The Doctors of Star Trek

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Almost anything is possible in the medical science of Star Trek. But how realistic is this? I spent quite some time wondering that and I do think I drove a fair share of people absolutely crazy. As a scientist and cancer researcher I do have my weak spots. Some TV series are unbearable to watch for me, because scientists produce miracle after miracle with a snap of their fingers. Star Trek in contrast never made me so much as cringe. The storyline is set so far in the future, that unrealistic healing methods never really bothered me.

sickbay
Sickbay – The next Generation

Technology is playing a huge part in the sick bays of Star Trek. Medical Tricorders basically are the answer to everything. A gentle caress with the sensor above the patient’s body, and you have every single information needed. The medical monitor – the only display that survived from TOS and was still used in TNG, and only slightly altered for DS9 and VOY – shows relevant data and parameters automatically. And did you know, that those very monitors were the inspiration for the design of the monitors used in modern hospitals?

While those two really memorable technologies are cool, let’s take a look at practicability. The medical Tricorder – as much as I’d love to have one – will never come true. While medical science can do a lot, one single instrument can’t and won’t be able to in the future either. It can much less tell you blood stats, pulse frequency, x-ray data and ultrasonic measurements at the same time and within the fraction of a second. Yes, instruments will be much smaller in the future. Yes, results will come quicker in the future. But not that quick.

I’d like to illustrate that with an example. The “magical disease finder function” on the tricorder. So, you are sick. The cause (usually) is a bacterial or viral infection (there are prions too, but let’s keep things simple for the moment). If it is important to know which species exactly is the cause of the sickness, there’s different possibilities today. Microscopy for example. Using a “normal” microscope, the scientist uses a variety of dying techniques to find out wich bacteria are present. A virus cannot be seen in an optical microscope. And will never be seen in optical microscopy. Period. And no technology in this world (or any other) will do that. Electron microscopy makes it possible to see both bacteria as well as a virus. You’d still need a blood sample. So you’d still need to punctuate the skin. So even in the future, I do not see a way that would allow microscopy to detect the specific pathogen causing a disease by an optical scan of the outside of the human body. The second method to detect pathogens is by cell culture. You take a sample, spread it on different kinds of culture media and wait. And bacteria (and other pathogens) do need their time to grow. So this method is out for the tricorder. And the last – and most accurate method – would be DNA screenings. You’d still need a drop of blood and some time though. Far more time than Star Trek doctors need. So the best method would be a miniature-electron microscope and a bit of blood, coupled with a huge database of pathogen pictures. That’s as far as the medical tricorder is going to get.

The medical monitor? Still won’t be “touch free” but that’s realistic. I mean we already have medical monitors. Heart rate, respiration rate, temperature, electrocardiogram, electroencephalogram – they are out there and very much reality in any hospital.

I still don’t mind either instrument. Not even the tricorder. It isn’t realistic, but Star Trek is a SciFi series. We aren’t talking “Grey’s anatomy” or “Emergency Room” here. They are cool, futuristic gimmicks that simply add to the flavour of the world.

And what I personally love about the medical science of Star Trek is, that not every disease can be magically healed, that not every single wound just disappears within a second. The doctors of Star Trek do their research, starting with Dr. Phlox in ENT seriously struggling to find a remedy for the Captain’s sick pet dog, having an entire zoo of animals and plants to do research on, or Dr. Crusher totally excited about something new, or Dr. Bashir on Deep Space 9, studying hard so that he can be published for discovering something new. Those three are typical researchers. The archetype of researchers even. Especially Phlox and Bashir. I really love that. Dr. Crusher is more the healer. Always worried about the crew, always hoping to do more. For her, research is something necessary to be a better doctor. Bones – well. I love Bones. A lot. But he’s the “ideal future doc” from a 60s perspective. With beautiful nurses at his side, facing less struggles in medical research than in any other field. Which is ok. He’s an interesting character and crucial for TOS, but he’s not interesting as a scientist. And another completely different doctor is “the doctor”, the Emergency Medical Holographic program (EMH) of Voyager. The interesting part of this is more the development from an artificial program to artificial intelligence. Of course the entire conflict of artificial creatures has started in “Next Generation” with Data, but Voyager deepens the theme. The doctor is able to learn, and over the course of time develops his own personality and medical interests. He researches – both himself as well as medical stuff.

So while medical science doesn’t play an outstandingly important role in Star Trek, our doctors do. All of them are great characters, and I really love the fact that medical research is something happening in the future Star Trek is painting. That ethical problems in medicine are a part of Star Trek (just look at Dr. Bashir).Of course physics and engineering are more important for the TV series than medical science, but I at least am happy and content with the way “my” field is portrayed in the series.

 

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Dani Gutsch
Dani studied human biologies and majored in biochemistry, microbiology and tumor pharmacology. In 2008 she started working as a scientific assistant for Marburg University as well as starting her then "secret" career as an artist. Since 2012 she is fully working as an self-employed medieval bathing maiden, firedancer, stilts-walker, musician and writer.