In TMP, Kirk beams up from Command to an orbital base because the Enterprise's Transporters are broken. Minutes later, they decide to go ahead and beam up the science officer directly, and the transporter breaks again.

From my understanding of the Transporters, a pad to pad transport is still one-sided. If the Enterprise-D beams Spot to the USS Crazy Horse, it's the Enterprise-D's transporter that handles the transport; the Crazy Horse's transporter pads are just running like a beacon to more efficiently and safely land the kitty safely.

It's why the Klingons in Star Trek 6 have to command THEIR ship to beam them over; again, only one end of the transport is operating; in this case, the pads on the Enterprise are just an origin beacon, with the transporters of Kronos One handling transport.

Unlike, say, the transport failure of Half-Life Two, where you get a real sense that both ends have to coordinate to successfully transport, in most cases on Star Trek you really get the feeling that one side is in control, and the other side is just a target.

...except when we needed to murder the imposter Spock so we could pick up the real one on the way to V'Ger.

During the transport failure, both sides are snapping at each other to resolve the transport; we get the strong feeling that one side handled the disintegration, while the other end handles pattern processing and re-integration.

This leads to an A/B set of questions:

A) If both sides need to handshake to handle transport, why did they test it on the Science Officer?

We've seen multiple times Transporter Test Objects in TNG, and always hear about diagnostics and the like... so why is the first thing beamed with the Enterprise transporter the science officer? Shouldn't we have had a line with the assistant chiefs saying "But we round tripped those testing targets for five minutes straight! What changed?" or something to give the sense that it was human rated and they don't know why it's suddenly failed again.

B) If only one side has to handle the transport, as it's implied by almost every other transport shown in Star Trek, why did HQ beam Kirk to the station (when they could have landed him on the pad one-sided to the Enterprise), and why did Enterprise handle the beam-up of the science officer?

HQ and the Space Dock should have been handling all transports... Kirk should have been able to beam to the pad, and the Dock should have been able to land the new science officer the same way. If it was safe to beam from the other end, why would they decide to start using the Enterprise end for control?

Basically, I feel like I must be missing something big. Either I misread the Technical Manual about pad to pad transports, or I'm overlooking some episodes making it more nebulous, or that they DO explain the issue in the movie, but I was so hypnotized by the previous 6 hours of special effects and can't remember it...

  • In TNG "Realm of Fear", dialog explicitly states that the two systems "interlock" (some form of co-operation). The Enterprise's transporters must have played a fairly active role in the Sonak incident, otherwise their fitness for use wouldn't have been an issue and Sonak would have arrived safely. Of course (out of universe), the whole incident only occurred to make room for Spock.
    – Anthony X
    Mar 29, 2017 at 1:45
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    @AnthonyX, specifially the suggestion is made to "bridge" the two transporters, Enterprise and Yosemite, to help cut through the interference. The implication here is that this is not a standard mode of transport, but instead some techtech whistled up when necessary. Specifically, Geordi says that "We can beam them over there," but can't guarantee a lock bringing them back; that's where the bridge comes in, allowing one side to provide the lock for the other side.
    – Zoey Green
    Mar 29, 2017 at 6:06
  • A transporter is no different than a radio - you have a transceiver on one end and a receiver on the other. Either side could drop or distort the signal. Or, as Bones would say... "Who cares WHY it malfunctioned?!?"
    – Omegacron
    Oct 18, 2017 at 17:10
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    I think the Enterprise thought the problem fixed - but then a part exploded mid-transport. I always assumed pad to pad made the locating easier. consider how often landing party goes to a specific spot for beam up. The TMP scene for anyone interested youtube.com/watch?v=Ro_QpDJX-Sk and the technical jargon from Data's Day when investigating that hoax transporter accident may be of interest. Though it doesn't seem to be explicitly a pad to pad example - though one would assume that's a standard place to arrive on a ship to ship transport. chakoteya.net/NextGen/185.htm Sep 30, 2022 at 2:27
  • How did the transporter malfunction in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture"? Horrifically, thank you for asking. Sep 30, 2022 at 16:05

1 Answer 1


Transporters work by breaking down the subject into a matter stream, sending the matter stream from an emitter, and reassembling it on the other end. The TNG Technical Manual steps through an example ship-to-surface beam-down procedure. It also notes that beaming site-to-site (i.e. not starting or ending in the transporter room) consumes twice as much energy as a standard transport, because it's two transports without the reassembly in the middle. It is, however, silent on the matter of pad-to-pad beaming. However, since it's usually done when it's an option, it means that the systems probably interface to share the workload.

Depending on how canon you view the novels, this quote from Star Trek: Worlds in Collision by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens shows that it's for energy saving reasons.

"I know, I know," McCoy complained. "Pad-to-pad transfers use only ten percent of the energy a single-pad beam requires."

In the scene where Kirk goes to see Decker in Engineering, Decker and the engineers are working on the transporter systems.

Decker: I knew it. The transporter sensor was not activated.

[Other background chatter]

Decker: Faulty module.

Scotty: Cleary, put a new backup sensor into the unit.

There's been plenty of time for troubleshooting at this point, since Kirk and Scotty took a fairly leisurely shuttle ride on over, and Kirk's been wandering around the ship a bit before he goes to Engineering.

Because the Enterprise's transporters are on, even though they're malfunctioning, a pad-to-pad transport from Starfleet to the Enterprise is initiated. So the answer to the first part of your question is that they weren't testing the transporters on the new crew; the transporter was not properly disabled at the time. The circuits blew just before the transport of the new crew began, with disastrous results.

I've never been especially happy with the transporter malfunction part of TMP because it raises exactly these questions and more. Starfleet knew that the Enterprise was having transporter trouble. If the Enterprise crew thought the transporter was fixed and put it back into service before discovering that it wasn't, then the safeguards in place are extremely shoddy for something that's supposed to be incredibly safe. If it wasn't fixed but still in service for some reason anyway, then both the automatic safeguards and the engineering procedures are horrendously flawed.

The answer to the second part of your question is probably cynically that they could initiate a pad-to-site transport for Kirk, but Starfleet didn't think about it because the writers wanted to spend fifteen minutes showing the audience how awesome the refitted Enterprise looked.

Storywise, the purpose of the accident was to underscore how unprepared the ship was to tackle V'ger, and also to dispose of Sonak in preparation for Spock's arrival — Leonard Nimoy wasn't originally going to be in the movie, hence Sonak. Still, it's a gruesome and cruel way of handling a pair of characters, particularly since V'ger is scary enough by itself, and everything else going on on the Enterprise already shows how unprepared they are. That Dr. McCoy's fear of the transporter is played for laughs just a few minutes later makes the ship's crew, and the movie, seem needlessly callous.

  • Holding on until the Technical Manual is confirmed, then I'll accept.
    – Zoey Green
    Mar 28, 2017 at 23:22
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    @ZoeyBoles It turns out it wasn't mentioned in the technical manual. I did find a quote from a novel, but I'm not 100% happy about that. I think we see examples of Cardassian beam out to Federation beam in and vice versa in DS9 (e.g. ops to a runabout), which would definitively illustrate that they typically share the work, but I don't have the time to re-watch at present.
    – Dranon
    Mar 29, 2017 at 1:33
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    I, personally, consider Judith and Gar as more-canon-than-canon. Their stuff is usually pretty well sourced, or at least consistent with the universe. In the novels, though, we do seem to flop back and forth between energy usage and "just a beacon." I remember one story where the heroes had to go through solid rock into small air chambers, and did it by beaming portable pads to use as beacons. Is that the same story quoted above, @Dranon?
    – Zoey Green
    Mar 29, 2017 at 6:01
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    @ZoeyBoles I don't know if that's the same story; I found the quote using Google Books. I'll still keep an eye out when I'm rewatching episodes for more information. At least in TMP, the dialog, acting, and fizzling electronics strongly support the "systems interface with each other" model over the "acts as a beacon" model.
    – Dranon
    Mar 29, 2017 at 13:40
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    i.e. it made Starfleet look inept. Side A didn't know what Side B was doing, someone mis-communicated and said "yeah I think we're fine. Let's try it". Someone made an assumption which cost someone else their life in a gruesome way. Feb 14, 2019 at 18:25

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