BA Review: Star Trek

By Phil Plait | May 8, 2009 11:32 pm

Note: A slightly different version of this has been posted at My thanks to Tony Pascale for letting me crosspost on his site!

Star Trek movie poster

OK, here’s the deal: I’m a big Trek fan. I watched the original series as a kid and saw the reruns a bazillion times. I loved the movies, and was thrilled when TNG was on the air. And while I lost it for a while with DS9 and Voyager (and with the exception of the finale, the last season of Enterprise was pretty good, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), I am still a fan.

I was ready to be disappointed with this revision of Trek. But I wasn’t. I loved it. I was very unsure if this would resemble the Star Trek I grew up with, and incredibly, J. J. Abrams, without being a fan, was able to take what made the show Trek — its heart, if you will — and bring it up-to-date.

But I am here to review the science of the movie. I won’t worry about warp drive, transporter tech, or time travel; I’ll concentrate on the real stuff. And never fear: I am not going to reveal the overall plot here. I avoided as many spoilers as I could before watching it, and I’m glad I did. It really made the movie more exciting and fun to watch.

But I do have to do what I do, so do it I will. While I won’t reveal the plot, I have to reveal some details to write a review. So:


If you haven’t seen the movie yet, then I suggest evasive maneuvers.

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The Scene:

The USS Kelvin is under attack! Firing weapons of unprecedented power, a Romulan ship is pounding the Federation wessel. We hear explosions, bulkheads torn apart, screams… and then a torpedo rips open the hull, and a crewmember is blown out into space. The camera follows her as she tumbles out, and when we pass through the hull breach into space there is sudden silence.

USS Kelvin

The Science:

I could kiss J. J. Abrams right on the mouth for this one. In space, without air, there is no way for sound to be transmitted. What we think of as sound is actually a compression and rarefaction (thinning) of a medium of some sort, whether it’s a solid, liquid or gas. Without a medium, there’s nothing to vibrate, and all your sound and fury signifies nothing (c’mon, it’s Trek, there has to be a Bard reference).

Sure, in the scene there’s air rushing out the airlock, but that would expand violently as it leaves the ship, rapidly becoming too thin to transmit sound.

And yeah, we do hear ships whoosh as they go to warp and all that, but that’s what we expect to hear, having evolved in an atmosphere which whooshes when things fly past us. I’d prefer that we hear nothing, but I accept that as a filmmaker’s prerogative to make the audience comfortable.

But I’ll add that for years I have complained about sounds in space, saying that done correctly, making things silent can add drama. That sentiment was proven here; the sudden silence as we leave the ship and fly into space with the doomed crewmember is really eerie and unsettling.

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The Scene:

We pan across the alien planet Vulcan, with its blue skies and puffy white clouds.

The Science:

Hey, wait a second! I saw "Amok Time". Vulcan’s sky is red! Well, maybe. Sky color is a difficult topic. The Earth’s sky is blue because the nitrogen molecules in our air take the blue light from the Sun and scatter it every which-way, so we see blue light coming at us no matter where we look in the sky.

Other molecules can change that color — if we had a lot of smog in our air, for example, the sky would look reddish-brown. Methane absorbs red light, again making a planet look blue (which is why Neptune has a — pardon the expression — sky-blue visage). Mars has a lot of airborne dust, making its sky look yellow, or reddish, or even butterscotch colored. Our own sky can change color dramatically depending on the weather or whether you’re looking near the horizon or the zenith.

So maybe there had just been a dust storm before Spock gets all Pon-farr on Kirk’s butt in the original series (or when Spock rejects the Kohlinar ceremony in the first movie). Or maybe it’s a nitpicky detail only a fanboy would gripe about — note that the planet’s color changes in practically every series of the show. But it does give me an excuse to talk about why we have blue skies here on good ol’ Earth.

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The Scene:

Kirk and McCoy look out the Shuttle window

Kirk and McCoy are on a shuttle about to head up to orbit. McCoy, true to form, gripes about space travel, saying that if there’s a hull breach, "… our blood will boil in 12 seconds."

The Science:

I swear, every movie ever gets this all wrong — the craptacular "Mission to Mars" comes to mind right away. To the immediate point about blood boiling, it wouldn’t happen. The temperature at which a liquid boils depends on the atmospheric pressure; at lower pressures liquids boil at lower temperatures. That’s why there are high-altitude variations for some recipes; water boils at a lower temperature, so you might have to bake something longer to actually cook it (I live in Boulder at an altitude of 1700 meters, so I live this fact every day).

This effect is so strong that in a vacuum, water boils at room temperature! Blood has things dissolved in it, which raises its boiling point, but even with that, at a body temperature of 37 Celsius blood would boil in a vacuum.

But if you’re blown into space, your blood’s not exposed to a vacuum! It’s in a nice air-tight system, your circulatory system. The pressure inside your arteries and veins is kept relatively constant (unless I watch the news or Oprah, and then it skyrockets), so your blood won’t boil.

There are many other nasty effects if you’re exposed to vacuum — sudden decompression of all the air in your lungs and intestines (yeah, you outgas at both ends), the damage to soft tissue after a few minutes as they dehydrate, the exposure to the raw UV light from the Sun, and, of course, dying in about two minutes from hypoxia — but boiling blood ain’t one of ’em. McCoy was training to be a doctor and should’ve known better.

Or maybe he was just whining for emphasis. He is McCoy, after all.

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The Scene:

Hovering over Vulcan, the Romulan ship lowers a mining drill, which blasts an intense beam into the surface. It drills down into the planet’s core.

Star Trek Drill

The Science:

Drilling a hole to the center of a planet is not a simple matter! Planets tend to be thousands of kilometers in radius so that’s a heckuva hole. A problem with deep mines is that the pressure of the overlying rocks tends to collapse the hole. A cubic meter of rock weighs in at about 2-3 tons, and there are billions of cubic meters of rock above such a hole. You could try to use a beam weapon to vaporize a hole, but the rock to the side would keep flowing in. You’d never get anywhere.

And assuming Vulcan has a crust floating on a mantle (like Earth does), even if the drill gets through the crust, now you’re trying to drill a hole through a fluid*! So that doesn’t work well either. I suppose you can get around this by saying Vulcan is an old planet and has solidified all the way down to the core, but you still have the rock pressure problem. For the record, some people claim that Vulcan orbits the star 40 Eridanus A, which is at least as old as the Sun, so it’s possible Vulcan has solidified. But 40 Eri is a triple star system. Where are the other two suns?

Don’t try to retcon a retconner.

*In reality, the rock in the mantle is not like a liquid that can flow easily, it’s more like a very thick plastic that flows incredibly slowly. But in the end the effect is the same as with the crust; as material is vaporized more would flow in, making the drill ineffective.

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The Scene:

Kirk, Sulu, and Officer Red Shirt (srsly! His suit is red!) jump from a shuttle to attack the mining drill when it’s lowered from the Romulan ship over Vulcan. Wearing space suits, they fall from orbit, land on the drill, fight the Romulans, and stop the drill.

Prepare to dive!

The Science:

Well, there’s lots of bad and good science here. Strap in.

First off, something they got right once I thought about it some. The shuttle left Enterprise to go to the Romulan ship. At first I thought both ships were in orbit, but that’s not true! The Romulan ship had lowered the mining drill from above the atmosphere, but it had to be hovering above the ground to do that, not orbiting the planet, or else they wouldn’t be stationary over one spot (true, there is a geosynchronous orbit that keeps you over one spot, but it’s tens of thousands of kilometers over the surface, and the ships were clearly just above Vulcan’s atmosphere).

So when the trio jump from the shuttle, my first thought was that they’d still be in orbit; to deorbit means they’d need to change their velocity by several km/sec, which is clearly not possible. But they weren’t in orbit, so they just fell. OK, +1 internets for the movie.

They would fall fast. And they did! Their speed was a little less than a kilometer per second, which sounds about right. At their altitude there wouldn’t be much if any air to slow them, so they’d free fall; as they plunged deeper air resistance would slow them down. At first I thought they’d actually burn like meteors, but in reality (ha! Reality!) they weren’t going that fast.

Of course, I have to wonder why Officer Red Shirt waited so long to pull his chute. But then, he was a red shirt.

I love the fact that Sulu had to save Kirk here. Nice touch.

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The Scene:

The Romulans drop a "red matter" bomb into the hole made by the drill. It triggers the formation of a black hole, which collapses the planet and wipes out the Vulcans.

The Science:

Um. "Red matter"? OK, I’ll give them that McGuffin. But still, to make a black hole, it takes mass. A lot of it, or a little bit squeezed into a very tiny volume.

Vulcan collapses into a black hole

If the mass came from the planet itself, there’s a problem: as the mass compresses and falls into the black hole, it gets hot. Really hot. Millions of degrees hot. It emits X-rays and other types of radiation, and would probably pile up outside the event horizon — the Point of No Return — and prevent more matter from falling in. This is what happens when a black hole orbits a star; we can detect those systems due to their incredibly strong emission of X-rays.

Assuming they could overcome that problem (they could invert the decyon field for one, or polarize the transverse array) it would still only create a teeny tiny black hole. If you turned the entire Earth into a black hole it would only be about a centimeter across, the size of a marble. Initially, the red matter black hole would be incredibly small, probably smaller than an atom, and that would make it hard to gobble down enough mass to grow rapidly.

Assuming they could overcome that, and assuming this magic red matter stuff, well then, yeah, they could create a black hole.

Incidentally, the gravitational force you feel from an object depends on two things: the mass of the object, and how far away you are (for a sphere like a planet, you measure from the object’s center). So, weirdly, once Vulcan collapsed into a black hole, the gravity felt by the orbiting ships didn’t change! A lot of people think that black holes have infinitely strong gravity, or they can reach across space and grab stuff. But really, they’re just gravity, and as long as you’re far enough away, you’re OK.

But who knows what happens if you make a [cue creeeeeepy music] RED MATTER black hole. Maybe in those all kinds of weird things can happen, like Firefly was never canceled and the finale of Battlestar made sense. Crazy!

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The Scene:

On Delta Vega, "our" Spock watches sadly as Vulcan collapses into a black hole.

The Science:

OK, so Delta Vega is no longer the planet home to the dilithium cracking plant from the second Trek pilot. But is it a moon of Vulcan? That’s the only way Spock could have had such a view of Vulcan; even from a nearby planet Vulcan would have been a tiny dot in the sky. We see the Moon as a disk because it’s close, but Venus is the closest planet to Earth (40 million km at perigee, its closest approach to Earth) and it is never more than a barely resolved dot to our eyes. You’d have to be close to a planet, a few hundred thousand kilometers at most, to get the view in the movie.

OK, so maybe it’s a moon. But if so, why is there a lonely outpost on it? In fact, that’s true if Delta Vega is any planet in Vulcan’s system. Why would there be a little-traveled base manned by one guy and one Oompa-Loompa with bad acne so close to one of the home planets of the Federation?

However, I love that in that scene they reference "Admiral Archer’s beagle". Nice touch!

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The Scene:

In the scene where Spock explains the plot to the audience during a mind meld with Kirk, he says a supernova went off that "threatened the galaxy". We see a giant yellow star explode, and it destroys Romulus.

The Science:

That scene physically pained me; I just wrote a book with an entire chapter devoted to the damage supernovae can cause, and the movie pretty much screwed it all up.

First off, supernovae are exploding stars, and are incredibly violent events. They emit trillions of times as much energy as the Sun does, and can outshine entire galaxies. But for all that, the damage they do is local; you have to be within about 50 light years for them to physically hurt a planet. Past that, and they can’t even bruise our fragile ozone layer.

For one to destroy a planet, physically vaporize it, the planet would have to be orbiting the star that explodes! Even from a light year away a supernova can’t wipe out a planet like that. And remember, our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. A supernova is nowhere near strong enough to take out a whole galaxy.

Also, a supernova happens when a very massive star at the end of its life explodes. Stars like this are supergiants that are either red (like Betelgeuse) or blue-white (like Deneb). The star in the movie was yellow. I can’t say that would never happen, but as far as we know, yellow stars can’t blow.

Dana Berry artwork of a GRB

Now, had Abrams called me, I would’ve told him to use a gamma-ray burst, not a supernova. GRBs are like super-supernovae, where instead of the explosion moving outward in a spherical shell, the energy is focused into twin beams of cosmic fury. These Blowtorches of Doom could easily set a plane aflame from even hundreds of light years away, and the special effect for it would’ve been a bazillion times cooler in the movie.

J. J., babe, call me next time!

Incidentally, Spock says he tried to stop the supernova by using red matter to create a black hole to absorb the explosion. That wouldn’t work; in fact in the center of many supernovae the star’s core collapses to a black hole. The outer layers of the stars have so much energy they easily explode outwards even though at the heart of the explosion sits a black hole. So either Spock was mistaken in his calculations (gasp! horror!), he was lying about trying to stop the explosion (hmmm, sequel anyone?), or the writers just screwed up this bit of science.

Place your bets here.

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The Scene:

On Chekov’s suggestion, the Enterprise hides in Titan’s thick atmosphere, where it’s hidden visually from the Romulan ship, and the magnetic field from Saturn’s rings would disrupt other sensors. With Saturn and its magnificent rings as a dramatic backdrop we see the Enterprise dramatically lift out of the thick reddish air surrounding the moon and dramatically attack the Romulans!

The Science:

Erf. OK, let me say that this scene was inspired by suggestions from none other than Dr. Carolyn Porco, who leads the Cassini spacecraft imaging science team. That’s the probe that’s been orbiting the ringed planet since 2004 and returned some of the most amazing pictures from space ever taken. I chatted with her about this scene, and what she said was scientifically plausible and correct, but it sounds like the special effects guys took some liberties.

Saturn, Titan, and Epimetheus

First, Titan orbits Saturn in the same plane as the rings do. So from Titan, the rings would appear edge-on (in the image here, the rings are very nearly edge-on and you can see Titan behind them, as well as the tiny moon Epimetheus). The rings are incredibly thin, and would look like nothing more than a line across the sky. In the movie, we see them from well above the ring plane. But I gotta say, I can easily forgive them that mistake; the rings are just plain cool and gorgeous, and showing them as a thin line would have been a sin. Still, they could’ve shown the view from Titan as the Big E lifts out of the air, then we could’ve zoomed along with it up and away from Saturn and Titan, and shown the rings then. That would’ve been cool.

See? In good science there is always better stuff to do for movies.

They did get the color of Titan’s atmosphere correct (again, check the image above); it’s a reddish-yellow from a thick organic haze that is made when the methane in the atmosphere is broken down by sunlight and recombines to form complex molecules. And Titan’s air is very thick; the surface pressure is twice Earth’s! But, like Earth, Titan’s atmosphere gradually thins with height, so it’s not like the Enterprise would suddenly surface when it hits the top. They were clearly going for a "submarine breaching the sea surface" feel. Still, it was pretty cool.

A last bit: Saturn does have a magnetic field (it even causes aurorae at the poles of the planet!), but it comes from the planet itself and not the rings. Not a huge deal, just basically a flubbed line. Chekov was only 17, after all.

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The Scene:

During The Final Battle, Spock creates a black hole using red matter that sucks down the Romulan ship. Half-in and half-out of the hole, the Romulan commander says he’d rather die than surrender.

The Science:

Good choice. Because in reality he wouldn’t have one. A choice that is.

The thing about black holes is, they’re small. The gravity far away from one is the same as any object with that mass — if the Sun were to turn into a black hole, we’d still orbit it happy as you please (though it would get cold quickly). But because black holes are small, you can get close to them. And when you get close the gravitational force goes up. A lot.

But here’s the funny thing: a black hole with the mass of, say, a planet would be small, smaller than a golf ball. You could get right up next to it. But gravity gets stronger the closer you get, so if you fell in your feet would be a lot closer than your head. The difference in gravity between your feet and head could be millions of times the Earth’s gravity! You’d be torn apart by this difference in the force (what we call tides). You’d be stretched out in a process astronomers call spaghettification.

So in reality, the Romulan ship would’ve been ripped not just to shreds, but into little tiny bite-sized quantum bits of subatomic particles.

Black holes are not to be trifled with. They really suck.

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The Scene:

After The Final Battle, the Enterprise gets too close to the black hole! They’re getting drawn in, and Scotty says that if they eject the warp core and blow it up, the explosion might propel them to safety.

The Science:

Simply put, that won’t work. Sorry Scotty!

On Earth, detonating a bomb creates a shock wave, an expanding wave of pressure as the force from the explosion propagates through the air. In space — wait for it, wait for it… — there’s no air! So you don’t get a shock wave. When the matter and antimatter in the core combine, you get a fierce blast of electromagnetic radiation (fancy science-talk for light) in the form of gamma rays, and an expanding very thin shell of vaporized atoms from the material in the warp core itself.

To propel the Big E to safety, the bomb would have to transfer momentum to the ship. This is like hitting a pool ball with another one; the moving ball has momentum, which it then gives to the other one, causing it to move. Detonating the warp core would generate a lot of light, but only a tiny bit of mass would explode outward, so the momentum transfer would be minimal.

What would really happen is the ship would be vaporized from the massive release of energy. Oops! That would’ve made for a dramatic ending to the movie, but not a terribly satisfying one.

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I’m a nitpicking dork.

Maybe you figured that out on your own. If so, I apologize for only stating it here at the end.

But I actually did really enjoy this movie. Yes, it doesn’t follow canon. But I have news for you: Star Trek never did! It’s incredibly inconsistent, and no matter how much you spin, fold, mutilate, and retcon your way through the series, it contradicts itself. If you are the kind of person who gets mortally offended when Trek defies its own history, then you should really just let it go.

Because this movie rocked.

People were worried about the Hollywoodification of Trek. Well sure, there is a lot more action here, and yes Spock actually has a love interest. But we know that Spock had emotions, and we know that given the right circumstances they would surface. Why accept an angry Spock — which we saw all the time in the original series — but not a lovestruck one?

I didn’t think I’d like the casting, but in fact it worked well. Zoë Saldana’s Uhuru is more than merely a phone operator, she’s an accomplished linguist (though her character could’ve been stronger yet). Karl Urban’s McCoy was spot-on, and he even kinda sorta looks like a young DeForest Kelly. Quinto played Spock quite well, and Pine was also good as Kirk; while it wasn’t Shatneresque, I can easily see him as a younger, brassier Kirk (and the womanizing slayed me; the homages to the original series that were overplayed generated a lot of laughs).

The other stuff was great too: the effects (though a little overdone with the panning and complicated explosions) truly were spectacular, as were the direction and the music. I loved the inside jokes, which were in there aplenty but not too many to get tiresome.

I would love to see more movies made like this, or even (egads!) a new series with this cast. There’s a rich history here, and the way the plot was handled there is a rich parallel history, too.

I’d love to see that history unfold boldly once again.

Star Trek image credits: The Star Trek Official Facebook page and Tony Pascale. Saturn/Titan images credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. GRB image credit: Dana Berry, Skyworks Digital. Thanks to Carolyn Porco and Tony Pascale for interesting conversations that helped this review, though of course I’m responsible for its content.


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