September 16, 2012 @ 9:38 pm
After we got home from Lake Daniel Park, where we were seining a creek for native fish with the Audubon Society and (hopefully) future guest Gerald Pottern, I cleaned the boy’s inevitable wounds and sat down to watch an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series from 1973. Same cast, same writers, but they’re only half the length of the original Trek episodes, so they move right along, plot-wise, and the special effects are better in some ways -- better aliens, for instance. I think my son prefers them to the original series.
So Kirk and Spock somehow get deliberately mutated or genetically engineered into web-fingered water breathers, and then when they swim down into the underwater city to figure out who did it, they’re netted by Deep Ones – I mean, Aquan fish . . . people. . . things – and put on trial as spies of the air breathers. This is how dumb and tired I am. It’s only when the leader says, “Remove the mesh!” that the irony of our earlier seining activities hits me and my mouthful of frothy Witbier threatens to foam out of my nose.
But that’s not really the funny part. That comes later, with this conversation.
Dr. McCoy: “If the Universal Translator’s right, the substance in your bloodstream is similar to the ambergris of Earth whales. Reverse mutation is induced by infusion of antitoxin, concentrated doses of it.”
Kirk: “What’s the composition of the antitoxin?”
McCoy: “It’s made from the venom of the Argo ser-snake.”
And then later:
Kirk: “How many doses, Bones?”
McCoy: “Two small, one large.”
Now, Star Trek has always been more a morality play than hard SF, but that was just dumb. First off, ambergris is a waxy lipid by-product of air-breathing whales digesting squid. How the hell you could use something like that to trigger genetic mutations in another species, from another planet . . . ? Using a toxin to reverse the mutation makes even less sense, if that’s possible.
Most of pop culture is more magic than science. People have their bodies altered, mutated, and then at the end of the episode, when the spell is lifted, they go back to normal, with no permanent effects whatsoever. That’s not how science works.
Thinking back a little in the day, though, real science – observing the fish that we had already caught – didn’t appeal much to my son. What he wanted was the more dramatic reward of catching his own fish with a dip net. So, maybe, kind of like my discussion with Nancy Fulda, most of pop SF is best and most fairly thought of as a scaffolding device towards real science. Holding it to real-science standards would be unfair, since the people it's mostly selling to are not scientists. Hard SF, like Ms. Fulda’s “Movement” or Larry Niven’s Known Space stories, which appeal to a smaller audience, would be one step closer to real science.
Coincidentally, Niven's cat-people, the Kzinti, make an appearance in a later episode of the series. Or not coincidentally but causally, since it was the Kzinti episode that made me think of Niven as an example of hard SF in the first place.