From Thin Air: The Quest to Build a Star Trek Holodeck

Few things have captured my imagination more than Star Trek’s holodeck. Empty rooms that could become any place, any time at the push of a few buttons? Sign me up. At the time, holodecks seemed unfair. Was there any luxury people in the 24th century didn’t have? First sliding doors and then holodecks? The best my door could do was swing open. And these were the dreams of an adolescent boy. Imagine the eye-opening realization I had when I was a teenager watching Deep Space Nine and it occurred to me that the people using Quark’s holosuites were doing more than reliving the stories of Sherlock Holmes or playing at hard-boiled detective mysteries.

The shows never got that explicit, but holodecks were clearly the future’s answer to safe sex. What if Deep Space Nine had aired on HBO instead of going straight to basic cable syndication? We might’ve seen the more realistic side of a room that could not only recreate any location practically indistinguishable from the real thing, but any person nearly indistinguishable, too.

Star Trek Holodeck
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s distinctive yellow holodeck grid.

Sure, there’d be other fun stuff to do with a holodeck but… we’re not going to kid ourselves about where, faced with the possibility of creating any fantasy, most adult minds are going to go. There’s really just one direction. While the shows also kind of winked and nodded at this, they did reinforce the idea. It was a crime, after all, at least on Deep Space Nine, to break into a holosuite while another was using it (Our Man Bashir 4×10). What could necessitate so much need for privacy if it wasn’t sex? Most states already prosecute the real-world, low-tech versions of invasion of privacy in today’s time, so it’s not surprising that our future selves would do the same. Looking at it from the other side, we don’t, however, prosecute spying on groups of people live-action role-playing medieval battles in parks, so it’s hard to imagine the people of the 24th century worried about protecting the privacy of a person in a holosuite pretending to be a World War II spy, either. I don’t think I’m blowing anyone’s mind here, right? Sure, my naïve 10-year-old self didn’t get it. But we adults, we have to admit what the holodecks were really all about: sex, sex, sex.

Yeah, there were other less prurient purposes. When the Enterprise was caught up in an ancient booby trap that drained power from the engines and bombarded the crew with deadly radiation, for example, Geordi LaForge used the Holodeck to recreate a drafting room at Utopia Planitia (Booby Trap, 3×6). That’s where the Enterprise’s engines were designed, and he wanted to “turn them inside out” and figure out what was wrong. In the process, he also accidentally recreated the holographic image of Dr. Leah Brahms, an engineer with the Theoretical Propulsion Group who worked on the design of Galaxy Class starships like the Enterprise. Together, they figure out a solution and save the Enterprise, but look where this goes, almost right from the start:

LaForge: Computer, did I ask for a simulation?

Enterprise Computer: Affirmative. You asked Doctor Brahms to show you which system could accept reactants at a faster rate. By accessing available imagery [of Doctor Brahms], an adequate facsimile was possible.

LaForge: I did do that, didn’t I? Okay.. Leah… good to see you… real good.

Real good? Horn dog. At the end of the episode, LaForge and Holo-Brahms even kiss. If that’s not Star Trek code for hot holographic sex, I don’t know what is.

Star Trek Booby Trap
Dr. Leah Brahms with Geordi LaForge.

In another episode, however, the real Dr. Brahms shows up on the Enterprise, and to Geordi’s surprise, she’s a total ice queen. Luckily, a space-dwelling alien starts suckling the Enterprise of energy (it thinks the Enterprise is its mother, Galaxy’s Child, 4×16) and the crisis forces the real Dr. Brahms and Geordi together to save the day. She stumbles across his Utopia Planitia holodeck program, though, and while at first she’s impressed with his initiative—a program that contained a simulation of the prototype engines would give him a baseline to compare with his own modifications—she runs into the holographic simulation of herself:

Holo-Doctor Brahams: I’m with you every day, Geordi. Every time you look at this engine, you’re looking at me. Every time you touch it, it’s me.

Awkward. Geordi stumbles in to stop her, but he’s too late. She flips, and rightfully so. “I am outraged by this. I have been—invaded. Violated. How dare you use me like this? How far did it go, anyway? Was it good for you?” Guess I got that hot holosex thing right.

Geordi, for his part, insists nothing like that happened, blah, blah, blah, professional collaboration, with touching and kissing, blah, blah, blah. Brahms doesn’t buy it and I’m not sure I do either. It does all work out, they’re friends by the end of the episode, but am I the only one who felt a little creeped out by Geordi after all this? In the alternate timelines we see in the series finale, All Good Things, Geordi and Brahms are actually married with kids… so… there’s that.

The political, philosophical and spiritual implications here are pretty vast. Even in the 21st century, we quarrel over what people do with real people in their bedrooms. I can’t imagine more of a target for the religious right or a conservative politician than technology that allows a level of fantasy (or deviance, depending on your view) literally limited only by one’s imagination.