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Rick Berman - Executive Producer of The Next Generation
The Science of Star Trek
How important a role has real science had in the success of Star Trek?
Well, I think any science fiction has to rely, to some degree, on real science. We deal with, oddly enough, two different kinds of sciences on Star Trek. We deal with real science, astro-physics, physics and astronomy, the different elements of having to do with space travel, et cetera. And then we deal with a mythological science, a Star Trek made up science that although fictional, has been around for thirty-five years. As a result, we are beholden to follow it. There are very specific rules about Warp speed, tractor beams, transportation and things like that, so we have to follow two sets of rules.
We have advisors in both capacities. We have science advisors who both feed us potential ideas and correct us when we are looking for things having to do with science. Most first and second drafts of scripts will often just have the word 'TECH,' in it. it will say something like, 'Joanna will say, we need to TECH the tech.' And those capital TECH's end up being rewritten with the help of our science people.
Warping the rules of Physics - how accurate is Trek Science?
We try to keep the science as accurate as possible. Obviously, we have to take some liberties with it because, in fact, it's seemingly impossible to go faster than the speed of light. There are a lot of things in Star Trek that have to be fictional. If we are going to be limited in the future to travelling at the speed of light, no one's ever going to really be able to get anywhere, because other inhabited worlds are so far away that it would take so many years to get there, even if you were travelling at the speed of light.
That's that why Gene Roddenberry came up with the concept of Warp factors, which go up logarithmically. If you're travelling at Warp 5 or 6, you're travelling at hundreds of times the speed of light, which makes things available to us. So, in terms of real science and fictional science, we do our best to try to keep them kosher, and we have a lot of people helping us to do that.
Following the Rules
Are there any scientific rules that Star Trek writers never break?
It's really more a question of following rules of astro-physics. If we're dealing with planetary bodies, if we're dealing with nebula, if we're dealing with certain types of stars, certain types of supernova, we have people that help us with that, so that it's vaguely accurate. We have rules when we're dealing with transporters, with phasers versus photon torpedoes, with – I'm trying to think of other examples that would fit into that category - things like sub-space. Sub-space is a way of getting communicating faster than the speed of light, and there are certain rules about sub-space.
In our new series, Enterprise, we are putting even more restrictions on sub-space, because the series takes place two hundred years earlier than most recent Star Trek shows. But there are many elements, when you're dealing with being in outer space and traversing the stars, that become science oriented; things like artificial gravity. If we didn't have artificial gravity, we'd have a lot of trouble getting around our ships. We have universal translators: if we didn't have universal translators, we'd be doing these television series with subtitles, which would be very difficult. So, there are rules and regulations in terms of all of these areas.
How maintaining an invented world can go wrong
Because the show has been around for such a long time, Star Trek terms have become part of the mythos. They've become nomenclature that everybody is familiar with. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't know what 'Beam me up, Scotty,' means, or what flying at warp speed means, or what a Klingon is. Because there are so many extremely serious fans who will catch us, instantly, if we make a mistake, we've got to be very careful.
I remember when we were doing The Next Generation, one day, the visual effects guys had a phaser blast come out of a photon torpedo port. Well, this is completely unacceptable. I didn't have a clue of where photon torpedoes come out and where phasers come out, but we got three hundred letters, three days later, of people correcting us on that. So, they keep us on our toes.
The Science Advisor
Andre Bormarnis and his role within the series.
Andre's been working with us for a number of years as a science advisor. He has a great grounding in science, he knows a great deal about physics and about astronomy, and what he doesn't know he knows where to go to find out. And he has been the person that has filled in all of our blanks for us, over the years, all the 'TECHs' that end up becoming words and Andre has become very important.
Simultaneously, Andre has done some writing for us recently and the writing's paid off so well that, on our new show, Enterprise, he is a member of our writing staff now - although we are still taking advantage of his scientific expertise.
Minsky, Aldrin and Pasadena
What happened before Andre joined The Next Generation?
On The Next Generation, we had a number of science advisors. There was so much excitement about the show when it first went on the air that we had the benefit of a number of people, from NASA and the JPL - the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, which is very close by.We had people who were friends of Gene Roddenberry, people who were fans of the show, and people who gave us a tremendous amount of support, ideas and conversations. I remember once being at an event in Washington DC, and there was a very famous MIT professor in robotics – I believe his name was Minsky, Marvin Minsky. I was with Brent Spiner at the Watergate Hotel, and this guy came up to Brent and he reached out and he touched his face. Now, Brent's an actor, he was acting, you know, but Minsky was so fascinated because this was Data and this was the culmination of what his whole field of science was about.
When Gene was alive, we had a tremendous amount of contact with people like Buzz Aldrin and many, many astronauts; people from JPL and the head of NASA, Dan Goldin. There were a lot of places we could turn to get scientific ideas and also confirmation of things that were being done. And this has continued through the life of Deep Space 9 and Voyager as well, to varying degrees.
Deep Space 9 and gaineg experience
Well, we had back story available to us. By the time we got to Deep Space 9 we were in the fifth season of Next Generation - we'd done close to 150 episodes of Next Generation, at that point, and we were getting pretty well grounded. We've all gotten a good, scientific education over the years, and we continued to have people like Andre and others who were there to help us.
When Voyager came around, a few years later, and even now, when the new series is about to begin, we continue to build our background of scientific knowledge and also to get a better idea of where to turn when we need some help.
Back to the Future
Will 'Enterprise' have more science? What will it be like?
The new series will probably be more grounded in science than any of our other series, simply because science is at the centre of what we're doing. We've chosen to go back, two hundred years before Voyager and Next Generation, and a hundred years before Captain Kirk and the original Starship Enterprise. We've chosen this era so that we can go back and see how it all began, see the formation of Star Fleet and Man's first steps out into the universe at a time when they're not all that good at it, when they don't take anything for granted, like Jean Luc Picard might. Every day is something new and something a little scary and something a little fascinating.
We did a film a few years ago called First Contact, which ended with the Vulcans making contact with Earth. This story takes place ninety years later. Over that ninety years, the Vulcans have been on Earth, but they've been very hesitant about helping us. They're not very impressed with us, and don't think that we're really ready to step out into the galaxy. So the Vulcans have meted out assistance to us over the last ninety years, and it's been extremely frustrating for all the people involved in science and for the attempts to get a better engine, so that they can see the galaxy.
This is all based on the fact that when Zefram Cochrane, at the end of First Contact, makes his warp flight, he is travelling at Warp 1, the speed of light. But it's made very clear in the pilot of our new series, that at Warp 1 you're going so slowly, that the number of inhabited planets that are within a week or a month or even a year's journey, are very, very few, and that we really can't step out into space until we have an engine capable of going at least Warp 5. So, as we pick up the series, this ninety year period of trying to develop the Warp 5 engine has finally come to fruition. And against the better judgement of the Vulcans, an event occurs that causes us to launch the new ship a little bit earlier than we should.
Inventing the Federation
How science and technology will advance in Enterprise
What we're going to be seeing, science-wise, is all the things that the fans are aware of being part of Star Trek, but we're going to be seeing them at a very early formative stage. We're going to see transporters developed. When we begin the series, transporters are things that people use to transport equipment, but they'd be damned if they were going to stand up and get on one of these things. We don't have tractor beams, we don't have sub-space radio, we don't have phaser banks that are very valuable. We have torpedoes but not photon torpedoes. We don't have food replicators. All these things we are going to see in their infant stages being developed.
The fans are going to have a lot of fun because they're going to see all the things that they take for granted on all of the other Star Trek shows, going through birthing pains. Science is obviously going to come into play in almost every one of these things, because we're going to be watching them, being developed.
We have a science officer on board the ship who's a Vulcan - it's a long story of how she gets on board, but she's in a position to help us. She has more knowledge than we do, having the whole background of Vulcan science, and it's going to come into play a great deal during the first season and in the subsequent seasons, as well.
Flux variance in the Jeffries Tubes?
How actors deal with techno-babble
The actors have a lot of fun with the techno-babble. Different actors, over the years, have had to use it more than others. LeVar Burton, as an engineer, had to give speeches with a huge amount of technical stuff, most of it made up futuristic science that is based in fact but isn't actually real.
On Voyager, and even more so on Enterprise, we're trying to get away from techno-babble. I think we've always had a little bit more of it than we should - a little goes a long way.
The actors have a lot of difficulty with the techno-babble. The worst, though, is the actors that come on as guest stars on a specific episode, who are not Star Trek regulars. They get a job working on a specific episode of Star Trek, and suddenly they receive their script and there's just one techno-babbly scientific sequence after another. You end up throwing some rubber on their faces to turn them into aliens, and some of them have a great deal of trouble.
Do you find writing Science Fiction more satisfying than other kinds of drama?
Writing science fiction is satisfying in that it gives you an opportunity to take contemporary ideas and provocative issues, and just turn them on their ear a little bit to look at them differently. It allows us to deal with issues on shows, without making it preachy, whilst being provocative enough to allow the audience to think a little bit about whatever specific issue or idea that show is about. We've always had a lot of fun.
Writing science fiction, you're open to so many different things. So many ideas come along during the course of a series that can be dealt with in the show, just because of the fantasy and the magical qualities that can become part of science fiction. Although we try to keep Star Trek much more technically correct so we tend to stay away from the fantasy. We still can stretch that a great deal and find a lot of interesting themes to work with.
On the strangeness of leaving science fiction
I believe that we've come out of the realm of science fiction a little bit with this new series. Because Enterprise is taking place in the 22nd century, our characters are much more contemporary, and I think they're much more accessible to the audience. There are characters who wear baseball caps and characters who wear jeans and sneakers when they're off duty. The characters talk a little bit more like we talk and not like, Riker or Picard might talk. They are in a sort of stylised future.
In a way, what we've done in creating this new series is come a quarter of the way back to doing a good cop show, or something like that, on the streets of Philadelphia.
How the Star Trek universe has evolved through the basic premise of each series.
The original Star Trek series, which had a three year run in the 1960s, set the tone for what Star Trek was going to be about. It was a show that took place entirely in space. They rarely went back to Earth. I think they went back to Earth a couple of times in strange time-travel fashions.
Fifteen years later, Gene Roddenberry was asked to do it again. He wisely chose to do it in another century, and went ahead one century from the 23rd century to the 24th. He also wisely decided to not try to find another James T Kirk. We ended up picking a bald, British, Shakespearean actor to play the role.
The Next Generation had certain things about it that were a century beyond the original series. We had holodecks for amusement's sake and also for research sake. The ship was far more advanced and far more comfortable - we had families and kids on the ship. It was, a slightly more futuristic era - Kirk and those people were all dead, but it turned out that Spock wasn't. It was a long time after the original series.
Then, about three years into that series, when Gene Roddenberry was still alive but not at all well, Paramount came to me and said they wanted to do another series which would overlap for a couple of years with The Next Generation. I asked Michael Pillar to join me in creating that series, which turned out to be Deep Space 9.
We realised that if it was going to be on the air simultaneously with The Next Generation for two years, it couldn't take place on a starship. It would be ridiculous to have two starships out there. So, we decided, instead, to have it take place on a Cardassian space station, off in the middle of nowhere, right by a worm hole that was open to another part of the galaxy.
How to create Drama in a perfect world
The biggest problem with writing Star Trek is the fact that Roddenberry created a type of human that was pretty perfect. His idea of a 24th century human was a person that had very little conflict with other humans. So, if there's no conflict within your characters, you've got a lot of trouble as all the conflict has to come from outside, and conflict is what drama is about.
When it came to Deep Space 9, we thought, how can we create conflict without breaking Gene's rules? We decided to put our people into a very inhospitable environment, a Cardassian space station that's kind of spooky and uncomfortable where things didn't work quite right. We also added a lot of non-humans. We had Cardassians, we had Bejorans, we had Ferengi, we had Odo, who's a shape shifter; we had a lot of non-humans that could help us create a little conflict on the show.
From Deep Space to the Delta Quadrant
How Deep Space 9 helped shape Voyager
The unique thing about Deep Space 9 was that because it took place on a specific location as opposed to a ship that kept moving, it allowed us to create dozens of secondary characters. By the time we finished that series and we needed to tie up the loose threads, we realised that there were forty odd characters that the audience had come to know on the show. It was very different and unique, but it had to be because its first two years coincided with The Next Generation.
Then, a couple of years into the show when The Next Generation was going off the air, Paramount came to me again and said, 'We'd like another show, and we'd like that show to start when The Next Generation ends.' We realised that we could create a starship again, because we wouldn't be competing with ourselves, in terms of Next Generation, but we really insisted on making it different, both for ourselves and for the fans.
So we came up with the show that was to become Voyager, which had three unique elements to it. One was that the ship, in the pilot episode, is tossed into the Delta Quadrant. It is so far away that it would take seventy-five years to get back to Earth, unless they could find some special way of doing it.
Secondly, we had a group called the Maquis who were a freedom fighter band; outlaws, in a way. In the pilot episode, a Maquis ship is destroyed, and all the Maquis are brought aboard Voyager, becoming temporary Star Fleet officers. So now we have conflict now between the Maquis and the regular Star Fleet crew.
Thirdly, we had a woman as the Captain, which was quite a dramatic difference.
From Voyager to Enterprise
Really going where no man has gone before
I think, if there was any real challenge with Voyager, it was that the ship was facing in the wrong direction. Rather than heading out to the stars, it was trying to head back toward Earth. I think we made the most of that and they certainly had their adventures on their way back.That leads us to Enterprise, the newest series. We decided, after three series in the 24th century, it would be great go back, to where it all began and see the right stuff of Star Fleet. We wanted to show the first people who truly are going where no man has gone before and to go back to a time when all of the elements of Star Fleet are in their developmental stages.
Why the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine overlapped
The Next Generation was at the end of its third, beginning of its fourth season and it was doing remarkably well. Paramount thought it would be great to get another series going. They thought that rather than have the series begin when Next Generation ended, which they knew was going to be about seven years, it would be great to try to overlap them, which they did with Deep Space 9.
In the first year, that overlap was remarkably successful, both series continued to do very well. So the theory was, if the audience seems to be willing to accept two Star Trek series simultaneously, let's get another one ready for when Next Generation comes to an end - creating Voyager. At the time I personally felt that it was getting a little close to overkill. The Next Generation was coming to an end, we had just written the movie, Star Trek Generations which was going to be coming out within six or eight months of the end of the series. We had Deep Space 9 at end of its second season, and we had Voyager starting, all at the same time. I think it was a little much.
I was very pleased that for the last two years we've just had one show on the air, which was Voyager, and that there's been no overlap. Now it's really the first time, since The Next Generation began, that a new Star Trek show is starting without another one in existence.
I think, in the current environment, I'm very pleased that, Paramount has slowed down a bit with Star Trek. We have a film that we're going to start shooting in October, and when it comes out, in 2002, there'll have been a three and a half year hiatus since the last film. Prior to that, the last three movies had two years between them, so we've given the audience a little bit more of a break,
Starting the TV Sci-Fi renaissance
When we started with The Next Generation in 1987, there was virtually no science fiction on television in the United States. Within four or five years - and I think a lot of it had to do with the success of The Next Generation - there were literally dozens of science fiction shows on the air. So, when Deep Space 9 came around, it was not only competing with all of those shows but it was also competing with The Next Generation. When Voyager came around, it was competing with even more science fiction shows, some of them extremely successful, as well as re-runs and syndication of The Next Generation and Deep Space 9. It did get a little close to overkill; the climate has changed, and I think it's good that we've slowed down a bit.
Sitting in Kirk's Seat
Facing the challenge of creating new Star Trek
I had very little to do with creating The Next Generation. It was very much created Gene Roddenberry. although I worked with him from the very beginning on it.
I would say, undoubtedly, the biggest challenge was all the nay-sayers, all the people that were saying, 'This TV series that we hold in such esteem, that has been off the air for seventeen years, how dare you think that you're going to put a new bunch of guys onto a starship called Enterprise. How dare you think that you're going to have somebody who's going to take the place of Captain Kirk!' There were a lot of people put their nose in the air and had an attitude of 'You can't do this.' The question was always was it going to work? There were a lot of negatives. It was a sequel, which had never worked in television before. Science fiction was not very popular in the mid 80s, there was no science fiction on the air. It was going to syndication in the United States, and there were really no successful one-hour syndication series on the air.
We had a lot of strikes against us as we went into this. We were just hoping that the nay-sayers would be won over, would be seduced. In very short order we had all the fans loving it, and we got great response from the press. The series did remarkably well, even though it was a sequel, even though it was in syndication, and even though it was science fiction.
What was the quintessential Star Trek quality that made the The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine work?
I think we had a whole new generation of audience who knew about Star Trek but didn't know it that well. The thing that makes any good television show work is the characters, both in terms of the characters that are created, the actors that play them and the words that we write for them every week. and with Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner and company we just had a great mix of characters.
I think the most important thing that we took forward to Deep Space 9 was this, idea of trying to create an atmosphere that would allow us conflict within the characters. It was something that was sorely missed, because Roddenberry felt very strongly that we shouldn't have any conflict between the characters.
On Deep Space 9, we had a shape shifter who was the security chief of the station; we had, Kira, who was a Bejoran as the First Officer; we had the sleazy bar tender, Quark; we had Cardassians who had previously run this place. There were a lot of great non-humans around that allowed us to develop conflict, and it made the writing of the show much, much easier for us and more enjoyable.
How Star Trek affected the world's perception of space
One thing that we were told, when we first got involved with Star Trek is that the American space programme (in fact, I would think any space programmes in the world) were very grateful for Star Trek. It made the idea of space travel something that was exciting to people, and thus helped governments to fund the various space programmes. That's one of the reasons that organisations like NASA and the JPL have always been very helpful to us, not to mention the fact that a lot of the people who work at those organisations are big Star Trek fans.
In 1966, when Roddenberry created the first Star Trek series, there hadn't even been a man landing on the Moon. By the time we got to The Next Generation, moon landings were something that everyone took for granted and there were new elements of exploration, deep space probes and the various space ships that have gone out without our solar system, to Mars and Jupiter and things. I think people have become a lot more sophisticated about space travel. People no longer think that the idea of having, humans travelling in space is an absurd fantasy. We have space stations that have been up for many years, and that seem to be continually filled with people; very rarely do you even hear about launches anymore - people take them for granted.
Here in Los Angeles, we have the interesting benefit that, whenever any of these Space Shuttle landings are scrubbed from Florida because of bad weather, they land about ninety miles north of Los Angeles. Whenever that happens - the last time was only a few weeks ago - we get a huge double sonic boom that comes right over Los Angeles. When it happens - 'Boom, boom,' – buildings shake, and that's the Space Shuttle. It's always fun. When we're on the set and hear those two big blasts - you kind of know when they're coming - to know that you're actually hearing a space ship that's coming to land has always been something that we get a kick out of.
Taking aliens for granted.
The idea of humanoid aliens is something that people all take for granted in science fiction. On any given episode of any television show, if you want that alien to speak or to be in any way sympathetic or threatening, it's always good for them to have mouths and arms and legs. Luckily, that's the way most of the actors come, with arms and mouths and legs. So, the aliens tend to be very humanoid.
If there is life, which I'm sure there is, somewhere in our galaxy, the odds that they have arms and legs and mouths and ears are probably quite remote. When it comes to space aliens in movies and in television series, people haven't really changed their idea of what they are. People expect a certain amount of believability that they never demanded before Star Wars and Steven Spielberg's various movies came out, because they used such remarkable visual effects.
Once the Star Trek movies evolved, the visual effects were wonderful, and when we started The Next Generation we had all of these visual effects that people had become used to. We were suddenly forced to try to do them on a television budget, and ended up notching up the expectations of state-of-the-art effects. But make-up, visual effects, what alien worlds look like, how aliens are dressed is constantly changing - people have become a little more sophisticated and want to see stuff that they find more believable.
How a captain sets the tone
Generally, captains bind the cast, toghether in the way they work. Captain Kirk did it, Captain Picard did it, Avery Brooks and Janeway did it. Now we've gone for a captain who's a little bit more like Hans Solo than Jean Luc Picard.
Big Screen, Small Screen
The problems of making Films and Television
Well, one of the things about having movies and television stories running at the same time is that when we decided to put Worf onto Deep Space 9, it became somewhat tricky to get him back onto The Enterprise for the next movie. Even in the film that, that we're about to start shooting in October, we have to explain how Worf has found his way back onto The Enterprise. Last time he had to get leave from Deep Space 9 for a specific reason and now, at the end of Deep Space 9, Worf was sent off to be a diplomat on the Klingon home world. So, in our new film, we have to find a way to get him back on board The Enterprise again. Thats alwaysa tricky thing and always a little bit fun.
The new film is being written by a wonderful writer named John Logan, who wrote, among other things, Gladiator and the HG Wells' Time Machine film that is being shot right now. He is one of the very hot and really talented writers in Hollywood who has always been a Star Trek fan, and he has written a story that's, quite a knockout. It deals with the Romulans, and a group that we have never seen before, the Remans, which are the people who live on the neighbouring planet to Romulus. It's a remarkable script, and it's pretty much locked down - we're starting the budgeting phases and selecting a director all in the next month. The movie will go into pre-production in July, and then we'll start shooting in October for a release sometime in 2002.
Will Buffy and the X-Files kill Star Trek?
We've slipped a bit over the last ten years. The ratings have fallen a little bit but it is partly due to the enormous amount of Star Trek that's available.
I have seen nights where there are Star Trek movies on movie channels, and there are re-runs of the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space 9 and Voyager. I think a lot of people have reached saturation point. People found when Deep Space 9 and Voyager were on the air, that there was only one hour a week that they were willing to devote to Star Trek. When you suddenly end up with The X-Files and with all the numerous other fantasy and science fiction shows that have gone on the air in the last five years - whether it's your Xena type of science fiction or your Buffy type or your X Files type - it's a great deal of competition and there are a lot of people who are looking for something fresh.
On the other hand, Star Trek has a familiarity to it that I think makes it very special for many, many people. They've grown up with Star Trek and they know the terminology. The key is to create both movies and television series that are comfortable to the audience, that have charming people that the audience wants to come back and see, week after week. And, that's what we're continuing to try to do.
Star Trek's enduring popularity
To me, the most important element of Star Trek, the thing that's made it endure and made it so popular over three and a half decades, is that it portrays a very hopeful and positive view of the future. There's a lot of science fiction out there that's quite apocalyptic, painting a very dark picture of the future.
Star Trek has always painted a picture of the future that people can look forward to and people can wish that they were a part of. That was something that was a very, very strong part of Roddenberry's vision of the future and something that we've tried very hard to continue with all of the other projects that we've done. It becomes the most enduring part of the show in terms of its popularity, generation after generation.
The Gene Roddenberry characters of the 23rd and 24th century were a perfect, well adjusted, better form of Mankind. The characters that we are introducing in are almost all the way there but not quite. They're a combination between the Roddenberry perfection and you and me.
They have potential and they're on their way to being Roddenberry's vision of where Humanity is going to be.