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[Comments] (5) Ultimate Star Trek Nerd Speculation: I split this out of a forthcoming "best of links" post so I could discuss it in tedious detail. The link in question is a full-throated defense of Star Trek: Voyager which sparked a lively conversation between Sumana and myself back in August. Sumana has long despised Voyager, and on the whole my verdict is "not so great". But there are some excellent episodes,[0] and it did get better over time.

When Voyager was on the air, my problem with it was I didn't like the writing. As I watched it later I discovered another problem: the supporting cast is redundant. Most Trek supporting casts have an air of blandness (this is, in a nutshell, why DS9 is the best Trek series: pretty much the entire recurring cast is well-developed), but in VOY a lot of characters are just unnecessary.

Specifically, you don't need Chakotay, Tom Paris, or Harry Kim. You just need Tuvok. Whenever one of those three characters has a scene, it would be a better show if that were Tuvok's scene. You're probably thinking: "What about the episode where Paris learned a valuable lesson about blah? That wouldn't make sense with Tuvok!" Here's the thing: that episode was lousy. Pretty much every episode where these three characters act on their own initiative (as opposed to following orders) is lousy. But once those characters existed and the actors had contracts, the writers had to use them, and it watered down the plomeek soup.

Once we started talking about this, Sumana and I started trying to compress the casts of other Trek shows. The point is not to eliminate characters that we don't like--we love almost all these characters--but to try to get a similar cast with fewer characters, so that every character can be essential to almost every episode. This is a ruthless exercise in minimalism.

What's the point? Well, all these characters looked good in the series bible, but some of them didn't pan out. Some of them consistently bombed, some were underused. The thing is, you don't know ahead of time. A series bible is like a meta-screenplay. It can be implemented well or badly, and the final verdict doesn't come in until the end of the series.

This exercise is the flip side of tie-in novels and fan fiction. Instead of fleshing out the underused characters and exploring the ignored relationships, it lets us see which parts of the show were absolutely necessary to get the stories we liked. If you totally disagree with what Sumana and I like about Trek shows, you can probably express that disagreement in terms of your minimal cast.

Now on with the show. When I think Star Trek and "ruthless exercise in minimalism", I think of the original series. You can tell almost every TOS story with just Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Everybody knows that. But you gotta have some other characters to spread the dialogue out, so let's dig deeper.

Do you need both Chekov and Sulu? Nope! TOS got along for a full season without Chekov. Do you need both Scotty and Spock? Not really! Let Spock fix the engines himself instead of telling Scotty to fix them.

Sumana took this opportunity to complain about the fact that Uhura, a chronically overlooked main character, is the only woman in TOS's main cast. I suggested making McCoy a woman. Sumana pointed out that they did exactly that in TNG, and nobody liked Dr. Pulaski. This had me stumped for a while, but now I have the solution: have Nichelle Nichols play McCoy instead of Uhura. Who would complain? Well, DeForest Kelley fans would complain, but look, now DeForest Kelley can play Khan. (Second-best solution: combine Scotty with Uhura instead of with Spock.)

Now that you see how the game works, back to VOY. As above, Tuvok subsumes Chakotay, Paris, and Kim. Apart from that, my suggestions are pretty minor. Seven of Nine can replace Kes--in fact, she did. With their powers combined, Seven and the Doctor can replace Neelix. Seven can also replace Torres, or Torres and the Doctor combined can replace Seven. But honestly I'd be perfectly happy with the Tuvok thing. You can tell most good VOY stories with Janeway, Tuvok, and Seven, but it's a stretch.

DS9 did an amazing job of developing a huge cast, so objectively speaking it doesn't need this exercise, but that's what makes it such a ruthless exercise. No one is spared! The TNG imports are out: Kira can do O'Brien's job, and Odo can do Worf's. Dax and Bashir can be combined. You still need Quark, but he can be a recurring character, like Rom, instead of a marquee character.

Sumana and I had a lot of fun messing with TNG, because it's the Trek we both grew up with. And TNG shows that major characters can just leave a show. The show didn't drastically change when Tasha Yar died, when Beverly Crusher left (or when she came back), or when Wesley Crusher left.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say you can tell all the interesting TNG stories with just Picard and Data. But you can't run the day-to-day business of Star Trek with just two characters, so let's add some more.

I think we have to leave Worf in place, especially since we got rid of him on DS9. The big question here is what to do with Riker, Troi, and Crusher, TNG's equivalents of Chakotay, Paris, and Kim. The situation's better than VOY because there's about 1.5 interesting characters between the three of them--but how to arrange them? The obvious thing to do is combine the two medical types, but the resulting character isn't any more interesting than Troi alone.

That's why we prefer to merge Troi with Riker and create a real XO character, someone responsible for mediating between the captain and crew. Either Marina Sirtis or Jonathan Frakes could play this character well. With this character you can play up Picard's reserve, make him a little less of a nice guy. If Picard is the captain everybody admires but nobody positively likes, this Troi-Riker character becomes the most interesting character on the show! Picard's more interesting, too. Combining characters doesn't just tighten up the show, it creates new possibilities.

You don't need Geordi LaForge when you have Data. If you really want to keep him (I do, he's my favorite TNG character), have him replace Crusher, but I don't think TNG needs a main-character doctor at all. Crusher was incredibly underused; have recurring guest stars do the sickbay scenes.

OK, one more. I haven't been messing with the commanders, because if you change the commander character you change the whole tone of the show.[1] But on ENT, Captain Archer isn't the strongest character: Tucker is. You can tell almost every good ENT story with Tucker, T'Pol, and Phlox[2]. You'll need an Archer+Reed+Mayweather+Sato character to spread out the dialogue, but with those four you're good to go. A Trek show where half the command staff are aliens would be really interesting, and quite appropriate for the ENT era.

[0] "Demon" and "Course: Oblivion" are among my favorite hours of Trek. For Sumana-like skeptics, some more excellent VOY off the top of my head: the "Equinox" two-parter (which shows what would have happened if VOY had been the Battlestar Galactica reboot), "Body and Soul", "Message in a Bottle". VOY also had some excellent stories about storytelling (eg. "Muse" and "Living Witness"), something that TNG tried occasionally but it never worked. DS9 fans especially should watch "Message in a Bottle" for its view into the Dominion War.

[1] Here's the kind of thing I come up with when I mess with the commanders. The DS9 pilot focuses on the great Federation diplomat Curzon Dax (Terry Farrell), who's been posted to the Bajoran system following the discovery of a strategically significant wormhole. Halfway through the pilot, Curzon is assassinated by Bajoran extremists trying to disrupt an ancient prophecy. The Dax symbiont must be saved at any cost, but the only Trill within range is Ezri Tigan (Avery Brooks), the troubled first officer of a nearby Federation starship. Yes, I said it. Avery Brooks plays Ezri Dax as the main character of DS9.

[2] Yeah, Phlox. He did kill a whole species that one time, but take him away and you no longer have ENT. Phlox's strength as a character comes from the fact that, by human standards, he's insaaaaane. IMO one of the most realistic depictions of a "human-like" alien in Trek. (Sumana asked me to add this disclaimer: "We cannot be sure how realistic this depiction is, because hypotheses about the behavior of imaginary aliens cannot be tested.")

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Posted by Brendan at Sun Dec 20 2009 02:18

Inevitable minimal-cast disagreement: there is no measure by which Data is a better or more interesting character than Geordi, and Geordi's geekiness can serve all the story functions that Data's artificial intelligenceness. Data's AI is just a metaphor for geek social stuntedness anyway! Yes, without Data you can't have Lore, but Lore is only interesting for the length of a cold open.

Posted by ScreeieercS at Sun Dec 20 2009 02:49

Voyager is actually my favorite star trek show, for three reasons:

1. The general premise
2. Absence of klingons
3. The doctor

TVTropes has your game down to a completely generalized formula: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CastCalculus

I think the problem with star trek is the second half of the episode, where they explain that so-and-so was randomly being a bitch in the first half due to brain slugs or etc. It would be a much better show if instead of resolving weird plot points, they just kept piling up without being explained.

I made an edited voyager episode that kind of does this:


Warning: parts 4 and 5 are invisible rectangular SPAGHETTI!

Posted by Leonard at Sun Dec 20 2009 09:01

Trying to get me to visit TVTropes and waste the rest of the day, eh? I'm on to your game! Instead, I'll waste the rest of the day writing weblog posts like this one!

Posted by Brendan at Sun Dec 20 2009 13:05

"Instead of resolving weird plot points, they just keep piling up without being explained" is sort of the entire LOST series bible. They seem to have done okay by it, really.

Posted by ScreeieercS at Mon Dec 28 2009 06:52

I tried to watch LOST, but there were too many flashbacks. I hate flashbacks!

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