If you ever drop an intergalactic line to a Klingon, keep in mind that they read from right to left. Romulans, on the other hand, write from the top down. And some other alien languages look suspiciously like a computer flowchart.
Of course, this knowledge might come in handy only on those rare occasions when the universal translator attachment to your tricorder is broken. Or if you happen to be among the legions of rabidly faithful “Star Trek” fans who want to know each and every difference between a Cardassian and a Baldoran.
On a recent Saturday, a few hundred Trekkies filled the darkened theater of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in North Hollywood for a workshop delving into such matters as the mysteries of Vulcan mind melds, the scientific principles involved in hanging a left at warp factor 8 and whether that glow at the stern of the Enterprise really is a third brake light.
Their guides on this four-hour mission to boldly go where few have cared to go before were Michael Okuda of Sherman Oaks and Rick Sternbach of Valley Village, the graphic designers responsible for the “look” of the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine"--current shows that capitalize on and expand the appeal of the 1960s cult hit.
“We’re here to talk about two separate realities and how they interact with each other,” said Okuda, referring to the commercial drives of the late 20th Century that have supported the imaginary 24th Century of the “Star Trek” entertainment factory.
“You cannot understand one without understanding the other,” Okuda said. “This is one of the richest, most well-developed universes in popular culture.”
So rich and so well-developed, in fact, that some fans blur the line between science and science fiction. For example, one person asked during the session whether the food replicator, or “molecular Xerox,” which instantly conjures up any describable food in the universe for the “Star Trek” crew, could actually be built.
The first order of business was to establish firmly that the Galaxy-class starship Enterprise, NCC 1701-D, explores nothing more than a Paramount sound stage and that those stars zipping past Capt. Jean-Luc Picard’s window are just a bunch of holes poked in a giant spinning drum.
And the 20th-Century humans who create this universe often have a sense of humor. On signs and graphics posted throughout the Enterprise, artists have inserted all sorts of offhand remarks in letters too small to be read by TV viewers.
The well-known motto of the Enterprise’s mission is “To boldly go. . . .” But a plaque dedicated to another ship, the USS Sutherland, posted in one of the set’s “starship” rooms reads: “There will be an answer. Let it be.” Other ships’ mottoes include “A three-hour tour. . . .” and “Sometimes you feel like a nut. . . .”
Signs throughout the Enterprise, which viewers presume convey information about turbolift operation or air-lock safety to the crew, actually say things like: “Three hundred thousand miles per second: It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.”
All well and good, but how does all that stuff like warp drive and transporter beams work? Or, how would it work, if it were real? “A lot of physicists get a chuckle out of our solutions,” Sternbach said. “But many are fans of the show.”
To get around the fact that interstellar travel would take hundreds of years even at light speed--making plots impossible--the show’s writers fall back on hypothetical science, presuming that there must be lots of stuff we don’t know yet, Sternbach and Okuda said.
“Each generation has its own X-factor,” Okuda said. “In the 1940s and 1950s, it was radiation. Giant bugs? Radiation. Reanimating a dead brain? Radiation.”
Subspace is the X-factor of the 1990s. As explained by Okuda and Sternbach, subspace is that part of the universe where all the phenomena unexplainable by today’s science can occur routinely on the show.
Hence, subspace allows the crew of the Enterprise to hop from star system to star system as effortlessly as if they were driving down to the local Burger King.
And when they have to get someplace in a real hurry, they can always use the transporter beam, which was introduced into the original series to save money. Rather than film the landing of the Enterprise week after week, producers opted for the cheaper method of beaming crew members to strange new worlds.
“Besides,” said Okuda, “it’s really cool. Let’s not belittle that.”
But there are other questions that haunt the minds of fans. A sampling of those asked:
Why are there no seat belts on the starship’s runabout-like shuttle ships?
“If there are safety belts, then the actors can’t fall out of their chairs.”
Is that a third brake light in the back of the Enterprise?
“It’s an impulse engine.” (Impulse power, as all devotees know, is slower than the star-jumping warp speed--about right for cruising between sister planets or maneuvering in battle.)
How is the Enterprise cleaned?
“No time to explain. Next question.”
Why doesn’t the crew of the Enterprise just transport to different parts of the ship instead of walking or using the turbolifts?
“It’s more dramatic.”
How come Klingon blood in “Star Trek VI” was Pepto-Bismol pink and in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” it is red?
If the Federation and the Klingon Empire--deadly enemies in the first series--are allies by the time of the second series, why don’t Starfleet ships use the Klingons’ dreaded “cloaking device,” which makes the ships invisible?
“Starfleet doesn’t sneak around. And besides, it would look dull.”
Is there anything that cannot be done by tricorders--the hand-held little gizmos that render instant scientific analyses that invariably propel the plot neatly?
“No. They are like the Swiss Army knife of the 24th Century. They can do anything and maybe even darn your socks.”
What happens to waste generated by the Enterprise?
“Maybe it squirts out the bottom like an airliner. We could write a whole episode around Starfleet having to pay for environmental damages for improper dumping.”