In the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation (or even earlier), why isn't invasive surgery performed using the transporter? In theory, one could:

  • dematerialize an individual and store the pattern in the buffer
  • perform "surgery" by altering the pattern appropriately
  • rematerialize the individual

From an in-universe point of view, why is this not the preferred method of surgical intervention? Is it the challenge of altering the pattern?

It would be most desirable to have an answer that (a) explains why this approach to surgery cannot be done or — if it can — then why it is not done very often in TNG; and (b) gives examples of when it has been done (if such examples exist).

Differentiation: The question Why aren't transporters used for medical purposes? is in a similar vein. However, that question is about restoring back to a previous (healthier) pattern. The present question is about directly altering a single copy of a pattern, without using any data from previous patterns.

  • 2
    do we ever see a case where someone purposefully alters the pattern of a person in the transporter buffer? I assumed it was just too complex for that kind of thing, or else a lot of stuff they let happen makes no sense.
    – KutuluMike
    Jun 3, 2015 at 17:10
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    Hmm, TNG Ethics had Worf die again during a new spine surgery. It seemed to me at the time they replicated and teleported it in
    – user16696
    Jun 3, 2015 at 18:21
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    You assume that the pattern can be edited, but this is not necessarily true. It could be that the pattern is stored in a way that cannot be manipulated. For instance, if you have a camera that takes photos in JPEG format, you cannot edit those photos unless you know how to decompress JPEGs (or have a program that does). Just editing the bytes of a JPEG file will garble the result. Perhaps the patterns are too large to store uncompressed (and load into computer memory to edit), or perhaps the pattern extraction process itself acts like an encryption scheme.
    – Superbest
    Jun 4, 2015 at 2:34
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    @Superbest : "You assume that the pattern can be edited...." I assume nothing. Part of the question is to ascertain what can and cannot be done, in-universe.
    – Praxis
    Jun 4, 2015 at 2:44
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    @superbest "You assume that the pattern can be edited...." I remember an episode where Data was captured and rescued by beaming him aboard. The transporter stopped the materializing process and rings an alarm, because Data has just fired a weapon. The transporter operator (Miles?) intervenes by "disabling" the weapon and resuming the materialization process. How does he disable the weapon while or before materializing if not by modifying the pattern in the buffer?
    – Hothie
    Jun 8, 2015 at 20:58

11 Answers 11


Medical procedures were explicitly done by transporter a handful of times, although none of them are really surgeries.

By the TNG era, transporters had safety features in them. One of those was the biofilter. Every time someone transports, biological contaminants are removed from their stream. Although this is not a standard surgery, where organs are removed/replaced, it is very similar, in that things within the body are removed by the transporter.

The only instance that mostly fits the steps mentioned in the question is when Dr. Pulaski was aged in "Unnatural Selection", but it's more gene therapy than surgery. Dr. Pulaski was dematerialized and stored in the transporter's buffers, had her DNA fixed, and rematerialized.

Given how Chief O'Brien, a very experienced transporter chief, is grateful that Picard takes over the controls for the event, I'd say that such an operation is rather difficult, and generally isn't considered viable.

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In the Voyager episode "Phage", Neelix has his lungs stolen from him by Viidians. Although the method used to steal his lungs was not mentioned, it can be assumed that the Vidiians teleported them out of Neelix's body, given the speed at which it was done. However, since the method was not mentioned, it's not canon.

Also on Voyager, the Doctor replaces Neelix's lungs with holographic ones. However, this required Neelix to be immobilized to prevent the holograms from misaligning, making it not a favorable solution.

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  • Down vote for the Relics stretching. I think you pulled a muscle with that.
    – user16696
    Jun 3, 2015 at 17:36
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    For the Pulaski example, I thought they simply found a hair follicle of hers and restored her older pattern?
    – Praxis
    Jun 3, 2015 at 17:48
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    See, that actually counts. Gene therapy is modern day medical procedure. Let's not forget the same was done when the tng crew were turned to preteens, and Tuvix being killed to restore the two members. Frankly any time the original pattern is used to fix someone is the closest they come to teleporter surgery.
    – user16696
    Jun 3, 2015 at 17:59
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    @Praxis They didn't just restore her older pattern. That was their original plan but Pulaski (just like McCoy) had transporter-phobia and hadn't used it on the Enterprise D before that episode. Her patterns had been wiped from her previous ship. Technically, restoring an earlier pattern would wipe her memories of events that happened to her after the pattern was recorded. Luckily though, our DNA controls our age so inserting her unmodified DNA back into her unnaturally aged body reverted her age back to normal, and probably added a few hours to her life too!
    – CJ Dennis
    Jun 4, 2015 at 6:09
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    Regarding the Viidian lung removal: It is mentioned in canon that their medical technology is more advanced than that of the federation. Performing surgery using transporter technology might be too difficult and risky for the federation, but not for them.
    – Philipp
    Jun 4, 2015 at 12:53

In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Deadlock", a baby was delivered by "fetal transport", literally beaming the fetus out of the womb to save its mother from being gored to death by the half-Ktarian baby's cranial ridges. So using the transporter as a magical device to reach inside a living body is certainly possible during the TNG era; Voyager was contemporaneous with TNG.

But Trek technology can only really be understood out-of-universe. Technological consistency and indeed consistency in general gives way to the practical realities of writing for episodic television. Episodes were and are typical written out of order and in parallel by several writers. The only way this could be done was for all the writers to have a stable technological milieu and set of characters to work with. At the same time, this was science fiction (or what passed for it in the 1960's), so the shows had to regularly introduce technological wonders. The original Star Trek series introduced so much useful technology that almost all of it had to be immediately destroyed or forgotten by the next episode.

This trend continued in the spinoff series. In The Next Generation episode "Unnatural Selection" we saw Dr. Pulaski reverted from advanced age to middle age by using the transporter to basically restore her from backup. Carried to its logical conclusion, this development would mean immortality for anyone who ever used a transporter. This would have drained considerable drama from the series if no one actually ever risked death or even permanent injury. It would also have meant all the future episodes written assuming that crewmen could die would have to be discarded. So this technological breakthrough was conveniently forgotten.

Here are some other examples:

  1. The soliton wave introduced in TNG's "New Ground": It didn't quite work out as a viable warp drive, but it would have been a dandy FTL planet busting weapon. Long interstellar wars would be a thing of the past. War is declared. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. The enemy surrenders. Forgotten.

  2. The helium-fusion catalyst deployed in TNG's "Half a Life": This didn't work out as a way to revitalize Kaelon II's sun. However, the principles behind the technology could be usefully held in reserve as the basis for a MAD-type counterstrike weapon to be brandished in the face of an implacable enemy. Forgotten, otherwise the war against the Dominion would have gone very differently. (The same goes for the star-busting missile deployed by Soren in Star Trek: Generations, and of course the Genesis torpedo from The Wrath of Khan.) Also, Picard should have been very nervous about this technology given his earlier reaction to another star-buster weapon, the tox uthat, introduced and immediately destroyed in "Captain's Holiday".

  3. Rapid experiential learning. The idea was first introduced in TOS's "Spock's Brain" with the Eymorg "teacher" technology. You stand under the crystal helm and become a genius with vastly increased knowledge, but only for a few hours. After Spock's brain was restored, the technology was forgotten. The idea was embodied again in the probe from TNG's "The Inner Light". What an educational tool! A lifetime of knowledge and experience crammed into one twenty-five minute session. And unlike the Eymorg "teacher" technology, the effects last. Alas, the probe technology self-destructed. In Deep Space Nine's "Hard Time", the idea shambled forth again, with O'Brien being made to experience and retain memories of twenty long years incarceration in only a few hours. Apparently no one thought to use this technology to implant useful memories, and so another useful technology was encountered and forgotten. In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "The Voyager Conspiracy" Seven of Nine uses her alcove to download a vast amount of ship's sensor and log information directly into her mind. But this used Borg implants, so no fast learning for unaugmented humans.

  4. Uploading into android bodies. Great Mambo Chicken, Batman! Immortality again. First broached in TOS's "I, Mudd" and "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" Alas, forgotten. Rediscovered in TNG's "Schizoid Man". Forgotten again. Uncovered again in TNG's "Inheritance", but that crafty old sod Soong didn't leave notes on how he did it. Finally, in the Deep Space Nine episode "Whispers" Miles O'Brien was replaced with a replicant so detailed that it passed a medical exam as human and had memories so detailed that it did not know that it was an impostor. The impostor was mercilessly killed by episode end and the technology was forgotten.

  5. Technology that can cloak a planet, introduced in TNG's "When the Bough Breaks", would have been quite useful in wartime. Also this episode introduced direct mind to machine interfaces. Why send a man into a hazardous environment when he can teleoperate a machine instead, using direct mental control? Forgotten.

  6. Interdimensional transport, as introduced in TNG's "The High Ground". Use of the technology shreds DNA over time, so it's not going to replace the transporter. But since it bypasses standard defensive shields, it would be a fine way to deliver a bomb into the heart of enemy ships. It would have revolutionized space warfare. Forgotten.

  7. The Fountain of Youth. First introduced in the TOS episode "Mudd's Women", Harry Mudd procured a drug that would rapidly convert women from old to young. Eventually the women figured how to do the conversion by sheer force of will. Forgotten. The idea appeared again in TNG's "Too Short A Season" as both a process and a drug applied together to reverse aging. This time the aliens were reluctant to share their secrets with outsiders, providing them only to a particular admiral out of a sense of indebtedness. And so the fountain of youth was lost again. In the TNG episode "Rascals", Picard, Keiko O'Brien, Guinan and Ro Larren were reverted by transporter to pre-adolescence with their minds and memories intact. Only Guinan seemed to have an inkling what a stupendous change this was, but the development was quickly reversed and forgotten... proving that youth isn't only wasted on the young.

So while medical procedures using the transporter make logical sense, they don't make sense if you're trying to write a dramatic series on budget and on time.

  • 5
    +1 just for the 'forgotten' technologies that, had they been remembered in-universe, would have substantially altered individual stories and indeed the entire timeline. That said, there might be a case to argue that some of them were willfully forgotten - Soren's torpedo, for example, too dangerous to exist, too tempting to use if it did, and therefore expunged from the record deliberately. Jun 4, 2015 at 8:55
  • Then again, the federation isnt a bunch of war mongers. Why would they develop wmds when they already have them? They willing abide to bans of subspace weapons, no biological weapons, etc.
    – user16696
    Jun 5, 2015 at 1:39
  • @cde You hold them in reserve until an enemy like the Borg comes along. Or something worse.
    – Kyle Jones
    Jul 9, 2015 at 1:37
  • @kyle remember they had a logic bomb to genocide the borg, but chose not to use it.
    – user16696
    Jul 9, 2015 at 4:19
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    @Angelo True, but they whipped this solution together in only a few hours. I can't believe a science team couldn't crack the whole mortality problem in a few weeks, given the basic insight of doing global edits within the transporter pattern buffer.
    – Kyle Jones
    Oct 25, 2015 at 7:23

You're basically replacing one problem with one bigger problem.

Surgery is a complex thing, but it's a 400-year-old proven technique that has been extremely enhanced by the available technology.

Such technology allows the Federation's medics (and those of other spacefaring cultures) to isolate a problem and perform precision surgery on just that particular part. The risks of killing the person because of something unrelated are extremely low (i.e. the risks of damaging a lung or the brain while doing heart surgery are very low).

Compare that with the risks of loading a pattern and messing with it. The complexity of such a thing is several orders of magnitude higher and has a lot more risk. An inappropriate manipulation risks a myriad of unpredictable complications, from brain damage, a guy without legs, or with a shattered central system.

Generally speaking, what you want in medicine is to reduce risk and to make sure you only solve and cure disease trying to avoid, whenever possible to mess with non affected areas.

The difference between using the transporter for surgery and for pathogen removal is that the latter is just simple filtering of cells or organisms within the pattern (taking them out) and doesn't work if you can't clearly isolate it from the rest, while surgery is different every time, you need to analyze the problem and then decide how to fix it....

In summary, I wouldn't want them to use the transporter to mess with my pattern if there was standard surgery available.

Edit Regarding Canon:

This is just logical deduction, as the matter stream is a "stream of sub-atomic particles" according to Memory Alpha, which makes total sense. As far as canon references, there is mention of the confinement beam allowing the transporter to isolate patterns, but there is no reference to any clear structure for EACH such pattern. Given that there's no canon reference (that I can find) indicating the contrary, the logical assumption is that the "stream of sub atomic particles" is just that, a simple stream.

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    Do you have canonical evidence for any of these claims? Jun 3, 2015 at 21:28
  • 400 years? See History of surgery Jun 4, 2015 at 13:10
  • Well I was thinking more in terms of "modern surgery"... in any case the statemente was more about the "proven old scientific technique". Jun 4, 2015 at 13:33
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    "An inappropriate manipulation risks a myriad of unpredictable complications, from brain damage, a guy without legs, or with a shattered central system." - such unforeseeable effects sound like they might appear when working directly on a data format that does not preserve locality. It's like, say, directly editing a ZIP file in a text editor. But for exactly the reasons you describe, no-one would ever do that; everyone would extract the interesting portions from the ZIP file and edit them in, say, a basic text format. Like that, there is not the slightest risk that changing a word in ... Jun 8, 2015 at 20:15
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    And beaming a tumor out of the body, medication at exaclty locations in the body and so on doesn't even mean to mess with your pattern. This will be nearer to normal surgery, than dematerializing and modifiing your pattern.
    – Hothie
    Jun 8, 2015 at 21:12

In the DS9 episode, The Passenger, Dr Bashir is "possessed" by the villain of the week encoding his synaptic pattern on the good doctor's glial cells. To solve the problem, Dax locks on to the specific cells and beams them into a container.


The other answers give plenty of examples of when it was attempted and failed, so instead what I'll do is try to explain why that is such a common occurrence through a present day analogy.

Consider copying files in your computer. It's such a trivial thing even a generic piece of software like Windows Explorer can do it, without caring what's inside them. It can copy movies, Excel spreadsheets, text files, anything. If someone invents a new file type tomorrow (and they probably will), Explorer can still copy it fine. This is transporter technology in a nutshell.

However consider trying to add a tree in a video file while copying it. Even with specialized software like Blender or After Effects, that's hours or days of work for professionals, more for someone like me who's never done it. Then consider doing it with a normal copy function, where all you see are raw bytes. Unless you're Neo, you're out of luck.

So while theoretically possible, I'll posit that it's way too difficult to change an entire person's data stream for surgical reasons and still have the person be, you know, at least alive at the end.


In Voyager, the Vidiians used advanced scanners and transporter technology to steal organs from other species.

But their whole culture was based around trying to cure a disease (the "Phage") that infected the whole population. Surviving this plague was the basic purpose and drive of their society and thus had driven their technology to an extreme but particular direction.

The Vidiians survived in the short term by making extensive use of transplantation and organ piracy, using transporter technology to literally steal healthy organs from the bodies of their owners. Increasingly desperate, the Vidiians resorted to kidnapping members of other species and experimenting on them.


Likely because the transporters are not flawless.

For example, if you beam up in certain weather conditions and you end up in the wrong universe. That's kind of a major flaw that should not show up in medical equipment.

Furthermore, in the episode that introduced Cassidy Yates, it was shown that certain biomaterials weren't transporter safe, thanks to their internal activity "at least in older models".

When Odo came down with a disease when he was judged by his people, he wasn't deemed transporter safe.

Then there was the issue where a transporter was used to save Naomi, only to cause her to die.

Not to mention every time the transporters failed in some way.

I think my personal favorite has to be their biological safety record. If you look at the silly voyager episode with the macroviruses, we saw that the biofilters could malfunction.

The biggest issue is that transporter tech isn't perfect, and engineers and transporter technicians are still ironing out issues as of the Next Gen era.

  • Because the transporters are not flawless?? Nothing about this answer explains why it's okay to use transporters to beam around at will, but not use them for medical procedures. Cases of medical need would justify using riskier technologies, vs I want to beam down for shore leave and I'm too impatient to take a shuttle. Jun 4, 2015 at 22:37
  • The regular transporting is a relatively simple process. The transporters are unreliable in complex situations. For example, they can't beam certain semi-liquid substances. They work for simple jobs, but for complex tasks such as "beam out this tumor, but leave the surrounding stuff", they're simply not reliable enough for medical use, but are reliable enough for simple jobs. Jun 5, 2015 at 1:53

It really depends on what exactly the pattern is. If it were a file on a computer it could be manipulated in any way a competent technician saw fit. However we often hear about pattern degradation. A computer file does not degrade, which suggests the pattern, and pattern buffer are rather more exotic.

My assumption (and this is not canon) is that the pattern exists in subspace, and that the buffer is a region of subspace curtained off to hold the pattern.

The pattern is then not as easy to manipulate as simply shifting bits around on a disk.


In addition to everything else said here, we also have the instance in VOY 'Tuvix' where

Tuvix was split into Tuvok and Neelix

using a transporter. Not just any transporter, but specifically the medical transporter. Memory Alpha describes that its main use was to transport people directly to sickbay, but the page also notes several procedures conducted using it, including the aforementioned 'surgery' in 'Tuvix' and the procedure @Nate Wilson is referring to in VOY 'Deadlock' where Naomi is transported Ensign Wildman's body to save their lives.

  • @Praxis no worries; just thought I'd add my 2c Apr 15, 2016 at 1:31

What problem would it solve? They already have really advanced medical technology. It would likely just add the complication of making surgeons learn how to decode a transporter buffer in order to perform surgery.

Yes, O'Brien was able to disable Data's weapon in transit, but I would say a build-up of phaser energy is a lot easier to spot in a transporter buffer and remove than the intricacies of delicate surgery - surgery so complex it apparently can't be performed on the physical person.

It's quite easy to imagine that all the medical technology, tools, diagnosis computers and techniques would be easier to use on a physical body than in the transporter buffer.

The same reason graphic designers use the likes of Photoshop rather than hex editors.

And I'll grant you there might be the rare occasion where it would be useful - this is just so rare that no one has gone through the huge amount of work to make it practical.


Out of universe answer:

Because show viewers would then be more likely to perceive the transporter as a device which kills you and materializes a new, different person.

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