is very well put, Tim.
In a number of ways, the filmmakers behind this new Trek invited this double burden on themselves. I suspect that I may have been more forgiving of the film if it presented itself as a completely new story using existing characters. A differentpossible future. But through the use of our Ambassador Spock, they’re treating the Trek canon as an existing future history. Another approach might have allowed them to present the film as a new, coexisting story rather than something that overwrites future historical fact.
This is an ambiguous distinction. I’ll try to come up with a better way to articulate what I mean.
In any case, if they had ignored the existing canon outright it may have alienated casual fans. Still, I think that others would have appreciated keeping the properties separate in a more defined way.
This is what some ardent fans are already doing. As my friend Matt recently wrote, “I will buy it, likely the day it comes out, on blu-ray. However, I won’t put it on my Star Trek shelf.”
Re: Uhura and ST VI
In ST VI, I always assumed that they were consulting dictionaries because to use any sort of Universal Translator would have given them away as a Federation ship. Also, it’s a great scene.
I really like the idea of Uhura as a brilliant exo-linguist, and it does seem that’s what her role should have been in TOS. I appreciate that it gives her position on the bridge even more importance.
But it does provide a very sticky wicket continuity wise. A couple more possibilities: Klingon has a some really bizarre dialects that are quite different from Standard Klingon. (Much like some Klingons have forehead ridges and some don’t, some speak an RP or Ambassadorial version of Klingon, others speak Warrior Klingon).
The Klingons on the freighter in ST VI could be speaking in such an obscure dialect that Uhura doesn’t want to trust her, at that point, somewhat rusty skills.
Varying dialects are also tough to justify using canon materials, but any attempt to reconcile these things will demand some compromises.
One more point: Uhura may not have been the only one who could have translated the distress signal, but perhaps she’s the only one with the aural sensitivity to have picked a meaningful signal from the noise.

Tim:

Here’s an idea about Nero-as-miner. Nero’s ship isn’t a landing and exploratory vessel. It has a gigantic and powerful drill that can be deployed from space and fairly quickly tunnel to the core of an M-class planet.
So here’s my thesis: Nero’s ship is essentially used to strip-mine whole planets, moons, or asteroids, blasting them apart for their component elements. Its MO is to get into orbit, drill into the center of the planet, and shoot its hollow-point torpedo mines into the core, blasting it to smithereens. Those aren’t really tactical weapons, which is why the Kelvin and later the rest of the federation are completely at a loss when defending themselves.
Let’s assume, too, that the Romulans being an aggressive and imperialist culture, that these mining activities aren’t just confined to uninhabited worlds, but occasionally Nero and his crew have to fight off some pre-warp but technologically advanced species, or even other miners, to harvest their resources. This would explain in part why Nero and his men are such capable fighters, especially when they have the technological advantage on their adversaries.
A better word, then, for what Nero and his crew are, is “pirates.” Or, to push the literary connection, they’re whalers: this time Nero, not Khan, is Ahab.

Andrew:

Re: Nero’s ship.
I think your interpretation of Nero and his crew as piratical strip miners is a good one.
The number of missiles at their disposal still strikes me as a bit crazy, but it helps. And I suppose they’ve had 25 years to sit around manufacturing more.
The plot of the companion comic book Star Trek: Countdown has another explanation for the weapons: Borg technology (tried and true). While the plot of the comic helps in that respect, other elements of it look to be Pretty Dumb, and seem to contradict Spock’s explanation of events in the film.
And it only exacerbates the problem of not having evacuated Romulus: according to the comic, they did indeed have plenty of time.

On Uhura’s Role and technology

Tim:

The scene in VI is for comic relief, but it’s highly memorable, one of Uhura’s great moments. It’s weird for continuity to have a HUGE element of the plot dependent upon the ONE alien language that Uhura demonstrably does not know. And it still doesn’t solve the problem of why the rest of Star Fleet doesn’t know about the Klingon transmission. Either they didn’t hear it (couldn’t make it out from noise) or they couldn’t descramble it.
Maybe Uhura is more like a sonar operator in a submarine — her real skill is in her ear, detecting signals or audible evidence where nobody else could hear it. (Cf. Jonesy in The Hunt For Red October.) She studies xenolinguistics as a means to identifying and classifying languages — but that doesn’t mean that she has a conversational knowledge of these languages.
Of course, then we’re told in the new movie that she’s fluent in all three dialects of Romulan or some jive. So whatever.

Andrew:

I like your Uhura as sonar operator analogy a lot.
One thing that this Star Trek movie did w/r/t the transporter technology that I wish they had carried over in other respects: making it clear that these things are hard to do. This technology is complicated. It requires serious skills.
It should really be impressive enough that Uhura can actually distinguish a Klingon distress call that was not intended for her ears from many light years away through all manner of subspace interference. She’s already Bad Ass, even without being a crazy xenolinguist.

Tim:

Star Trek VI is terrific — just solid from top to bottom. Hammy in a few places, sure, but deservedly so, and it’s altogether more grown-up than any of the other Star Trek movies.
If you watch it, though — as I did last night after I woke up at 1 AM — it is clear that Uhura is conceived from top to bottom AS a sonar operator. And in 1991, post-Hunt For Red October and post-Cold War, that’s the analogy that makes sense: the sonarman, the analyst, the spy. For us, it’s the translator, the terrorist, the torturer, the victim of genocide and catastrophe. Star Trek is updating its metaphors, and doing it well. But it should work twice as hard to update its science too.

Collected from comments on the original blog post for an Inherently Counterfictional Star Trek, published May 13, 2009.

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