STAR TREK: The Next Generation, Rene Echevarria
March 11th, 2004
On Star Trek, Literature, and Writing
By David Flanagin
Rene Echevarria's first script for Star Trek: The Next Generation
was the poignant, acclaimed episode "The Offspring" during the series'
1989-1990 season. After working on The Next Generation's writing
staff for several years, Rene was eventually named story editor for
the show's sixth season and then executive story editor for its seventh.
Through the course of those years Rene continued to write/co-write
some of the series' best episodes, including "I Borg," "True Q," "Ship
In A Bottle," "Face of the Enemy," "Birthright, Part I," and "Lower
Like Ron Moore, Rene moved over to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine after The Next Generation left the small screen for new life as a feature film series. He is now a Producer of DS9, where he continues to develop stories with the same quality as his work on The Next Generation
In February of 1995 I had the chance to talk to Rene about his views on the relationship Star Trek has to literature. The following is a transcript of that interview.
David Flanagin: I know this is a very general question, but could you describe to me how you feel literature is important?
Rene Echevarria: For me--well, it's been said that writing is a way for the writer to think deeply on a subject, to focus and to force yourself to dig deep into whatever it is that's interesting you. And I find that to be true. I set out to write things and I don't know exactly what I'm doing, and I begin to think about things in a way that I've never really thought beforeThese things come to you when you focus like that. I guess one of the powers of literature is in the possibility of people showing each other a glimpse of their world and giving each other an insight into how humans think and do and what makes them tick, and why things happen the way they do.
Flanagin: What do you consider to be some qualities of good literature?
Echevarria: I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that it should come from characters who are behaving believably--but that's so broad, I don't know quite what to say, because when I say "characters who behave believably" I think to myself, "Wait, what about magic realism and stuff like that?" You know, I guess what I admire most is where things are not spelled out necessarily; that's what I hate to do in my own work--spell things out obviously. The worst kind of television is where people say "I think this" or "I think that"--that is the most dull thing. I want to see people interact and their relationships and what they're thinking about illuminated in a more offhand way. And that's much harder to do in any kind of literature. But in real life people rarely hunker down and start talking about "I feel this, I feel that," even in the late 90's when everyone goes to therapy.
Flanagin: How has your attitude toward literature influenced you as you've written episodes for Star Trek?
Echevarria: Again, I try to tell my stories in a fresh way, that isn't on the nose and obvious. I try to illuminate new aspects of these characters--continuing characters that I haven't created--but I have to try to listen to their voices and make them richer and find depths to them that are consistent with everything that's come before. Sometimes it involves being truthful to a character you may not agree with. Worf, for example, has all sorts of cultural attitudes that I don't agree with, yet it's part of my job to illuminate him as faithfully as I can, to try to get under his skin. I did a show a couple of years ago ("Birthright") where Worf goes to a sort of prison camp, and for his own sort of racist reasons he turns the place upside down. You know, some people would criticize the episode--"Worf came in and ruined a perfectly good thing"--but that's what he would do; I'm not sure that it was a perfectly good thing anyway--they were not allowed to leave and they did not know the truth, and Worf did say that those who want to leave should be allowed to. That's all he really did, and no one ultimately was hurt. But his racist attitudes drove him and led him away from a woman that he was attracted to. So that's something that I try to keep in mind, that my politics can't drive me completely. . .
Flanagin: Could you describe your feelings about the attitudes that Star Trek conveys concerning the value and importance of fiction?
Echevarria: I guess there are two levels. There's how the characters, within the world of Star Trek, refer to literature, and then there's the level of Star Trek itself as literature and how seriously it takes itself and how it might use archetypal themes from great works and that sort of thing. On the first level, you know, Picard loves Shakespeare, and Garak and Bashir talk about Cardassian poetry, and these people still perform plays from our time on board the Enterprise--and that sort of thing--so there's a sense of historical continuity into 200 or 300 hundred years from now with literary traditions. There's also the holodeck, which is a glimpse into some kind of possible future type of literature. Presumably people write these programs for each other and our characters participate in them in some new way that no one's quite figured out yet, and there's the question of whether that is literature, or if it ever can be. And then with the show as literature, on that second level, we sometimes do stories that we recognize as being mythic in their origin, and we realize that's what we're working on-- "O my God, this Oedipal, this is Lear, " or whatever it is. I don't think we've ever hued to a storyline in order to make the parallels obvious to an existing piece of a classic work-- I don't think we've ever done that. It's more an inspiration and having a take on it that's true to the Star Trek universe.
Flanagin: In what ways can Star Trek encourage people's interest in literature?
Echevarria: You know, young people in particular might catch a glimpse of some reference to something and think, "My God, in two hundred years they're still reading Raymond Chandler or Shakespeare" or whatever--if that sparks an interest at all, and I know it does. I've talked to different teachers from different levels, from elementary school through college, who have told me that they've used some episodes of Star Trek in conjunction with their source material, and they say, "Here's a take on Lear," to try to draw the young people into something they can relate to much more immediately than an older work.
Flanagin: What does science fiction do for us beyond entertain? What significant qualities of science fiction/fantasy distinguish it from other genres of fiction?
Echevarria: I guess having the liberty to create an all-new world. As the author, you've got a lot of cards in your hand when you're doing science fiction because you can create a universe that illustrates something about human nature or about society that you think is important. That has a tendency sometimes, though, to become didactic and obvious and heavy-handed, and it's relatively easy to do parallels to, you know, stories about slavery or things like that. But our challenge on Star Trek is that this is a show about our characters, these 7 or 8 people, and about their lives, how they interact with these other worlds. We try not to do shows about the "guest" planet and the "guest" culture and the "guest" star, and their problems and how they do things, where we are just bystanders. I think you saw more of that in the first couple years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it wasn't until Michael Piller became executive producer that he insisted on bringing the focus more to our own characters--he says all television is about the continuing characters, that's what people tune in for week after week, and just because it's science fiction doesn't mean that this story can't be about these people. So we rarely do shows where we come to a planet where, for example, the men are slaves or whatever, because then our storylines become stories where our characters come and show them the error of their ways and then leave, but we haven't learned anything in the process--our characters haven't learned anything. So the challenge is to keep it focused on our people.
Flanagin: One aspect of Star Trek that I'm interested in is the concept of fantasy versus reality--what is real?--what is fantasy?--when does the difference become dim?--are there any dangers in fantasy?
Many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation dealt with problems of determining what is real, or even if that's always possible, and also with the role that fantasy plays in our lives. Regarding the latter, I think that any shows with trips to the holodecks showed the entertainment value of the "unreal," but occasionally you had the holodecks malfunctioning, and what was "unreal" became very "real" and at the same time very dangerous. What do you think about this whole issue of fiction vs. reality, or fiction vs. nonfiction, and how the show has dealt with that?
Echevarria: I guess two shows come to mind. One was the first time that Barclay was introduced, where we see someone who is obsessed with his fantasy world, and it becomes a crutch for him; he doesn't interact well in real life and he'd rather be off in the holodeck, so in that sense he's kind of an everyman for ourselves. You know, nowadays when there's so much television, and our culture is so saturated with it, and many people just sort of go to work, come home, have something to eat, watch TV, wake up, go to work, come home, watch TV--you know, where's their real life? And of course in that show Barclay learns to stop hiding. And then there's a show I wrote which also used Barclay as well as Professor Moriarty, a holodeck character who became aware of himself and realized that he was a fictional character and wanted to become real. It was a show in which, halfway through, our characters find out that they are still on the holodeck, so we toyed with fantasy and reality--"What is real?"--there. At the end, there's a little line where Barclay is alone, and he says, just to make sure he's still not trapped on the holodeck, "Computer, end program." Just a little Chinese-box type story going on there, and I'm not sure if it's the most profound thing in the world. To me, one of the most interesting things--because, as I said, what I was describing was pretty straightforward --is more like the character of Moriarty realizing he exists. There was a character in a Dixon Hill fantasy of Picard's--a sort of Raymond Chandler hardboiled detective thing--who, when Picard says goodbye to him, says "Hey, Dix, what's going to happen to me when you leave? Will I still come home to my wife and kids, will they still be here?" And Picard doesn't know; he can't answer. That to me somehow is more intriguing; that was more of an interesting take on the whole thing. It's interesting just thinking about in what sense these fictional worlds actually exist independent of us.
Flanagin: At times I've also noticed an idea that seems on the surface to perhaps contradict the view that fantasy is good, healthy entertainment only--a few episodes of TNG seemed to suggest that there are times when the "unreal"--the "fictional"--takes on a life of its own and has a right to exist. Take a couple of examples: "Inheritance"--Data's mother is not told that she is in fact an android, because believing the fiction that she is human is actually better for her. The DS9 episode "Shadowplay"--Dax and Odo believe that a world that is really one entire complex holographic program has a reality all its own, and has a right to be saved and protected. The same goes for both "Elementary, Dear Data" and "Ship In A Bottle"--Moriarty, a "fictional" creation of the holodeck, becomes to some extent "real"--he attains consciousness. And the crew feel it is their duty to preserve his program and eventually to at least try to help him believe he's entered the "real" world.
Do you see any conflict there, between on the one hand the negatives of taking fiction too farr and on the other, that fiction can be as real as nonfiction?
Echevarria: I guess that touches on notions that reality is a construct, that what we perceive as the ultimate reality exists only because we believe in it and only exists becaue we will it to be--those kinds of very metaphysical notions. As far as Data deciding that it was more important for his mother to believe that she was human, he did that ultimately because of something Troi said to him. She said, "If you tell her the truth, you'll be taking away from her the one thing you've wanted all your life, to be human." So he decides not to tell her. And then, in what sense is she not human? If she believes herself to be, then why isn't she? Is the only difference between herself and Data that she believes it and he doesn't? They're the same type of creature ultimately, so what is the difference? Yes, it's an interesting question.
Flanagin: Another relevant issue is the way that Star Trek sometimes reflects on itself as fiction. Take, for example, the end of "Ship In A Bottle"--which you already mentioned. At the end, when Picard and company are discussing the holographic program created for Moriarty, the captain says "Who knows? Our reality may be very much like theirs and all this might just be an elaborate simulation running inside a little device sitting on someone's table."
Echevarria: Ah, the television set. . .Yeah, it's true. I don't know--I wouldn't say that was thrown in deliberately. I think it was used in the context of the episode. I mean, we throw in references to personal things, friends' names, and catch-phrases we have around here, and subtle ribbing at things, but one of the hardest things to do in television and in science fiction is to make things believable, and Rick Berman would never let us intentionally make fun of ourselves or undercut our believability on any level. Just in terms of intent, I can tell you that line was intended to be in the context of the episode. But then you can say, "Isn't it ironic that this also points to the show itself?" Yeah, you can.
Flanagin: In "All Good Things. . ." there were self-references--the title itself, Q's statement that "it's time to put an end to your trek among the stars"--that had one meaning in the context of the episode but also seemed to have another reference to the series itself. . .
Echevarria:Absolutely. Those instances certainly were deliberate, though it would never have been done if it didn't work within the context of the episode. . .
Flanagin: Yes, that's more of what I'm suggesting, that references wouldn't be thrown in for the sake of self- reference, but in instances where they could have more than one meaning--one genuinely within the context of the drama of the episode, but another on a second level, outside the drama of the episode. . .
Echevarria: Yeah, and it gives the writer a certain amount of pleasure to pull something off like that and realize that it works on those two levels, so that it doesn't yank the audience out of the scene, which is the risk.
Flanagin: So would you say it's valid to examine this sort of thing--possible self-references that exist on a metadramatic level? Do you think they occur in Star Trek?
Echevarria: Yeah, sure, absolutely. . .
Flanagin: Of course it's valid to see things that weren't necessarily intended, but some people might say you can go too far in looking for too much that just isn't there. That's why it's useful sometimes to have an author's perspective--in this case, your perspective.
Echevarria: I would say the references in "All Good Things..." were intentional whereas the "Ship In a Bottle" one was not intentional, but of course you have the question of whether or not intent is even relevant. There are of course arguments about whether the author's intent matters at all. Of course there are those like Derrida who would say the intent of the author is completely irrelevant. Well, screw them, you know--I think it is relevant. But of course there's the other side of that. The fact that you as a writer might unintentionally say something, like in "Ship In A Bottle," that might take the viewers out of the scene and make them think about it on the largest sense is interesting, because it means that the writer is in some sense so invested in that reality that he or she doesn't even notice. So, yeah, it goes both ways. Author's intent might be relevant, but it's certainly not everything.
Flanagin: Ron Moore also talked to me about the ways in which some stories are inspired by, or at least to some extent have similarites to, other works of fiction--either literature or films and television. He also talked at length about how very often, at least in his case, movies influence story development. Would it also be your observation that a number of Star Trek stories at least in some small respect are inspired by other films or television series?
Echevarria: Absolutely, it happens all the time. In fact, in Hollywood, people come in and pitch stories to producers as crosses between different movies. When we're kicking around a story idea, we do that sort of thing all the time. "Hey, it's Bridge on the River Kwai--they're building the bridge"--that sort of thing, even though the context is completely different, because it gives us something to hang on to. It helps you see it in the largest sense, thematically. When you're writing, especially when you're writing under such time pressure, you know you lose your perspective on the whole scope of the piece and how it will affect the viewer who knows nothing, who doesn't know what's coming next. It helps to have these references that remind you that these scenes have an impact, and are intended to have an impact, and it's not just you trying to get it done on time.
Copyright, David Flanagin. This interview should not be reproduced without the written permission of the author. Questions and comments should be directed to: firstname.lastname@example.org