I don’t know how short tonight’s installment is going to be but I’m expecting the next one to be longer so I’m cutting it at the right spot. The next few sections cover how to and how not to write a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation, with the first part being the how to, the next part being the how not to, and the last one a look at the formatting of a script. I think part three will be the shortest of this set of articles but it may only interest the creatives out there.
The first section is “believability”, which covers how to make the story seem believable. Note that it doesn’t say “realistic”. While science has given us the communicator, the tricorder, and even some of Dr. McCoy’s medical equipment the transporters are all but impossible and there are people who assume we’ll all lock ourselves in the holodeck because there’s an occasional news story about someone playing World Of Warcraft way too long. “Realistic” in some minds seems to mean “show humanity at its absolute worst”, which is the opposite of what Star Trek should be? Why do you think Voyager and Enterprise had problems? Well, that and bad writing. I only know Discovery from SF Debris’ reviews because even if I had money coming in I wouldn’t spend it on CBS All Access, and I don’t have money coming in. But from what I’ve seen of those reviews I don’t think they get it either. Even Deep Space Nine, the one where we went to war and shows the kinks in the utopia, remembered this. At least in the good episodes.
So what does a good season one TNG script need according to the guide?
- Action/Adventure/Drama/Entertainment: Note that they’re the ones who underlined “entertainment”, and when you forget to make a fictional work entertaining you done messed up. Star Trek (outside of the Abrams movies) is known for being a “morality play” but this is not considered the main priority. Sure it happened, like the Ferengi and that one out-of-stasis entrepreneur who had to deal with a moneyless society (which was lampshaded on Deep Space 9 more than once), but it’s not considered the most important part of the story to the people behind it. The entertainment comes first. It is, however, one thing science fiction does well under the right writer and nothing here discourages it, either. But the first thing listed under “what we must have” is action, adventure, drama, and especially entertainment. Other writers need to keep this in mind. Entertain first, preach second, whether it’s a religious teaching tool or social propaganda. Just look at the debate over the stories Marvel Comics has been putting out lately.
- Involving our starship crew and vessel: This should actually go without saying, but even when the original series tried to use an episode as a backdoor pilot, it forced the Enterprise crew in there. Barely, but they’re there. I remember one episode in a later season where the focus was on the lower decks crew members and not the regular cast but it was still on the Enterprise and the command crew still factored. Actually, I would like to see a series that didn’t focus on the bridge crew and chief engineer but instead on the other people responsible for the ship’s operations, with the command crew showing up only when the story demanded, like recurring characters instead of the main cast. It might be interesting as a smaller series.
- PLUS, once the above has captured the audience’s attention, we want to include our usual comments about the challenges humanity now faces: Because of course Star Trek is going to have this. But like I said, it is not the first thing. Otherwise you’re either preaching to the choir, boring your audience, or both. Either way you’re not getting your message across even to those who agree or would agree with you. Entertainment first, then commentary.
The next section is on believabilty, which the guide informs us “is the most essential element of any Star Trek story”. If you’re going to buy “multimodal reflection sorting” or “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow” (yes, I know that’s Doctor Who) you have to believe it’s some new scanning or engineering technique they came up with by the 24th century.
If you’re in doubt about a scene, you can apply this simple test: “Would I believe this if it was occurring on the bridge of the battleship Missouri?” If you wouldn’t believe it in the twentieth century, then our audience probably won’t believe it in the twenty-fourth.
So how well did season one pull that off? Well, there’s the aforementioned lack of currency (except for the show’s cast, crew, and creators of course) and Ferengi (an alien race that was written as savage but also greedy), that one planet that was loosely based on a tribal African community except everyone was fully clothed and the leader only had his job if he had the right girlfriend, that time Tasha was smothered to death by a sentient tar monster who lived to torture…yeah, I think it’s debatable if the battleship Missouri would deal with some of that. It would require a little more translation.
And I just saw an interesting factoid about the Ferengi. In “The Last Outpost”, their debut episode, they were told to “jump up and down like crazed gerbils” (Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Continuing Mission, pp. 61-62) according to Armin Shimerman, the actor who later played Quark on Deep Space Nine. In fact, according to the Memory Alpha wiki Shimerman took on the role of Quark to “undo the damage” of this episode. And yet season one producer Robert Justman said this was the BEST portrayal of Ferengi in the franchise. Did he even watch the episode or does he really hate businessmen that much? You know, the people who backed the show and gave him a job so he could tell them how little he thinks of them.
Especially the people must be believable.
In something less cynical than today’s perspectives I imagine. It seems even modern Trek writers can’t help but believe humans are inherently horrible. It must be hard to hate yourself that much, and that’s coming from someone with a low sense of self-worth.
The crew of the Enterprise are intelligent, witty, thoughtful, compassionate, caring…
…smug, self-righteous, occasionally full of themselves depending on the writer. This sounds more like later season TNG than season one. I mean they weren’t the worst people in the world but when the guide wants to convince me that they’ve transcended human failings (paraphrasing the actual description) there are certain holes that can be punched in that theory. SF Debris has done it more than once.
We’re also told that a good Star Trek story needs to have a science fiction and a personal element. How does it define those?
The science fiction element should be thought-provoking and visual. It need not be a huge galactic event or even a planetary one. It can be science fiction on a smaller, personal scale.
There are episodes referred to as “bottle shows” in the business, where in this case the whole episode takes place just on the ship, not counting the holodeck. This is usually for concerns of cost, but it does allow for a more personal drama. “The Naked Now” didn’t suffer from being on the ship the majority of the time or that it was just a rehash of classic episode “The Naked Time” but because it came out way too soon, when the audience and even the writers and actors hadn’t really decided on their characters yet. Going back to comics, writers seem to have forgotten that not every story has to be a larger than life, world-threatening event. The smaller stories allow us to breathe and to give us some personal time to get close to the characters, so we can relate to them when the big threats do pop up.
The personal element of a Star Trek story can be a human dilemma created either by the nature of the characters, by the plot, or by the science fiction element. Again, whatever it is, the key is to show the characters acting believably. We often get our best Star Trek by showing how real human beings cope with fantastic situations.
I’ve discussed Gene’s approach to the 24th century in previous installments and other article, like how easily they handle death compared to “real human beings”. But “fantastic” to us is rather mundane to people who live in that time. Think about how someone from the 1800s would be fascinated by some of our modern technology. I don’t even mean cell phones or the internet, I mean stuff we take for granted like microwave ovens, refrigerators, cars, airplanes, or telephones in general. One of my cartoonist friends, Luke Foster, used to make a comic called Moon Freight 3 (which sadly doesn’t exist online anymore), about a guy working a transfer station in space, and his life is just as boring as any station on Earth today, just in space with a robot comrade, a sister who creates faster than life travel, and supersmart sentient rats. By the 24th century faster than light travel is practically the highway. Or is it? More on that in a moment. There’s one thought involved before we go.
Please remember that a major hero of Star Trek has always been the starship Enterprise and her mission.
Except when it’s taken over or damaged. Then it’s the threat to the crew. Especially when the holodeck malfunctions. Which it does I think at least once a season. The holodeck may be more dangerous than the transporters themselves.
The ship is not just a vehicle–she is the touchstone by which all of our characters demonstrate who they are and what they’re up to in the universe.
So the ship should be treated like a character, just with her own parameters versus the crew. That’s not a bad approach actually.
So was my highway analogy right? Maybe it wasn’t. Return next week to check out what shouldn’t go into a Star Trek script…and point out all the times it did.