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Archive for October, 2011

Rules for Writers

Phoenix comicconUPDATE:  Star Trek writer Morgan Gendel (featured below) will be at STAR BASE INDY in December 2011 in Indianapolis with his  “Journey to the Inner Light” program as well as a writers workshop where he will work with a small group of aspiring writers for 2 hours to create The Next (Hypothetical) Star Trek Series. For more information, contact

A delight of attending a “con” is that you get to hear writers talk about their art and some of the weird things they have to go through in writing for TV. I attended “Sci-Fi and Fantasy on TV” at the Phoenix Comic Con. Panelists were Morgan Gendel, who wrote several beloved episodes of STNG; Robert J. Sawyer, author of FlashForward; and John Scalzi, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. These three experts had some fascinating insights into the “rules” sci-fi writers need to keep in mind.


No science!If you’re reading this, you probably love Sci-Fi.  But network executives have a prejudice against it. “Every time you put science in a TV show, you lose 10,000 viewers.” “People will only watch sci if if they don’t know it’s sci fi.” It is to these people the writers have to be able to sell ideas for a new TV series.  So Sci-Fi shows have an uphill battle to start with.

If you’re writing for a sci-fi series, one constraint is that if you write about known science, you have to adhere to the scientific facts. And studio executives may even treat fictional “science” as though it is real. So the less explanation, the better. Give just enough to seem logical. The writers go to the science advisers saying “this is what we want to do” – and the advisers tell them how to do it without enraging viewers.

For example, remember Star Trek Next Generation “Starship Mine”, where Picard is left alone on the ship and must thwart thieves’ attempt to steal trilithium? The writer, Morgan Gendel realized his plot needed “a big car wash in the sky.”  He researched and  came up with the Baryon sweep. Baryons are real, actually quark-based particles that interact with a force 100 times stronger than electromagnetic force.  Cool! That makes sense to an audience:  a starship needs to be rid of  stray particles picked up between the stars much as audio tape back in the day had to be degaussed magnetically. As the audience, we don’t need to get into quarks, etc. All we need to know was that it was a sweep that was necessary and would be lethal to organic life.  Yep, the less detail the better!!


Another rule – or tradition – is that Gene Roddenberry enforced his vision of a positive future from the original series into the second season of Next Generation.  With his death, writers felt free to violate his rule that in our future, people have evolved past personal conflict.

Star Trek was anti-politician and had episodes speaking out against war during the Vietnam Era. Enterprise changed this approach at the end of Season 2 when an alien probe attacks Earth, killing 7 million people. Enterprise focused on a George Bush approach of “kick ass and take revenge”. The panelists said the series never recovered. It had broken the rule of being anti-politician.

This point has been rolling around in my head. I loved The Original Series and Next Generation because they presented “teaching stories” and a future I’d like to live in: Roddenberry’s vision. To me, Star Trek lost steam after Roddenberry’s death, when the writers could take the lead characters into darker places.  Did other people react that way? Was there data on this?  I found the following chart on

Nielsen ratings for trek TV

Nielsen ratings for trek TV

Even though Roddenberry died the fifth season of Star Trek Next Generation, he had selected writers who could work within his “bible”: “depict human interaction ‘without drawing on the baser motives of greed, lust and power’ “(from Wikipedia ). Deep Space Nine wasn’t guided by Roddenberry’s rules – it started as high in the ratings as STNG but quickly dropped. Subsequent series kept dropping in popularity.  While there may also have been other factors, it would appear that abandoning Roddenberry’s vision did not lead to more viewers!


Another challenger that the panelists talked about was the uncertainty about how many episodes would be funded.  These days committing to a 5 year story arc would scare the studios.  Even for STNG, the networks wouldn’t commit beyond the pilot, so Paramount kept full control.  Writers have to grab the risk adverse studio execs with short term concepts. Most of what sells are series with relatively independent episodes. A serial that requires the audience to commit to watching all episodes doesn’t last long.

story arcs

So the first goal is “get it on the air”. This can mean starting with a plot line that you then realize you can’t sustain after the pilot. Ouch!  Writers start out with a plan they think will last for 24 episodes – then after 6 episodes you find you’ve run out of the plan.  Double ouch!!  You think there’s a multi-year master plan driving your favorite series? Dream on!