The transporter is a device which allows for the movement of people or objects from one location to another via teleportation. It has seen usage in every generation of Star Trek, though not without some changes.
There are several seemingly-conflicted accounts of how exactly the transporter functions. The basic theory as to the function of a transporter is something like this:
- Determine the target object's location using sensors, manually specified coordinates, or a signal from a communicator or transporter armband. A "transporter lock" must be obtained to proceed.
- Generate a "pattern" of the target's structure with "quantum-level resolution". This is not a scanning process, as targets have been transported with little or no sensor data on them; the pattern is somehow generated at the target's location.
- Disassemble the object into its constituent particles.
- Transmit the pattern and particles (or at least the pattern) to a destination.
- Using the pattern generated earlier, re-construct the object from the constituent particles (or locally available matter) "at the quantum level".
- The re-formed object is functionally identical to the original.
Note that on several occasions a transport has proceeded without a complete scan of the target, just an accurate knowledge of its location. Sensor detection is useful for determining the target's location, but not necessary for obtaining a lock, generating a pattern, or proceeding with transport.
However, in TNG "Ship in a Bottle", when trying to beam a holographic object off of the grid, Geordi and Data indicated that the pattern signal was not strong enough, and for this reason they tried to employ pattern enhancers to aid with the beaming process. Exactly how pattern enhancers affect the transport process remains unexplained.
An important implication of the nature of transporters is that the original object/person is destroyed in the process, with the "transported" subject at the destination being an exact copy of the original. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that transporter accidents have created extra replicas of their affected "targets"-- such as James T. Kirk and William Riker. Consequently, a whole host of ethical questions can be raised as to whether or not the transporter in effect murders its subjects.
In Star Trek: Enterprise, Captain Jonathan Archer expressed his dislike of the transport system. Although it did exist and function at that time, it was not considered safe, quite like the first boiler-cars. Archer said that he wouldn't trust it with his life or the lives of his men. This was perhaps a justified position, as more than one attempted transport produced horrific results, such as blending a man and his surroundings.
In the next chronological generation, Star Trek: The Original Series, the prevailing attitude had changed significantly. Although there were still cynics -- among them the prominent Dr. McCoy, who insisted that it was a "Crazy way to travel, spreading a man's molecules all over the universe" -- the transporter was used widely, and we never heard mention of the ethical dilemmas involved in its use.
By the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, transporters -- like warp drive -- were considered to be a "proven technology". Commander William Riker even described it as "the safest way to travel." It is notable that this same person was personally involved in the afore-mentioned transporter accident, which clearly showed that the transporter had in fact destroyed and copied him.
Numerous natural and artificial phenomena interfere with transporter function. Electromagnetic radiation, electromagnetic force fields, severe weather, dense metals, defensive shields, "inhibitor" fields, exotic radiation, natural minerals, tractor beams, and various other conditions have all impaired or prevented transporter use, sometimes merely by their presence in the general vicinity. It is usually easier to transport into an area with interference than it is to transport back out, meaning it is surprisingly easy for an away team to become trapped in a hazardous situation.
The pattern generation stage of the transport process is not particulary discriminatory. On multiple occasions, a person has managed to "stow away" on a transport by "hugging" the target of the transport.
In the TOS-era, transporters were much safer to use for ship-to-planet or planet-to-ship transports than ship-to-ship transports or transports to another location within the same ship. Why it would be easier to transport someone from orbit to a location on the ground than from the ship's transporter pad to a compartment in the same ship was never clearly explained.
By the TNG-era, transporter targeting had progressed to the point that transporting from one location to another on a starship was no longer considered hazardous, and transporters were routinely used to transport people and objects from one location to another without materializing the subject on a transporter pad in between. Nonetheless, under particularly hazardous conditions (such as in the presence of heavy interference), the safest course is to transport subjects directly from one transporter pad to another transporter pad at the destination (indicating that transporter systems can interact with each other to boost performance). Portable devices called pattern enhancers can also be used to improve transporter function.
The transport process is mildly stressful on living subjects, making it unsafe to transport injured personnel who are not in a stable condition. Similarly, it apparently affects the energy state of matter enough to trigger chain reactions in unstable materials.
Transporters include a "biofilter" intended to remove potentially dangerous parasites and microbes from individuals undergoing transport, but this feature is highly unreliable. It appears to remove only known pathogens, so it regularly fails to remove organisms that have not been previously identified as hazards. Even after a pathogen has been identified, they don't just send patients through the transport process again to remove infections, so the biofilter can't be very reliable.
Transporters can be used to capture unwary opponents, and Federation transporter systems are capable of deactivating weapons carried by individuals undergoing transport, even if those weapons are actively discharging. Subjects undergoing transport can also be "held" in the "transporter buffer" for a period of time before re-materializing them, allowing security personnel to prepare for their appearance; the time limit for keeping subjects "on hold" in the transporter buffer is not known specifically, although it is generally no more than a few minutes.
Defensive shields block transporter function, but once an enemy's shields have been dropped with weapon fire, boarding parties routinely transport themselves onto enemy starships, indicating that transporting alert, unwilling opponents away from their ship would be so much more difficult as to not be worth attempting. This tactical behavior may indicate that transport inhibitor technology is built into starships: routine use of transporters to rescue personnel from damaged starships indicates that an inhibitor effect is not inherent to a ship's structure. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise activated "defense fields" when it went to yellow alert, but these were separate from the main shields: these "defense fields" may be transport inhibitor fields.
A ship using a cloaking device can still use transporters without great risk of revealing its location. This would presumably make it easy to ambush an unwary enemy by beaming boarders or weapons onto the target before the target is aware of a threat, but there is no example of such an attack being attempted.
Transporters are occasionally employed in novel ways that are never repeated, giving the transporter a variety of "technology of the week" uses.
- Medical Applications
- The Enterprise crew once used a sample of Dr. Pulaski's DNA recovered from a hairbrush as a template with which to counteract changes induced by a disease of the week using the ship's transporter.
- When a transporter malfunction during beam-up transforms several crew members into children (albeit with adult minds), the transporter is able to use patterns from previous transports to restore them to their adult forms. This incident suggests the possibility of using the transporter to restore elderly individuals to a youthful state, but there is no indication that the Federation has tried to reproduce the event.
In spite of all the things that can stop transporters, trekkies often argue that they represent a huge advantage in battles, using the idiotic idea that an opponent that doesn't have transporter technology can't stop them. This idiotic thinking leads to claims that Starfleet could easily defeat opposition from other settings such as Babylon 5 and Star Wars, even though relatively primitive civilizations without transporter technology have blocked transporters in Star Trek itself.
In the Star Trek reboot, the transporters are shown to have a range of light-years using a futuristic targeting formula invented by future Scotty and implemented by future Spock. The capability is still around in Star Trek Into Darkness, but it appears to be a closely guarded secret of Section 31. The capability would allow the transporter to deploy troops or strategic weapons (part of the plot of "Into Darkness") from light-years away from a target.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, TNG "The Hunted", VOY "Scorpion"
- TOS "The Enemy Within"
- TNG "Second Chances"
- TNG "Symbiosis"
- TNG "Legacy"
- TNG "The Enemy"
- TNG "Hero Worship"
- TOS "Arena"
- Star Trek: Insurrection
- TNG "Ensigns of Command"
- Star Trek: Insurrection
- TNG "The Chase", "Attached"
- TOS "The Enterprise Incident", Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
- TNG "Symbiosis"
- TNG "Who Watches the Watchers", "Transfigurations"
- TNG "The Most Toys"
- TNG "Angel One", "Brothers", "Shades of Gray"
- TNG "A Matter of Honor", "Rascals"
- TNG "The Most Toys"
- TOS "Day of the Dove", TNG "The Hunted"
- TNG "Unification"
- TNG "Unnatural Selection"
- TNG "Rascals"
- TNG "Second Chances"