Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Believing in the Enterprise

Still, GR was not just making story---he was making drama. Drama is from a Greek word that means "action." In our terms, it basically means action you can see and hear. It means action that imitates the look and sound of the reality it is pretending to be, according to the conventions of the medium.

You believe (or suspend your disbelief) in the reality of a city street, for instance, according to the medium. If it's a stage play, an obviously fake streetlamp, a few facades of buildings will be enough---you know the reality is only suggested. If it's a TV show, there has to be more detail. If it's a movie, even more detail. A TV show might get away with a realistic looking street with a few buildings and some people, but no real sense there is a city around it. A movie has to give you the sense that the street is a real street in a real city, fully functioning and populated, with streets that lead to other streets, to the rest of the world.

A television series exists in a particular world, but that world has to be complete within itself. A series set in contemporary times just has to select from what exists: the kinds of clothes, tables, forks, lamps, cars, telephones and toothbrushes that are sold in one store or another. Westerns and other historical dramas can raid museums, old photographs and traditional conceptions to make their worlds.

But the future has to be invented, and built pretty much from scratch. Wherever the idea came from to take this really seriously, as an opportunity to build a plausible future, GR gave it life with a stubborn and ultimately creative consistency.

It makes sense on lots of levels to really think it through, and keep it consistent. First, it helps to counter one of the big objections to science fiction-that it's all fanciful and can't be taken seriously. For the fact that the clothes, tables, forks, lamps and communicators of the future don't yet exist is in a dramatic sense irrelevant. By creating those things, you create that future, and you have to create them, because this is drama. You have real people as actors, playing characters who need ways to keep warm and dry, and ways to ingest nourishment, get around and communicate. Once you build and show your future, and it works for those characters, that future becomes real.

From watching and reading science fiction, Roddenberry said years later, he had figured out what he would do if he ever got the chance to write it. "I'm going to try to make it as scientifically accurate as possible and write [these scripts] the way we wrote the old Playhouse 90." He wanted to treat the fantastic as if it were real, hoping that the double message of a wondrous reality would act like a magnet for the eyes and hearts of viewers.

For example, the space ship. "My feeling was that if you didn't believe in the spaceship," Roddenberry said,"---if you didn't believe you were in a vehicle traveling through space, a vehicle that made sense, whose layout and design made sense...then you wouldn't believe in the series."

For scientific accuracy, the Trek team consulted with scientists at RAND and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, involving technical matters at high and rarified levels, such as whether faster-than-light travel was possible, and if so, what principles might be involved in powering a craft through the immense distances between the stars.

But Roddenberry and other armed services veterans could bring their own experience with large ships and large aircraft in World War II to the concept of a large starship and crew. The Trek team thought carefully about how many people would be aboard, where they would sleep and how they would eat. They thought about how the bridge would work best, and who would be on it. Where would the ideal place for the captain to be?

All of this was fairly deep thinking for science fiction on film. But this was not a single movie, nor a before-the-feature movie serial or one-time television drama. This was a network dramatic series, and Roddenberry had been writing for those long enough to understand their basic requirements.

This basis of workable, recognizable reality that made sense had to extend to the people aboard the ship. The Trek team thought about the kind of people who would make it to the most important vessel in a future fleet. Roddenberry remembered the rigors of flight school in World War II-the many who washed out at each step in the process. Some anomalies of behavior were inevitable, but certain kinds of excesses or deficiencies just weren't credible-you wouldn't get to serve on a starship if you had them. So while certain character flaws might make dramatic conflict easier, relying on them might sink the sense of reality.

To further establish that sense of familiarity and continuity with the present, Roddenberry wanted to give the starship a name with a pedigree: first it was the Yorktown, and then the Enterprise. The various other naval analogies would further ground the series in reality, and besides personal experiences of the veterans on the team, Roddenberry had several years researching leadership and training while writing for the West Point TV series.

Some of the future technology could be extrapolated from the most advanced ideas of today. Roddenberry looked at instruments at North American's Advanced Space Research Center to get ideas, not only of what the Enterprise instruments might look like, but what they wouldn't be like, what would be obsolete. There would be some sort of "computer," which barely existed in the mid 1960s. What would computers be like-what would they do-- in 400 years?

Sometimes the answer would lie partly in science and partly in behavior: what would people in the future want their technology to do? In considering what a 23rd century sick bay would look like, you might start by thinking about what current technology medicine would want to improve. Assuming advanced ability to monitor an array of physical functions, what would be the most efficient way to do that, for both the patient and the physicians? The answer was the bio-bed with its clearly visible electronic monitors of heartrate and other basic functions., which didn't wait until the 23rd century to become a hospital commonplace.

That Star Trek took such pains to extrapolate from existing science and especially from the speculations at the far edge of certain sciences, is probably a factor in its longevity, as well as partially accounting for its fans among scientists, engineers and the technologically inclined.

Scientific plausibility is a slightly different thing, and here the instincts of a science fiction fan, as GR had been since childhood, combine with the prejudices of the age. The science fiction fan is interested in the science as part of the adventure. But the network executives and perhaps the skeptical viewer are more reassured than excited by scientific plausibility. Science has changed reality so thoroughly and so often, that anything that seems "scientific" is granted a certain (perhaps grudging) suspension of disbelief.

The basics of the Star Trek universe were created according to need and opportunity. Some were brilliant ideas that happened to work very well within the TV budget, and some---like the transporter, which negated the need for expensive shots of the spaceship landing on a different planet every week---were actually economical.

While GR got interested in what future technology might be, he also approached the future as a storyteller. So the future technology had to be plausible, even if no one really knew if it was possible, or how it could actually work. It's the difference between Dick Tracy's wrist radio, which was plausible even in the 1940s, and his invisible airplane, which wasn't.

It is this application of the imagination of a storyteller as well as a scientific imagination that made H.G. Wells' visions of the future much more wondrous and (as it turned out) much more accurate than that of so-called experts. It's the same combination that GR infused in Star Trek.

Plausible technology used consistently (warp ten is always warp ten, phasers do what it is established that they do) adds up to a believable future. The rule applies beyond technology, to the other elements of a complete future.

Thinking about the future that way wasn't just smart, it was almost mandatory. Because this is drama-a future that has to be shown, and the characters have to been seen living in it. Because this is television drama ---and it has to be the same future next week and the week after.

But at a certain point, or maybe it just happened gradually, GR must have realized that in creating a universe for his TV series, he was creating a future. Making it a better future only made sense---since it seemed clear that unless humanity improved, it was going to destroy itself and any future with it. But it was also an opportunity, to create a future worth living in.

Creating a universe for Star Trek’s stories turned out so well, that it became the basis for the evolving mythology of the future, which is Star Trek, and all that Star Trek has influenced in how people envision the future.

"Gene [Roddenberry] created a totally new universe," said Gene Coon who joined Star Trek as a writer and producer midway through the first year, and who himself came up with important elaborations on that universe. " He invented a starship, which works, by the way, and is a logical progression from what we know today. He created customs, morals, modes of speaking, a complete technology. We have a very rigid technology on the show. We know how fast we can go. We know what we use for fuel. We know what our weapons will do...He didn't create a show, he created a universe, and it works..."

Star Trek eventually became so well known for its self-consistent universe--- not only with technology but planets and societies, interplanetary institutions with their laws, rules and directives, alien races with histories and mythologies and even languages---that fans debate the fine points of violations, decry lack of "continuity," and speak like ecclesiastical scholars of what is "canon" law and what is not.

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