The Classic Trek Communicators
By Richard A. Coyle
Next to the Classic Phaser, the Star Trek Communicator is one of Science Fictions most popular props. This is also one of Treks most accurate predictions, the hand held communication device. Back in the mid-sixties, the idea of such a technological marvel was only a dream, but nowadays we think nothing of a cell phone with caller ID, custom ringing, light up activation, and even internet text readouts. But in the make believe business of science fiction film and television, it is a real challenge to conceive and create props that are even remotely as far fetched and sci-fi-ish as the everyday gadgetry we take for granted. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to make truly futuristic looking props. Alas, the days of the old winky blinky LEDs are gone.
Star Treks classic years had some really great designs -- ones that never really look too outdated. The communicator is one of these. With its black plastic body and flip-up grid antenna, speaker grill, three indicator lights, and two knobs, it truly looks real, not unlike an actual mini walkie-talkie radio. And with the working twirling moiré running in a couple of close-ups, the communicator really looked like something out of the future.
OK, enough prop worship. Here is some real insider dope: the working moiré was run by a stopwatch. The propmakers removed the lens and cover of a stopwatch and then mounted the bottom disk to the second hand of the stop watch, which on an old analog piece ran at ten rpm per second. When started, round and round the moiré would spin, just a touch jerkily due to the machined movement of the stopwatch as it ticked off each tenth of a second.
There are a few episodes that hint of this set-up. The first is Number 50, "Patterns of Force," by J.J. Lucas, which aired in the second season on 2/16/67. This is the famous episode where Kirk and Spock had to solve the problem of a Star Fleet sociologist who had violated the Prime Directive and imposed the Nazi ruling system on a planet in order to bring order to its society. There they were captured, and their equipment was taken and disassembled to divine the inner workings. At one point, Mr. Spock had to reassemble a working communicator from the parts of the two dissected units, and it is in this scene that you can see the cut-out in the center frame that normally held the stopwatch. Rumor has held that the only communicator that could be taken apart was one of the "working" models. All others were glued together, so evidently they took apart one of these hero pieces to use it for this particular shot.