Worldbuilding for television production

Why Star Trek was hamstrung

Star Trek (1966, TOS) is silly, and that is by design. It’s not a show about space travel or the future. It’s not really about anything so much as it is for television.

But more courage is needed to make an end than to make a new verse: that do all physicians and poets know well.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883)

Many of the flaws of Star Trek as a franchise, including modern productions for online streaming, can be explained with reference to how the original was made for television in the mid-1960s. It was pitched to studio management as Wagon Train (1957) “to the stars”. This pitch put the show in the Western or “Wild West” genre. It did not just lead to the metaphor that opens TOS (“Space, the final frontier”) but has coloured the entire franchise.

Westerns in the 1950s, such as Wagon Train, were formulaic. The formula made them cheap to produce and cheap to market. TOS, by contrast, was expensive. Studio heads and producers spent decades trying to make Trek cheap like Westerns. Their efforts were dominated by the need to rush out images to fill small cathode ray tubes in living rooms, following the slowly evolving conventions of the young medium. Commercial US television was made for two reasons. Economically, it was a speculation where broadcasters would buy content from studios and then sell ads, trying to make money. Socially, it was a career vehicle, where people like Gene Roddenberry would continually strive for higher status. The virtues of literate science fiction played almost no role in this model.

For example, ship exteriors and interiors on Star Trek were always shown separately because they had to be shot separately. Image processing technology was too primitive in 1966 to compose the two types of shots together. Matte paintings could be used to fake it, but only with a static camera and other limitations; that was no good for space. Instead of thinking about how a spaceship would be engineered, designers therefore made pretty miniatures for the exterior shots and threw coloured light on grey studio walls to get some variation in the interior shots. I would have thought that the makers would still have wanted to figure out which interior sets represented which parts of the ship as a whole, but that was not a concern, because you could air the show without knowing.

That which could not be shown on screen could not happen in the story. That is why, instead of ships being visibly damaged by enemy fire, a grip on the bridge set would shake the camera rig and the actors would pretend to lose their balance. It makes no sense to have sparks flying from the instrument panels, except in the production model. When I watched the first four series in the franchise, it became clear to me that the production model determined the mental model of the show. The primacy of traditional production in the 1960s, more than anything else, is what bred the weaknesses of Star Trek into the franchise, for good.

Consider the very last shot of What You Leave Behind (1999), itself the final episode of Deep Space Nine (1993, DS9). It’s a simulated dolly shot where the camera starts near recognizable characters digitally composited into the window of a space station. The camera pulls away smoothly to show the station as a whole, letting it shrink to nothing in the vastness of space. It’s a good shot, showing the characters in their context for the first time in the history of Trek.

Cirroc Lofton and Nana Visitor in What You Leave Behind (1999).

The last shot of DS9

That single shot would have been hard to do in the analog live action of TOS, but easy in the analog animation of The Animated Series (1973, TAS). Before TAS, something similar had already been done in “Cosmic Zoom” (1970), yet it did not happen on Trek until that summer of 1999. It was competition from shows like Babylon 5 (1993), not technological development, that forced Trek producers out of habits shaped in the 1960s.

Two years into TOS’s original run, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) shows microgravity, non-linear artificial gravity, and the absence of sound in a vacuum, among other counter-intuitive phenomena in space travel. Babylon 5 has gunships spinning around their own axes without losing linear momentum. Trek, at least up to DS9, is never like that. Gene Roddenberry, who created TOS, wanted it to be clever and free from stereotypes, but he still selected the advanced technology of the setting to remove so much of reality that the show got cheap to shoot and easy for the general public to start watching without having to think.

Space suits appear in “The Tholian Web” (1968) and artificial gravity is locally weakened in “Melora” (1993), but when DS9 had the opportunity to do something more meaningful with space travel as late as “Explorers” (1995), that opportunity was pointedly rejected. No producer ever cared enough about substance to incorporate the realities of space travel into the setting. When they appear at all, they are local exceptions made for local purposes, treated the same way as shooting on location for episodes like “The Quickening” (1996). “Explorers” shows that the creative talents working on the franchise had internalized this attitude. They had a learned sense of helplessness about realism that dates all the way back to the pressures of 1966.

On the whole, space is as relevant in Star Trek as it was in Wagon Train. Battles take place as if on a fallow field or a calm ocean surface, with a shared “up” and “down”. Enemies move at the same relative velocities as propeller planes did in the First World War, only closer together. This was done to make the action easy to follow on those old CRT screens. As a result, the main difference between warp travel in TOS and horse travel in The Lord of the Rings (1954) is that The Lord of the Rings has a map. The producers of TOS did not care about geography or how quickly something could move through empty space or what year it was. They could tape scenes without knowing any of that, without losing money or personal status, so they did.

New premises were added all the time. However, traditional production for television was episodic and had no SF premises, so internal consistency between SF premises was a low priority. Only those premises that were based upon real-world budgets really stuck around. For example, the producers of TOS chose universal translators that make language irrelevant, despite New Wave SF heading in the opposite direction at that time. If everybody spoke English, there would be no need for casting to find non-English speakers, or for anyone to invent conlangs or teach actors how to use them; that would come as an afterthought. Most importantly, viewers in the USA would not be confronted with anything they could not immediately understand, like subtitles.

Another enduring legacy of 1960s television is the franchise’s non-alien aliens. The Klingons, for example, originally looked human because there was no budget to do anything else. They were also written as human, based on human (Mongol) imperialism. That is a familiar mindset, not an alien one. The Klingons, who interbreed with humans, are alien in name only. In that way they are like hundreds of other intelligent species in Trek, despite later getting a few silicone bumps and daubs of paint for pageantry, as well as a conlang. The only alternatives in the visual design phase were puppetry and non-human animals, as done in “The Man Trap” (1966) and “The Enemy Within” (1966).

TAS has better aliens, but television producers got higher status when they worked in live action, so TAS was cut short. “The Ensigns of Command” (1989) brought the first good aliens to live action, but once you have hundreds of species of human aliens floating around from earlier episodes, you can never get rid of them. The species of Trek still exist for cheaply showing visually interesting people on the screen. They do not represent a future anybody can believe in. They were never meant to.

Almost all of the choices made for TOS and then preserved in TAS and later productions would have been bad in the writing of science fiction for books or magazines, even in 1966. For the purposes of popularity or commercial success on broadcast television, however, they were good choices. The people who made those choices were aware of their limits. They even satirized television in “Bread and Circuses” (1968).

The choices survive in later Trek productions partly for nostalgia, partly as a matter of stewardship, and partly because many of the same restrictions still apply to the medium now, 56 years later. Screens are bigger and more detailed, digital rendering and compositing have made it cheaper to show characters in context and ships far apart, and it is now easier to find writers who know about more than one language or culture, but television audiences are barely smarter than they were in 1966. Children still watch TV. It is still true now as it was then, that if you want ideas in your science fiction, you read.