Which Sci-Fi devotee is not looking forward to the debut of Star Trek: Picard? (Roll on, January 23, 2020!) I suppose they are as eager as Star Wars fans are about The Rise of Skywalker which premiered today, December 16, 2019.
As a die-hard “Trekkie”, I am fascinated by all things Star Trek, and when I (re)discovered a book about one of the most famous episodes in Star Trek – The Original Series, I was intrigued.
The Trouble with Tribbles is an oddity of a non-fiction work that became a hit for author David Gerrold. It was first published in 1973, then again in 2004, 2014 and 2016. It is about the “birth, sale, and final production” of probably one of the best-known episodes of Star Trek, called The Trouble with Tribbles, which Gerrold wrote. The Trouble with Tribbles is the fifteenth episode of the second season of the original series and it was first broadcast on December 29, 1967.
It takes a long walk down memory lane, like in this book, to remind us that as fabulously graphical and exciting as the franchise is now, with its own invented language, Klingon, (“HIja’, nIvbogh!”), the original series was once ground-breaking, never done before Sci-Fi. It was filmed with one big star (William Shatner), an unproven premise, and a very small budget, and was designed for small 21-inch TV screens. And there was no CGI. And the whole Star Trek universe, including critters like the tribbles, was being invented by the talented team from one episode to the next.
Apart from the rules of this Constructed World, there were limits to what the characters could do, specifically because this was (and is) writing for TV, which means that the characters would be in front of viewers weekly and would have to be consistent to be convincing. For instance, the basis of the series is that the “Enterprise” goes where no-one had gone before but the captain was not supposed to put his own life at risk in these strange new worlds. So getting “Captain Kirk” involved in adventures on planets was tricky, and contributed to Kirk’s image as a renegade rule-breaker. Everything from the “phasers” to “beaming down” had to be created with rules attached. For instance, did you know that Star Trek uniforms have no pockets? Well, the “tribbles” had to live somewhere if they couldn’t be stuffed into pockets… so the bridge, the air ducts and the food synthesizers had to do.
How to write for television
The book is actually less about the famous episode as it is a self-deprecating and honest commentary about writing for television in the 1970s. The details are fascinating and every page is packed with them. The lessons about scriptwriting that Gerrold learned from the two “Genes” on the set, Roddenberry (Executive Producer) and Coon (Producer) are worth remembering and reiterating. Here are a couple:
1. A writer needs to get involved
“Most of the best producers started out as writers. This is because all of a show’s production problems can be solved on a typewriter, long before the story ever gets to the sound stage.” (p. 32)
Gerrold only got his teeth into the world of Star Trek when Gene Coon bought his outline for an episode and he could hang around the set. But once there, he became more than a behind-the-scenes writer. When he understood the characters he could write scenes that fitted them and also fitted the production budget.
2. Start at the bottom and work your way up
Gerrold emphasizes the emerging importance of the role of the screenwriter in the production team. Initially he was paid to do rewrites, then he was paid for outlines, then he was paid for scripts developed from the outlines. The progression from outline to script still happens today, and with every iteration, the story gets better and better, down to the finest details.
“A script assignment is like a piece of a sweepstake ticket – especially when you consider the additional income of residuals for reuse privileges; but if selling a script is a piece of a sweepstakes ticket, then selling only the outline is having your horse trip at the starting gate.” (p. 98)
3. Write about the single most important thing
Gerrold makes a very good point about structuring a story to have sufficient suspense.
“When I went to [writing] school, the importance of the story was that the incident it tells is the most important event that will ever happen to this character. And that’s true of movies, novels, and plays – whatever happens to the hero, whatever he learns, will be the most important thing that he will ever learn in his whole life. […]
On television, however, you know that these characters are going to be back next week – so you know that what you’re seeing this week isn’t all that important, ‘cause next week’s gonna be a whole new adventure. [Ergo] You can’t do high tragedy on a continuing series, or even high comedy. You can’t sustain it week after week. You can’t run your characters in emotional high gear all the time. You’ll burn them out; they’ll cease to be believable.” (p.33)
The trick to keeping up the suspense for television shows, is to have events that are critical but not terminal. The character almost dies, but does not. Consider that one fact: that every story is about the most important event that will ever happen to a character. If the event is not that important, when the reader simply ceases to care what happens. The point is that the tribbles was just a device in the story. The threat of planetary annihilation through decimation of a food crop was the much more critical thing that “Captain Kirk” had to deal with.
4. Every character gets two identifying characteristics
“Every STAR TREK character had to have one or two identifying characteristics, and handle with which the writers could approach them. For Mr. Spock, it was his devotion to logic and his pride in his Vulcan ancestry…” (p. 106)
If you think about any fictional character, you will probably recognize that you remember those who had one or two strong, identifying characteristics. If, within the first few chapters, no character jumps out at me, then I’m afraid I cannot keep reading. Think of “Kurt Wallander”, “Harry Hole”, “Daenerys Targaryen”, “Don Draper”, “Tony Soprano”, “Mary Poppins” – you get my drift?
5. Study the genre as if it were science
“Science fiction expands the event horizon of the imagination. It is the most ambitious branch of literature because it takes us to place no other genre can. And it’s the most subversive of all literatures because it says that the way things are is not the way things have to be. Science fiction is about big questions. How does the universe work? What’s our place in it? Who do we have to become to reach the stars? Science fiction is the only literature that asks the impossible questions. […] To write that kind of story – and this is the biggest lesson that I’ve learned over the last half century – to write that book, you have to become the kind of person who can write it.” (p. xiii)
I cannot agree more with Gerrold’s statement. All writing is hard, but in the case of writing Science Fiction, the writer has to do a great deal of research and preparation. It takes a particularly detail-driven approach to make those leaps of imagination convincing. The tribbles, for instance, had to be invented and documented as if they were an alien species – What do they eat? Do they eat at all? Do they procreate? Where do they come from? Are they harmful? Where would they live on the Enterprise? All this had to be figured out by Gerrold and the creatives and producers on the show.
Gerrold was a well-educated Sci-Fi writer, who had read deeply and widely.
“If I had to pick ten science fiction writers as the all time best, Theodore Sturgeon would be three of them. Robert A. Heinlein would be another three. The other four would be Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.” (p. 83)
This submersion into Sci-Fi literature inadvertently led to a problem with The Trouble with Tribbles.
6. Careful with your inspiration
The famous episode, which has now taken on a life of its own through parodies and mentions in other media, had popped into Gerrold’s head from somewhere – as is often the case with creative endeavours, from lyrics to novels. After most of the fuss about it had died down, Gerrold realized that his plot sounded mighty similar to that of a story by Robert A. Heinlein. Oops. In the end, it was OK, there was no plagiarism, but;
“The moral here is simple: if you know you’re imitating another man’s work, don’t. And if you don’t know, but the idea came too easily, then check to make sure. Double-check the books of your favourite authors, or check with an authority in the field. In the long run, it’s the best thing to do.” (p. 195)
This led to the statement on the cover of the book, “Written by David Gerrold”. How often do you see on the cover of a book, “written by” preceding a name? It is assumed that the name on the cover and title page is the name of the author. But the point is that he really wrote the book about the episode and he really wrote the episode.
Read the script and make a tribble
You can read the full script in the book, and it’s very interesting because now you know where every word came from and how it was conceived and created. You will also find out how to sew your own tribble. Seriously. Not that I’d recommend a house full of tribbles for Christmas, but they are useful as stress relievers as well as detectors of poison in “quadro-triticale” and identifiers of “Klingons”.
PS – There’s an app for that. You can have your own purring, interactive electronic tribble.
Art by Kellepics (Stefan Keller) from Pixabay, Pixabay License: Free for commercial use, no attribution required. Adapted.