Posts Tagged ‘The Making of Star Trek’
Last week, I had dinner with a college friend I hadn’t seen in years, who is thinking about giving up a PhD in psychology to write for television in Los Angeles. We spent a long time commiserating about the challenges of the medium, at least from a writer’s point of view, hitting many of the points that I’ve discussed here before. With the prospects of a fledgling television show so uncertain, I said, especially when the show might be canceled after four episodes, or fourteen, or forty, it’s all but impossible for the creator to tell effective stories over time. Running a television show is one of the hardest jobs in the world, with countless obstacles along the way, even for critical darlings. Knowing all this, I asked my friend, why did he want to do this in the first place?
My friend’s response was an enlightening one. The trouble with writing novels or short stories, he said, is the fact that the author is expected to spend a great deal of time on description, style, and other tedious elements that a television writer can cheerfully ignore. Teleplays, like feature scripts, are nothing but structure and dialogue (or maybe just structure, as William Goldman says), and there’s something liberating in how they strip storytelling down to its core. The writer takes care of the bones of the narrative, which is where his primary interest presumably lies, then outsources the work of casting, staging, and art direction to qualified professionals who are happy to do the work. And while I didn’t agree with everything my friend said, I could certainly see his point.
Yet that’s only half of the story. It’s true that a screenwriter gets to outsource much of the conventional apparatus of fiction to other departments, but only at the price of creative control. You may have an idea about how a character should look, or what kind of home he should have, or how a moment of dialogue, a scene, or an overall story should unfold, but as a writer, you don’t have much control over the matter. Scripts are easier to write than novels for a reason: they’re only one piece of a larger enterprise, which is reflected in the writer’s relative powerlessness. The closest equivalent to a novelist in television isn’t the writer, but the executive producer. Gene Roddenberry, in The Making of Star Trek, neatly sums up the similarity between the two roles:
Producing in television is like storytelling. The choice of the actor, picking the right costumes, getting the right flavor, the right pace—these are as much a part of storytelling as writing out that same description of a character in a novel.
And the crucial point about producing a television series, like directing a feature film, is that it’s insanely hard. As Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant point out in their surprisingly useful Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, as far as directing is concerned, “If you’re doing it right, it’s not that fun.” As a feature director or television producer, you’re responsible for a thousand small but critical decisions that need to be made very quickly, and while you’re working on the story, you’re also casting parts, scouting for locations, dealing with the studio and the heads of various departments, and surviving on only a few hours of sleep a night, for a year or more of your life. In short, the amount of effort required to keep control of the project is greater, not less, than what is required to write a novel—except with more money on the line, in public, and with greater risk that control will eventually be taken away from you.
So it easier to write for television? Yes, if that’s all you want to do. But if you want control of your work, if you want your stories to be experienced in a form close to what you originally envisioned, it isn’t easier. It’s much harder. Which is why, to my mind, John Irving still puts it best: “When I feel like being a director, I write a novel.”
One of the nice things about being an adult is the fact that you occasionally get to indulge in a few of your childhood pleasures, except with more resources and money. A nerdy case in point: when I was growing up, one of the highlights of my year was the annual book sale at the Alameda County Library. For ten dollars, you could fill a paper grocery bag full of battered library discards, and although not many of those books have stayed with me over the years—the only exception being Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, otherwise out of print, which remains one of my favorite and formative writing guides—I still get irrationally excited by the words “library book sale.”
Which brings me to Chicago’s Newberry Library Book Fair, which is the ultimate realization of my childhood fantasies of what a library book sale should be. With room after room of books piled high on tables, crammed, often to the point of immobility, with buyers and browsers, the Newberry’s annual sale is a book lover’s paradise. Walking around the fair yesterday, having abruptly ditched all other obligations when my wife informed me that it was starting at noon, I was forcibly reminded of one of the central facts of my life: aside from my wife and maybe a few family and friends, I love books more than almost anything else in the world.
And this was the best kind of book fair, filled equally with titles I’d been trying to find for a long time and plenty of happy accidents. The former category included a first edition copy of Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes, which I picked up for all of eight dollars (by far the most expensive single book I got that day); Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality; Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at The Movies; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (for three dollars, much less than the anniversary edition I had been planning to buy in the bargain section at Borders); and all four volumes, dating from 1891, of Bourrienne’s Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. These books alone would make for a pretty decent liberal education.
There were also plenty of nice surprises. Because we’re moving soon, and will have to physically haul all these books away in about six weeks, I managed to restrict myself to a handful of paperbacks. But some of these were a lot of fun, too: The Making of Star Trek, published in 1968, with its detailed account of the original show’s origins; Irving Wallace’s The Plot, allowing me to wallow in my previously disclosed love of trashy ’70s fiction; a vintage paperback of Catch-22, which was already next on my reading list; and the excellent anthology The Practical Cogitator, famous in its time, unknown by me, but which already looks to inform this blog tremendously (starting with today’s quote). All in all, it was the best library book sale ever—at least until Sunday, when everything goes on half price. You’ll know where to find me.