(People who are here exclusively for the 19th century lit may want to look away now! The rest of you, I promise this is relevant in terms of the project’s methodology… honestly…)
So, several people – who are apparently familiar with my interests! – have now linked me to this Star Trek character interaction visualisation interface, designed by Mollie Pettit at Datascope.
And first of all, can I just say that this is a delightful thing! The data is fascinating and the interface is fun. For best results, I recommend that you tinker with the data while this video plays in the background…
Here’s what all of the major connections in Star Trek look like when you put them together!
Now, I am pretty sure I’m not yet done playing around with this dataset, but the first thing that jumped out at me when I started exploring was that for four of the five live-action TV series, you can more or less spot the captain straight away, simply by a quick look at the graph*. In each of The Original Series, The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise, the largest node in the image – the character who’s involved in the most interactions – is always the captain of the ship, with their second-in commands (respectively Spock, Riker, Chakotay, and T’Pol) coming in… well, second.
The exception to that rule is the third series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which – in the interests of putting my biases up front! – I will tell you now is my favourite by a light year or so. And the difference between DS9 and the other shows is noticeable: compared to Kirk, Picard, Janeway and even Archer, who are THE big fish in the small pond, the node for Captain Sisko is much closer in size to those of the other main characters, his subordinates.
Although Sisko is still (by a narrow margin) the biggest node on the chart, three other characters – Colonel Kira, Dr. Bashir and (perhaps unsurprisingly) the inimitable Quark – all seem to nearly match him, in terms of interactions. (Odo, O’Brien and Jadzia Dax are smaller, but not by much, while Worf and Ezri, who aren’t present in all seasons of the show, are understandably smaller again.) Because of the way the networks are generated, I’m not sure whether it’s the case that Sisko has fewer interactions than the other captains, or whether his staffers have more than the other casts. I suspect it’s the latter, but either way I would be very interested to find out!
For comparative purposes, here is the overall interaction map for The Next Generation. There’s no question about who’s running this ship:
So why is Deep Space Nine so democratic, compared to the other series?
I’m going to hazard a guess, and say that what we’re seeing here is an effect of the way the series is written. Here’s a quote from an interview with Ron Moore, one of the writers, on how storylines on DS9 were different from the traditional Trek setup – to the point of exasperation on the part of the execs at Paramount Studios:
The nature of the show itself was that it is a space station that doesn’t go anywhere so the storylines tended to stick around. The Enterprise, like I said earlier, could pull up to a planet and have an episode and keep going. With Deep Space Nine, anything that took place on the station, well guess what? Next week you are still on the station. And Bajor is not going anywhere. So really you had to keep playing those stories […] the fundamentals on the show were always on the station and the station kept all the plot lines around and we kept developing them and developing them and eventually– essentially Rick and the studio just kind of threw up their hands and gave up at a certain point and started concentrating on Voyager.
(I fear this development may not have been to the benefit of Voyager… *cough* Fairhaven *cough*… but that’s a blog post for another day. Or possibly another blog.)
Our own research to date has suggested that an author’s style of writing has a major influence on the distribution of characters within fictional networks, at least within novels, and we might be seeing this same phenomenon extending to TV, despite the fact that shows are typically written by a team rather than a single author.
As Ron Moore points out above, DS9 diverges significantly from the planet-of-the-week formula that was generally used by TOS and TNG. With its technique of using plot arcs that span across multiple episodes, the writing on DS9 feels much more modern and much more like its contemporary (and competitor!) Babylon 5***, or the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot, which was staffed by a number of DS9 veterans.
DS9 is simply a different sort of show. Unlike previous (and subsequent) Star Trek series, it isn’t set on a luxurious spaceship hopping from planet to planet sowing peace and harmony and useful, Apple-resembling technology in its wake: it’s a decrepit space station sitting in a crucially important and politically volatile area of the galaxy. Its staff are constantly occupied with trying to stop everyone around them from killing each other over territory, religious ideology, or postcolonial fallout, and the brunt of this falls on the shoulders of the rather heroic Ben Sisko. This man has the hardest job in the known universe.
In the other, ship-based Star Treks, the captain is usually the first point of contact for whoever the alien species of the week is, and is generally instrumental in helping them resolve whatever difficulty they’re currently having. I’d suggest that this probably explains why they are always the most central node in their networks: although the other members of these crews usually get episodes devoted to their doings once a season or so, for most of the time, they are essentially accessories to the captain. (May the interwebs forgive me for that statement, which is possibly the most controversial thing I have ever posted in a public place…)
On DS9, for most of the time it’s true to say that Sisko is the only factor preventing the quadrant from falling into immediate murder and mayhem. Yet the other characters are vitally important for maintaining the multiple concurrent storylines. For example, much of the political action is focalised through the station’s second-in-command, the firebrand Colonel Kira Nerys, a freedom fighter (okay, terrorist) turned reluctant diplomat, and one of the best damn characters on this (or any!) show, while Quark, the bartender, is the hub of the space station’s social life (not to mention its black market).
However! This here is just a theory and I’d love to see what other Trek fans/social network analysts come back with! Also… I hate to be the person who’s presented with a beautiful dataset and immediately responds with MOAR DATA PLS, but… maybe it might be helpful to look and see how DS9’s social networks compare against those of other sci-fi TV shows with ensemble casts. Babylon 5, maybe? BSG? Farscape? And why not Firefly, while we’re asking? 😉
A couple of random last notes:
- As the visualisation’s creator, Mollie Pettit, points out, there are one or two errors in the dataset all right – mostly incidences of two characters sharing a very generic name such as “man”, which is the perennial curse of our own project! (I’m keeping a note of the ones I spot as I go along and will forward them on in due course.)
- I’m a big fan of the way the dataset is constructed here: the approach of taking alternate lines of dialogue to indicate an interaction seems quite robust and elegant to me. I do have a question about how scene breaks are dealt with – does the method take this into consideration? – but even if it doesn’t, and there were some inconsistencies introduced whereby the character speaking last in one scene and the character speaking first in the next scene are considered to be interacting, I think this shouldn’t pose a major problem overall.
But one final thing!
One thing the data-gathering method DOESN’T pick up on is non-speaking characters. I had a peek at the transcript site which provides the source for the data, and I’m guessing that what it does is identify the characters whose names are present in capitals in the transcripts, indicating they’re speaking. And for most of the time that shouldn’t be a problem.
Unfortunately, the gentleman pictured above has been entirely lost out of our networks, because it’s a running joke that although he’s a recurring character (propping up the bar at Quark’s through the entire run of DS9) and is allegedly quite talkative, he never gets to speak a line on screen. Can we have Morn back in the networks? Pretty please!
*I’m not including the animated series as I’m not at all familiar with it, but a brief glance suggests that it follows the same pattern – Kirk is the main focus with Spock in second position, and all other nodes are considerably smaller.
**For the record, I just want to say that non-sexualised Google images of T’Pol (i.e. normal uniform, legs and cleavage not emphasised to a ridiculous extent) are relatively difficult to come by! This is not the case for the gentlemen pictured!
This sadly seems to be the case for many of the major female characters in Star Trek – some more so than others – although not Captain Janeway, who’s all business all the time. Except for this. Which I kind of love.
***Okay yeah let’s just not get into the Bab 5/DS9 plagiarism debate right now kk