Unique Arena with Universal Appeal

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and storytelling – coming to a very different understanding than the Syd Field plot point structure that I previously had.

Writing and telling stories is about human experience, condition and potential. No matter how much action or plot devices are employed to happen to the characters, stories are about people, what choices they make with the information they have at the time and what regrets or alternative choices they make when they learn more through the process of story advancement.

The best stories are in a unique arena but deal with universal human conditions.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding could have been Ukrainian, Indian, any group really, since it was about a woman in a given culture who had expectations of her that she couldn’t comply to and be a happy fulfilled person, she had to find her own way – which was to not stay within the boundaries of her family’s culture, but were within the mainstream of her society and her character (no coming out as a lesbian or turning into a drug user, character’s actions arise from the character’s personality and goals) – marriage to a cultural outsider, but marriage nonetheless and along the way, self esteem and self valuing without taking away from parents and other family.

Whale Rider, the story of a Maori girl caught between the reality of being a socioeconomically marginalized minority in limbo between tradition and modernity, with her traditionalist grandfather grieving for the loss of tradition partly symbolized by having a granddaughter rather than a grandson to carry on the tribal leadership and her modern father, who has a non-Maori girlfriend and an art career in Europe and little time for his daughter. This movie could have been set in any aboriginal culture around the globe where traditional ways, particularly gender roles, are at odds with modernity.

What both of these movies have in common is a person at odds with what’s expected of them within their subculture and mainstream society and their longing to belong in a way that retains their individuality. The longing to belong, to live up to or exceed exceptions, to contribute something uniquely you, is the universal longing that anyone not dead inside can related to.

Tapping into that universality, is the magic of storytelling – to the level that, when used effectively, can change minds. Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, the unfairness of being fired for having AIDs overrode a lot of people’s aversion to gay people and was a landmark movie in that it was one of the first big studio gay movies were the characters were just people who were gay, and no one went crazy, straight or suicidal. The usual endings for gays in straight movies or in cautionary tales…..

The Star Trek universe has endless possibilities to explore.

The original series was originally planned to be a scientific exploration of space and all the possibilities. The network said too cerebral and the show was recast and reset as cowboys playing diplomats in space.

The series alternated episodes of exploration and alien encounters with shipboard diplomatic intrigue. The comedy was broad and the emotions were epic with life at risk – well, for Ensign Expendable, anyway – in every episode – in addition to choosing…NOT..to kill..today, we also chose to live morally, to follow the prime directive, to seek out new and novel, to boldly go, and so on.

Star Trek Next Generation was truer to the original show concept, but with the difference that the ship included families – when you live and work in space, the commute would be killer, so the Enterprise becomes not just home to explorers, warriors and scientists, but a makeover to actually be home, with children and pets, not just a spaceship, but a functional city with all the infrastructure needed. Next Generation, more than the original show, explored what it meant to be human but the quality of our connections to other people, to family and friends, adding a more diplomatic sensibility, more science exploration but no less adventure and conflict; because with families in tow, the loss of the Enterprise becomes a loss of humanity, not just explorers and adventurers – it’s easier to charge around the universe and mix it up with aliens when it’s just you and a lot more challenging when it’s your whole family along for the ride.

Which changes the dynamic not only for the Federation, but reveals something of ourselves to the aliens we encounter – consider it from the alien contact point of view – aren’t you more likely to be diplomatic with people who are adults aboard an armed exploration vessel or with people who have a community of families – the possibilities for cultural exchanges and more meaningful diplomacy increase the more we are willing to show and share of ourselves with others.

Plus, no one can embarrass you as much as family, opening up new possibilities for character exploration than adults alone, not dealing with children or parents.

Star Trek Deep Space Nine occupies the same universe, but instead of Academy elite, the crew was comprised of blue collar administrators working with planetary counterparts from a planet not ready for Federation membership. A planet trying to cling to it’s pastoral roots, complete with caste/feudal social structure and it’s religious interpretation of what the Federation deemed to be work hole aliens who existed in non-linear time. Prophets to the locals and wormhole aliens to the Federation.

Star Trek Voyager returned us to the Academy elite with a prototype ship that, while smaller than the flagship enterprise, was a Yuppie SUV star ship with all kinds of creature comforts and advanced tech – but mashed that up with ragtag ex-Federation rebels and throw them out of the galaxy, leaving them lost in space just trying to get home.

The constant conflict between getting home with Federation values in tact or just getting home at any cost, of having to choose your own people’s interests or an alien population’s interests allowed for highest of drama – the dilemma of morality.

Star Trek’s universe is big enough for any perspective to be used – scientific, bureaucratic, exploration, enforcement – that there are truly endless possibilities for the franchise in a way that retains the freshness and the idealism of the original series, without the fatigue of the Star Wars franchises, which is far more specific character focussed than the possibilities of the universe.

I for one would look forward to a Star Trek show where the main cast is the Temporal Prime Directive Enforcement or where the crew is exploring other kinds of space and dimensions or alternative universes, such as they did in periodic episodes. Even an Earth based show set at Star Fleet Academy and Headquarters, with a political intrigue of opening up diplomatic relations, allies or war with other quadrants of the universe, there’s so much more than the alpha, delta and gamma quadrants.

A sort of Star Trek meets Sliders.

Sometimes it seems that other scifi shows could be developed by taking a Star Trek episode to a bigger extreme – in many ways, Farscape was Star Trek Voyager – only instead of a star ship, it was just one human thrown far away from home in an unfamiliar universe, with the extra hook of earth being current day and woefully behind the other species, technology wise.

I’d love to see a show that uses the concept of the recent Bridesmaid movie and instead is set on an Enterprise type ship, but is about the night shift, the lower level officers who are along for the big adventure, who’s lives depend on command decisions, but who don’t have such immediate access and input at the command level.

Or about a ship who’s mission it is to maintain the time line integrity – we’ve had these characters in time line episodes, but they are certainly series worthy all their own.

As for what kinds of characters could populate the shows – still with the established archetypes, but make character algorithm tweaks.

First, the captain – we’ve had white men, a black man and a white woman.

I’ve never watched Enterprise, largely because I was disappointed by the stepping back before the Kirk Enterprise – Gene Roddenbury’s vision was a future where people could achieve their potential because survival necessities were assured and humans could move beyond the me at the expense of you mentality that pervades and is what the Occupy Wall Street movement is trying to reject and raise awareness of. At least, as far as I can tell.

Stepping back and doing a show before the Federation came into it’s own and dealing with our crappulance of getting to a more noble and productive existence was a misstep for many reasons, but mostly, because it seemed to have been done just to avoid the black woman that was somewhat expected as the next captain.

The decision to step back seems to have been a coddling of sensibilities stuck in the historical attitudes that Star Trek has always stood against. Worse, it was caving into people who aren’t even the audience for the show, much like how the Beauty and the Beast show didn’t show Vincent and Catherine kiss, but somehow, they still had a baby……

I thought that it would be interesting to jump the alternation and skip the black woman and go to a Southeast Asian woman captain, but then I thought, go bigger and have the first Human-Alien hybrid captain – go beyond concerns of mere ethnicity to beyond species centric – the Federation is always accused of human eccentricity so either a non-human captain or a human/alien hybrid captain would bring a fresh perspective to the universe and an interesting exploration of the human condition consideration.

Certainly, Voyager opened up a whole other type of what it means to be a captain, and how to bring out the best in your crew – the mother nurturing of Janeway compared to the father knows best Picard, the daring do of Kirk, and the inspiring big picture but roll up the sleeves and get dirty Sisko.

Carrying on from the Voyager tech, of having a ship with biological components and holosuites to provide recreation, therapy, laboratories for theoretical and actual research – allowing crew’s holoexperiences (recreational and therapy) to create the very subroutines of programmed personality for holocrew characters.

More than that, to combine the tech so that the ship is near living – as crew work out new applied science ideas, the ship then replicates the parts, growing the ship’s systems as the crew needs. I’ve always thought that the holodeck and replication technology should be combined, and the ship is a constantly evolving entity with key crew hard wired to the ship’s computers, and anything the crew can imagine or design tested in holosuites and then made real through replication technology.

The only thing missing, and this would change the writing of episodes, is to add the element of emergency preparedness to the shows.

Crew communication pins serve also as transporters, in the event of dire situations, the crew member is saved in an emergency pattern buffer for later retrieval and restoration to bio existence – stranded on a planet – set the beacon and beam into the pattern buffer – no need to live out your life isolated and stranded if you’d rather just wait for rescue.

Actually, giving an emergency preparedness consideration, there’d be a lot of tech shake up with new application – not just emergency back ups, but active preparedness contingency planning, could go a long way to re-explore and create challenges in the Star Trek universe.

7 thoughts on “Unique Arena with Universal Appeal

  1. Nina,
    was Gene Roddenberry gay? I’ve never thought about it.

    Is George Takei gay? (that’s a joke, not at him but with him since he’s been so vocal about it, which has probably had a big effect on TV)

    I’m not a fan of Star Trek so your article lost me at a certain point, but I really like the theme and your pondering of the human nature behind movies.

    If audiences didn’t care about character, then every movie adapted from a video game would be a blockbuster. Indiana Jones has incredible action sequences, but most importantly, it has Indy, Marion, Sallah and Belloq.

    • Gene Roddenberry was definitely not gay – he was very much into women and had affairs with almost every woman on the original Star Trek show. He was the biggest Rock Star at conventions too.

      We like to be entertained with stories, but it’s the human element that connects us to the stories.

      Without that connection, there wouldn’t be fan conventions for any movie or tv or books – it’s because we care for the characters beyond their mere entertainment value.

  2. I hate to do another plug but the Elvis book Treat Me Nice has a brief fictional episode based on Star Trek. It also has another brief fictional episode based on Doctor Who. The rest of the book is much more responsible and is non-fiction. Kirk was definitely an elitist fantasy but he was a good guy. He came from a period when the elite had a sense of responsibility.

    • It’s totally okay to plug your book
      I was at an Elvis conference and Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling were speakers.

      One of the fans got up and asked if Elvis liked Kirk or Spock better and neither of them remembered watching Star Trek with Elvis, so that was a bit disappointing.

      But, I think Elvis would have liked Kirk better – he was the captain and he got all the girls.

  3. Gene Roddenbury’s idea of the future was that there was room for everyone.

    So the Next Gen and DS9 each had several episodes that looked at sexuality as being merely one aspect of a person, and that sexuality was variable.

    After all, when sex is possible between people of different species, why should gender really be a factor anymore?

    Especially with the Trill species – who are a being inside a host which change over the lifetime of the Trill – so really, we need to just love who we love, despite their gender, not because of it.

    Although, the role of religion in the Star Trek universe was that it’s for pre-Warp societies or those that haven’t worked out their problems and aren’t ready for Federation membership.

    religion in Star Trek is at best, just a cultural practice with none of the baggage that religion has now

  4. I’m liking you more and more each post! We’re working our way through the ST:TNG he bought me for my birthday last year, and loving it. It’s hard for me to realise the show is 20 years old, it feels like yesterday. It is much less preachy than the original series, or at least less blatant about it. I’ve noticed they steer clear of homosexuality, except for one episode (I think we are in season 6 currently). I think if they did the show now, they would have a gay character as easily as the first series had a black character – and the first ever TV interracial kiss. We’ve come a good distance in 20 years, of course not far enough…

    • we just finished watching Next Gen, DS9 and Voyager.

      what’s really fun are the Voyager episodes that recall the 1930s/40’s sci fi serial movies

      having what amounted to a Flash Gordon within the Star Trek universe

      I think that was a delightful way to pay tribute not only to earlier sci fi, but to show the continuous connection that we have with our cultural heritage

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