Star Trek‘s science consultant Dr. Erin Macdonald is an astrophysicist and science educator. She recently shared behind the scenes insights on multiple science and science fiction crossover panels at San Diego Comic-Con 2022. She also chatted with Nerdist about her role on the five current Star Trek shows, her sci-fi credentials, and why Captain Janeway is her favorite captain.
Nerdist: What is a science advisor and how do each of the shows use you?
Dr. Erin Macdonald: Everyone uses me very differently. When I come on as a science advisor to any show or film, my first task is to figure out where on the spectrum of science to fiction the science fiction wants to land. All these Star Trek shows have a different answer to that. Discovery‘s way more on the science side. They’re like, “We want to be scientists doing science.” I’m involved from the development of the plots for the season, all the way through post production and getting the graphics right. Getting equations written, getting these star maps laid out, and what the planets look like. It’s a lot of fun.
And then Lower Decks is like, “We’re animated, we can get away with a lot more and we’re just going to have weird energy creatures.” So it’s really just calibrating what level of science they want to get into. My notes for Lower Decks are hardly anything. Might be tweaking a word here and there, “falling” instead of “getting sucked” into a black hole. Those sorts of little nuances, just minor dialogue changes. 90% of what I do is checking that level of stuff. It’s making sure what comes out of their mouths sounds right.
On Strange New Worlds, where they take the hypospray to disguise themselves, removing a lot of science explanation. That becomes more like word salad. And then just slightly tweaking things, like not to say “evolve” because that happens over generations. But “metamorphosis” or using some words like that instead.
They can use me as much or as little as they want. With Prodigy, my role is really different. Even though I’m still doing the science consulting for them, a lot of my role is more like STEM education. Because they want to engage kids, they have characters that are relatable for kids who might want to become scientists. A lot of what I do is more focused on science education than it is on the science itself.
When someone says they’re a science advisor for a show it’s always worth digging a little more into that because it can be so many different things. For me, with Star Trek, I’m really lucky that I’m so embedded in the writer’s rooms. And the showrunners know me. I’m so flattered by the level of respect that the actors give me. They just think what I do is so cool and really champion my stuff. Anson Mount is a big champion of science exploration and astronomy. As is Bob Picardo, who is the doctor on Voyager. And Tim Russ, who played Tuvok on Voyager. He’s so passionate about space and science. And so they’re great advocates for me.
How do you see your role in the feedback loop between real-life technology and what we see on-screen?
I love the cyclical relationship of science and science fiction. It’s so fascinating. I am humbled remembering when The Original Series aired, we hadn’t even landed on the moon. That’s huge to realize the context of when that show came out. Trying to shoulder the legacy of Star Trek is a lot. That’s the stuff that keeps me up at night.
But in terms of technology and how that impacts our real world technology, a lot of that is the production design side of things, the ones creating what the tricorders look like and the hypospray and all of that. And then because it’s been around for so long, our society has started to fold in all of those technologies. We had flip phones, we now have video screen conferencing that was shown in 1966. The one I love is the first edition Kindle is exactly the size and shape of the data pads in The Next Generation. And that’s not a mistake. A lot of people who go into engineering and invention and technologies are inspired by Star Trek, so they circle back to pay homage to that.
The other thing is replicators. We have a lot of research go ing into synthetic food. Things like finding that protein that simulates red meat that has led to the Impossible burgers. We have all of that research and then, in conjunction with that, we have all this research into 3D printing. And so I think someone out there who’s in those fields is going to be like, “I want to build a replicator.” I think we can do it now.
What about holodecks?
Being able to have the AR walls where you can just project these scenes…both Discovery and Strange New Worlds use that technology on their sets. I haven’t been lucky enough to go up there, although people I know who have been to set are like, “It’s freaking amazing!” You walk in there, the engineering room in Strange New Worlds, that big expansive thing where you see all the coils and everything, that’s all on an AR wall. It’s not added in post. I think when that impacts the storytelling is you’re able to create literally strange new worlds. You can create these vast landscapes. We just did not have the technology to do that 20 years ago.
Who’s your favorite Star Trek character of all time?
I think my favorite character is Garak, the tailor from Deep Space Nine. I loved Deep Space Nine. And the cool thing is Garak was always kind of a mystery. You never quite knew what his origins were, if he was a spy. The actor, Andrew Robinson, while he was on set he was writing what Garak was doing during the episodes when they weren’t showing him. And he really fleshed out Garak’s backstory. He actually turned it into a novel called A Stitch in Time.
My favorite captain is Janeway. Honestly, she helped me so much in graduate school. I really saw her as a mentor. Every time I wanted to quit, I would watch Voyager. And I was just like, “Got to do it for the captain. Got to make her proud.” I actually dedicated my PhD thesis to her. When I was told about Prodigy, I got to go to Nickelodeon studios and meet the showrunners. They broke the news to me that Captain Janeway was coming back, that they needed help writing lines for Captain Janeway. Prodigy is just so special to me because of that.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures/Melissa T. Miller
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.