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Star Trek And The Journey From Science Fiction To Pseudoscience

Fans of Star Trek live in a Golden Age where old and new series are readily available. As one hardcore Trekkie points out, the franchise is a reminder of the similarities and differences between pseudoscience and science fiction.

Image of holographic bodies standing next to each other in an office

Holographic figures of the same person standing beside each other.

Carlos Orsi


For my Trekkie part, I'm still a fan of the old ones: I still remember the disappointment when a Brazilian TV channel stopped airing the original series, and then there was a wait (sometimes years) until someone else decided to show it.

Living deep in São Paulo, Brazil in the 1990s, it was also torturous for me when “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” premiered on a station whose signal was very bad in my city.

I don't remember when I saw the original cast for the first time, but I remember that when Star Trek made the transition to the cinema in 1979, in Robert Wise's film, the protagonists James Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) and the Starship Enterprise were already old acquaintances.

And I was only eight years old. Nowadays, given the scarcity of time and attention that are the hallmarks of the contemporary world, I limit myself to following spinoffs Picard and Strange New Worlds and reviewing films made for cinema, from time to time.

So, when a cinema close to my house decided to show the 40th anniversary of The Wrath of Khan (originally released in 1982), I rushed to secure a ticket. And there in the middle of the film, I had a small epiphany: the Star Trek Universe is pseudoscientific!

This realization does not necessarily represent a problem: contrary to what many imagine, science fiction exists to make you think and have fun, not to prepare for a national test).

Yet in a franchise that has always made a lot of effort to maintain an aura of scientific bona fides (Isaac Asimov was a consultant on the first film, and the book The Physics of Star Trek has a preface by Stephen Hawking!), the finding was a bit of a shock.

And what made me jump out of the chair?

The description of Project Genesis, the “McGuffin” (being that the “treasure” or “object of desire”) around which the filmsThe Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock revolve. I'd certainly heard and read the same description dozens of times, watching the movie or the adaptations of the script for literature and comics, but it was only now, in 2022, that the implications, shall we say, clicked.

The project is defined, on the screen of the cinema, by the character Dr. Carol Markus (portrayed by actress Bibi Besch) as: "A process by which molecular structure is rearranged at the subatomic level, in life-giving matter of equal mass."

Project Genesis

This talk implies some kind of fundamental distinction, at the subatomic level, between "ordinary" matter and "life-giving" matter. That is vitalism – the doctrine where there is some essential difference between any molecule and a molecule that is part of the body of a living being – a pseudo-scientific belief.

To be fair, both, the film's original screenplay and the novelization by the great science fiction writer Vonda McIntyre, heroically try to escape this implication. In the script (available online), we read that Genesis is:

“A process by which the molecular structure of any type of matter can be restructured – transformed – into anything else of equal mass.”

Meeting God

McIntyre's book, on the other hand, spends three pages describing the process and scrupulously avoids suggesting any kind of essential difference between living and inert matter. However, the canon is defined by what appears on the screen. So, we are trapped in a vitalistic (fictional) Universe.

The Enterprise meets God, and is God crazy or is God a child?

This is not, of course, the only point where Star Trek's reality diverges from ours, incorporating, as established facts, concepts that, in our Universe, are pseudo-scientific.

After my mild shock with The Wrath of Khan, I was also reminded that Star Trek's reality is dualistic — that is, there is a fundamental distinction between body and mind. Personality is not a product of the brain, but something that can exist outside it: this is how Vulcans manage to transfer and preserve their “katras”, defined, in the film The Search for Spock, as “the true essence, everything that it is not of the body”.

And, of course, the franchise has always zealously embraced the theme of astronaut gods. They appear explicitly in the original series' second season episode "Who Mourns for Adonais?", in the animated series episode "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth" and permeate all seasons of all products in the franchise, marked by the recurring appearance of forces omnipotent or transcendental aliens who end up being confused with (or compared to) deities.

There is even a sly quote, attributed to science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, saying that the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, actually "had only one idea in his life": "The Enterprise meets God, and is God crazy or is God a child".

The greatest instance of silliness

This particular theme has become so deeply integrated into the series' canon that it has become the authoritative explanation for why most intelligent alien species encountered on the Enterprise's travels look like earthlings wearing makeup: humanoid DNA was seeded across the galaxy billions of years ago by a mysterious alien species.

This astonishing fact is presented in an episode of the sixth season of the series The Next Generation, “The Chase”, and in scientific terms, it is one of the greatest instances of silliness ever seen in the series. Basically, it assumes a kind of biological essentialism tied to the DNA molecule and a kind of directed evolution that has more in common with biblical creationism than with science and evolution.

In general, the Star Trek writers seem to have been concerned (at least a little) with giving some veneer of scientific respectability to their fictional use of physics (folding space, black holes, wormholes, time travel, etc.), but left fantasy runs wild when the subject is biology and evolution.

Again, there's nothing essentially wrong with that: science fiction is not scientific diffusion. But I know some evolutionary biologists who got frustrated – felt a bit betrayed – after watching “The Chase”.

This episode in particular is not limited to playing or extrapolating on top of scientific concepts (in this case, evolution and genetic inheritance), but throws everything out the window and reinforces misconceptions that are very present in common sense, such as that intelligent life is the “goal” of evolution.

Pseudoscience and science fiction

Of course, none of this is exclusive of Star Trek. The relationship between science fiction and pseudoscience is old and complex. So old and complex, in fact, that there's even a great book on the subject, Pseudoscience and Science Fiction by Andrew May, published by academic publisher Springer.

Pseudoscience is dishonest, an imposter.

Science fiction as we know it today, in literature, comics and cinema, still draws heavily from the traditions and vocabularies established in magazines published in the first half of the last century in the United States. Editors who helped shape the genre, such as Ray Palmer (of “Amazing Stories”) and John W. Campbell (“Astounding Science Fiction”), were also enthusiastic promoters of pseudoscience (ufology in Palmer's case, dianetics in Campbell's).

Both forms dialogue with the public perception of science – what non-experts think science is. The difference is that science fiction presents itself as fiction, while pseudoscience is dishonest, an imposter. But, in this dialogue, they also end up talking to each other a lot and exchanging themes and ideas. Much pseudoscience only seems convincing because it is made up of ingredients that science fiction has “normalized” in the public consciousness.

None of this, of course, reduces the charm of fiction (as fiction) or makes me like Star Trek any less. By the way, I'm waiting for a free night to rewatch the fifth film in the cinematic series – the one where Captain Kirk meets God.

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