Storytelling 101 (or why Star Trek Doesn't Suck)

Okay, let's get one thing straight right from the start: as you may have guessed from the title of this blog, I'm a Trekkie, which means that most of what you are about to read will have a certain "pro-Trek" slant. That does NOT mean I'm an over-the-top, costume-wearing, Klingon-speaking, convention-attending Star Trek zealot (not that there's anything wrong with that). What it DOES mean, however, is that, like a large, less vocal, number of Trekkies, I'm a fan of the shows, the characters, the stories and yes, the writing. It also means that I'm a reasonable, level-headed individual, capable of intelligent, rational conversation, who recognizes that even at its best, Star Trek sometimes goes just a bit over the top. (Khaaaaaaaannnnn!!!! Khaaaaaaaannnnn!!!!) And, at its worst has produced some really horrid stuff (ST:The Motion Picture, I'm looking at you.)

So, why is it, then, that Star Trek - on the whole - doesn't suck? The answer is quite simple, really. It's the characters, and how they interact with one another, that makes it special. Yes, the stories are far-fetched, the setting is outer space and the dialogue is sometimes...well, you know. But the characters are real. Jim Kirk is real (unlike, for example, William Shatner). Spock, Vulcan though he may be, is real. Bones, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu and Scotty are all real, and so are the relationships they form. And even though some of the plot-lines are mind-boggling ridiculous ("Spock's Brain" anyone?), we can overlook them, because at some point the characters became real to us and we fell in love with them. In other words: it's Storytelling 101.

So, when exactly did I recognize the artful storytelling found within the Trek universe, and realize that it applies across media to all fictional works? (Translation: When did I become a Trekkie?)

The year was 1982 and I was 19. Yes, I had watched more than one rerun of the original series (which, btw, was the only Trek series at the time - yes, I'm old), but nothing had ever really, truly clicked for me. I was out messing around one Saturday afternoon with nothing better to do and saw a theater with Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan playing and I thought "eh, why not?"

The movie was fun, engaging really. I enjoyed seeing all the familiar faces, mixed in with a few new ones. It had action, comedy and Ricardo Montalbon in something other than the dreadful Fantasy Island.

But then, something happened. Something unexpected. Something magical. Just when it seemed darkest, when all hope was lost and our heroes were trapped inside a dead planet for all eternity, Kirk popped open his flip-phone, called Spock and said: "Kirk to Spock, it's been two hours, are you ready?" To which Spock replies, "Right on schedule, Admiral."

I was hooked.

It seems hokey now. In hindsight. Really hokey. But it's not. It's Storytelling 101. Let's break it down for a moment and play it back as if we're watching it for the first time.

The set up: Kirk, Bones, Chekov and Saavik, along with Drs. Carol and David Marcus (who, by now, everyone except David, knows is Carol and Kirk's love child) are trapped inside the middle of Regula One, a dead planet (and also the site of the Phase 2 experiments of the Genesis project - did you get all of that?). According to the last communication between Kirk and Spock, the Enterprise had been so badly damaged during its last encounter with Khan, that it couldn't even beam them back on board. The ship was ordered to leave them behind and hightail it out of there, if they could. Now, bear in mind, that Kirk and Spock were speaking in code the whole time and also that they blatantly tell us they are speaking in code right up front. But here's the fun part - we missed it. At least I did the first time around. It's obvious now, of course. When I watch it now I think, how in the world did I NOT catch that the first time. 

Here's why: I was caught up in flow of the movie, watching the characters interact with one another and how they were going to react to each new twist and turn. I was too busy enjoying myself to try and figure out what was going to happen next. 

Storytelling 101.

Good stories do that to us. One of the basic tenets of good fiction is that it takes ordinary people and throws them into extraordinary circumstances. It introduces us to characters that we become involved with. Hero or villain, leading character or supporting, as long as they are real and identifiable, they will engage the reader in a way that no amount of fanciful plot line or special effects ever could. 

In the world of science fiction, like say, Star Trek,  for example, it falls to the author to determine what constitutes ordinary within the confines of the world(s) they've created, but even when you're talking about a super-logical Vulcan, a genetically enhanced über human like Khan or an over-achieving farm boy from Iowa, there still has to be enough recognizable humanity for the audience to relate to them. Otherwise, no matter how good the plot, dialogue or anything else, it simply won't resonate. Hey, nobody said Storytelling 101 was easy.

Anyone up for a glass of Romulan Ale?