Suspension of disbelief is a vital element for science fiction, whether it’s in books, on television, or in film. The very nature of the genre is that it involves at least a few elements that are implausible — whether it’s theoretically impossible or merely implausible for the present level of technology. Sci-fi fans are in the habit of letting certain things go for the sake of the story, while criticizing other elements that are so unlikely they break the illusion of the world that’s being depicted. They’ll believe a man can fly, or that spaceships can exceed the speed of light. A noisy explosion in space will be acknowledged as scientifically flawed, but will be overlooked in the name of fun. But every so often something comes up that strains the credulity of multiple fans.
Which is why it’s all the more interesting when one of the criticized elements isn’t a mistake in physics or chemistry, but is an oddity with human nature. In one of the Star Trek films, Captain Kirk and company are forced to initiate the self-destruct sequence on the Enterprise. And one criticism I’ve seen in multiple places is just how simplistic the password is…
KIRK: Computer, destruct Sequence One, one-A.
CHEKOV: Computer, this is Commander Chekov, acting Science Officer. Destruct sequence two, code one, one-A, two-B.
SCOTTY: Computer, this is Commander Scott, Chief Engineering Officer. Destruct sequence three, code one-B, two-B, three.
COMPUTER: Destruct sequence completed and engaged. Awaiting final code for one-minute countdown.
KIRK: Code zero, zero, zero destruct zero.
The criticisms I’ve seen have been centered around how the passwords all seem as though they were left on the default setting. (I’m reminded of Spaceballs, and the password “1-2-3-4-5”; “That’s the same password as on my luggage!”) The argument is that the passwords are so standard, and so clearly related to each other, that they could almost be guessed — and are certainly known to all other members of Starfleet. If a Starfleet captain went rogue, what’s to stop him from beaming aboard, triggering the self-destruct sequence, and beaming back out? As far as a security measure is concerned, this is barely above having a big red button that says “Do Not Press”.
The security of the passwords is certainly on the weak side. Even if the passwords aren’t told to all ranking crewmembers of Starfleet (and it seems likely they are, given that Chekov knows and would not normally be called upon for this duty), knowing one is a big hint to the others. The odds that Kirk, or especially Spock or Scotty, couldn’t figure out the others from one password are fairly slim. The modern-day equivalent would be basing every website password you use off your first name and the website. (“Hmm… password for WordPress: morganwordpress. Password for eBay: morganebay. Perfect security!”)
But the members of Starfleet, and particularly the crew of the Enterprise, are not generally shown to be idiots… or even to be all that lax about security in general. So what’s going on here?
It has to be considered that this is a voice-activated computer, a few centuries from now. Today’s technology is good enough for word recognition, but is a bit shaky on voice recognition. Even so, voice recognition was a known concept back in the 1980s when the movie was made. Although Scotty and Chekov identify themselves by name, it is likely the computer is programmed to recognize their voices — indeed, Kirk doesn’t identify himself, at least not that we see. (Edit: As corrected below, Kirk does identify himself slightly before this sequence.) It is also likely that it is programmed with the ranks of the crew who are authorized to give it commands — hence Chekov being able to give the password even though he is only “acting” Science Officer (Spock was indisposed). Voice recognition and permission settings should be all the security the system needs to prevent miscreants from triggering the self-destruct sequence without authorization.
So if the system is secure without the passwords, what use do the passwords serve? And why the formality with identifying themselves?
That formality might be the key, especially if we presume Kirk gave his identification off screen. It’s a structured introduction, with a simple easily-parsed format: “Computer, this is NAME, POSITION”, followed by the password. That structure is unlikely to be accidental — when else do Chekov and Scotty follow the same speech patterns?
A deliberate structure to the sentences indicates a design decision. And while Starfleet is not made up of idiots, it is the nature of engineers — at least any worth hiring — to assume that the end user is going to do things that are hazardous if precautions aren’t taken. It’s not hard to imagine a simpler self-destruct activation sequence and what could transpire:
KIRK: Gentlemen, unless we come up with an alternate plan, we may have to give the order to self-destruct.
SCOTTY: Self-destruct?! Nay, Cap’n, surely it won’t come to that.
COMPUTER: Command authorized, confirmed, confirmed. Initiating self-destruct sequence. One minute… 59… 58…
Although Kirk, et al, are unlikely to be quite that careless, it’s still conceivable. But nobody is going to accidentally say any of the password sequences given in the film, let alone three different people all saying each sequence. Which means the passwords provide a way to indicate to the computer that this very important yet rarely-used function is actually what’s intended at the moment. And so the password zero-zero-zero destruct zero (and the others) makes perfect sense as given. It’s a phrase that won’t come up accidentally, yet is trivial to remember.
It’s not a security password, it’s a functional one. And a fairly well designed one.