Most annoying sci-fi TV/movie tropes

I’ve watched all seasons of Star Trek Voyager and Stargate SG-1 last year. That’s probably a bit too much. But it got me thinking about some of the things this type of shows (as well as science fiction movies) tend to do that make them worse than they need to be.

I didn’t want to make this a poll, because I’m sure you guys have stuff to contribute. Or just tell me why I’m wrong. (-:

Roughly but not strictly from extremely annoying to a slight sigh.

Transporters. Not only extremely implausible scientifically, but they also make all kinds of stuff way too easy, and the full implication of the technology is rarely if ever explored. (Duplicate Riker in TNG?) I give the stargate in Stargate a pass because it’s not an easy cheat and because it’s the whole premise of the movie/show.

Life sign sensors. Within seconds, we know that there’s 9 billion Borgs on the planet. Because, you know, all life transmits “life signs”. Completely implausible and way too easy.

Out of phase. So you occupy normal space and time but can’t interact with the normal world. So far, so good. But how can you still see and hear? That’s interaction. Why don’t you fall through the floor?

Space travel that’s way too fast. Sure, you can go faster than light. (Extremely implausible, but part of the deal.) But it only takes a day or a few days to go enormous distances. Even at 1000 times the speed of light it takes months to get to many stars we can see with the naked eye! Let alone the other side of the galaxy. Hate the way that Star Trek never lets itself get tied down to how fast these ships can go. Voyager both avoided it with its 70 year trip home and suffered from it because speeds were all over the map in individual episodes. Of course you can argue that when traveling through hyperspace, the notion of distance and thus speed becomes irrelevant, but they never do.

Psychic powers. I guess you could have technology-based telepathy, but that never happens. Telekinesis is just magic with nothing even close to scientific plausibility. The required energy is just created out of nothing. They all do this, but the new Battlestar Galactica is especially bad because it started with doing so many things right (sound in space etc) but then infused more and more ridiculous religion.

Reaching planets at sub-light speeds. There’s always conveniently a planet or moon around when someone needs to crash land. It took the fastest space probe we made 10 years to reach Pluto! Sure, in the future we can go faster than that, but dropping out of hyperspace randomly and then reaching a planet using sub-light speed in minutes to hours? Just doesn’t make sense.

I guess a lot of the above boil down to: space is big. Don’t make it small. Landing on a planet and/or finding out what inhabits it are a big deal. Treat it as such.

Anti-gravity. Ok, I can accept it within space ships because making everyone float every week is too difficult. But having space ships as well as random stuff just hover whenever that’s convenient? Come on.

Flying through space like there’s an atmosphere. In a vacuum, you can’t make turns. The new Battlestar Galactica got this right a bunch, but usually it’s like watching airplanes. Often, they even have wings.

New types of weird radiation. There’s particles and electromagnetic. All the rest is lazy writing.

Super fast growth. Really? Who can eat that fast? Conservation of mass/energy, people!

Names with apostrophes.

Immediate interstellar communication. Seriously, not even some lag? Some communication with home base is required for certain types of stories. Liked how they did this in Voyager, where this was a hard problem slowly solved.

The whole universe speaks English. Obviously this is necessary if you want to have first contact somewhat regularly, but it could be handled better. Stargate is especially disappointing here because they got it very right early on but then ignored the issue later. As all the other human planets had small populations and many had stargate travel, they could have come up with Earth English as a trade language or something like that.

Pretty much anything medical. We see HAZMAT suits once in a while, but usually when it’s too late anyway. The original Alien got this right but then Prometheus went way in the opposite direction. The cures are usually just magic, too.

Energy weapons. Energy doesn’t work like that.

The public never gets to know. Sure, it’s much easier to have existing reality as a setting rather than the 2003 where we travel to alien worlds through a stargate, but it’s unrealistic that these events never influence society.

Sound in space. Incorrect. But we want impressive things to sound impressive, so it doesn’t bother me too much.

I’ve never been able to fathom the ST universe. They’re zipping all over the place at light speed and faster yet everywhere appears to be in the same time frame.

Another trope that bugs me to hell is the tired old myth, “we only use 10% of our brain”.

But is that a very common one? Maybe Scarlett Johansen (son?) really only uses 10% of hers. :slight_smile:

I can forgive that part, but every firefight is 99% missed shots which never damage the environment. Example: shooting at each other on the bridge damages no consoles unless they meant to do that, and they never blow a hole in the side of the ship.

Are you going to eat the rest of that?

It really does annoy me that there’s never any consistent sense of how long it takes to travel from one planet to another. Take “Star Wars”. It sometimes seems like it only takes a few hours or minutes to travel to another planet. I know that they want to keep the action going, and the sense of time passing is controlled by the narrative rather than some show bible that says Endor is 34 quatloos from Bespin and so it takes 12 days for a “fast ship” to travel between them.

You don’t have to explicitly state how long it takes, but if it takes days to travel between planets it should seem like days to the audience, even if you just show characters sleeping or eating or walking around or having conversations or training.

There’s a huge disconnect between how big space is, and how big it seems on various shows. Thing is, most shows want to have the same sort of feel as the classical age of sail. Ships are out on their own, they have to rely on themselves, they can’t just call for help every episode, the captain has to make decisions on the spot without getting micromanaged from headquarters. And this means that it has to take weeks for ships to travel around the galaxy. But it should also mean no real-time communication with headquarters, otherwise Picard is just an administrator and all the real decisions are made back at Starfleet command.

And so it’s all kept very vague, because the decisions for how things go have to be based on what makes sense for the particular story you want to tell, not on continuity. So on one episode the Captain has to make decisions alone, in another he has to run interference from REMFs back home, and there’s never any reason other than that the story demanded it.

Interesting that you should postb this now. I’m going to be on a couple of panels at Arisia in a week and a half where we discuss some of these.

In particular, one that fascinates me is teleporters. I wrote a Teemings article about them a few years back, entitled Teleportation Angst, because one common Teleporter trope is that something goes wrong during transmission, and people are worried about this, even though the technology doesn’t exist, and is (as you point out) improbable.

I’m not just talking about all the teleporter accidents in Star Trek, or the five (FIVE!) different films resulting from George Langelaan’s story “The Fly” . The very first instance of Teleportation in a story (Edward Page Mitchell’s "The Head Without a Body, 1877) has something going wrong – you can tell right from the title (the battery failed partway through transmission). Not only that, but the second story about a teleporter also has it screwing up.

Can you imagine any other SF trope with that pessimistic an outlook? It’s as if the first few stories about rockets to outer space ended with the rockets blowing up.

That said, I don’t have a problem with teleporters per se. Roddenbery used them in Star Trek because they got you down to and up from a planet in a hurry. Alfred Bester and Larry Niven and George O. Smith liked them because they wanted to examine the implications of the existence of such technology. I can buy that there’s no plausible mechanism, like with most Time Travel stories.

But it bugs me that the idea of teleportation going wrong freaks people out. I swear, if I ever invent a teleporter, the first thing I’m gonna do is get into it with a fly.
Link to my Teemings piece:

When T’Pol Meets Teal’c on a very special Quantum MacGuyver

Given that what passes for “science fiction” in film and television is largely a retooling of normal action/adventure or fantasy (and occasionally horror) tropes, it is pretty much impossible to make a product that resembles a plausible future of space travel and exploration. Even hard science stories usually require one or two precious conceits to make them viable, e.g. artificial general intelligence, faster-than-light or high impulse sublight propulsion, instantaneous communication, mobile and threatening alien life on seemingly uninhabitable worlds, et cetera.

The transporters on Star Trek are a particularly egregious example, as they are both clearly unsafe to use (the number of episodes written around failures and problems clearly illustrate that they are not sufficiently reliable for human transportation), and provide potential solutions to nearly any problem involving access to/from a location that then require a manufacture of new complications to offset (shields, geomagnetic interference, whatever). Any time writers descend into technobabble to extend or resolve their plot complications they’re basically cheating the audience unless the complication is some inherent part of the plot, and Star Trek does this all the time.

There is an even more fundamental problem with much of science fiction, though; that is, that machines and autonomous robots are so capable that there is little need for actual people to put themselves into harm’s way, and in fact, it is clear that people actually have very little idea how things actually work at a fundamental level. There is a curious lack of robots or other autonomons in the Star Trek universe, but the ship clearly has adequate synthetic intelligence to interpret the often ambiguous commands given to it and a high degree of autonomy to the point that it can really run itself without a need for crew other than maintenance and damage control (again, begging the want of robots to perform these tasks). There is virtually no need to send an away team down to dangerous conditions–especially lacking any protective or life support systems–other than to have something for the writers to write about the crew doing. However, writing only about interpersonal conflicts aboard the ship would not be very interesting, so we get the crew needlessly putting themselves in harm’s way over and over again.

Real, trope-free science fiction would not be any more interesting to watch than a NASA mission, which is exciting for the first few minutes and at a few specific points thereafter, but is mostly boredom; even for the film adaptation of the Apollo XIII failure, Ron Howard had to jazz it up by introducing a lot of erroneous events and motivations, and conflate various issues in order to make it “good drama”. The closest depictions to actual space exploration are films like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which are widely decried as being “boring” and “confusing”. It is hard to imagine an accurate film telling of hard science fiction novels like Rendezvous with Rama or Voyage ever getting enough backing or interest to be viable.


I’d hardly blame TV/movie sci-fi for energy weapons (and shields.) They’ve been around since at least Doc Smith.

The transporter was one of Roddenberry’s best ideas, not just for saving on special effects but mostly to move the story along. Richard Matheson gave it magic properties (for good story reasons) and it has gone downhill since.

I don’t mind getting to planets quickly - future spacecraft are going to be moving much faster than our probes. And mostly it is established that the ship in trouble heads for a safe landing site deliberately. I don’t like ships randomly crashing into planets - or large satellites of earth going through new star systems every week.

As for Lemur866’s comment about communication, in TOS Kirk was out of communication a lot, but in TNG, with faster communication, it seems that Picard was often ordered around by his superiors.

I used to get annoyed by the technobabble - until I considered what a normal 2016 conversation to someone from 1916. We text, we Google, we use our GPS - that’s technobabble if I ever heard it. So they do a pretty good job of making a 24th century conversation at least slightly incomprehensible - though not as much as it really would be.

When they suddenly remember a new property of warp engines to solve the current problem - that I object to. And one more thing - they are always rewiring their communicators or tricorders to solve the current problem. Inside they must look like a Heathkit radio. I’d bet that devices then would be a solid bit of something, with maybe a battery pack. I doubt they’d be able to rewire anything. Now white wires on a microprocessor, after all.

Sure, but that’s kind of the point; our “technobabble” of new technologies that have entered the public consciousness, have fundamentally and consistently altered the ways that we live and work. Although they would be very nearly magic to someone from eighty years ago, we treat them as everyday devices which, while useful, don’t suddenly render us capable of resolving the “plot complications” in our lives through some novel application.

The problem with technological conceits as they are often used in science fiction is that they’re applied to resolve some narrative issue, like getting people from one place to another quickly, but the implications of such a technology being available are not addressed, or is done so in a trivial fashion (e.g. assuming that faster-than-light travel would result in trade of goods between star systems). In fact, the technology that would make a transporter work seems to have no end of essentially magical applications; it would seem that any infection or cancer could be eliminated completely, for instance, and there is no chance of smuggling a weapon or other device through a transporter, and yet these problems occur with great regularity in the Star Trek universe with no sensible explanation. The result is a show about people who live and talk as if they’re from the 1980s but zipping around the galaxy meeting up with curiously human-like aliens which infest a vast number of apparently habitable planets. It’s narratively rich in easily digestible stories suitable for television, but it really makes no sense from any standpoint of future innovation, where such a technology (along with the “warp drive” and seemingly pseudo-sentient ships) would allow for thousands of probes to investigate and sample millions of worlds in the time it takes Enterprise to perform a single “five year mission”, notwithstanding the basic problems with the physics of faster-than-light propulsion technology.

The future is likely to be far stranger and more unexpected than anything we can imagine, just as no one in 1916 correctly envisioned life today, not even the visionaries who imagined going to the Moon or the Memex knowledge base system. Such vast, sweeping changes, however, require too much contact to explain as the background to a conventional “science fiction-y” story in television or movies, so we’re left with the easily recognized tropes of science fiction which assume arbitrarily limited sociotechnical changes from technomagical innovations.


I keep bringing this up, but Star Trek and similar shows have an unconscious bias that space travel “ought to work” very similarly to how sea travel used to work back in the age of sail. Ships take weeks or months to travel from place to place, they are frequently out of communication, they encounter new life and new civilizations but those places are about like a small village, ships carry valuable cargo back and forth, colonies are established, landing parties are dispatched, space battles may use energy weapons and shields and warp engines but narratively work out about the same way as battles between wooden hulled sailing ships armed with black powder cannons, technobabble about warp core breaches and deflector dishes replace babble about swabbing the mizzenmast and hoisting the fo’c’sle, and on and on and on.

Of course Star Trek was consciously modeled on the Horatio Hornblower novels. But this has seeped into our ideas of space travel so thoroughly that it’s hard to remember that it’s all nonsense, with every technology of the 23rd century rationalized to create something that “feels like” Captain Cook’s voyages.

Ground combat. I’ve never understood it.

  1. Shows like TNG and especially DS9 have extremely hokey weapons and do things that are very unrealistic. They wear brightly colored uniforms and dance around in ways that would get them killed in a real firefight. Usually their weapons don’t even have sights. They shoot these conspicuous glowing beams of energy with an extremely low rate of fire… Practically any real-world firearm would be more effective than a phaser. I cannot conceive of why nobody turns an MG42 on Luke Skywalker. Makes no sense. I especially hate the episode of DS9 where they have the gun that teleports bullets from one end of the space station to the other. They have literally created the perfect weapon and yet nobody bothers to use this on the battlefield, even when they are in the middle of a war.

  2. More broadly, TV shows usually give little to no explanation for why people engage in ground combat at all. If the superior force has space-based weapons, there is little reason to invade. They can just nuke the site from orbit and move on. It would be relatively easy for a writer to make up some kind of MacGuffin to be retrieved or a piece of critical infrastructure to be seized, but they often don’t.

Except cellphones/smartphones - they absolutely destroy a huge number of plots. Even modern movies often resort to blatant contrivances to remove them.
The one that annoys me is the reset-button. Let’s forget about last week’s plot coupon that would easily solve this weeks random-space-anomaly. (It’s less annoying on sitcoms, since they’re not explicitly asking for suspension of disbelief.)

You might say it’s a feature, not a bug. But, yes, it does sometimes get silly.

I once defined “silliness” in s.f. as the difference between the actual technology-year and the way people behave. Original Star Trek claimed to be in the 24th century, but the Naval tactics and operations are akin to the 17th century. So, “7 centuries of silly.”

ST: TNG claims to be in the 25th century, but Naval tactics and operations more resemble the modern age, with ships now being in instant communication with headquarters. Where Kirk had to make it up on his own, Picard can just radio back for instructions. Only “6 centuries of silly.”

The silliest of them all is Ming of Mongo, who purports to be from a high-tech future, but acts like an Egyptian Pharaoh. Something like “30 centuries of silly.”

Yes, space is big. For entertainment purposes, I prefer it small. I’m not interested in the minutia of day-to-day life aboard the Enterprise/Millenium Falcon as they spend weeks or months getting to their destination. I want some action, some pointy boobs, and no lingering questions. Iwant a story out of a pulp magazine while you want Moby Dick.

When “life support” goes tits up and the crew is freezing to death / suffocating within hours. A tiny shuttle packed with people…yeah maybe. Giant roomy starship? Not so much.

You gotta a day or threes worth of air in a 10 by 10 by 8 room.

Yes, but we don’t go, “If only there were some way to contact Stranger and warn him about the Verminex attack. I know! I could recalibrate the radio on my smartphone to emit an electromagnetic signal that would be picked up by the nearby radio transceiver tower, which could transmit a warning signal to his phone. I just have to type the exact sequence of the code that matches his phone…should be tricky…might take a while…there! Now we’re in direct voice communication!”

And then next week, when he’s about to be attacked by the Sluggonians, wish there was some way to contact him to warn him, but I’ve forgotten the improvised technology of calling his phone, as if it had never happened.

Yeah, and the life support or virus with a ticking clock is really dumb.

OK, Mal is alone on the Serenity and life support is failing. And he’s freezing and lightheaded. At least there’s no ticking clock “Life support will fail in 90 seconds. Life support will fail in 60 seconds. Life support will fail in 30 seconds…” But he doesn’t put on a spacesuit? Concentrate all the oxygen from the whole ship into one compartment?