Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sidetracked: "Star Trek Plot" Taxonomy.

I recently decided it was time for a bit of 'cultural education' in the form of a "Star Trek: Original Series" marathon. While I'd seen snippets of various episodes, I realised I had never seen a whole lot of them in sequence, so I didn't actually have much sense of what the show was like back in the 60s--and I found myself curious.

[Below: The Pilot episode (later re-worked into "The Menagerie" Parts I & II) with Captain Christopher Pike instead of Kirk, was just dreadful--unless you like very silly, shiny costumes and terrible dialogue. Wait...]

One thing I've noticed so far is the quality of the show--given what else was on the Box in the 1960s, this is pretty good stuff. There's a reason it gained more than a 'cult' following; the show provides (particularly in retrospect) some rather interesting social commentary, and it was progressive for its time, something that shows up if you compare the Pilot first (all-white/anglo-American cast) and then the actual show (African-American and Asian characters, and later even Chekov, who is Soviet/Russian).

In spite of the overall sexism that echoes what was acceptable in the day, there are also more roles for women on the show (compare it to the sitcoms of the 50s and 60s, e.g.), and there are obvious references to race/racism in the dynamic between Spock as 'alien' and the rest of the 'human' crew.

I've also realised that in spite of the creativity of the writers, once you watch enough episodes, certain plot elements start to repeat themselves regularly. In fact after enough repetition they can be easily isolated, and a taxonomy created... and for 'fun', this is what I decided to do. Bear in mind that the result below can also be applied to Star Trek: The Next Generation and possibly other series of Star Trek. Now go ahead--plot your own episode!

[Below: Another shot from the Pilot episode, which features the 'seductive woman', 'SOS leads to trap' and 'aliens experiment on crew' plots.]

First up: plot elements involving 'outside' factors. Because where would we be without external (beyond the ship) 'stimulus' to jolt the plot into life? The list includes...

...Seductive [alien] woman/women [with green or otherwise strange-looking skin; see picture above].
...Mysterious SOS or summons from [distant] ship/planet.
...Uber-intelligent, unemotional aliens perform [psychological/physical] experiments on captive crew member/s.
...Political conflict [often involving the Neutral Zone].
...'Mad scientist' character.
...Conflict [with aliens] caused by communicative incompatibilities.
...Away team mission to unfamiliar planet or ship.
...Tricky strangers with [fake] Irish accents.
...Strange [contagious] substance/disease/creature brought on board by unwitting crew member/s.
...Death of a 'Red Shirt' [often combined with 'away mission to unfamiliar planet'].
...[Malicious] alien or force that can appear in any form.

[Below: A fruitful combination, 'Mad Scientist' plus 'Androids' in "What are Little Girls Made of".]

Plot elements involving/originating with 'insiders' or people on crew: these aspects of the storyline are drawn from and focus on the internal conflicts of the show's regular characters, their romances and dramas, their histories and the ongoing struggles they face within the context they're "written in to" on the show. These include...

...Something shady returns from a crew member's past to haunt him/her.
...Crew member/s suffer psychological/emotional tension or breakdown.
...Philosophical or psychological Dilemma involving Human Nature [includes instances where Logic falls short and Spock learns a lesson].

[Below: Spock experiences a logic FAIL in "The Galileo Seven", prompting the usual snarking disagreements from ship's doctor "Bones" McCoy.]

...Romance--between crew members or between one of the crew and an 'outsider'.
...Ethical dilemma re: violation of the Prime Directive.
...Major alteration to crew member/s' character [can happen to one person or to everyone on the ship/a planet].

[Below--Sulu gets Wild'n'Crazy in "The Naked Time", after an infection spreads through the ship causing personality changes to the crew.]

'Scientific' or technical plot elements: I thought it was fair to present these as a separate category; Star Trek is all about the 'science' in 'science fiction' (the Enterprise is on an exploratory mission, after all), and many books have been written about the "physics of Star Trek" and so on. Some examples of how this works in the plot...

...Urgent technical issue/s with the ship [e.g. something involving lithium/dilithium crystals].
...Transporter malfunction.
...Mysterious loss of power or one of the ship's crucial functions.
..Pick up or drop-off of scientific crew [science mission].
...Time travel [including plots where crew members find themselves stuck in some version of an era in Earth's past].
...Asteroid belt or other zone of mysterious/anomalous Space Effects.
...Androids, robots or other intelligent [and often Evil] machines.

[Below: The show's first Pissy Romulan, in the excellent episode "Balance of Terror". The character is played by Mark Lenard, who ironically goes on to play Spock's Vulcan father Sarek, a role he reprised many times in the decades that followed.]

Most of these themes carry over quite a bit into ST:TNG--for instance, there is a whole series of episodes involving Troi being taken over or manipulated somehow by a mysterious force or magnetic character, a variation on a theme described above; and Will "Action Man" Riker takes over the 'womaniser' role previously occupied by Kirk, while Data replaces Spock as logician and there are lots of 'Human Nature vs. Machine' plots there.

[Below: Part of the charm of the Original Series was the amusing chemistry between Captain Kirk (Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Nimoy)--a dynamic totally absent from the relationship between Spock and Captain Pike in the Pilot episode, but immediately noticeable in the first episodes of the actual show.]

There--that's my nerd-out humour moment of the month... grin. Back to ST:OS; what with about 25 episodes in each of the three seasons, I have quite a bit to get through; we'll have to see if the taxonomy holds up.

Post-Script: After watching a full season, I think I'd have to add two more plot options to this mix. One is "someone other than Kirk has control of the ship." Another could be "new alien friends are not what they seem".

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