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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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.