Charlie's Diary


I have a confession to make: I hate Star Trek.

Let me clarify: when I was young — I'm dating myself here — I quite liked the original TV series. But when the movie-length trailer for ST:TNG first aired in the UK in the late eighties? It was hate on first sight. And since then, it's also been hate on sight between me and just about every space operatic show on television. ST:Voyager and whatever the space station opera; check. Babylon Five? Ditto. Battlestar Galactica? Didn't even bother turning on the TV. I hate them all.

I finally found out why:

At his recent keynote speech at the New York Television Festival, former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek.

He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they'd have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."

Moore then went on to describe how a typical script might read before the science consultants did their thing:

La Forge: "Captain, the tech is overteching."

Picard: "Well, route the auxiliary tech to the tech, Mr. La Forge."

La Forge: "No, Captain. Captain, I've tried to tech the tech, and it won't work."

Picard: "Well, then we're doomed."

"And then Data pops up and says, 'Captain, there is a theory that if you tech the other tech ... '" Moore said. "It's a rhythm and it's a structure, and the words are meaningless. It's not about anything except just sort of going through this dance of how they tech their way out of it."As you probably guessed, this is not how I write SF — in fact, it's the antithesis of everything I enjoy in an SF novel.

SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist (either because the technology doesn't exist, or there are gaps in our scientific model of the universe, or just because we're short of big meteoroids on a collision course with the Sea of Japan — the situation is improbable but not implausible).

There's an implicit feedback between such a situation and the characters who are floundering around in it, trying to survive. For example: You want to deflect that civilization-killing asteroid? You need to find some way of getting there. It's going to be expensive and difficult, and there's plenty of scope for human drama arising from it. Lo: that's one possible movie in a nutshell. You've got the drama — just add protagonists.

I use a somewhat more complex process to develop SF. I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don't have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects — much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.

Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it's background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast. You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech — make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail — without changing the scripts significantly. (The only casualty would be the eyeball candy — big gunpowder explosions be damned, modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!)

I can just about forgive the tendency of these programs to hit the reset switch at the end of every episode, returning the universe to pristine un-played-with shape in time for the next dramatic interlude; even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focusses intently on revolutionary change), I recognize the limits of the TV series as a medium. Sometimes they make at least a token gesture towards a developing story arc — but it's frequently pathetic. I'm told that Battlestar Galactica, for example, ends with a twist ... the nature of which has been collecting rejection slips ever since Aesop (it's one of the oldest clichés in the book). But I can even forgive that. At least they were trying.

The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don't find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.

PS: Don't get me started on Doctor Who ...

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Page 2

Apropos my previous blog posting, I am simultaneously amused and perplexed by the number of people who, being afficionados of [X], read a statement of the form "I do not like [X]" and parse it as "[X] is bad".

(Tag with: collective logic FAIL, what are they teaching them these days, death of western civilization, film at 11, etcetera.)

Mind you, it's given me some food for thought. In particular, I'm trying to figure out precisely what it is about the structure of small-screen entertainment that is inimical to the production of high-quality space opera; and why SF on TV is so generally identified with that form.

I suspect, after sleeping on it, that in large part it boils down to the cost structure of network TV: to the obligation on the producers to deliver captive eyeballs to advertisers. This is guaranteed to fuck with dramatic structure, world-building, and characterization — especially when they mess with the plot to reduce audience leakage due to channel-hopping during intermissions — and it has long-term implications for written fiction too, as the uptake of ebooks and alternative delivery models based on the internet progresses.

Consider a script. A script consists of pages each of which represents one minute of on-screen action. It typically runs to 250 words, most of which are dialog. A 42 minute TV show is 10,500 words (a novelette, in fiction-not-script terms), but breaks down into four scenes, each of which needs a near cliff-hanger ending (prior to the advertising break, to keep the viewers wanting to see more), and a restart at the beginning (to drag in new viewers who have channel-hopped over from a less compelling production). Of each roughly 2,500 word scene, then, about 250-500 words will be wasted (dramatically speaking) on reestablishing the action, and the last 500-1,000 words goes on setting up a mini-climax (except in the first and final scenes, where you need a setup and a climax for dramatic, not advertising, purposes). Thus, the 10,500 word script actually contains about 7,000-8,000 words of meat, or 28-32 minutes of non-repetitive on-screen action to propel the story forward. (As a reference point, a 8000 word short story, to an average reading speed of 350 words per minute, takes 22 minutes to plough through. I'm ignoring, of course, the need for additional background description in the short story — stuff that doesn't belong in a script.)

Here's the rub: the ideational density of a TV or film production, to a viewer experiencing it in real time, is lower than that of a work of written fiction is to a reader — an hour of TV with ads (and spurious scene-based setup/teardown) is equivalent to 20-25 minutes of written fiction. To keep the viewers from getting bored, it needs to add eyeball candy of some kind. What pushes primate attention buttons? Sex (hot actors) and bright colours and loud noises (explosions in spaaaaace!). These are low-level hard-wired stimuli that we can't easily ignore: if we could, we wouldn't be human. So in it goes. But there's an arms race going on: every other series on TV is doing the same thing, so our series has to be sexier and flashier than theirs if we're not going to bleed audience share.

Sooner or later there comes a point where the audience can no longer ignore the fact that their buttons being pushed — not stroked lightly, but mashed hard by an insensitive thumb driven by advertising sales — and that's when they'll start leaving in droves. But most people have been trained to accept lots of advertising and the classic four-part structure of the ongoing TV drama episode from an early age. (Not me. Due to an accident of childhood, I watched virtually no commercial TV, and didn't have access to a colour TV or a video recorder until I was in my 20s. Yes, I am an alien.)

Two questions arise:

Firstly. Is it possible to do space opera on the small screen properly, if the constraints imposed by the necessity of slotting in with the network advertising model are replaced by some other revenue structure? (I'm purposely ignoring the BBC drama department in this context because (a) their programming schedule isn't too dissimilar to commercial network TV, and (b) they're not notably into space opera.)

Secondly. If written commercial fiction succeeds in moving online, are we going to see a breakdown of the 80-year-old contractual boilerplate that bans in-novel advertising: and if so, what are the literary consequences going to be? We know what they look like in dead tree form, and it ain't pretty — what I'm interested in is the electronic remix, because it sure as hell won't stop at static ads: we could see targeted audience demographic product placement in novels, tailored to the advertising profile of the particular reader (so that the product in question changes depending on who's reading the ebook).