Star Trek lessons – writing out of the box

I’ve long thought most of the Star Trek franchise series and movies – the ones made between 1977 and 2005 – to be epic fails both as good SF and, more to the point, as good dramatic story-telling.

Sounds heretical, and I suppose I’ll get heat from fans – but if you step back to the first principles of writing, it’s true. I’ve just finished reading a book by Brian Robb, Star Trek: The essential history of the classic TV series and movies, which confirms my belief.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.
Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

I’m not complaining about the fact that Trek aliens all looked like humans with lobsters glued to their foreheads or that Klingon was apparently constructed to be different rather than linguistic by the usual measures. My problem goes deeper than that.

Robb argued that the best ideas of the original 1966-69 series – the things fans regard as canonical – weren’t created by Gene Roddenberry. But he had huge influence and one major legacy was a set of rules about what could and could not happen. Writers called it the ‘Roddenberry Box’.

This defined Roddenberry’s vision – a future that had conquered prejudice, where inter-personal conflict was a thing of the past. A wonderful ideal. One we should aspire to. The problem was that when it came to story-telling, the Box was boring. A lot of the challenge for writers was getting around the limits while producing interesting tales.

To my mind that worked in the original series, particularly where the show was run as a light comedy – think Trouble With Tribbles. Wonderful. Why did it work? Because Roddenberry hired great writers – top-line SF authors among them – to work up plots revolving around three great characters, Spock, Kirk and McCoy.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.
‘That’s no moon’. Oops – wrong franchise. Actually, this is Mimas, orbiting Saturn. NASA, public domain

The problem – well explored by Ross, but which I’d long thought true – is that the show was captured by a fan base for whom the Box defined canon. To me the rot set in with The New Generation, which mashed New Age thinking and a lot of meaningless techno-babble with the Box and – to me – never captured the sense of wonder of the original. It was pretentious, laboured, ponderous, and fast descended to reverent posturing by one-dimensional characters – stories defined not by what made a good story, but by what was needed to satisfy a fan base.

I gave up watching it, and never bothered with Deep Space Nine or Voyager. I gave up on the movies. Later I caught a few episodes of Enterprise, which wasn’t too bad but which still dribbled, as far as I was concerned. According to Robb, the producers were actively writing, by then, for fans – missing a wider audience or new fans. Certainly, these grotesque going-through-the-motions exercises in franchise fodder didn’t appeal to casual Trek enthusiasts, like me.

For me, Trek didn’t come right until the 2009 J J Abrams movie, a complete re-boot which decisively broke the Box. It was Trek as it should be, re-cast for the twenty-first century. Wonderful stuff.

The fact that it featured Karl Urban – a Kiwi actor from my city, Wellington, was a particular plus.

The take-home lesson for writers? Idealism is wonderful. There is no faulting Roddenberry’s optimistic vision. But to make interesting stories, that idealism has to be given a dynamic. The fact is that human realities, including conflict, have been omnipresent through history, and it’s unlikely that a few hundred years will change them. But that doesn’t stop us trying; and it seems to me that stories built around the attempt would be far more interesting than stories exploring the success of meeting this hardest of all human challenges.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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11 thoughts on “Star Trek lessons – writing out of the box

  1. Uh-oh. I hope you’ve hired security to watch your home and have Scotty listed on your phone. Ha ha. Conflict is good theatre and good reading. We humans (and Klingons) thrive on it. After all, we aren’t talking about government policy, we’re talking about entertainment…yes, a story that makes you think is great, but first it must entertain. If it makes you think too much then, congratulations, you’ve just designed a new governmental structure. I’ve seen newbie fantasy writers doing this. They world build the conflict out of their stories. World building is a gift, an opportunity to build-in all the conflict you want.

  2. I confess to enjoying Star Trek TNG and Voyager, also, for a while, Deep Space Nine until it too fell into the realms of soap opera. What I enjoyed was the interaction within the teams of characters rather than whatever problem of the week they were overcoming, so the story shortcomings weren’t so noticeable. I liked the intelligence they displayed, and that whole upside of humanity that Gene Roddenberry wanted us to emulate. Jean-Luc Picard was a great role model, as was Captain Janeway. And how could you resist Seven of Nine?!

    1. I liked the earliest episodes of TNG, but to my mind it found its feet as a series in a very different place from the original series. I thought the re-boot movie was excellent – have not yet seen the second one though.

  3. Matthew, I read this post three times, because something about it strikes me as, if not off, exactly, then…? I’m not sure, and I realize that’s not quite fair if I’m going to comment. So maybe I should confess that I’m a way-gone Trekkie, and the truth is that I’d give just about anything to go to Starfleet Academy and hope, some wonderfully glorious day, to command my own starship.

    So okay, I’m far from a dispassionate and objective observer on this particular subject. 😉

    Science fiction has always possessed a certain dichotomous, even schizophrenic aspect in its paradigm. It’s contained in the very phrase “science fiction.” Fiction per se is about people interacting in ways governed only by the writer’s imagination, although usually constrained by contemporary settings familiar to writer and reader alike. But science fiction throws in a curve ball. It’s not like other genre fiction, such as Westerns or detective or whatever. The curve ball is that the writer has to take an extra step, where the signpost up ahead says “The Twilight Zone.” The spin on the ball is that the story need not concern itself with contemporary reality. Almost a priori, a good science fiction story admits the possibility of throwing anything contemporary totally out of the window (dependent, of course, on the writer’s ability to assist the reader in suspending disbelief!) and stepping quite literally (if only figuratively literal) into terra incognita.

    One of those unknown worlds, I would point out, is one in which we have solved a multitude of social and economic problems and have actually moved into a period of history where we no longer slaughter each other because of skin color or theological differences. What would such a world be like? How do we get there from here? I readily grant your point about the story concerning that very question being an interesting one, but what if (ah, that question!) we skip all the intermediate angst and go straight to that peaceful future where we can concentrate on other things than killing each other for no better reason than being black on the left side of our body? Isn’t the vision of such a world necessarily, TO US, at our present state of semi-savagery, going to appear somewhat nicey-nice?

    I could write a lot about the context of the times in which Roddenberry conceived Star Trek, including the fact that he pitched it as “Wagon Train to the stars.” But let me share one thing from my own experience: I remember when the Space Shuttle program was being wrangled over in the US Congress back in the early-mid seventies, and some political cartoonist came up with a cartoon of four space shuttles, stepped up in echelon-right, with rockets and bombs on under-wing hard points. Technical inaccuracies aside, I looked at that cartoon and my thought was, what’s the point in going to space if we’re just going to take the same old human Bravo Sierra with us?

    I forget which English general it was who said “wars make rattling good history” (that was before the War to End All Wars, as I recall) and I’m certainly not about to deny it. I’m writing this in my study, and I’d hate to tell you how many books I have on aviation history just within my field of view, and how many of those concern World War II.

    I think we have to consider, though, that science fiction is about possibilities, and those possibilities have to do with a better future for the human race. I see your point about the restrictions placed on the writers, and how, perhaps, those restrictions aren’t truly realistic, but realistic from what perspective? Certainly from a historical perspective they can be seen as laughably naive and optimistic; you, as a historian, are in a position to know that as well as anyone.

    So why not write about a world where those problems have been solved? Perhaps if we can start thinking about what problems might arise in such a world — what other dramatic conflicts might arise — it might mean we would find those possibilities far more interesting and engrossing than finding newer and more efficient ways of killing each other. I would even argue that until enough of us — writers, specifically — start thinking and communicating those possibilities, then the likelihood of change is low at best. In this connection one might consider that Utopian themes in science fiction go back to the vague beginnings of the genre. H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke both come to mind in this regard. It might also be worth pondering the proliferation of dystopian themes in more “modern” (in the contemporary sense only) science fiction.

    Was Star Trek a crude effort at Utopian fiction? Perhaps so, but how efficient was the first wheel, or Faraday’s first dynamo? Are the fans more concerned with the canon than the inner meaning? I can’t speak to that; possibly so. Should the agonized steps away from technological barbarism to true civilization (whatever that might mean) be ignored? Absolutely not. But without some vision of the future, some vision of a better, more desirable future, one where kids like me can aspire to commanding their own starships on voyages of exploration and not of conquest, how can we move from our present point into that future? There has to be some reason to change, after all, something to awaken the desire, the awareness, of a better day.

  4. PS — so I guess in a way, Matthew, I am suggesting that even though the Roddenberry Box placed limits on writers, the Box itself was, er, shall I say or dare suggest, out of the box? That larger box of our present civilization? 😉

    1. There’s no faulting the optimism of Roddenberry’s future – and it was, indeed, well out of the box relative to the society of the 1960s when he first explored it. As it is, still, today. It’s a future we could – and should – aspire to. For me the key issue with the franchised shows (as opposed to the original, for which I am a great enthusiast) was the execution of the stories within that ‘box’. The original series worked well, when well handled. However, Robb – who argued that the Box was boring – also makes clear that by the 1990s the studios were consciously looking on Trek as a money spinner, largely from a captive audience. Once content had been subordinated to that purpose, the spark was also going to be lost – this to the point where even the fans were turned off. I think that very much happened, witness the way ‘Enterprise’ was flat out cancelled in 2005. The re-boot movie, to my mind, fixed all of this and brought the whole thing into the twenty-first century.

      The other thing is that despite the criticisms, I think one of the greater legacies of Trek is something so huge it’s invisible – the way it helped mainstream sci-fi. Back in the 1970s the popular stereotype of SF fandom (and especially Trek) was of socially dysfunctional nerds and shut-ins, mostly male, who couldn’t engage with the real world – ‘Roddenlosers’ was one term I saw. Not actually fair on those who were fans, but that was the popular perception of them. Thoroughly lampooned in ‘Galaxy Quest’ (though I always thought that was as much homage as it was parody). Today? Quite the reverse – SF fandom is very much mainstream, it’s something that everyday people do, and about time, too. I think Trek (along with Star Wars) has done a great deal to make that happen..

  5. Darn. Everyone already said everything I was going to say! So I will just say thanks for making me think more about the challenges of world building. As a medium-core Trekkie, I never thought of this “box” aspect as a negative. The “utopianism” of the Star Trek world just *is. No, I never thought of the arrogant, “we have evolved” attitude of Star Fleet as a good thing exactly, but it gave them an across-the-board characteristic that I accepted and expected (no matter how many times this rule of Roddenberry’s was proved false by plots and characters). And here I thought the prime directive was the most abused rule of the ST world…

    1. I am a great fan of the original series in part because of the way the stories were all designed to challenge the box without breaking it. My gripe was with the way it lost that edge. The new movies are really good.

  6. I admit I did not watch any thing other than the original series and the Wrath of Khan. However, if there is no conflict, there is only exposition. Regardless of the media, storytelling requires conflict to be compelling.

    1. I watched enough of the movies and TNG to figure that the spark of the original had been lost. I didn’t want to have my enjoyment of that then buried, so gave up. But the newest movies have recovered it. I guess that counts as casual enthusiasm rather than true fandom. And I fully accept that others drew full enjoyment out of the later franchise series and movies, meaning that these indeed served intended purpose. But not in my case.

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