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

You discuss Star Trek as in some ways a transitional text between the models of the mass audience and the least objectionable programming which shaped the early network era and the model of the niche or segmented audience which would inform the multi-network or post-network era. This seems closely connected to your idea that the series is both representative and exceptional to the television practices of its time. So, what was it about Star Trek which encouraged networks and producers to think differently about television audiences?

In our chapter 1, on Star Trek and television history, hopefully we make it clear that during the network era, the networks and producers didn’t really ‘think differently’ about TV audiences, even though there’s obviously evidence that audiences were already ‘niche-ing’ themselves by becoming active fans. Star Trek fans certainly did this, although they didn’t affect the network’s decision to cancel the show. In terms of the industry’s attitudes, it’s only with hindsight that we (and other writers on Star Trek) have been able to see that what saved the show/franchise during this era was the beginnings of a ‘niche’ audience when it was sold to Kaiser Broadcasting for syndication.

In 1967 Kaiser syndicated it at 6 pm against the news on other channels, calculating that this would attract ‘young males.’ We describe the ‘faint signals’ of the future of specialized audience targets on pp 45- 46. Star Trek fans were the elusive 18-25 age group and they were even prepared to ‘march in the street’ to try to save their show. But NBC at that stage cancelled it because success was still primarily measured in mass numbers. To some extent it continued to be and still is – Enterprise failed in 2005 because it didn’t get high ratings, other shows still fail for the same reason.

But as we point out, ‘eras’ don’t neatly stop and give way to the next one; there’s always overlap and even in the fragmentary downloading world of today, the ‘mass’ audience has continued alongside ‘niches’, who are of course, components of the ‘mass’.

We collected a lot of information about audience behavior in 2002; Mike Mellon, the head of audience research at Paramount gave us masses of material, wonderful breakdowns of demographics within the Neilsen ratings, and Paramount’s own qualitative research. But this kind of information tends to be ephemeral and because our book was written over such an extended period of time, anything we said about particular audience figures would have been outdated.

We also had some audience research of our own – questionnaire and interview data collected at different cultural venues, and we’ve referred to some of it in other writings (see references in the bibliography), but again, we decided it didn’t quite fit the shape of the book in its final version. But we certainly do think that audiences are important and interesting, and Star Trek audiences especially so.

You write at the end of the book, “Without Roddenberry, there may have been no Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Chris Carter, or whoever else may follow in their footsteps.” So, what role did Roddenberry’s self-promotion as a producer/author contribute to the contemporary concept of the show runner?

It’s always hard to make historical connections across time, so not sure that we’d want to argue for direct causality here. What’s needed is an historical study on the rise of the showrunner in US television from about the 1970s onwards, including key figures like Norman Lear and Aaron Spelling. That book would have to account for all the other changes that were going on during those decades, particularly the shift from the classical network era to the multi-channel era that began to put the emphasis on named producers as a way of distinguishing content in a much more competitive environment.

That being said, you’re really asking two different questions here, one about the role of the showrunner within the industry and one about the role of the showrunner as a publicity mechanism.

With regard to the first, that’s something that the book waiting to be written would need to engage with. While Roddenberry functioned like a modern showrunner in that he was both producer and writer (although he actually wrote relatively few of the Star Trek scripts), how many of his peers did the same? And while he seems to have exercised the same degree of overall control and oversight that his successors now have, did his contemporaries have that same degree of control and oversight? In other words, were there producers in the classical network era whom we would want retrospectively to dub showrunners aside from Roddenberry (and probably Rod Serling)?

And we shouldn’t forget of course, that a lot of the people with whom Roddenberry worked, particularly Herb Solow, resent the extent to which Roddenberry attempted to co-opt all the credit for Star Trek. One of the most important arguments in our book is that a good television show requires the input of a lot of talented people. Roddenberry presented himself as Star Trek’s sole auteur but there would have been no Star Trek without Solow, associate producer Robert Justman, and all the others who worked on the show. But, today at least, it also seems to require a named individual to serve Foucault’s author function – to market the show.

We think it’s easier to make an argument for Roddenberry having served to some extent as a template for subsequent showrunners with regard to their publicizing themselves and their shows as opposed to the specific production tasks he undertook. In the classical network era, this self-publicity was most unusual, not really necessary and probably resented to some extent by NBC.

In that era, it was assumed that most shows, let alone their producers, would not really stand out much from the pack. That’s because the three networks were content to divide the mass audience between them, airing ‘least objectionable programming’ the goal of which was to keep people tuned into the same network throughout the evening. Shows were associated with networks, rather than with named individuals, except for their star actors of course.

But Roddenberry showed that it was possible to engage in a discourse of artistry and authorship that distinguished him and his show from the pack. And as you say somewhere, viewers, fans particularly, are culturally inclined toward a belief in auteurism, a single guiding voice that creates meaning throughout a programme’s episodes.

In Roddenberry’s case, as we discuss, that guiding voice became elevated to ‘Roddenberry’s vision’, a utopic notion of the future associated with him and with Star Trek. In that regard, we can’t really think of a single one of today’s showrunners who have had quite the same cultural impact, probably because the field is much more crowded; there’s much more content and many more people producing it. And of course, in the tele-fantasy genre Roddenberry got there first.

Fans may refer to the ‘Whedon-verse’ and critics may characterize aspects of Whedon-produced or directed texts as ‘Whedon-esque’ but that refers to a certain style and tone rather than a complete world, which is what Roddenberry is associated with. The more we think about it, the more we think it might be the case that being in a sense a man out of time, a post-network showrunner in the classical network era, Roddenberry was actually a one-off. But that’s a hypothesis that needs to be tested with empirical research.

One could also argue that Star Trek’s appeal to its intellectual pedigree — from the science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, or Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote for the series, to its ongoing references to Rocket Scientists and Harvard/MIT students in describing its audience, helps to establish the contemporary concept of “quality television.” What qualities were ascribed to Star Trek in its heyday and to what degree do these anticipate or contrast with the “complex narratives” and “novelistic characters” associated with today’s quality dramas?

That’s a whole book in itself. In one of our earlier drafts there was a whole chapter called ‘Is it any good? The quality of Star Trek.’ Looking at this discarded ‘quality’ chapter again, I see we offer a number of definitions of ‘quality’ and address the question of ‘is it any good’? in a number of ways. We look at academic definitions of ‘good’ e.g. Charlotte Brunsdon’s: ‘[it’s good] in terms of its closeness to already-‘legitimate’ cultural forms, such as theatre or literature. Secondly, it is seen to be good because ‘it poses a privileged relation to ‘the real’’. In our discarded chapter we argue that Star Trek meets both of these criteria. We also discuss ideological interpretations of ‘good’ – is it sensitive to minorities, and to the representation of race, gender and general ‘otherness’? – the subjects of a very great deal of writing on Trek. And we particularly quote our production interviewees on their definitions of ‘quality,’ such as Michael Westmore comparing his work on alien makeup with that of Star Wars, which he described as ‘a real cheap job.’

We also discuss a couple of individual episodes that we thought were ‘good.’ Much of this material got lifted and dispersed to other chapters in the final version of the book: the craftworkers and writers’ views on ‘good’ appear in Chapter 2,’ ‘Art, Commerce and Creative Autonomy’ and Chapter 3, ‘The Craft Workshop Mode of Production’. Textual aspects of quality are woven into the textual chapters at the end of the book on worldbuilding and character, where the ideology question is also addressed – here, mainly by arguing for Trek’s ‘heteroglossic’ characteristics. The best of Trek, such as the TNG episode, ‘The High Ground’, offers ambiguity not clarity, enabling diverse interpretation, which again, is a traditional literary criterion of quality.

Because Star Trek has been such an enduring show, it ought to be possible to make comparisons between it and other ‘high quality’ TV shows contemporary with it over the years, for example at Emmy awards. But, as several of the writers pointed out, Trek has never been honoured by its peers in this way. Berman was indignant that Patrick Stewart never got an Emmy for his performance as Captain Picard. Ron Moore told us how he suppressed his Trek work in his resume because he thought it wouldn’t be taken seriously and Patrick Stewart had similar reservations about foregrounding his Trek work, proud as he was of it.

The craft workers, on the other hand, have received multiple awards over the years, thus highlighting the division between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ positions in the creative hierarchy – a division which we argue, in our book, is somewhat artificial in terms of how the final product gets produced. Everyone has to pull together: the line producers Merri Howard and Peter Lauritson, who had to make sure everything ‘gelled’, and came in within budget, were particularly enlightening on this aspect of ‘quality.’

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).