Star Trek, the Answers: An Interview with Writer Mike Johnson
With two big screen releases to establish the franchise-wide reboot under the belt, Star Trek: The Ongoing Series becomes a focal point for fan interest. We talk to series regular writer, Mike Johnson.
What does working on Star Trek let you do that other books don’t?
MJ: Working on Star Trek gives me the chance to write in the voices of the characters as they’ve been established by the actors in the new movies. Most superhero comics, for example, don’t have a definitive “voice” for the character as established by an actor or actress. With Trek, it’s a fun challenge to capture the unique that Zachary Quinto brings to Spock, or Zoe Saldana brings to Uhura.
What was your favorite Star Trek series? Character?
MJ: I’m a Next Generation baby. I watched the original Star Trek series in re-runs, but I watched Next Gen from the day it premiered right through to the end. It’s tough to choose a favorite character, so I’ll go with a tie: Spock and Data.
Were you a fan as a kid?
MJ: I was. Even though the original series was already in re-runs when I was a kid, I had the big Kirk and Spock Mego action figures with the cloth uniforms. Playing with them is one of my earliest memories.
What motivated the new collectors books?
MJ: The new books arise out of wish to give fans the best possible editions that we can. It’s always fun to see the work presented in different ways, especially when they highlight the beautiful art inside.
How does your writing complement the art?
MJ: I really try to think, and write, cinematically. One of the best things about Star Trek is that it is not just explosions and action. Much of the story is driven by ideas and conversation. That can be challenging, because you don’t want the comic to just look like a bunch of talking heads, so I do my best to balance the quieter moments with more visually striking images for the artist to draw.
Star Trek has been around forever. It has a cannon. How do you deal with the legacy when you write?
MJ: If I thought about it too much I think I’d be afraid to type a word, so I just do by best to remember what I love most about the franchise in all its form, and convey that through my writing. I’m lucky to have Roberto Orci, one of the writers and producers of the new films, as a sounding board. He knows Star Trek better than anyone.
Does CBS/Paramount provide guidance? Without a current show or movie in production, do they maintain any kind of rules to follow like Roddenberry did with the “Star Trek Bible.”
MJ: CBS and Paramount have been great partners in the comic. They embrace the idea that the comic should be able to push the envelope in terms of the type of stories we can tell. Having everyone on the same page (so to speak) is a great advantage for the series.
Who is your favorite character to write dialog for?
MJ: I like writing Spock and Bones. Both the original cast and the new actors bring an almost musical rhythm to their lines that make them a blast to write.
The Abrams' movies seem to have gone a bit away from the science of science fiction, how do you think about science when you write? Do you read science journals or use other scientific inputs for inspiration, accuracy?
MJ: I don’t think the Abrams movies have left science behind, so much as there is only so much science you can put into a two hour movie when the plot has to speed along. But I do try to touch on scientific concepts as much as I can when I write, and I’m always checking out space-related websites for inspiration.
Can you give me an example of an invention of yours that you sat back after creating it and said, “Wow, that is so Star Trek?”
MJ: It’s a small thing (no pun intended), but in the issue that showed the backstory of Keenser, Scotty’s little buddy, I made Keenser the tallest person on his home planet. He didn’t fit in. And then he gets into Starfleet and he’s the smallest, but he feels at home because his engineering smarts are respected. It felt like Star Trek to turn his situation on its head, showing him as a tall outcast on his homeworld (and to show a new alien world we’d never seen before), and how that affected his character and development.
What is the most frustrating issue you have working on a book with such well-known characters?
MJ: Not having 200 pages for each issue, so I can give each of the crew a moment to shine in every issue. But I do my best to showcase them all as the series unfolds.
Are there psychological places you would like to take Star Trek but that you’ve resisted because you thought it just went too far?
MJ: Not really. One of the best things about Trek is that it is completely unafraid to be different – to go boldly – with episodes like “The Naked Time” and “Best of Both Worlds.”
With all the time travel and timeline resets, do you ever have difficulty reconciling Star Trek universes?
MJ: No, I think the genius of the 2009 movie was making a clean break with the original timeline, so that the original was preserved, while the new timeline can tell its stories without affecting the old.
Speaking of time travel, do you find it an overused plot device?
MJ: Only when its done poorly. Like any familiar concept or genre, it’s all in the execution.
Any hints on what happens now that the five-year missions begin again? Will IDW books boldly go someplace before Abrams and team pops in for a visit?
MJ: We have a big galaxy-spanning story taking place that involves the Klingons and Romulans, and after that we are heading deep into space for the five year mission. We really want to show new strange places and characters we haven’t seen before. There will be a few familiar faces from the original timeline, but for the most part it will be new adventures.
If there were no rules and no legacy, just a great ship called Enterprise and her intrepid crew, what would you have them do, where would you have them go?
MJ: I’ll put this in terms of what a new Star Trek TV show would do: show what life is like at all levels of the crew. Traditionally the focus is on the bridge, but I’d love to expand that to include everyone from the ship’s cook to the lowliest redshirt.
Do you have a “most stupid” Star Trek moment you keep in the back of your mind as a warning beacon?
MJ: Maybe not stupid, but there is definitely some goofy stuff in Trek history. I’m probably not going to have them traveling back in time to hang out with Cleopatra or something.
If you could hang out with one ST character who would it be and why?
Scotty. Endless fun, great stories, a pub crawl or two.
What’s inspiring you at the moment?
MJ: I’m inspired by what’s unfolding in space exploration today. Watching the discoveries being made on Mars, and by our spacecraft sent across the solar system, is real-life Trek. It’s also a fascinating moment as government funded exploration is making way for more private investment in space.
What’s next on your agenda, Star Trek or otherwise?
MJ: With Trek, the ongoing series will continue through to the next movie, and in the meantime we have the Star Trek: Khan mini-series premiering in October, which shows Khan’s origins in the 20th century and how he ended up in deep freeze. Aside from Trek, I’m working on IDW’S Transformers comics, co-writing the Beast Hunters series, and I’m developing a couple of creator-owned projects.
How will you approach creating a backstory that actually has two backstories? (The Kahn timeline technically pre-dates the universe reboot in ST 2009, so both Kahn’s end up with the same backstory, no?)
MJ: I can’t say too much without spoiling it, but there is always the possibility that the two timelines were not completely identical even before Nero arrived in his ship.
Does any of the previous work on Kahn figure into this, from novels or other sources. Abrams seems to draw from non-canonical ST sources from time-to-time, will you be doing that as well, or will Orci guide the facts while you guide the character?
MJ: We are going strictly by what we know from the two filmed sources about Khan, the original episode “Space Seed” and the Wrath of Khan movie. Bob Orci and I discuss how best to extrapolate Khan’s origin based on those two canonical sources.