In my half-dozen years at Entertainment Weekly, I have never received an object as deliciously deep-dish geeky as David A. Goodman’s Federation: The First 150 Years. (Sorry, two-volume, 12 pound graphic novelization of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. You had a really good run there.)
As any Trekkie has likely ascertained already, Federation (out now) is a history of Star Trek‘s United Federation of Planets — the grand interstellar organization at the heart of Gene Roddenberry’s wagon train to the stars — written as if it really happened, from life on a war-ravaged Earth in the 1990s through the death of James T. Kirk. The book comes with translated historical documents, rare archival artifacts, and a light-up pedestal that features the voice of George Takei as Admiral Hikaru Sulu, commander-and-chief of Starfleet, introducing the reader to the tome before them.
Like I said: Deep. Dish. Geeky.
So who better to write it than a deep-dish geek? Yet at first, Goodman doesn’t quite seem like he’d fit that description. True, he was on the writing staff of Star Trek: Enterprise for two seasons, and scripted four episodes of the show. But he’s been working in TV comedy much longer, from his first stint writing on The Golden Girls in 1989, to penning episodes of comedies like Wings, Dream On, and Futurama. Most recently, he’s been living on Planet MacFarlane as an exec producer for over 100 episodes of Family Guy; his new series, the animated Murder Police, just got a 13-episode order from Fox. In fact, meeting him in person, if Goodman embodies any stereotype, it’s that of an overworked showrunner who’s spent too much time trapped in the writers room: Perpetual stubble, weary countenance, but always ready with a genuinely funny quip.
He’s the first to admit that he’s never written anything close to what he had to pull together for Federation: The First 150 Years. “Honestly, I don’t know why I got the job,” he says. “I mean, I was thrilled to get the call. But all the way through, I’m like, ‘You guys know I’ve never written a book, right?’ I’ve never actually written anything that didn’t start with, ‘Fade in.’ Mostly, I write fart jokes.”
After Goodman was approached last year by CBS Studios to put together a history of the Federation — they specifically wanted a TV writer, someone who could easily shift between the different voices needed to make the book work — he had just three months to pull it all together. “My wife is not a fan of this book, because it ruined a couple vacations,” he chuckles.
So how was he able to marshall all the necessary research of old Star Trek episodes to get the book done on time?
“I had to do almost no research to write this book,” he says, with only a slight sheepish grin. “I’ve been doing research for this book since junior high school. I cannot stop watching Star Trek. I watch all the series. I watch them over and over.”
Aha. Suddenly, hiring Goodman sounds highly logical.
That isn’t to say the job wasn’t a challenge. If anything, says Goodman, Federation: The First 150 Years could have been even geekier. “There’s stuff that I discarded, ‘cause I couldn’t make it work with the narrative,” he says. It turns out, the Federation was a wild and wooly place in its first sesquicentenary. Here’s how Goodman, in his own words, was able to bring it all together.
NEXT PAGE: Justifying the Eugenics Wars, how J.J. Abrams helped decide where James T. Kirk was born
FILLING IN THE GAPS
The most common problem Goodman encountered was attempting to justify a specific episode’s wild plotline.
There was a lot of stuff like that where an [episode] writer does something, and it worked for the drama of a one-hour television show. Nobody’s going to ask a question about it. But you try to make it make sense as part of a history book, and you can’t. It just won’t.
There’s a section in the book that deals with this famine on a planet that’s referencing an old series episode [“The Conscience of the King”]. And I thought, oh, this’ll be an interesting piece of history. Then I examined the specifics about what they say in that episode, and it makes no sense at all. They’re talking about this guy who’s the governor of a planet, and only nine people know what he looks like, because in that episode, it had to be a mystery, and those nine people have all been killed.
So now there’s two people left who know what he looks like. But he was governor of the planet. How is it that only nine people knew what he looked like? But it was like you had this writer back in 1967, this freelance writer, who’s building his mystery, and he throws in this sort of Hitler backstory. He doesn’t have to worry about the fact that I got to write this book now [laughs], and make that make sense from a historical perspective.
WORLD WAR III
One of the biggest continuity problems in the entire Trek mythology are the “Eugenics Wars,” in which a race of genetically engineered supermen — including iconic Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh — take over the world and perpetrate World War III. The whole mess, however, was supposed to have started roughly 20 years ago, in 1992. Hence the conundrum.
It’s a mess. There’s no consistency to what World War III is [in Trek mythology]. I lived through the 1990s. I know that Khan did not rule a quarter of the world in the 1990s. I was going to ignore it actually, and CBS said, absolutely not. You’ve got to talk about Khan ruling the world in the 1990s. And that to me made the book completely not real, ‘cause we all lived through [that time period]. So how do I cover that? I covered it with a footnote, which I am so proud of. It’s my favorite thing in the book. [Ed. note: Hint: It involves time travel.]
THE FORBIDDEN PLANET
Another strange bit of Trek lore was in a way introduced in the first, unaired pilot for Star Trek: “The Cage.” It was set on Talos IV, home to a race of telepaths so powerful, they could manipulate a captive mind to see and experience anything they wanted. The episode was repurposed in the two-part original series Star Trek episode “The Menagerie.”
The thing about “The Menagerie” is that they introduce this idea that there’s a death penalty for going to this planet. It’s the only death penalty left on [the Federation’s] books. You think about the Federation, this pinnacle of civilization, and this is the one death penalty? Going to this planet? And again, it’s the kind of thing that the writer writing the episode wants to create drama for the moment of like, oh, we can’t go there, we’ll get the death penalty.
But then you step back from the history of Star Trek, it’s ridiculous that there’s a death penalty for going to this planet. There has to be other ways to keep anyone from going to the planet, other than saying, “We will kill you.” I had a lot of trouble with that. I had to figure out a way to justify it. How you actually had to move that through the Federation Council? That was probably the hardest part of the book, figuring out a narrative that sounded like it made sense.
THE BIRTH OF JAMES T. KIRK, AND J.J. ABRAMS ‘TREK’ FILMS
Speaking of time-travel, because J.J. Abrams 2009 franchise reboot Star Trek trucked in an alternative timeline, Goodman steered clear of referencing its events. But he did take at least one element from it.
As a Star Trek fan, all Star Trek film is canon. You got to make all that make sense. J.J.’s alternate universe is not the universe of this book, except the opening. Before the Romulans come through that wormhole, the fact that Kirk’s parents are serving on the U.S.S. Kelvin, to me, that’s fact.
So that’s in this book. There would be some arguments about, “Was Kirk born in Iowa? Or is he from Iowa.” It’s never said anywhere in canon that he was born in Iowa. He says in Star Trek IV, “I’m from Iowa.” I’m from Los Angeles, but I wasn’t born here. You could tie yourself into knots and say, well, without the wormhole, [Kirk’s mother] was pregnant, and they got home to Earth, and she delivered the baby in Iowa. You could do that, but I feel like I don’t know why I need to tie myself up in knots. I like the idea that both his parents were on the Kelvin, he was born on the Kelvin, and then he was raised in Iowa. I think that’s better. It’s smoother. It’s simpler. And again, J.J. is the shepherd of Star Trek now. He said [Kirk was born in space], and I’m like, I’m all for it.
NEXT PAGE: Goodman’s favorite Trek episodes ever. PLUS: A painting from the book of all the different Enterprises that existed in the first 150 years of the Federation
Given Goodman’s exhaustive knowledge of all things Trek, I couldn’t resist asking him about his favorite Trek episodes from each of the five TV live-action series. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of his picks dealt in some way with Trek history.
Star Trek: The Original Series — “Mirror, Mirror”
When I was kid and I saw that episode, it was the first time I was presented with the idea of an alternative reality, and that blew my mind. I still love it. Kirk’s got his own whore living in his quarters. Spock is so cool with a beard. Everyone’s evil. You see the influences of alternate universes in pop culture, and it’s all from that episode. Obviously, it existed in science-fiction literature, but that Star Trek episode popularized an idea that has been used in comedies and dramas, movies, TV shows, and I love that. There was an episode of “The New Monkees,” I think, where they went to an alternate universe, and Davy Jones had a beard or something. You got to have the beard. That tells you you’re in an alternate universe.
Star Trek: The Next Generation — “Yesterday’s Enterprise”
I didn’t love the show in the beginning, but I grew to love it. Third season, I’m like, all right, they’re really hitting a stride here, this is great. I VCR’d every episode of Next Generation. That was before DVDs. That was before Netflix. That episode I must have watched five times the week it aired. I loved it so much. It’s like a little movie. That episode, more than any other episode of Next Generation, basically requires the audience to keep up. We are not stopping to explain anything for you from the minute that the reality changes. You better be keeping up. We’re not stopping. And I love that. I love that from a TV writer’s point of view, that idea that, you know what? You can trust the audience. This is a smart audience. They will keep up.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — “Trials and Tribble-ations”
I mean, how can you not love that episode? They went all-out. I felt like every line of dialogue, they’re referencing something for fans. Sisko at some point goes, “Storage compartments? Storage compartments?” And that’s a line that Kirk has in “The Trouble With Tribbles.” It’s clear the writers of that show are as geeky as I am. It works in the narrative of the episode, but they’re also like, pay attention, this is all for you.
Star Trek: Voyager — “Equinox, Part 1 & 2”
Some of the things that I enjoyed about the original series was the bad captain episode, the captain who got like crazy and did bad things, and Kirk had to get him in line or deal with him. I feel like that episode of Voyager did that very well. You had John Savage playing this captain of his ship, and he’d been trapped in the Delta Quadrant, and he started to do some very bad things. It harkened back to the original series, and it was a fun conflict to have.
Star Trek: Enterprise — “North Star”
It’s the one I wrote. [Laughs] I know it’s not the best episode of Enterprise. I think there’s certainly better written ones. We were doing all these episodes involving the Xindi, but they said also we should come up with a non-Xindi episode to do just in case the Xindi thing doesn’t work out. So I pitched this idea of a wagon train that’s been kidnapped from the 1880s, put on another planet, and the Enterprise now finds this western town. The idea being, let’s do a cowboy planet episode, just like they would do on the original series. [Exec. producer] Rick Berman heard the story and said, don’t change a word, no notes, go ahead, which is just great. And the execution, I just thought, was beautiful. This was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream, getting to do the cowboy planet episode of Star Trek. So that’s my favorite, but that’s because I have this personal involvement, contributing an episode that fans really don’t like, but I love it.