SciFi Friday: Ron Moore on Star Trek

Tonight will be the final episode of Battlestar Galactica to air until next winter. I will avoid any other discussion on the show to give everyone a chance to see the episode. Instead this week will deal with Ron Moore’s work, but look back at his work on Star Trek.

TrekMovie.com has a lengthy interview with Moore and I will just highlight a couple of points. One frustration in writing the show was that everybody was to be perfect–reducing the potential for conflict:

TrekMovie.com: Piller used to refer to the ‘Roddenberry box’ as in the Gene rules that there is no greed, people are perfect, etc. Did you find the ‘Roddenberry box’ limiting as a writer?

Ron Moore: I think we all did. I think there was a general consensus in the writers room in every season that we always chaffed at the notion that there were no petty jealousies and greed and all that. We railed against that on a daily basis, found ways to get around that, found ways to get through it with varying degrees of success. It was a constant problem that we just sort of gnashed our teeth about. It never made any logical sense or any dramatic sense. It just didn’t feel like it was a logical sense of where the Star Trek universe was going. I was always saying ‘the Original Series was never like this, the Original Series has plenty of problems with humanity, plenty of with jealousies and bickering and even racial prejudices are alive in the 23rd century.’ In “Balance of Terror” Stiles is overtly prejudiced against Spock just because he is Vulcan. And that isn’t the only instance of that. It made for drama and it made for conflict. It made the world work.

So when you tried to take all that out it just made it very difficult to tell stories that had much meaning to them, or any teeth to them, because you had to keep going back and make people much nicer and people couldn’t have true conflict and it made it hard to write the show in any kind of dramatic sense. And we were always bitching and moaning about it. And my personal theory was that Gene sort of started to believe in himself as more of a visionary than a writer at a certain point. He started to believe the stuff that he was creating a utopian future and wanted The Next Generation universe to be reflective of the utopian universe that so many people had told him he had been creating for all these years. So it started to become less about the drama, less about making a television show, and more about servicing this idea of what utopianism was going to be and how perfect humanity was going to be in the future as an example of how to live our lives by, as opposed to making a great television series.

One way in which Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were better than the original series was that there was more of a sense of continuity. On the original show something would happen in one episode and then quickly be forgotten.

TrekMovie.com: You got big into continuity, which was sort of a new thing in the early 90s for most TV shows–certainly for Star Trek. Was that something that was welcomed or did you sneak it in and no one noticed?

Ron Moore: I remember when we discussed the ending of “Sins of the Father” where the Klingon arc really began–where Worf lost his honor and had to leave the Klingon home world with his honor shredded. I was sitting in Rick’s office with Michael and Rick and it kind of coming up and I said I wanted to leave it on this kind of ambiguous ending so that we can come back again some time and Rick said “OK” and that was really the extent of the discussion. But it really opened the door for doing these larger arcs, but I don’t think it was seen as this major thing or shift in the change in the show. But as we got further in and with Michael’s emphasis on doing more character work inevitably started to push the show in directions that would keep the continuity tighter and almost started mini story arcs going. As you started to develop the relationships among the characters and started to develop them as characters you wanted to continue that into the next story. And you wanted to pick up those thread, writers would start to want to pick up a thread that was established three episodes ago.

And then you started to get into a bit of a battle. You would get into places where you would get notes back about ‘this is too serialized — we don’t do serialized.’ ‘The studio wants to be able to syndicate these in any order they want and you are tying the hands of the local stations if they want to run episodes wildly out of sequence, we can’t put them a position where they have to run them in a particular sequence, so stop doing it.’ But we never really stopped doing it. We just kept sneakily putting in more and more and more and trying to make it more of an arc because it made it more interesting to write. Once you decide it is about the characters it is hard to not to make it more serialized and more about continuity. Because the relationship between Riker and Troi this week, if you change it in the episode and then next week doesn’t seem to reflect what you saw last week it doesn’t make any sense. Whereas plot is much easier to be standalone. The Enterprise pulls up they have a plot with some aliens, they have some crisis, the Enterprise pulls away and you never deal with those aliens again. But the characters change from week to week. So any change you make to them as characters, the audience expects, and the writers want, to play it the following week. So there was this tension between on the one hand we were creating this more character-oriented show and the pressure on the other hand to make it no so much a serialized show. We just sort of straddled that line to varying degrees to success.

TrekMovie.com: That line, did it get relaxed with Deep Space Nine? Why was Deep Space Nine allowed to really run with serialization to the point where they did almost season-long arcs?

Ron More: Well I think it was built into the fabric of the show in a way it wasn’t with the other series. The nature of the show itself was that it is a space station that doesn’t go anywhere so the storylines tended to stick around. The Enterprise, like I said earlier, could pull up to a planet and have an episode and keep going. With Deep Space Nine, anything that took place on the station, well guess what? Next week you are still on the station. And Bajor is not going anywhere. So really you had to keep playing those stories. You couldn’t make a big change in Bajor’s political structure in one week and then ignore it then next. You had to keep it going. Kira’s story with his relationship with Bajorans had to keep evolving and so did Sisko’s and they had a long-term mission. They had a mission about Bajor into the Federation. That alone meant that it was going to be serialized at least on that front. And the Runabouts were intended at the beginning to give them the chance to get off the station and do stand-alone episodes and they did. They were to do that throughout the seasons, but the fundamentals on the show were always on the station and the station kept all the plot lines around and we kept developing them and developing them and eventually– essentially Rick and the studio just kind of threw up their hands and gave up at a certain point and started concentrating on Voyager. [laughs] The mad men running Deep Space Nine and the writers room weren’t listening and the show didn’t seem to work any other way…and so whatever. So we just did what we wanted to at a certain point.

Unfortunately such continuity could also present problems for the writers:

TrekMovie.com: Regarding continuity you were recently quoted saying something to the effect of “Star Trek has too much continuity.”… Do you find it ironic that you were the guy back in the 90s saying “let’s put more continuity in this thing” and are now the one saying there is too much?

Ron Moore: Yah I do think that is ironic. I can appreciate that. When I started, you have to remember there were exactly three seasons of the Original Series and six movies and two seasons of Next Gen. It wasn’t that hard to keep it all straight. You could sit in the writers room and keep it all in your head. By the end of Next Generation we able to do that. As we got deeper into Deep Space Nine it started to become more and more difficult to do that. And as Voyager started to get up and going and it was running concurrently with Deep Space Nine, we all started to get a little stir crazy with it. Because as a writer you want to be able to create things in the moment. You want to be able have something happen on the page. You want a character to talk about an experience that they had and be able to introduce a starship captain and introduce them into a scene and have them start talking about a mission they went on twenty years ago and they remember encountering the Romulan ambassador on a certain outpost and having this strange adventure with them. And you want to be able to invent that. It gets to a point now when you try and invent some scene and everyone goes “I’m sorry but twenty years ago the Romulan ambassador would not be at place” and you go “it doesn’t matter how about the Tholian ambassador,” “up no sorry, in episode so and so and this episode on Voyager determines the Tholians would be over here…” You start getting caged in. You start getting more and more aware of the strictures of what you can and can’t do. And back stories and anecdotes and personal histories have to all fit within this vast map of all these intersecting points of continuity and it becomes incredibly straight jacketed.

The lack of creativity is profound and you start worrying more and more about just coloring between the lines than you are making new and engaging stories. Plus the simple fact that you can’t keep it straight. We started having tech advisors on the set — in the art department, like the Okudas, keeping all the continuity for us. And they were becoming more and more useful. But it is frustrating to be in the writers room and tossing out stories then having to stop yourself and go ‘does this work?’ ‘does this violate continuity?’ And having to call people and check encyclopedias and look up information. You want to have it all in your head and just play. The Trek universe has got to the point where you can’t play anymore. It just becomes forbidding. I think it is even more forbidding for a new audience to try to come in and get involved in this new universe. Where do you pick up and how do you understand all these references. It is impenetrable at a certain point. So I was a big advocate of just wiping the slate and starting over. OK this was version one of Trek. Love it. Celebrate it. Watch it forever if that is your cup of tea, go ahead. Let’s have version two…let’s have another Starship Enterprise with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and let’s tell a different version of the event’s. Look at Shakespeare. How many versions of “Cleopatra” can the world stand? As many as you can think of. Let’s just do a different take on it and get energy out of it and not worry about all the back stories and not get caught up in what is the first time we supposed to have seen the Romulans. Really we have to now say that we can never do any other back-story with the Romulans except that the first time a human being saw them they looked like Spock’s father. We are wedding to that for now on even though it is kind of creaky and there is probably a better way to tell the Romulan story than to rely on that notion. It just seems like you want freedom. You want Trek to be fun. So make it fun.

Personally I think it makes sense to reboot Star Trek for the upcoming movie as a story with the original characters, who many people are familiar with, would be more meaningful than trying to invent a whole new cast. However Star Trek has worked far better as a television series than a set of individual movies. Should the movies lead to sufficient support to return Star Trek to television I would hate to see all the past history be forgotten. One of the problems with Voyager and Enterprise was that they failed to take the story developed in the two earlier series forward. Voyager took place in a different part of the galaxy and Enterprise took place prior to all the other series.

I would hope a new series would take place at some point after Deep Space Nine and Voyager and attempt to adhere to the continuity established. This might be more feasible if the new series were to take place a generation later so that most situations would be new. Less specific knowledge of every old episode would be necessary. A good show bible could allow them to adhere to the basic history established in the previous series. There certainly would remain the risk of occasionally making a continuity error, but this has been the case throughout the series.

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