The Writer’s Craft – How to Kill Your Story 101, Part 2

(Silverdale, Washington; Feb. 4, 2021) – Careless writers can sink their entire franchise with all the subtly and grace of the Titanic smacking an iceberg if they betray their foundational philosophy, ignore source material, and spit in the face of established canon.

This three-part series will examine each of those, with today’s focus being the adverse effects of ignoring source material.  The current showrunners of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who have all committed to this path, leading to the Three Greats hemorrhaging money faster than water runs out of the hole in the bucket, dear Liza.  This column will specifically look at Star Wars and Star Trek, but Doctor Who is, sadly, following along.

Source material is just that: the material from which your story or franchise springs.  It’s the history of your universe.  Source material provides the common knowledge base for your fans and the context for the overall reasons many character motivations.  Whether the universe is your own or one you inherited (as did the current showrunners of the Three Greats), source material is ignored at your peril. 

Star Wars grew into a thriving franchise with a rich, colorful trove of source material, ranging from the movies to comic books, novels, and animated shows.  George Lucas designated a number of these spin-offs as cannon, meaning they’re official parts of the story.  The prestige of creating an official new part of the Star Wars universe attracted numerous writers.

And then the Mouse House bought Star Wars and quickly honked off the fan base by unilaterally declaring almost all of the former source material null and void.  Granted, Disney had the legal right to do so; they had legally acquired the franchise, after all.  But, just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea (read up on how successful the ‘good idea’ of Prohibition was).  Erasing those years of intellectual wealth had two significant ramifications.

The first impact was the loss of prestige by those who had contributed to the franchise.  Such executive actions can dissuade talented writers from working on a project because the elite privilege of contributing to the permanent source material no longer exists.

The second impact is the distrust it generates in the fans.  George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars himself, had authorized many of the spin-off media as cannon, and, thereby, source material.  Wiping all of this out destabilized the entire universe because, suddenly, great tracks of reference material were summarily deleted from the larger story.  Change is always difficult, but pulling the rug of source material out from under the fan base drives away the fans.

Ignoring the source material, especially if you inherited a franchise, can also make you look like a disrespectful fool.

 Star Trek: Discovery’s publicity took several hits due to the current writers’ appalling ignorance of Star Trek history.  In fact, Star Trek: Discovery (ST:D) provides one of the most egregious examples of lack of respect and failure to research.

ST:D claimed to introduce the first gender-fluid, non-binary character in the entire 60+ year run of Star Trek in media.  ST:D introduced Adira, a human being hosting a Trill—an intelligent symbiote that merges with volunteer hosts to create a ‘combined’ being.  Trills are genderless, long-lived creatures.  As such, a single Trill will be hosted by a number of beings (human or alien), and will take on the characteristics of each host.  This can result in a human host becoming gender-fluid due to the merging of the Trill and host’s consciousnesses.  The Trill that Adira accepts to host used to be hosted by her deceased boyfriend, thus resulting in a gender-fluid character.  What a breakthrough for representation!

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine introduced a nearly identical character in Jadzira Dax (female human hosting a Trill) back in 1993.

More inexplicable is the vapid ignorance behind ST:D’s claims to be the first Star Trek show to deal openly with alternative sexualities in general. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation first put its toe in the LGBTQ waters with fifth season episode “The Outcast” back in 1992.  This episode openly dealt with the topic of transsexuality.  The starship Enterprise visited the world of the J’Naii, a race that evolved to be genderless.  Conflict arose among the J’Naii whenever one “came out” as being male or female.  The episode’s drama was driven by Cmdr. Riker’s attempts to help a young J’Naii who came out as female avoid the force conversion her society’s laws dictated.  The tragic end of the episode was a powerful statement for not just trans rights, but all LGBTQ rights before human law.

Granted, in a franchise as old as Star Trek, one can be forgiven for having missed a few details in the source material.  However, ignorance of such critical franchise-shaping items, such as the show has addressed LGBTQ topics, reveals the writer holds no real respect for the franchise or the fans.  Not only does the writer look foolish for grand pronouncements of “advances” that had actually been made decades before, the writer also alienates the fans through such disrespect.

Researching and respecting your source material is critical to your success as a writer.  Stay true to the source material, and your audience will stay true to you.  Ignore the source material, and your audience could decide you’re a myopically dim-witted dunderhead swimming in a dumpster fire, and ignore you.

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