The #StarTrek “cheat sheet”

As you may see from some of my other posts, I’m kind of a Star Trek fan, and have been one most of my life. I grew up on reruns of the original series and over the years have watched all the various incarnations (though I have not seen every episode of everything – I got, as they say , “a life”). As a Trek fanboy, I’ve learned a lot about the franchise and so, for your edification, here are some of the key “factoids” that you can use whenever Trek comes up in casual conversation (which I’m sure is… umm, often).

Impress your friends with this, the Star Trek “cheat sheet”.

Each show reflects its time

Star Trek was very much a product of its time, whenever it was produced. The original series was about ambition and hope, inspired by the space program and the “new frontier” that was spoken of by JFK (Kirk is a very effective replacement for JFK). The Next Generation presented stories about the fear that technology would “assimilate” us at the dawning of the Internet. And Enterprise showed a very obvious 9/11 parable through the Xindi story arc. The best Trek presents a mirror to the culture who views it… and by reflecting this culture, great stories are told and people are entertained.

The best movie is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

This is indisputable, because it is an absolute truth… the same way water is wet and rocks are hard, The Wrath of Khan is the best Trek film. The interesting conversation comes about when you start to explore why that is the case. The primary reason is you had a singular vision that stemmed from a filmmaker who was less a fan of Trek and more a fan of classical storyteller and Shakespeare… Nicholas Meyer.

Meyer, not being well-versed in Trek lore, realized the rich tapestry and universe that existed and took advantage of it in ways that directors and writers following him failed to… and all of it was steeped in character. Spock, finally accepting himself, sacrificing his life to save the ship and crew.

The best captain argument is pointless

“Kirk!” “Picard” “Archer!” Look, each captain reflected the expected characterizations of the time, and so each one had different traits that resonated with views. Kirk was more action oriented, Picard was more intellectual, and Archer was more humanistic and pragmatic… No captain is “better” than the other (though I’m actually a fan of Archer… mostly because he had a dog).

“Spocks Brain” isn’t the worse episode of Trek ever

No, that honor belongs to the Voyager episode “Threshold”, which dealt with the impact of crossing the Warp 10 barrier to crewman Tom Paris. He starts… devolving. Is this not Trek? No, this is horrible.

A close second place is the Harlequin romance knockoff episode of Next Generation “Sub Rosa”, which has Dr. Crusher having psychic sex with her dead grandmother’s girlfriend. Next to these klinkers, Spock’s Brain is Shakespeare.

Lots of celebrities are Trek fans

The biggest example is Seth McFarlane, who would LOVE to have an office that looks just like a Next Gen bridge. But there are many others: Mila Kunis, Daniel Craig, Nathan Fillion, Karen Gillan, Tom Hanks, Ben Stiller, Rosario Dawson, Kelsey Grammer and more are all unabashed Trek fans.

Paramount is cool with fan productions… for now

Some of the best Trek that has come out the past few years has not been official…it’s been fan-made. I’m particularly impressed with Star Trek Continues, a fan-made episode series that actor Vic Mignogna has spearheaded. It captures the tone and spirit of the original series better than any of the others… better even than the new Trek films. Paramount is cool with the fan productions, as long as they don’t make money. Though looking at a future marketplace when they have to compete with the same eyeballs that these productions are aiming for, that may not last.

The best Next Gen movie is the last episode

One of the most interesting and honest commentary tracks I ever heard is Ron Moore and Brannon Braga commenting on Star Trek: Generations. On the commentary, the two writers of the film basically admit (as much as they can, considering the commentary is on a Paramount-issued video release) that the last third of Generations doesn’t work and that the “better” movie (and what should have been brought to the big screen) was the series finale “All Good Things…”

While there are many fans who love First Contact, I have to say… Brannon and Ron are right. “All Good Things…” wrapped up the Next Gen story in a way that the movies never did, and also was an entertaining romp as well. It worked in ways that Generations and First Contact didn’t. And the least we say about Nemesis, the better.

Gene Roddenberry didn’t create all by himself

There is a myth (one that was largely promoted by Gene himself) that Roddenberry came up with the show and everything in it by himself. Not so. He had some tremendously talented people who worked tirelessly to build and create Star Trek, and it would not have been what we know as “Star Trek” without them. Matt Jeffries, Gene L. Coon, Robert Justman, D.C. Fontana, Herbert Solow… and numerous directors and writers made Trek exceptional. Gene added a lot, obviously… but he didn’t do it alone. For details, I recommend reading the book Inside Star Trek.

Gene Roddenberry was also a… ‘ladies man’

Gene was an idea man, and one of his ideas was to have a lot of sex. He bedded lots of women, and one of those was the actress Majel Barrett, who ended up his wife after he got a divorce from his first one. No judgement here, just pointing out… he was human, not some all-perfect saintly figure. Also, we now know where James Kirk’s libido came from.

A space shuttle was named Enterpise because of the fans (and Gerald Ford)

The first, experimental space shuttle was named Enterprise thanks to the fans… they wrote NASA and insisted the first shuttle be named after the ship James Kirk commanded. The final say was with Gerald Ford, and after he heard of the write-in campaign he approved the naming. He said he was “partial” to the name.

Gene Roddenberry “helped” the letter campaign that saved the original series

One of the “dirty little secrets” of Trek is that the campaign that saved Star Trek for a third season wasn’t exactly a spontaneous demonstration. Way back in 1967, when Star Trek was in trouble, Roddenberry and his staff started contacting the vestigial fan groups and began to ask them to write NBC to renew Star Trek. He even paid for protest materials and bumper stickers that fans plastered on studio execs bumpers! So the idea that the fans “rose up” to save Star Trek is true… from a certain point of view.

For a while Gene Roddenberry was a dealer of Star Trek collectibles

Gene never owned Star Trek (Desilu, then Paramount, did). So, he was paid a flat salary as a producer and a writer… and when the show ended he tried to get new shows off the ground with very little success. To keep the bills paid, he opened Lincoln Enterprises, a mail-order company that sold Star Trek collectibles (including scripts and 35mm film strips from the show). He… “secured” many of the items he sold through this company from the studio, which rubbed some the wrong way. He eventually folded the company, but for a while the best Dealer of Star Trek collectibles out there was Gene Roddenberry himself.

We can thank Lucille Ball for Star Trek existing at all

I love Lucy… not because she was a brilliant comedienne, but because she bankrolled Star Trek. The original producers of Star Trek was Desilu, the production company mutually owned by Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball. After a pilot that didn’t really work, Desilu asked Roddenberry to make a second pilot, and it is rumored that Lucy herself made the decision to green-light the series.

Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do, but not about this. Thanks for the laughs, and thanks for Star Trek!

The presentation style of Don Draper


The latest episode of Mad Men had a great exchange between Peggy Olsen and Don Draper, where she finally asks Don “Teach me. Tell me how you do it.” Don responds in a bemused way, as Peggy tells him her take on how he pitches his ideas to clients. “You say the tag line as if you just came up with it.” “I do?” he asks, like he does’t know that is exactly what he does.

Don does a lot more than that, and anyone who wants to get better at presenting would be wise to watch how he does it and take some notes. Here’s the presentation style of Don Draper. Pay attention.

He stands up

When Don wants to command a room, he stands – like a camper trying to scare off a bear, he makes himself big… to impress and intimidate. It shows he’s in charge, he’s driving the conversation. When Don pitches while he is seated, he is at the same level of everyone – and if you pay attention, that is usually when the pitches don’t work.

He tells stories

It’s not about a concept, or a tag line – it’s about a story. It’s about how people use the product, how they need it to make their lives better and/or complete. It’s about making things better. Whether he is selling cold cream or cars, he’s telling a story about the experience of the product – what it brings to the buyer. As a user experience designer, I know how important that is to success… Don “realized” this five years before I was born.

He acts spontaneously, reading the room

This is what puts the management at SCDP on edge – Don is a wild card, and he will go “off script” based on the response to how he sees things are going. He changes focus on the fly if he sees one point resonates stringer than another. He “plays the room.”

He lets the client contribute

Don listens to the clients when they react, and when they contribute ideas he uses them – because he knows if the client feels they have had input they will fight for the idea on his (and the agency’s) behalf. Don knows that the pitch doesn’t end in the room – it continues in the client’s executive offices. By giving the client the idea that they “own” part of the idea, he knows that they will fight for it in those later meetings.

He’s positive

He is usually smiling and maintaining eye contact with the client – he’s paying attention to his audience. He is present in the moment, and he is completely focused on that moment where he has to engage and sell the idea.

He (usually) hides disappointment

Don may see that the pitch didn’t work, and inside he may be infuriated that the client didn’t “get it” – but he doesn’t show it. He smiles, says we’ll think about it some more, and shakes the client’s hand. Of course, he doesn’t always do that, as some (memorable) melt downs have shown us.

He uses visual aids appropriately, and sparingly

He knows that words are the most powerful tools, and that any art or slides that are shown are about supporting the story – not replacing it. It’s the words, and the story, that matters. The visuals are supporting that.

He know when to listen

He always provides “pause points” – opportunities for the client to contribute. He needs to give them a voice, and let them respond. He also knows that the lack of response is ALSO a response – if they are disengaged, the pitch isn’t working.

He chooses his words carefully.

Don is measured in his speaking. He can use words as a hug or as a dagger, and is well aware of their power. He says the precise thing, because he is verbose in the best possible way.

He finishes quickly

He knows that people have narrow attention spans, so he never outlasts his welcome – he frames the pitch, tells the story, and finishes. He never belabors his point.

He’s confident

Don comes to the table knowing what he and his team has done is good, and doesn’t show weakness. He supports the idea 100%, even if he doesn’t believe in it fully himself.

There you are, the presentation style of Don Draper. If you do similar “pitches” in your job, hopefully these techniques can help you tell the story and close the deal.

A visit to Southfork Ranch

I’ve been visiting a lot of fictional places lately.

Last week, I was in Cleveland, where I visited Ralphie’s house from A Christmas Story. This week, I was in Dallas… and my destination was one I always wanted to visit.

Southfork Ranch.

Yes, the home of the Ewings, the oil-barons of the TV show Dallas. I had watched the show when I was younger, rewatched it with my wife… and I was a fan. Not as big a fan as Twin Peaks or Star Trek, mind you… but I was a fan nonetheless.

I even had the opportunity to meet Larry Hagman, JR himself,  a few years ago. His autographed photo hangs proudly in my man cave along with an autograph of Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie).

Well, the visit to Southfork was a must-do, when I realized I had some extra time to kill this week (I’m in Dallas on business). I spent a couple of hours exploring the Dallas museum, the gift shops, the grounds, and (of course) the house. I was amused by the “delta” between the real world and the show (the producers built sets that don’t really “fit” into the floor plan of the actual Southfork home) and I was impressed by the owner’s attempt to make the house as “authentic” as possible.

The old (and new) show shots exteriors at Southfork, and the new show has taken advantage of the grounds a lot more than the original (they even shot the Mexican hotel room that JR dies in IN Southfork, so JR technically ‘died at home’).

Here’s copious amounts of photos taken as I was geeking out over the whole thing. With all these visits to fake/real locations recently, my perspective on things are getting a little blurred…


How to fix Star Trek’s biggest problems

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the direction the latest Star Trek film, Into Darkness took the franchise. I won’t rehash my opinions here so, in summary: “big explosions plus weak characters and story” is not what I watch Star Trek for. I watch and enjoy good Trek because it’s about ideas, the human condition… and it’s about hope.

I’m also very aware that criticism is easy, and creating is hard. I admire the effort that went into the new film, and I can see it was considerable – I just don’t admire the results. But I also think that Star Trek as a franchise has some big problems. Many of the die-hard fans are unhappy and disliked the film. It appears that Into Darkness didn’t bring many new fans to the series, unlike the preceding film. And Star Trek’s respectable but not amazing box office may indicate that the public isn’t buying into the new direction.

So, in the spirit of optimism and in a (very small) attempt to suggest a new course for the franchise, here are my ideas on how to fix Trek’s biggest problems.

Tease the past, don’t revisit it

Enough with Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise. Yes, I’m serious… it’s over. Stop it. If you continue to retell episodes of a nearly 50 year old TV show people will (perhaps rightly) view it as a rehash and many will reject it wholesale. Let’s be honest… do we really NEED more stories with these characters? We have had three live-action seasons, one animated season, nine movies, hundreds of novels… to quote a very popular song,  “Let it go.”

Now, I’m not saying that the right person can’t do an AMAZING new story with these characters… I’m questioning if there’s a good reason to do so creatively. And perception is a big issue, too. If you run Star Trek, you want to increase your audience with every new outing… that’s capitalism. More customers = more money. You can’t keep selling the same product to the same customers, and that’s the risk if you stay with the classic crew.

Keep the core of what makes Trek good and leap forward, with a new cast and crew. Have sly references to the past, but don’t wallow in it. Basically, do the same thing the new Doctor Who has done – tip your hat at what has come before, but don’t be limited by it. Another good example of this idea, applied, was Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Galactica remake. They used concepts and the basic premise from the original but didn’t rehash what had gone before. Instead they created new characters, new situations, and went to places the original never dared go.

Too bad we couldn’t get the guy behind the new Galactica to consider coming back to Trek…

Have real alien aliens

I’m tired of seeing aliens who have ridges on their foreheads and body paint. As much as I dislike the movie Avatar, what that did was tell us a story about an alien world where the environment was ACTUALLY ALIEN. Yes, a huge amount of CGI would be needed, but if you are going to make Trek new again, then you need to move away from the look and limitations of a TV show makeup budget. Have alien cultures, alien bodies, and alien minds. Create new cool races that captures the viewers imagination. Don’t just add piercings and think it’s “edgy.”

Bring back the moral issues, but with subtlety

Good Trek always provoked viewers, making them consider the right or wrong about particular issues. Religion, class structures, terrorism, genocide, what it meant to be human… Have moral issues be part of the fabric of Trek, just don’t be heavy handed about it. Viewers don’t want to be preached to, and if you do that you’ll turn off viewers. It’s a fine balance, and one that Trek hasn’t always made… But it’s still worth striving for.

Kill the prime directive 

Imagine a Star Trek universe where crews actively interfered with other cultures, trying to enforce their worldview on alien worlds. Again, sounds like the original Star Trek, right? Well, the idea of the Prime Directive (invented in the original series, but beat to death in subsequent shows) kills that opportunity for drama and prevents good stories from being told. Kirk ignored it, and the creators of new Star Trek should ignore it to.

You can even have stories about how the Federation USED to have the Prime Directive, and then Something Happened to make them abandon it. An “interventionist” Starfleet? Like I said, it opens up opportunities for some interesting stories.

Be bold (and be on cable)

Have gay characters on the show, portray evil in stark terms, show non-traditional families – Star Trek can and should explore more of that “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” It’s easy to be risk-averse, but that way results in weak characters and melodrama. Sometimes, telling a good story means some risk-taking.

We have seen some incredibly bold storytelling on shows like True Detective and Breaking Bad – Do some of that. Break new ground and expand the universe of Star Trek in new ways. Example: Discuss how the economy works in the future. Is it a true utopia or is there an underclass we have never seen before? Shake up expectations and conventions.

Telling quality stories in bold new ways will bring new viewers to Trek. That probably means that any new Star Trek should be on cable. You don’t have to have monster ratings to be a successful cable show, and you are able to have more creative freedom, the type of freedom that makes for great drama and exciting television.

Stop trying to be sexy

Stop having women be sex objects – have them be smart beautiful women. They don’t have to be in charge of the ship, they just have to be good well-rounded characters. As progressive Trek has been over the years, so many of the female characters were thin and mainly there for set decorating. Change that, and stop trying to titilate the audience. Just tell good stories, and let the characters play their part.

Hire futurists and technologists

Reimagine the future of Star Trek. Look at where technology trends are going and extrapolate them. Wearable computers, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, robotics… Don’t be limited by the past (somewhat archaic) views of the future that has come in previous Trek. Show us a really cool new future.

Hire SF and fantasy writers

The original Star Trek series hired a LOT of SF and fantasy writers. It should do that again. Imagine a Neil Gaimen or Neal Stephenson writing scripts for a new Trek series. Or someone like Stephen King. Heck, just hire John Scalzi or a half-season run.

No offense to the current writers of Trek, but I think that Trek needs some new ideas, and SF authors are chock full of them.

Bring back wonder and hope

Finally, Star Trek needs to make us widen our eyes in wonder. Show us amazing things, truly alien worlds and new civilizations. The success of Avatar shows just how big a movie can be if it presents such a world to viewers. Don’t just showcase huge vistas of destruction – present us with beauty and awe. Make us want to GO THERE – which is what makes Star Trek so important. It has inspired generations of viewers to become scientists, engineers and astronauts… Because Trek showed a future where we didn’t destroy ourselves, where we reached out and started exploring the dark unknown.

Trek should continue to inspire the next generation. And it can do it by seeking out new frontiers, tell new stories… and boldly go where Trek has never gone before.

That way lies the future.

How will Mad Men end?

I’m an obsessive Mad Man fan. I’ve been there from the beginning and very quickly fell in love with the world and the characters Matthew Weiner (and company) has so brilliantly brought to life. In less than a month, we will see the beginning of the end for Mad Men, as AMC starts broadcasting the last season (unfortunately split over two years). What will happen to Don Draper, as well as Peggy, Joan, Roger, and the rest of the cast of characters? The old Chinese proverb “May you live in interesting times” comes to mind as I consider where the show has been ad is heading… and I have a few theories on the latter. Read on…

California bound

The first video clip promoting the new season has Don walking out of an airplane. Here it is:

Where is he going? What is he doing? I think he’s landing in – and moving to – California (a subplot last year dwelt with agencies heading West). After all, he doesn’t have a job at SCDP any more. My theory is that he’s looking to start a new agency. With him in charge. Probably called (simply enough) “Draper.” He’ll need money to do it, so he’ll call on some contacts… Roger, probably, as well as potentially other surprises from his past.

If he does get the backing, who will staff this agency? My theory is he’ll get the band back together… mostly the women. He’ll need Peggy to be his creative director, partially because he can read the tea leaves and sees how big the feminist movement is becoming, but mostly because… well, he needs her. She’s a huge part of his life, and I think he may finally understand that now. And he’ll recruit Joan for similar reasons (I think soon learn that she’ll have ample reasons to leave New York and start fresh in the new season). Other members, like Pete Campbell, may come along for the ride as well… Because Don is a very charismatic man who can sell ice to Eskimos.

If I’m right then, unfortunately, many of the characters we have grown to love will stay with SCDP… and so many of them will not be on the show in its final season. Don’t think that Weiner wouldn’t write off major characters, because he’s done it before. And changing the location to California also has some cost-savings measures – and cutting the number of cast members is a major one. And AMC has a history of aggressive cost-cutting on their shows…

Nixon, Vietnam and the decline of male power

When will the new series take place? I’m thinking it will be 1970 to 1974. The show HAS to end around or just after the events of Watergate, because that ground is too fertile to ignore. That the show will highlight the debate over the Vietnam war is a given if this is the case as well. I can see Nixon’s resignation being a big story point that could be a major part of the show’s end game. His resignation will reflect how the power of men – men like Don Draper – have their limits, and may have had their day.

The show has always had a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) subtext around how men and women’s roles are changing… in the beginning of the series men worked, and women took care of the house and the kids. By 1970 to 1972 that will be upended by the societal change brought by the Age of Aquarius. Peggy will bring a very loud voice to this. If we don’t see her burning her bra before the series is over, I’ll be surprised.

In fact I’m almost 100% certain that one of the last scenes that we will ever see will be Peggy quitting Draper’s agency, because she will finally reach the point that she realizes that she doesn’t need Don… or any man, for that matter. In a way, I think we will look back and see Mad Men as being as much about Peggy’s journey as it was about Don’s. And, speaking of Don’s journey…

The falling man (AKA Don Draper)

Here’s my big theory: I think that Matthew Weiner is take the “Paradise Lost” route with Don, and the “falling man” in the credits will be revealed to us to be Draper – as Lucifer. No, he’s not going to LITERALLY fall from a skyscraper… he fell from Heaven, to rule in Hell (AKA California). He will be In Charge, which is where he has wanted to be all along… but in the end, that quest for power will leave him empty inside. He will forever be Don Draper… a hollow man who never ever really existed. Empty power, and no one to share it with.

In many ways, I see Don’s journey being very similar to Michael Corleone… When we left Michael at the end of The Godfather, Part II he was dead inside because he gave up everything to save everything. Don will end the same way, smoking a cigarette in an empty room, sitting on his couch with dead eyes and a vacant soul.

And the camera backs away and we see him, in profile, from behind… An image we’ve seen before.

Could I be wrong? Could it have a happy ending? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Mad Men is about manipulation and broken people, and one key subtext is about how we buy moments, things and people to try and make us less broken. There’s no way that it will end with “and they all lived happily ever after.”

The worse advice I’ve ever heard about Doctor Who

“Watch it from the beginning.”

That’s the recommendation that I heard from a Who fan (or “Whovian”, as some of them prefer) who was talking to someone who was interested in the show but had never seen an episode.

And it’s not like the advice was to start with the first episode of “nuWho”, the Christopher Eccleston episode “Rose”… No, it was to go back to the VERY FIRST EPISODE, “An Unearthly Child” and watch DECADES worth of episodes.

Sorry… but no. Horrible idea.

Now some “old school” fans may be reading this and going, “Hey, what’s your problem with ‘classic’ Who?” That’s not my problem with the recommendation. My issue is one of quantity, not quality.

If you want to introduce someone to a fifty-year old show, do NOT insist in the “completist” perspective. That is a LOT of time to invest in ANYTHING. If you were going to recommend learning something – like how to play an instrument, or pilot an airplane – that’s something you want to invest a lot of time in.

Not in watching a TV show. ANY TV show – even one as good as Doctor Who.

The better advice would be to recommend key “gateway” episodes for someone to watch, and this should include episodes from both classic and new Who. Use the rule of three – maybe two modern and one classic. And then, if they like it, recommend they watch an first series of one Doctor… The one you like.

And for God’s sake, don’t start them with Trial of a Time Lord.