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The Trek Nation - Nick Sagan - Part II

Nick Sagan - Part II

By Caillan Davenport
Posted at November 3, 2003 - 10:50 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, 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 second instalment of this three-part series, he discusses his Voyager episodes, including the controversial "Course: Oblivion", as well as Ronald D. Moore's tell-all interview about working on the series. Nick Sagan also talks about life post-Voyager, including his debut novel Idlewild and the importance of science in science fiction.

Trek Nation: One thing I wanted to talk about was "Course: Oblivion", which I think is quite a controversial episode. It's one that I didn't like very much when I first saw it, because I didn't really like "Demon" very much, and in the episode they all died. It's sort of like "What's the point?"

But then again, when I talked to someone else about it, they gave me a different perspective, in that "What's the point?" is the point. Upon re-viewing, the episode says something about Voyager's journey — that they might not get home. I think it says something about our own mortality. First, why did you decide to do a follow-up to "Demon"?

Nick Sagan: (laughs) Well, first of all, I think you hit the nail on the head. I think it's an episode people either love or hate. The 'hate' category seems to say, "Why do we follow a crew that isn't even our regular crew?" and they feel cheated.

But it really is the story about the poignancy of Voyager's journey. There's something about trying really hard and not being quite able to achieve it, which is a reality to a lot of people. There are many achievements that we are able to accomplish. There are many more things that we don't quite succeed at, and that doesn't make them any less valid. It's about a need to be remembered, a need to be recorded, and that's the special tragedy about making a log, a kind of capsule — we know that the "Demon" crew dies. It's about loss and remembering, death and grief.

In terms of how it got started, I wasn't a particularly big fan of "Demon" either. But we sort of liked the idea of picking up the mimetic crew, and finding out whatever happened to them. And it was Bryan [Fuller] that came up with the story for it, and because Bryan and I had worked on "Gravity" and we had started writing together, I was brought in to work on that. It might be my favourite Voyager episode I did, either that or "Relativity" or "In the Flesh", "Gravity" too. I'm pretty happy with all of them, except for "Juggernaut", where there was a lot of people working together so I don't really feel any authorship.

Trek Nation: One thing that's interesting about "Course: Oblivion" and "Juggernaut", to a lesser extent, is that they feature a lot of B'Elanna and Tom. I think "Course: Oblivion" actually features some of the best Paris/Torres scenes, just not in real life! Did you have a lot of discussions about what you were going to do about them as couple?

Nick Sagan: Maybe it was the make-up of the writing staff, with six guys, we didn't talk about the romantic angle that much! It was certainly something in the back of people's minds, and it was something that I personally looked forward to do more with, because I like both of the characters a lot, especially Torres, and thought it would be a fun thing to do.

One of the great things about "Course: Oblivion" is that you could do whatever you wanted to do, because they're not the real crew, so it's one of those wonderful "What if?" episodes. And one of the things that I liked about the episode is that here's a couple and they've been trying to get together for the longest time and they're not able to achieve it — but the mimetics are able to achieve it.

There's something about that crew that I like in many ways more than the real crew. They're trying to be the best that they can possibly be, and it's just unfortunate that they're very good at what they are, but they're not real.

Trek Nation: One of my favourite scenes in that episode was where the mimetic Torres dies.

Nick Sagan: The scene where she dies I find is a very moving scene, I'd put it up there with the death scene from "Drone".

Trek Nation: And of course we never actually saw their wedding in real life, they just sort of drove off.

Nick Sagan: (laughs) It's great to see it, because it adds something to the chronology, even if it isn't real.

Trek Nation: We've got "In the Flesh", we've got "Course: Oblivion" and "Relativity" — they're all follow-up episodes. I really like it because it shows effort to give the show a sort of integral whole. That is one of the things that people criticise about Voyager, that it's too episodic, but then again that worked so well for the original Star Trek and The Next Generation. I think it's wrong to say that episodic is a dirty word, but it's great when you bring back characters or situations from the past as well.

Nick Sagan: I think that's right. There's a very tricky balance you have to strike. You don't want a series that's so episodic to the point where nothing matters, but you don't want a story that's so tied into its own continuity that if you didn't watch the show and jumped in, you'd have no idea what's going on.

I think that finding that balance is a very difficult thing to do. Deep Space Nine and Voyager both tried and went in different directions. From my perspective, more as a fan than as a writer, Deep Space Nine could have stood to be a little more episodic than it was and could Voyager could have stood to have a little bit more continuity, but it's such a difficult task.

The primary goal as an executive producer on a show is to try and tell exciting stories every single week, and that's not easy to do. And sometimes it's all you can do to give it your best shot. But having said that, I was very pleased to have some small part in the continuity of Voyager, with some kind of follow-ups to previous episodes.

Trek Nation: With "Relativity" it was so great to see Captain Braxton again from "Future's End". It's such a rollercoaster ride of an episode. Was it a difficult one to write, to keep all the elements together without getting too far out of control?

Nick Sagan: No, I think that might have been the easiest one I worked on, because the goal is simply to have fun. With the others I felt a lot of different loyalties to character this, character that. For some reason that one came together very quickly, and it was such a joy to write because we were just trying to please ourselves. I don't think it's an episode that needs to be studied, per se, or ruminated upon, you just go with it like a rollercoaster ride.

Trek Nation: You were only on Voyager for one season. Why was that, if you don't mind me asking?

Nick Sagan: (laughs) Not at all. Basically, it was for a couple of reasons. I'd had a wonderful time working on it, but there were also frustrations. Brannon [Braga] and I started talking about it, and there were other writers that they wanted to bring in like Ron Moore and there were other projects I wanted to get involved in.

And as much as I enjoyed it, I felt like I'd done what I'd set out to do, and I didn't feel like I needed to stick around to get them home. So, all in all, I wouldn't trade the experience for the world. I had a wonderful time working on it, and being able to contribute to the Roddenberry mythology. I had a blast, and I'm really grateful to Brannon for giving me the opportunity.

Trek Nation: After Ron Moore came and then left so abruptly, he gave an interview where he heavily criticised Voyager. He mentioned that the junior writers weren't treated that well. Was that something that you found when you worked on the show?

Nick Sagan: It's hard for me to answer because I don't have a lot to compare it to. I've heard horror stories on certain shows that are much, much worse than anything I ever experienced on Voyager. And I've also heard stories where shows go so smoothly that people would raise eyebrows at Voyager. My experience was that there definitely was a difference between the junior writers and the senior writers.

Everything that Ron says, he makes his points for a reason, and everything he says there, I'm not saying he pulled it out of a hat. But at the same time I'm sympathetic to the difficulties of running a show. Really, when you're running a show, you want people to come in and give you, as executive producer, everything you can possibly want and feed you everything that you need and sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn't.

I think there were times where it didn't go as smoothly as we might all have hoped but I don't know where to assign blame for that. It was certainly my first experience on staff, and I'm sure there's things that I could have done to make things a little easier, but I suspect that everyone could have.

Trek Nation: I suppose it's like a lot of workplaces, you can still have a clash of personalities, and you just have to work them out. In that regard it's no different from any other job.

Nick Sagan: It really isn't. With television, so much of it is about keeping it a well-oiled machine. It's just that with a television series, the stakes are so high, and I think people sometimes get a little short with each other because you feel so much is riding on this and you want everything to go smoothly and sometimes it doesn't.

Trek Nation: Ron Moore makes good points about the show's episodic nature, but then I feel that being episodic isn't entirely a bad thing either. I personally like shows that have a balance between episodic storytelling and serialised storytelling. It's a difficult balance.

Nick Sagan: I totally agree. It's very hard to hit that. You want to reward fans for watching for long periods of time and see arcs paid off over several episodes. But I know a lot of people who tried to get into Deep Space Nine and were just never able to find an in point — they were going, "Who are the pagh wraiths, who is Kai whoever?"

On what Ron says in terms of the ideological writing of Voyager, I think there are a lot of different opinions on how it should be. In terms of how things went behind the scenes, he raises some good points. Deep Space Nine, to my understanding, was such a close-knit, well-oiled machine, that probably a lot of shows would suffer in comparison to how that staff worked.

Trek Nation: After Voyager, I next heard of you when your book came out. How long have you been working on Idlewild?

Nick Sagan: Idlewild was always the project that I worked on last. I had the idea some years ago. It was like, here's the idea, and I was unsure of what format to write it in. I originally envisioned it as a screenplay, but I couldn't figure out how to tell it, because it has two separate stories that eventually dovetail together.

But after Voyager, I wound up going to Manhattan because Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, invited me to join, which at the time was going to be a big science fact destination. They wanted me to come in and be the executive producer of entertainment and games, which was to create a wonderful lush, robust, science fiction portal.

So I went in to do that, and things were really exciting for a while. It was kind of a land of milk and honey for a bit, creating a game with Bob Picardo (the Doctor), and we were trying to get a big Everquesty type multiplayer roleplay game online. But then the Internet bubble burst and the money wasn't there. So we were in the situation that we wanted to be there, but there wasn't the kind of budget for the games and animation that I wanted to do.

I said to myself, "Well, you can go back to LA, and try and get on another show or a movie." But here I had the idea [for Idlewild] that was calling to me all this time, and I thought I really should take this time to record it. I envisioned it not as one book, but as a trilogy, and the mythology started to build, and as wonderful as it is to play in other people's mythology, there's something about creating your own that's really compelling to me. And I finally sat down and wrote it, and it only took me about nine months to write.

I had a very lucky experience. I went to my entertainment lawyer and I said, "Well, I have this book." He said he'd set up some meetings with a publishing agent. And every agent I met wanted to represent me and I went to one of them and he got the book sold to a bidding war. "Bidding" and "war" — whatever your feelings about them as individual words — put them together and you have a really great phrase.

Trek Nation: It must be quite an honour to have something like that going on, when they all want to buy your work.

Nick Sagan: I was so lucky, because who knows when you write your work whether it's going to be perceived well or not. I was writing it just for me, because I think when you write for Hollywood as opposed to writing for yourself, you have to be aware about what other movies are out there, what the producers want and what the studio executives want, because movies cost a tremendous amount of money, millions and millions of dollars, whereas books don't. So I wrote the book to please myself and the response has been so far, fantastic. There's always a feeling that, "Oh, maybe I'll be the only person to like this." So far, some people seem to really, really love it, others not quite as much, but the fans out there seem to be very, very big fans of the book, and that's very gratifying.

Trek Nation: It's always good to get some kind of reation whether it is extremely positive or extremely negative, rather than if someone goes "errr", in which case it's provoked no reaction.

Nick Sagan: I would rather provoke outrage than shrugs, but I'll take cheers over outrage (laughs).

Trek Nation: This is your first published novel. Had you written any novels before that, or is this your first time writing an extended prose work?

Nick Sagan: Absolutely my first time. And it was such a different experience. TV and movies are all about the structure, whether it's television that has act structure based around commercials and cliffhangers or the three-act structure in the movies. You're used to building in these conventions for the drama — they're there for good reason, and that's what writing for the screen is all about, structuring your pieces. But with a book it's just a wide-open space to do whatever the hell you want. If you want to write for 10 or 20 pages about a frog crossing the road, you can. It may not be a good idea, but you can certainly do it (laughs). So I had a tremendous sense of freedom that was almost frightening. There were so many choices I could make, but somehow I just hunkered down and allowed myself find the characters that I wanted to tell. It was a very difficult experience, but such a good one.

Trek Nation: I've always enjoyed writing in the screenplay format rather than the prose format. I liked the element of the screenplay where the descriptions are terse and evocative, like a quick flash, whereas with a novel you often take the time to set the scene, and I personally never had the patience to do that.

Nick Sagan: (laughs) Well, neither did I! One of the complaints I have about a lot of novels are the very wordy descriptions, which can be nice, but so often I'm skimming just to get to the point. So I think that Idlewild reflects that in the sense that it has that kind of crisp, Jim Thompson detective fiction quality to it, and it moves very quickly. Neil Gaiman called it a roller-coaster ride — you just have to keep going quicker and quicker.

Trek Nation: You've got a Virtual Reality Academy in the book. How did you come up with that idea?

Nick Sagan: Well, it was interesting. I was thinking about teachers and education, looking at the technology we have and what the technology would realistically be in the future. That was one part of the idea. The other part I was thinking of was the mythology. I was always so wrapped in mythology when I was a kid. I remember talking to my mother one day when I was a little kid, and asked her, "What do we believe in?" And she said, "We believe in the one god." I said, "One god! What about the god of thunder, the god of lightning? We're going to get creamed!"

So the second part of the idea was looking at education, looking at mythology, and I thought about the type of kids at high school, where there's all these cliques. And I thought, "What is the intersection between those cliques and the archetype of mythological beings?" For example, what is the intersection between a jock and a god of war? What is the intersection between a brain and a goddess of wisdom or a goth and the god of death? Out of that exploration, it emerged.

Trek Nation: A screenwriting teacher pointed out to me that there's a lot of similarities between science fiction and the ancient world, and that's why you get a lot of science fiction fans who are into ancient history and mythology.

Nick Sagan: I think that's right. I will also say that there's a whole Brechtian idea that there are stories that if you tell them in the modern day, people won't accept them or throw up a wall to prevent being affected by them because they're too close to it. If you set something in the future or in historical times, it's subversive and can slip past people's defences and they can see something in a way they've never thought of before.

Trek Nation: Apart from your father, of course with Contact — which I must admit I haven't read, I've only seen the film, but it is one of my favourite films — were there any writers you were particularly inspired by?

Nick Sagan: There are so many. How much time do you have? (laughs) Well, gosh, in terms of science fiction there are certainly many classic writers like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov who as a friend of the family used to come over to dinner when I was three.

In fantasy, I would say [J.R.R.] Tolkien, of course, there are so many fantasy writers. And now I would say Neil Gaiman, Jack Womack. There are so many people out there, I can't even begin to list them all. There are a dozen luminaries who are doing very cool things right now and it's my pleasure to be able to share a small space with them with my first book. There are also a number of writers who have nothing to do with science fiction, like Jim Thompson, and [Vladimir] Nabokov.

Trek Nation: You mentioned that you knew Isaac Asimov from the age of three — you must have had an amazing childhood.

Nick Sagan: I did — a surreal childhood. It didn't seem strange to me then, because I was living it, but I grew up around all kinds of science and science fiction writers. I remember meeting Leonard Nimoy (Spock) when I was a small child. It was interesting because people look at people on television like they're in that box, and to a certain extent they're not real. I had this wonderful but strange experience in junior high school when both my history and science classes showed Cosmos. So there'd be my father on TV talking to me in class and it was like a very strange trip.

Trek Nation: And your voice is on the Voyager space probe, too. It must be amazing to think of your voice, as a six-year-old, out there in the universe, and if anyone ever finds it, yours is the voice they'll hear.

Nick Sagan: I know, it's leaving the solar system at something like 400,000 kilometres an hour — that's quick! It's sort of a wonderful honour, in the strange sense that someone from another species could eventually discover it, although the odds are rather slim. But by the same token, every radio and television broadcast travels out from Earth at the speed of light.

Trek Nation: Both your father and your mother were writers, and you had a big science background — was it inevitable that you would go into science fiction writing?

Nick Sagan: I certainly grew up around science, but I don't boast a science background. Andre Bormanis could take me any day of the week! But I do feel that I have enough of a background that I know what kind of questions to ask or how to find people that know the answers to them. Both of my parents encouraged a curiosity about the world and the universe, why things work and how they work.

Trek Nation: Star Trek often attracts a lot of fans who aren't science fiction fans as well, but there are also a lot of fans who really demand scientific accuracy. I think some people want Star Trek to push the science fiction envelope a bit more.

Nick Sagan: I think you can look at it two different ways. I'll tell you two different anecdotes about my dad. I remember watching Star Wars with him when it came out on videotape, and there was a line where Han Solo says the Millennium Falcon can do the Kessel run in a certain number of parsecs. My father threw his hands up and said, "A parsec is a unit of distance, not of time." I said, "Dad, it's just a movie." And he turned to me and said, "Yes, it's just a movie but they can afford to get these things right."

And I think he's right. If there's a choice between getting it right or not, you want to get it right, so I'm very sympathetic to that cult, but by the same token there is a certain amount of liberty that we should be able to take. I remember showing him my draft of Ender's Game, and in that the characters are speaking to each other from one ship to another and listening to each other in real time. He's like, "Well, no, it can't travel faster than the speed of light. People can't have conversations over great distances." And I'm like, "Well, you know dad, this is just a movie."

If you only base your science fiction on what can be done right now, then I think you're robbing yourself of the possibilities of the future, because we really don't know what's around the corner. I think that science has benefited tremendously from science fiction. I believe my dad was woken up to the idea of what could be on Mars by of all people, Edgar Rice Burroughs. So my father looked up at Mars reading about four-armed, green-skinned Martian warriors running off with princesses and wondering, "Okay, but what's really up there?"

Be sure to come back next Monday for the final part in this series, in which Nick Sagan answers questions from Trek Nation readers.

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Caillan Davenport is one of the TrekToday editors.