Monday, September 9, 2013


Today's special guest blogger is Brett Leggett, a life-long Star Trek fan and avid collector of screen-used Star Trek props and costumes. Brett's article features a very cool piece that spanned two decades of use in various Star Trek productions.

The intrepid Dr. McCoy operates with help from his trusty Biobed Monitor
From cell phones to virtual reality, we've heard a lot about the Star Trek universe’s influence on real technology. Though taken for granted, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy’s Biobed Monitor was the precursor to modern advances in non-invasive patient monitoring and diagnosis. While the hand-held tricorder has always been the more popular medical device, Biobed Monitors have actually appeared on-screen more frequently over the years, serving an important technological and dramatic role in every incarnation of the franchise. Although I'm a doctor, not a writer, I think Bones would allow me this homage to the prop known as the Biobed Monitor given his reliance on it during times of crisis on board the Enterprise. And I guess it’s fitting that, as a doctor, I’m the lucky owner of one of the few (only?) surviving specimens of the Biobed Monitor in existence. I was very fortunate to obtain my Monitor from the collection of Star Trek artist and designer Doug Drexler several years ago. (This was the same piece presented on the "Collecting Star Trek's Movie Relics" special feature that appears on the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Blu-Ray release).

The Monitor with its various readings helped tell the story.
Unlike technology available in 1966, the biobed monitor gave Dr. McCoy the diagnostic answers he needed quickly and clearly, without the need for invasive procedures, or instruments of any kind. That same speed and visual clarity also became an integral part of Trek's dramatic storytelling. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, we watch Gary Mitchell in sickbay evolving into a power-obsessed super being who shows Dr. Dehner that he can stop his heart and simulate death. Does Dr. Dehner use her stethoscope to confirm her observations? Does she check his pulse? Nope. She watches in amazement as the life functions on Gary's Biobed Monitor plummet to zero. Without a word of dialogue, we realize along with Dr. Dehner just how powerful Gary Mitchell is becoming. Whether heightening the drama of Spock's life-saving transfusion to his father, or suggesting there's more to Mudd's Women than meets the eye, the monitors frequently helped to advance the plot in fast, simple, understated ways. My high school English teacher always used to say that when writing a story, it was more effective to "show" rather than to "tell." The Biobed Monitors did just that.

Even the Mirror Universe had Monitors!
Biobed Monitors have a colorful history beginning with The Original Series (TOS). The Enterprise sickbay set included 4 Biobeds each with a large wall-mounted Monitor. Each one had displays with six large vital sign readout bars for temperature, brain function, "lungs" "cell rate," and two for information related to blood counts. A small triangle next to each bar served as an arrow, bouncing up and down from moment to moment, in sync with the patient’s clinical status. Two centrally-placed circular lights flashed to indicate pulse and respiratory rate while a clear diagnostic "probe" sat below the monitor itself, projecting just a few inches from the wall and conveying the idea that the Monitor never physically touched the patient while making its diagnosis. While it's very unlikely that any of these monitors survived after the original set was struck in 1969 (although I'd love to be wrong), their significance in the Trek universe was secure. When the Enterprise returned after a ten year hiatus in 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture (TMP), Bones' sickbay was revamped with a full bank of sleek new bed-mounted monitors. Viewers could now take for granted that no starship sickbay would ever again be portrayed without these diagnostic marvels at the head of each bed. In fact, from 1978 to 1994, the specific monitors created for TMP would earn their own place in Trek history, racking up more light-years across Trek productions than almost any other prop or set piece.

The first of the "updated" Monitors in TMP.
The Monitors get a power surge in TWOK.
The Monitors are bequeathed to The Next Generation with TWOK graphics.
A couple of Monitors get a facelift for 1991's Star Trek VI.
 In TMP, we first see these new biobed monitors as Spock recovers from his mind meld with V'ger. While his Monitor is not actually active, we can see other lit versions in the background. With 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (TWOK) we see all the monitors illuminated in their full glory after Khan's initial attack on the Enterprise. Although featured only for a few moments, the row of green and red monitors helped convey the sobering reality of the casualties the ship had just suffered. The Monitors then sat unused until 1987 when they were resurrected for use in Dr. Crusher’s Sickbay on the all-new Enterprise-D of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Two Monitors would then be modified for use in 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, using all new graphics that matched the look of that film.

When I received the Monitor, I was a bit surprised at its bulk and weight (30+ pounds). The fiberglass housing contained an array of light sockets, wires, and wood and metal pieces. Two curved brackets on each side of the housing were held in place by large silver threaded knobs, allowing for adjustment of the display angle. The lower portion of each bracket was flat, allowing the monitor to be bolted onto the biobed itself. A black plexi-covered graphic with large static readout bars paralleled those of the original series, but with two less bars than their TOS counterparts: one on the left labeled "BRAIN" with three on the right labeled, "CIRC," "RESP," and "TEMP."  Also unlike the TOS monitors, the triangle-shaped arrows pointing to the readout bars were also static.  Although just to the right of the "BRAIN" readout were several small square and circular areas where red, green, or yellow film had been attached to the plexi. These areas were illuminated from behind by small flasher bulbs, adding to the illusion that the Monitor was "working."

My Biobed Monitor – ready to be installed in Sickbay.
When a Monitor was plugged in, the large vital sign bars would light up with the aid of utility-sized fluorescent bulbs. A toggle switch in the back of the housing gave the option of turning the accompanying flashers on and off depending on how "active" one wanted the lighted display to appear. Portions of the main readout bars were some combination of green and red, the greater amount of red originally intended to reflect the increased severity of the patient's condition (as was the case with many of Khan’s victims). However, when used in a greater variety of clinical situations on TNG, the limitations of these static displays became more apparent. Portions of status bars occasionally appeared red even when Dr. Crusher's patients looked completely well or not even present!
Dr. Crusher using a Monitor in "Dark Page" – a perfect match for mine!
Even when out of focus, the vivid red WOK style shows through on TNG.
I had made certain assumptions about the surviving graphic panels, believing these must have been replaced since their use on TWOK. However, on-screen evidence convinced me this was not the case, at least with most of them. The Monitors’ style of graphics were clearly "Pre-TNG" – they lacked the visual continuity of the LCARS style established by Michael Okuda for TNG. However, while not technically in the LCARS style, their appearance was similar enough that they could be easily integrated into the look of Dr. Crusher’s sickbay. Reusing the monitors was visually workable, efficient, and cost effective. It's also safe to assume that the monitors remained in excellent condition given their light use in TWOK five years earlier. Aside from unscrewing a plexi for the occasional light bulb change or some paint touch-ups, it's likely the monitors would have done just fine without any significant modifications during TNG's entire seven-year run. 

Voyager Monitors were close cousins but not a match.
I also thought that the biobed monitors had been reused again when construction of Voyager's sickbay began in 1994. After all, the general shape of the Voyager monitors were the same, and Trek productions had become very adept at reuse and repurposing by the mid-1990s. However, Doug Drexler dispelled this theory when he told me that Voyager Production Designer Richard James wanted a brand new set of monitors built for Voyager's sickbay. In fact, Doug told me a great story about how he obtained my monitor. In 1994, filming wrapped on TNG's first big screen outing, Generations. As had been done with the refit Enterprise eight years earlier, portions of the Enterprise-D sets would be dismantled or modified in preparation for the new series, Voyager. Whatever props and set pieces were not incorporated into Voyager's design were stored in Paramount's warehouses, or simply thrown away (much of it had been destroyed or damaged during the filming of Generations).  Sadly enough, the latter would be the monitors’ fate. Doug spotted the monitor I eventually obtained from him in a dumpster outside the art department on the Paramount lot; he went dumpster diving and rescued it. Unfortunately, he suspects that most (if not all) of the remaining monitors were destroyed.  

My style of Monitor – mostly green – only shows up in a few episodes.
One of the advantages of having static displays is that the different colors make screen-matching possible. My screen is unusual in that it does not use the WOK style that most Monitors display. Mine is mostly green with a distinctive red button. I was recently watching TNG Season 1 on Blu-Ray, and during the episode “Home Soil,” spotted a monitor hanging from the ceiling of the Enterprise-D science lab. All of the readouts were colored green just like mine (all green or “all healthy” appears to have been the less common display variation). Not having looked at the back of my monitor in awhile, I reasoned that if it was the same prop, there should be some evidence that suggests it had once been mounted from the ceiling. Sure enough, there were four bolts and old paint that formed the outline of a rectangle in the center of the monitor housing. It was obvious that a piece not original to the monitor—like a bracket— had once occupied that space, presumably to mount it to the rod that hung from the science lab ceiling.

While admittedly arcane, it's these kinds of details that can help spot a favorite prop or costume, and enhance the enjoyment of episodes and movies some of us have loved for decades. Productions have come and gone, and dumpsters have been filled and emptied. Thankfully, a prop that helped our  fictional heroes survive through the years is a survivor itself. As a Trek fan, history buff, and medical professional, it’s a special treat to help preserve this bit of Trek history.


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