Decoding Star Trek – One Writer’s Perspective

There is no other television show that I love more than Star Trek. Although it only ran for three seasons when it originally aired in 1966, it has been in syndication for five decades and has garnered an enormous cult following. Talk about standing the test of time!

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As a fiction writer who loves sci-fi, I decided to examine Star Trek under a writer’s microscope to determine how writing contributed to its longevity and success. Below, I’ve identified 4 key elements that writing experts say a great story must have, and I used them as points to evaluate Star Trek’s success. Here’s what I found:

The Hero

In “The Writer’s Journey”, Christopher Vogler defines a Hero as someone who’s willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others. The Hero, he says, is propelled by universal drives, i.e., desire to be loved and understood, to succeed, to survive, to right wrongs. Vogler also says Heroes need some admirable qualities, and as well as universal qualities, motivations, emotions that everyone experiences from time to time such as: revenge, anger, lust, competitiveness, patriotism, idealism, cynicism or despair.

Wow! That’s quite a laundry list. But as you read through those attributes, how many of them would you ascribe to our beloved, Captain James Tiberius Kirk, portrayed masterfully in the show by William Shatner? Was “lust” your first choice? I know I’m being catty. We all know that Captain Kirk has a particular penchant for the lovelies in the galaxy regardless to whether they have green or purple skin, three eyes, or four breasts. But his first love is his ship, the Starship Enterprise. Captain Kirk has other redeeming qualities. He’s loyal to his crew and dedicated to his command as Captain. He’s patriotic. He’s a man of integrity. He’s intelligent and brave. In battle, he often sacrificed himself to save a member of his crew or his ship. All in all, I’d say Kirk stands tall as a writer’s Hero.

World-Building

I think Gene Roddenberry was masterful in creating a non-existing world. Perhaps for the time in the mid-sixties, the majority of TV watchers weren’t quite ready for the advanced technology or the diversity depicted in the show. Maybe that was part of the reason it only lasted for three years initially. But because he was able to create a world, in a galaxy far, far away in the 23rd century, many of us did believe.

According to Wikipedia, NBC canceled the show after three seasons; However, a petition near the end of the second season to save the show signed by many Caltech students and its multiple Hugo nominations would indicate that despite low Nielsen ratings, it was highly popular with science fiction fans and engineering students.

It’s easy to see how today’s technology has been influenced in many ways by Star Trek: the cell phone, computer monitors (1990’s model), flat screen TV’s, floppy disks, the use of terminologies such as “enterprise” networks, portals, docking stations, and the development of artificial intelligence. Writing_EnterpriseRodenberry seemed to follow Vogler’s Hero’s journey by introducing us to Kirk’s “ordinary world” aboard the Enterprise during the opening scenes. Then, he’d get a call to action, a distress signal, or an unexplained object looming in the ship’s path. Never one to back down from a challenge, Kirk and crew are off to face unknown perils with enemies both human and alien. And even though some of the special effects were a little cheesy back then, we bought into the story because we did believed for that sixty minutes in the world that had been created for us.

Dialogue

A television show like Star Trek can have interesting visual effects, but like a novel, without great dialogue it would simply fall flat. Books on writing state that a character is revealed through dialogue. We’re able to determine what type of individual he/she is by what he says to others and about others, and what others say about him/her.

Through Captain Kirk’s dialogue his character is revealed. And so is Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, played brilliantly by DeForest Kelley, the country doctor who is highly dedicated to his profession, and often high stung and intense when standing on a conviction. And didn’t you just love the dialogue between Bones and Mr. Spock, portrayed magnificently by Leonard Nemoy? I’m sure the writers had a great time writing the dialogue for these characters. Below is one example of their sparring banter. Spock radios Kirk who has beamed down to the surface of some strange planet. Bones is with Kirk as he answers his communicator.

“Kirk here.”
“Spock, Captain. I trust all has gone well.”
“Spock, you’re alive?”
“An illogical question, Dr. McCoy, since you are obviously hearing my voice.”
“Well, I don’t know why I was worried. You can’t kill a computer.”

3-Dimensional, Believable Characters

Writing_Kirk, Bones, SpockI really could do an entire post on the skillful creation of the characters aboard the Starship Enterprise (I’ve obviously omitted several). When you watch Star Trek you will discover that the characters’ makeup is revealed through dialogue. It’s also revealed through their actions and decisions they make especially when they are faced with a moral or ethical dilemma.

Each character is perfectly developed, in that they experience a wide range of emotions, both good and sometimes not so good. And their actions are true to their character. Spock is logical and unemotional. The decisions he makes are in keeping with those traits. Though he’s always true to his character, the unexpected barbs and zingers fired at Bones do show a bit of his human side, which is delightful. And Spock considers Kirk a friend. This also shows his human side.

Bones is dedicated, practical, and pragmatic, but sometime highly emotional and sometimes almost fanatical with regards to maintaining the Hippocratic oath. This sets up the an interesting dynamic between Spock and Bones and each of the two men with Captain Kirk, who is level-headed, steadfast, and also practical, but sometimes his emotions can side track him. The creators of this show did an outstanding job in developing well-rounded, 3-dimensional characters.

My conclusion: Star Trek is time tested and writer approved!

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

4 thoughts on “Decoding Star Trek – One Writer’s Perspective

  1. Simply genius Catherine! The unthinkable writing successes are in fact built on the most timeless and basic elements.

  2. I used to stay home Friday nights to watch this show. And I still love it dearly. Analysis does not hurt it, another element of success. Thanks!

    • I really love the show, and I had such fun analyzing it from a writer’s point of view. It just confirmed for me that there is a formula for success whether it’s writing for television or writing a novel or short story. Thanks again for your feedback!

      Catherine

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