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The Untold Truth About Star Trek Transporters

According to Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), "transporting really is the safest way to travel" in the "Star Trek" universe. Having your atoms disassembled by a computer, beamed to another location, and then reassembled certainly does sound like an efficient (albeit terrifying) mode of transportation and practically everyone in the 24th century gets around with transporters.

La Forge even claims there have only been two or three transporter accidents in the past 10 years — but if that's true, then the 24th century must have a very different definition of the word "accidents." From age regression to accidental cloning, the U.S.S. Enterprise alone has had multiple bizarre transporter malfunctions in just its first seven years of service.

The problems get even weirder when you look at all the transporter accidents in the original "Star Trek," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Star Trek: Voyager," and other "Trek" TV shows and movies. While some of these effects can actually be beneficial, you may want to read this article on the untold truths behind "Star Trek" transporters before calling out that old refrain: "Beam me up, Scotty." Because after your journey, there's a good chance you won't like how you get put back together.

Transporters Exist Because of Low FX Budgets

According to "The Making of Star Trek," franchise mastermind Gene Roddenberry originally wanted to shoot scenes of the Enterprise landing on alien planets, but this proved too expensive. Even building models of shuttlecrafts was too time consuming, and the crew needed an alternative when filming began.

To get around the problem, the special effects team created a teleportation effect for the crew to explain how they arrived on a planet's surface in the "Star Trek" pilot episode "The Cage." The transporter became very popular and influenced many episodes, causing all the later TV shows and movies to use it even as their FX budgets increased substantially. Thus, a special effect created for budgetary reasons ended up having a major real-world effect on pop culture.

Transporters Run on Glitter and Alka Seltzer

Ask a Trekkie how transporters work, and you might receive a technical explanation of the physics involved in disassembling and reassembling a person.

Well, guess what? In reality, transporters can run on anything from glitter to Alka Seltzer. According to "Inside Star Trek: The Real Story," the special effects team created the first transporter effect by turning a slow-motion camera upside down, filming grains of aluminum powder dropping in front of a black background, and using the footage to create the "shimmer" effect between shots of the actors and the clean background. In later episodes, they created different transporter effects by filming dissolving Alka Seltzer tablets and later glitter swizzled in a jar full of water.

More recent "Trek" movies and TV shows use computer effects. Today, practically anyone can create their own Star Trek transporter effect with basic video editing software and some computer-generated effects. Even so, it's telling that one of the most iconic special effects in science fiction history was accomplished using materials anyone could buy at their local drug store.

People Suffer From "Transporter Phobia"

By the 24th century, millions of people travel by transporter every year. Even so, there are plenty of people who hate this mode of travel and do everything they can to avoid stepping onto a transporter pad.

In "The Next Generation" Season 6 episode "Realm of Fear," Lieutenant Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) confesses he suffers from "transporter phobia" and suffers a panic attack when asked to beam down to a planet while plasma field disturbances adversely affect the transporter. As it turns out, his fears are justified, and he sees worm-like creatures in the transporter's matter stream that turn out to be human beings trapped in mid-transport.

People with transporter phobia may be ridiculed in the 24th century, but Barclay's actually in good company. Doctor Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) famously hated transporters and insisted on using shuttlecrafts whenever possible. 

During the "Star Trek: Enterprise” television series, the original Enterprise crew also preferred using shuttles and only allowed themselves to be beamed up during emergencies. Considering all the horrible transporter malfunctions that would occur over the next two hundred years, this was very smart behavior.

Transporters May Technically Kill You Every Time You Beam Down

Transporter accidents have killed people in many gruesome ways. In "Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979), memorably, some new officers experience a transporter malfunction and re-materialize as a semi-living mass of flesh that mercifully doesn't live for very long.

When you get down to it though, "Star Trek" transporters may very well murder every single person who uses one. According to multiple official explanations, including the one found in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual," transporters scan a person's body, convert said body into a matter stream, store those particles in a pattern buffer, send them to their destination via an energy beam, and then put those particles back together in the original configuration.

Many fans argue that this basically means a transporter kills you and only reassembles a copy of your body and mind. This idea is given credence by the fact that transporters don't have to use your original atoms to reassemble you, but can use any available atoms, leaving your original atoms floating somewhere in space.

This is similar to the "Ship of Theseus" thought experiment (famously referenced in "Wandavision"), which questions whether a person or object is still themselves once all the original components are replaced. The Star Trek graphic novel "Forgiveness" does claim that transporters manage to send your soul via the energy stream, which would indicate that transporters don't really kill you. That being said ... they kind of do.

Transporters Make Death Irrelevant

Transporters may or may not kill you, but having a computer advanced enough to scan and store a complete pattern of your body, mind, and memories actually makes death irrelevant. In the episode "Lonely Among Us" from Season 1 of "Next Generation," for instance, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) merges with an alien entity and beams off the ship, apparently destroying himself.

However, the Enterprise crew later realize that they can get Picard back by reversing the transport and reconstituting Picard as he was before the alien possessed him. This Picard is the same person in every respect, although he lacks the memories of when he and the alien entity were one, indicating he's an earlier version of Picard built from new atoms.

Oddly, this means a transporter can bring back anyone who dies from a mission just by saving their physical and mental patterns in the pattern buffer and reconstituting them after the original dies. The new version would lack the memories of that mission (including the memory of dying), but this would be a small price to pay for getting a chance to bring people back from the dead on demand. The only downside might be accidentally duplicating someone who isn't dead yet — which actually happened to one hapless crewman on "Next Generation."

Transporters Are Cloning Machines

Season 1 of the original "Star Trek" produced one of the show's weirder episodes with "The Enemy Within," where a transporter accident splits Captain Kirk (William Shatner) into a "good" but weak-willed Kirk and an "evil" Kirk prone to overacting (or at least, more overacting than Shatner normally did). As it turned out, both sides of Kirk needed to merge back together to form a whole personality, and Spock and Scotty were able to re-integrate them.

At least Kirk managed to pull himself together. A generation later, Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) wasn't so lucky when, on the "Next Generation" Season 6 episode "Second Chances," he learned he was unknowingly split into two exact duplicates thanks to a transporter accident while he was a lieutenant. While one Will Riker continued his career in Starfleet and rose to the rank of Commander, the other Riker (also Frakes) was marooned on an alien planet for eight years until the Enterprise rescued him.

From that point, things got even weirder. Lieutenant Riker decided to go by his middle name "Thomas" and start a new life. He joined a group of Maquis dissidents, then used his genetic pattern to pose as Will Riker and steal the U.S.S. Defiant in the "Deep Space Nine" Season 3 episode "Defiant." Later, he got caught and sentenced to life imprisonment in a Cardassian labor camp. Meanwhile, Commander William Riker continued to advance in his career and eventually became captain of the U.S.S. Titan. Wow, talk about an identity crisis.

Transporters Are Gene Splicers

David Cronenberg's classic 1986 remake of "The Fly" showed how an early transporter (or "telepod") could accidentally splice someone's genetic code with an insect if it happened to be inside. By the 24th century, transporter gene splicing accidents have become somewhat prettier, but no less ethically disturbing.

In the "Voyager" Season 2 episode "Tuvix," Lieutenant Commander Tuvok (Tim Russ), Neelix (Ethan Phillips), and an alien plant get merged together in a transporter accident thanks to the plant's enzymes. The resulting hybrid being (played by actor Tom Wright) possessed their memories and called himself "Tuvix." Over time, Tuvix formed  relationships with the crew and came to see himself as a unique being (and looked at Tuvok and Neelix as his parents), resisting attempts to reverse the fusing process. However, Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) forced him to go through the process anyway, effectively destroying him.

While the moral dilemma of forcing Tuvix to revert back to two beings made for some good drama, it almost seemed unnecessary. Since the transporters can effectively clone people, as they did with William Thomas Riker, why couldn't Voyager have simply made a copy of Tuvix and then separated one of them back into Tuvok and Neelix? Tuvix would have probably been more amenable to that idea.

Transporters Are A Fountain of Youth

Transporters might be able to reassemble you in exactly the same physical condition you were in at the moment of beam out ... but what if you don't want to be put back together as an out-of-shape middle-aged man or a dying woman?

No problem! As multiple "Star Trek” episodes have shown, the transporter can make you any age you want. In the "Next Generation” Season 6 episode "Rascals," a transporter accident removed key sequences in the crew's DNA, causing them to rematerialize as 12-year-olds, albeit with adult minds and memories. Doctor Crusher (Gates McFadden) later restored the missing sequences and returned the kids to adults, but she indicated that the regressed crewmembers could have simply grown up the normal way instead.

Okay, but say you don't want to restart your life as a preteen and go through puberty a second time? That still wouldn't be an issue. In the Season 2 episode "Unnatural Selection," Doctor Pulaski (Diana Muldaur) was stricken with a disease that accelerated her aging. To save her, the Enterprise used the transporter to re-code her DNA back to normal with a previous bio-pattern that put her back to her regular age.

Of course, since you could store bio-patterns of yourself every time you use the transporter, you could restore yourself to any age or physical condition — including how you looked during your twenties after spending months working out at the gym. Who needs a day spa when you've got a transporter?

Transporters Redefine How Childbirth Works

Starfleet doctors are some of the best medical professionals in the business. Not only can these specialists perform delicate surgery on multiple alien species, they're trained to use their advanced medical equipment to improvise in dangerous situations, leading to some ... well, innovative solutions.

In the "Deep Space Nine" Season 4 episode "Body Parts," Doctor Bashir (Alexander Siddig) was on a shuttle with Major Kira (Nana Visitor) and Chief O'Brien's pregnant wife Keiko (Rosalind Chao). When an accident endangered the lives of Keiko and her unborn son, Bashir decided to use the transporter to transfer the fetus into Kira's womb. Kira ended up carrying the infant to term, resulting in some weird moments for the O'Brien family.

This bizarre incident was motivated by Nana Visitor's real-life pregnancy, which the writers decided to work into the show after Visitor feared her character might need to be written out. Oddly enough, while "Star Trek" science consultant André Bormanis didn't think such an operation would be scientifically possible, he later admitted that fifteen years after the episode aired, the idea of a fetal transplant was being studied and could become a reality.

Transporters Can Turn You Into A Living Ghost

Why was Geordi La Forge so confident that transporters were safe? Probably because he suffered a transporter accident that should have killed him in the Season 5 "Next Generation" episode "The Next Phase," only to learn he wasn't really dead. The story had La Forge and Ensign Ro (Michelle Forbes) waking up on the Enterprise after a transporter malfunction, only to learn nobody could see or hear them and that they could walk through solid matter.

Ro believed the two of them died while being beamed up, but La Forge was skeptical, and learned a Romulan molecular phase inverter transformed them into "out of phase" versions of themselves. Luckily, he was able to get a message to Data, and the Enterprise reverted them to their solid states.

Ensign Boimler (Jack Quaid) suffered a more embarrassing version of this ghost-transformation in the Season 1 "Star Trek: Lower Decks" episode "Much Ado About Boimler." While helping an engineer test the transporter, Boimler was turned into a transparent, glowing version of himself that gave off a "transporter" sound. 

When his crew found him too distracting, they shipped him to "The Farm," a medical spa where all incurable "Star Trek" victims go. The Farm turned out to be a great place, but when Boimler reverted to normal, he was shipped back. Considering the Farm is basically a day spa with attractive nurses, maybe being a transporter accident victim wasn't such a bad thing after all.

Transporters Can Replace Cryogenic Freezing

There's been a lot of cinematic speculation about how cryogenics freeze a person into stasis, possibly allowing them to be revived years or even centuries later. In the movies, everyone from Austin Powers to Captain America to Doctor Evil have attempted it, with varying success.

Well, guess what? In the "Trek” universe, you don't have to bother with messy cold storage. Just store your pattern in the transporter buffer of your ship and wait for someone to re-materialize you. 

That's what Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) did for himself and his crewmate when their ship crashed on a Dyson sphere in the "Next Generation” Season 6 episode "Relics." While his friend's pattern degraded too much for him to be revived (guess Scotty wasn't that much of a miracle worker), Scotty was taken out of storage 75 years later by the crew of the Enterprise-D.

Oddly enough, in the rebooted Kelvin timeline, an alternate Scotty lost Admiral Archer's beagle Porthos in a transwarp beaming experiment. However, in the IDW comic book "Star Trek" #12, Scotty brought Porthos back, showing that animals can also be kept in stasis for extended periods of time. Undoubtedly, this technology will someday revolutionize how our kennels operate.

Transporters Are Time Machines

"Trek" time travel is usually a dramatic event. In "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," Kirk and his crew went back to the 20th century by getting a stolen Klingon Bird-of-Prey to perform a "slingshot" maneuver around the sun, creating a time warp. The effort nearly destroyed the ship, but it got the job done.

Of course, if you don't have the movie budget — er, starship — to perform such a feat, just use the transporter. In the "Deep Space Nine" Season 3 two-part storyline "Past Tense," a transporter accident involving temporal altering chroniton particles sent Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks), Doctor Bashir, and Lieutenant Commander Dax (Terry Farrell) to the 21st century where they accidentally interfered with a key historical event, threatening to erase their future.

Meanwhile, Chief O'Brien (Colm Meany) and Major Kira managed to use a limited supply of chronitons to travel through time and locate their missing crew members. They ended up briefly visiting 1930, and even swung by 1967 to get flowers from some hippies, before finally hitting the right date. 

Such tech would be greatly refined by the 29th century, when the Federation included fleets of "timeships" in Starfleet that possessed temporal displacement drives and temporal rifts to travel through time, allowing them to  essentially beam people to any point in history.

Transporters Can Take You to Alternate Realities

As if ending up in the wrong place isn't bad enough, some transporter accidents can place you in an entirely different universe — and not a very fun one at that. 

In the classic Season 2 "Star Trek” episode, "Mirror, Mirror," Kirk and several other crew members re-materialized in a "Mirror Universe" where the benevolent Federation was the planet-conquering "Terran Empire." Kirk and his crew needed to pretend to be their evil counterparts, since any traitors to the empire would be placed in "agony booths" of torture that made folks wish they were dead.

Meanwhile, the Mirror Universe versions of Kirk and his crew appeared in the "Prime" Star Trek universe and were thrown into the Enterprise's brig. Fortunately, the two crews managed to switch places, with the "Prime" Kirk making the "Mirror" Spock consider reforming the Terran Empire.

While this appeared to be a random transporter accident, by the 24th century, Mirror Universe engineers managed to upgrade their transporters to allow people to crossover to the "Prime" universe at will. This led to multiple episodes in "Deep Space Nine" where mainstream characters visited the alternate reality and even formed friendships with some of their Mirror Universe counterparts.

People Have Faked Their Deaths via Transporter Accidents

Want to know how common transporter accidents really are? As it turns out, one Romulan spy felt this sort of death was so prevalent in Starfleet that she staged her own transporter death.

In the "Next Generation" Season 4 episode "Data's Day," a Vulcan ambassador (Sierra Pecheur) apparently died in a transporter accident even though the equipment appeared to be functioning perfectly. Data (Brent Spiner) investigated, discovering bits of organic matter that arrived in transport were replicated, leading him to deduce that the "Vulcan" ambassador was actually a Romulan spy who used the Enterprise to rendezvous with her people and had the replicated material of her "dead body" beamed onto their ship to fake her cover identity's death.

While the spy's deception was discovered, not every Starfleet crew has people like Data or Doctor Crusher who can investigate so thoroughly. Given this, maybe transporter accidents really aren't so common. Perhaps, most of them are perpetrated by people who just want to start a new life.