Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Stories of Stories

Star Trek took inspiration and stories not just from science fiction, but from everywhere. Even when H.G. Wells was writing his breakthrough s/f novels, he was using elements of the Gothic tale (which we'd now classify as Horror), the romance (he called his novels "scientific romances"), the exotic adventure story of Jules Verne and later H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as the detective genre that Edgar Allen Poe had pioneered and Wells' friend, Arthur Conan Doyle, would make internationally popular.

Wells used techniques of the literary novel of his day so well that The Time Machine and his other early s/f novels won him the praise of literary greats like Henry James and Joseph Conrad. But he used even earlier forms, too; as a Russian contemporary and s/f writer noted, his stories had a lot in common with folk tales, complete with humble characters and something like magic. They also resembled fables and aspects of myth and history.

So by the time of Star Trek, part of s/f tradition was re-telling other kinds of stories in this new language and new form. This flexibility gave Star Trek's s/f great energy and possibility. It also came naturally to television writers, who were used to taking plots and characters from one kind of story and transposing them in another.

It wasn't just a matter of Star Trek's "planet of the week" re-imaginings of Greek gods and ancient Rome, Nazi Germany and Capone's Chicago. Even in the Next Generation era, there were re-tellings, adaptations and absorptions of everything from Shakespeare's Henry V, Tristan and Isolde and Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, to movies like The Manchurian Candidate, The Maltese Falcon and Robin Hood, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Key Largo and Auntie Mame. In its various incarnations, Star Trek has made at least 5 different versions of Moby Dick. In one of the classic original series episodes, which further inspired one of Star Trek's most popular features, Star Trek reworked an episode of Captain Video (both by the same writer)---in "Space Seed."

These forms---science fiction and television drama---were particularly good at adapting and synthesizing, to create new stories, to add to the universe of stories. But this is a natural part of storytelling, not only for writers but for actors and other co-creators. It was important for Brent Spiner to see the arc of Data as a Pinocchio story, a puppet becoming a boy, but he also looked to men who told stories through small physical gestures, like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, for how he would play Data in a given action in a particular scene.

It is part of the wonder of story for the audience as well that they are experiencing something new, something unexpected, yet some part of it, some undercurrent of story, is familiar, reassuring. Stories are made from other stories, storytelling builds on storytelling. Something new, something of the future is added. But something recognizably human is always there.

It is this very feature of science fiction stories that helps make them more powerful, and in the largest sense, more accurate, in their visions of the future.

Art, science, everything: it's all made by choosing and synthesizing, and structuring the combination. Something new is made from many familiar elements, as well as the discoveries which are often re-discoveries. Storytelling is partly a product of its own rich history, and while that history may or may not be known consciously, it is often felt. We each have our own dreams, but we all know what dreaming is, and we can recognize ourselves in the dreams of others. We are each unique combinations, and we are all human.

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