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At Harvard, tips for writing the perfect Star Trek episode

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  May 14, 2013 10:10 AM

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In Season Five of Mad Men, a former advertising colleague asks Harry Crane for feedback on a script he plans to send to the producers of the new cult hit Star Trek, which debuted in 1966. The script stinks, and Harry is not sure how to deliver the news to his friend, but had he known about the "The Star Trek Guide," he might have at least been able to offer some helpful pointers.

"The Star Trek Guide" is a real life handbook that the show’s producers created to help writers craft better freelance scripts. The Houghton Library at Harvard recently acquired a copy of the guide as part of a broader plan to increase its collection of popular culture materials. Last Friday the Harvard Gazette ran an article on the acquisition and explained that long after Star Trek has gone to reruns, the guide provides a unique perspective on the show’s underpinnings.

For example, The Star Trek Guide admonishes would-be screenwriters, “Never have members of the crew putting things into pockets. There are no pockets. When equipment is needed, it is attached to special belts (as in the case of the communicator and the phaser).” Similarly, the booklet cautioned writers not to get bogged down explaining exactly how this or that super-gadget works. “Never try to explain or describe the sensors, simply use them — they’re real because they are and they work.”

Other pieces of advice reveal how Star Trek producers thought about the show’s emotional and narrative architecture. The Star Trek Guide urges writers to think of the Enterprise as a “familiar and comfortable counterpoint to the bizarre and unusual things we see during our episodes.” It also reminds writers that the show’s intergalactic setting is really just a means for conveying a more down-to-earth human drama, stating, “We’ve learned during a full season of making science fiction that believability of characters, their actions and reactions is our greatest need and is the most important angle factor.” On a more concrete level, there’s also a warning against scripts that call for the construction of expensive new sets, and a reminder that all Star Trek episodes have four acts.

At first glance The Star Trek Guide is an incongruous acquisition for the Houghton Library, which is known for more obviously scholarly collections, like its archive of Emily Dickinson’s papers. The Gazette article notes that Harvard professors are increasingly interested in popular culture-related research—with The Star Trek Guide, however, the line between true scholarship and obsessed fandom is likely to be very thin.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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