Examining The Twilight Zone; The Cold Equations

8 Jun

I rewatched this recently, and read it again.

Tom Godwin presents us with a simple dilemma, an unexpected stowaway aboard a deep space freighter who only have one rule for such things. Death by spacing.

Our pilot is presented as a man with a heart, who does everything he can think of to help the stowaway, a girl who was only trying to visit her brother.

So what’s the problem?

The ship can’t slow down fast enough with the excess mass. Meaning he can’t deliver his cargo of vitally important and urgently needed vaccines.

How does he try to overcome this?

By stripping as much weight as he can from the ship to off-set her extra mass. He is not successful and is forced to eject her into space to allow him to reach his destination safely.

What mistakes does this episode make?

1) When her excess mass is detected. So far into the journey and so deep into space. It’s not like she magically appears from nowhere, she’s been aboard since he left where ever he set out from. Any half decent computer system would have detected the extra mass prior to take off. This is one method of debunking the story.

2) She’s not just extra mass. She’s also a strain on a system designed for only 1 pilot. So she’s screwed him for oxygen too. She hasn’t just killed herself with her thoughtlessness, she killed him too.

3) Ejecting the extra mass into space should apply the laws of physics. For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. So every time he blasts air out into space, it should push the ship forwards a little faster making it even harder to slow down.

No mention is ever made of this or my other two points. Probably because Tom Godwin wasn’t all that smart. This is classed as a hard science story. But it’s really not. Godwin spent little to no time thinking his science through.

If he had, he’d have seen the problems I raised here. I spotted these flaws just watching the show which was only ten minutes long. I’m not a genius, nor am I a scientist.

I am a good observer and a good critical thinker.

Ways to fix The Cold Equations?

1) Rewrite it completely, have the stowaway detected before leaving for space. This ruins the entire story but it at least renders it into hard SF.

2) Have her detected close enough to be removed from the ship. You can still maintain an element of peril and have our young stowaway survive despite her stupidity.

3) Make it possible for the pilot to strip enough mass to offset her being aboard. Again, she still lives despite her stupidity.

4) Make it possible for the pilot to strip enough mass but he realises at the last minute on approach to his destination they won’t have enough oxygen to survive the landing. They both die and the cargo is also destroyed. An even colder equation than even Godwin thought possible.

I’m quite annoyed that this wasn’t thought out more when it made the leap from short story to television. It’s been extremely easy to not only tear holes in the bad science of an alledged “hard SF” story but equally easy to suggest improvements.

I think I’d go with my last suggestion and title it “The Coldest Equation.”

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