“I just love scanning for life forms.”
– Data (Brent Spiner) in Star Trek: Generations (1994)
It would be difficult to scan for life forms, indeed, without some nice hand-held technology to help out in the cause.
And cult television has given audiences some great developments on this front. If you grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you no doubt recall with fondness Star Trek’s (1966 – 1969) tricorder, and early cell-phone-like device, the communicator. If you were into pretend play as a kid, you absolutelyneeded these devices if you hoped to form an adequate landing party. You needed to be able to contact your fellow officers, and determine what kind of menace was present on the planet surface…
In later generations, both the tricorder and communicator received face-lifts to keep up with the times (and the revolution in miniaturization), and Star Trek: The Next Generation gave us the PADD, a revolutionary device which looks and functions a lot like today’s ultra-popular tablets. Basically, the PADD is a portable computer, able to call up data instantly, and the acronym stands for Personal Access Display Device. Spelled out, that description very much resembles the function of today’s iPad or Android.
A few years after the original Star Trek, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Space: 1999 (1975-1977) introduced viewers to the ultra-cool commlock, a device that could interface with Moonbase Alpha’s main computer, lock and unlock doors, tell time, and also function as a communicator with a small, built-in video screen.
I’ve always preferred the commlock to the Star Trek communicator, but I can’t argue that our technology has gone the way of the communicator instead. We don’t vid-phone each other all the time, and last time, I checked, our phones don’t (yet…) open and close our doors. But in forty-eight episodes, Space: 1999 also showcased a number of very cool-looking hand-held devices, from radiation detectors, to life-form scanners, to specimen analyzers. Unfortunately, many of these devices tended not to show-up on a regular basis, and if they did re-appear, they often served different functions.
Doctor Who’s all-purpose sonic screwdriver is another well-known example of cult-tv, hand-held technology at its finest, a device that can perform literally any function its owner can devise. The sonic screwdriver first appeared “officially” on the BBC series in 1968, during the Patrick Troughton era and over the decades the Time Lord tech has detonated mines, unlocked doors, operated as a “lance” to cut locks, shone ultraviolet light, amplified sound, repaired electrical wires, disabled alien weaponry, and even healed injured people. On one occasion, the sonic screwdriver took on the capacities of a remote control.
In 1977, The Fantastic Journeycame up with an interesting variation on the sonic screwdriver, a sonic energizer, which resembled a high-tech tuning-fork. It was both a medical healing device and a weapon when wielded by its owner, Varian (Jared Martin), a medical man from a peaceful future society.
Sometimes in cult-tv history, hand-held technology has been important to the very premise of a program. In Voyagers! (1982), Phineas Bogg (John-Erik Hexum) and Jeffrey Jones (Meeno Peluce) were tasked with preserving and restoring the correct flow of time. To help them, they had one tool: the Omni. It was a portable device — like a stopwatch — that featured a globe of Earth, and two indicators, one red — showing trouble — and one green, showing everything a-ok. Thus the time travelers could periodically check on their progress and determine if their work was done.
Similarly, the Sterlings of Otherworld(1985) carried one significant piece of hand-held tech: Nuveen Kroll’s access key, a cylindrical device which permitted them to access the various technology (maps, computer systems, hover cars…) of the distinctive provinces they encountered in the course of their adventures.
In the wide scope of cult television series we’ve seen hand-held tech as translators (such as Battlestar Galactcia’s “languatron”), as life form scanners for police (Logan’s Run ) and more.
Recent programs, such as Primeval(2006 – ) have also showcased portable tech too, namely in the form of the Anomaly Detection Device built by Connor. A prototype of the ADD appeared in one second season episode, before a more advanced design was introduced later. This device can lead the ARC team to any temporal incursion, which is helpful considering the prehistoric and futuristic creatures which tend to pour out of the anomalies on a regular basis.
Hand-held tech is one element, I would argue, that cult-tv programs have largly gotten right. As we become increasingly technologically advanced, it seems like we desire to take our tools and toys with us wherever we go. We want the comfort and luxury of access to information…in the palm of our hands. This is a notion that Star Trek, and Star Trek: The Next Generation have absolutely understood, first in terms of cell phones, and later in terms of tablets.
But I’m still holding out for a commlock…