The Null Device

Wagon Train In Space

Star Trek screenwriter Ron Moore reveals one of the long-running TV show's secret: it's not actually science fiction:
He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they'd have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.
"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."
What do you mean, you say; of course it's sci-fi; they have robots and laser guns and people in latex alien masks and shots of futuristic corridors, in a way that, say, The West Wing and BBC costume dramas don't. The problem is that, if you got rid of the latex masks and content-free technobabble and moved the plots to 20th-century America (or any period in history; the TV characters are all written as 20th-century Americans anyway), they'd work just as well. Which is why Star Trek (whose original working title, it should be remembered, was "Wagon Train In Space") and other TV shows of its ilk fail at the function of science fiction, which is to explore the effects of radical technological and social change on the human condition. Though science fiction author Charlie Stross puts it better:
I use a somewhat more complex process to develop SF. I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don't have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects — much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.
Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it's background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast. You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech — make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail — without changing the scripts significantly. (The only casualty would be the eyeball candy — big gunpowder explosions be damned, modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!)
The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don't find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.

There are 1 comments on "Wagon Train In Space":

Posted by: Pete Townshend Fri Oct 16 06:41:27 2009

We've got to tech the tech

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