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

transoprter.gif
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!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what beams you up.

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.

Writing Non-Human Characters #3: Robots

Well, it’s week three on my impromptu series of posts on creating non-human characters for your stories. We’ve already done animals and aliens, so this week, I want to focus on creating robots. Now I don’t want to waste too much time getting bogged down on the technical differences between robots, androids, cyborgs and so on, so for the sake of this post, I’m using the word ‘robot’ simply as an umbrella term for any kind of mechanical or artificial person. Suffice it to say there are important differences between robots, androids and cyborgs and you would be well advised to understand them before attempting to create one for your story.

If you’ve been keeping up to date on the last few posts, you will have noticed a common theme running through them: the idea of anthropomorphising (that is, giving human traits to) your non-human characters to to make them more relatable to your audience. However, as we have also seen, the extent to which you anthropomorphise your character and how you go about anthropomorphising your character will vary greatly depending on the kind of character you’re trying to create and what their purpose is in your story.

One of the first things to consider in creating your robotic character is a bit of the history of the character and the history of robotics for your fictional world in general. Of course, backstory is important in all character building, but for robots there are a few other important questions you will need to answer first. For example (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Are robots commonplace in this society or are they a new invention?
  • What is the function of robots in this society (e.g., slaves, free and equal citizens, problem-solving machines, childrens’ toys, etc)?
  • Are robots in general/your robot in particular built with fail-safes, such as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? If not, how are they kept from running amok? Indeed, are they under control? Many stories about robots revolve around this very theme.

Depending on your answer to these and similar questions, you may want to make your robot characters seem very human or very mechanical. However, if you’ve got any intention of making your robot a main character in your story, you will probably want to give them at least some human traits to make them relatable to your entirely human audience. This is a fairly absolute rule for all non-human characters (as we’ve seen in previous weeks), so you should consider giving your robot some or all of the following:

  • The ability to think, learn and reason independently. You’ll have a hard time creating a full-blown independent character without this.
  • Self-awareness and consciousness of its surroundings. Again, I think it would be exceptionally difficult (though not impossible) to create a proper robotic character without this human quality.
  • Emotions, dreams, empathy, and other such non-logical thoughts to motivate their actions etc. This of course, is certainly optional; many robots in science fiction tend to be very logical and emotionless but why not break with tradition?
  • Recognisable physical body parts. Of course, ‘recognisable’ does not necessarily mean that they have to be human-shaped. K-9 from the Doctor Who franchise is shaped like a dog and one episode of Star Trek: Voyager even featured a sentient WMD. K-9 is the more relatable of the two, of course, because we humans are used to relating to dogs. Dogs that we can talk to and play chess with, therefore, are highly relatable. On the other hand, when was the last time you tried to interact with a WMD? (Don’t answer that).

The difference with robots is that your audience will already have quite particular ideas about how a robot “should” behave. This is, in part, due to the influence of sci-fi authors like Asimov, but is also due to the fact that robots and computers do exist in real life (though in a more limited fashion than you would expect in a sci-fi novel)We know, for example, that computers are logical to a fault and it’s important that your character reflects that peculiarly robotic quality if you want your audience to accept them. Abstract thinking, imagination and personal ambition is something beyond the grasp of most computers and robots. The trouble is, if you want your audience to care about your character, they’ll probably need to be capable of at least some of the above.

How you balance this contradiction will depend largely on the story you’re writing and the kind of character you’re trying to create but one of the best ways around this problem is how you use voice. Often you can create the illusion of a highly logical, robotic mind simply by the way your character speaks. Let’s consider two androids from the Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise: Lore and Data.

Both androids are physically identical and were built by the same person. Only Lore, however, was capable of emotion and with this came a whole host of other human traits such as ambition, passion, deceitfulness and even megalomania. Lore’s human qualities were what made him such a great villain and were central to his role as a bad guy in Star Trek. Therefore, it is perfectly appropriate that he also talks like a human.

Haven’t you noticed how easily I handle human speech? I use their contractions. For example, I say can’t or isn’t, and you say cannot or is not.

Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Datalore’, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/NextGen/114.htm

Data, on the other hand, lacks emotion and the other human qualities which turned Lore into a bad guy. In spite of this, he remains one of Star Trek‘s most beloved characters. How is it that such an emotionless, logical, robotic character became so relatable (and far more likeable than his more human brother)?

Simple.

He’s not nearly as logical and robotic as he appears. It’s a trick, based largely on dialogue (and the occasional scene where he casually removes a body part) to make the audience believe that he is emotionless and logical because — after all — all robots are. He speaks in a “robotic” manner, such as calculating time intervals to the nearest second and not using verbal contractions, and so the audience believes that he is a machine and yet his goals and motivations are often very human indeed. For example, in ‘Pen Pals’, what motivated him to disobey Starfleet regulations and his captain’s orders if not compassion for the frightened child he had met? So, the writers have given Data a human quality (e.g., compassion) but have essentially tricked the audience into believing that they did not, because he appears robotic and makes the occasional claim that he is incapable of such traits. So, while is very important to strike the correct balance of human/robotic traits, the real trick with robots is how you portray them and thus convince your audience that the relatable and sympathetic character they are witnessing is, in fact, a machine.

I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got time for this week! But be sure to come back next when I’ll be continuing the series on non-human characters, this time focusing on mythical creatures.

Until next time!

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.

The Nightmare After Christmas

SPOILER ALERT:
Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has still not watched the Sherlock New Year special, ‘The Abominable Bride’ is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

You have been warned.


I really hate dream sequences.

I can count on one thumb the amount of dream sequences I’ve seen or read in any story that I’ve truly enjoyed and felt like they added something to the story1. They’re usually only there as a cheap attempt to make a clever point or as a lame excuse to make the protagonist do something he otherwise would never do. At their worst extreme, they are the primordial slime of deus ex machina. Yes, I know I always say that it is a matter of personal taste what we like and if dream sequences are your thing then… well, I suppose I just have to accept that. But I hate them.

That is what ruined this year’s New Year Special of the BBC drama, Sherlock for me. When Sherlock first started in 2010, I was quite sure I was going to hate it. I had already read and enjoyed most of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and I wasn’t sure if a weird modern spin on it was really going to work (I mean, just look at Elementary. It’s an outrage!).

But I was wrong! I love Sherlock! I’ve got all the DVDs and have watched them often. It was also my first real encounter with Benedict Cumberbatch, who has quickly become one of my favourite actors. Given how long we’ve had to wait since the end of series 3, I was bursting with anticipation about the New Year special, The Abominable Bride (in spite of the fact I was led to believe they were going to give us a purely Victorian one; whatever I may have said about Sherlock already, Jeremy Brett is the real Sherlock Holmes in my opinion).

At first, it seemed promising. The mystery was suitably mysterious for anything that claims to be Sherlock Holmes (a woman shoots herself, is positively identified and declared to be dead and yet she still manages to go about killing people) and it was entertaining enough to watch… That is, until Sherlock wakes up on an aeroplane and we realise that what we’ve been seeing is a drug-induced dream state. Then it all goes to pot, if you’ll forgive the expression. Because it’s a dream, anything goes; and (I suspect) because it was co-written by Steven Moffat, pretty much everything does go.

Fan service? You got it. Here, have a random fight scene between Sherlock and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

‘Big exciting uncertainty’ about what is a dream and what is reality? You got it. 

My wife (being something of a Whovian) often quips that if dreams were written by man, Stephen Moffat would probably write some cracking ones, in that his stories are nearly always very entertaining to watch, interesting to look at and feel like they’re making sense at the time but when you think about it rationally later on, you realise they didn’t make a whole lot of sense at all and broke most of the rules of their own fictional universe.

But that’s the trouble with dreams. They don’t need to make sense. In fact, the less sense they make, the more dream-like they are. Fiction doesn’t work that way; it has to make sense. Therefore, the dream sequences have to make sense (like in Spider-Man when Harry Osborne has dreams and hallucinations of his dead father saying ‘Avenge me!’ and he dutifully tries to obey. A dream about his dead father taking a banana out for a walk just wouldn’t have allowed the story to progress in quite the same way).

In some ways, that is one thing that set the dream in ‘The Abdominal Bride’ apart from other dream sequences for me. It was almost believable as a dream, which is what ruined it for me. The plot became too confused and fell apart.

Most dreams, such as in Spider-Man, are completely implausible as dreams because they make so much sense. Worse yet, they tend to dictate the actions of the characters in the waking world far too heavily.

Then, of course, there’s the worst kind of dream. It appears in many different forms, but I think you’ll know the one I’m talking about if I simply refer to it as The Dallas Dream. You know the one: the character suddenly wakes up and realises the last hour/week/year has all been a dream. This is deus ex machina at its very finest. The writer has realised he can write no further unless he comes up with some magical excuse to erase some unchangeable events that have already occurred in the story… so he just decides it was all a dream.

Phe-ew(!).

Don’t do drugs, kids.

Endnotes

1 I did rather enjoy Data’s dream in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Birthright’. The reason I thought this worked was because it served to add a new facet of humanity to the android (who is something of a Pinocchio archetype). The fact he was having dreams at all was what was remarkable. Therefore, the content of the dream could have the suitable blend of random and meaningful elements a good dream needs without becoming a weak catalyst for some reckless action or a ‘thank goodness it was all a dream’ moment. He also has dreams in the episode, ‘Phantasms’, which I was not nearly as keen on because in this instance, the dreams are his subconscious telling him what to do.