From Outer Space
An Imaginary Conversation between the Author and Alex Kurtzman Regarding the Need to Base a Character in the new Star Trek Television Series (premiering on CBS Television in January 2017) on Bassel Khartabil
TBCS: Alex, thank you so much for meeting today. I know you don’t have a lot of time.
AK: I don’t know how you got into my office, but I´m intrigued enough to give you about 5 minutes.
TBCS: Great. Well, first of all, congratulations on being appointed executive producer of the new Star Trek series. That’s a tremendous honor, and it also carries a great responsibility, a responsibility to use the show to call attention to contemporary ideas, issues, events and people that can help pave the way for a better future, a future where humanity has forged peace on Earth and can explore the universe in the quest for new knowledge and culture.
AK: Yeah, those are some of the building blocks of the Star Trek universe, sure. But we don’t have the freedom to preach vague ideologies. Everything needs to be packaged in a way that will attract the most possible viewers. Do you have an idea that will help do that?
TBCS: I do have an idea, but before I get into that, I just want to remind you that no matter what impact the studios have on the decisions you make for the direction of the show, you are afforded more freedom than you may realize. You may still be somewhat enslaved to the pursuit of profit, but you can raise questions about power, you can criticize authoritarian ideologies, you can present a future that inspires people to work together now to make some semblance of it possible. You can do all of this without putting your life at risk. The studio executives might not be open to some subversive ideas, but you do not need to fear for your life, or that you could be arrested any minute for even hinting at free and open discourse.
That said, what I came here to do is tell you that there is this guy Bassel Khartabil who really needs your help, and I think you should base a character in the new Star Trek series on him. He is a wizard computer engineer, a compassionate and charismatic guy, and he has been imprisoned in Syria because of his work advocating for an open Internet. This makes for an inspiring character whose story reminds us all of the freedoms we may take for granted in our everyday life, our everyday future.
AK: Well, I do hope that we will present a future that inspires some of the audience to do something meaningful, and I am curious to hear more about this Bassel guy. But bear in mind that we have a lot of the foundational characters already set.
TBCS: You have the whole senior staff figured out?
AK: Most of them.
TBCS: Do you have an engineer? Because the Bassel character would have to be the engineer, the chief engineer. He has all the key traits of engineers throughout the series: he is a brilliant problem solver, passionate about technology, compassionate about people he works with, dedicated to making the world a better place.
AK: The chief engineers in Star Trek have been dedicated to their ships, not to making the world a better place. I mean, I’m sure they’re as interested as any other graduate of Starfleet Academy who gets placed on a galaxy class starship, but that’s not their focus. Their passion is the ship.
TBCS: Sure, but do we really know that? I mean, in the context of the show, the ship is their world, and they are dedicated to making that a better place, or at least a place that is not breaking down.
And besides, his dedication to helping others is precisely the quality that would make him such a valuable member of the crew. Because it’s not just that he is the kind of person who could maintain the coexistent operation of a space station that is powered by the infrastructure of three different species, like Chief O´Brien in Deep Space 9, but he is also eager to share this knowledge with others and empower them through it.
AK: Hm. We have been talking about how the technology is a key gateway for audience interest, and having an engineer character who helps facilitate that knowledge and understanding is an idea worth tossing around. But, so what, these are commendable traits, sure, but what is so unique about this guy in particular that would make him a compelling character that would keep audiences riveted and interested?
TBCS: His backstory. He is a Palestinian-Syrian programmer, the son of a famous poet and a gifted engineer, who started sharing his code online for free and becoming involved in major internet projects like Mozilla and Wikipedia, He started a hackerspace in Damascus, and started Creative Commons in Syria. He vastly extended Internet access in Syria, a country with a notorious record for Internet censorship and prohibitively expensive Internet access. And his dedication to open knowledge and sharing culture made him a threat to the authoritarian government, so he was arrested.
AK: Is he still in prison?
TBCS: His whereabouts are currently unknown, he was moved from his prison cell to an unknown location about a month ago, on 2 October 2015.
AK: I’m very sorry to hear that.
Well, I can tell you at least that we are interested in making some reference to the refugee crisis, at least the concept of refugees. And Internet stuff, like surveillance and censorship, are certainly hot issues today and we intend to integrate them into some storylines. But it is unlikely we will make any specific reference to Syria. This is about outer space.
TBCS: But directly referencing what is happening in Syria via this Bassel character is extremely important. Star Trek has always engaged with themes that connect to current events (relative to the time in which the series is made), and the war in Syria and its global implications is easily the most significant event occurring right now, and it’s one that you have the power to impact.
AK: Again, this is a television show. Its intention is to entertain people, not to stop wars. I have about 1 minute left and am open to hearing more specifics. I am intrigued by this guy, for sure, but I would need more of a hook in order to actually consider this.
TBCS: All right. I assume you have heard of Palmyra, the ancient city in Syria that served as a vital crossroads of trade and culture for millennia until many of its archaeological wonders were senselessly destroyed by ISIS.
Well before Bassel was arrested, he was working on documenting the site via photography and 3D models, creating a virtual reconstruction that would allow people to learn more about the site and its history in an innovative, immersive fashion. He could not have known at the time that much of the actual site of Palmyra would be destroyed, indeed, at the time this prospect likely seemed impossible. But today many of the renderings he made for this project are the best surviving sources of data about the site.
AK: That’s incredible. Are these renderings or this data publicly available?
TBCS: Yes, and they are in the public domain. There is a movement, a community and a web site called New Palmyra where artists, scientists, and designers are coming together to share, explore, and build upon Bassel´s data and renderings, to virtually reconstruct Palmyra’s heritage and in so doing build cultural understanding that transcends geographic and political borders.
AK: That sounds pretty well in line with Star Trek´s mission, and like something that could make for a great holodeck program. And since the files are in the public domain already, we would have significantly more freedom to experiment than we would if we had to construct them from scratch.
Well, I think it’s been more than 5 minutes. I have enjoyed this conversation and I will see what I can do. At the very least, I think we can name a shuttle or an exoplanet after New Palmyra.
TBCS: So long as there is a Bassel riding in that shuttle.