Building Worlds That Fans Love
Have you ever wondered how brands such as Star Wars and Star Trek have had such an avid fan base for so long?
George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry are geniuses of storytelling and world building. They both created multidimensional futuristic worlds, with flawed characters that had hero potential, other-worldly visually unique creatures and races, and heartfelt storylines that have unlimited potential to expand, as the universe itself does. Other common elements are humor and emotion - both Star Trek and Star Wars create moments to laugh and smile, especially if you are a fan and understand the “in” jokes and visuals that fans adore.
I had the good fortune to work at Paramount Pictures with Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman for almost a decade on the Star Trek series, films and experiences. The inner workings of development always involved avid and highly knowledgeable individuals who enjoyed the IP all the way back to the original Star Trek series, combined with imaginative writers such as Ron Moore and Brannon Braga who brought Star Trek The Next Generation to life. Gene was insistent on consistency as his Star Trek world expanded into additional TV series. I was very young and freshly out of college on the Paramount lot, and my role was to review consumer product submissions with Gene each week. I am naturally curious, so I would always ask Gene questions during these meetings in order to learn as much as I could from this sci-fi legend about his vision for Star Trek.
The key things that I learnt from this experience run true for almost all brands that I have worked on since Star Trek. To create avid fans, entertainment has to have certain key components:
A larger than life world. Building a realistic fictional world takes a lot of planning, and one of the most important things is to build in flexibility so the storyworld can evolve as fans engage and the IP is developed into other mediums. The original foundation of the world needs to have branching, layers and openness that allow for future expansion in order to take fans where they truly haven’t been before (sorry, had to do it!).
The Star Trek’s world is set in the future, but the story lines extend into the past, even further into the future, mirror universes, rifts in time and so much more to create an almost limitless world.
Similarly Star Wars is an ever-expanding universe of locations and characters and factions, and part of the fun of each film is that you are introduced to new places and unique alien cultures. This started with the A New Hope, where Luke Skywalker travels from his home planet of Tatooine to the Death Star, to the Rebel base on Yavin 4. Each subsequence film similarly transports the audience to new and strange worlds - think the ice planet of Hoth, the Cloud City, swampy Dagobah and forested Endor. Each of these new worlds has its own fantastical inhabitants and cultures, from the Ewoks of Endor to the Sarlacc and Hutts of Tatooine. Visiting a new world becomes part of the expected adventure of the films.
Limitless (Open) storylines that allows for depth through parallel story paths, while also setting the foundation for prequels and future storylines. An imaginative IP is best served by storylines that break open new characters, character motives or simply new micro worlds within the bigger world to create freshness. Star Trek embodies this with space travel that enables core crews and Starfleet to engage with new planets and life forms constantly.
Not all successful intellectual properties embrace a utopian future. Yet for Star Trek the heart of the IP is about hope for a positive future and the discovery of new worlds and beings.
Crafting stories that you want to watch and discover again and again versus epic explosions after explosions. "These are great, fascinating stories that were bigger and more important than just blowing up a planet," - Ron Moore
In a similar fashion, after the first three Star Wars movies were released, 22 years went by before the prequel trilogy and then there was a ten year break before the beginning of the sequel trilogy. Lucas once said that “every good story has a tail”, which is why the Star Wars films never have a definitive ending...there is always another thread to follow, another world to explore, another battle to be fought, another Jedi to be found. The classic example is the end of A New Hope, Darth Vader’s TIE fighter tumbles off into the stars, leaving open the possibility of him returning...or the end of The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda intones “No. There is another…” opening up a whole new story opportunity to be explored. .
Inclusion - Star Trek is rooted in the wonderment of discovering and learning about new worlds, beings and cultures. The idea of acceptance without judgement of these worlds is primal to Star Trek. That isn’t to say there isn’t conflict in the Star Trek world, there is plenty! Yet the conflict erupts from story building motives such as betrayal, dominance and power, all of which enrich the story lines. Almost all Star Trek series and films are known for their wonderfully diverse ensemble casts, which showcased different backgrounds, races, beliefs and loyalties.
It's interesting to write this in 2019, when inclusion is top of mind for so many of us, and realize how before his time Gene really was.
In Star Wars, the rebel alliance is made up of all races, humans and aliens alike, united together to defeat the Empire. The Rebels are literally brothers and sisters in arms, leaning on each other’s strengths to try to achieve the impossible against overwhelming odds. They are a many-hued many-raced group, faced up against the hegemonic Empire where everyone looks and dresses exactly the same.
Wonderfully flawed characters that are relatable. Intriguing dialogue and storylines define a character yet the actor breathes life into the role the combination of which is what fans have fallen in love with. Captain Kirk is passionate, impulsive and often reckless in his desire to save the galaxy. Kirk’s hot head is beautifully contrasted by Spock, who took the consummate logical, measured and unemotional approach. Each character is influenced by their heritage, but is able to forge their own destiny.
Likewise in Star Wars, the Skywalkers are a troubled clan, torn between the dark and light sides of the Force, with every generation seeming to sway back and forth between those poles, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Luke’s father Anakin famously gave into the Dark side, becoming Darth Vader...while Luke and Leia are sorely tempted, but never succumb. Indeed the sequel trilogy continues this story theme, as Luke’s nephew Kylo Ren has given into the dark side and tempts Rey with its seductive power. Even the comedic characters have flaws that make them lovable; think about C-3P0’s fastidious narcissism, or Han Solo’s internal conflicts between greed and loyalty.
The surrounding cast of characters is so unique and memorable that even the tiniest bit parts have long resonated in pop culture; for instance, the many aliens in the cantina in Mos Eisley get barely any screen time, but have lived on as toys and icons in their own right, forty three years after the original film’s release and counting.
Ultimately both Star Trek and Star Wars cast actors that truly transform a script and bring a character to life, making them relatable and memorable and beloved by fans. Yet it all starts with the imaginative writers that envision these flawed characters and the twists and turns in the character arcs and story lines with which we become invested and sometimes even find a bit of ourselves within.
Humor is pivotal to fan engagement, especially the humor that rewards a fan for their knowledge about a property. Star Trek and Star Wars do a great job of feeding fan fervor with dialogue and visuals that start a firestorm of fan speculation and chatter. It is the proverbial easter egg in a video game that lets fans know they are appreciated for their knowledge and love of the entertainment.
In today’s cluttered landscape, the intellectual properties that seek to build an avid fan base need these core foundational pillars in order to expand into faithful and exciting multi-channel experiences for their fans.