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The Trek Nation - David Mack

David Mack

By Jacqueline Bundy
Posted at July 27, 2005 - 2:02 AM GMT

Creating an entirely new Star Trek series in fiction form isn't all that different from creating a new television series, in some respects. First, of course, comes the initial idea, the concept of what the series will be about. The next step is creating characters that readers will want to learn more about — but there's a lot more to it than that.

In the case of the all-new, literary-original series Star Trek Vanguard, the task of writing the series' debut novel, Harbinger, fell to bestselling author David Mack, a multi-talented writer with plenty of experience in writing not only prose but also screenplays. Mack has garnered critical acclaim in both fields, and when you read Harbinger it is easy to see why he was chosen to kick off the Star Trek Vanguard series.

Mr. Mack was generous enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to speak with Trek Nation about the conception of Star Trek Vanguard and some of what's involved in creating a new Star Trek series.


Trek Nation: I understand that the idea for the Star Trek Vanguard series originated with your editor, Marco Palmieri. Why go back to the Original Series era? Why that setting?

David Mack: Marco has been a fan of the Original Series for his whole life. As Marco explained it to me, it's one of the most thoroughly explored aspects of the Star Trek universe, but almost all of those explorations have involved the same core group of characters: Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the other members of the Enterprise crew.

Marco saw the potential for exploring the Original Series era from a different point of view, one that would allow us to give greater context to the things that we saw onscreen and to experience and explore the potential aftereffects of things we saw on screen in TOS.

With that in mind, he wanted to do something that felt different from what the original was but could also feel like it was part of the same era and the same mindset; so he hit upon the idea of dong something centered around a starbase, a space station as opposed to a ship, and we built from there.

TN: So then you took the initial idea and expanded on it?

DM: When he originally brought the idea to me and said, "I'd like you to help flesh out the series concept and write the first book," my impression was that this could be really cool, because I grew up watching the Original Series as a young boy; but my impression after reading through the first draft of the series concept that Marco had drafted was that it wasn't big enough in its scope.

I felt that if we limited ourselves to the station itself, and to the men and women who live and work there, that we were going to be limited in the kind of stories we could tell. I suggested to Marco, and he agreed, that the concept needed to be much bigger, much grander.

We wanted something that had an epic feel to it, so I hit upon the notion of a starbase that has three starships assigned to it on permanent detail, starships that have very different capabilities and ways of life. We would be able to see in Star Trek Vanguard the way of life on the station and the differences between the way Starfleet people lived, and the way civilian residents lived, and the way visitors lived and then the very different quality of life aboard these three Federation starships, seeing that not all starships are alike.

Different ships with different missions require different crews. Different captains will have different command styles, and that would lead to a different style of life aboard that person's ship. We felt like this was a chance to expand the era of the Original Series and give it the scope and the grandeur that the later eras have been given with multiple series franchises. With the relaunch of Deep Space Nine in the books, with the expansion the post-Nemesis TNG fiction and the post-finale Voyager books, they've all had their universes greatly expanded to encompass multiple worlds, multiple lifestyles, new characters and new points of view. Marco wanted to give that same depth of investigation to the Original Series era.

TN: So how much was in place when you signed on?

DM: Marco, when he first invited me to come aboard the project, had done a considerable amount of work. He had the idea for Starbase 47 and had conceived some of the primary characters, who I believe at that time consisted of Commander Diego Reyes, the base commander; the JAG officer (Rana Desai); and he wanted an investigative reporter. He wanted a lovable rogue trader type; he wanted an A & A officer (Archaeology and Anthropology); he wanted an Ambassador, and he wanted a medical officer, etc.

He had of all these job functions and character positions worked out. He knew that he didn't want to do just the same old job, same old story. He wanted a mix of Starfleet and civilian, and he wanted to see different job responsibilities than were typical in starship-based series.

He had fully drawn out portraits of characters like Diego Reyes and Dr. Ezekiel Fisher, but not all the characters were as thoroughly drawn. For instance he knew he wanted an Orion merchant prince, but he didn't know much about the character beyond that. He knew he wanted a lovable rogue but hadn't settled on a name or backstory. The A & A officer was just a job description.

Part of what I did when I came aboard was to flesh out these characters. I gave them names, gave them histories and personalities, and I began to draw lines between them to say which ones would very likely be antagonistic toward each other, which ones would be inclined to be friendly with one another, etc., so that there would be a sense, not only for Marco, but also for myself and future writers who work on the series, to know where the seeds of conflict are that can drive future stories.

So I ended up giving names to a lot of the characters; the A & A officer, Ming Xiong, is named for a friend of mine. Cervantes Quinn (the trader) was the product of many meetings between myself and Marco, throwing ideas back and forth. The inspiration for the name actually came after I’d proposed naming the trader’s ship Rocinante.

Well, Rocinante was the name of Don Quixote's horse in the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. Marco wanted the trader’s name to have the same combination of the grandiose and mundane as Harcourt Fenton Mudd or Cyrano Jones, so we finally settled on Cervantes Quinn. I believe I remember reading somewhere that "Rocinante" translates roughly from the original Spanish draft of Don Quixote as, "the most broken-down old nag in the world." Basically, it's a pathetic if loyal steed. The class of his ship, the Mancharan starhopper, is also a Cervantes reference: Man of La Mancha, Mancharan starhopper.

TN: So there are a few literary references and other little tributes as well?

DM: Yes, there are little literary references, and people who have read my previous work know that I'm a very big fan of the Canadian rock band Rush. Rocinante was what they named a ship in "Cygnus-X1", a song they did about a ship that flies into a black hole, so it's also a nod to Rush. There's another nod to Rush in a later chapter, a character named Broon, who faces off with Cervantes Quinn. I got that name from a song title by Rush, a song called "Broon's Bane" which is on their live album Exit...Stage Left. Some people have religion; I have Rush.

TN: In addition to your fiction work, you're also a screenwriter. As I read Vanguard, to a certain extent it felt like reading a novelization of a television pilot episode. Was that deliberate on your part?

DM: That's pretty much what we had to do.

We were launching a new Star Trek saga, and part of my job was to establish the series concept, its principal characters, its primary setting, and the conflicts that will drive the future story arcs. This all had to be set up in a way that had a single storyline that tied all of these elements together and gave us a reason to explore various areas of the station, to spend time on more than one ship, to meet all the various characters and see them in action doing what they do.

I would hope that I wrote something that fulfills the better functions of a pilot, which are to not only introduce you to a series but also to grab your interest and make you fall in love with the concept and characters so that you want to see more. But I also tried to avoid the common pitfalls of a pilot, which is the sense that action just grinds to a halt while somebody spits out their backstory from the series bible.

Part of the reason it might also feel like a novelized pilot is that, because of my background in TV, when Marco asked me to help develop the series concept, my approach was to write a full series bible, which is something that is only normally done for a large TV series such as Star Trek.

The Vanguard series bible was more than forty pages long. It had detailed write-ups on all the major characters; it entailed a series overview, including the backstory that stretched back about a hundred thousand years. It involved projections of up to six or eight future story arcs, or major elements of story arcs that could play out over time. It involved write-ups of all the major supporting characters, nearly thirty of them. I selected actor templates for every major supporting and principal character, and I included those in the series bible, with little digital headshots so it looks like a casting sheet.

TN: You seem to have taken it even further than that, though. There's an incredible amount of detail within the narrative.

DM: We went into a lot of exploratory detail, including minor characters you're only likely to see for a sentence or two. For example, the communications officer on Vanguard is Judy Dunbar, and in one sentence I established she has a habit of twirling her curly light brown hair, she listens to meetings with her eyes closed and she memorizes them because she has a photographic memory.

We established that the chief engineer of Vanguard is a man named Isaiah Farber; he's the Starfleet power weight-lifting champion. You don't see him again for the rest of the book but in one sentence you've met this man and you can picture him in your head.

Because they weren't the focus characters we don't spend a lot of time on them, but it was important to me to establish something unique about even the smallest character in the smallest job.

Sozlok, the quartermaster working the night shift, is this strange, furry, simian-looking humanoid who hates his job, hates that he's stuck on the night shift. He's surly and wishes he could be anywhere else, but he's stuck here. You spend maybe two pages with this guy and you know him. This is a mid-level petty officer who is stuck in the most boring job on the station.

I was important to me, even early in the series development, to have a handle on all the little personalities who make up the community on the station, so that everybody would feel fleshed-out. I wanted everyone to feel like a real individual and not just a name and a rank and a shirt color.

TN: Lieutenant Commander T'Prynn, Vanguard's intelligence officer, had been established as a character in at least two previous Star Trek novels (Mission: Gamma, Lesser Evil and The Art of the Impossible).

DM: That's right, but not that much had been established about T'Prynn.

TN: In Harbinger's acknowledgements, you thank fellow author Susan Shwartz for helping you flesh out T'Prynn.

DM: I had some nice conversations with Susan while I was writing Vanguard. Susan gave me a lot of advice about the Vulcan culture, and I ran some of my ideas past her to make sure I wasn't doing something stupid. She filled in some details for me to help make it jibe with what we've seen onscreen and with what she and Jo (Josepha Sherman, Susan Shwartz's writing partner) had done.

That's one of the great things about being a Star Trek author. There are lots of other authors who are more than willing to help and offer advice and bounce ideas back and forth. We're all willing to pitch in and try to help everybody tell the best story they can.

TN: In your previous Star Trek novels you haven't had to write much for Vulcan characters. Was that a bit of a challenge for you?

DM: I haven't really dealt much with Vulcans; they weren't really one of my chief interests. Part of my challenge was that, because Vulcans had been so well-explored in Star Trek fiction in many different novels, in particular by Susan and Josepha, was that if I was going to tackle a Vulcan character in a principal role I needed to know that there was something different about this person, something unique that hadn't been done before. It's very hard to do that, because Peter David and numerous other authors have explored a lot of ground in that respect.

So I sat down and developed this whole backstory for T'Prynn, and part of it revealed itself while I was writing Harbinger. Some things I didn't know at the series-bible level but discovered as I wrote. If her behavior feels atypical for a Vulcan, there are explanations you discover as you read.

TN: The area of space where Vanguard is located, the Taurus Reach, is entirely unique, isn't it? At least I can't remember any mention of that area of space in any episode or novels.

DM: Yes, it's never been established before.

We looked at Geoffrey Mandel's Star Charts and we are locating it in an expanse of space between the Klingon Empire and the Tholian Empire. By the 24th century, Federation territory has expanded and separated those two powers. So, in part, Harbinger is meant to explore how this particular branch of Federation territory expanded through this channel separating those two powers and established a strong Federation presence in that area of the galaxy.

TN: The crew of the Enterprise does play a small role in the story you tell in Harbinger, although they aren't the main focus. Will we continue to see them appear in future novels in the Vanguard series?

DM: It's possible, though not right away. I don't expect the Enterprise will play any part in Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore's Vanguard novel, Summon the Thunder (which is going to be an amazing action-fest, I might add). Beyond that, whether or not Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise make another appearance will depend entirely upon the needs of the story being told.

TN: Just to clarify--Star Trek Vanguard will be written by multiple authors, is that correct?

DM: Yes. The second book, Summon the Thunder, will be written by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore. I don't know of any plans for more Vanguard novels beyond that, though I've heard that other authors have received the series bible for their consideration.

TN: Like the vast majority of writers, you've also got a day job. Could you describe what that's like—writing a novel while holding down a full time job?

DM: Tiring. Very, very tiring. I get up to my alarm clock in the morning, go to work, and wrack my brain on someone else's issues all day long. Then I come home and deal with the usual domestic madness: make dinner, do the dishes, feed the cats, take out the trash, do the laundry, pay the bills, etc. If I'm lucky, sometime around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. at night I get to start writing. Usually I work until around 2 a.m., then I collapse into bed next to my long-since-asleep wife, Kara, and start the whole process over again the next morning.

TN: The various Star Trek book series have a very large readership. Do you think that without new episodes on the air that fans who haven't yet tried the novels will now be more inclined to do so? There are some who would say that this is a risky time to launch a new Star Trek literary series.

DM: I'm really hoping that, with Enterprise going off the air, the books are going to see a resurgence of interest from people who need a new Trek fix but have never tried the novels. I hope they'll realize that the books are still there and that they provide a way to experience Star Trek on a more robust, more intricate level.


Star Trek Vanguard – Harbinger by David Mack is scheduled to be released in mass-market paperback format in August 2005. You can learn more about Mr. Mack's writing and read his annotations (the annotations contain major spoilers for Harbinger) on the novel at his web site.

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Jacqueline Bundy reviews Star Trek books for the Trek Nation, writes monthly columns for the TrekWeb newsletter and the Star Trek Galactic News, and hosts the Yahoo Star Trek Books Group weekly chat.