Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Robbiani dermal-optic test

Time for another Star Trek "tech" analysis, following on from the earlier Corbomite post. This one is from the last episode of the Original Series, Turnabout Intruder.  Once senior staff realized something was really off with Kirk -- and about time too; he's been off for two or three acts already -- McCoy decides he needs to run the "Robbiani dermal-optic test" on him to compare against his recorded results when he entered Starfleet.  Naturally there are no false positives or false negatives on any Star Trek medical test (and no cast, crew, or character named Marge Innovera either :-)).  I wonder what writer came up this this amazingly bogus but authentic-sounding name for a miracle test, maybe Roddenberry himself?

Of course, its function in the story is to provide the hard justification required for the characters to actually believe the otherwise-incredible personality-swap/body-swap that the audience has been clued into from the beginning.  So what does it mean?

Unlike "corbomite", this term is of course built from actual medical/scientific-terminology roots -- dermal means "of the skin", and "optic" means "of the sight".  But there the reality ends and the fantasy/bogosity begins.  First of all, there is an actual term "dermal-optic" but it refers to a mythical ability (appropriately enough) to get visual data through one's skin alone, with the bogus ability usually claimed to be via the fingertips.  But that is not at all the meaning Star Trek has for the term.  Instead it refers to a test that supposedly combines both skin responses and eye (pupil) responses to various wavelengths of light to identify a unique person (or soul?).  So second of all, it should have been called dermal-ocular or dermal-pupilar instead.  But oh well, they had to get one of these episodes out each week, and the series was on the verge of cancellation, so who has the time or the will to be really accurate anyway.

And to really turn up the snark, the way Shatner was overacting the part, they should have just called it the hysterometer test and been done with it.  (McCoy, to "Lester":  yep, he's cooked Jim.)

Anyway, so we get to Robbiani.  Just a common Italian surname, as far as I can tell.  No idea where it might have been picked up by the writer(s).

Followup:  After writing the above, I went back to review the episode (via transcript), and I see that I am quite wrong about a number of points.  First of all, the test did not detect any significant difference in Kirk's "emotional and mental" state.  Its literary function was instead to raise the dramatic tension even higher, not to balance an unbelievable phenomenon against an irrefutable test.  Instead, the actual route of proof in the episode went via a Vulcan mind meld (with "Lester") through the standard courtroom trope of self-incrimination, assisted by the convenient weakening of the mind swap itself.  Makes my cynical self wonder whether Shatner insisted on the final version in order to have even more opportunity to go completely over the top in the courtroom acting.

Second, a minor point:  Kirk's previous test for comparison was when he assumed command of the Enterprise, not when he entered Starfleet.

Finally, there is nothing in the episode that mentions the eye or the pupil, other than McCoy telling "Kirk" to open his eyes during the test.  "Pupil" was (possibly erroneously) extrapolated by someone at  So for all we know, the "test" could be directly monitoring the optic nerve or something, which would justify the name, counter to my above criticism.

For literary honesty and for entertainment value, I haven't edited my original text above.  :-)

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