Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Turning on to the universe of stories

There are two other features of television drama that eventually became very important in how Star Trek became a mythology. The first is in how the audience experiences television drama.

Television is the most widely shared medium for stories in its time, as the novel was in the nineteenth century. Like reading, watching television can be a solitary experience. But like watching a play or a movie in a theatre, it can also be personal, but experienced in a group. Like stories on the radio, many people in a very large area typically experienced the same story at the same time. (This was before VCRs and cable TV, of course. There were just three commercial broadcast networks in the U.S.) So TV drama is a potent combination of all these storytelling media.

Then there is the special nature of the television drama series. The series presents different stories about the same characters in the same "world" every week. This creates a cumulative power and effect. Since a show was usually on at the same hour of the same day of the week, there was even an element of ritual involved in watching it.

I don't think it's appreciated enough how big a change it has been in human culture for such a quantity and variety of dramas-of acted-out stories-to be available in one's own home. A series of stories about the same characters and world available at the same time every week (and as evidenced first with Star Trek, when it went into syndication, by being able to inhabit that story world every day) is very powerful. The only historical analogies are to myth and religion, but even when they were numinous in daily lives, the gods and heroes were not acting out their adventures in the living room.

Then again, maybe they were. The gods and heroes of the past were as real to people of the past as any movie stars or TV heroes are today, and probably even more deeply felt as real and essential. But even these figures were creatures of story. They existed in story, and in the drama of ritual.

The television drama series is unique historically also in how it is created. All drama is collaborative: it simply takes people working together to put on a show, with a script, actors, costumes, sets, etc.

But the drama series presents different stories about mostly the same characters, over months and even years. The actors who play those characters are therefore very powerful creatively. Their power is made even greater by how a TV series is typically organized: directors, who are very powerful in single dramatic presentations in theatre and movies, are journeymen in TV. Producers stay with shows longer than directors and writers, but the lead actors are the most consistent element, and therefore they become the caretakers of consistency and integrity.

The integrity of Star Trek is one of its greatest characteristics. GR seemed to have communicated his vision so well to so many dedicated people, and he got them to believe in it so much that they became the caretakers of the integrity he established.

This seems to be partly because of the power and attractiveness of the vision. So many people involved in Star Trek over the years can articulate that vision so beautifully, from the well-known actors who played now-legendary characters to little-known film editors or musical composers for a TV episode, to a guest actor in a Star Trek movie.

But it also seems to be partly due to how GR related to people. Actors who went for what they thought was an audition found a man interested in their dreams and hopes, their life experiences, rather than their acting credits. He talked to them about his hopes for the series, and what the Star Trek future meant to him. He made them co-creators on the spot, and many have maintained and represented that vision.

By the nature of drama, actors make the characters partly their own, because they literally embody them. This is even more so in a weekly television drama series, when over time, and because of the relentless speed of production, the character takes on more of the actor's personality and characteristics. Even how the actor and the character blend varies from actor to actor.

William Shatner became Captain Kirk, partly from his conscious choices and conception of the role, and partly from his energy and personality, and (as Shatner has said) partly out of sheer fatigue: he couldn't spare the energy to pretend to be anyone else.

Leonard Nimoy became Mr. Spock by creating a character, beginning with a conception and some physical ideas, and refining and adding to them over the years (Nimoy invented the Vulcan neck pinch, and chose the gesture for the Vulcan hand greeting, as well as contributing many other nuances and Vulcan characteristics.) He also developed the character through playing scenes with the specific actors who played other key characters like Kirk and McCoy. He so intently inhabited the character,that Spock began to affect Nimoy. (His two books even contain dialogues between Spock and Nimoy.)

The actors talked with GR about their characters, some of them (like Nimoy and Nichelle Nichols) in great detail, helping to create a depth of "backstory" and understanding that the actor could bring to each moment on the screen. The actor's portrayal in turn influenced and inspired subsequent writers, so that the character and the actor become even more melded together.

Being co-creators and caretakers of the Star Trek vision was expressed in many ways, large and small. One of my favorites is the story about George Takei, when he was instructed by a new director in the third season to push a certain button. He refused: it was the wrong button for what he was supposed to be doing. The director thought he was being silly---he had the lighting set up, it looked good, just press the damn button!

"I can't," Takei said. "If I do that, I'll destroy the Enterprise!"

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