I’m on a boat: On the Delivery of Technobabble

I’m on JoCoCruiseCrazy 2, and I’m taking an Internet vacation until I get home. So every day while I’m gone, something from my archives will post here automatically, for your entertainment. I had a lot of fun picking these different things out, and I hope you enjoy them again, or for the first time.

On the Delivery of Technobabble

Originally published May 2011.

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.

 

11 thoughts on “I’m on a boat: On the Delivery of Technobabble”

  1. Jargonautics is different from technobabble, in that Jargonautics deals with jargon, which does actually make sense.
    It’s not like the NASA guys are just making stuff up like the Trek writers. :)

  2. Wil – these long posts from the past bring back memories: memories of why I started reading your blog, and why I continued to read it. Google+ just isn’t the same. Please write more here.

  3. Did Eureka ever air in the Netherlands? Or any other work besides Startrek? Sounds like i missed out on some good stuff…
    Why does most of the series airing in the US not get aired on tv in Europe?

  4. at first I thought “Ugh, you can’t just improvise the technobabble?” but then I remembered what Star Trek fans are generally like… Of course you can’t improvise the technobabble. The difference between a Subspace Matrix and a Subspace Array is clearly VERY IMPORTANT.
    (though I watch old Treks and think all plot contrivances could be solved with clever use of transportation, force fields, and tractor beams so I am probably NO BETTER. You’d think we were watching Half Life Physics Engine, the series…) :)

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