Finding the Story

This is an archive of an old pseudonymously written post from the 90s that seems to have disappeared from the internet.

I see that Star Trek: Voyager has added a new character, a Borg. (From the photos, I also see that they're still breeding women for breast size in the 24th century.) What ticked me off was the producer's comment (I'm paraphrasing), "The addition of Seven of Nine will give us limitless story possibilities."

Uh-huh. Riiiiiight.

Look, they did't recognize the stories they had. I watched the first few episodes of Voyager and quit when my bullshit meter when off the scale. (Maybe that's not fair, to judge them by only a few episodes. But it's not fair to subject me to crap like the holographic lungs, either.)

For those of you who don't watch Star Trek: Voyager, the premise is that the Voyager, sort of a space corvette, gets transported umpteen zillions of light years from where it should be. It will take over seventy years at top speed for them to get home to their loved ones. For reasons we needn't go into here, the crew consists of a mix of loyal Federation members and rebels.

On paper, this looks good. There's an uneasy alliance in the crew, there's exploration as they try to get home, there's the whole "island in space" routine. And the Voyager is nowhere near as big as the Enterprise -- it's not mentally healthy for people to stay aboard for that long.

But can this idea actually sustain a whole series? Would it be interesting to watch five years of "the crew bickers" or "they find a new clue to faster interstellar travel but it falls through"? I don't think so.

(And, in fact, the crew settled down awfully quickly.)

The demands of series television subvert the premise. The basic demand of series television is that our regular characters are people we come to know and to care about -- we want them to come into our living rooms every week. We must care about their changes, their needs, their desires. We must worry when they're put in jeopardy. But we know it's a series, so it's hard to make us worry. We know that the characters will be back next week.

The demands of a story require someone to change of their own accord, to recognize some difference. The need to change can be imposed from without, but the actual change must be self-motivated. (This is the fundamental paradox of series television: the only character allowed to change is a guest, but the instrument of that change has to be a series regular, therefore depriving both characters of the chance to do something interesting.)

Series with strict continuity of episodes (episode 2 must follow episode 1) allow change -- but they're harder to sell in syndication after the show goes off the air. Economics favour unchanging regular characters.

Some series -- such as Hill Street Blues -- get around the jeopardy problem by actually making characters disposable. Some characters show up for a few episodes and then die, reminding us that it could happen to the regulars, too. Sometimes it does happen to the regulars.

(When the characters change in the pilot, there may be a problem. A writer who was approached to work on Mary Tyler Moore's last series saw from the premise that it would be brilliant for six episodes and then had noplace to go. The first Fox series starring Tea Leoni, Flying Blind, had a very funny pilot and set up an untenable situation.)

I'm told the only interesting character on Voyager has been the doctor, who can change. He's the only character allowed to grow.

The first problem with Voyager, then, is that characters aren't allowed to change -- or the change is imposed from outside. (By the way, an imposed change is a great way to start a story. The character then fights it, and that's interesting. It's a terrible way to end a story.)

The second problem is that they don't make use of the elements they have. Let's go back to the first season. There was an episode in which there's a traitor on board who is as smart as Janeway herself. (How psychiatric testing missed this, I don't know, but the Trek universe has never had really good luck with psychiatry.) After leading Janeway by the nose for fifty minutes, she figures out who it is, and confronts him. He says yes -- and beams off the ship, having conveniently made a deal with the locals.

Perfect for series television. We've got a supposedly intelligent villain out there who could come back and Janeway's been given a run for her money -- except that I felt cheated. Where's the story? Where's the resolution?

Here's what I think they should have done. It's not traditional series television, but I think it would have been better stories.

First of all, the episode ends when Janeway confronts the bad guy and arrests him. He's put in the brig -- and stays there. The viewer gets some sense of victory here.

But now there's someone as smart as Janeway in the brig. Suddenly we've set up Silence of the Lambs. (I don't mind stealing if I steal from good sources.) Whenever a problem is big enough, Janeway has this option: she can go to the brig and try and make a deal with the bad guy. "The ship dies, you die." Not only that, here's someone on board ship with whom she has a unique relationship -- one not formally bounded by rank. What does the bad guy really want?

And whenever Janeway's feeling low, he can taunt her. "By the way, I thought of a way to get everyone home in one-tenth the time. Have you, Captain?"

You wouldn't put him in every episode. But any time you need that extra push, he's there. Remember, we can have him escape any time we want, through the same sleight used in the original episode.

Furthermore, it's one thing to catch him; it's another thing to keep him there. You can generate another entire episode out of an escape attempt by the prisoner. But that would be an intermediate thing. Let's talk about the finish I would have liked to have seen.

Let's invent a crisis. The balonium generator explodes; we're deep in warp space; our crack engineering crew has jury-rigged a repair to the sensors and found a Class M planet that might do for the repairs. Except it's just too far away. The margin is tight -- but can't be done. There are two too many people on board ship. Each requires a certain amount of food, air, water, etc. Under pressure, Neelix admits that his people can go into suspended animation, so he does. The doctor tries heroically but the engineer who was tending the balonium generator dies. (Hmmm. Power's low. The doctor can only be revived at certain critical moments.) Looks good -- but they were using air until they died; one more crew member must die for the rest to live.

And somebody remembers the guy in the brig. "The question of his guilt," says Tuvok, "is resolved. The authority of the Captain is absolute. You are within your rights to hold a summary court martial and sentence him to death."

And Janeway says no. "The Federation doesn't do that."

Except that everyone will die if she doesn't. The pressure is on Janeway, now. Janeway being Janeway, she's looking for a technological fix. "Find an answer, dammit!" And the deadline is coming up. After a certain point, the prisoner has to die, along with someone else.

A crewmember volunteers to die (a regular). Before Janeway can accept, yet another (regular) crewmember volunteers, and Janeway is forced to decide. -- And Tuvok points out that while morally it's defensible if that member volunteered to die, the ship cannot continue without either of those crewmembers. It can continue without the prisoner. Clearly the prisoner is not worth as much as those crewmembers, but she is the captain. She must make this decision.

Our fearless engineering crew thinks they might have a solution, but it will use nearly everything they've got, and they need another six hours to work on the feasibility. Someone in the crew tries to resolve the problem for her by offing the prisoner -- the failure uses up more valuable power. Now the deadline moves up closer, past the six hours deadline. The engineering crew's idea is no longer feasible.

For his part, the prisoner is now bargaining. He says he's got ideas to help. Does he? He's tried to destroy the ship before. And he won't reveal them until he gets a full pardon.

(This is all basic plotting: keep piling on difficulties. Put a carrot in front of the characters, keep jerking it away.)

The tricky part is the ending. It's a requirement that the ending derive logically from what has gone before. If you're going to invoke a technological fix, you have to set the groundwork for it in the first half of the show. Otherwise it's technobabble. It's deus ex machina. (Any time someone says just after the last commercial break, "Of course! If we vorpalize the antibogon flow, we're okay!" I want to smack a writer in the head.)

Given the situation set up here, we have three possible endings:

My preferred ending is the third one, even though the prisoner need not die. The decision we've set up is a difficult one, and it is meaningful. It is a command decision. Whether she ends up killing the prisoner is not relevant; what is relevant is that she decides to do it.

John Gallishaw once categorized all stories as either stories of achievement or of decision. A decision story is much harder to write, because both choices have to matter.

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