Star Trek and Red Shirts

I watched Star Trek Beyond last night. No, I’m not the most up-to-date movie fan. I did manage to see the first Star Trek reboot film in a theater (where it was breathtaking). I watched Star Trek Into Darkness on TV. I watched Star Trek Beyond on my Fire, because it’s just come available on Amazon Prime. (I also have all the original series and Next Gen movies on my DVD shelf).

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I enjoyed Beyond. The movie had some humor, LOTS of action and explosions, people in red uniforms lying dead in corridors, fabulous CGI and special effects. Exactly, I suspect, what the movie makers were aiming for and what the audience wanted. There was even a sweet tribute to the late (and so very much lamented) Leonard Nimoy (Spock was always my favorite). Early in the movie, young Spock is disturbed by the news of Ambassador Spock’s death. Near the end, young Spock receives a box of Ambassador Spock’s belongings; he opens one intricate container to find a picture of the bridge crew from the original timeline.

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As much fun as the reboot movies have been, I still can’t quite see Chris Pine as Kirk. Karl Urban comes a little closer with McCoy—he has the acerbic wit and says what he thinks. Zachary Quinto comes closest as Spock—he does the mannerisms well, and he’s physically believable.

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But as much as I love a good alternate timeline story, as much as I’ve enjoyed the reboot movies as visually stunning space opera, I still have a hard time seeing them as “real” Star Trek.

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And now back to books: If you’ve ever been a Star Trek fan, the title of John Scalzi’s RedshirtsRedshirts says it all. Well, maybe not all, because the minute you (and the five newest crew members on the good ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, or Dub U) think you have it figured out, the story takes off in some new direction. I’m not going to give away much, because I love being surprised by a story, and this one bounced me around but good.

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The Trek universe redshirts were the extras who went on away missions with the regular cast. Guess who got killed. Often for no apparent reason, except to lead into a commercial break. No matter how much you enjoyed the Trek franchise, didn’t you ever suspect that the “science” side of the science fiction equation made no sense at all? And what about all those other people on the ship (three hundred or so on the original series, over a thousand on Picard’s Enterprise, at least 150 on Voyager)? What the heck were they doing in all those labs and on all those decks that we never saw?

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Redshirts is full of the most surprising answers to questions like that, sending up the whole SF TV genre from the inside (and with great love and respect). It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2013, and it’s one of the most entertaining (and funniest) books I’ve read in a long time. My appreciation for John Scalzi rises another notch.

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It’s been fifty years now, hasn’t it? I still love Star Trek, old and new. Bring it on.

Seven Months of Trek

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the beginning of the original series. I was in college then, without easy access to a TV, and it probably took me years to catch all the episodes (mostly on black and white sets back in the day). Since then I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek and The Next Generation an embarrassing number of times. I can nearly recite the dialog along with most of them. On the other end, I have to admit that, as much as I enjoy Scott Bakula, I never really warmed up to Enterprise.

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But I loved Voyager and Deep Space Nine, both long off the air. I’d seen all of Voyager, but not since its original run, and I’d missed big chunks of Deep Space Nine, which was shown in syndication and probably moved around the schedule a lot. So I chortled with glee last July when the oldie channel Heroes & Icons announced it would be showing all five series six nights a week, straight through in their original order. Voyager wrapped up (and started again from the beginning) last week, Deep Space Nine this week, and it was great fun to watch the whole sagas in seven months instead of the original seven years.

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voyager-companionI had picked up a copy of Star Trek Voyager Companion at Half Price books a couple of years ago and stashed in on the shelf with my well-worn copy of Captains’ Logs (which covers the franchise from the beginning through the casting of Voyager). Not the sort of book one sits down and reads from cover to cover, the Voyager Companion includes episode synopses, cast lists, lots of pictures, features on the characters, and several passable indexes, but not much behind-the-scenes information. When the series started its run last July, I started reading the book, episode by episode (especially useful when I dozed off during Act 3, not an unusual occurrence given the 11 PM time slot).

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I immediately decided I needed the corresponding Star Trek Deep Space Nine Companion, but that book was out of print and not easy to find. Enter Alibris, where I found a copy indeep-space-nine-companion mid August. I quickly caught up to reading by the episode. The Deep Space Nine book far outshines the Voyager volume (except for its lack of multiple indexes). Detailed synopses of the episodes are followed by behind-the-scenes sections describing the writing process, character development, special effects, connections to other episodes, and more. The tales of “story breaking” are informative not just for screenwriting techniques, but for the choices made in developing character and plot consistent with the long arcs of the series. Many finished episodes reflected only a kernel of the original story idea.

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Why do I continue to watch Trek episodes that I’ve seen over and over again? Not for the plots, good, bad, or indifferent. I know what happens, no surprises there. I watch for the characters. I don’t so much care what they’re doing—I care who they are. There’s a lesson for writers in that: we may have a plot, but without characters that our readers care about, we may not have a story.

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Live Long and Prosper!

The Stargates shut down last night,

perhaps for the last time, with the series finale of Stargate Universe.   I’d love to see the gates in operation again, but a movie and three series is a pretty good run.  I don’t know if last night’s episode was shot before or after the series was cancelled, if it was meant to be an open-ended finale or a season-ending cliffhanger, but I found it satisfying.

I didn’t discover Stargate SG1 until my cable system finally made the SciFi Channel (as it was then) available and I could catch up on the first few seasons on marathon Monday evenings.  Eventually I saw the whole series, and I never missed an episode of Stargate Atlantis.

So of course I watched Stargate Universe from the beginning–and sometimes found myself wondering why.  The show was dark, literally as well as thematically, and the first season episodes often meandered off track or left me wondering what the heck had happened.  Flawed characters, tangled backstories, confusing scripts, but I kept watching.  Alas, about the time the series seemed to find its center, it was cancelled.

Perhaps the third series failed to find its audience because it was so different from the first two.  About all it carried over was the Stargate itself, and the communication stones from Stargate Atlantis.  It lacked the wildly over-the-top villains of the earlier series: how could mere mechanical drones compete with the bizarre Go’aould, the terrifyingly doctrinaire Ori, or the vampiric, half-insect Wraith?  There were never a heck of a lot of laughs on Stargate Universe, either.   No Jack O’Neill, with his dry, self-deprecating delivery, no Vala Maldoran, with her cheerful, light-fingered approach to other people’s property, no Rodney McKay, with his endearingly insufferable ego.

Perhaps the Stargate franchise simply ran out of steam, as Star Trek seemed to around the last season of Enterprise.  As I write this, an episode of the original series is running on a local oldies channel in the background.  I’m not watching, but I know exactly what’s going on, because I’ve seen it more times than I can count.  I was in college when the original series ran, and I’ll bet it’s been running somewhere ever since.  I missed the original run of The Next Generation, but eventually caught up in syndication–again and again.   Deep Space 9, probably the best written of the series, was also the darkest and deepest, while Voyager ranged from very good to very silly.  But I’ve seen every episode, good and bad, of all four series, often.  And the movies.

Why?  Because the characters captured me.  I love science fiction, but there have been lots of SF attempts on TV, some respected and some dreadful, that never pulled me in.  That brings me to Enterprise, the last of the franchise series, the one that didn’t even include Star Trek in its title.  I watched all the episodes–once.  It was well produced.  It had Scott Bakula.  It came up with a halfway believable explanation of the great Klingon forehead ridge mystery.  But I never really cared about the characters.  Somehow that crew just didn’t pull me in.

When the rebooted Star Trek movie came out in 2009, I was a bit skeptical, but I went with friends to see it on the big screen–and I loved it.  The movie Roddenberry would have made if he’d had the money.  A workable reason for changing the time line and starting an entirely new story.  Actors who made it work,  and the familiar characters we’d cared about for so many years.

As a writer, I only hope I can create characters who will affect readers that way, make them care, make them come back to visit and make them wonder what happens after the story ends.  Of course, a plot device as good as the Stargate wouldn’t hurt.