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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.
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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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