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!]