In The World of Star Trek, screenwriter and science fiction legend David Gerrold reveals the people, places, and events that made Star Trek one of the most popular series ever. Gerrold discusses what was successful and what wasn’t, offering personal interviews with the show’s legendary stars and dissecting the trends that developed throughout the seasons.
Covering the original television series created by Gene Roddenberry and the phenomenal fandom it inspired—and updated to include the triumphant big-screen Star Trek films—this is a unique inside story of the Star Trek universe, from scriptwriters’ memos to special effects and more.
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The First World of STAR TREK — Gene
First, there was Gene Roddenberry's dream, a television show called "STAR TREK."
The idea was described as "Wagon Train to the Stars," or "Hornblower in Space" — the adventures of a far-traveling starship and her crew.
Perhaps the best description of the show is in the lines spoken at the beginning of every episode:
"Space — the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise, her five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilization, to boldly go where no man has gone before."
Or, more exactly, from The Star Trek Guide*:
(Excerpted from orders to Captain James T. Kirk) III. You are therefore posted, effective immediately, to command the following: The U.S.S. ENTERPRISE.
Cruiser Class — Gross 190,000 tons
Crew Complement — 430 persons
Drive — space-warp
Range — 18 years at light-year velocity
Registry — Earth, United Space Ship
IV. Nature and duration of mission:
Galaxy exploration and investigation: 5 years
V. Where possible, you will confine your landings and contacts to Class "M" planets approximating Earth-Mars conditions.
VI. You will conduct this patrol to accomplish primarily:
a) Earth security, via explorations of intelligence and social systems capable of galaxial threat, and
b) Scientific investigation to add to the Earth's body of knowledge of alien life forms and social systems, and
c) Any required assistance to the several Earth colonies in your quadrant, and the enforcement of appropriate statues affecting such Federated commerce vessels and traders as you may contact in the course of your mission.
In sum — "Hornblower in Space." Just as Captain Horatio Hornblower was the highest representative of English law in the far waters in which he sailed, so would Captain James T. Kirk of the Enterprise be the highest legal representative of Starfleet Command in the far reaches of the galaxy.
He would be explorer, ambassador, soldier, and peacekeeper. He would be the sole arbiter of Federation law wherever he traveled — he would be a law unto himself.
The implication here is that there are no other channels of interstellar communication. At least, none as fast as the Enterprise.
Let's examine this for a moment, because it's essential to understanding the STAR TREK format. Captain Kirk is an autonomous power. Purely from a television point of view, he must be an autonomous power — otherwise the series lacks drama and he lacks interest. If Kirk could check back with Starfleet Command every time he was in trouble, he would never have any conflicts at all. He would simply be a crewman following orders. He wouldn't be an explorer or an ambassador at all — just the Captain of the local gunboat on the scene.
For Kirk to be a dramatic and interesting human being, he must be wholly responsible for his own actions as a representative of the Federation. As such, every decision he has to make becomes an important one.
Fortunately, the exigencies of space travel — especially faster-than-light travel — support this kind of dramatic concept.
We must make one assumption, though — that faster-than-light travel is possible. This is the basic assumption of STAR TREK: that man can reach the stars. It is the only assumption we need to make, but it is the hook on which the whole series (and much of science fiction, in general) hangs. Without faster-than-light travel, we are stuck in our own solar system — and that's too much of a limitation for our storytellers. Why should we deny ourselves a background as broad and irresistible as a whole galaxy — or a universe?
Science fiction is the contemporary fairy tale, it's the twentieth-century morality play. At its worst, it's merely romantic escapism; but at its best, it is the postulation of an alternate reality with which to contemplate this one. Strictly from a dramatic point of view, we need the assumption of faster- than-light velocities. It is as necessary to the genre as the assumption that miracles can happen is necessary to the artistic success of a medieval religious pageant. (In either case, the implication is optimism about the workings of the universe.)
Despite the fact that almost everything we know about the workings of the universe suggests that it is impossible to achieve the speed of light or velocities faster than that, we can still make the assumption. We are violating Einstein's Theory of Relativity, as well as the vast body of scientific knowledge that backs it up, but we can make the assumption. Not just for dramatic reasons, but for scientific ones as well.
You see, if it is possible to travel faster than light, the method will not be discovered by anyone who has already decided that it is impossible. Rather, the discovery will require a man who assumes that it is possible, and who will speculate at length on the conditions necessary to achieve such. In fact, this is how the hypothesis of the tachyon was arrived at — a tachyon, if it exists, is a particle that cannot travel at less than the speed of light, only faster. If tachyons can now be proven to exist, then we will know that faster- than-light travel is possible. So, the assumption is not so outrageous as some science purists might insist.
Star Trek postulates an alternate reality where faster-than-light travel is an established fact. Granted this one assumption, we can then proceed to establish the nature of an interstellar society. One of the things we must know is the nature and quality of that society's communications.
Given the Star Trek format, given the workings of the universe derived from the one basic assumption that we have to make, we can establish that there are only four possible channels of communication between the planets of different stars.
Three of them are impractical.
If we examine them all, we'll see why they're impractical. And also, we'll see why Captain James T. Kirk can't help but be an autonomous power.
The first method of communication, of course, is radio. Or television. Or modulated laser beams. Or any kind of wave modulation that travels exactly at the speed of light. Obviously, if the speed of light limits our spaceships, it also limits our radios.
The nearest star to our own sun, Sol, is Proxima Centauri. It's 4.3 light-years away — that means that light, traveling at slightly more than 186,000 miles per second, will still take four and one third years to get there. Any quantity traveling at the speed of light will take that long. And that's assuming the signal was still strong enough to be detected when it arrived. (Even a pencil-thin laser beam will spread, when projected from the Earth to the moon, to cover an area more than a half-mile in diameter. And that's only to the moon. How far is it to Proxima Centauri?)
No, the reason why we can't use radio or light waves is that they're self- limiting. The key word is limit. Hang on a minute and you'll see.
STAR TREK almost got around this. The TV series postulated a "subspace radio." While this was never explained in detail, the implication was that this was a method of communication much faster than light, but still not instantaneous.
A message to Starfleet Command sent by subspace radio might take several hours or days. Beyond that, either the time lag was too great or the Enterprise was out of range. The answer was too slow in coming.
This is the same limitation as with radio waves — only the scale is different.
When you are thinking in terms of interstellar distances, there is no such thing as a small number. Even the small numbers are big ones. If your subspace radio is not instantaneous, if it functions at a measurable speed, then that speed is its limit. And no matter how fast it is, the distances of the galaxy are still vast enough to make that speed seem insignificant. The point can be reached where, even if your ship is not yet out of range, a dialogue still becomes impossible. Given enough distance, even the smallest time lag will magnify eventually.
Let's try another.
The third method of interstellar communication involves the use of robot- torpedoes; that is, unmanned faster-than-light ships, guided by inboard computers. They would be launched from one planet to deliver a message to another, light-years away. The torpedoes would not be spaceships per se; rather, they would be propulsion units, guidance system and payload only. There would be no life-support capabilities at all.
As couriers, these torpedoes would be as fast as their propulsion systems would allow; at least as fast, probably faster, than comparable manned ships.
This particular channel of communication was never used or shown on Star Trek — but given the technology that could design and build a starship Enterprise, the capability to build robot-torpedoes as well also had to be there.
The use of such torpedoes would be highly practical for planet-to-planet communication. A robot can deliver mail just as easily as a manned ship.
On the other hand, the torpedo would be almost completely impractical for ship-to-planet or planet-to-ship communications. (How does a preprogrammed torpedo find an unprogrammed ship?) From the dramatic standpoint alone, the faster-than-light torpedo is as impractical as the radio and the subspace radio. There is still a time lag.
The torpedo is just an interstellar carrier pigeon. Like the other two methods, it can deliver a message or it can send one — but it cannot serve as the vehicle for a dialogue. And a dialogue is precisely the kind of interstellar communication that we are looking for. A dramatic story requires it.
If there were an instantaneous communication channel available, then a ship like the Enterprise would be unnecessary and her mission redundant. Obviously, there is no such instantaneous channel — at least, not in the STAR TREK universe. The existence of the Enterprise proves it.
You see, the Enterprise is the fourth method of interstellar communication. It is the only practical vehicle of interstellar dialogue between two far removed existences — and as such, it is the one we are primarily interested in as a basis for stories about divergent planetary cultures clashing with one another.
The situation of this interstellar society is almost exactly analogous to the Earth of the eighteenth century. Then too, communications over vast distances were slow and uncertain. The arrival of a courier was always an event. Even if the news he was carrying was several weeks, months, or years old, it was still the most recent news available.
When one government had to deal with another, they used diplomatic notes and couriers — and in matters of highest policy, they depended upon their ambassadors. Because communications were so slow, an ambassador could be a particularly important individual. He was the arm and authority of his government. He was its voice. He was the man who determined and enacted the policies of his nation with regard to his specific area of authority.
Likewise, the Captain of the Enterprise must be just such an ambassador. He will be a minister with a portfolio of his own making. Carefully briefed as to Starfleet's goals and policies, it will be his responsibility to interpret them and act in the wide variety of situations he will confront. He is a piece of Starfleet itself. He is the piece entrusted with the mission of conducting the "interstellar dialogue."
Now, let's translate that into television.
A successful dramatic television series needs (a) a broad-based format about (b) an interesting individual or group of individuals whose responsibilities force them into (c) unusual situations and confrontations, requiring (d) decisive and positive action on the part of the protagonist and his cohorts.
Any successful dramatic series will fulfill these requirements. The better it fulfills them, the more likely it is to be a success.
Let's define our terms here:
Dramatic: synonymous with conflict. A confrontation is implied. The story is man against_______________. (Fill in the blank.) Man against man, man against nature, man against himself. The protagonist, or hero, is prevented from reaching his goal by an obstacle or series of obstacles. The more difficult these obstacles are, the more heroic he has to be in order to overcome them. How he overcomes them tells us what kind of a person he is.
The story is told as a series of climaxes rising in intensity, each more exciting than the one before. Every climax involves a confrontation with an obstacle, until the final climax when either the obstacle or the hero is defeated.
In drama other than series television — say, a play or a movie — the event that is being told is the most important event in the hero's life. It is the whole reason for the existence of a story about this person. We are not interested in Robinson Crusoe after he's rescued; we don't care about Dr. Frankenstein after the monster has been killed; we are through with Robert Armstrong after King Kong topples from the Empire State Building. Only the final confrontation is important — and what the hero learns from it.
What the hero learns from the event is what makes it the most important event in his life. The hero must learn something. (Or fail to learn something, but in that case, the audience has to recognize that he has failed.) Scarlett O'Hara learns that she really does love Rhett Butler. Dorothy learns that you need brains, a heart, and courage, and that it's inside you all the time or you never had it at all. Ryan O'Neal learns that Being in Love Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry.
The story is about the lesson that this person has to learn — and these are the events that teach it to him. Hamlet learns how to make a decision. Oedipus learns humility.
This is the point of all drama. It is the sole justification for any play — — except on series television.
Or for that matter, in any kind of a series. Whether it be Doc Savage, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, or James Bond.
In a series the form has to be turned upside down — the events depicted must not be the most important events in the hero's life. Otherwise, there's no point in going on with the series. Everything after that would be anti- climactic.
This is the dilemma of series television. On the one hand, the producer must present dramatic stories week after week — on the other, he must not be too dramatic. Otherwise, he damages the series as a whole, ending up with a cumulative body of work that is essentially melodramatic. And then the ho- hum reaction sets in. Thus, the television producer's problem becomes one of how to tell exciting stories week after week without descending into melodrama.
The single dramatic element which provokes excitement in a play is this: your identity is in danger. All others are merely variations: your life is in danger, your country is in danger, your girlfriend might leave you, your wife might find out, your brother might die, the police might catch you. Something threatens to prevent you from being the person you already are or want to be. This is the hero's problem and we identify with him. He copes with it and learns something about his identity and why it's so precious to him. The audience identifies with him and his problem and learns something too.
But if you endanger the hero's identity week after week on a TV series, not only do you run the risk of melodrama — you also run the risk of falling into a formula kind of storytelling. This week Kirk is menaced by the jello monster, he kills it by freezing it to death; next week Kirk is menaced by the slime monster and kills it by drying it out; the week after that he is threatened by the mud monster and defeats it by watering it down; the following week Kirk meets the mucous monster ... Again, the ho-hum reaction. Or even the ha-ha reaction.
Fortunately for the dramatic arts, the number of possible identities and the number of ways of endangering them is unlimited. And therein lies part of the answer to the TV producer's problem.
You don't have to endanger the hero every week. You can endanger someone else, someone around him — and it is his responsibility to come to that person's aid. If he incidentally has to endanger himself in the process, so much the better. The result is a semi-anthology format, and it is the only way possible in which to avoid falling into the trap of doing formula stories.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The World of Star Trek"
Copyright © 2014 David Gerrold.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
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