Wednesday, December 26, 2012
An Open Letter to CBS, Paramount, et al.
To the Powers That Be behind a possible future Star Trek TV series,
What is Star Trek? That’s a question that has a lot of answers, depending on who you ask. When thinking about a new show, it’s a question that must take center stage. Is Star Trek just another science fiction show? Is it something unique? What have its core values been, and what is its place in our cultural tapestry? All this and more needs to be asked, thought about, and decided upon before serious steps are taken on any new show. Obviously, questions of demographic and ratings are there, too. But doing a good show first should be the rule. We've seen many times over recent years that a good show, that breaks all the assumed conventions of television, can also grab viewers' attention and become successful (Breaking Bad, Lost, Arrested Development, etc.).
First, know that times have changed. The era of episodic television, where everything is wrapped up neatly in 50 minutes, is over. Shows like Babylon 5, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Farscape and others show that the viewing audience, especially for science fiction, is more than ready for more complicated characters, evolving plots, long term storytelling, and novelistic approaches to writing. Take your time, do it right, think it through. The audience wants to be challenged, wants to question, wants something to discuss at work the next day. We don't want a show where each plot point can be called to the minute, where the episode always ends on a laugh (T.J. Hooker, Magnum P.I., The A-Team, and with few exceptions, the original Star Trek).
Second, don’t underestimate your audience. Science fiction fans are smart, they’re driven, they’re loyal, and they talk. Discussion boards come alive as viewers pore over the details of each new episode. Do not discount this. Do not ignore it. Don’t let it determine everything you do, but make sure you never forget. That way, you’ll be more likely to keep things smart, to keep challenging yourselves, and to double check what you do. Also, don’t skew young (the often rumored Starfleet Academy idea, for example). Nobody wants to see that. Producers seem to have this idea stuck in their head that young people like to watch young people. I don’t know where that comes from, because nobody likes that. Ask yourselves, who is the most hated character in every science fiction series or movie? Answer: the kid. Next Gen - Wesley. Battlestar - Boxie. Seaquest - Lucas. Any character played by Will Smith's kid. Nobody likes those characters. Nobody. So, don’t put ‘em in in the first place.
Third, don’t forget human nature, even if you’re not writing about humans. What drives us? Knowledge, fear, love, hate, sex, etc. Do not ignore elements of human life. Characters have sex, they have fun, they have interests outside of work, they have motivations for what they do. Characters on a show should be as complex as any in a book, with all the background and personality one expects. That includes not only the protagonists, but the antagonists as well. Think of the best villains. Do you love them because they're evil? Generally, no. Cobra Commander was evil, but he's hardly one of the best villains. You love the villains you kind of secretly like, the ones you understand, the ones you can almost imagine yourself becoming. With motivations and backgrounds that make even the most heinous monsters at least a touch sympathetic, you create far more drama and tension than simply throwing wild eyed, mustache twirling thugs at our hapless heroes. It's the same with heroes. You don't want a goodie-goodie, who doesn't have any flaws and always gets it right. The best heroes are at least a little bit broken.
Fourth, know your science. You read it all the time. This astronaut, or that physicist was inspired as a child by watching Star Trek. You have a large fanbase in various technical and scientific halls. So, have the decency to respect them, as you inspire the next generation. Get scientific advisers and make use of their expertise. Got an episode about a new lifeform living on the surface of an asteroid? Talk to a biologist and an astrophysicist, or whoever else you might need to in order to get it right. And, look to the works of scientists for inspiration. Stop. And I do mean stop, with the technobabble. Say it right, or don't say it at all. Take a good, long look at where the future may be taking us as a species. Not only will we be different culturally, and technologically, but might we be different physically, genetically, etc. And what will that mean?
The above issues should be considered. In addition, there are certain setting considerations. Making the show more complex will allow for expanded storytelling. There is no need to limit the story to a single crew on a single ship, visiting a planet of the week, facing a monster of the week. Simultaneous threads could take place on Earth, on a space station, on an exploration vessel reaching new territories, and on a war ship engaged in open conflict. The galaxy is large, and sweeping stories should be happening, growing and exploring the setting in more than one direction at a time.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation came out, it was a rather dramatic shift not only in time, but in style. I would suggest that this be no less so. In fact, I would suggest it be a much, much more profound shift. Don’t make the mistake of Voyager, by setting it in a totally unrelated part of space that did nothing to grow the Star Trek universe in any meaningful way. But don’t make the mistake of both DS9 and Voyage by staying too close to the Next Gen timeline.
My specific suggestion is to move the timeline forward a significant amount; no less than 100 years; perhaps as much as 1000. Alter the universe. Trek is an optimistic setting (or should be), so I would suggest avoiding the tendency to ‘go dark’ that seems so popular. This doesn’t mean retain some kind of naïve Pollyanna vibe, but don’t try to make this the new Battlestar. Peace between the Romulans and Federation seems likely, as well as a reconnection with Vulcans. Klingons would probably become allies once more, perhaps stronger than ever. Some other groups would probably rise in prominence, becoming more active members of the Federation, which should remain intact, if somewhat altered. Rebuild the Borg into something menacing and scary, the way they were in their first couple appearances and in First Contact, but most assuredly were not in post-Hugh Next Gen or Voyager. A cold war type relationship between the two would be likely, with the Borg always trying to break the stalemate. Advance the technology, too. Use up to the minute scientific theories to design new ideas and new realms of possibility. Transhumans, artificial intelligence, Dyson spheres, wormhole transit, massive scale terraforming and world engineering. All those amazing discoveries the crews of the various Enterprises made (floating cities, sentient robots, ancient technologies, etc.) should actually make a difference, and change the way the Federation does stuff. And, if it's a Federation of Planets, there should really be a lot more alien representation. Perhaps more alien design of ships, weirder technology, and generally, more alien presence on ship crews. While I think a new show should look the the future, I'd also like to see it build a past. Tell stories that have roots going back into the pre-space histories of Humans, Tholians, Vulcans, whatever.
And learn from newer, bolder shows, like Rome, The Shield, or Game of Thrones. Sometimes less is more. 10 or 12 episodes, carefully crafted and well executed, without needless filler, will be far more effective than 20 to 26 episodes mired with filler and retreads. And have a plan (with room for alterations, obviously), for 4 to 8 seasons.
Make Star Trek mean something again. Take it back to the stars, to the spirit of human advancement in space and culture. Create the grand dream that will inspire new generations of children to grow up and be astronauts, scientists, philosophers, and artists. Help us rediscover our love of the unknown. Help make space seem fun and exciting again. 2009's Star Trek helped bring back the excitement. Now, help bring back the awe.
Thank you for your time.
-Matthew J. Constantine, Star Trek fan since @1979