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Why do starship bridge consoles explode? I asked a Time Travelling starship designer.

Updated: May 18, 2023



Starship control consoles explode. It’s a well-documented phenomenon. They explode when the ship takes enemy fire, when it passes through ripples in time¹, and even when the phasers get too hot.² I was around ten years old, watching the original Star Trek on TV, when I first saw the consoles on the bridge of the Enterprise explode in sparks and flames.


It. Was. Awesome.


That was about forty years ago. Or, about 10,492 bridge console explosions ago.


Frankly, in those forty years, the dramatic impact of a piece of the set exploding in a main character’s face has worn a little smooth. I’m a pretty jaded consumer of science fiction now. “Oh great,” I’ll say, “The console exploded. I didn’t see that coming. So dramatic.” I’m not the only one who has come to see the exploding instrumentation in sci-fi as a cheap gimmick. TV Tropes, the de-facto chronicle of storytelling mechanics, says that exploding instrumentation is:


Long considered an unrealistic but effective way of showing battle damage when you don't have the budget to mess up a miniature.³


I’m willing to accept the cynical explanations for lots of things: that a secret cabal of light-bulb companies knows how to make a light bulb that lasts forever, but prevents them from reaching the market so they can keep charging us for new bulbs. That Michael Jackson faked his own death for legal reasons. That the measuring lines on laundry detergent caps are only there to make you use way more detergent than you need.


But I. Simply. Cannot. Accept.⁴ That exploding bridge consoles are a cheap television gimmick!


I’m not alone in feeling this way. The nerdier corners of the Internet are full of proposed, in-universe, explanations for exploding consoles. Perhaps starships use faster-than-light connections between the controlled equipment and sensors, and it’s therefore impossible, like quantum-mechanically or whatever, to install some kind of surge protector or circuit breaker.⁵ Or maybe there are components in the console made of nanoscale metallic foam, which, because of, you-know, quantum mechanics or something, cannot be fully protected from power surges.⁶ Quora user Murphy Barret explains that “Starfleet vessels pump plasma around like a Victorian era house used gas lamps.” The widespread use of high-energy plasma within the ship, combined with the apparent absence of an OSHA division in Starfleet, makes things a little unstable.⁷


Why do so many of us care about this? Why do we pour over canon to look for in-universe reasons for the producers’ cheap storytelling tricks?


I care because I want to experience science fiction the same way I did when I had a child’s genius-level ability to suspend disbelief. I want to be so immersed in the story that not even the corniest cliches can pull me out of it. I want to, once again, 100% BELIEVE WHAT I’M SEEING!


But my adult mind can't just turn on the belief so easily. I need glasses to see better, shoe inserts to walk better, and at-least a grain of the real world that will let me extrapolate to a future where it makes total and obvious sense that the helmsman's console on the bridge explodes when the port nacelle takes a hit.


That’s what this fever-dream of an essay is about. One way or another, I am going to find some way to make myself once-again be filled with the same pure excitement and awe that I used to experience whenever the instrumentation on a starship explodes in a crew member’s face.


To help us be more satisfactorily entertained by imaginings of the future, let’s first look at accounts of real-world combat between warships. Boring, old-fashioned warships that floated on boring old water and used boring old naval artillery to shoot at each other with explosive shells that weighed as much as Range Rovers.


We could spend a lifetime reading first-hand accounts of naval warfare. We could read about the preparations for battle, the strategy and tactics of fleet maneuvers, what happens when the massive ordnance starts flying across thousands of yards of ocean and slams into enemy vessels. We could discuss the gritty and gorey human drama and tragedy of ship-to-ship combat. But that’s not our mission here. In this essay, we don’t care about the human side of warfare, or even the major aspects of strategy and tactics, armor, weapons, and command. We care about what happens to the control consoles!


I’ve only found two accounts of naval combat that mention the fate of ship’s control consoles. First, let’s visit the radio room (right off the bridge) of the USS Yorktown during the battle of Midway.



When I looked up, I saw a huge cloud of black smoke and shrapnel outside the bridge, and the captain was not standing in front of the window anymore. He was inside the radio room with me. I wanted him to stay there, but he didn’t. He stepped out again, because the helmsman couldn’t hear his turning orders, and another plane was coming toward the bridge, and there was another big explosion, and I fell down again.


The dials on the radios were flickering, and I didn’t believe this was how I was going to die because I’d just turned 22. I heard men shouting––no, screaming–– somewhere outside the bridge, but there was no sound at all from the ship’s engines. The Yorktown was dead.


Clouds of black smoke. Shrapnel. More explosions. Men screaming. And the dials on the radio were flickering! Flickering, for God’s sake!


Now let’s read how Burkard Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg, gunnery officer on the German warship Bismark, described the destruction of his fire control equipment:


My aft director gave a violent shudder, and my two petty officers and I had our heads bounced hard against the eyepieces. What did that? When I tried to get my target in view again, it wasn't there; all I could see was blue. I was looking at something one didn't normally see, the "blue layer" baked on the surface of the lenses and mirrors to make the picture clearer. My director had been shattered. Damn! I had just found the range of my target and now I was out of the battle. Though no one in the station was hurt, our instruments were ruined. Obviously, a heavy shell had passed low over our station and carried away anything that protruded. We tested all our optics and couldn't see our targets through any of them. I walked under the ladder to the cupola and looked up towards our large range-finder and its operators. There was nothing there. Nothing at all. What only a moment before was a complete array had vanished without a trace. A heavy shell had ripped through the middle of the cupola, whose jagged ruin allowed a clear view of the cloudy sky.


A heavy shell ripped away the instruments directly connected to the fire control equipment. Did the consoles explode? Emit flames? Throw the operators across the room? No. They simply gave a “violent shudder.”


What can we learn from the USS Yorktown and the Bismark? Obviously, these are only two data points. I will happily accept research funding to reach a more authoritative conclusion. But I will tentatively offer that, in the real world, control consoles don’t explode when remote parts of the ship are hit. They don’t even explode when nearby parts of the ship are hit.


From the perspective of nearly everything that makes sense, this is good news. We don’t want to send our sailors into battle on ships whose control consoles are on the verge of violent disassembly, like overly-sensitive mouse traps waiting for the slightest vibration to set them off.


But this essay isn’t about making sense. It’s about rehabilitating my inner-child’s ability to suspend disbelief. From this highly-specific point-of-view, our two data points from the real world of ship-to-ship combat are terrible news. The control equipment inside real warships is highly non-explody.


If we can’t look to the past for excuses to cling to the knowledge that of course starship control consoles explode in combat, duh, then we shall look to the future.


To help us understand starship control design, I have invited a time-traveling starship designer to the early 21st century to give us some background and understanding of the design tradeoffs involved in instrumenting the bridges of space-faring warships. Allow me to introduce Mr. Grebcher-Miehnellum-Nov-Norab-Drakrub, a hyper-intelligent being from the year 8583 who is chief engineer of bridge instrumentation at the Glorx-{ლᲱ}-KFC-Ѭ Shipworks.


INTERVIEWER: Hello mister Grebcher-Miehnellum-Nov-Norab-Drakrub, thank you for being here and welcome to the 21st century.


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: My main reason for visiting this time period is to eat Parmesan cheese. Your unimportant interview is a minor, secondary reason for my time-travel.


INTERVIEWER: Well … thank you anyway. Wait - Parmesan cheese? Is there some kind of problem with Parmesan cheese in the future?


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: Indeed. There is no Parmesan cheese in the year 8583. That is the primary reason I have traveled to this otherwise meaningless and pitiful era in pre-history. To enjoy Paremsan cheese. Now, what did you want to ask me about starship console design?


INTERVIEWER: That is very disturbing news. I’m now more interested in what happens to Parmesan cheese than in space-warship design.


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: As you should be. However, if I give you any more information about the impending interplanetary tragedy involving Paremsean cheese, you may act on that knowledge and alter the future timeline in a way that negatively impacts my 401(k).


INTERVIEWER: Oh man, there’s still 401(k) plans in the year 8583?


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: May we please discuss starship design now? I currently have twelve Parmesan cheese wheels in my hotel room that I want to eat this afternoon.


[Editor’s note - a single wheel of Paremsan cheese weighs about 80 pounds.]


INTERVIEWER: In our current-day fictional portrayals of combat between starships in the future, it is common for the controls and instrumentation in the bridge to explode when any part of the starship, or even the deflector shield, is struck by a weapon. Is this realistic?


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: Indeed. Given the pitiful state of your technological and social development, this is a surprisingly accurate representation of space combat. For example, in the moment in the future that I shall return to when I have finished my time-traveling Parmesan cheese vacation, I am designing the explosive inserts for the new Vagina-class Ultrafabunaught cruiser's bridge consoles.


INTERVIEWER: Vagina-class … cruiser?


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: The vagina-class heavy cruiser will be the most fearsome war vessel that has ever energized a throbbing warp core. A truly fabulous war machine.


INTERVIEWER: This, vag-, uh, ultrafabunaught I think you called it, will have explosives in the bridge equipment? On purpose?


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: Indeed. Our requirement is that a console shall be able to explode with enough force to toss a crew member half the length of the bridge.


INTERVIEWER: Why? Why would you want stuff on the bridge blowing up unnecessarily?


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: Do you know what happens when an O-Ray shakes a vessel? When a D-torpedo penetrates a bulkhead? Can your primitive mind even imagine the effects of a direct hit by a pr0n bomb on the bridge crew’s ability to think clearly?


INTERVIEWER: The names of these weapons sound kind of … not military.


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: Think about the distraction caused by a five man unit slipping into the inner hull and feeling their way into the ship's G areas.


INTERVIEWER: G stands for gravity, right? Right?


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: Our ships are crewed by young, healthy, vigorous personnel. Most military historians agree that we lost the battle of Slut-Beta because our bridge personnel were unable to think clearly due to the effects of a sustained O-Ray edging attack. At that time, our ships had cold-water spray nozzles installed in the control consoles. Clearly, this was not enough to counter the effects of modern weapons.


INTERVIEWER: Weapons of the future are a little different than I imagined. So the explosives in the bridge consoles are there to refocus bridge officers' minds on their job. If they get … distracted … by an O-Ray, the console explodes?


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: Yes. Exactly.


INTERVIEWER: I'm kind-of afraid to ask this question: How does the console sense when the operator is coming under the effect of these advanced weapons? What triggers the explosion?


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: Blood flow sensors are built into the bases of the equipment at crotch level and are monitored by the ship’s computer. When the computer senses -


INTERVIEWER: Okay, I think that's enough knowledge of that future for today, thanks.

I don't think I'm going to introduce these ideas to my inner child.


MR. GREBCHER-MIEHNELLUM-NOV-NORAB-DRAKUB: If you have no more questions, I am going to retire to my hotel room, turn on my O-ray and enjoy the pleasure of eating Parmesan cheese.


My inner child is now a little traumatized by this, but I can honestly say that this research has changed the way that I think about the corny science fiction cliche of exploding starship consoles. And Paremesan cheese. And the future of weapon development. Now, I’m going to see if I can figure out what this O-Ray is all about…


Endnotes


¹ “City on the Edge of Forever.” Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry, Season 1, Episode 28


² “Balance of Terror.” Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry, Season 1, Episode 14


³ Explosive Instrumentation. TV Tropes. Retrieved Marc 7, 2023. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ExplosiveInstrumentation


⁴ The punctuation in this sentence is supposed to make you feel like James T. Kirk himself is saying it


⁵ I swear I read this somewhere.


⁶ See comment by reddit user Fishermans_Worf in thread about exploding consoles. Consolium. A hypothetical explanation for the rocks that explode out of consoles, Reddit. Retrieved March 7, 2023.


⁷ Murphy Barret. On Star Trek, why do their instrument panels explode when they take fire? Quora. Retrieved March 7, 2023. https://qr.ae/prSR8F


⁸ Carol Edgemon Hipperson, Battle of Midway: Story of a Yorktown Survivor. Warfare History Network. Retrieved March 7, 2023. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/battle-of-midway-story-of-a-yorktown-survivor/


⁹ The Sinking of the Bismarck 27th May 194,1WW2 Cruisers, retrieved March 7, 2023. https://www.world-war.co.uk/bismarck_story.php


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