Around the World With Star Trek: Future Perfect

by Michelle Erica Green

Before Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth, Jeff Greenwald's previous books were about traveling in Asia and circumnavigating the globe the old-fashioned way. But no matter where he went, he discovered a common theme: people watched Star Trek. In ex-Communist countries, in Japan and Germany and India, in English pubs and American universities...even in Tibet, Greenwald had heard, the Dalai Lama watched Star Trek. So he set off around the globe one more time, to figure out why the show he has loved for decades retains such global appeal.

While articles had been written previously about the international following, no one with Greenwald's level of access to the producers had ever tackled the myth from both the inside and the outside. The writer had met writer/producer Brannon Braga while working on an article for Details magazine about Star Trek: First Contact, and Voyager co-creator Jeri Taylor was a fan of Greenwald's book The Size of the World. Future Perfect is thus partly an unofficial look at the making of Star Trek: First Contact, partly an ethnographic study of Trekkers, partly a look at how Star Trek has shaped the space program and vice versa...and partly an account of Greenwald's own encounters with the series which has been a part of his life for three decades.

The book alternates chapters about the production of Trek - including interviews with Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Ron Moore, and numerous other luminaries - with interviews and stories about fans, some of whom are also scientists, amateur rocket enthusiasts, or famous speculative fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Kurt Vonnegut. Taking as his starting point the idea that Trek's global appeal must mean something - in a few centuries, he joked, we might agree on what - he asked everyone from German Klingons at a Qet'lop to lovestruck Italians who revere Galileo as a rebel against the Church.

The answers Greenwald got varied widely not just by culture, but among individuals, though themes like optimism and reconciliation recurred frequently. Among the researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and amateur rocketeers like Steve Bennett of Britain, the series symbolizes the hope that technology will triumph over fear of change - that humankind will get Out There and all nations will benefit. Among Hungarians, it's a glimpse of a future where everyone is an insider, even people from places that are slow to catch up with the rest of the galaxy. For Gates McFadden, it's a morality play about the need to balance ethics with scientific progress; for Michael Dorn, it's purely entertainment, a sentiment that Ron Moore would like to echo on days when the responsibility for creating a quasi-religion gets to be too much.

Greenwald did interview the Dalai Lama for Future Perfect, an event which he described to Mania as "one of the great experiences not only of writing the book but of my life." While admittedly embarrassed about asking such questions as whether the spiritual leader could imagine himself being cloned and whether Star Trek's vision of the future resembles the ideal realm of the Buddhist future known as Shambhala, the writer got frank, sensible replies to most of his well as bouts of laughter from the monks. The Dalai Lama apparently accepts Data as a sentient being, but finds it ironic that Trek's ideal future contains so many weapons. Most interestingly, His Holiness is not disturbed by internet addiction: "'One aspect of buddha-hood is omniscience, so the gathering of information is neither good nor bad. So long as no harm to others, then I think, OK!"

Ironically, Greenwald had an easier time getting to the Dalai Lama than to the First Contact sets at Paramount. "I can't overstate how difficult it was and how much manipulation it took to get that kind of access. I went in under the cover of various magazine stories I was doing. I have to hasten to say that no other writer as far as I know who was not connected with Paramount has gotten the kind of access I have - that's the kind of thing that I'm proud of, but on the other hand I always feel as a writer that I could have gone deeper. And yet it was very tricky, I always felt like I was about to be thrown off the lot." Greenwald's controversial interview with Braga for Details magazine got the producer into hot water with the studio, but at that point, Greenwald had hours of taped interviews, and he and Braga had become close.

"I made the worst mistake a writer can make, which is I genuinely became friends with some of the people I was working with in my two years there, including Brannon Braga and Jeri Taylor - I didn't want to endanger their careers by writing some of the things they said, but believe me, what I published in that book is nothing compared to the information I have," admitted the author. "I'm not the kind of writer who goes out and trashes people. I wanted to write a book about Star Trek and popular culture, not about how much back-biting or political stuff goes on."

While Taylor wrote the effusive jacket blurb and Braga called Greenwald to congratulate him on the book, Greenwald neither sought nor received sanctioning from the official entities involved in producing Star Trek. "I didn't want to write a book that was under the eye of Paramount, I wanted to talk about things that Paramount didn't necessarily want me to talk about," he explained from his home in northern California (though he spends much of his time in Kathmandu). There are no tell-all revelations about the cast or crew, no secret accounts of events on the sets, but the book does include a pretty graphic description of an orgiastic party at Braga's house, and an interview with Kate Mulgrew where the author and the actress finish off a bottle of vodka while sitting beside her swimming pool. "These are not things they would have allowed me to publish," he said of Pocket Books, which publishes all sanctioned Trek books. "There are things that I wanted to be able to write about and not have to fear some kind of censor."

The book does emphasize Braga's image as an overgrown adolescent who talks about kinky sex every other sentence, even during pitch sessions for Voyager. "I think he's an agent provocateur in some respects," Greenwald noted. "There is no concealing or faking his brilliance - whether or not you like the episodes Brannon has written - coming up with all these episodes every year, writing them, going over the dialogue, going over other people's scripts, correcting them, listening to pitches, dealing with production." Now that he's in charge of Voyager, Braga reportedly spends 80 hours a week writing.

"Whether or not he kind of goes off the extreme and kind of lives in this fantasy world about himself, a legend in his own may be true, I haven't seen him actually do a lot of stuff that I found to be over the edge," added Greenwald, who often stays at Braga's house while he's in Los Angeles. "He collects pornography, he's got some pretty raunchy art, but his girlfriends have all been women I could talk to. Not a bunch of harlots. He doesn't have time for a girlfriend anyway since he became executive producer of Voyager, he works incredibly hard. I love Brannon. I feel as if he's almost a younger brother to me in some ways. And yet I have to roll my eyes - he's kind of incorrigible."

Taylor, whom Greenwald feels closer to than any of the other producers, shared Greenwald's concern that there may be a Trek glut at present, at least in the United States. "Jeri basically said the series is going to choke on its own bile. As she said to me, the greed of the studio is so extreme that they will just choke the phenomena to death." He was privy to gossip about the long-rumored Starfleet Academy series and sat in on some of the hundreds of pitches Braga takes in a season - as well as having pitched some himself.

"I have great affection for this series, and getting a credit on the screen is like the grail," confessed Greenwald, who understands why so many of the current writers make it a point of pride that they were not fans of the original series. "Let's say that you were a travel writer who was sent to San Francisco to do a different image for the city. You might make it a point of pride that you had never ridden on a cable car. That's the old view of San Francisco, you want to do something new. It's a different way to allow your creative juices to flow without knocking up against what people have done before."

He envisions the audience for Future Perfect as "anyone who really admires Star Trek as a popular phenomenon. Let me put it this way: I think that anyone who feels, as I do, that the space program promised us something it didn't deliver, is an audience for my book," a theme shared by Constance Penley's recent text NASA/Trek, which hypothesizes that after the Apollo program and again after the Challenger explosion, Trek became sort of surrogate space program. "I feel that anyone who has watched even a few episodes of Star Trek and understands how much we take for granted that vision of the future is an audience for my book," continues Greenwald. "And I think that anyone who's interested in travel, or how people in foreign countries look at American popular culture, is an audience for my book."

Greenwald was aware that the show had a large following all over the globe from traveling and writing his first three books, but was floored to discover that there was an organized Hungarian fan club and that Germans enact Klingon weddings. Future Perfect contains marginalia reflecting Trek's widespread cultural influence, from a newspaper article on Mae Jemison's admiration for Nichelle Nichols to a Camille Paglia column admiring Jeri Ryan's sexuality, from an internet joke comparing Kirk's and Picard's assets to a Pablo Neruda poem deploring the desire to change planets implied by the yearning for space travel. "I was amazed by the scope," he noted.

A contributing editor at Wired magazine, Greenwald had written a number of stories about technoculture in other countries, but found stepping onto the bridge set for the new Enterprise to be an experience unto itself. "I feel very much like Brannon and Ron when they were standing on the starship," he said, recalling that even the show's creators were awed by the illusion of the reality of that vision. "With Future Perfect, I wanted to see if I could sneak into this hermetically sealed world and find out what makes it tick from the inside out, and then come at it from the outside in and look at the impact that it's having. In a way it's almost like politics - you have these guys sealed in the White House and the Capitol, yet people in the most remote bars are affected by what they do. I wanted to do something that contrasted the core of people who were creating it with the people who were being affected by it, even though there's such a huge gulf between them."

Even so, Greenwald does not tend to favor the canonical production of Trek over the fan embellishments. His book covers the Klingon Language Institute - founded by a fan with a degree in linguistics, which treats the writer of The Official Klingon Dictionary as a god of sorts, yet operates outside Paramount sanctioning - and explores Page's Bar in London - also unsanctioned, but housing a huge replica of the Enterprise and selling all manner of Trek-related merchandise like a permanent convention exhibit.

"I think one of the points I try to make in my book is that, as many communities as there are that watch Star Trek together, so many myths there are. The Japanese sense of what Star Trek is and what it means is completely different from what the Hungarians perceive it as, or even what the Brits perceive it as, and then there's what the slash culture perceives, and then there's what the guys going to the conventions dressed in their spandex perceive," he observed. His book contains an anecdote about his embarrassment at a convention by a melodramatic video about Worf which made the woman next to him weep, but Greenwald cried over the Next Generation episode "The Inner Light," a confession which stymies Indian fans who admire Spock's stoic behavior. "I've been outraged, I've been moved to tears, I've been bored to tears, and I've been sort of interested in it in a completely cold and academic way - I've had many relationships with Star Trek over the years," the writer said, pointing out that culturally, the show has had much the same effect on people. "It will very seriously inform how we do go to the stars when we do. I do separate the Star Trek myth which is valuable and will continue to be an inspiration in our collective unconscious, and the money-making show that the greedy moguls are pushing on us."

Greenwald had moments when he felt the whole thing was taken too seriously, particularly when Rick Berman snatched a copy of the First Contact script out of Greenwald's hands and berated Braga for letting him see it. "The Enterprise set is a kind of mecca for science fiction fans - a mecca that really is as difficult to access as Mecca in Arabia!" he laughed. Still, meeting Leonard Nimoy was "a dream come true" for him, as much as meeting Kurt Vonnegut, with whom Greenwald had "a rather bizarre conversation" during which the curmudgeonly legend expressed skepticism about the value not only of the series, but technology itself. A full-time writer since 1983, Greenwald took his first long trip to Asia on a fellowship to write a novel which never materialized, though he did write Mr. Raja's Neighborhood, a series of essays about Nepal. He already knew he would be a writer when he graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1977, but Greenwald did not know until his first trip to Asia that the region would become a mecca of sorts for him.

"I took the trip first in 1979, and then continually for the next nineteen years; I didn't know how deeply and completely my life would be changed by that experience. I felt at home there, it was something in the air and in the's often said that people exude pheremones to make them attractive to each other, and in some ways I think places have a similar kind of radiance. From the moment I stepped off the plane there, I felt like I had arrived at my spiritual ground that I didn't even realize had existed until I found it."

"The Inner Light" had a tremendous impact on him "because it really seemed to bridge a kind of Eastern-Western philosophy gap." The episode followed the Buddhist teaching that life is an illusion, yet people believe it is completely real. "That moment when Jean-Luc Picard is explaining to his wife why he's still combing the sky after five years, and she says, 'You're still looking for your ship, aren't you,' and he says, 'It was as real as this is,' that line just gave me goosebumps all over my body. It was as real as this is. He says this from the point of view of being clearly in an illusion, and something in there really resonated for me. I think the thing that resonated was maybe the thing that resonated when I first arrived in Nepal: a sense of how illusory life is, and how deep you can go into that realization."

In Future Perfect, Greenwald ponders the question of whether a creation myth can be written by a committee. "But it's a committee that knows they're writing a myth," he added. "Did the people that wrote the Greek myths know that they were writing myths, or were they just telling stories? The people who now write the Star Trek stories know that they are creating a myth. It's a very unique kind of myth, kind of like popular music: it used to be cheap and performed for people, and then Bill Graham took over and it became this huge corporate enterprise. I think it's part of parcel of the world we live in, I think we get the kind of myths we deserve. Good mythmakers are going to copyright stories now, but the myth is created as much by the fans as the producers - it's just that a lot more people see the official version."

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