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.
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.
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.
First, 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.
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:
- Total CGI. Expensive, but awesome. Still, if you make every alien computer-generated, there's no contrast to play against; furthermore, the humans begin to look more and more out of place.
- Animated Series. Animating an alien isn't that much more expensive than animating a human, assuming you didn't make it too complex.
- Muppets. Depending on how much money you're willing to sink into their creation, they can range from children's-program to willing suspension of disbelief to professional-grade alien races.
- The Blob. Make some sort of large, decidedly non-human costume, then have an actor get under it and move around. Or you could glue it to a remote-controlled car.
- The Tribble. Some tiny furry toy whose personality is supplied by the other characters reacting to it, plus some sound effects and perhaps a little string.
- Non-humanoid robots. Red Dwarf has a talking toaster: all the character with none of the human actor. If you can glue bits and bobs together to make a classic Star Trek prop, you can probably do the same thing to make some sort of robotic lifeform (Star Trek even had the Exocomps). However, you might have to take some care in designing how the durn thing moves.
- Ridiculously Human Robots. Battlestar Galactica had lots of talking toasters. A step up from Rubber-Forehead Aliens, you get a wide range of robots, androids, cyborgs, simulants, etc.
- Humans. You can go the Stargate SG-1 route and say they all started on one planet but branched out a few millenia ago, or work in more recent moves (alien kidnappings, messing with alien teleportation artifacts, etc.) or even time-travel.
- Fantasy Kitchen Sink. You know all those stories about elves and dwarves and halflings and goblins and more? How about vampires, werewolves, and mermaids? They're aliens. They're all aliens. Or, well, as many of them as you want to deal with. A bit of creative costuming and a bit of camera magic and you have Rubber-Forehead Aliens with a twist. Willing Suspension of Disbelief? Get past the initial hurdle of "premise" and it's all yours.
- Tiny Aliens. Depending on the size, you can use camera tricks to get Little People or the inhabitants of a Mouse World.
- Invisible Aliens. Or if not actually invisible, then those tiny enough to write in without having to envision them at all. Telepathic entities that we never see go here too.
- Only Alien Animals. Back to the Tribbles up there, only with various versions of animal life, none of which are sentient enough to communicate via language. Could be friends, enemies, defensive, or neutral to the presence of outsiders.
- No Aliens - At All. Easy on the budget, potentially very hard on the writing: How do you keep the audience's interest? But Red Dwarf managed to pull it off for much of its run, as did Firefly, though its run was much shorter.
And if you can think of another path to take, by all means take it! We welcome originality in many shapes and forms. Check the second half of the Sliding Scale of Anthropomorphism for more possibilities.
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?"
Suggested Themes and Aesops
Gene Roddenberry being the humanist 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 and should think" jibes, some were Author Tract and others were 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.
Stars. 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.
Prime 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 Scout
First, 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?
You 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.
Are 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)?
Here'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?)
The 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.
You 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:
- Star Wars: A more epic struggle between Good and Evil, with Psychic Powers and lots of New Age babble about the Balance Between Good and Evil.
- Stargate SG-1: Take all that futuristic technology and give it to modern humans, specifically the modern military, and see how they handle it. Obviously less idealism about how humanity has moved beyond the need for violence.
- Red Dwarf: Brit Com in space, and a darn good one at that. Tiny cast, with almost all plots centering on the conflict created by a core group of five members trying to survive in space, no external forces necessary. This exaggeration of the Power Trio idea was so influential that most of the shows listed below it use the same mechanic.
- Farscape: The Fugitive In SPACE, having fun playing with tropes 'n' stuff. Also Muppets.
- Battlestar Galactica: Almost a subversion of everything Star Trek, though Adama is excellent as The Captain. However, while in Star Trek, humans have moved past their mistakes to try and make a utopia, in BSG everyone's still stuck with their flaws and foibles.
- Babylon 5: An example in making a giant Myth Arc work and work well.
- Firefly: Almost the Spiritual Antithesis to Trek in that it posits the Federation (here, the Alliance) is a giant bureaucracy that tries to control everything, while the rebels that were stepped on only try to eke out a living. Notable for having no aliens, silent space, and being on the cynical side of things.
Also study some stories that don't come from live-action TV:
- The Rebels, a futuristic spin-off of ElfQuest. Mostly humans, but some elves, a genetically engineered human-sized fairy (roughly), a robot, and an alien species that communicates by scent and speaks in plenty of scent metaphors ("May the odor of my service be pleasing to you" and such).
- Schlock Mercenary: You may never see a wider array of diverse alien races. From the title character, an amorphous blob, to twin-bodied telepathic entities (two bodies, one person), to giant-legged bird-descended aliens with vestigal wings, to purple-skinned photosynths (they're actually genetically altered humans), to aliens whose "head" is just a single giant eyeball on a neck, to one race that just looks like koalas... and that's just scratching the surface. The author did say that, given the chance, he'd think twice about how hard it was to repeatedly draw a creature with four arms and eight forearms.
- Freefall: Also a great webcomic to study when you're considering the harder side of sci-fi, or at least avoiding the softer side of sci. A Starfish Alien, a genetically engineered lifeform, a bevy of Ridiculously Human Robots (who are less human-thinking than the average version of the trope, so study it for that alone)... plus a lot of good ol' comedy, something that Star Trek tended to lack (at least, intentional comedy).
- Traveller: An RPG setting whose chief strength is it's World Building. Roughly midway between hard and soft. Well designed cultures and political systems.
- Mass Effect: A good example of this framework in a video game. The player dictates much of The Captain's personality and decisions, creating a flexible narrative. Strong focus on action and characterization. An in-game codex supplies extra info about the setting, but it's not needed to understand the story.
The Epic Fails
- Star Trek: Enterprise is the among the more divisive installments and has the dishonor of putting the franchise on ice for several years. While it found its rhythm in later seasons, one of the biggest criticisms of the first two seasons was that the political climate resulting from the then recent 9/11 attacks and The War on Terror has hijacked the idealistic and social-commentating core of the franchise, leading to a tone that came across as patronizing and needlessly bleak. Whether or not you like this show, DO NOT let Issue Drift become a problem in your work when writing analogues for current events.