Centrality and Star Trek: a brief diversion from the 19th century to the 24th

 

(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!

star trek 2 - all of star trek
Screenshot of all Star Trek franchises, taken from startrekviz.  The isolated cluster to the left represents Star Trek: Enterprise, while the larger connected component to the right is… everything else.  No comment.

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.

star trek 2 - second in commands
Sorry, guys, them’s the breaks.**

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!

star trek 2 - ds9 better image
Screenshot of all 7 seasons of DS9, taken from startrekviz.  Spot the captain!

For comparative purposes, here is the overall interaction map for The Next Generation.  There’s no question about who’s running this ship:

star trek 2 - tng better image
Screenshot of all 7 seasons of TNG, taken from startrekviz.  Actually, I think if you look at the overall Star Trek network above, Picard has the most interactions of any character in the show – even edging out Kirk.  Intriguing!

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.

star trek 2 - captain sisko
Would you lot ever.  Just.  Chill.

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…)

star trek second - spock
Spock is unimpressed.  Well, when is he ever impressed

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).

star trek second - kira
Second in command, first at kicking ass and taking names

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!

star trek 2 - morn
Morn, we barely knew ye

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

 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. What a wonderful read, Karen. I enjoyed your look at the networks of various series. You gave me things to ponder about the data that I hadn’t even thought about!

    You asked a couple questions in your post that I am happy to address for you.

    QUESTION: “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!”

    Your suspicions were correct! The way the sizes of these circles are created is by using a scale. That way, the person with the largest interactions in a given visualization will be represented by a circle of a specified max size, and the person with the smallest interactions will be represented by a circle of a specified min size, and everything in between is sized proportionally between the max and min. Before this scale was implemented, some of the characters with the smallest interactions might be so small they were hard to see, or the characters with the largest interactions (e.g. the captains), were sometimes so large they overtook and swallowed everything around them.

    TLDR? – You are right that this visualization does not necessarily show that Sisko has fewer lines, but is more indicative that the main supporting characters of DS9 (e.g. Kira and Quark) have a higher interaction-count to interaction-count-of-Sisko ratio than the main supporting characters of other series to their captains.

    QUESTION: “I do have a question about how scene breaks are dealt with – does the method take this into consideration?”

    Good question! Yes, the scene breaks are indeed taken into consideration. So, if the last scene ended with Bashir saying a line in “Infirmary”, and the next scene started with Gowron speaking in “klingon wardroom”, these two lines would not be considered affiliated, and no additional links would be given between Bashir and Gowron.

    QUESTION: ” Can we have Morn back in the networks? Pretty please!”

    I totally get it. I also felt a sadness that this diagram would not be able to represent the silent stars of Star Trek (like Morn, or even Gorn – the co-star of one of Star Trek’s worst fight scenes); however, I did not see a way to easily insert these interactions in an automatic way during scraping. This is definitely something worth considering adding, though.

    I hope this answers your questions. If you have any more, feel free to shoot them over! Again, I really enjoyed this post. 😀

    Mollie

    Like

  2. Karen says:

    Hi Mollie,

    Thanks so much for the detailed response!

    – Re scaling the sizes of the nodes, that makes a lot of sense – and I can understand how the visualisation would be difficult to read otherwise. So the best visualisation for comparing captains is probably the one where all the seasons of each TV series are included (like my first one above), rather than comparing the seasons against one another in isolation, I think. (Of course, adding the movies and animated series would probably generate slightly different results again.)

    – Re scene breaks – good to know, thank you for that! Always good to learn more about how other researchers have sourced their data!
    We are working with rather tricky data sources (novels are coooooomplex to scrape) and have found that seemingly tiny changes to the way in which the datasets are constructed can have a huge impact on the results we get (and also the results other studies are getting).

    And thank you also for clarification re: Morn (and also Gorn, lol! I had forgotten about him. And by the way, did you mean one of the BEST fight scenes? ;-D) We’ll just have to get by without him, I guess!

    Am looking forward to seeing what other researchers do with the Star Trek data!

    Like

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