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

I was struck by a lacuna on p.128 where you start to distinguish your concept of world-building from transmedia storytelling. I wanted to see if I could get you to spell out more fully your distinction here, since you stop rather short in the text. Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on Trek as a television series, even as you discuss the feature films in relation to the television franchise. Yet we might also point at various moments in its history to key roles played by the novels, comics, games, and other extensions of Star Trek, suggesting that while there is a distinction between world-building and transmedia extension, in this case, the Trek world was built up across multiple media. Thoughts? First, let’s say that, given our focus on Star Trek as television we decided that we simply could not deal with the whole franchise because that would have precluded us from dealing with television Star Trek in the depth that we wanted to. Showing yet again that there’s always more to say about Star Trek, there’s still a book to be written about the franchise and transmedia storytelling (although Derek Johnson does have many interesting thinks to say about this in his book on franchises).

Second, it’s important to recognize that while we tend to associate world building with multiple texts, any fiction, even a short story, has to engage in world building. To draw again on narrative theory, a fiction has to establish its relationship to the ‘real’ world – its proximity to or distance from an historical ‘reality’. It then has to construct a credible world based on this proximity or distance. So for example, in a novel about the Napoleonic wars, like War and Peace, Tolstoi can inject fictional characters into a real historical setting and the presumption is, that with the exception of those characters, everything else will match the ‘historical reality’.

Fantasy fiction, precisely because it’s more distant from the ‘real’ world, has to work harder at world building, establishing the key differences between its world and the world we know. Star Trek began building its distinctive future world in its very first episode, introducing audiences to the military organization of the Enterprise, future technologies and the like. Even had the series ended there a corner of the Star Trek world, albeit a very small one, would nonetheless have been constructed. But in Star Trek’s case the world building continued over more than seven hundred television episodes and over other media.

We’d want to make a basic distinction between world building, which can occur in a single medium, either in a short story or over 700 plus episodes of a television show, and transmedia storytelling, which we would argue by definition has to involve two or more media. Maybe if all the worldbuilding is done within one medium we need a new term – we used ‘extended seriality’ to refer to the Star Trek television shows’ worldbuilding.

This is the kind of one-medium world building that takes place in comic books; so, for example, the Batman world has been undergoing construction and refurbishment and some degree of demolishment since 1939. Even though various comics titles contribute to this world building it still takes place in one medium. Anthony Smith has a very good chapter on the Bat-world’s continuity strategies in the reboot of The Many Lives of the Batman, Many More Lives of the Batman, which Roberta co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (it will be out next year with BFI Publishing). Picking up on Bobby Allen’s analysis of soaps, he argues that the writers construct both syntagmatic and paradigmatic seriality as they seek to satisfy dedicated readers and keep casual ones happy, introducing a subtle continuity that the latter will recognize but which won’t baffle the latter.

Transmedia storytelling raises problems of coordination and integration and consumer behaviour that single-medium, and sometimes single-authored, world building doesn’t. One of Roberta’s doctoral student’s, Matthew Freeman, is just finishing a terrific dissertation on the pre-convergence history of trans-media storytelling. He argues that world building is one of the factors, together with characters and authors, that hold transmedia worlds together to a greater or lesser extent. So we would see world building as a necessary condition for, but not coterminous with, trans-media storytelling. But, as Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘these are deep waters, Watson’ and we can either stop here or engage in a protracted discussion of media industries and of narrative theory. So we’ll go on to the next question.

Your focus on the future of Star Trek in the conclusion focuses almost entirely on official television production, yet you could argue that Trek does exist in a Post-Network era in the form of various fan-produced web-series on the one hand and the J.J. Abrams produced feature films on the other. How might we extend your arguments if we incorporated these two forms of textual production into the mix?

Yes, once again those are topics that we couldn’t really address within the scope of the book, although they are of course important, since at the moment its only in the Abrams and fan films that Star Trek exists on the screen (other than the endless reruns of the various series all over the channel spectrum that is –and of course in games which should also be given some consideration). Looking at these texts raises very interesting questions about who and what is Star Trek.

Considering the Abrams films and the fan films would require addressing in more detail than we did in the book issues of authorship and branding. It would also require considering issues of canonicity, which we didn’t touch on in the book except somewhat indirectly in terms of Roddenberry’s conception of the Star Trek world. In terms of the feature films, you’d have to think about whether or not these are seen as part of the ‘official’ canon because of the change in perceived authorship. We make an argument in the book concerning the importance of the Roddenberry brand to Star Trek television even years after his death. But has this continued now that Star Trek no longer exists as television?

Roberta’s doctoral student, Leora Hadas, has a forthcoming piece in Cinema Journal ("A New Vision: J. J Abrams, Star Trek and Promotional Authorship") in which she analyses the tensions between the Roddenberry and Abrams brands in the publicity for the Star Trek films. Her conclusion, as we remember it, is that relatively little attention was paid to Roddenberry and for the most part only in sources specifically directed at the fan base.

The whole point of the reboot was to bring in new viewers, who might not even know about Roddenberry and Paramount doesn’t seem to have had much concern for the core fan base in that regard (even though Roddenberry’s name features prominently on the posters for the first film and in the credits for both). And, if we may be permitted a personal observation, we think that Abrams has gone so far off-brand that he’s turned Star Trek into Star Wars, just another space-opera, spectacle-filled blockbuster. We’d be interested to know whether this is a perception shared by the fans.

Must admit that we’ve only watched snatches of the fan films, but we would suspect that they are much more ‘faithful’ to the established television canon than the Abrams films, as indicated by their efforts to incorporate writers from the original series. So it seems that further commercial exploitation of Star Trek has to be predicated on drawing in new viewers, which means downplaying authorship and canonicity, while the fans have much more of an attachment to the canon. In that sense, it may be the fan films in which for some of us the ‘real’ Star Trek lives on.

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).