Thursday, September 23, 2010

A tribute to Star Trek's Michael Piller

"Mr. Worf... Fire!"

A generic line that could be quoting any one of a hundred and seventy-eight episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the line of dialogue that changed everything for Trek fans?

We'll come back to that in a minute, but here's a hint: it's the latter.

That line of dialogue was authored by Michael Piller, and it was the final line spoken in the third season of TNG (his first season as show-runner.) Piller is the writer often credited with truly defining the Trek sequel. Though the first two seasons had a number of high points, the shows were still largely plot-driven and many of the main characters were barely fleshed out at the start of the third season.

Adding to the problem was creator and executive producer Gene Roddenbury's edit that humans were perfect in the 24th century. There was no greed, no avarice, no hatred among those from Earth, and certainly not among those in Starfleet. That's a nice vision of the future, but any writer will tell you what the problem is with using that as the basis for your series.

There's no conflict. If everyone from Earth is perfect and gets along with each other, then you're not going to have interpersonal conflict among the human Starfleet officers. That means that all conflict in a TNG either had to be external - or come from one of the two non-human characters, the android or the Klingon.

Gene's rigid rules contributed greatly to the high turnover in the writing staff during the first two years. The original show-runner hired for year three also left before production even began on the first episode - which lead executive producers Rick Berman and Roddenberry to turn to the writer who'd been the second choice for the job and who fortunately had agreed to write a freelance episode (against the advice of his agent): Michael Piller.

How can one tell interesting stories under those rules? Piller found a way. During his first year, Piller worked hard to define the still-thinly developed characters on the Enterprise. He also instituted a policy where every single unsolicited spec script sent to the show was read. Most of them were unusable, but in his first month there he uncovered a spec from a promising young writer named Ron Moore. Moore would later spend five years each on the staffs of TNG and its spin-off Deep Space Nine before going onto several other shows, most notably the relaunched Battlestar Galactica. As it would turn out, Moore was just the first of many young writers whom Piller would discover and nurture over the years.

And indeed, you can feel the difference in TNG once Piller found his legs in season three, and come the season's end, he had a big hand in getting the series out from under the shadow of its big brother. The season finale boasted the return of the Borg, a race of seemingly unstoppable cybernetic zombies who can adapt to any attack. Their Collective mind seems unbeatable, and when the Enterprise is sent to intercept them, Captain Picard is captured.

First Officer Riker is left in command and when an away team manages to get aboard the Borg ship, they make a shocking discovery. Captain Picard has been altered and absorbed into the hive mind as a Borg himself. They return to the ship just as Riker is informed that their one-in-a-million chance weapon is ready. With the Borg about to launch into warp, Riker has to make the call. Does he open fire with a weapon certain to destroy the Borg ship, and his transformed captain, or does he hestitate - likely dooming humanity.

That line I quoted at the start of this entry? That's how the episode ended, followed by the words "To Be Continued...."

All summer Trekkers speculated on how Starfleet would get out of this. Would Picard be killed? Was Patrick Stewart being written out of the show? If not, how would Starfleet defeat the Borg?

Another person who wanted to know the answer to those questions was Piller himself. He wrote the cliffhanger not having any idea how it would be resolved. That seems unfathomable when one studies Piller's own philosophies of writing, the pride he takes in ensuring that each story he writes strive for deeper meaning or deeper exploration of the characters.

But the gambit worked. The cliffhanger held fans in anticipation all summer, and drew in new audiences. Even today, that episode, entitled "The Best of Both Worlds" lands on Top Ten Best Cliffhanger lists. Somehow he came up with a conclusion mere days before the next season's opener was to go into production.

Piller would work on the rest of TNG and co-create the two subsequent series Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and then after a few years away from the Trek universe, he was asked to come back and write the ninth film in the series. There was just one problem - he didn't have an idea.

"Where do ideas come from? I’m asked all the time. The only suggestion I give to young writers is to listen to the universe. The ideas are all around you – in newspapers and magazines, television, stories people tell you and most often in your very own life experiences. Sooner or later, something will resonate."

That's a quote from Piller's unpublished book Fade In: The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection. Back when he was working on the movie, he'd pitch the book as a unique look inside the writing process of a single feature film. We'd be right there with him as he wrote the treatment, struggled to refine the idea, got notes from the actors and the studio, and eventually went all the way to the final draft.

There was just one problem. Once the book was done, someone at Paramount killed the project. Time passed. Piller died of cancer in November 2005. The market for nonfiction Trek books fell apart, and it seemed that the book would never be deemed profitable enough to see publication.

Cue the good folks at Trek Core, who have been offering Piller's unpublished manuscript for free at this link. It's an amazingly candid look at the process of writing a feature film, from a perspective rarely addressed in such depth for any movie. This is not a book for Trekkies - this is a book for writers.

Maybe you hate Star Trek. Maybe you've never seen Star Trek. Or perhaps you have but you haven't seen Insurrection. Or maybe you hate Insurrection. It doesn't matter - this is a must-read.

If my introduction of Piller as a writer fails to impress you, then perhaps this tantalizing tidbit will make you curious enough to check out at least some of this book.

As I approach a new project, my process always begins with the question: what is it about? Here’s one answer that might apply to a Star Trek movie...

I want it to be about the most horrible, treacherous aliens ever known to man who are about to destroy life as we know it, leading to the most spectacular thrill ride of an adventure with fantastic space battles and huge explosions and great special effects -- a white knuckle ride for the movie audience.

Yeah, but what’s it

I can write space battles with the best of them, but what makes that space battle interesting to me is: why are they fighting? What are the stakes? What does the hero lose if he loses? And what does he win if he wins? Why should we care?

Tomorrow - the journey to making the audience care. Lessons from Fade In: The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection.

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