Editor Of The UK Official Star Trek Magazine Reveals Some Insights On His Future Plans For The Magazine.
10 March 2005
Over the recent months Sci Fi Pulse has made a new friend in the form of John Freeman who has been working in the Entertainment media for 20 years. John who is once again at the helm of the Official Star Trek: Magazine kindly offered me some of his time and went under the Sci Fi Pulse and revealed some fascinating insights about future issues of Star Trek: Magazine and talked about his illustrious career both as a professional Entertainment journalist and all round Science Fiction fan.
You were the one that started it all with STAR TREK Monthly back in 1995 and as fate would have it you came back for the last issue just in the nick of time for the 10th Anniversary Issue, which goes on sale later this month. What was it that prompted you to return to your post as editor of STAR TREK Magazine ? Who bribed you, which agent of Section 31 have you been working for during the long break, and most importantly what have you been doing in those intervening years?
“Although I moved on from STAR TREK Monthly with #25, leaving the magazine in the very capable hands of Darryl Curtis, I’ve continued to have an input into the Magazine while doing other things. These have included starting up titles such as STAR WARS Magazine, Simpsons Comics and running the Titan’s Magazines Department for nearly five years before I returned to Lancaster in November 1999 to run a (sadly short lived) subscription-based science fiction virtual world for an Internet company.
“I’ve been writing for STAR TREK Magazine’s news section for several years now, and contributing the very occasional interview.
“Chris Teather, Titan’s Editorial Director, and an unsung hero of STAR TREK Magazine as its first designer (hopefully this ingratiating stuff will earn me a couple of pints when I see him next), asked me if I would take back the reins on STAR TREK Magazine after Toby Weidmann left. I jumped at the chance.
“As well as working for Titan Magazines doing a wide range of things, such as investigate new comics and magazine projects and maintain their web site, among other things I’ve continued to write comics for a variety of companies and develop mobile phone content.”
What can your readers look forward too as regards to special features in the 10th Anniversary issue?
“Well, the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise threw some plans out the window but Ned Hartley’s written a fun piece on the history of the magazine, which includes behind the scenes tidbits on how the deal was first struck even I wasn’t aware of.
“But most of Issue 120, on sale 17 March, is your usual smorgasbord of Star Trek coverage — we have interviews with LeVar Burton, George Takei and Anthony Montgomery and some exclusive comments from Executive Producer Rick Berman on the end of Star Trek: Enterprise.
“My favourite feature this issue is probably our revamped Flashback feature, which covers the making of the ST: TOS episode ‘Space Seed’ and features some great behind the scenes visual effects images. Some of these have appeared online but a guy called Curt McAloney has digitally restored them and they look terrific.”
In your experience of working for the entertainment media and most notably your early experiences with STAR TREK Monthly, how much would you say that the whole scene has changed?
“When I began working for Doctor Who Magazine way back in 1988 the Internet simply didn’t exist in the way it does now, when anyone can post their views on their favourite show instantly.
“What I call counter culture — and I’d include science fiction fandom in that — has shifted wholesale to the web and magazines have had to reinvent themselves to compete. I think you do that by making every issue a must buy title, ensuring it includes exclusive material that web sites don’t have, to make it collectable and listening to your readership.
“Letters of comment and our ‘Fistful of Data’ pages have less contributors these days, because now, people post their views online, or try and find the answers to their Star Trek questions on the web, at sites like the official StarTrek.com , for example. This is a shame, because I’ve always quite liked readers’ letters.
“The Internet is a blessing and a curse. It means I can edit STAR TREK Magazine remotely, but it also means every SF show comes under the microscope and this can mean shows can fall prey to the very worst kind of negativity on a whim, which can soon snowball. “
Are there any fun stories about your adventures in Time and Space as a writer and professional fan of Genre projects that you would like to share?
“I’ve been in Magazine publishing for 20 years now. Some of the highlights include having breakfast with Jon Pertwee [The third actor to portray Dr. Who] at a convention in Indianapolis — he was always very charming whenever I met him and a mine of great show business stories; getting to tour the sets of Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: First Contact; and meeting some of the actors and creative people behind my favourite shows.
“The job is hard work but there are plenty of rewards for someone who grew up loving science fiction and action adventure series.”
Star Trek: Enterprise was recently cancelled by UPN. Do you feel the show’s poor performance and slow decline of interest for Star Trek in its present state poses any kind of threat to the future of Star Trek: Magazine, or do you feel that it will run and run like Doctor Who Magazine?
“Obviously, the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise is a disappointment to all of us here at STAR TREK Magazine, but Star Trek lives on — fan interest in the saga remains high, despite plenty of alternative shows to follow these days.
“I don’t think there is a decline in interest in Star Trek itself; it appears that interest Star Trek: Enterprise hasn’t been as strong as expected by its creators. Every modern Star Trek shows has always taken time to find its feet — you only have to look at some of our readers comments about ST:VOY when it launched to see that — but it eventually finds its way and its audience, and it seemed to me that the direction being taken during Season Four was one that fans approved of.
“The trouble is, television has become such a cut throat business as regards ratings success now — on both sides of the Atlantic — that if a show isn’t getting the ratings required to attract advertising support, then it’s going to face cancellation. Star Trek: Enterprise isn’t the first SF show to suffer from a broadcaster’s impatience, or a change of programming policy as both Scott Bakula and Rick Berman have suggested. Look at what TNT did to J. Michael Straczynski’s Crusade, despite the critical and fan success of Babylon 5.
“I think the time is fast approaching, though, when broadcasters will have to measure the success of shows on more than just ratings.
“Star Trek has a built in appeal that goes far beyond just watching a new show on television for most of its fans. Although I don’t think you have to buy spin-off merchandise to enjoy a show (except the licensed magazine, obviously…), that kind of add-on income, plus overseas sales, DVD sales etc. has to be factored into the profit line of any future show.”
According to information which I probed from your own web site Down the Tubes , you’ve had a varied career. Which includes working for Marvel Comics UK; Overseeing the creation of several genre magazines such as ‘STAR TREK Magazine’, ‘Babylon 5 Magazine’ and ‘Star Wars Magazine’. You also do a lot of web based work. (How much coffee would you say you consume in an average day?) When you’re coming up with a concept for a magazine — i.e. sorting out the layout and getting a creative team together — at what point does it all start to mesh? As in how much work actually goes in and at what point is it during that process that you usually think ‘Eureka — I have a killer magazine which I can sell.’?
“First and foremost — I try to edit the kind of magazine I want to read. I soon find out — especially from today’s Internet-based fans — if I’m missing something. Obviously, Titan has an excellent track record of producing high quality SF tie-ins — both magazines and books. There’s a highly skilled team working in London whose views you would be daft not to take into account.
“You start by going out there and researching the show, trying to find out what a show’s fans like about it, who are their favourite actors, what they most like about a show’s storylines. Then you have to distil that into an outline plan for, say, the first six issues. This isn’t something that’s written in stone, but it helps to have a good idea of what you’d like to see in your upcoming issues.
“I don’t think there’s ever really a ‘ Eureka ‘ moment — you always want to try and make the next issue even better than the one that’s just been published. Otherwise there’s no point editing it.
“It’s fun coming back to STAR TREK Magazine — I have to confess I was a little nervous about doing it — but these days I have a lot more contacts who I can ask for features, and that’s cranked the whole thing up a notch for me. Plus, I don’t have to worry about trying to get competition prizes every issue — someone else does that — or marketing it — there’s a whole team doing that. Titan’s so much bigger than it was back in 1995.
“As to the coffee question, it’s always better just to eat it from the jar.”
With regard to other projects, you worked as editor for Doctor Who Magazine back in the late 1980′s when the show was been bounced around the schedules by the BBC. As you well know recently, over the last two years we have seen a huge turn around by the BBC who are bringing the show back. Now as a media professional how does the return of a somewhat sleeping giant such as Doctor Who which has had a 16 year break affect you?
“You know, I’m doing my best to try to avoid reading ANYTHING about the new Doctor Who. I’m sneaking looks at the features in Dreamwatch and I’m reading Doctor Who magazine, but I’m really, really trying to avoid finding out anything about it. No easy task, because there are so many spoilers out there!
“I’m absolutely delighted that Doctor Who is coming back and from what I have heard, from the Dreamwatch team and some of the people actually working on the new show, it’s going to be absolutely stunning. I enjoy some of Russell T. Davies other dramas — Second Coming, Mine All Mine — and I have high hopes for it.”
Star Trek as a TV franchise has pretty much gone the same route as Doctor Who did back in late 1980′s — there’s been a lack of PR work for the series from the UPN Network. (In some quarters in the USA are actually referred to as the ‘UN — POPULAR NETWORK’). As a fan of the show, how do you think Paramount should proceed with any further Star Trek spin-offs and what can be done to keep Star Trek alive in the public consciousness?
“That’s the sort of question we’ve posed a number of top SFTV producers for a big feature in STAR TREK Magazine #121 and do you know what, it’s amazing just how varied the responses have been. But the bottom line seems to be, Star Trek will be back — not that it’s going away, other than on TV — and then there are all those reruns!
“I’m sure there’s something to the view that Star Trek should be ‘rested’, but personally I think it’s a shame ST: ENT hasn’t been given another year. It’s clear to me some of the problems facing the show are nothing to do with the show’s creative team and cast. Scheduling, for one, and the way UPN has changed its own brand, meaning UPN’s audience isn’t necessarily the kind of audience that would watch Star Trek. I think it will be interesting to see what happens to UPN next autumn — does it have the identity it thinks it has without Star Trek? We’ll see.
“If someone asked me what I’d like to see in Star Trek, it’s more of the kind of character dynamic that made the original series such a delight, humour without being hokey and more of the ‘wow’ factor — the latter no easy task. Ancient mysteries and strange aliens. A regular villain that’s really scary that doesn’t get diluted, used sparingly rather than too often. “
Do you think that the market place is generally over saturated with science fiction TV shows, and that perhaps one of the things which has contributed to Star Trek’s ailing fortunes could be to do with the amount of other high quality shows, such as Stargate SG – 1?
“It’s so easy to blame the problems of any one show on one thing. Certainly multi-channel TV has eaten into audiences for every kind of show — soaps in the UK get nowhere near the kind of first run audience they used to. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t watching them, or they only watch one soap.
“TV has really eaten itself: I used to worry that I’d miss an episode of one of my favourite shows but these days I’ll often say, ‘Oh well, it will be on again soon,’ and I’m rarely proved wrong. With things like Sky+, most of my TV viewing is recorded shows, not first run, except for the news.
“Maybe people are watching other shows — I watch Stargate myself — but that doesn’t stop me watching Enterprise . Ratings as the only bench mark for a show’s success just don’t work any more, but it’s the only way most TV channels seem to use to put a value on their own product.”
Back to STAR TREK Magazine. In your opening editorial last issue you said that you had a few exciting plans for the magazine, are you ready to reveal some of these plans? Do any of them involve blood wine, Captain Proton or perhaps even Star Trek: New Voyages?
“No. keep reading to find out. But I can say this — I hope you’ll enjoy them and I expect our readers to tell me if they aren’t.”
If you were given £35 Million to come up with your own science fiction television project — whether it be loosely Star Trek related or not — how would you spend it and what sort of ideas would you want to try and bring to the small screen?
“I’d look to create the kind of show that generally I enjoy — just as I do with magazines. It’s probably old fashioned, but something with a bit of hope and soul to it. Something that was fun, doesn’t take itself totally seriously but has an internal logic and sense of continuity to it that would make viewers want to know more, not frustrated because you’re being played with to the point of distraction.”
What message of encouragement do you have for Star Trek fans and fan groups such as TrekUnited who are trying to save Star Trek: Enterprise ?
“There will always be Star Trek. It might not be a new TV show, it might not be a new Star Trek book, but the saga’s been such a cultural influence over 40 years I can’t see it just being forgotten overnight, like some cheaply produced reality TV show or celebrity shoe-in. I find it incredible that there won’t be some new Star Trek TV or film project for the saga’s 40th anniversary next year, but I’m also philosophical. Star Trek will come back.
“Some friends once asked me, why should we care if Doctor Who doesn’t come back? Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like world poverty? Well of course there are — no-one’s saying you should ignore important social issues over a TV show. But SF fans do worry about the bigger picture as well as their favourite show — look how much fan run conventions raise for various charities all the year round!.
“Shows like Star Trek are important too, because for me, the central ‘message’ of the saga is about humankind becoming better than we are today, rising above the bickering and the hatred you see on the news every night. Now, that message may be flawed or very American in its standpoint, but at its best that central ethos, of humankind becoming more human, well, that’s Star Trek at its best and something we should all value, I feel.”
Many fans have noted that there are quite a few parallels to Star Trek: Enterprise ‘s cancellation and the axing of Doctor Who by Sir Michael Grade back in 1989. What do you feel about that?
“I think there are similarities: Doctor Who was starved of a decent budget (an insider told me once its entire 14 episode SFX budget was just £5000!). ST:ENT was only renewed by UPN after Paramount agreed to budget cuts. Doctor Who was badly scheduled; ST:ENT was moved to a graveyard slot just as its stories started getting fan interest again. In complete contrast to the media blitz for the new show, the ‘classic’ Doctor Who was not well promoted by the BBC. As a result, I think its producer, John Nathan-Turner, had to rely on getting big name stars to take up guests which he knew would attract press attention. This worked, but also resulted in some pretty appalling performances by some of those same stars, which put the show’s core audience off. I’m told ST: ENT has not been well promoted by UPN.
“So yes, there are parallels, although as far as I know there’s no one person in a powerful position at UPN who hated ST:ENT with such a passion that they ordered it cancelled. We know today that Sir Michael Grade was in such a position and he did cancel it, because he’s admitted as much.
“But there’s one important difference: Star Trek has a much bigger fan base than Doctor Who (I’m an fan of both series but it’s true!). I don’t think we’ll have to wait 16 years for a new Star Trek to come along.
“I think that once all the administration personnel changes at the very top level of Paramount have settled into place, we’ll start to see movement on some kind of Star Trek project. I just hope it’s a project that’s true to Star Trek and doesn’t seek to copy the obviously successful format of other SF shows currently being made, like the new Battlestar Galactica. Star Trek doesn’t need to be like Battlestar Galactica. Battlestar Galactica is nothing like Star Trek, is it?
“Star Trek needs to be Star Trek. And it needs a creative team behind it that’s as good as the current one, strong enough to push forward a new chapter in the saga that reflects everything that’s the very best about Star Trek.
“I hope we won’t have to wait for long.”
Sci Fi Pulse would like to thank John Freeman for kindly volunteering his time for this interview. Note Star Trek: Magazine issue 120 which is the 10 th Anniversary issue will be out in all UK Newsagents and Book Stores on the 17 th March.