The Combadge: “Captain to Bridge—We Have a Problem Here”

A quick diversion from the usual heavy-going philosophy posts. This is one for my Trekkie readers.

I couldn’t think of a clever visual quip for this post, so here’s a picture of a combadge instead.

For a while now, something has been bothering me about the combadge on Star Trek. In theory, the combadge can be activated with a single tap and deactivated with a double tap. The problem is that frequently characters will segue into and out of discussions on the combadge at will without tapping the badge itself to start or end conversations.

Now this is the future, and we are talking about the Federation. We also know from computer use elsewhere that the parsing and interpretation capabilities of most technology is extremely sophisticated, and that a great deal of the interaction with computers is conducted through verbal commands alone.

With this in mind, it seems more than reasonable to assume that combadges analyse the speech of their wearers and execute their commands in much the same fashion, and that a verbal order (e.g. “Captain to engineering”) works just as well as a tap of the badge to get a combadge communication going. But here’s the rub: To perform its task as it does on many occasions, the combadge wouldn’t just have to be capable of perfect semantic analysis, it would have to be practically prescient.

One sort of case in particular springs to mind as being particularly blatant and egregious. Transitions out of combadge conversations are genuinely remarkable. Some people (I’m looking at you, Sisko) will simply stop their combadge conversation and immediately move to a face-to-face conversation, without so much as a tap of a badge or a courteous “Captain out”. Even watching the person one’s only clue at first is typically that their gaze will shift from that vacant, listless stare that people get when they use the combadge to instead focusing on the target for the new conversation.

Sisko and O'Brien illustrating the cold, dead stare of the combadge communication quite well.

Sisko and O’Brien illustrating neatly the dormant stare brought on by a combadge communication.

Even the fastest computer with perfect linguistic understanding couldn’t work out whether the first few words of a sentence are a continuation of the combadge conversation or the beginning of a new, ‘offline’ one. Despite this fact, there are never snippets of conversation accidentally transmitted by the combadge. It somehow miraculously knows when a combadge conversation is over and ceases transmission.

Clearly this is just sloppiness on the part of actors/directors, but any suggestions for in-universe resolutions are welcome in the comments.

[Related: we are living in the future!]

4 thoughts on “The Combadge: “Captain to Bridge—We Have a Problem Here”

  1. Hmm. Perhaps the combadge analyzes eye movement and focusing, so that if you are blankly staring into space it considers your verbal communication as intended for the combadge, and should it detect otherwise it immediately shuts itself off.

  2. Possible resolutions:

    1) There are subtle variations on tone and cadence when people talk to their combadge, and Starfleet tech is advanced enough to very reliably track this.

    2) There are in-universe psychics – it is usually against Starfleet Ethics to integrate this into their technology too much, but they’ve decided that the technological implementation of psychic powers in the combadge is just harmless and very convenient.

    3) Nothing fancy – the operator at the other side (whoever is being called) just shuts down the call once it becomes apparent they are no longer being addressed. This is just to deny your last point – how do we know there are never accidental snippets transmitted?

  3. I don’t think the first option would work, if only because frequently combadge conversations are switched in much the same way. E.g. a captain will go from talking to engineering on the combadge to then talking to sick bay on the combadge without clearly acknowledging this switch with an order or a tap of the badge. Plus I genuinely don’t think there’s enough auditory information for even Federation technology to analyse.

    I like the third option, however. In order to maintain willing suspension of disbelief I tend to think of TV shows like this as documenting (but not representing with 100% accuracy) ‘real’ events (a possible world, if you like). Hence I tend to ascribe things like this to limitations in presentation; aspects that are ‘edited out’ for the purposes of good presentation rather than elements of the ‘actual’ events. Hence it could be that in the ‘real’ Trek universe there really are accidental snippets transmitted, or that people do make explicit their transitions. Only that would make for tedious TV, so that aspect is taken out.

    • Yeah I like the second paragraph. One of the things I am going to discuss in the post on Naturalistic Sci Fi is the way the BSG writers consciously tried to present elements of it like a documentary. For instance, when showing shots of ships flying around the fleet, they tried to film it as if there was another ship with a camera following those ships. It’s a cool way to think about sci fi programmes.

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