You might be expecting me to discuss Star Trek: The Next Generation next in this series, but that would be disingenous to the actual chronological order in which the universe of Star Trek developed over the years. For 2 seasons, the blink of an eye by the standards of some series, Star Trek returned to television in the 1970s, but these adventures of the Enterprise and her crew were not filmed – they were drawn.
Star Trek: The Animated Series aired between September 1973 and October 1974. It was the only Star Trek series to win an Emmy as an exemplary television series. Granted, it was in the same category as Captain Kangaroo and the Pink Panther, but an Emmy’s an Emmy. The original cast with the exception of Walter Koenig returned to lend their voices to their iconic roles, while new characters and concepts were introduced that would not have been possible given the original show’s budget.
Despite the flexibility offered by the animated medium, an unfotunate side effect of going in that direction especially in those days is the occasional color discrepancy. From time to time, you might see Captain Kirk wearing a red shirt instead of his usual gold, while McCoy might wear gold instead of the typical blue. Additionally, some footage might get recycled, showing officers standing where they shouldn’t or an away team with more members than originally shown. Finally, the show’s director, Hal Sutherland, had a particular form of color blindness that affected or even amplified the color issues, especially in the case of the tribbles in Kzinti. To Hal, pink was light gray. So, when sci-fi novelist Larry Niven brought his fearsome feline Kzinti into the show, instead of seeing this:
…the Kzinti appear like so…
…which doesn’t quite have the same impact.
Still, the Animated Series continued to break new ground in television. It remained consistent in its championing of diversity and fearlessness. It introduced us to the holodeck (then called the recreation room) and continued storylines established in the original series such as the misadventures of Mudd and the rivalry between Kirk and the Klingon captain Kor. It also introduced us to Lieutenant M’Ress:
And so, Star Trek furries were born.
At a mere 22 episodes, the Animated Series had the shortest run of any Star Trek show before or since. For a while, the episodes were not even considered canonical. However, references to aspects of the show began to sneak into other iterations, from the appearance of Caitians (M’Ress’s race) in Star Trek IV to callbacks to full episodes in Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Despite the somewhat dated look of the series, there’s solid writing and memorable characters that rivals the original series, and if you can find the DVD of these animated adventures of the Enterprise, you’re bound to have fun watching.
As Heinlein once pointed out, heroes and villains come in complimentary pairs. Sometimes the protagonist of a given tale will spend more time with or thinking about the antagonist than they do their significant other. One might even find fiction that turns the antagonist into the hero’s significant other. However, it could be argued that a more interesting story occurs when an adversary, for one reason or another, becomes an ally.
This discussion involves some spoilers for a couple popular science fiction series, so consider yourselves warned.
Consider the case of Q, from Star Trek the Next Generation.
As I mentioned in my brief overview of his history, Q enters the series at its premiere as a clear antagonist. He is a seeimgly omnipotent being from an inscrutable interdimensional race holding the crew of the Enterprise responsible for the nature of humanity, described as a “savage child-race”. As the series progresses, Q takes a more personal interest in the humans aboard the Enterprise, Captain Picard in particular. He even goes so far as to put Picard in a situation where he can alter the past to correct a mistake he made, then shows Picard the ramifications of that correction to demonstrate that those things we do, as mortals, that sometimes cause us shame help define who we become through the hard lessons we learn. By the end of the series, Q and Picard have put aside their differences and come to respect one another for a variety of reasons, but mostly because Q has stopped acting solely as humanity’s judge, and Picard has realized that this former adversary has become an ally.
Another fine example is the Cylon model known as Six from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.
From her numerous iterations both on Cylon-occupied Caprica and the refugee fleet, Six demonstrates that she is loyal to the Cylon cause. And yet, her appearances in the mind of Gaius Baltar appear to be assisting humanity. She claims that she is an instrument of God, putting her in direct opposition to the polytheistic belief held by many humans in the Lords of Kobol while simultaneously assisting in their survival. While many copies of Six exist in keeping with the other Cylons in the series, on more than one occasion we see the character acting in ways that assist humanity rather than opposing it. This is especially the case with ‘Caprica Six’ who saves Baltar’s life during the initial attack on the Twelve Colonies. Her later actions put her in the same category as the Cylon model Eight who later adopts the callsign ‘Athena’ when she returns with Karl ‘Helo’ Agathon from Caprica.
Conflict is the foundation of drama. You need someone who opposes your protagonist(s) by presenting them with obstacles to overcome or situations to endure. However, a villain who simply twirls their moustache and cackles at the thought of doing evil tends to be one-note and somewhat boring. By having them act in a way that ultimately helps the heroes accomplish a goal, you color the antagonist differently and give them a dimension of depth. This especially holds true if the villain’s assistance not only helps the hero accomplish their goal but also helps the villain achieve some other aim. Audiences love a clever antagonist, which is why the Xanatos Gambit is so popular.
Having your antagonist look like Tricia Helfer doesn’t hurt, either.
I have fond memories of the days at university when the lights would go out, we’d sit on the couch or floor with our hastily-cooked meals and wait for The X-Files to come on. We drank in the ambiance, the supernatural nature of the weekly problems and the interplay between Mulder and Scully. Not to mention Scully herself. Since the show left the air, there have been some attempts to recapture that sort of eerie and disturbing storytelling magic. Treshold came close but was let down by a small audience, a bad time slot on Sci-Fi Channel (which has since renamed itself SyFy which should tell you something about the chimps running the joint) and a lack of mystery or real suspense. At least they had Carla Gugino, though.
And then Fringe came along.
J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman drew inspiration for their show not only from The X-Files but also The Twilight Zone (remember that one, kids?), the film Altered States and Michael Crichton’s novels, as well as mixing in the procedural atmosphere of Law & Order and the serial nature of Abrams’ previous major success, Lost. Unlike the writers of Threshold, which included Brannon Braga to nobody’s surprise, Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman quickly demonstrated their ability to build suspense, maintain mystery and create dramatic tension between interesting, multi-dimensional characters.
One of the first casting choices they made was John Noble as Dr. Walter Bishop. The thinking, it seems, was something along the lines of “What’s a show about mad science without a mad scientist?” But unlike the dour Dr. Frankenstein or the madcap Emmett Brown, Dr. Bishop has the somewhat doddering charm of an aging but beloved grandparent coupled with a scientific curiosity that supersedes what most people would consider sound ethics. The good doctor has the answers to the causes behind a string of inexplicable and deadly events being investigated by “Fringe Division,” a multi-agency task force. FBI agent Olivia Dunham, played by Anna Torv, is recruited for this top-secret operation following the mysterious death of an airliner full of passengers and mortal wounding of her partner and lover, John Scott. Her investigation leads her to Walter Bishop, who’s been institutionalized for almost two decades. To get him out, she needs to enlist Walter’s son, Peter Bishop. More than just a means to access Walter as both next of kin and a cypher, Peter is a genius in his own right, a master of several languages and has the sort of shady connections that allow Dunham to go just outside the law to get whatever she needs to solve her case. Peter is played by Joshua Jackson, who got the role after impressing Abrams in his audition for James T. Kirk.
The show is fresh and visceral without seeming hackneyed despite it’s inspirations. Characters develop gradually instead of in fits and starts, the science behind the odd events has some rooting in reality and is never a technobabble fix worthy of Star Trek. Unlike Lost, where the plot is obfuscatory at best, the procedural nature of Fringe keeps the events rooted and moving forward in spite of their supernatural aspects. Everything that happens in Fringe feels like it could happen, even when things like teleportation, pyrokinesis and interdimensional travel are introduced. The fact that these things are happening to and around people we actually care about helps make Fringe worth watching, as well.
The first season is available on DVD and the second season is well underway. Thursday nights in January will find me waiting for the innocuous piano music that introduces the show with hints at things like “Dark Matter,” “Suspended Animation” and “Telepathy.” Like those days gone by, I’ll be turning down the lights and wondering what sweet treat Walter’s obsessing over this week. He, after all, very eloquently described the simple appeal of a root beer float:
“It’s heavenly. And earthly, at the same time.”
The same, one might argue, could be said for Fringe itself.
I know I said I’d be doing a post on adversarial allies next, but a few episodes of House & NCIS completely derailed that line of thinking. To me, at least, what makes for a good character is just as much what somebody doesn’t say as it is what they do say. As an example, I’d like to point towards just about any character played by David Morse.
This guy has been all over the place. He’s played both heroes and villains. Just a year after playing the arrogant, self-centered prick of a cop who acts as a foil to the arrogant, self-centered prick of a doctor who gives House it’s name, he showed upon on the John Adams mini-series playing George Washington. Surprisingly, these characters have something in common. And it’s not Tritter’s habit of chewing nicotine gum in a way that tells you he’s angry at just about the entire world.
It’s quiet strength. There’s a restrained ferocity about most of Morse’s characters. Instead of bellowing one-liners and chewing on the scenery, Morse conveys, in just about all of his characters, a sort of insular and confident demeanor that seems to say “I’m awesome, but I’m not about to toss my weight around to prove it.” Seriously, watch a couple of the ’06-07 episodes of House, then watch the portions of John Adams featuring Washington. The similarities are uncanny.
Another example of this sort of quiet strength comes in the form of Leeroy Jethro Gibbs.
Mark Harmon gives Gibbs his trademark stare, his direct and sometimes almost sotto voce way of pushing his team and the passion he has for those he cares about, which only rarely explodes out of him. He knows how to sweat people in interrogation, without having to resort to strong-arm tactics or much shouting, though he does raise his voice from time to time. In any given episode of NCIS, you can see what I’m talking about. There are certain looks, stances and moments where no words are spoken but Harmon communicates Gibbs’ emotions much louder than any scenery-chewing could ever hope to convey.
Especially if somebody messes with Abby.
Anyway, it’s something to aspire towards as a storyteller and an author. Just about any hack can put words in the mouth of a protagonist in an attempt to make them heroic or macho and end up having them be hammy or even ridiculous. Sometimes camp can be a good thing, but if you want to build true dramatic tension and have people craving more of a particular character, it pays to show rather than tell, to describe a character’s expression in a few words rather than have them rant for a page. This might mean you’ll write fewer words, and while this is a detriment to projects where one gets paid based on word count, in longer works the brevity of these efforts might prove invaluable.
Then again, that’s just my opinion, and considering I’ve only been published a couple times, I could be wrong.
Between the Fan Collective DVD sets to which I have access, either through direct ownership or asking my parents very nicely, and the intelligent and hilarious opinionated reviews by sfdebris (even funnier in video format), I’ve been watching plenty of Star Trek lately. It’s not just good entertainment, it’s rich background material for anybody doing something creative in the science fiction genre. Ronald D. Moore used his experiences as a producer on The Next Generation to shape his re-launch of Battlestar Galactica, and when it came time for Joss Whedon to put Firefly down on paper, he likely looked at Star Trek almost as a reminder of what he didn’t want to do – no faster-than-light travel, no aliens, etc. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What I’d like to do is look at the five Trek TV series on the whole, discuss how they came to be, what makes them stand out and where, with the benefit of hindsight, one might see room for improvement. It makes sense to begin at the beginning, with Gene Roddenberry’s original series.
It was the 1960s. A bitter Cold War was on between the United States and the Soviet Union, exemplified in, among other things, the space race. Voices of the generation were raised against what they saw as unjust or dictatorial practices, seeking equal rights for minorities and women as well as protesting the evils of war. Nuclear annihilation was a daily fear and television was coming into its own as a form of escapism for any household fortunate enough to own a color set.
This was the world into which Gene Roddenberry introduced Star Trek. Up until this point, popular science fiction had been limited to the campy likes of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, movie serials playing in the local cinema rather than the comfort of one’s own home. Most of the general population, then, expected Star Trek to be full of ray guns, rocket ships spouting fire from their backsides and villains dressed in bright robes with names like Ming the Merciless. The closest thing to what Star Trek brought to television was 1956’s Forbidden Planet.
In Star Trek we have the interstellar star ship the USS Enterprise, captained by one James T Kirk. Kirk and his crew are representatives of the United Federation of Planets, an organization of worlds promoting peace and exploration. In keeping with this somewhat Utopian society, the bridge crew includes an alien, a black woman, an Asian helmsman and, from the second season onward, a Russian navigator. The ship also has a Scotsman down in the engine room and a cranky country doctor in sickbay. This diverse crew will be doing more than flying really fast and shooting at bad guys: they negotiate treaties, investigate the unknown and travel through time.
The crew also slipped quite a few things passed NBC’s censors. Instead of being simple shallow entertainment, Star Trek’s writers, like the fictional crew, boldly forged into new territory. They tackled topics like race relations, sexism and war, using the Enterprise and her crew as an allegory for the United States of the day. While the scripts of the show were not immune to the frequent tampering by network executives and corporate sponsors, couching these controversial themes in science fiction trappings allowed a lot of the true innovation of the series to slip by unnoticed. Thus, at the same time communicators and transporters are introduced, we see hated enemies coming to an understanding and even grudging respect (“Balance of Terror”) and television’s first interracial kiss between fictional characters (“Plato’s Stepchildren”).
However – and this might be where I start getting flamed, folks – the show isn’t perfect. Roddenberry was adamant that his crew avoid interpersonal conflict. When Kirk and Spock battle in “Amok Time,” it’s done with Spock under the influence of the Vulcan pon farr, meaning he really isn’t himself and would never harm Kirk in other circumstances. While this reinforces the Utopian ideal of the Federation, it isn’t what I would consider realistic. Individuals with different upbringings are going to have differing opinions that may escalate into arguments and conflict, and this is just when those in questions are all humans. Throw aliens into the mix and the chances of conflict rise exponentially. Also, while the writing often goes in bold directions for the time, there is the occasional inexplicable weirdness of episodes like “Shore Leave,” where McCoy encounters Alice’s White Rabbit, “The Savage Curtain,” where the Enterprise crew battles evil alongside Abraham Lincoln, and “The Way to Eden,” in which the Enterprise is hijacked by hippies. Finally, the show was produced in the 1960s, so some of the effects can seem somewhat dated by today’s standards.
Despite the previous paragraph of nit-picking, science fiction wouldn’t be where it is today without the sizable contribution of Star Trek. In addition to it’s various innovations, it’s good television, more often than not written well with compelling characters and interesting stories. Unfortunately it only lasted three seasons before finally succumbing to the machinations of the network. It was followed by the well-done animated series in 1973, of which I’ve only seen a few episodes, and the first seven films of the Star Trek franchise, which may gain their own entries in upcoming IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! posts. In any event, what keeps it from being a mere footnote in the ever-evolving field of science fiction is the quality of the storytelling. Yes, the effects might not have aged well and sometimes the 60s-era writers get a little baked and produce something odd, but overall Star Trek set the standard for innovative, socially-aware and damn good science fiction delivered right to your TV set.