Monday, June 30, 2008


We were talking in class this morning about writing and authority.

The instructor brought up a recently aired episode of Doctor Who that was written by a fan. She thought that was really cool, and I agree wholeheartedly.

It's a fairly rare thing in this day and age, too. But it didn't used to be.

I was talking with Dev about this on Sunday, too.

See, time was, television shows took what are called "unsolicited manuscripts" all the time. I know this because Star Trek: The Next Generation used to do so. Anyone could write a script, and send it in through a literary agent (or, if tenacious enough, mail it directly to the office in hopes that they might take pity on you and read the script). Hence the name: the producers didn't ask you to send in the script, you just did it.

So any show would have 1 to 3 writers that were responsible for polishing any material (solicited or otherwise) into their "style." Usually, one of the executive producers was one of those writers. So if person X in Montana sent in a script they'd thought up all by themselves through their literary agent or just cold mailed it, it would either be approved or not. Then, if approved, one of the staff writers would "take a pass" on the material, meaning they would edit it to fit better with the overall style of the show.

This is where you get so many of the older shows with stand alone episodes (X-Files is famous for the dichotomy from "mythology" episodes, written solely by the show's writers, and stand alones that were often unsolicited manuscripts). And you can always tell when show is like that--there will be episodes that don't seem to fit together smoothly. The main characters don't seem to grow any, because that was the overarching rule of sending in an unsolicited manuscript: any characters you made up can grow and change all you want, but in the end, the main characters have to return to the status quo. After all, they aren't your toys you're playing with; you're just borrowing.

In fact, I found that most fans of older shows divide into those two camps: those who like stand alone episodes versus those who like the mythology episodes. X-Files certainly breaks along those lines: Larry and I both like the show, but he likes the stand alones, and I like the mythology. And the great thing is that the show is big enough to encompass both sensibilities.

All of this used to be covered in a document produced for each show called a "bible" (I'm not kidding; that's what it was called) for each season. In that "bible" for the show, you'd find information about the characters, and the over arching story-arcs that the producers intended for the show that season. You could buy them cheaply from the offices of the show or pick them up at conventions if you went to them. I read more than one show's "bible" and they all read the same, for the most part.

Then something happened. I tend to think it was the post 9-11 desire for control, but I could be way off, there.

For some reason, right around 2002 or so, shows stopped taking unsolicited material.

Right around then, too, the size of the "bullpen" increased. So there could be anywhere from 4 to 20 staff writers for a show, each working on an assigned story that was dreampt up by the executive producers. They finish the script and then send it to one of the head writers. They take a pass in order to get the material up to snuff, and then hand it over to a director (if that director wasn't already part of the process by virtue of being an exec. producer themselves, or a line producer, "show runner" etc.).

Now, most shows are all "mythology." There is no deviation between characters, and the action never breaks. For the most part, shows continue from the plot point of the last episode to the first plot point of the new episode seamlessly. If not, then the change is done for effect of some sort. Think about the difference between episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: The Next Generation. When Adama is shot by an 8, we get three or four episodes of him dealing with the injury; when Picard was assimilated and brought back, he was fine the next episode basically (even though the incident basically codes as a rape/brainwashing). We didn't see him really deal with it until years later, and even then in a film.

There are pros and cons to both approaches, I think.

I know about this stuff because at one time I in fact did write a script and tried to get an agent to send it in. I was really young, though, and I got discouraged with the editing process very easily (I had asked a photography teacher at my school to help out and he was much more demanding of the material than I intended to be, so the pairing kind of fell apart quickly). I was thinking all this stuff because it really is powerful and important that Doctor Who, which is such a culture powerhouse that it doesn't have to take any unsolicited material at all, in fact did take a script written by a fan.

I think that understanding this shift in the production writing of television can also tell us a great deal about why "fan shows" (especially Star Trek: Hidden Frontier and others) that have become important spaces for those who aren't in the industry to not only show their appreciation, but also to show their own talent. These sites create a conversation where only a monologue was possible before.

I wonder if there's something composition-y I can get out of all of that?

1 comment:

Beth said...

That IS really fascinating. I'm dealing a bit in one of my chapters with the authority of the author and I like the idea of a collaborative effort. Even though, as you say, the fan writers are "borrowing" the characters, it gives them a sense of ownership. I also find it interesting that the shows you mention are sci-fi. I know that's your area of interest, but I'm wondering if that's not somehow the key, if indeed it was mostly sci-fi shows that took manuscripts. What is it about that genre that fosters/encourages collaboration and ownership of characters/storylines?