Nick Sagan - Part IBy Caillan Davenport
Posted at October 27, 2003 - 10:53 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, the 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 part one of this three-part interview series, Nick Sagan talks about how he broke into the entertainment industry, pitching for television, romances in Star Trek and reveals how the Species 8472 episode "In the Flesh" came about.
Trek Nation: I'd like to start off talking about how you decided to become a writer. You actually dropped out of high school to go to UCLA film school. That must have been quite a brave decision.
Nick Sagan: (laughs) I'm not sure it was brave so much as foolhardy at the time.
Trek Nation: What did your parents think of that?
Nick Sagan: They were both initially apprehensive but they came around. My mother was quicker, then my father. But when they both realised that I was serious about college and I wasn't just dropping out for the sake of dropping out, they came around very quickly.
Trek Nation: You graduated summa cum laude, so it must have been quite a vindication for you in the end.
Nick Sagan: Yeah, it's a very strange success story, actually. It's kind of an arc, because I was getting wonderful grades in elementary school, but once I went out to California, I got put into this prep school, which I didn't really enjoy, and my grades suffered. So it was kind of a wonderful renaissance rediscovering learning again.
Trek Nation: I think a lot of people find that they're not quite in their element at high school, but once they get into something they really love they really take to it.
Nick Sagan: Oh yeah, just the ability to pick your own classes, it's such an important difference.
Trek Nation: I know a lot of actors say you should go into acting if it's the only thing you can do. Do you feel the same way with writing?
Nick Sagan: It's a good question. I think in a large part, yes. I feel like I'm far more comfortable writing than I am doing anything else in my life. That's not to say I'm especially comfortable writing (laughs), just a little more than anything else. I've actually been fairly lucky that I've been able to try my hand at several different types of writing, from screenplays to computer games.
Trek Nation: How did you start out, writing for film or television?
Nick Sagan: I started out writing for film first. Other than in school, when I was writing short stories. While I was on the book tour, I ran into a teacher from one of those prep schools I didn't like and she remembered me writing lots of science fiction.
She said I was the kind of kid where we'd have a week to do a project, and she'd remind me, and I wouldn't have started it until the night before, and I would turn in something that she said would be invariably wonderful. That really irritated me, because it's not like I couldn't knuckle down from the beginning of the week.
When I was in college and I'd written my first screenplay, the head of the writing programme, Richard Walters, said, "Do you mind if I show this to an agent?" And I didn't say, "How dare you!" (laughs) I said, "Yeah!"
It was a very fortuitous situation. That agent called me up the next day and said he wanted to represent me and it kind of went on from there.
Trek Nation: A lot of people say, "Never go into the film industry because you'll never find a job". To get an agent so quickly is quite amazing.
Nick Sagan: The thing about the industry is that it can turn on a dime. You can have terrible luck, and things can suddenly go your way because of one event. I really consider a screenplay akin to buying a lottery ticket. You've got no idea what's going to be successful and what producers and studio executives want at that particular moment in time. Sometimes the scripts that you think are the best are the ones that are going to cause them to shrug and the ones that you write the quickest and have the least invested in are the ones that are perceived the best.
Trek Nation: So how did you start writing for The Next Generation? Your first script was "Attached". Did you pitch any others before that?
Nick Sagan: Yes, actually before I pitched to Next Generation, I pitched to Deep Space Nine. And I had perhaps the most unsuccessful pitch session ever (laughs). I went in with the wrong attitude, the wrong expectations. I went to Deep Space Nine, it was probably the first or maybe the second season, and I'd worked out these very intricate stories in my head and I proceeded to tell them all the way from point A to point B and all the way to point Z.
I thought they were good. I had one piece on Bajoran mythology, and whatever else it was, and I'd go through the whole process of pitching, and they'd say "Oh, we have something on Bajoran mythology". And I was like, "Oh, okay". They just cut me short. The whole nature of it was that there was a lot already in the pipeline.
So by the time I went to Next Generation and pitched to Jeri Taylor, I had a different attitude. I went for a number of very, very quick pitches where, instead of pitching the structure and the intricacies of the story, I was really pitching the concept. And what I learned, especially pitching for Star Trek, is that you want to pitch stories that you can see many different ways of unfolding.
To jump ahead, one of the pitches I took for Voyager eventually became "Counterpoint". The writers pitched it to me as this story about aliens hiding on Voyager. The big part I think is trying to find the hook of it, so I pitched it to Brannon [Braga] as "The Diary of Anne Frank on Voyager". I could see at least six different ways of that playing out, and I think creating those tantalising possibilities is a huge part of pitching for Star Trek.
But in this case when I pitched to Jeri Taylor, she was very nice about it because I pitched quick pitches, which allowed me to get a lot of them out. I remember it was a lot of "no"s and one "maybe" (laughs).
Trek Nation: And that was "Attached"?
Nick Sagan: Yep!
Trek Nation: What I find interesting about that being the first script for someone coming into Star Trek is that you have the whole Picard/Crusher thing in there. Obviously they didn't really deal with that throughout much of the series's run — there was a sort of sexual tension there, but they didn't really want to resolve it. So it was interesting to have you come in and write that right off the bat. Although there wasn't any resolution at the end, you pushed it a little bit further and I think it satisfied a lot of the fans who were looking for them to get together throughout the series.
Nick Sagan: I hope it satisfied the fans. I know at the World Science Fiction convention which I was just at someone came up to me and said, "I hated the way that one ended!" I think there was a bit of an ideological split between a lot of the writers and the actors, all of whom wanted this relationship — certainly Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard) and Gates McFadden (Beverly Crusher) wanted it. You could tell by Patrick Stewart's body language — every time he says Beverly's name he puts his hand on her. They have this forbidden love that they can't consummate because she's the widow of his best friend.
But when I pitched it, the writers and I and a lot of people said, "This would be a great thing to do", but the executive producers didn't see it that way. There's definitely a split — "No, no, they're just good friends." And so I think this was a compromise in many ways, which allows them to explore it, but not to take it to the next step.
Trek Nation: And that seemed to be the way on Voyager with Janeway and Chakotay. They were edging there, and then they never quite got there, and then they actually pulled away from it. While you were on staff there, was there that kind of split between people who wanted to see them get together and those who didn't?
Nick Sagan: It's funny that because I was the "Attached" writer, people thought I was going to push for the J/C or the Paris/Torres, but honestly, neither was an agenda at all (laughs). I just happened to be there.
There's always a feeling in any romance on a television show, that once you get a couple together, that might be the best thing to dissolve all tension (laughs). You hit on your worst scenario by achieving it. So I think there was some reluctance to put characters together in order to kind of keep that alive. And I think that you could say that Voyager was not as strongly about the relationships as it was about exploration or trying to get home. I think Deep Space Nine was more character-driven and Voyager was more plot-driven.
Trek Nation: I would agree with that. But I must say that one of the things that actually attracted me to Voyager, what makes it my personal favourite Star Trek series, is the characters. Even if the episode was below par that week, I still loved to tune in and find out about the adventures of Janeway and Torres and Chakotay. But there's been quite a bit of criticism about the writing of Janeway, that she was inconsistent from season to season. Was she a hard character to write for?
Nick Sagan: I've heard those criticisms. I didn't find her that hard to write for. The character is in this unfortunate position of being split between wanting to get her crew home and being a Starfleet captain who wants to explore every passing nebula. One thing I really like about Voyager is that there's some metaphor within that for all of us, that we're trying to achieve long-term goals, but if you're just so focused on the product, you're neglecting the process. So I think where she seems to be conflicted, that's a conflict for all of us. In terms of writing for her, I personally found her a lot of fun. There are characters I enjoyed writing for a little more. Robert Picardo as the Doctor was delightful to write for, he's so wonderful. The whole cast was a lot of fun to write for.
Trek Nation: I actually jumped ahead of myself there. So after you wrote "Attached", then came "Bloodlines", where the man turned up claiming to be Picard's son. How did that one come about?
Nick Sagan: Well, it was interesting. I pitched "Attached", which was basically pitched as The Defiant Ones, except they're chained together atypically, and that went over really well. I pitched some other ideas which some of them liked, but weren't so viable at the time and Jeri Taylor had been asking some cast members about unresolved threads they'd like to see resolved.
It was Patrick Stewart who was actually the genesis for that. He said that he remembered DaiMon Bok from the first season episode called "The Battle", and he'd wondered what'd happened to him. So Jeri Taylor went to me with the challenge of writing a sequel to that. So I thought, "Well, he blames Picard for killing his son, and he might think that turnabout is fair play". That was the genesis of "Bloodlines", which I think is an interesting episode but one that doesn't quite come together in the way that "Attached" does.
Trek Nation: I have to say that "Attached" is one of my favourite episodes of the seventh season, because in the last season you really want to do the best stories and give the fans a sense of closure. I think that "Attached" works really well in that regard.
Nick Sagan: I think that's true and I think that "Bloodlines" is also hurt by the fact that it seemed like in the seventh season there were a lot of relatives of characters trotted out.
Trek Nation: I think there's a Worf one as well, where his brother turns up.
Nick Sagan: That's right, and it's like "Oh no, who's next? Is it Guinan's third cousin?" (laughs) But I think that you're right, one thing about "Attached" is that it very nicely resolves, on some level at least, that chemistry, that sexual tension.
Trek Nation: There were about four or five years between when you were writing for Next Generation and Voyager. What were you doing that time? I noticed you wrote for a couple of other series like Space Precinct...
Nick Sagan: Yeah (laughs). I spent most of that time writing screenplays. I found a nice niche where I was hired to adapt novels like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.
Trek Nation: As soon as I read that, I thought, "Well, they have to make a film out of this". But it's such a hard book to adapt.
Nick Sagan: (laughs) Well, it's especially tricky because the kids are all about six years old. There's always a battle because the studio executives, of course, would love the kids to be like 17 or more, like the kids in Starship Troopers, but the whole point of the book is that they're kids. I remember fighting very hard to keep them as young as possible.
It was a very well-received script and we got to the point where we had Oliver Stone championing it and we took it to Disney, but Disney wanted it to be more of a traditional Disney movie, and I couldn't do that. So unfortunately, like so many projects in Hollywood, it got stuck in development hell. Since then, it's reverted back to Orson Scott Card, who I hope is able to make it on the big screen. It's just like my dad's book, Contact — a lot of books take a long time.
I adapted some other science fiction books into movies, one was called The Deus Machine by Pierre Ouellette, and also The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin. So I was having a nice time doing that, and I sold a script to Martin Scorsese.
Trek Nation: How did you come back to the Star Trek fold then?
Nick Sagan: Brannon came to me; he remembered me from Next Generation. It was his first year, all by himself, since Jeri Taylor had retired the previous year so he had the option of bringing in people. He brought in me and he brought in Mike Taylor. No one had ever asked me to do this before, and I had an interesting connection with the Voyager space programme. So I thought, "How cool would it be to go from Voyager to Voyager?"
Trek Nation: There was a lot of talk at the time of season five about it being a season of renewal. With Brannon Braga at the helm for the first time he was really trying to push the envelope a lot. Was there a sense of that when you joined the writing staff?
Nick Sagan: Probably a lot of people know more about Voyager than I do, because I honestly did not watch the first couple of seasons when I started out, I had to catch up. But I think there was a chance to give the show a second shot. We really were trying to find new ground. There are some noble failures, but I think that there are a lot of successful episodes that told stories that hadn't been told, at least not in that particular way before. It's not an easy task, when you look at how much Star Trek there'd been before.
One of my least favourite things about being on staff was having to say no to a lot of really good freelance pitches, because there would be situations where pitches would really have a compelling premise, but they'd be a little too similar to something we had in the pipeline, or something we'd already done, or there'd been a moratorium on certain episodes. So there was a challenge, even if it was familiar ground, to have a new way of telling it. Sometimes there'd be a particular phrase that we'd kick around. The genesis of "Gravity" was the phrase, "emotion creates its own logic". We just chucked that around, saying, "What does that mean? What could that be?" And out of it came that episode.
It was a really wonderful experience to push new ground. It was such a wonderful mythology to play with. It's just unfortunate that television is such a hungry beast, and that you have to feed it a new episode every couple of weeks, and you can't have actors on sets standing around costing you thousands of dollars. The greatest luxury is time, and I think we did a pretty good job considering the time constraints.
Trek Nation: You wrote "In the Flesh" and "Gravity", which actually centred around two of the series's most neglected characters, Chakotay and Tuvok; I think "Gravity" might have been Tuvok's last big episode until season seven. While you were on staff was there a desire to bring characters like Chakotay, Tuvok and Ensign Kim, who hadn't been given as much screentime as Janeway or Seven, more to the forefront?
Nick Sagan: There was definitely that mindset, especially at the very beginning of the season, with "Timeless" and Harry Kim, which gave him an opportunity to shine. And also for Robert [Beltran] and Tim [Russ], because they're both great actors, and were itching to do meaty episodes.
There are certain characters that lent themselves to certain types of stories that Brannon wanted to tell. I think Janeway, Seven of Nine and the Doctor got the majority of those stories there, and part of that was because they just sort of fit with the stories we wanted to tell and sometimes it was just the luck of the draw. We certainly tried to find stories for the others, since there's something nice about giving everyone the chance to shine, but it didn't always work out the way we hoped.
Trek Nation: "In the Flesh" was a very interesting episode, because it saw the return of one of my favourite alien species, Species 8472. When they were introduced in "Scorpion", I thought "Wow!" They were really different from traditional Trek forehead aliens...
Nick Sagan: No funny ears and that sort of thing...
Trek Nation: Exactly. We saw them in season four and then in "In The Flesh" as well, where we had the sort of peace treaty between Voyager and 8472. How did this come about, the peace treaty, détente idea?
Nick Sagan: It's interesting. There's so much I could say about this. The original idea was something quite different. It was an idea that they found a picture in some database of an 8472 in an ancient Earth culture, and it was that some of our legends of demons and devils were from 8472. That was sort of the initial way we got into it. It was kind of tricky, having Voyager on the opposite side of the galaxy from home. What are those guys doing with Earth? How does that fit together?
We went at it hammer and tongs for a while and we couldn't find anything that we all liked, so I was able to try and reinvent it. So here 8472 are, and they're clearly very threatened by and obsessed with us — we certainly dealt them a great blow — and here they are trying to have revenge on us. So I took the idea of paranoia, and that these things don't understand what it is to be human, and I took the idea of Cold War fears, especially the way my dad tried to play a role in détente.
The original idea didn't end quite so "happy happy". The so-called neutering of 8472 wasn't supposed to happen (laughs). I think they're great villains, and the original story as I envisioned it had just kind of a moment of realisation of "maybe we're not so different", the hint that there could be some possibilities. But then reinforcements arrive, and Voyager has to escape, and who knows if we've actually done something good there. But once we got involved, I think Brannon actually wanted to resolve it.
Another factor had to be the incredible amount of money than 8472 cost to put on the screen. I remember going to a production meeting, and the original "In The Flesh" had a lot of great, amazing special effects, including a dream sequence of 8472 just razing Janeway's home town on Earth, which would have been really cool. But you just sit around at the table and people go through and talk about how much money it will cost, and I was sitting right next to Brannon and he'd go, "Okay, scratch that off the list!" Even so I think it's a very cool looking episode with 8472 morphing on the table and such.
Trek Nation: I think that's what many people don't realise. They say, "Oh wouldn't it be cool if they did that or this?", but you're producing a television show, and there's always a lot of compromise when you're doing that.
Nick Sagan: Yeah, and every time you do a special effects bonanza, you're taking money that has to go to other episodes. So you want shows to come in on time and under budget — they call them bottle shows.
Trek Nation: After "In the Flesh", did you or the staff ever think of bringing back 8472 during season five?
Nick Sagan: We talked about it. I remember there were a lot of cool aliens that we talked about bringing back. 8472 was one, I remember Bryan [Fuller] and I wanted to bring back the Vidiians...
Trek Nation: I think the Vidiians and 8472 are certainly some of the most original aliens that Voyager created. They really did the series credit because it was in the Delta Quadrant and you wanted it to have a different feeling from The Next Generation.
Nick Sagan: I think you're absolutely right, and I think the challenge is to keep it very different from the shows that have been before. I think both of those aliens were able to achieve that.
I will say one more thing about "In the Flesh". I believe that Valerie Archer is in some way a connection to Captain Archer on Enterprise. I really wanted to name the character Archer as a homage to Dave Bowman of 2001 and to my father's character Ellie Arroway [from Contact]. You put bow and arrow together and you get Archer.
In part two of this series, to be published next Monday, Nick Sagan talks about the controversial "Course: Oblivion", life on the Voyager writing staff, his debut novel Idlewild, meeting Isaac Asimov at the age of three and much, much more!
Then, in two weeks time, Nick Sagan answers your questions about everything from making it as a writer to what he'd do for the next Star Trek feature film.
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Caillan Davenport is one of the TrekToday editors.