on the delivery of technobabble

I was in three scenes yesterday, one of which contained a massive amount of technobabble.

For those who don't know what that is: on a sci-fi show, technobabble is what we call pseudoscientific dialog like "I'll have to run a level four diagnostic on the antimatter inversion matrix to be sure." It's pretty much the worst dialog an actor can have to deliver on a show, because it's rarely connected to anything in reality, and if we're talking about the inertial dampeners in a scene, we're pretty much infodumping to the audience, instead of doing something interesting with our characters.

…or so I thought until yesterday.

The thing about technobabble is that it isn't usually connected to reality. By that, I mean that though it does follow the logical rules of the show's universe, and references things the fans know about, for most actors, it's like being asked to perform in a foreign language that you barely understand (if you understand it at all.)

The other thing about technobabble is that the character delivering it is supposed to be an expert on the subject, and should have a point of view about it that stays alive through the whole scene. For example, maybe Doctor Hoobajoo is the leading expert in the galaxy on ion resonance within the subspace induction processor core, so when Doctor Hoobajoo talks about that subject, she's an expert. You can't ask her a single question about the subspace induction processor core that she can't answer. But for the actor playing Doctor Hoobajoo, she has to deliver a bunch of dialog based on something that doesn't even exist as if she's been studying it her whole life.

This is a tremendous challenge for the actor, because, unlike normal dialog that comes from an emotional place, technobabble comes from memories that don't exist. While the actor who plays Doctor Hoobajoo can draw on the emotional memory of being betrayed, or being afraid, or being in love to inform a scene, she can't draw on the memory of studying and mastering the twin fields of ion resonance and subspace induction. As an actor, it's easy to fall into the trap of delivering technobabble by rote, and for a lot of us, it's the only way we can remember those lines at all.

But sometimes, a scene is emotionally important, and is filled with technobabble. That's just the reality of working in science fiction. So when Doctor Hoobajoo is trapped in the power conduit with Commander Framitz, her former lover from her first deployment who left her for an android, and can only save them from certain depolarizaion by repairing a malfunction in the subspace induction processor core, the actor has a lot of work to do. Not only does the actor have to be an expert who can solve the problem and save their lives, she has to be emotionally connected to the scene and the history between the two characters. Oh, and she has to remember that the stakes in this case are pretty high. And she has to do this over and over again for several hours, during the master shot, the VFX shots, and all the coverage.

Boy, writing those three paragraphs just exhausted me. I'll be back in a little bit.

Okay, some coffee and steel cut oats seem to have revitalized me, so I can get to my point now, about what I realized yesterday:

I had a scene that was almost entirely technobabble. It sets up a lot of the action for the episode, tells the audience what's at stake, and gets them excited enough to sit through commercials for MegaSomething versus Giant Other Thing to find out what happens next. I drove the scene. Everyone else was reacting to me and the information I gave them, and I think I had one line in two pages that wasn't technobabble. It was challenging, and I knew from experience that I was going to have trouble remembering the jargon, so I did a lot of extra homework to make sure I was totally prepared. 

As I did my preparation, I realized that while the technobabble is just a dump of information, it's information that Doctor Parrish has an opinion about. The function of the scene is to get the action going and give the audience some important information, but that doesn't mean it has to be an infodump. The way Doctor Parrish feels about the other characters affects the way he talks with them regardless of the words. It affects who he chooses to give certain bits of information to, and it affects how he delivers the information. So I found ways to be emotionally connected to the scene and the characters, while caring about the information I was giving them, so it wasn't an infodump. A scene that could have been tedious and boring became a scene that was a lot of fun to perform.

Still, it was really hard to remember all the technobabble I had, and at one point, when I blanked on a line, my Star Trek skills automatically sprung to life, went into failsafe mode, and made me say "blah blah emit blah pulse blah blah blah." (The fun of technobabble is that a lot of the words are interchangeable. The frustration of technobabble is that we can't paraphrase or use any of the interchangeable words, because a subspace matrix is different from a subspace array.)

It honestly could have been boring and exhausting to spend much of a day delivering technobabble, but when I realized that I could keep it interesting by endowing the technobabble with emotional resonance, the whole thing came to life in a surprising and unexpected way. It was like I'd detected anomalies in the starboard neutrino emitter, and instead of adjusting the warp plasma induction subroutine to compensate for multiadaptive fluctuations, like you'd usually do, I thought about it, and equalized the portable phase transmission with a self-sealing warp core transmuter.

I know, right? I bet you never thought to do it that way. Well, I did, and it worked.

71 thoughts on “on the delivery of technobabble”

  1. I wouldn't get too excited … Scott Adams has an army of sockpuppets all over the Internet, so it's statistically likely that one of them would eventually land here, even if it was by mistake.

  2. You and Ecemommy are both right.
    However, I feel more your comment because, well, I’m a scientist and what other people call “babble” makes perfect sense to me and many others.
    So in general the word “technobabble” has always annoyed me.

  3. it is not a “technobabble”, it is an interesting information, a possibility, a theoretical reality that could be true at some point, somewhere; it is much more interesting than secenes that relate to mating. And anything that has to do with space travel and going beyond the boundaries of mundane is expanding imagination and evolving us humans (I think)(maybe).
    But awesome writing, as always, Mr. Wheaton… or Mr. Crusher (not sure who am I talking to at the moment), anyway, I love Star Trek TNG

  4. It’s hard to process that, as an actor, you don’t relate to techno-babble. When “Hollywood” shows me pictures of the impossible, I suspend disbelief. When they embark upon the unlikely or difficult, I want to participate. It’s a hook for many a nerd/geek/phreq. If technical errors impede that participation, at that moment I feel tricked.
    I include this link, b/c it has graphics, not just b&w letters on a command line. Hope you enjoy it in some similar way to a movie. It’s a window onto today’s reality. (Not suggesting you’d ever install; just check it out like a magazine for the pics.) Author intro’d ~8:10. Demo starts ~10:27. Hollywood type pics ~15:25.
    http://hak5.org/episodes/episode-822

  5. I’d like to deliver (or add to the comments that already had beed given from sience/IT minds) here another point of view to Technobabble thats not about not exisitng science, but about real life technologie, like the internet, “hacking Computerterminals”, etc:
    As an IT Monkey I usually understands (more or less) the difference between what they are “doing” on the screen and what that would mean in reallife. The technobabble is, at these moments, the difference between “hm ok, its just a movie” and “my organs are melting up, while my brain explodes by sheer [dumb array (ne Matrix) of technicalsounding words] and im really, really trying to subdue that flaming rage behind my mouth”.
    So from the viewerside of the screen, i’d say to an actor who has to Technobabble about something existing: “Pray that the scriptwriter did at least some research on the topic”.
    (On a unrelatet note: Thats one of the many things that makes tbbt so great)
    Apart from my babble about your babble about Techobabblepart, id like to trnsgriefbabble about something completly different:
    You wrote “MegaSomething versus Giant Other Thing” in way that sounds like you don’t apreciate Moviegold like “Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus” that lightens up TV Evenings with games like “Count the three different Background Sets” or “Spot the brocken [something] that hasen’t been fixed since Scene [y]”, etcpp?

  6. Angela, you captured a distinction I’ve never been able to put my finger on. My friends are watching some spy show, and I give up 10 minutes in, and they question my consistancy…”You can’t stomach the technobabble in [spy show] but you looove Star Trek. Explain yourself.” I couldn’t quite explain, but now I understand. A starfleet officer _can’t_ use a 24th century subspace array in a way that’s painfully incorrect because there is no “correct”, and my brain is free to not only suspend disbelief, but excercise imagination in conjuring an interpretation of the technobabble. On the other hand, when a goverment agent uses a computer to communicate, in English, directly into the brain of a soldier in 2011, and the soldier uses simulation software to alter history, well, that makes me want to curse out the kid at the ticket window for allowing me to waste my 10 bucks. (Remember when Jake Gyllenhaal participated in _good_ movies? Ah, “October Sky” how I miss your integrity.)

  7. I would expect that there’s also some pride in nailing the technobabble. As a Star Trek alum, it might look pretty bad to the crew if you don’t make it appear effortless.
    Now please excuse me as I crawl back into the Daniels Tube.

  8. These posts about your acting process have been really interesting. Was this something you were taught in classes or did you develop this on your own during the years you’ve been in the business? I really appreciate all the effort you take in making the unbelievable and fantastic so real and present.
    Acting is about communicating and I see how I can use what you’ve written to help me communicate to others more effectively and how to give more thought into what exactly I’m trying to convey in a particular situation. Thanks!

  9. I’ve always believed that you were one of the best technobabble speakers of all time…Mostly because you can speak it clearly…even at a rapid pace…and because you do it with authority…Forcing me to believe that within the context of the show…you know what you’re saying.

  10. I totally second this! I actually said to my husband on more than one occasion (whenever an actor from Star Trek or Firefly appeared on the show) that Wil would have made a great guest star.

  11. From “Next to the Dogfaced-boy” is how I’d really like to be known. But Wil, as a Star Trek NON trekker, more of a Bill Shatner lapdog, I understand the stress of having to utter that nonsense with precision AND emotion relative to the information being uttered . . . it would be as if you were suddenly in a lab with Fermi and Szilard, with them them babbling to themselves while writing on a blackboard and saying things like “Exactly! If the core emission particles are controlled with x being the transmission variable and t being the velocity, it is entirely possible that the actual implosion will result in an n-parameter event!” And Szilard would stroke his chin and say quietly, “Fermi, you are a genius!” What I’m saying is, that if there’s the payoff if the characters get it right, it’s no more different than a platoon discussion about how they’re going to outflank a machine gun nest. You have no idea what they’re talking about, but you’re sure THEY do, so all is right with the world.
    I sometimes entertain myself at airport bars or on airplanes pretending I’m an Australian Paleontologist. How can they possibly argue with me? I do a perfect Australian accent and then tell them what project I’m currently working on, which is usually using DNA from a billion-year=old caterpillar to recreate a therapsid which I’ll bet no fuckin’ pedestrian except a fellow paleontologist would have ever heard about, and I’d make rockin’ tales of recombinant DNA sequencing in this hilarious, enthusiastic Australian accent (Ya see, mite, tha kai heah is to boind the propah receptahs on the the seeding soites sai you feil the receptor aygent boy thinkin’tat it’s bein’ taiken ayvah boy a REAL receptar soite, if ya see moy point?”
    Usually they are ready to buy you another double Bloody Mary, just to get to the story of how you got the croc out of your shower head.

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