Interview: James Heaney of Star Trek: Excelsior, Part 2

Last night, I posted the first part of this interview with James Heaney, writer and producer of the Star Trek: Excelsior audio drama. Part 1 talked about the origins and development of the story, what makes a Star Trek show really Star Trek, TNG Borg as distinct from later Borg, and the show’s timeline. Here in Part 2, we continue discussion of the timeline, the Kickstarter to bring Uhura and Chekov to commandeer the show for the episode, and a brief diversion into the card game.

Please consider listening to the Excelsior audio drama (starting with Season 4), letting your Treknophile friends know about it, and contributing to the Kickstarter. I pledged towards it today (and no, I’m not just saying that), and look forward to reading some of the drafts that James talks about a bit further down.

So here we go, Part 2.

The Limey Frog (TLF): To what extent has the departure from the RPG changed the timeline?

James Heaney (JH): One plus was that the timeline did not really have to be revised as we gradually broke away from the RPG. The RPG relied, canonically, on comic-book time, in large part to keep our game clock synchronized with the Bravo Fleet overall clock. Every time we started a new mission, we would advance the clock to the current date, regardless of whether in-game time had actually passed. So, if we ended a mission on 22 January 2383 (in-game), but the out-of-character date was now 12 April 2007 (which meant the in-game fleet clock was now 12 April 2383), we would literally write a post saying, “Today’s in-game time is 12 April 2383. Yesterday was 22 January 2383. In-game, only one day has passed; February and March simply did not happen, and your characters do not find this in any way odd.”

For a roleplaying game operating within a larger fleet, this demi-coherent system made a lot of sense. (It also made it a rare and special treat when a character actually celebrated a birthday!) But it was a completely incoherent, inconsistent basis for an audio drama, especially one that depended so much on interconnected continuity. So, the dates and stardates from the RPG were all thrown out very early — one of our first divergences from the RPG canon.

This led to interesting consequences of its own. For example, the pilot episode takes place on 7 December 2382. The season three finale takes place at 0400 hours on 25 January 2383. Those episodes were released in 2007 and 2013, respectively. So we spent 6 years of real time telling a story that took place over just 6 weeks of in-universe time.

Since Season 4 is much more episodic, there’s been more room to let the timeline flow, and it’s gradually making up for some of that lost time.

TLF: I haven’t asked you about the story you’re Kickstarting, yet. You wanted to do something for the 50th Anniversary, could you say something about other ideas you had, and how you settled on the Uhura/Chekov story?

JH: I can’t talk too much about this, because one of the backer rewards gives backers access to all our old drafts for this episode.

About all I can say is this: we started out with a story that is completely unrecognizable as this story; it shared nothing with the current story besides the MacGuffin, included neither Chekov NOR Uhura, and the plot (such as it was) followed a completely different chain of events. We never actually threw out that story, but we incrementally changed each element of it across a series of aborted drafts and outlines until we finally got the product we have today.

And Nichelle and Walter may yet request further changes to the script we have (right now, I am informed, they’re both working on notes), so I can’t even say for certain that this transformative process has come to an end yet. It’s funny how you can start out thinking you’re building a submarine, then at the end discover you actually build a lunar lander.

TLF: And could you say something about making your characters take a back seat? Was it harder to write because of this, did it cause backstage tensions? Have your cast even seen the script?

JH: Even if they weren’t so awesome, from their perspective, this is still a big opportunity for them: they’re going to get to be “on-screen” with one or two (hopefully two!) legendary actors, in reduced but still prominent supporting roles. So they’re very happy to be involved in this, and to my knowledge they’re all completely embracing it. Several have seen the script; several others have not, and probably won’t until it is absolutely locked-in.

From a writing perspective, pushing the main cast to the back was the biggest breakthrough of the entire script process. Trying to treat Walter and Nichelle as mere guest stars didn’t give them enough of a spotlight, when they are really the primary attraction, and the people we are most celebrating on the 50th Anniversary. Every time the main cast showed up and made a major decision, it felt like they were distracting from the story the script actually wanted to be telling. There were too many cooks.

Think of the Doctor Who episode “Blink.” Consider the story that script is telling — about how empty Sally Sparrow’s life is (both metaphorically and, thanks to the angels, increasingly literally), and then how she manages to survive and start living again. For the vast majority of the episode, the Doctor and Martha exist only on a television screen, speaking what appears to be gibberish. Now imagine that the writers hadn’t pushed the main cast into the background of that episode. Could they have done it? Sure — the Doctor and Martha would have helped Sally solve the mystery of the angels, there would have been some fun running bits, a touch of timey-wimey… but the story wouldn’t have been about Sally Sparrow anymore. It’d be a Doctor-and-Martha story, and Sally Sparrow would lose most of her agency, becoming nothing more than Doctor Who Damsel in Distress #3247, and nobody would really remember “Blink” all that well today. Sally had to be the star, and that meant the other mains had to be sent somewhere where they couldn’t have much direct influence over events.

That was at least 100x truer here than in “Blink”, so the script just didn’t work until the main cast got pushed out of the spotlight.

TLF: It seems like you’re almost contractually obliged, at this point, to answer this question “TOS”, but what’s your favourite Trek series?

JH: I love them all, of course, and it’s very hard to pick a favorite.

If forced, I think I’d probably pick the last two seasons of ENTERPRISE — a vastly underrated show. (Understandably, because its first two seasons were barely better than the catastrophic TNG Season 1.)

TLF: Could you talk a bit about the process of contacting Nichols and Koenig, how all that went down?

JH: It was more straightforward than we expected. We wrote to an appearances agent they both share, the wonderful Zachary McGinnis of Galactic Productions, LLC. We explained what we were doing and why (which was tricky — “What’s an audio drama?”, etc.), we talked budget and time commitment, they quoted a fee, and we committed to making that fee. They spent a couple more weeks with the script to consider it — some of the most agonizing days of my life.

Then, last Wednesday, Zach sent me an email saying, “Both are in agreement to participate… let me know when the Kickstarter goes live.”

It helps that Zach is pretty wonderful. I can’t imagine this is netting him very much money, yet he has always made time for our project in his extremely busy schedule, and he has been friendly and accommodating throughout — despite the fact that I am deeply inexperienced in the ways of Hollywood, incredibly anxious, and occasionally an outright pest. I have spoken to a very few other agents in my life, but none has been as consistently supportive as Zach.

So, really, a simple process.

Making it run smoothly, though, even working with a great agent, involved an enormous amount of overhead on our side. Months of planning for a ton of contingencies. Months of whittling our budget down as low as it could go, and working out flexibility in the budget depending on the actors’ availability and preferences. Trapdoors for the script in case one or more actors couldn’t join the adventure. I had to do three timed readthroughs of the script to answer the question, “What is the absolute minimum amount of studio time we need to record each of these actors?” (Because time = money!)

And then lots of behind-the-scenes work figuring out, “Okay, how much money do we have on hand? How much money do we therefore need to ask for? How do we tier it — in the catastrophic event that we can pay for only one actor, who gets dropped? What rewards will we use? Caitlin, can you make this video? Cab you do it in the next six hours? How do we promote this Kickstarter? Do we need to release an episode with it? Jim, can you finish ‘Day at the Park’ six weeks early, on three days’ notice?” On and on and on and on. For months.

TLF: As we get to the end of this interview, I must ask a couple of questions about our shared hobby, the card game. As an aside to the readers, I’ll say that the game strives to give you the tools to do the kind of things you see in the shows (TOS to Enterprise) and the movies (The Motion Picture to Nemesis). Of course, that many tools can combine in some pretty crazy ways. Nuking whales from orbit is a legitimate (if little-used) strategy. I heard tell of a deck someone did for fun, that left Amanda Grayson (Spock’s mother) on Vulcan, to be destroyed by a Black Hole, recreating the story from the 2009 movie, but with cards from the other shows and movies.

If hearing about that kind of thing isn’t your kind of thing, skip the next couple of questions.

TLF: So, James, say something crazy you saw happen in a game of 1e.

JH: One time, I was playing a personnel battle deck. First and last time I’ve ever done that, in fact. I believe the deck was called “Civil Defense (Or: God Bless the Second Amendment)”, and the gimmick was DS9 Cardassians with Weapons Locker. The draw deck was 52 cards, of which 26 were Cardassian Disruptor Rifle.

This is not the crazy part.

In my game against Matt Hayes that day, Matt had an Original Series Federation solver deck all ready and raring to go. But he figured out very quickly what I was up to, and (noticing that I had no Ref deck) stopped playing any personnel. Instead, he just drew cards… every turn… for a long, long time. And I had no one to battle, so I just played more and more guns and gradually solved some missions.

Eventually, he decides it’s too dangerous to stay frozen like this, so he burns his Space-Time Portal and plays 17 personnel with his Starship Enterprise. (I can’t hit him with It’s Only A Game because, again, no Ref deck.) The whole megateam goes out and promptly solves a mission.

Next turn, my Cardassian Division of Punching arrives aboard the Stolen Attack Ship. We beam through his shields and initiate battle.

The crazy moment is the look on Matt’s face when I counted up all the disruptor rifles in that away team, then announced, “Okay, all my personnel are STRENGTH +36. How about yours?”

We captured or mortally wounded every single person on that ship. Including Ruk, which I’m rather proud of.

TLF: Hahaha, that’s something! Say something crazy you’re looking forward to trying in a game of 1e.

JH: I have a Reshape the Quadrant deck that seeds nothing but missions worth 45 points or more, including Diplomatic Conference (which it needs to solve). I would love to play it. Haven’t quite been able to make it gel, though.

TLF: Are there any questions which I haven’t asked, but you want to be asked?

JH: Nah, that was fun!

TLF: Thank you very much for your time, I had a lot of fun reading all your answers. All the best with the Kickstarter!

If you want to support the project, follow the link to the Kickstarter campaign. If you don’t, I’m sure he’ll still be happy if you followed the link and donated anyway, but no-one will put a phaser to your head and make you do it. If the project doesn’t meet the minimum goal, no money will be taken.

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