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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Why Star Trek's No Drama Policy Wasn't As Bad As You Think

So the other day, Adam and I were watching Star Trek on TV (Deep Space Nine and Voyager) and I remembered something about the earlier Star Trek shows that few are probably consciously aware of.

From the beginning, Gene Roddenberry decreed that ST was not allowed to have conflict between characters onboard the Enterprise or in Starfleet in general.  Not that they had to sing kum-bah-yah, but there was not allowed to be drama and major conflict between them.  This changed with Deep Space Nine and all subsequent series/movies because GR kicked the bucket and the writers were given more leeway.

Now, regardless of the preaching early episodes spouted, the overall concept of the no-drama policy actually wasn't too bad.  GR wanted to illustrate a future in which humanity had finally come together and put aside differences.  As a storytelling technique, I think it's fabulous.  Let me illustrate.

Turn on any TV show today and there is inevitably drama between characters.  Soap operas are all about the drama.  But any decent show inevitably succumbs to the temptation of manufactured conflict.  Chicago Fire is a good example.  House is another example.  The original premise of the show is pushed aside for personal problems that eventually take over the whole thing.  And I'm not saying that it's bad to change things up now and again to keep things fresh and interesting, but the answer is not always drama.

My favorite ST series is The Next Generation.  Hate me, shun me, it's true.  I grew up on Captain Picard.  Captain Janeway and Voyager is a close second, but I'm going to go with TNG for this piece.

TNG was a little preachy in the beginning, and some of the episodes are rather ridiculous.  But in not having extensive personal conflict between characters, it allowed for more focus on the plot.  How do we stop the Romulans from taking over this sector of space?  How do we keep the peaceful inhabitants of this planet safe from an asteroid heading straight for them?  How do we deal with this omnipotent Q continuum?  How do we gather the information we need without tainting the thoughts and imaginations of a primitive society?

Plot moved plot.  It allowed for a cleaner story arc over the course of the season and allowed for some phenomenal character growth.  Picard being assimilated by the Borg was a stunning twist, and with no drama to muck it up, it begged the question of how they were going to rescue him or would they be forced to potentially kill him?  It made that decision so much more important.  Similarly, Worf's divided loyalties between the Federation and the Empire, his war over whether to honor his duty to his uniform or his duty to his family and his honor, it came as a pivotal moment in the series, not just another cheap plot twist designed to move a slow-moving, drama-riddled, sludgy series along.

In the first season, Tasha Yar was killed off.  Behind the scenes, she felt as though she wasn't being respected and her character was underutilized, etc., and she wanted out.  In the show, though, it showed a level of seriousness that the characters might not always be safe.  Tasha's dead.  Would Worf leave and return to the Empire?  Would Picard be lost to the Borg forever?  These are questions about plot.  They're not cheap thrills from personal dramatic conflicts, an annoying Will-they-won't-they, ultimately who cares?  And even in Star Trek: Nemesis, that moment when you are praying that it will be a happy ending to the series once and for all, and Data sacrifices himself, it matters because there isn't a ton of baggage following him.

That's not to say that personal conflict should never happen.  Having no personal conflict at all is unrealistic and can grow very stale after a while.  Similarly, characters still need to have a measure of personality.  Wesley Crusher is an excellent example of how to write a two-dimensional character.  But keeping it to a minimum is not a bad thing.

A good example of getting off the high road and into the mud really comes in Deep Space Nine.  Written after GR's death, when the writing restrictions were loosened, DSN got off Cloud 9 and the idea that humanity now sings kum-bah-yah, and it started tackling some more complex issues.  It managed to stay largely away from the drama, and it focused more on the serious side of things, war rather than exploration, dealing with the Dominion and the Maquis at the same time.

Voyager, I think, came the closest to being overridden with personal drama.  It was well-managed in the sense that it was believable and also moderately suppressed.  One little Federation craft is stuck on the other side of the galaxy in the Delta Quadrant and has to make it home.  None of the present crew are expected to survive; it will be all of their children and grandchildren.  Being stuck in close quarters with so many people under those conditions is going to put some strain on people, and personal conflict is absolutely expected, as well as some ill-advised romantic encounters.  At the same time, they are alone with no allies and no backup, and if they want to make it home at all, they have to get along and make things work.

Basically, what I'm getting at is that you don't need a ton of drama to have a well-rounded story.  Let plot move plot, and let the characters develop in such a way that when things happen, they mean something.  Foreshadowing is good, but continuously adding drama baggage is not.  Would Worf's departure have been as dramatic if he had constantly fought with Picard and made threats to leave and generally not gotten along with anyone?  No.  But building up his character as being the only Klingon in Starfleet, having that divide, siding with Starfleet for so long but now having to make this awful choice, it means something.  It is a monument to be recognized, not another marker on a long trail.

Brooke Shaffer

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