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

You raise some important points about the stability of Star Trek as an ongoing franchise over more than 18 years of production. How did this stability and predictability impact the creative process behind the show — for better or for worse?

Star Trek was very atypical in its 18 year run particularly with regard to the fact that many of the same people, like executive producer Rick Berman, stayed with the show throughout those years. As you imply this stability had its upsides and its downsides.

With regard to the first, one of the most significant upsides was that it gave the producers the chance to create one of the most extended and complex fictional universes of all time, on a scale that, with perhaps the exception of Doctor Who, no other television program has achieved. And, as we discuss in chapters five and six, this led to some very ingenious world building, with producers, many of whom had been fans of the original series, harking back not only to TOS and TNG but in the post-TNG shows to all the previous series. This results in a degree of what’s come to be called fan service that can only be achieved within a vast canon. The creative process was stimulated by this and resulted in some very memorable and for fans emotionally satisfying episodes like TNG’s “Relics” which brings back the beloved Scotty.

But as Ron Moore pointed out to us when we interviewed him, the producers also had to be careful not to cater to fans too much and not to give in completely to their own fannish instincts. Had they done so they would have been writing fan fiction and not a television show aimed at millions of viewers.

Indeed, Stephen Moffat has been criticized for too much fan service in the most recent series of Sherlock, so it can negatively impact a show’s reception and perhaps exclude new viewers. We don’t think this happened with Star Trek, but it did become increasingly difficult for new viewers to enter such a complex universe.

Enterprise was meant to reboot the franchise by being less connected to the complicated backstory, but ironically, it became the most self-referential of all the series. The successful Star Trek reboot, the one that did attract new viewers, took place in cinema not on television and without the involvement of anyone who had made the television series. By contrast Doctor Who has successfully rebooted on television both honouring the backstory and managing to draw in new viewers. But maybe that’s because it did so precisely by drawing on new voices like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. You didn’t ask us about Doctor Who, but one of the reasons that there is always more to say about Star Trek is that as a case study it raises issues that are ongoing in terms of current productions.

Stability also had an upside with regard to the production process, one that we document in the book using interviews with many of the practitioners working on the show. As they constantly told us, the Star Trek production team was a ‘family’ that had worked together so long that they communicated by way of a creative shorthand. This both facilitated the smoothness of the production process and undoubtedly led to some very good episodes.

But that ‘family’ depended on having people at the top who were good managers. Michael Piller, now sadly deceased, joined TNG in its third season, after two seasons of upheaval, turmoil and some pretty bad episodes. He drew together the current writing staff and brought in new voices. But Brannon Braga seemed to be unable to do the same thing for Enterprise, one of the factors that we speculate could have contributed to its failure.

Reflecting in retrospect on the book, we perhaps should have made more of the downside. The producers told us that one of the problems with the failed Enterprise was that they couldn’t find writers who knew how to write Star Trek. But maybe what they meant was that they couldn’t find writers who knew how to write the long-established version of Star Trek that they themselves had helped to form.

Many fans and some academics have critised Berman and his fellow executive producer Brannon Braga for exploiting Star Trek simply for profit and not caring about Roddenberry’s vision. Our interviews did not lead us to this conclusion and we strongly refute this opinion in the book. However, in hindsight, perhaps it was not only Braga’s less than excellent management skills but the failure to incorporate new voices and new ideas that made Enterprise for the most part an inferior retread of the previous series.

You write about “Roddenberry’s Box” and the ways that founding concepts about what constitutes a Star Trek story have both enabled and constrained future creative contributions. What are some of the ways creative talent has negotiated in and around that Box through the years?

As we discuss in the introduction of the book, and at a number of points throughout, Roddenberry has become a ‘brand’ – the only name associated with television Trek to be given a credit in the new movie franchise. As such he represents both commercial value, but also something more intangible – what Kerry McCluggage referred to as a ‘vision’, and what writers sometimes referred to, using the more restrictive metatphor of a ‘box’. McCluggage told us:

“You do try to factor that [the Roddenberry vision] in, because that’s part of the appeal of Star Trek. He had an optimistic view of the future. He had a whole notion of how the Federation would evolve, and the Prime Directive, and things that are key elements in the show and values that are inherent in the show. In exploiting this property on a commercial basis, you really do find yourself going back to that, thinking, How does this fit in with the original vision of the show?”

Which is all very well, for the CEO, but for a writer the ‘vision’ and its strict rules could raise practical problems of narrative structure, not to mention a tendency for the ‘vision’, paradoxically, to generate conflict among the production team.

The two writers who specifically referred to the Roddenberry Box were Michael Piller, and Ronald D. Moore and they gave us specific examples of how they worked both within it, and around it. Piller described Roddenberry’s strict insistence that in the 23rd century (the period of TOS), “there wasn’t a lot of conflict between the characters because with the disappearance of want, poverty, disease, people were out pursuing a better quality of life;” this caused arguments among his writing team, who felt that conflict was necessary in a drama.

He described how he got round these strict rules in TNG’s ‘The Bonding’ [3:5] by using Gene’s insistence that in this advanced era of humanity nobody grieved when someone died, as a hook to develop a more interesting story. “The freakiest thing you’ve ever seen . . . a kid that doesn’t cry when his mother dies” enabled Piller and his team to bring forward an underdeveloped character, Counsellor Troi, to “strip down” to the underlying emotions of the bereft child. This was a good example of writers’ resourcefulness in being able to kill different birds with the same stone – giving Marina Sirtis a more satisfying role, which she had wanted, as well as solving a narrative problem arising from the restrictions of the ‘vision.’

Piller described how the Roddenberry Box suited him, and it became, to some extent, “ the Piller box”. Ron Moore, the author of “The Bonding”, also described arguments over the fight between the Picard brothers in a TNG episode he wrote – a two parter called “Family” [4:1 and 4:2]. On this occasion, Piller and Berman were able to prevail over Roddenberry and to leave the fight in – despite the fact that Roddenberry didn’t want it. These discussions are described more fully in Chapter 2 of the book, ‘Art, Commerce and Creative Autonomy’ and also in a chapter by Máire: “Quality and Creativity in TV: The Work of Television Storytellers,” in Quality Television: American Contemporary Television and Beyond, ed. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 171–84.

You describe how the creative talent on the series tends to stress the importance of “good scripts” in triggering the production process. What are some of the traits they associated with a “good” Star Trek script?

First, let’s address this question from a more general perspective. Judgments as to good and bad have been largely dodged by people within media and cultural studies, because of the influence of theories of cultural relativism. As we told you, we did try to come to grips with questions of quality in a chapter that didn’t make it into the book, both because the book was getting too big and because we didn’t manage to resolve the debate to our own satisfaction. But since producers, critics and audiences all continue to make value judgments it’s important that academics address this issue. And in doing so, it’s vital to listen to what practitioners have to say about their own value judgments, even though they might believe in them implicitly and find them hard to articulate.

That being said, in terms of Star Trek, perhaps surprisingly in light of its genre, the writers and others’ evaluation of scripts depended on criteria that were established with 19th century literary and dramatic realism. Perhaps primary among these is what you might call fully developed, rounded or psychologically motivated characters whose motivations contribute to story development. Several of our interviewees, especially Michael Piller, emphasized the importance of character above all.

So a good script might be one that advanced a character’s arc through giving him a dilemma to grapple with and resolve. Piller told us that the fan favourite “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter in which Picard gets assimilated by the Borg is really more about first officer Riker’s decision to take his own command or stay with the Enterprise.

A good script could also explore the ongoing relationship between two characters. Good characterization, consistent with the previous establishment of the character, we think, was the overarching criterion determining whether a script was good or bad. Scripts would also have to be like the proverbial ‘well-made’ play or for that matter, classical Hollywood film, setting up and resolving enigmas and wrapping up everything neatly at the end.

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).