Monday, December 24, 2007


I first encountered the term "technobabble" in reference to Star Trek. It refers to pseudo-scientific* explanations, given by characters in science fiction movies or TV shows, for why a certain thing happens, why something can or cannot be done, why the ship they're traveling in is about to fall apart, etc.

Technobabble is painful to listen to (in fact, the only way one can watch any significant amount of science fiction television is by developing an immunity to technobabble.) I understand that it is also painful to write and perhaps most of all, painful for the actors who have to speak it. Why then does it continue to exist?

Unfortunately, we do require explanations for why things happen. If events succeed one another for no reason at all, they may possibly be entertaining (as in dreams), but that is not a plot. The "reasons" given may be completely implausible, which most technobabble is, but they are still considered necessary. Somehow the brain is satisfied.

What I find interesting is that technobabble does not exist in written science fiction. The science is either genuine or at least plausible. The authors appear to have put some effort into their explanations, their scientific underpinnings. Why does this hardly ever happen in film? (I will use the term "film" to refer to both movies and television, since I think the medium is crucial.)

In a novel, or even a short story, a couple paragraphs of scientific exposition are no hardship to read. We are much more patient as readers than as viewers. In TV, or even movies, the explanations have to be reduced to just a few lines of dialog -- therefore, there is really no way they can be adequate. Books and film each have their own momentum -- momentum is certainly important in a piece of writing, but I suspect that it's even more essential in film that events keep moving along. When everything on screen comes to a dead stop so that we can hear an explanation of black holes (as happened in a certain episode of Doctor Who), we notice. We get bored.

Film is not suited to explanations. There are other things for which it is much better suited. For example, a good explosion is worth a thousand words. Is there any writer who can provide a really exciting description of an explosion?

I can think of a couple other reasons why technobabble exists in filmed science fiction. Actually, I am thinking of two other examples, that come down to just one reason: other things are more important. Or, in a single word, time.
  1. Before a book gets published, it is read by at least one editor. Part of an editor's job is to say, "This bit doesn't make any sense." That is how technobabble gets eliminated, because the writer does not usually have anything better to do than to fix it. A book is only a book -- it only exists as words. Film is much more complicated -- you have to have a script, actors, cameras, locations -- and for science fiction, you have to have lots of special effects work. The scriptwriters may be able to spend their whole time working on the script, but that doesn't mean that everybody else can wait for them. (And who cares about the explanations anyway? We want to watch stuff blow up!)
  2. I mentioned above that technobabble is often used as an explanation of "why the ship they're traveling in is about to fall apart." This kind of situation happens much more frequently in science fiction film than in books. In fact, off the top of my head I can't think of a book (or short story) where it is a major plot point. But in SF television it happens a lot. This may be called lazy storytelling. But if you are required to come up with a new story every week -- if they all have to be exciting, reasonably original and, most important, come to an end within 45 minutes (or 20 minutes, for a half-hour show), then you have to rely on certain shortcuts. And technobabble is one of them. So is causing your ship or other gadget to perform beyond its previously rated abilities, possibly resulting in the destruction of said ship or gadget. That's entertainment!
One other thing: I don't mean to imply that the people who write these scripts are ignorant of science, or don't bother to make the technobabble plausible. I believe that in many cases they do make an effort. But after all, any genuine technical explanation, complete and accurate, is mindnumbingly boring to people who are not experts in the field. In the final analysis, it really is not worth it.

* Then there is the question, "what's the difference between pseudo-science and science fiction?" I believe that some people think there is no difference, and as a true SF fan I am naturally grieved and offended by it. But I don't seem to have time at present to correct their false assumption.

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