Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Last week’s Lost in Translation featured a discussion about fan adaptations, including a rationale on what works would get analyzed.  This week, a look at a Star Trek fan audio productions.

Radio serials were the forerunner of today’s TV series.  Families would gather around the radio and tune in favourite series.  In the Thirties, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen had his own, live, show that had a large audience.  Orson Welles had Mercury Theatre on the Air, the production that scared the US with War of the Worlds.  The key is to engage the audience’s imagination.  Unlike theatre before, movies concurrent with radio, and television afterwards, radio relies on just one sense, hearing.  The cast and crew have to create an immersive setting while just using audio.  Sound effects become key.  The more real the situation sounds, the more the audience buys in.  Creative use of sound can also create the mood desired.  Welles’ War of the Worlds has a memorable scene where one plaintive voice calls out over radio, “Is there anyone out there?” over and over while the background sounds fade out one by one as the Martian advance, leaving the audience in horror of what’s happening even if they don’t realize why*.

Even with television ubiquitous these days, radio plays still abound.  National Public Radio (NPR) adapted the original Star Wars trilogy into radio serials shortly after each movie was released.  BBC Radio 4 still airs radio dramas on Saturdays.  With the proliferation of portable devices capable of playing .mp3 files, from dedicated .mp3 players to cell phones to tablets, audio plays join music and audio books as something to listen to when the eyes are busy elsewhere.

Fan works, however, exist at the forbearance of the person or company owning the original material.  Fan fiction tends to get overlooked; unless the fanfic is notorious, a blind eye is usually turned.  There is also no barrier to entry when it comes to fan fiction; all that is needed is a means to write, available with all computers or even pen and paper.  Some rights holders encourage fan fiction, with limitations, because of the creativity the endeavor encourages.  With original visual works, like TV series and movies, the closer a fan work is to matching, the closer the work gets to being an infringement.  Full video also has expenses; while the cost of professional-quality recording and editing equipment has dropped, creating sets and costumes still have material costs.  If the fan production charged a fee for viewing, the work becomes a copyright and trademark infringement and corporate attack lawyers will have cease-and-desist orders issued before the first payment can be processed.  There are ways around, including donation in kind, where a fan can help by providing equipment, costumes, or props that are needed.

Audio works don’t have the range of expenses a video would.  Where a video would need props, sets**, and costumes, audio just needs the sound effects of those elements.  The actors don’t even need to be in the same city or even continent, thanks to the Internet and cloud storage.  Each actor just needs a good microphone and a way to record, which even the Windows operating system had since version 3.1.  The audio production, though, needs to use sound to build the sets, so details that get taken for granted by audiences, such as subtle creaks in an old castle or the rumble of a starship’s main drive through the hull, have to be added to help the listener create the image in his or her mind.  One wrong detail, even if it’s just getting a sequence of beeps on a starship’s viewscreen out of order, can break the suspension of disbelief and lose listeners.

Strength of writing is also important.  Getting the audio details correct does go towards satisfying an audience, but if characters aren’t acting as expected or the plot is dull, listeners won’t tune in.  Some original works, including Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, and Harry Potter, have settings broad enough that new stories can be created in them without ever interacting with the original characters.  In the case of Star Trek, a fan work could focus on the crew of a different starship, exploring different sectors at any point in the history of the setting.  The precedent already exists with Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise.  With Harry Potter, the novels already show a glimpse of a larger wizarding world; setting an audio series at a different wizard school isn’t farfetched.  There’s room to play, and that sort of room allows for creative interpretations.  Let’s take a look at a fan-made Star Trek audio series.

Starship Excelsior began its first season in 2007.  Set on board the Sovereign-class starship, the USS Excelsior, hull code NCC-2000C, the series is in its fourth season.  The main plot of the first three seasons picks up to dangling plot threads from Star Trek: The Next Generation and ties them together as the crew of the Excelsior investigates an anomaly that leads into dark revelations that threaten the survival of not just the Federation, but the entire galaxy.  The fourth season starts a new arc as the Excelsior begins an exploration mission, with a mixture of lighter and darker episodes, though some still harken back to the earlier episodes.

The cast of characters consists of the Starfleet officers assigned to the Excelsior.  The ship’s captain, Alcar Dovan, received the command after the previous commander, Rachel Cortez, died in action.  Dovin joined Starfleet to explore, not to engage in military action, but he has excelled at surviving in battles, something he has grown to hate.  His first officer, Alecz Lorhrok, is an unjoined Trill, chosen to be the exec by Dovan.  The by-the-book operations manager, Neeva, is an Orion, dealing with the difficulties of being one of the few of her people in Starfleet.  The chief of security, Asuka Yubari, was severely wounded in the special forces, moved to intelligence, then was assigned to the Excelsior.  The helmsman, Bev Rol, also served in intelligence, where he lost his idealism.  The ship’s surgeon, Doctor Melissa Sharp, wanted to be a researcher, away from patients, but found her career stalled as a result of her beliefs before signing up on the Excelsior.  The characters all have their own motivations, from Dr. Sharp’s opposition to military engagements to Rol’s atonement for past misdeeds.  They clash, they argue, they laugh, they are fully formed, brought to life by actors who could easily get into professional voice work if they so choose.

The writing of the series is tight and takes into account Trek canon.  As mentioned about, the major plot of the first three seasons centred around two dangling plot threads from Star Trek: The Next Generation, one involving the Borg.  The first three seasons are also one continuous story, as opposed to being episodic.  Missing an episode means missing plot and character developments.  The fourth season has more single-story episodes, but still has an arc to it.  Listeners can easily get attached to the characters and worry about their survival and success.  There are times when the writers’ fannish tendencies*** show up; Dovan’s exclamations owe a lot to Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars, with a nod to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld with a colour that Bolian vision can see that humans can’t.

The audio sets are also built well.  The sounds that are expected from a Starfleet vessel are all there, from the rumbling of the engines to the beeps of consoles and PADDs to the alarm klaxons.  Even if someone was just tuning into the middle of an episode, the effects would be enough to tell them where the story was set.  The result is a series that is very much Star Trek, though in the darker realms of the franchise.

Of special note, Starship Excelsior ran a Kickstarter campaign to create an episode for the fiftieth anniversary of /Star Trek/’s first airing.  The campaign was more than successful, letting them rent a proper recording studio and fly their audio engineer in from Toronto.  More than that, the success allowed the series get Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Walter Koenig (Chekov), Robin Curtis (Saavik, The Search for Spock), Joanne Linville (the Romulan Commander in “The Enterprise Incident”), and Jack Donner (Subcommander Tal, “The Enterprise Incident”) to reprise their original characters in a new story that still ties into the Starship Excelsior storyline.  “Tomorrow’s Excelsior” is a one hour, forty minute story where Uhura and Chekov must save Starfleet, the Federation, the galaxy, and the future while avoiding war with the Romulans, with a solution that fits well with their characters.  The series took care in emphasizing in the Kickstarter campaign that all money raised would be put into the production of the episode, with the main costs being getting the actors they wanted.  The episode is available for free from Starship Excelsior‘s website.

* Creative use of sound continues even today.  Alien, a science fiction horror movie, removed background music, leaving the audience no cues on what was about to happen.
** Even with green screening and CGI available, some physical elements are still needed, if only to give the actors something to play off.
*** To be fair, even professional works will have this sort of thing.  The Serenity from Firefly had a cameo in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, appearing overhead on Caprica.

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