What technobabble should I google?
April 26, 2020 5:12 PM   Subscribe

I feel like more than once, in science fiction, I've seen machines that characters have to do techno-babble to by opening up a machine, and swapping around a bunch of cards or circuitboards or whatever inside. But I'm drawing a blank coming up with any concrete examples. Can anyone think of any specific episodes of shows, or movies, in which this happens? Bonus points for any technobabble justifications for what they are supposed to be doing.
posted by aubilenon to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Isolinear chips in Star Trek.
posted by cellar door at 5:15 PM on April 26, 2020 [9 favorites]

Well, I may have just commented on a Star Trek thread, but the idea that warp drives are fueled by dilithium crystals and something about a matrix is a canonical answer.
posted by General Malaise at 5:16 PM on April 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

In Ascension of the Cybermen the penultimate episode of the latest season of Dr. Who there’s an example of exactly this sort of thing.

The Doctor is trying to hotwire a spaceship and another character switches some boards around to do it more effectively.
posted by oddman at 5:41 PM on April 26, 2020

Yes, I came here to say that about Star Trek. I feel like this may have also happend a bit with the Flux Capacitor in Back to the Future too but can't say for certain.

There's 100% a scene where Dr. Weir does this in the trippy crawlspace in Event Horizon.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:44 PM on April 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yep, this definitely happens in a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (and probably other 90sTrek series). I seem to recall that it happened in the transporter room in one of the transporter-malfunction episodes.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:59 PM on April 26, 2020

The whole Stargate franchise is full of swapping out crystals to fix things. The only sort of justification I can think of goes along the lines of maybe having a 'power-regulator' and having one be a bit worn out and not able to drive the big engine, but there's another one in the recycling system that is the same power-regulator but only has to handle a little bit of power. So you can swap the two and put the still good one in the engine and the sorta-bad one back in the recycling system. Like if you're using LED light bulbs and the one you need has started to get dimmer but you can swap it with the one in the bedroom that's still bright. It's fine if the bedroom light is a bit dim.

They could also be some sort of multi-functional sub-unit. This system need the A and C part, this other system needs the A and B part. But they both actually do A, B, and C. So if the thing that needs B card has a blown B part, swap it with the other device that doesn't need the B in the first place. Problem fixed.

This sort of swapping bad things back into something else or just shuffling things around has always weirded me out a bit.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:16 PM on April 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Circuit breakers could also be an explanation of sorts. You have two 30 amp breakers. One powers a lot of things and needs to be 30 amp, the other has a table lamp and could be a 10 amp. The one you need is failing and tripping at 20 amps, so swap them. The circuit you need gets a working 30 amp breaker, the table lamp gets a failing breaker that can still handle the table lamp without tripping.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:25 PM on April 26, 2020

The doctor reverses the neutron flow on a regular basis in the classic series to the point it's a catchphrase.

Pretty much anything that ever appears before 'particles' or 'radiation' in any SF series is also good, and tachyon particles, chronons or temporal radiation are pretty common in anything with a spot of time travel, especially Trek.

I can't cite specific episodes but I think you have good search terms there.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 6:33 PM on April 26, 2020

Best answer: Not quite as frantic, but my first thought was shutting down HAL in 2001.

Also, there's EVE fixing WALL-E at the end of the movie.
posted by Rhaomi at 6:34 PM on April 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

from STNG (probably others), I can't pinpoint an episode, but the term "phase inverter" is something I remember.
posted by juv3nal at 6:49 PM on April 26, 2020

Reverse Polarity on TVTropes, which is about specifically reversing things, not just fiddling about with circuits.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:26 PM on April 26, 2020

Best answer: The STNG episode The Naked Now features Data saving the Enterprise by swapping isolinear chips mentioned upthread. What had happened was that engineering Jim Shimoda under the influence of a plot complication had removed the isolinear chips from the command computers (disabling the ship's engines) and went "Wheee!" and tossed them in the air and jumbled them up.
posted by Rob Rockets at 7:47 PM on April 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

I just watched a scene like this in the Expanse (S1E5 I think) where they have to spoof the transponder identity of the ship they are using.
posted by crocomancer at 12:57 AM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

This sort of swapping bad things back into something else or just shuffling things around has always weirded me out a bit.

It's based on 1970-1980-ish methods for fixing computers (I was paid to do so, 1985-1990).
* diagnostics call out (hardware) function blatzgorble in the fuzambulator as failed.
* blatzgorble consists of three interconnected modules.
* diagnostics list the probabilities of each module being the culprit as 25%, 65% and 10%.
* so you start by swapping out module 2. Diagnostics sez nope.
* original module 2 goes back in, you now swap module 1. Again, no dice.
* module 3 next, with the original module 1 back in the system. Diags still failing.
* you look at the service microfiche and notice that module 17 in the glarbonumter gets input from module 2 in blatzgorble. It happens to be in the service kit, yay.
* you swap it. Success.

Other outcomes might have been:
* diagnostics pass after you've replaced one of the original modules when the swapped module still failed: it's a contact problem, and you reseat the lot of them for good measure. Depending on the shape of the contacts you might run over them with an eraser.
* glarbonumter module 17 is not in the kit(s) you have with you. As those service kits started at 6 cu.ft and a set of modules for an entire system CPU could take 5 or 6 kits at 9 cu.ft each, that would be rather common. You then proceed with percussive maintenance and/or a choice selection of profanity-rich expletives directed at the stupid machine. This is where the phrase "I shall zap straight off to your major data banks and reprogram you with a very large axe, got that?” must have originated.
* speaking of data banks, if it's one of the memory modules failing you might start with swapping two of them and note whether the error location has moved with the board, in which case you replace it, or if it hasn't you do the contact cleaning thing again, and if that didn't help either you replace the memory controller.
posted by Stoneshop at 1:21 AM on April 27, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The Expanse. Spoilers.

When reprogramming there's the S1 scene when they're reprogramming the transponder. Taking out chips, hooking stuff up, and talking about how doing the wrong thing will blow up the ship.

In Season 3, there's a scene with the same equipment where they're taking out chips (hint; the bad one glows a different color) in the same set of hardware as used for the transponder. Elsewhile in Season 3 there's the scene where Clarissa is taught not to reverse the power buffer (?) as it can cause the entire system to fail. Later this is used to shutdown The Behemoth.
posted by nobeagle at 7:26 AM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is ultimately how Kirk meets Picard in Star Trek Generations. He goes down to the Enterprise-B's main deflector and swaps some whatevers to bring the something-beam back online (I haven't seen it in a while), which saves the refugees but exposes Kirk to the approaching Nexus due to a hull breach—thereby removing Kirk from the 23rd century.

The Next Generation was IMO really where this took off, and it has to be said that that show tried to be consistent about its technobabble (or, as it became known, Treknobabble). They were so consistent, in fact, that it led to the always-fun ST:TNG Technical Manual, written by the show's own production staffers.

Here are some other google-able, oft-used Treknobabble terms a la isolinear chips, including some terms from that book's index:
annular confinement beam
electro-plasma system
inertial dampers
navigational deflector
ODN relay
pattern buffer (part of the transporter system)
power transfer conduits
warp field coils

(Star Trek: Voyager also used lots of Treknobabble, but less carefully. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine used less than either TNG or Voyager, but still plenty.)

Also, Rey does one of these in Star Wars: The Force Awakens to the Falcon—something involving the hyperdrive. Don't remember the technobabble there.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 8:20 AM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

The main human character, Manuel "Mannie" Garcia O'Kelly-Davis, in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a computer technician. There's some discussion of his actual technical work including tools and such.
posted by Jahaza at 8:29 AM on April 27, 2020

in the "Out of Gas" ep of Firefly, the catalyzer on the compression coil breaks and the captain tries to whip the despondent spaceship mechanic into some kind of can-do frenzy by insisting she come up with some miracle fix, & she just whonks the broken part at the place it's supposed to go, to show him he is a dummy, and says Look, it's broke, see, it don't work no more.

or such is my recollection. for all I know about spaceships, or cars, these could be real part names you can find under the hood of any car in any non-spaceship garage. but I assumed they were made up. sounded real enough though

(the technobabble, if you can call it that, comes in when she explains that without the catalyzer the compression coil is busted & then the engine won't turn & then the life support won't function so they are all going to die)
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:28 AM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Came in to also mention Stargate. Especially SG Atlantis where they are always overriding lockdowns of one sort or another by swapping around the three crystals next to the door. The Atlanteans had terrible PHYSEC.
posted by Horkus at 10:09 AM on April 27, 2020

Response by poster: To clarify I'm not looking for general examples of technobabble, or even general frenetic repair scenes (i.e. Wall-E) but specifically for justifications for stuff like the isolinear chips and other "swap a bunch of identical parts around" type situations. I marked some of the ones I could find as best answers, but will continue looking for those clips from Stargate, Dr. Who, and The Expanse (if anyone who knows those shows can dig up links, I'll be super grateful). I am counting the Hal 9000 as being close enough, though it's just ejecting cards and never reinserting them.

I probably should have said this up front: I'm designing an escape room (assuming we ever get to do those again), and have a puzzle similar to this pattern, and want to see how people might have seen it implemented and justified, so we can be intentional in who we rip off / pay homage to. Thanks for all the great answers so far. I'll keep watching this, so if anyone thinks of any others, that'll still be useful to me, even though some stuff is already marked best.
posted by aubilenon at 11:56 AM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

In that case, DS9: "One Little Ship" has the chief engineer and the doctor shrunk down to centimeters in height, trying to fix a system from literally inside it. The engineer (O'Brien) does a fair amount of explaining in that one, and they physically unplug micro-circuits and replug them into new spots. There's a moment where he has to warn the doctor not to sit on a particular highly-charged thingamajig or else he'll be fried.

You may also want to watch a YouTube ride-through of the new Millenium Falcon ride at Disney ("Smuggler's Run"); if a rider is seated at one of the back stations, they're supposed to push blinky buttons when a character on the screen yells at them to "fix the ____!"
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 7:53 AM on April 28, 2020

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