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The Marvin Quadrant: Episodes and Arcs: Narrative Experience in Television and the Writing Class

books on a bookshelf about teaching writing with a starship enterprise replica in front of them

Previously on A Life in Television and Writing ProgramsOne way to understand the ‘process revolution’ of the 1970’s/1980’s might be by analogy to episodic television’s shift to what I’ll call arc television.  What the discipline has come to describe as “current-traditional” rhetoric reduces writing to discrete episodes while also reducing components of writing to episodes of a sort—this is citation day, this is transition day, this is paragraph day.  Every day the same, each component containable in a single episode of the same length and tone.”  “Arc television requires investment over time, as does process-based writing and writing as life work.” 

When the original Star Trek aired on NBC from 1966-68, I was at an optimum age for consuming episode-driven television.  I didn’t miss a Friday night (I probably did miss some, but I prefer the legend that I watched all 78 episodes in order as they beamed into my room in Oak Park).  I don’t remember with any nuance how I felt watching the episodes, though repeated viewing of reruns certainly aided retention of individual episodes that I can recall with varying vividness today; I do remember something about how I experienced episodic television in a general sense—I felt a sense of excitement and comfort during the opening credits, then itchy awareness of plot energy building and episode time dwindling as I moved through the hour, first the quick expository advance of the early part of the episode, then engagement with complications and dangers during the middle, and finally the satisfaction of the concluding segment resolving what needed resolution, accompanied by a sense of loss as I realized I’d have to wait a week for the next episode.  I don’t recall experiencing scope and depth, the wider context and character development I found in novels.  Perhaps I watched better in my youth than I resurrect the experience now, but for the purposes of this piece I emphasize my familiarity with the episode form and the transitory though intense pleasures I found. 

Star Trek’s deep roots in episodic television stemmed from creator Gene Roddenberry’s previous experience developing police shows and westerns; the archetypes inform the development of space sheriff James T. Kirk (captain is both a police and military rank—the Star Trek world depends heavily on rank and hierarchy, in some tension with its themes of exploration and human development) and provide the stories of several episodes, e.g. when the Enterprise crew members end up on the wrong side of the shootout at the OK Corral or happen upon a culture built around a big city dominated by criminal gangs, with the only solution installing the Federation as the absent all-powerful boss to keep the gangsters (Sheldon Leonard among them) in line.  The original series comprised 78 episodes written by many different writers who didn’t seem to interact with each other in any kind of writers’ room, accounting for the great variety of plots, ranging from interstellar renderings of ancient Greece and Rome to science fiction stories featuring aliens (any Gorn fans out there?) to flights of fancy featuring Tribbles and/or conniving scoundrel Harry Mudd.  All the writers started with the main cast and the imperative to tell a complete story in about 50 minutes of screen time.  Each week Kirk, Spock, and McCoy reset, seemingly with little memory of the prior weeks of their five-year mission.  Spock’s parents visited the Enterprise for a diplomatic conference; they didn’t get mentioned again.  Kirk’s brother and his family died on a distant colony the Enterprise visited in response to a distress call; Kirk’s grief at the loss didn’t last beyond the commercial break.  Writers approached invention with the raw materials of character types and basic cultural galactic givens—the Federation against the Klingons, the Romulans, or a new threat; they too didn’t have to carry past episodes into what they wrote. 

When I attempt to recall how I wrote at that time and through high school, I picture myself as an episode writer, with no sense that anything I wrote connected to anything else I wrote.  I can’t claim total recall, but I know I wrote papers longhand, which for me worked against revising; I don’t know if I drafted, though I know my temperament, along with my general obedience and anxieties (and my parents valuing of school as the highest priority for their children) meant I never waited till the night before to write an assignment.  I annoyed my friends by finishing several days before the deadline; that didn’t mean I revised, it just means I finished (to keep my mental equilibrium) and went on to the next assignment.  I wrote mostly for “English” classes, about literary texts; I don’t recall any conversations between texts, though there may have been comparative essays to write at times.  I wrote the episode and moved on, without character as a writer separate from being a “good” student, without any explicit sense of learning anything from the writing to carry forward to the next writing.

 Where No Episode Has Gone Before

Star Trek: The Next Generation ran from 1987-1994, saddled with the episode format (across some 150 shows) while creating developmental arcs for various characters, essentially straddling the expectations of episode and arc storytelling; these characters had some baggage, not present in every episode but building bridges across scripts and seasons.  Characters recurred, memorably Q, present in the opening and closing episodes to challenge and mock Picard and restate the franchise theme regarding exploring the cosmos to explore the self.  We learned Worf’s family history on the Klingon home world and gained brief insight into his childhood as the adopted child of the Roshenkos on Earth (and why his Klingon son had the 19th century Russian novel name Alexander Roshenko).  We had access to Deanna Troi’s relationship with her mother (played by Majel Barrett, Nurse Chapel of the original series).  We observed the simmering triangle involving Worf, Riker, and Troi and the on-again, off-again attraction of Picard and Dr. Crusher (married and divorced by the flash forward of the series finale).  While many plots bear much similarity to the original series (welcome back, Tribbles), these characters don’t reset, they evolve.  Thus as viewers we must track parallel movements, of plot and character, bringing them into alignment.

By the time I watched Next Generation I had completed an MFA in fiction writing, which required learning to revise in ways my undergraduate work at Stanford had not.  I had also taught writing for seven years when TNG first aired—process and revision had become tenets of a faith and vocation.  I don’t know that I explicitly noted how I watched TNG differently, though I certainly noted my engagement with the arcs described above.  Each week I built on the overarching story and deepened by understanding and engagement with the characters.

Our Continuing Mission

At the most general level of application, we can venture that students live in episodes while we teach in arcs, with the result that we often pass each other like (star)ships in the night.  Christine, when I spoke with her about this piece’s focus, added that we can extend this to the students’ overall college experience, with each course an episode standing alone, not connecting to a coherent narrative arc except in relation to the sequence of years (I’m a sophomore, so I’m in season two of a four-season series—still need to watch those general education episodes at some point).

In relation to an academic quarter, we can approach each one as a self-contained arc in the long-running series of our careers as writing teachers.  Each class meeting balances the demands of the episode—something needs to happen, people need to do things—with the demands of the arc—this episode must make sense in relation to the big story, connecting backward and forward and contributing something without which the arc would lose energy and trajectory.  In such a world, the question “will I miss anything important if I’m not in class?” would lose meaning—miss an episode, and you’ll miss something crucial to the arc of the season.

In practical pedagogical terms, what can we do to promote both writing and each quarter as arc experiences?  We do a lot of this already, of course.  In September I offered an alternate name for PWR: the Program in World-Building and Relationship.  Consider the challenges of world-building when writing in an episode mindset.  The boundaries of the episode provide structure while imposing limits on invention, especially in terms of scope—the story must be told completely in a short time.  Now consider the opportunities of world-building when writing from an arc mindset—infinite possibility (isn’t that the nature of writing, from word choice and sentence structure to range of reference and connection).  In arc writing we work within the sprawl and potential of ourselves in relationship to a burgeoning world, making choices that create a version of the world for a rhetorical purpose.  Everything relates/connects to everything else.  Formulas give way to leaps of intuition and the play of possibilities.  Knowing that the writing life never ends—we can and must always write more—keeps us from succumbing to what Alvin Toffler called “overchoice” long ago in his book Future Shock.

Next on A Life in Television

The pitfalls of the RBA as an episode, every assignment and course as an episode; the potential for the portfolio as an arc with reflection on the writer/character and the experience with writing/plot; in teaching and tutoring, working with episodes while trying to focus attention on the arc.

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