Has "Star Trek" ever convicingly explained the plotholes created by the transporter and replicator?

I know the transporter was initially, when budegts were low, a tool to avoid having to shoot costly spaceship landings on planets, but they soon evolved into a frequently recurring item, part of fanlore, and a major plot element in the many episodes where a transporter accident causes things to go wrong. But they (and together with their close siblings, the replicator) cause major plotholes and inconsistencies. To name just a few examples:

  • There are episodes where some scarce resource is traded. The resource can be delivered to its destination via transporter. I would imagine that a civilisation that has transporter/replicator technology would not have a need to engage in trade to obtain such a resource; the fact that you can transport it shows that you have devices capable of synthesising the commodity from energy whenever you need it.

  • Some episodes establish the practice of the Enterprise to carry spare parts for its engines in case repairs are necessary. I would imagine that, again, a civilisation with transporter and replicator technology would not need to haul around physical specimens of such spare parts. All you’d need is a record of the information that would be sent to a transporter when you transport it, and then you can synthesise it when needed. Would save you a lot of storage space during your voyage.

  • The transporters have “bio-filters” which filter out viruses and other pathogens when people are transported, to avoid a contamination of the ship when they are beamed on board. But once you have that, there is no reason why you shouldn’t use the same technology on someone who is already on board and infected with a pathogen.

My impression (after seeing only one season each of TOS and TNG) is that the whole transporter/replicator thing was never thought through by the writers, and is always capable of doing exactly what is needed to drive the plot of the episode in question - no more, no less. Or have there been attempts made to explain these and similar inconsistencies in a somewhat satisfying manner?

Why would they? No one expected anyone to care once the show had run it’s course. Why go to such a huge effort for a show that would be forgotten?

Expecting writers to be consistent over the decades and consistent with all the other writers in all the various Star Trek series AND movies is NOT a reasonable expectation.

The plus side to this is it makes fanwanking fun.

Put your #1 and #2 together and you can sort of figure it out and it has been discusses on ST in some fashion. Transporters can actually transport real stuff and keep it is real. However replicators are imperfect, they can’t even convincingly reproduce a home cooked meal, but something close enough for most purposes. This seems to be in line with real things not only have dimension qualities but also temporal phase qualities, not to mention quantum qualities which seem to be perhaps the new up and coming word on ST. When you take something real it maintains those- and actually is real, just cut apart, diagramed, moved and reassembled to the original design, when you make it out of nothing there is no guide as to how it must be for that spacetime, and if the original object was from something real, it’s old data and most likely out of temporal phase. I sort of remember an episode that most raw materials that need to be processed to be of any use the replicators have really no problem making, it is the more complex refined material which is a problem.

As for the 3rd one, though it has been used that way on rare occasion, I don’t think there is a good answer at all, but some inferences can be made. I personally take it much like an anti-virus detector on a computer, it can only do what has been programed into it and while it can predict certain things, it can only go so far. But I think it’s more in line with the plot that reverting someone’s patters to a known set is more dangerous and in general terms should only be used in extreme circumstances, or even perhaps to do this they have to save the current (healthy) pattern ahead of time, in other words they have to know in advance that they will be using it. And with the crew’s general reluctance to do their annual checkup’s they most likely would not have a recent medical transporter scan.

IIRC, the transporters and / or replicators are part of what needs to be repaired in those scenarios.

Don’t think of it as “It transmits the energy, and it also transmits the data on how that energy needs to be organized”. The data is the energy. You can beam up an alien without knowing anything at all about its physiology or metabolism, just like you can bring an alien aboard via shuttlecraft without knowing that, and for the same reason. The energy that’s transported maintains all of the same patterns and relationships that it did as solid matter. And you can’t make an exact copy of a transporter pattern, without destroying the original: The no-cloning quantum theorem applies here.

This is why replicators are so much more limited than transporters (and, in fact, they didn’t even have replicators in Kirk’s era): The replicator uses only classical data that can be copied, which means that you DON’T actually get an exact match. In many cases, you can get a match that’s close enough for practical purposes (like, say, food that can be eaten for nutrition), but replicating a living being is highly unlikely to be successful (where “successful” is defined as the replication still being alive), and even less likely to be successful for a sapient living being (where “successful” would be defined as not just still alive, but also having the same mind and personality).

Hell, isn’t one Riker walking around the galaxy enough?

And yet, there is Thomas Riker. What you said would be all well and good without that thorny issue. It’s just handwavium.

The answer to you question is simple.


With a different writer for every episode, yeah, you’re sure to run into a few who don’t follow the rules, especially unwritten rules. I don’t think it’s possible to come up with explanations consistent with what every writer says, so you do the best you can.

That, or you could say that Riker never had a mind or personality to begin with, so he was much easier to replicate than most crewmembers.

Well, for TOS, sure, but by the time TNG came about it was already past the notorious “get a life” sketch so people may have expected a little more detailed worldbuilding. Just shows that the aforementioned sketch was partly a sincere restatement of the “come TF on, people, it’s a TV show, enjoy it for what it is” vision and partly a good natured ribbing of the more obsessive fans.

But, yeah, indeed. They figured they would not need to be explaining themselves 50 years later over something that was a throwaway incidental in thei r script.

And FWIW having nothing but fanon and treksplaining to fall back on, rather than pretending there were good explanations given in-plot, and confindently telling ourselves “well, WE wouldn’t leave that plot hole open”, was a fun part of the old school fandom.

This is a rampant problem in not only Star Trek but in the vast majority of science fiction in which some device for transportation, communications, warfare, et cetera, is introduced by the writer to create or resolve a plot complication without consideration for its impact on the wider world, which then requires progressively more convoluted rationales for why it cannot be used to solve a multitude of problems. This is particularly a problem in episodic science fiction where the focus is on addressing the immediate issue and not on more extensive worldbuilding or philosophical exploration of what a novel technology would do.

The original Star Trek series was definitely episodic and aside from a few recurring villains every episode is essentially a standalone story that doesn’t really require prior knowledge. (This was by design, as in the pre-VCR/DVR and pre-streaming era, missing a few episodes may be common.) Star Trek: The Next Generation made more efforts at building up a coherent narrative universe even though it was also primarily episodic, and you can see a lot of dropped threads and elements as the writers and showrunners realized that certain things didn’t really work, including the notion that the use of ‘warp drive’ fundamentally damages spacetime, which was clearly intended as an allusion to environmentalism and climate change but then would pose such a significant restriction on future stories that it was never mentioned again.

It is interesting to watch subsequence series and their different approaches to technical ‘canon’. Deep Space Nine is illustrative because of how clear it was that the producers and showrunner clearly emphasized character development as the primary narrative driver, and the episodes that focus on characters (even, or perhaps especially secondary characters) are by far the strongest, while those that center around technobabble issues and solutions are often painfully bad. Voyager, on the other hand, tended to center around a lot of technobabble solutions to their problems and secondary characters were often reduced to interchangeable puppets, and as a result the episodes tend to be less memorable and have no real stakes or consequences because the crew will undoubtedly come up with some new particle or maneuver to get out of the corner they’ve painted themselves into. .

This is a common problem with many other science fiction narrative universes as well and is really an argument for an author or writer not bothering to try to rationalize how any particular technology worlds because such an explanation will immediately be picked apart by anyone with more than cursory knowledge in that particular field. It is better to leave such dissertation at the level of superficial technobabble that is well understood to be narrative magic than trying to put it on some ostensibly plausible basis. ‘Warp drive’ or ‘hyperspace’ works because the characters accept that it does as a natural part of their world, and spending time trying to put it on a scientifically feasible basis is not only wasting the readers’ time but rending holes in the narrative tapestry of the story.

So, transporters and replicators are magic (in the Clarkean sense of the term) and they work or don’t work as the needs of the plot dictate. The problem isn’t that their use needs to be rationalized and somehow regulated for narrative consistence per se, but rather that they should not be used to resolve plot complications where they would not ordinarily work, nor should their use be unnecessarily prohibited to create a plot complication lest it become like cell phones in The X-Files where they always work (even underground or locked in a steel cargo container) until the plot dictates that they cannot work. The manipulation of complications by the writer should be invisible to anyone who isn’t deliberately trying to break down and analyze the plot.


In Schlock Mercenary one of the characters, Gav, through circumstances I won’t spoil here managed to make 950-million copies of himself. An entry in the TV Tropes article:

Cloning Blues: Originally averted. Each and every single one of him has the same legal privileges as anyone else. In addition, the original was killed almost immediately after the cloning happened, so it’s not like there’s any crisis of identity. While there’s now a lack of leggy blondes who dig blue-haired scientists, forming your own galactic demographic is pretty nice. Later it’s played straight when it turns out the Gavs are suffering more than a little angst over being indistinguishable, to the point that some of them are willing to undergo extensive physical and mental modification in order to be unique again. Even before that they had to branch out professionally, simply because there weren’t more than a few thousand jobs available in their old field. The degree of this seems to vary significantly; in a conversation between an altered Gav and a “baseline” Gav the latter doesn’t sympathize with the former’s angst at all , to the point of suspecting it was added in the alteration process.

I’ve thought about this one before. And there’s a TOS episode that I think comes to our rescue. It’s the mirror universe episode “Mirror, Mirror.” In it, we learn that, under certain conditions, it’s possible for transporters to grab people from other universes. It requires that they both be transporting at the same time, and certain stormy conditions on a planet.

This could easily apply to the Thomas Riker situation. You have the stormy conditions on the planet. So I suggest that what happened is that they beamed up both the Riker from their universe, and another one. In that universe, they tried the same technique, but no Riker returned at all.

Thus we can preserve the no-cloning theory. The number of Rikers in the multiverse is conserved.

The bigger problem for that theory then is the Voyager episode “Deadlock,” where the entire ship (other than the antimatter) is duplicated, with one version “out of phase” with the other one. However, since this doesn’t involve a transporter, it’s possible that there is a small likelihood something like this is possible. Or, since it involved yet another anomaly, maybe each Voyager was from a slightly different universe, but the antimatter didn’t transfer over.

Pretty much any of the anomalous transporter situations seem to require something other than just the explanations shown on screen for them to make sense. The way @Chronos says it works does seem to be how they treat it for the most part, given that you can actually talk and move while being transported.

A bigger problem is the DS9 episode “Our Man Bashir,” where the physical patterns and the data for their minds seem to be treated separately. The data fills up all the DS9 computer memory, but the physical patterns are stored easily in the holodeck as holomatter. Still, it seems they have to link the two together.

My personal theory is that transporters involve transporting in subspace (which is why they can cross the multiverses), and that there is both the energy that makes up the matter, and a data stream. But said data stream does not modify the energy. It keeps track of where everything is in subspace, in order to bring it all back and convert it back to matter. And the reason the pattern can degrade is that it can move away from where it should be in subspace. The pattern buffers essentially move the energy back in place.

And, yes, occasionally you can wind up having things messed up, where the energy winds up being beamed back in a different pattern than when it left. However, there’s no guarantee it will work. At most, you can maybe reverse one specific instance. But, anything else, and there’s too much inherent uncertainty for it to work.

I think that covers nearly everything transporters are used for. The only exception is that one time they beamed a pilot back into their own body, which somehow caused them to lose all memories of what had happened, also while changing reality at that point so that said pilot never actually saw the Enterprise. The episode is called “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” I just fanwank that this as a bit of coverup over how they actually resolved the issue. The logs say they “beamed him back,” but what they really did was use experimental drugs to remove his memory, while beaming him back in place at the exact moment he left, and then dragged the other Enterprise out of the way.

Chronos mostly answered the first two part of the OP. I will add that it’s established that there are some ship parts which can’t be replicated, like the dilithium. Plus we have evidence that they have to refuel, like in Voyager.

The third one, however, is different. Why can’t they just use the transporter biofilter all the time? My answer is: who says they don’t? What that filter does is eliminate microbes and such.

We don’t really see any current diseases on Star Trek. We’re even told that headaches are a thing of the past. Maybe that is a huge part of why.

I note, however, that, just because you can get rid of microbes doesn’t mean you can get rid of the toxins they left behind, or the already infected cells. So it’s possible that it only works at a preventative level, not once someone is infected.

Then again, there’s that episode with Pulaski where they use the biofilters plus a copy of her uninfected DNA to filter out an illness that makes her appear to rapidly age. But maybe that was a special case, as it was an (accidentally) genetically engineered virus. Still it’s not clear why that reversed the illness rather than just stopping it in its tracks.

^ Is the bio-filter germ/virus/microbe specific? If they transport out the microbes in our guts, it would be an interesting flight.

What did you think the poop deck was for?

Smelled that coming. :laughing:

Something else that never made sense about Star Trek; they’ve got warp drive, replicators, transporters, holodecks and emergency medical holograms. Truly awesome technology. And yet they seem to have forgotten about seatbelts, even though they were common in the 20th Century.

I’ll never be able to watch another episode without thinking this