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The Trek Nation - Nick Sagan - Part III

Nick Sagan - Part III

By Caillan Davenport
Posted at November 24, 2003 - 10:20 AM GMT

Nick Sagan is a man of many talents. He has written for television, film, computer games, served as executive producer of entertainment and games for Space.com, and recently published his debut novel, Idlewild.

The son of astronomer Carl Sagan, author of Contact and Cosmos, Nick Sagan has worked for Star Trek both as a freelancer and a staff writer. In the former capacity he successfully pitched "Attached" to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which led to a second episode in the form of "Bloodlines". Sagan later served as story editor during Star Trek: Voyager's fifth season, penning several episodes, including "In The Flesh", "Relativity" and "Course: Oblivion".

After his recent book tour to promote Idlewild, Nick Sagan graciously agreed to be interviewed by the Trek Nation. In the final instalment of this three-part series, he answers questions for readers on a variety of topics dealing with writing, science fiction and Star Trek.


Trek Nation: I'd like to ask some questions from readers now. The first one is from Rick Sternbach, actually...

Nick Sagan: (laughs) I know Rick...

Trek Nation: He says, "Nick, we all know that for SF to be a success on television and in feature films, it has to be a commercial success, seemingly much more so than literary SF, which has its own sales goals. Is it possible (or even desirable) to present the best SF literature as TV and movies, possibly expanding away from the staple action-adventure format? Do you see a distinction between 'media SF' and SF books?"

Nick Sagan: What a wonderful question! I would say that it's a wonderful thing to attempt, and we may not always get it right, because there are certain restrictions, both monetary restrictions in terms of what can be done with special effects, and there are restrictions in terms of adhering to a certain dramatic format. People want to be able to capture the fans, not just hard-core fans of books - they want to be able to capture a whole generation of people.

But I think it's a great thing to try to do because I don't think there's anything that stops the great science fiction stories from being made into movies. Some are more problematic than others, but I'd love to see Stranger in a Strange Land and the Foundation series.

While I was writing this book, Idlewild, it occurred to me that it could be made into a movie some day, and it could be made into a movie I wasn't particularly happy with in contrast with the book. Then I thought, I've written it the way I wanted to write it as a book, and it exists in that format, so on a certain level, whatever happens to it happens to it. Hopefully, if it gets to that stage, people will not only take the trouble to get the spirit of the book, but also to transcend it into a whole new level of meaning.

Trek Nation: The next one's from Shaun Whiteaker, who asks, "I went back to school so that I could become a more knowledgeable writer. What one piece of advice do you have for those of us who have a burning passion to tell interesting stories, yet live far away from La-La Land? BTW: 'Attached' and 'Relativity' were fantastic!"

Nick Sagan: (laughs) Well, thank you very much, first of all! Only one piece of advice? Gosh, I would say that the most important quality is persistence and a belief in yourself. It's very important to focus on your craft, and tell the stories you want to tell, and not get discouraged if people don't spark to it, because they may not be sparking to it for any number of reasons. No matter how talented or how lucky you are, it's not going to matter if you stop. Persistence is what pushes you to keep going and keep putting your work out into the marketplace.

I think I said earlier that it's something like buying a lottery ticket, especially in Hollywood, where so much is up to fate. Just write as much as you possibly can and show it to people that you respect, and hone it and sharpen it and if people don't like it, don't jump to the conclusion that it's not of value. I was just talking to Neil Gaiman at Torcon in Toronto, and he was telling me about this story of his that he showed to people and they said it was absolutely awful. He recently had a chance to dust it off and look at it, and it's actually quite good. It's important to have a confidence bordering on arrogance, and in terms of being a writer, you need to be arrogant that your stories are worth telling, and just give yourself a chance to let the stories out.

Trek Nation: Michael asks, "When you develop a story, do you start with an event, a character, a plot twist, or just a good pitch? What is the hardest part about breaking your stories into the five act structure? What's the easiest?"

Nick Sagan: For me, it really depends. If I'm writing a screenplay or a book, both of those projects are things that will take a long time to write. I try to find the elements that are interesting to me if I'm going to be writing for that long period of time — if you're not passionate about your story, then why should anyone else be? Then I think about certain moments from beginning to end that I can visualise appealing to me, then I basically play connect the dots.

In terms of writing for television, or specifically, for Star Trek, I really think it comes down to the concept. There are so many episodes that have been done before, and you're trying to break new ground. What I've learned is to try to think in abstract terms, even if it's something close to another Star Trek idea — what is the new, fresh spin on it? What is something that we've never seen before? It doesn't have to be a character or a plot, like with "Gravity", it was "emotion creates its own logic" — just something that really tantalises, because if it tantalises you, it probably tantalises the audience.

Trek Nation: Jan Schliecker asks, "Are you encountering any bias towards your book because of your career as a TV writer or specifically as a Voyager staff writer? In how far does the novel represent personal and professional growth?"

Nick Sagan: Wow, these are great questions. I think I've encountered some bias, both positive and negative, from being a Voyager staff writer, and also for being my father's son. I think people come with certain expectations, whether they know my dad, or whether they know my work from Star Trek — sometimes they're willing to give me the benefit of the doubt for it, just as often as they're gunning for me. But Star Trek clearly had such a wonderful, positive, fall-on effect. In terms of Voyager, people are very curious when they approach Idlewild, in terms of their expectations, positive or negative, and then it's up to the book to stand on its own weight.

I really believe that the novel is one of, if not the best things I've ever done, if for no other reason than it's purely from my heart. I think to a certain extent, it also expunges certain personal demons that I encountered as a teen. There are things every teenager goes through, such as questions of identity. Also I had a weird condition called hypnagogia, which is this strange thing that when you're sleeping, you actually think you're awake. And it's very strange, because you're dreaming that you're awake, and you're lying in bed, trying to get up, and you can't. So here I start a book with a character that doesn't know his identity and can't move, so I’m sure I was able to tap into those experiences.

Trek Nation: As the saying goes, "Write what you know".

Nick Sagan: I think that's right, you have to write what you know, but then I think, especially with science fiction, that you have to distort it, twist it and mould it into something fresh and more compelling.

Trek Nation: We've got another question here about "Course: Oblivion". Monkee asks, "I loved the utterly depressing ending of 'Course: Oblivion'. They shouldn't all have happy endings. Did you meet with any resistance to that ending? Were any other endings considered?"

Nick Sagan: First of all, I absolutely love tragedy. I think that it's unfortunate that many shows always feel like they have to wrap up with happy endings, because at a certain point you stop taking the show seriously, because not everything always turns out for the best [in real life]. As a writer, it's good to give your audience the occasional glimpse of hell, of tragedy, of despair. Then the next time you're telling a story that has drama, that has tension, they're not going to automatically assume that the ending is going to be happy.

There was some resistance. One of the original things we talked about was that our Voyager would originally make contact with them. It would be a moment that would lead it a little bit more towards conventional Trek, like encountering aliens, and then, oh my gosh, there's a moment of understanding. I was adamant about the importance of the near miss, that they don't actually meet, sort of "There before the grace of God go I".

Trek Nation: Porthos asks, "What do you think of Enterprise?"

Nick Sagan: Isn't that the dog? (laughs) I honestly haven't seen it. I'm here in New York right now, which doesn't get UPN, so I would say to anyone at UPN reading this, set up a station in upstate New York! I know people who've seen it, and I understand that it's going through growing pains, and I hope that it works out — there's a wonderful mythology to play in, and I'd really like to see it continue.

Trek Nation: I think TNG went through growing pains, its first two seasons weren't the best science fiction ever produced, and DS9 and Voyager went through the same thing.

Nick Sagan: I remember reading the Next Generation script bible, before it even came out, and I thought it was really silly in certain ways. You've got an android, and the android's name is Data? You've got a captain, not named Jean-Luc Goddard, but Jean-Luc Picard? What are you people smoking? So I think that series certainly found its way!

Trek Nation: daedalus5 asks, "Did you find it difficult when on the set to withold your enthusiasm about being part of 'living history', and being on the set of Voyager? I know that if it was me, I'd have passed out with excitement!"

Nick Sagan: (laughs) It was very exciting. Actually, Bryan Fuller and I snuck down to the set whenever we could. To have a small part to play in Gene's vision was fantastic, but we unfortunately weren't able to get down to the set as often as we liked, so the excitement was kept to a tolerable level.

Trek Nation: Cian Devane asks, "I really enjoyed the episodes you wrote and co-wrote Nick, it's a shame you didn't stay on. What was Brannon Braga like to work with? Did he inspire you? Was he as careless as we think?"

Nick Sagan: (laughs) I think Brannon is a terrific writer. One of my favourite episodes of all time was "Parallels", a Next Generation episode, beautifully done. He was very much an inspirational figure at that time.

I think that to a certain extent, it was his first season running the show by himself [during Voyager's fifth season], and so there were certain growing pains as we were going along. I think that, those growing pains aside, it was really a wonderful experience. I really am grateful to Brannon for giving me that opportunity.

I don't regret anything that happened during season five, and I don't regret not sticking around either. I did what I wanted to do, and hopefully, at some point, it would be fun to have a connection with Star Trek again. But if not, how could I complain? I got to work on it as a freelancer and on staff, and I was able to give a little bit back for all the great times that Gene gave me.

Trek Nation: kathybel20 asks, "How do you know you've written a good story? Does critical acclaim matter, or are you happy with what you wrote?"

Nick Sagan: These are the best questions — my hat is off to your readers — and I hope I can do justice to them with my answers.

I think that there are two ways to answer that. It's a dichotomy that can't be resolved. On the one hand, critical acclaim is wonderful. It's really important for me to get positive feedback, to know what I'm writing is affecting other people, because otherwise, why write? Writing is a form of communication, and hopefully we can influence people, for good or for ill, but hopefully for good. And if you're not doing that, if you're not inspiring, or thrilling, or subversively opening people's eyes, I think there's not much point in writing.

But having said that, it's such a terrible trap, because we live and die based on what other people think. I'm the kind of writer who's sometimes his own worst enemy, because I do care what other people think. If 10 people love something I've written, I think that's great, but if one person doesn't, there's a part of me that cares that much more about why that person didn't like it. And it's very dangerous, if as a writer you find yourself succumbing to negative or positive feedback, and that is what's dominating your creative life. We need to take a step back — I know that's the right answer, but it's not always something I'm successful in doing.

I wrote Idlewild, and I didn't know if anyone would like it at all. I sent it to Neil Gaiman, kind of on a lark. He was my first choice to send it to, since I'm a big fan of his work, and I felt like there was a bit of a similarity between the tone and genre of our work. And I said, if any one person really responds to this book, that's great, but Neil frigging Gaiman loved it! And I was on cloud nine, and that should be enough for me, but if someone doesn't like it, that matters to me too. And it's really an ongoing challenge where increasingly I find that what I need to do is be appreciative of people who enjoy it and to be understanding, but unaffected by people who don't. The best remedy to living and dying by what people say is to throw yourself into your next project and I'm working on the sequel to Idlewild right now.

Trek Nation: Bill Kraft asks, "If you were asked to script the next Trek film, what would be the basic plot or premise?"

Nick Sagan: If I had free rein, I imagine I'd look for a way to take advantage of all the great Trek actors from all five shows. I might construct a conflict or a mystery that spans centuries, from the birth of the Federation up to the time of Voyager. Perhaps Archer makes first contact with a species, and the way he handles that situation brings about consequences many years later for Kirk, and so on, and so on. I like the idea of telling an epic story that takes place in different moments in time — all our crews trying to solve an evolving problem, each captain approaching the challenge in his/her own unique way. Could be fun. And it would be great to show the persistence of Gene Roddenberry's vision, with every incarnation of Star Trek united in purpose and spirit.

Trek Nation: Pete asks, "Given that your father had such a heavy involvement in science and sci-fi, do you feel pressure to live up to his reputation at all?"

Nick Sagan: That's another very good question. I do feel a certain amount of pressure to honour him, and also to honour my mother. But in the final analysis, all I can be is the best that I can be, and tell stories I want to tell. If people respond to them, that's wonderful, and if they don't, they don't! There are stories that I've told that I think that are not the sort of stories that dad would have told, but they share some similarities with his work, such as a curiosity about the universe. The core of who he was, was that sense of wonder of exploration, that curiosity, and those qualities are going to stay with me for the rest of my life.

But by the same token, there are stories I want to tell that are all me. For if you look at Contact, for example, it's largely about an ordered universe, which I think is a beautiful story, but I think my leaning is towards chaos. So I would say it's something that is a constant challenge to live up to, but really, of all the things I could try to live up to, this is a wonderful thing to have to do. If I can entertain and provoke people who were woken up to this wonderful universe by him, that would be what I want to do.

Trek Nation: I think that's a great note to end on.

Nick Sagan: Thank-you for these great questions, both theirs and yours.

Trek Nation: Thanks for taking part, Nick!


For further information on Nick Sagan and Idlewild, head over to his official web site.

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Caillan Davenport is one of the TrekToday editors.