"There's an old saw in the entertainment industry: If you want to send a message, call Western Union. Trek, however, is very nearly the antithesis of that way of thinking—we prefer messages and meaning in our Trek plots, and are disappointed when we don't find any. But we're also disappointed when we're beat over the head with the message..."
"The original series is well known for presenting social issues in new ways, but this has led to modern Trek's all-too-frequent "message" show, where [. . .] the story is boxed in so that we simply must support only one conclusion [. . .] instead of presenting us with a muddy picture where we might actually have to think and make up our own minds on the subject."Despite the many elements we scoff at nowadays, Star Trek set a new standard for accessible sci-fi drama with enough staying power to pull off six series, twelve movies, a flock of video games and even a collectible card game. So how do you pull off a franchise that good when your special effects department is hokey, your costuming department primitive at best, your offworld sets all look like the same small chunk of real estate, and your leading man puts so much "drama" into his lines? Many people have tried to guess at what made Star Trek such a success, so we'll throw in two cents: a Power Trio, plus Passion and Compassion. Make your characters care about what they're doing, and about each other, and make the audience care about them. This page will walk you through the tropes that helped make Star Trek the great success that it is. But before you start, you should head over to Write A Story to get some basic advice that applies across all genres.
Necessary TropesFaster-Than-Light Travel This is a must, otherwise you're more or less stuck with plain old boring Earth. You can play with the FTL Travel as well. Exactly how much faster than light can you go? How long does travel between two stars take? Hours? Days? Weeks? Does it work when in a gravitational field? Can the ship be yanked out of space? All things to think about, but be consistent, otherwise you're going to piss people off when your crew goes to the other end of the galaxy in one day, but takes a month to go a mere ten lightyears. The Future Trek's concept of the future started with a humanity that had finally overcome most of its "undesirable" qualities, from prejudice to sexual inhibitions to capitalism. Then it brought in a bunch of aliens who were not so enlightened... and, depending on how you want to interpret the data, maybe failed at proving that humanity was so above it all. (And that's without even accusing the series of promoting Communism... which is also a reasonable hypothesis.) If you're going for that sort of utopian future, first of all beware the Mary Suetopia. It helps if you don't try to pretend that every single aspect of your future is hunky-dory; give us a few malcontents, a few rebels who upset the status quo - and don't make the situation all black-and-white. Maybe they have good reason to feel wronged. Maybe they even have good reason to blow up starbases or take starliners hostage. The government of a seeming utopia is unlikely to be entirely innocent. Then again, if the government's the Big Bad, be careful not to make them entirely wrong either. Rulers are just men, after all, and they have their good side and their bad side. A lot of bureaucracy starts off with seemingly reasonable accommodations before it balloons up into impossible convolutions of rules. Big Business isn't inherently evil, and neither is Science, but there's reason to be cautious with both. And think about the sort of feel you want. Used Future for a more gritty feel, or do you want Crystal Spires and Togas? What's wrong, can't quite decide? Well, since this is the next Star Trek, and Star Trek is a show where they journey to many different planets, you don't have to decide. Want a story with Crystal Spires and Togas? Well, there's an episode. Used Future? Next episode. Space Amish? Got it. Dystopian hell? Yep, another episode. And you can play against type by having that Crystal Spire planet hold a dark secret, or the Space Amish conceal fancy technology.
Choices, ChoicesFirst, Setting: Mostly ship-bound, mostly planet-bound, or some combination of the two? Or something else entirely? A ship setting allows for more variety, while a stationary setting like a space station or planet usually means sacrificing variety for deeper arcs. Compare the mostly standalone episodes of most Star Trek series to the later, semi-serialized years of Deep Space Nine for an example. Second: Aliens Believe it or not, Rubber-Forehead Aliens are not going to be the death of your show. In fact, if you stick to the softer side of Sci-Fi and either justify or Hand Wave the very human-looking aliens, most viewers are not going to care. Just don't make them too dorky looking. (Additionally, since we have no frame of reference for life on other planets aside from Earth sentient bipeds could simply be a common evolutionary trait.) Still, there are options:
PitfallsWatch out for The Roddenberry Line. Simply put: Make the Applied Phlebotinum serve your story, and not the other way around. Secondly, avoid Apathy Killed the Cat. Maybe a third of all shore leave episodes led to serious danger that could have been easily avoided if the crew asked simple questions such as "What sort of laws do you have here, and which actions of ours could lead to the death penalty?"
Potential SubversionsStar Trek stuck to Space Is an Ocean and 2-D Space so steadfastly that when a ship finally attacked by flying up from the bottom of the screen, it was a total show-stopping moment.
Suggested Themes and AesopsGene Roddenberry being the idealist that he was, Star Trek started off with the idea that mankind had outgrown a lot of its past sins. Various episodes put forth the ideas that man was meant for great things... hrm...... more later. Do note the quote at the top of the page: Not every Trek episode had An Aesop, but quite a few did. Many were unsubtle "this is the way any sane and moral man would think" jibes, Author Tract or not. Others offered a topic, got the players hashing it out from different points of view, and left us to mull it over. Some of the harsher topics included "What is just punishment?" and "Is the Death Penalty acceptable?" - not to mention "To what extent should we be willing to force our ethics onto other cultures?" An Aesop was just about the only thing that the 2009 pre-boot was missing, but it got flak for that all the same.
Potential MotifsStars. Lots of stars. Beautiful gas nebulas and breathtaking shots of planets set against the backdrop of black space. Space may be deadly, but it's also stunningly gorgeous. Besides that, you can choose on a sliding scale between pristine and functional architecture versus dirty, grimy metal monstrosities that hardly ever work. For your ships, for the spaceports, for the planetside cities, and so forth.
Suggested PlotsPrime Directive: Lots of mileage in this one. You're buzzing around the galaxy in a ship filled with state-of-your-art technology. How do you handle contact with an alien race that thinks digital watches are voodoo of the dirt gods/a good idea/laughably primitive? Will they conclude that you're here to conquer? Or will they badger you for your advanced knowledge/gadgets? Do you have them, even? The trope article suggests bending the rules until they cry for mercy, but could they be played straight? Our alien Aliens are truly alien Aliens: Kirk had the Universal Translator to help, but you could show how much work it would be to find even the beginnings of common ground between you and another race. Space Miner '49er: It's a new gold rush,in space! $substance has been found in a remote asteroid belt and fortunes are being made. The danger and difficulty of asteroid mining can be played up for drama and realism or down for romance and excitement. You can empathise the loneliness of chopping up rock in the black or throw in a Wild West mining town — it's up to you.
Set Designer / Location ScoutFirst, the ship. How big? Well, how big a crew do you have? What's the ship's purpose? And is this an old clunker or a shining example of the best the fleet has to offer the universe? Does it look like it's build for speed, or more like a thought experiment into the kind of ship that could support a multi-generational colony? How many interior locations are you gonna to visit on a regular basis? The bridge, the sick bay, engineering, a recreation lounge? And please tell me you can invent better names for these places. What about personal quarters, or is the ship so small that they all sleep in the cargo hold? There may be other ships you encounter; consider whether they should look basically the same as or be radically different from the main ship. Second, planetside. Are these civilized worlds? What level of technology? How great a population in how small an area? Or are they unconquered wildernesses meant only to test our heroes' ability to improvise?
Props DepartmentYou might need weapons. Since those who travel through space are too far advanced to use swords (except perhaps to show The Warrior Race in comparison to the civilized races), you'll probably be using guns - and not just any guns, but those classic Family-Friendly Firearms, energy weapons. Don't forget a bunch of space-agey scanning equipment and various devices that make life easier than it was in our day. Or vastly more complicated. Your call.
Costume DesignAre you a military vessel with a dress code, a private company's mining ship, or a civilian rig out enjoying the scenery? Do your characters wear identical skintight body suits, or do they show personality in the way they dress? What about haircuts? Are there space suits around in case the ship springs a leak or needs to be abandoned, or might these be worked into the normal clothing as-is (say, a clear hood of "space silk," where all you have to do is pull the top down to your collar and attach it)? Check The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy for some comments about apparel in Sci-Fi.
Casting DirectorHere's the real secret of Star Trek: The crew cared about each other. Sure, yes, at times they fought, at times they got on each other's nerves, and there was barely an episode when Spock and McCoy weren't at each other's throats (ideologically speaking). But primarily, the crew acted like one big family. Excluding the Red Shirts, who nobody cares about anyway... let's just call it "the bridge crew... and Scotty." McCoy was on the bridge enough, right? Aaaaanyway, the main characters, the ones we grew to love, they worked together like a team. They loved each other. They sacrificed for each other. They refused to leave anyone behind. And when Kirk said "I'm going to get Spock now, and you can stay here if you like," did you think even for a moment that even one crewmember would take him up on it? Somehow Hollywood has never figured this out. A new movie comes out with a team that has to Save the World, and what's the one thing we know about these guys before the trailer's even over? They're gonna be at each other's throats. And not in a friendly rivalry way like Spock and McCoy, either. If you write good plots, most of the conflict will come from outside the group, or from the ideological conflict between the members of the Power Trio. So here's the second element of casting: the Power Trio. Two characters representing opposite sides of an ideological spectrum, with the main character standing between them, often choosing to Take a Third Option rather than let one side trump the other. In the basic Power Trio, it's the Ego (Kirk) standing between the Superego (Spock) and the Id (Bones). However, you might choose a different spectrum to work with, so do consider your options a bit before you decide. Oh, and, just to be clear: don't forget your spaceship. The eighth character of The Original Series was (and is) the old girl herself, the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701. Give your ship some personality. (Why wouldn't you?)
Stunt DepartmentThe original series being a Space Western, it involved plenty of fist-fights and shootouts (albeit with energy weapons). The first fist-fight is actually what prompted Leonard Nimoy to invent the Vulcan Nerve Pinch, as he thought that throwing a punch wouldn't suit Spock's character. There's also the chance for a good brawl if aliens invade your ship.
Extra CreditYou do have to study the original Star Trek and its sequels to see where they came from, where they went, and what fans remember about them. Not to mention the elements that fans deride. You might also study similar sci-fi series: