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. Another fascinating insight into an actor’s world. Thank you.
    Technobabble was one of my favourite things about the various Star Trek incarnations so as I was reading this, the self-sealing stem bolts from DS9 came to my mind and I cracked up when I read your last line.
    I get what you’re saying about actors not being able to relate to their dialogue when they’re doing technobabble but can’t deviate from their lines, either. The tricky thing is that you have to very precise because if, let’s say Dr. Parrish tells Henry he needs to invert the neutron flow and when it comes to that resolution scene, Henry polarises the power couplings instead, the geeks will notice. ;)

  2. “unlike normal dialog that comes from an emotional place, technobabble comes from memories that don’t exist”
    I don’t completely agree. I’m a programmer. I tend to be pretty reserved. If you talk to me about my friends and family, I’ll betray some tenderness. If you want to see me speak from a deeply emotional place, get me talking about programming languages or threading models for concurrent systems. Experts, people who have poured their lives into studying a field, speak about that field with deep emotion. The simplest truths are spoken with certainty that reflects moral conviction. …Not that this means anything to a non-expert speaking the lines of an expert. I just think people should understand – I don’t _just_ question Java’s technical merits, I hate Java because it’s evil.

  3. Hello Mr. Wheaton! :)
    This is a very interesting post, thank you!
    I always wondered what actors – especially in the Star Trek franchise – think when they have to perform scenes with lots of technobabble. I could image you guys must have had some trouble with that like you described. I also bet there have been lots of funny moments because you didn’t get your lines right? :P
    I think this kind of scenes in which you can’t use your experience from real life to enhance your acting or make it more believable are the ones that show how good the actor’s acting skills are after all. So I’d tend to say well done, Wil Wheaton. :)
    On the other hand you did draw from your experience. Not from real life, but from your work on Star Trek. So I guess the time on Star Trek was a lot harder for you concerning scenes with a lot of technobabble? I would be very interested to read about your experiences on Star Trek TNG concerning this. How did you feel when you had to perform your first technobabbly scenes? Was it frustrating? Was it funny? Or was it just part of your job?

  4. As long as you didn’t keep your brow furrowed the entire time you delivered your dialogue, I’m sure I’ll eat it up like steel oats. It makes you look confused, not insightful.

  5. Very interesting (along with the prior blog on finding the beats). It’s fun to read and you still get to share your experiences real time with us without spoiling anything or leaving holes in your narrative big enough to fly a space cruiser through. Always enjoy reading about your experiences.

  6. So, Wil, what does Anne say when you get home after the Eureka gig and start whispering technobabble to her in the middle of the night?

  7. I don’t think that’s quite what he was getting at–of course the character may feel something about the technobabble, but the actor does not. The actor doesn’t know anything about the self-sealing warp core transmuter, because in our universe, it doesn’t exist. This is where the difficulty comes in, if I’m reading the entry correctly.

  8. Thanks for giving us an insight on how to connect with technobabble-I always thought it must be terribly difficult to get it all out convincingly.

  9. If you’ve ever been to a scientific conference on any subject and seen one guy stand up in the lobby and call another guy, loudly, an absolute idiot over coffee just before they both leave together in the same cab, then you understand the emotional meaning of technobabble better than many people who get glassy-eyed and say, “Can we talk about something that *matters* now?” If an actor like yourself can convey that emotion effectively then maybe, just maybe, there will be one less person in the glassy-eyed, why-does-science-matter, those-researchers-are-wealthy-welfare-mooches set. So thanks for the hard work, seriously.

  10. Not saying I conflate sci-fi technobabble with real science, of course, I’m just sort of relating the emotion behind scientific jargon to the emotion behind well-acted technobabble, and saying that the latter might help convey the former.

  11. Just please tell me the phase coils in your cryo emitters didn’t overload and cause a major flux in the town’s ionospheric compensators again Dr. Parrish, cuz that can’t be good

  12. And get your foot off that blasted samoflange!
    Note to Self: Google Doctor Hoobajoo
    Second Note to Self: Only 3 hits in Google, all pointing to this blog. I suspect a conspiracy is afoot. :)

  13. As someone who had a science background (okay, HAS, but it’s been a while since I’ve used that particular brain cell), it was always entertaining to hear some of the technobabble from various sources, including STTNG and the other ST series, when it touched upon some of my favorite subject areas.
    Hear, hear, though, I also appreciate what it takes to deal with not only trying to act in several scenes (with all those takes) but also making sure you’ve put the right inducer before the proper matrix. This especially since, as you said Wil, you’re sort of the lynch pin of the episode–one misplaced transducer and it might be ADR time.
    While I’m sure the tech “rules” lawyers might go nuts with it, I think you can safely assume the majority of people (even those scientifically inclined) won’t mind the minor flub. In the end, we’re there to see you save (or ruin as the case may be) the day and don’t really care if you’re talking about a 1,2-DiMethylMonoGlutamic Isohydrase or a 2,1-MonoMenthylDiGlutamic Mesoisomerase. We’re just going to be glad you were able to say it ’cause we sure can’t.

  14. You could have saved yourself all the trouble if you had just reversed the polarity of the neutron flow, and used a self-sealing stem bolt.
    Dweeb…

  15. when I was in high school, a long long time ago, I worked for a chevy dealer owned by Tom Benson (owner of the Saints). When we had a customer who “thought” he knew it all, we would give him babble like “we adjusted the mercury zundat valve on the fratastrantz”. He would usually nod his head knowledgeably and go on his happy way.

  16. I. AM. OFFENDED!!!!!!!!!!!! Such language. You should be ashamed of yourself, young man, using such foul words.
    Where’s that bar of soap?
    I know it’s around here somewhere.
    Oh Fuck!!!
    Wait…..
    Did I type that out loud?

  17. Now I gotta know what happens to Doctor Hoobajoo and Commander Framitz! Do they make it out of the power conduit in time? And what of the android temptress? Too much of a cliffhanger.

  18. Heh. I remember one time, I was watching an old episode of Star Trek in syndication, with the closed captioning on.
    And as proof that the captions were written up before the final script was approved, the word “technobabble” actually appeared on screen while the actor spoke whatever final words were agreed upon.
    And yes, I laughed.

  19. Dude, you have no idea how desperately I wish you could have guest starred on a few episodes of Stargate Atlantis and/or Stargate SG-1 with both Amanda Tapping’s Colonel Samantha Carter and David Hewlett’s Dr. Rodney McKay. The resulting geekgasm would have been more spectacular than the quantum orgasm at the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

  20. Hey, Wil!
    I tried to reach you on Twitter but I expect you’re flooded with @ replies there. I’m wondering if you can make a mention of a charity event that I’m doing for Kids Need to Read. It runs until 12am EST tomorrow night. We’re almost half way to our goal!
    Anything you can do would be appreciated.
    Here’s the URL: http://hydeandgeek.blogspot.com/

  21. I was going through some titles in amazon.com the other day. I was shocked how many books there are analyzing the techno-babble – I mean the science behind star trek and star wars…
    I’m sure there is a large audience, who takes the ‘science’ behind these fictions seriously, and they will flood you with emails, if the ‘science’ is wrong…

  22. Well done on finding your groove to perform the lines. The universe has granted you a win, take care of it for they never last long. Muwahahahahaha
    signed,
    - Your newest Arch Enemy (only kidding)

  23. Hey, Wil!
    I tried to reach you on Twitter but I expect you’re flooded with @ replies there. I’m wondering if you can make a mention of a charity event that I’m doing for Kids Need to Read. It runs until 12am EST tomorrow night. We’re almost half way to our goal!
    Anything you can do would be appreciated.
    Here’s the URL: http://hydeandgeek.blogspot.com/

  24. I liked your example of “matrix” vs. “array”. ‘Cause, like, they mean the same exact thing in some contexts (a grid of numbers) and don’t mean the same thing in other contexts.
    Your cleverness is duly appreciated.
    (Not that it matters, but I guess I always assumed the intention of “subspace matrix” was analogous to a “soil matrix,” as in the fabric/content of subspace, whereas “subspace array” was analogous to a radar array or communications array, i.e. an electronically steerable grid of transceiver components used for sensing and/or communications.)

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