5 Basic Star Trek Plots

Back when I was still a kid writing Star Trek fan fiction, there were only four Star Trek TV series and ten movies. No Discovery, no Kelvin universe or any of that other snazzier, slightly darker stuff we’ve been getting served recently. And now I hear that they’re expanding the franchise even further, with more shows and films, including a new Captain Picard show.

Now… I don’t want to knock the new stuff. Most of it is quite good in its own way. But if I have one criticism for them all, its that they lack that cheese, that optimism, that je ne sais quoi that made Star Trek, Star Trek. They’re just a bit to grim. Too serious. Dare I say, too cool. And for that reason, I’ve got my doubts about this new Picard show. I’m fearful that it’s going to take one of the franchises’ most beloved characters and ruin him. And so, for the benefit of any would-be Star Trek writers, I have compiled this list of five basic Star Trek plots to help you on your way to writing a traditional, cheesy Star Trek story.

A Disasterous Transporter Malfunction

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Source: http://gph.is/2mm5hol

In Star Trek, the transporter is a ‘completely safe’ device which breaks an object or person down at the molecular level and re-materialises them on another ship or planet.

What could possibly go wrong?

Lots, apparently. It turns out that a dicky transporter can leave you with stones embedded in your body (ENT: “Strange New World”); separate your ‘good side’ from your ‘evil side’ so that you become two separate people (TOS: “The Enemy Within”); beam you up naked (VOY: “In The Flesh”) and re-materialise you as a child (TNG: “Rascals”). Remember, would-be Trek-writer, the transporter is a treasure trove of light-hearted nonsense with which you can easily fill up an hour with.

Going Faster Than Fast And Ending Up Somewhere Crazy

Sometimes, perhaps due to an alien seizing control of the ship, because we entered a wormhole or because somebody accidentally broke the ship’s engines, we’re now moving even faster than we ever thought possible.

The burst of speed only lasts for a moment, and naturally the first thing to do is figure out where we are.

But wait… this must be a sensor malfunction. But it’s not! You’re three or four galaxies away from where you started (TNG: “Where No One Has Gone Before”)! You’ve ended up in front of a terrifying new antagonist (TNG: “Q Who?”)! You’ve mutated into an amphibian and had amphibian babies with your amphibian captain (VOY: “Threshold”)!

How will we ever resist the mind-altering properties of this weird place?!

How will we escape the terrifying aliens?!

How will we ever look Captain Janeway in the eye again!?

There you go. There’s your story.

We’ve Been Unwittingly Killing/Enslaving Intelligent Lifeforms!

It’s life Jim, but not as we know it. And that’s our lame excuse for hunting it like vermin (TOS: “The Devil in the Dark”), destroying its natural habitat (TNG: “Home Soil”) and forcing it to carry out dangerous or degrading tasks for us (TNG: “The Quality of Life”).

However, nobody but the regular cast seems to realise that this poor creature is clearly an intelligent life-form and any suggestion that it might be will be met with great hostility. This kind of story usually goes one of two ways:

  1. The creatures declare war on humanity and almost destroys the ship. The climax consists of a stand-off between humanity and the new lifeform in which only a last ditch attempt at diplomacy can save the day.
  2. A few frightened/unbelieving humans (usually guest stars) propose a course of action which will destroy the new lifeforms, resulting in a conflict between themselves and the regular cast, who are more enlightened and realise that killing is wrong.

The Inevitable Time-Travel Episode

No Star Trek series is complete without at least one time-travel episode. The crew’s odyssey through time is often (though not always) involuntary and, more often than not, it will involve correcting a significant change in established historical events. Sometimes this change will have been brought about by a malevolent force who is deliberately interfering in history (e.g.: DS9: “Trials and Tribble-ations”; VOY: “Relativity”) while other times it will be the regular cast themselves who have accidentally changed by history simply by being there (e.g.: TOS: “The City on the Edge of Forever”; DS9: “Past Tense”).

There are exceptions, of course. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home paid precious little attention to the continuity of the time-line (the crew invented transparent aluminium early, took a native back to the 23rd century and regrew a woman’s kidney without a second thought). So by all means, have fun with time-travel.

The Inevitable Court-Room Episode

Budget drying up? Try writing a court-room episode. These feature hardly any flashy effects and are mostly dialogue-driven. It’s nearly always a member of the regular cast who has either been wrongly accused of some offence (TOS: “The Wolf in the Fold”, TNG: “A Matter of Perspective”, DS9: “Inquisition”) or else is fighting for their basic rights (TNG: “The Measure of a Man”, VOY: “Author, Author”). However, there are exceptions. Sometimes its a guest character who’s on trial with the emphasis being placed on the character’s main advocate, who is usually a member of the regular cast (TNG: “The Drumhead”, VOY: “Distant Origin”).

Honourable Mentions:
  • Someone Is Violating the Prime Directive!
  • A God-like Alien Is Bullying Us
  • A Regular Character Falls in Love and Gets Dumped in One Episode
  • The Whole Crew is Going Mad!
  • The Whole Crew has Caught a Plague!
  • There’s Klingons/Romulans/Jem’Hadar/Borg on the Starboard Bow!

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Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

On Titles

Titles are possibly one of the hardest things to get right when it comes to writing your story, no matter what it’s genre and format. Not only are they hard to come up with, but they (like most things) tend to be a matter of taste. If there’s one thing I personally hate, it’s when writers (or perhaps more likely, their publishers) feel the need to give their book an agonisingly tedious title like ‘Confessions of a [optional adjective] [noun]’. That’s a great way to stop me ever reading your book, watching your film, attending your play or partaking of anything else you might produce. Writers and publishers everywhere, take note: I really hate that kind of title with an indomitable passion.

But I digress.

Titles are hard but you can’t very well avoid giving your story one. Most depressingly of all, there’s a good chance your publisher will throw out your snazzy title that you agonised over and replace it with some other, more marketable title (Confessions of a Philistine Publisher, or something like that). Still, they won’t even look at your story if you don’t give it a title first so there’s nothing else for it, I’m afraid. Your story needs a title.

So, let’s start by defining exactly what a title ought to be. First and foremost, the title must be relevant. Please don’t call your story The Swashbuckling Adventures of Captain Bloodbeard if you’ve written a cozy mystery novel set in some English country estate. If your title promises swashbuckling adventures, your story had better deliver swashbuckling adventures; and the only people I know who swash their buckles are pirates. Don’t get me wrong. A good title can be a little bit more cryptic than the one I’ve just made up, but there’s a big difference between cryptic and downright misleading.

Your title is a promise to your audience. Like any good advert, it should tantalise the audience with the promise of a good story without giving too much away. The reason Peter Newman’s The Vagrant caught my eye (among all the other fantasy novels on the same shelf) was because it promised me something that I always look for in a story: a compelling protagonist. I did not know for sure at this stage if the protagonist was actually going to be any good, but as soon as I saw that title, I was willing to give it a chance because I needed to know who the Vagrant was. If, on the other hand, Newman had simply entitled his novel ‘The Bloke’, I probably would have shrugged my shoulders (in fact, with a title like that, I wouldn’t have really expected to find it under fantasy at all, but never mind).

Some titles are phrases borrowed from the text of the story itself. The title A Game of Thrones for instance is a phrase which is used in the actual text of the story. Personally, I’m always a little bit cautious about doing this. It works with A Game of Thrones for two reasons:

  1. It’s a really snazzy phrase
  2. It encapsulates what the story is about, without giving away any spoilers.

You really need both of these in place to make a title like this work. If it’s not a snazzy phrase, it won’t catch anyone’s attention and if it doesn’t give some indication as to what the story might be about, you will only end up with disappointed readers. The phrase, ‘Alas! Earwax!’ is found in the first Harry Potter book, but let’s be honest: if you saw a book in a shop entitled Alas! Earwax! you wouldn’t expect it to be a story about wizards. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, please, please, please, never come up with your title and then try to incorporate it into the text of your story… otherwise you’ll end up with something horrible like:

And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?

– Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact

Seriously, just don’t do that.

Another possibility is to use well known expressions and sayings as titles (as long as they’re relevant. Always keep it relevant). For example, the title of Jeffery Archer’s Cometh the Hour is clearly derived from the expression ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. We all know that expression and what it means, and therefore, when we see the title of Archer’s book, we get a certain idea in our head of what kind of story it might be (without it really giving anything away). If, however, you can’t find an expression that conveys the kind of ideas you want it to convey, why not try distorting a popular idiom as Ian Fleming does in Live and Let Die. Not only does that title tell you something about the story itself, but it is also eye-catching because it flies in the face of popular wisdom.

Alternatively, if you’re really feeling brave, you might want to use a single word as your title. If you’re going to do this, I would generally use a word that sums up the main theme of your story. While it is certainly possible to name your story after the main character (e.g. Ben-Hur by Lewis Wallace) or the main setting of your story (e.g. Dune by Frank Herbert), it’s unlikely that these kinds of titles will catch anyone’s attention if we’ve never heard of the people or places in question before now. Why should I care about who Ben-Hur is or what happens on Dune (not that I’m knocking Dune or Ben-Hur; they are, in fact, two of my favourite books)? On the other hand, Roald Dahl’s short-story collection, Deception, has a very effective title because it sums up the main theme of every story therein. We all know what it is to deceive and be deceived. It’s a theme we all understand and care about; therefore, it becomes interesting to us.

I hope some of this helps. Also, remember that while it is important to come up with a good title, try not to lose any sleep over it either. What really matters is that you tell a great story. You can have the best darn title in the world, but the story is what your audience will really care about. Some of my favourite books have rubbish titles and there’s a good chance your publisher will change the title anyway, so it’s not worth getting overly attached to anyway. But don’t let that stop you from coming up with the best title you can. After all, it’s the first thing your would-be publisher will see so give it your best shot. If your story has to get rejected, make sure that it gets rejected because for the story – not because it’s got boring title.

How To Make a Spin-Off That Doesn’t Suck

This week, I had planned to write a blog about my favourite TV spin-offs; ‘5 Spin-Offs That Are Actually Worth Watching’, or something to that effect. I don’t know exactly what I would have called it. The whole idea was blown out the water when I realised I couldn’t think of many spin-off shows I actually liked; certainly nothing that I liked enough to devote several hundred words to raving about. A painstaking trawl through Wikipedia’s ever popular list of television spin-offs did nothing to inspire me. It only confirmed what I had already begun to suspect: most spin-offs suck.

‘Why is this so?!’ I hear you cry.

Good question. Difficult to answer in broad-sweeping general terms, but I think I’ve managed to identify a few pitfalls that a great many spin-offs fall into that makes them suck. Avoid these when writing your spin-off and you might stand a chance of coming up with something that doesn’t make me want to tear my eyeballs out or (worse yet) yawn loudly and start playing with my phone.

Pitfall #1: The Surprising Shift in Genre

In spite of what I said earlier, as a Trekkie I love both Star Trek: The Original Series and most of the subsequent spin-off shows and movies. One of the reasons for this is because you know where you are with a Star Trek show. Whether it’s the Original Series, The Next Generation or Voyager, you know you’re getting a reasonably family friendly sci-fi/drama. The main setting is nearly always a starship (except for Deep Space Nine where it was a space-station, but close enough). There’s always a captain, a first officer, an engineer, a doctor and so forth. There is continuity with the original show, and that appeals to the most important audience you should be targeting with your spin-off: fans of the original.

But believe it or not, there really have been other Star Trek spin-offs on the cards which were mercifully never produced; spin-offs which broke this rule. For example, Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek’s creator) did have short-lived plans for one Star Trek spin-off which was to be a sitcom about Lwaxanna Troi (the mother of one of the regular characters in The Next Generation). No seeking out new life, no starship, no boldly going… just extravagant dresses and canned laughter (in Star Trek, if you please).

Need I say more?

Pitfall #2: The Surprising Shift in Age Appropriateness 

I’m looking at you, Torchwood, Class, The Sarah Jane Adventures, K-9 and whatever other Doctor Who spin-offs there might ever be. If you’re going to do a spin-off of a successful show, the chances are your main audience is going to be people who already watch the original. Remember, knowing your target audience can make or break any kind of story, so if your original story is a dark psychological thriller about an axe-murderer, don’t make the spin-off a children’s show about the exciting adventures of the axe-murderer’s 12 year old nephew. Your new audience won’t be familiar with the backstory and the old audience is unlikely to be interested

And for the love of bacon, don’t do it the other way around either. You’ll only end up getting letters from angry parents.

Pitfall #3: The Protagonist is a Supporting Character from the Original Show

Now before I go any further, I want to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with supporting characters in one show becoming the protagonist of another. It can work very well. For instance, in spite of what I said earlier about the Doctor Who spin-offs, I do think Jack Harkness was just as good a protagonist in Torchwood as he was as a supporting character in Doctor Who. After all, characters are people. People make good protagonists. But if you want a supporting character to have the leading role in your spin-off, they need to evolve beyond that minor role and become full-blown protagonists in their own right.

If the original story has a well developed cast of characters, this might be quite easy to do. Torchwood worked because Jack Harkness was already such a rich character in his own right whether the Doctor is present or not, and so he made the transition to protagonist easily. But let’s pretend we were going to write a new Doctor Who spin-off… let’s call it… I don’t know… Roses Are (Presumed) Dead (see what I did there?); a spin-off about the Doctor’s companion Rose, after she got trapped in a parallel universe and was declared dead. In theory it could work quite well, but you would need to develop that character beyond what she is to begin with. Now living in the parallel universe without the Doctor, she needs to have motivations and goals of her own that the viewer can relate to and care about.

Pitfall #4: Writing a New but Inferior Protagonist to the Original

In some ways, writing a brand new character to be the protagonist is probably far easier to do well, since you’re just creating a brand new protagonist from scratch instead of trying to augment a supporting character

However, you must make sure that your new protagonist lives up to the vibrancy of the original one. Remember, your original audience are the main folk you should try to appeal to. Sorry to keep banging on about Doctor Who spin-offs (there’s just so many of them), but one of the many things I hated about Class was that the protagonist(s?) was so rubbish. Boring, often annoying and quite forgettable. Nothing compared to the Doctor, Jack Harkness or even K-9 in my opinion! The best thing about Class was when the Doctor appeared in the first episode (I don’t know if it was any good after that; I couldn’t bring myself to watch another episode), and for ten marvellous minutes, we had a protagonist worth watching.

The only trouble is, the Doctor isn’t supposed to be the protagonist of this show! Don’t just rely on your popular fictional universe to make your story good. Characters, especially the protagonist, are the beating heart of a good story every single time.

Pitfall #5 – The Protagonist is the Same Protagonist as in the Original Show

Once again, there’s nothing really wrong with this. It can work. Just ask yourself, if the protagonist’s story is finished, why are you still writing about him? It can be tempting to drag out a story beyond it’s natural lifespan, especially if it’s been popular, but if your protagonist has done all he needs to do, just let him live happily ever after. If, on the other hand, the protagonist’s story is not finished, why does it need a brand new spin-off? Why not do another series of the original?

A spin-off must require a brand new premise to truly stand on its own, especially if it has the same protagonist as the original. The British sitcom Porridge and its spin-off Going Straight both feature the same protagonist, but it works because the protagonist, who was originally a prisoner of HMP Slade in Porridge, has now been released in Going Straight and is trying to live a crime-free life. Same character; different premise. It’s a brand new story with the potential to be interesting in its own right. That’s what you’re going for with a spin-off, no matter what format it takes. Something that’s both new enough to be stand alone and familiar enough to draw in your original fans.

How Can Meyer Save Star Trek?

If, like me, the thought of a new Star Trek TV series fills you with a peculiar combination of hope and dread, you might be interested to learn that CBS has employed the services of the writer, Nicholas Meyer for the new (as yet, untitled) Star Trek reboot due to be aired in 2017.

Nicholas Meyer is no stranger to the Star Trek franchise, having written several of the original cast films. After the original Star Trek series was cancelled and Star Trek: The Motion Picture flopped, Meyer breathed new life into the dying franchise by writing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Since the success of that film, the Star Trek franchise exploded into the phenomenon it is today, with more TV spin-offs, films, computer games, conventions and merchandise than you can shake a bat’leth at. Indeed the Abrams film, Star Trek: Into Darkness, which is replete with references to The Wrath of Khan, serves only to underline the fondness fans have for that particular film. I doubt I’m the only fan waiting with bated breath to see what kind of story Meyer is going to cook up for us in 2017.

Fans have been, at best, mixed in their opinions about the most recent Star Trek offerings. Star Trek: Enterprise was, in my humble opinion, truly dreadful. I think I knew it was going to be dreadful from the moment I heard the words ‘It’s been a long road…’. I have a great deal more respect for the efforts of Abrams in creating Star Trek (2008) and Star Trek: Into Darkness but even these seem to lack the magic of the original series and The Next Generation. I doubt I’m alone in wondering if Meyer can again save Star Trek from dying a very slow and painful death or if it really is ‘time to put an end to your trek through the stars’ (Q in TNG ep., ‘All Good Things’).

Perhaps the reason the previous series have all been so successful (Enterprise notwithstanding) is that they were all very different from each other. Thus, even though they were all set in the same fictional universe, there was never a feeling that one was a poor imitation of the other; rather, they stand side by side to create the great tapestry that we now think of as the Star Trek universe.

The original series first aired in the mid-’60s and it shows, not only in the costumes, music and other stylistic points but also in the kinds of themes it explores. For example, through the depiction of a utopian future, issues of racial equality are dealt with again and again through-out the original series at the very same time that real-life people like Martin Luther King Jr. were actively involved in the American civil rights movement. Nevertheless, this ‘utopia’ still does not allow for female captains. In fact, the final episode of the original series specifically deals with a woman who wishes to captain a starship and, in an effort to do so, swaps bodies with Captain Kirk and is eventually busted because she was ‘hysterical’.

Jump ahead to The Next Generation and we see a Star Trek universe which has definite continuity with the original (no doubt due to the fact that it was created by Gene Roddenberry, who also created the original) but has also adapted to suit the period it was aired (late ’80s-early ’90s). Female captains are now seen on screen (although it is not until Star Trek: Voyager that we see a female captain in the regular cast) and we now also see that the Star Trek ‘utopia’ has expanded to include the disabled, such as Geordie LaForge; the blind chief engineer who is in no way disadvantaged or patronised on account of his blindness.

Since [being blind and wearing the VISOR] are both a part of me and I really like who I am, there’s no reason for me to resent either one (LaForge in TNG ep., ‘Loud as a Whisper’, parenthesis mine).

The themes dealt with in each series are by no means the only differences, especially when you begin to diverge into the Voyager and Deep Space Nine series. The creators of these two shows (both created after the death of Gene Roddenberry) very wisely shied away from imitating Roddenberry’s work by creating yet another series about humans exploring space on the starship Enterprise but instead created two completely different stories which complimented the series created by Roddenberry. Voyager, like the first two series, is also set on a starship, however instead of exploring the galaxy, the crew of the starship Voyager are lost on the other side of the galaxy and are trying to make the treacherous journey home. Deep Space Nine is also very different to the other series. This show is not set on a starship at all, but on a space station orbiting the planet Bajor. It includes a complex meta-narrative, far darker and more intricate than anything seen in previous incarnations of Star Trek.

When we compare this to Star Trek: Enterprise and the Abrams reboot, it is perhaps a little easier to see why both of these have proven to be so unpopular. In and of themselves, they are entertaining enough to watch but they both attempt, in their own ways, to recapture and update the magic of Gene Roddenberry’s original creation. In this, they fall sadly short.

We can really only speculate as to what the new series will be like, since CBS have been pretty tight-lipped about it so far. Enterprise and the Abrams reboot may give die-hard fans reason to believe that the new series will be a disappointment but I do not believe it is fair to write off the new series before we have even heard any details about it. Unofficial fan-made shows and movies such as Star Trek: Renegades and Star Trek Continues suggests to me that it is still possible for gifted writers who care about Star Trek to create a new Star Trek that is worth watching. I think what matters most is that Nicholas Meyer and any one else involved in writing for this new show remains as faithful as possible to the work of Gene Roddenberry while still feeling confident to go carefully, reverently and boldly where no one has gone before.