Inspired by the Future: Star Trek and the Rise of Dataviz

The challenge of any piece of science fiction – be it literature, film or TV – is to present a complete and realistic view of the future. It does this by taking what we know and pushing the boundaries out just enough to create an alien landscape or future world that is relatable to contemporary audiences. 

In film or TV, the atmosphere created by props, concept art, and costumes is specifically designed to communicate a message that says FUTURE all on its own, without any help from the narrative. And, when done well, a film or television series can alter our expectations of how the future should look.

Star Trek did just that in 1966, presenting a view of the future as anti-racist and gender-inclusive, ahead of its time in its view that humans could get past differences and work to better ourselves through discovery. It was also ahead of its time in creating a coherent visual language with set design able to convey the year 2266. It did this by incorporating mid-century furniture and homewares created by the California Modernism movement and doing its best to duplicate technological advances in computer mainframes, LED lights, video game consoles, etc., that were making science fiction dreams a reality in the 1960s even as it was all still very much outside the everyday experience of viewers.

Set design on Star Trek came from the genius of Walter Matt Jeffries who worked with an incredible team of set designers and artists sourcing or building items that could present the 23rd century as they imagined it. And, in a time when data visualization was still very much the purview of academics and statisticians (and only included very minimally in the popular press), Star Trek imagined that the future included data visualization as part of the day-to-day experience. More specifically, there are  two episodes that feature data visualizations prominently displayed behind the actors and which deliver key pieces of information about this ideal future world – simplified for easy interpretation at a glance.

Visualizing real time data for action

In “Court Martial”, the Enterprise has diverted to Starbase 11 for repairs after sustaining severe damage in an ion storm. The main story of the episode revolves around an investigation into actions taken by Captain Kirk who is accused of ejecting an occupied pod prematurely and killing a crewmate. This is the first episode to include a depiction of a starbase which is presented from orbit, from the air just above the base, and from inside. 

The first scene opens with a shot of Commodore Stone in his office studying a computer screen on the wall while Captain Kirk reviews paperwork to do with the repairs of the Enterprise. The computer screen displays a bar chart that provides information about the status of repairs for each ship docked at Starbase 11. 

Scene from “Court Martial,” originally aired February 2, 1967. Author’s screenshot taken on August 29, 2022.

Ships are listed along the y-axis (presumably running from top to bottom in the order in which they arrived) while the x-axis, running along the top of the chart, indicates the completion rate for the repairs. The colours are minimal but designed to draw the eye to the length of the bars. The pre-attentive cues of this classic chart type are easy to recognize and it’s organized in such a way as to ensure accurate interpretation without close inspection.  

For those who pay attention to these types of things, its inclusion in the scene provides extra-narrative information about: 

  1. the size of not only Starbase 11 but also Starfleet: 10 ships are currently under repair at the station and there is room at the bottom of the chart to add more. This is the first time we’re presented with any evidence of the number of ships in Starfleet.
  2. the capability and efficiency of the operation: this is a well-organized base and, according to the chart, the repairs on the Enterprise (NCC-1701 and #7 on the axis) are already over 80 percent complete.
  3. the Starbase as a complex yet flexible work environment: work on the ships is not being completed in the order in which they’ve arrived, and NCC-1831 (#2 on the axis) appears to be getting extra work done as the bar begins again after the 100 percent point.
  4. the ease with which data is incorporated in the running of the operation: Commodore Stone is viewing sophisticated data being updated in real time. In the scene, he uses that data to message the repair teams and orders one of the teams to prioritize the Enterprise over the ship they’re currently working on.

Visualizing a problem in its entirety

In “The Devil in the Dark”, the Enterprise is called to a mining colony on planet Janus VI to help the miners and engineers deal with an unknown creature that has killed personnel and destroyed equipment. In the first post-opening credit scene Captain KirkSpock, and Dr. McCoy meet with the mine supervisor, Chief Engineer Vanderberg in his office to receive a briefing on the situation. They are told that around three months earlier, the miners had opened a new level in the mine which exposed four different minerals ready for extraction. Since the level had been opened, however, they’d been experiencing widespread destruction of machinery and workers being killed, effectively halting all production.

The conference room includes a large line chart on the far wall that underscores this point in a simple and dramatic way. Although never directly referred to by the actors, the chart is placed in the centre of the wall and is included in most wide and medium shots in the scene. Its inclusion in the scene reinforces the centrality of data in this future and its use in the day-to-day running of an operation. This is clearly a situation that is being closely monitored and this episode’s plot is firmly focused on rectifying the situation depicted on the chart. 

There is no clear legend included but it appears to be a standard line graph plotting production levels of four different minerals (y-axis) over time (x-axis) using solid lines of different colours. The x-axis is separated into 12 equal parts representing the months of the year. 

Scene from “The Devil in the Dark,” originally aired March 9, 1967. Author’s screenshot taken on August 29, 2022.

These solid lines all decrease dramatically from 22 units on the y-axis early in the year to four units around October having begun their descent three months earlier. Also present on the chart are four dotted lines that appear to be projections or goals that stretch to a future point where they all converge on the far right of the chart. Whether you’re examining the chart closely or not, it’s clear something has happened to cause a marked decrease in mining operations.

Visualizing the 23rd century

The art direction in Star Trek was key to imagining a future in which humans incorporated technology into their lives. It is clear that the show also imagined a future in which data was omnipresent and that technology would facilitate our interactions with, and interpretation of, that data. 

In two episodes, this is done by way of data visualizations presented front and centre as tools used to provide key information the characters can act on. The visualizations are large, colourful, and easy to interpret without the need for close examination. 

Given that Star Trek has been shaping popular culture and inspiring scientific achievement since it first aired, it tickles me to think that its inclusion in a TV show in 1967 corresponds with a time period Friendly and Wainer call the “rebirth of data visualization;” an era typically marked by Bertin’s Semiologie graphique published the same year but well before any of Cleveland and McGill’s work on quantitative information coding. This is not to say that the rebirth was directly influenced by Star Trek… but I’m glad it only took 50 years to catch up to (and even surpass) where Star Trek always imagined we would be!

Lisa Valade-DeMelo is currently a VP at a market research firm making her clients smarter using the power of dataviz! She has been known to lose days to a decent-sized pile of Lego.