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Many times I have seen in TNG that star fleet officers or ensigns (like Mr. Crusher) would pilot a shuttle of other civilizations easily or use different equipment (tricorders) to their own on the spot. How could they possibly know that? Don't they need some sort of special training? Don't these vessels have different language consoles, interfaces or even flight procedure?

One example (may not be the best) is when Mr. Crusher along with captain Picard join Captain Dirgo on the shuttle Nenebek (TNG: Final Mission)

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Do you have an example from an episode in mind? If so, can you edit it into the question? – Izkata Dec 24 '12 at 0:05
In general, I agree with Mario on this episode; it was probably an oversight (Pentarus V had not joined the Federation at the time of the episode), but if they had, there may be some common symbols used within the Federation just so that cross-culture usage was possible, if at limited capacity. That's theory, though, as I recall nothing of the sort in the series. – Izkata Dec 24 '12 at 3:08
They seemed to handle this pretty well in Enterprise simply through trial and error. – Monty129 Dec 24 '12 at 17:25
I agree - In my opinion their "low tech" approach helped the storytelling quite a lot, because there's never just a simple reconfiguration or special super beam to solve issues or some Tricorder magic. – Mario Dec 24 '12 at 17:29
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Just (bad) story telling... In some episodes of different series it's really excessive and most often there aren't any attempts to explain this at all.

This is especially visible in several episodes of Voyager, considering they usually encounter completely unknown cultures and species. While the universal translator works as an explanation for understanding most aliens, it won't work for written text or displays (after all, they don't have a TARDIS).

Sometimes things like this are explained (at least a bit) either by performed Tricorder scans or at least guesses ("this looks like [techno babble term]") - other times it just happens.

A good example where this is done very well is one of the first Voyager episodes (edit: Time and Again). The crew encounters a planet that has been destroyed just hours before and while investigating Janeway and Paris are thrown back in time by a day or two. They determine this by figuring out the clock/time system used on that planet.

A rather negative example would be multiple episodes where a crew member is kidnapped or somehow forced to use alien technology. It's not always as easy as some kind of weapons with obviously just one or two buttons. Most crew members seem to have a natural talent for modifying alien technology to not only use Starfleet methods and frequencies, but encoding, signing, etc. as well. Seen as a different perspective, this even sounds like some serious breach of the prime directives as well as the disclosure of secret(?) information.

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I believe you're remembering Time and Again, but it was Janeway and Paris, not Chakotay – Izkata Dec 24 '12 at 1:28
Yes, you're right. Not Chakotay. – Mario Dec 24 '12 at 1:34

Within the Federation, it's quite plausible that they would have training on multiple types of ships and in multiple languages. To a basic/survival level, perhaps. When I first moved to Korea, which has a very different alphabet from English, I first learned to recognize symbols and words even though I couldn't really read or understand them. Maybe in the Starfleet piloting classes, they have to learn vocabulary (or at least the symbols) for operational words in various languages.

Although the different races have different languages, something 85% of the Federation is humanoid. From a purely physiological perspective, one could surmise that controls would have similar layouts. Look at keyboards and typewriters -- yes, there have been some experimental models, but even non-QWERTY keyboards have the non-alphanumeric keys in pretty much the same places. I'd imagine controls for similar systems/functions designed for people with similar body structures would be grouped in similar arrangements.

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Add to this that Starfleet is a rather elite organisation, where every member of the crew has a working knowledge of every system on the ship (though specialists are, of course, better at their speciality) -- training their personnel to be able to figure out alien technologies would be entirely in-character. – evilsoup Nov 19 '13 at 11:25

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