I never wanted to write Star Trek.
I just wanted to watch Star Trek, and I wanted the Star
Trek I was watching to be better than it was. The Original
Series was and remains a milestone in creative drama. Regardless
of the cheesy rubber monster suits and low-budget special
effects or even William Shatner’s shameless, hammy overacting,
Star Trek TOS revolutionized thinking about the possibilities of
TV drama. Gene Rodenberry’s hopeful vision of the future not
only thrilled and entertained us, it educated us. Some of it was
indeed heavy-handed and obvious, but it was done so creatively
we didn’t care. As a child, I thought, how remarkable this was,
that I could learn something, or at least, be intellectually and
morally challenged by something, that thrilled and entertained
me at the same time. TOS rarely had a villain. I’m not sure why
Trek has gotten into this conventional rut, now, of
mustache-twirling villains. In Roddenberry’s Trek, the villain
was usually us, our unresolved hatred for one another, our
refusal to love, refusal to grow or to learn. Roddenberry gave
the Enterprise crew obstacles to their progress, not just
cardboard cutout bad guys.
I was never interested in writing Star Trek comic books, mainly because most of what I’d seen was pretty bad. Half the work of drafting a comic book script is putting pictures inside your head of what this will look like on the printed page. Most of what I’d seen in Star Trek comics, at Gold Key, DC and IDW, were really bad. Stiff, lifeless, still-born bad drawings allegedly of Trek characters sitting and pushing buttons. That’s the hard part about Trek for comics: the TV show and films largely involve people sitting around pushing buttons. This does not translate well or directly to comic books. Even the best comic book scripts, many of them written by the brilliant Peter David, just looked incredibly dull. There were the rare and unique occasions of a brilliant script, say by PAD and others, and some really great art, but those were in the minority. Trek comics, for me, just sucked. I was and remain concerned that, even if I had an idea for Trek, which I didn’t, that writing the script would be an uphill battle for me because I’d be fighting against muscle memory of scripts ruined in the past by bad art or by artists more concerned with a fast paycheck than they were in investing in good work.
My one Trek idea—of Worf’s bridge commander test being manipulated by Starfleet to prevent his ever becoming captain—was borne, I believe, out of a TNG episode in which Counselor Deanna Troi takes the bridge commander test and learns yawn obvious lessons along the way. I recall thinking the episode would have been a lot more interesting had that been Worf and had Riker, et. al. known that, no matter what Worf did, he would never be promoted. A full commander could be given his own ship. Even a routine act of bravery could promote a full commander to the rank of captain, and that would never happen for Worf, due to either institutionalized racism or to some secret pact forged between the Federation and the Klingon empire.
The idea just sort of rattled around my head, I assumed it was an obvious idea that would eventually get done in some way. Instead, Trek film after Trek film went to a great deal of trouble to explain Worf’s presence in the movie while doing nothing with him.
Worf was always a major disappointment for me.
With the notable exception of the brilliant work done by Trek
writer/producer Ronald D. Moore, nobody seemed to know what to
do with Worf. He was hot-tempered, immature, and despite being
both a Klingon and alleged combat expert, he lost virtually
every fight. He was an enormous joke, talking all this tough
Klingon warrior speak, but Worf was, time and again, the first
guy on his back during the Enterprise’s many forcible boardings.
Worf’s suggestions were overruled not only as a matter of
routine but as an icon of the series. In fact, I cannot recall a
single TV episode or film where Worf’s strategic recommendations
were accepted, followed, and/or proven right. Chief Engineer
Geordi LaForge provided a bit of ethnic balance to the series,
as the writers’ continued humiliation of Worf verged on a kind
of minstrel theme which I found marginally offensive. He was an
idiot, braggart, and far too immature to even have bridge
clearance, let alone serve as security chief.
Ronald Moore’s Worf, who stepped off of the transport shuttle in the fourth season premier of Deep Space Nine, was so vastly different, such an utter repudiation of the caricature actor Michael Dorn had been stuck with for nearly a decade, that it made me wonder if Dorn had made the transformation a condition of his reprisal of the role. In the two-part premier, “The Way Of The Warrior,” Worf was a mature, confident, clever, focused, complex, highly-skilled combatant and key advisor to the series lead, Captain Benjamin Sisko. Dorn was able to stretch as an actor beyond the cartoonish beats of TNG and explore reams of depth within his character I, frankly, didn’t realize were there. If you’ve never seen DS9, seasons 4-6 constitute some of the best television episodes ever filmed, Star Trek notwithstanding. They are, however, a considered departure from Gene Roddenberry’s lighter and more benign vision (for which DS9 received withering criticism), but I always thought DS9 existed for what it was: an tougher and more adult exploration of the themes Rodenberry’s vision provoked.
Post-DS9, Worf went right back to being a cartoon in the TNG film franchise. His singular memorable moment was in confronting Picard’s irrational behavior—an amazing switch for these characters, as it was, traditionally, Picard talking Worf down from the ledge. I chalk that moment up to Moore, though I have no way of knowing which parts of Star Trek: First Contact belong to Moore and which to co-writer (and bane of TNG) Brannon Braga (though I can certainly make educated guesses: the good stuff was Moore, the stuff you hit the skip button o your remote for were likely Braga). ST:FC was also, to my immediate recollection, the only time Worf was left in command of the Enterprise, other than the a brief glimpse of him in the captain's chair in the closing moments of Season Four's "Data's Day," and the TNG episode "Time’s Arrow," where Picard orders Worf to take command when he and his entire senior staff head back in time to rescue Data (to, I suppose, avoid having to deal with having a black man with them in the late 19th century). Worf in Picard’s chair, even on the incomprehensibly stupid puzzle layout of the Enterprise-E bridge, was a brief moment in the film, but, I assure you, Worf fans (and, likely, all African American Star Trek fans) were extremely pleased to see Picard return to the ship and find Worf in the command chair. I’ve no doubt I was not the only one thinking, It’s about damn time. For the remainder of the spectacularly wasted TNG film opportunities, Worf was, as was Dr. Beverly Crusher, merely a voice in the chorus. I, frankly, do not know why Dorn (or the tremendously talented Gates McFadden—an actual actor) continued to show up. Worf was completely wasted, returned to being a bumbling incompetent.
My Worf is the guy from “The Way of The Warrior.” Confident, capable, experienced. Cunning, decisive, a very strong leader. And, as evidenced early into my Inquisition story, wasting his time in Starfleet, an echo of personal experience. I remember sitting at a pub with artist Mark D. Bright, giddy over the blockbuster success of our story, Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, and stupidly thinking that book’s huge numbers would open doors for us. Numbers like those would absolutely have opened doors for anybody else. But our phones never rang. We were never invited back for a sequel, and Marvel passed—twice—on sequel pitches from me. The conventional wisdom attributed the book’s record-breaking numbers to the characters; the talent had nothing to do with it. While, at the same time, we were routinely denied opportunities because our names weren’t big enough—claims that comic sales were predicated upon the names of the talent associated with them. Which one was true? For Mark and I, both; whichever answer justified the “no” we constantly received. At some point, I recall telling Mark that I knew, from that experience, I would never be offered X-Men or any real opportunity to succeed in the business. After all, if it were the characters who sell comics, putting me on an unsinkable ship like X-Men was hardly a risk; my work would be judged on its merits. If it is the *name* that sells comics, then putting me on Hawkman was an utter waste of time (but thank you, Paul, for doing it anyway).
This, for me, was the missed opportunities of Worf, likely because Worf has been traditionally written by people who could not possibly understand what a complete gut punch it is to live under that glass ceiling. To do your best and to, in many areas, out-perform others whose efforts were rewarded and who were given opportunities you never would be. Knowing, for a fact, I’d never be offered Superman or X-Men, that I’d never make Group Editor, let alone EIC. Peter David, a brilliant writer, friend and once-fellow sufferer of Marvel Stigmatization, was at one time rumored to be merely a pen name for me (which was ridiculous; our writing styles are very different). He was ostracized unfairly and given an enormously hard way to go, but he more than succeeded, becoming, in fact, an industry legend. If his work had, at least early on, been mistaken for mine, why were opportunities made available to him that weren’t made available to me? Some of that, likely most of it, was Peter himself. Peter was simply more ambitious than I’ll ever be. Peter kept knocking on closed doors while I just refused to beg these people for anything and moved to Colorado. Peter built success upon success, whereas, no matter how successful anything I might have done might have been, nothing I ever did provided for me a platform sturdy enough to build a career upon. Today, in 2011, right now, when industry insiders read this, they’ll roll their eyes and accuse me of whining. This is the insidious nature of institutionalized racism: it is, at its core, an impossible conversation. You are victimized by racism, then stigmatized for simply bringing it up.
To look at two guys, their writing once mistaken for being from the same person, both Marvel staffers working less than a hundred feet from one another, both initially disliked personally if not intensely by the editorial staff, starting from essentially the same time and from exactly the same place, and completely discount even the possibility that race played any role whatsoever in their disparate career tracks, is a denial of the obvious. This is a weight around the shoulders. You manage to move forward in the occupation you love, but it is a shuffling lumber rather than a march. You know your horizons are limited. This is the Worf story I was waiting for somebody to tell.
Worf 2.0:: Ronald D. Moore fairly recreated the character, jettisoning Worf's buffoonish incompetence from the moment he stepped onto space station DS9. Finally respected and taken seriously, DS9's Strategic Command Officer kept the comic flourishes while plumbing greater depths of actor Michael Dorn's iconic portrayal. J. G. Hertzler plays Martok.
Where No Man Is Going
I will, at some point, post my rewrite of Star Trek: Nemesis,
a film so bad I just started fixing the screenplay for fun, but
ran out of time. Working on the script, I came up with my one
and only original story idea for Star Trek, which I just tossed
in a drawer and gave absolutely no thought to until I was
approached, for whatever ungodly reason, by IDW, seemingly out
of the blue, to develop something for them. We were not talking
specifically about Trek, but IDW had the Trek franchise, and I
said, “Oh, hey—you guys do Trek, right? Well I only have one
idea for Star Trek, but I’d really like to do it.” So I pitched
them the idea that later became Star Trek: Inquisition,
which was to be a three and then later five-part story. But a
couple things happened: first, Paramount bounced the story as
too edgy and controversial. I can’t imagine what’s become of
Trek that they now shy away from controversy, but the licensing folk
up there (at least, at that time) really didn’t seem to get it
that Roddenberry’s Trek was all about controversy, cached in
metaphors of half-black and half-white species. The notes back
from Paramount lent the impression, for me, anyway, that
Paramount or Trek felt like this story was accusing them
of something. Their general points green-lit the story so long
as we removed the core, the perceived racial bias against Worf.
IDW's editor discussed this with me, but my position was this
was the only story I was interested in telling. Green-lighting
the B and C stories was nonsensical if we're not allowed to tell
the story we're trying to write.
The licensing folks seemed to me like clerks reading from static guidelines and over-protective of corporate interests. They seemed to know the nuts and bolts of Trek while not understanding its soul. They were not creative people, but administrators insisting we round all the edges and pull the wings off this particular butterfly. IDW seemed willing to go a few rounds with this, but then Abrams Trek came along and re-shaped the landscape. My story is TNG Trek. Once Abrams Trek became a going concern, director J.J. Abrams had the right to approve all Trek-related material, even stuff like my one idea which had absolutely nothing to do with what he was doing. So now we had to appease Paramount and Abrams, and the window for TNG material at IDW narrowed as Abrams Trek’s release date approached. That window remains narrow. I've finished the script manly to get the story out of my head. I cut a B-story dealing with Picard and the Breen which was added, at IDW's request, to flesh the arc out to a more trade-friendly five issues.
Today, in 2011, is it more difficult for a black officer to achieve command status than it is for a white officer? I don’t know. Emotionally and viscerally I am quite sure it is, but that’s just my racism speaking. Racism has allegedly been eradicated in the 24th century, but prejudice against alien species has been demonstrated both in TOS and TNG TV episodes and film installments. In my story, one of Worf’s chief detractors is a black man, the irony of his racism lost amid centuries of human racial enlightenment.
I always thought the best of Trek raised more questions than it answered. I hardly consider this script the best of anything, but the story does attempt to raise questions, not answer them. It’s too Worf-specific to make a good movie, but it might have made an interesting set of episodes at one point and, I think, a fun comic book arc. Whatever it might have been, it is my one (and so far only) idea for Star Trek. I would really have enjoyed writing this.
Christopher J. Priest
24 October 2011