Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger Davies (Part Four)

A key tension on any television series is that directors come and go but actors tend to develop a stronger ownership of their characters over time. To what degree have Star Trek actors been able to shape the characters they play?

In the book we point to this key tension as one of the primary determinants of the actors’ agency. Over the course of a long-running show they tend to take ownership of their characters, partly because no one else, including the writers, really does.

Part of this comes from the natural tendency that actors have toward wanting more screen time, so if they are powerful enough they can lobby for this. But it also comes from professional standards, which gets back to the question about a good script. The actors believe in consistent characterization, having their characters engage in actions and speak dialogue that they believe flows naturally from previous representations of the character.

In the book, we have a long quote from Patrick Stewart about his input in to the last TNG film, Nemesis, in which he says that he changed the script to make it more consistent with his vision of the character. But he also pointed out that not all actors can do that. As we argue, there’s a hierarchy of agency within any ensemble cast with the stars usually having more control over their characters than secondary cast members. And in Star Trek, the captain had more control than anyone which leads on to your next question.

While fans have often been drawn to secondary characters, there are strong television logics which work to insure the centrality of the Captains to our experience of the series. What are some of the ways that these television production logics re-assert themselves?

Herman Zimmerman, production designer on all the post-TOS series told us when we interviewed him that originally the TNG bridge was oval, with “a big oval conference table.” But that didn’t work, because “it didn’t give the captain precedence. And one of the things that Gene was really regretting, but then he realized that he had no other choice, the star of the series had to be the captain. He wanted every one of the crew members to be the star . . . but always the captain has to have the last word, and the captain has to have the bulk of the action or the audience is confused.”

Even in shows with large ensemble casts, like TNG, it seems that, to become a bit theoretical, there has to be a focus of narrative alignment, a character whose perspective guides viewers through the narrative or with whom they can ‘identify’. That’s tricky because, although both Murray Smith and Jason Mittell write about narrative alignment, they do so from a somewhat formalist and cognitive perspective. There’s no empirical audience research that we know of to back up the claim.

However, it certainly seems that television writers believe that there has to be a dominant focus of narrative alignment. One of the beauties of a long running series is that it does have the space to focus occasionally on secondary characters. But we would hypothesise that in any long running show from TNG to ER to Lost to Madmen, many episodes will be ‘star-centric’ with the remaining spread among the secondary characters. The only real exception that we can think of to this rule is The Wire which initially set up McNulty in a way that made it seem he would be the central character and then strayed away from him in the second season. In The Wire Baltimore was the main character in a way but this is the exception that proves the rule and we can’t think of another example of this strategy.

And of course not just the logics of television but the long-established logics of Hollywood centre around the star system, that gives some actors higher billing and more money than others. As we detail in the book, this became a point of contention between William Shatner, who because he was the Captain thought he was the star, and Leonard Nimoy, who very quickly became an audience favourite.

I generally respect your decision to bracket off the study of Star Trek fans from the study of the production process. I was struck, though, reading your chapter on character that this was somewhat problematic, and pleased that you added a brief, but important, discussion here about the ways character operates somewhat differently in fan fiction from on the aired episodes. That said, while it is true that we do not yet have a very conceptually rich way of talking about television characters, much work on Star Trek fandom has argued that it is very much a character-centered approach to understanding the series, hence the charge sometimes made against fan fiction that it is moving from space opera to soap opera. What might we learn if we brought together your production studies approach to how the creative team thought about the Star Trek characters with a more audience-centered approach on how fans conceived of these same characters?

That was another of those pragmatic decisions intended to keep the book from becoming a multi-volume series. Certainly no disrespect was intended to the fans who are such an important part of the Star Trek phenomenon, but you and others have devoted many pages to them and Trekkers are undoubtedly the most studied of all fandoms. And we ourselves talk about how the fans of the original series may have helped to push the networks towards a more nuanced understanding of their audiences.

As we’ve already said, the writers we interviewed very much stressed that they had a character-centred approach to their writing so in that sense they are to some degree aligned with fan fic writers. There are of course fans who take other pleasures from the Star Trek world, enjoying the technologies or the space battles for example, but for the most part they don’t seem to write fan fic although they might produce blueprints of the starships.

We think it would be, in Spock’s word, ‘fascinating’ to do a systematic study of the television writers’ approach to the characters versus fan fic writers. As you say, one of the key distinctions is genre, particularly when it comes to shipping in all its marvelous variations. Television soaps, which are fundamentally about relationships, can spend endless amounts of time on characters’ romantic entanglements, but other genres can’t do this. When Deep Space Nine started to have lots of romantic pairings, some referred to it rather scornfully as DS90210. Shifting genres can alienate audiences, as we saw many years ago when Twin Peaks began as a murder mystery but became supernatural in its second and final season in a shift that seems to have driven viewers away.

Also extensive exploration of characters and their relationships can, as we say in the book in the bit that you’re referring to, potentially undermine the stability of the series format. The example we give is that of the TNG episode ‘Chain of Command’ in which Picard is captured and tortured by the Cardassians. The second episode’s conclusion very quickly deals with Picard’s post-traumatic stress because he has to be back in command of the Enterprise in the next episode. But numerous fan fics deal with his recovery, particularly in terms of his relationship with the doctor, Beverly Crusher. But the television show can’t divert from its basic format of space exploration for several episodes of psychological and romantic drama that removes the Captain from the bridge. The Captain has a narrative function that he must continue to fulfill.

The different treatment of characters in the shows and in fan fic also relates to the point that we made above about an ensemble cast in which secondary characters have always to remain somewhat secondary in terms of their screen time.

There’s a good episode of Voyager called “Timeless” set fifteen years ahead of the present time line. Chakotay and Harry Kim managed to escape Voyager’s destruction and have spent the intervening years trying to find a way to undo the past. In those fifteen years Chakotay has acquired a girlfriend who helps them in their quest. Although we’ve not checked, we’d bet dollars to donuts that there are lots of fan fics filling in that narrative ellipsis and detailing the romance. But the television writers couldn’t devote time to that story not only because Chakotay is a secondary character, albeit an important one, but also because they would have had to stop telling stories about Voyager’s quest to get back to the Alpha quadrant in order to deal with events in a hypothetical future timeline.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).