Science Fiction Storytelling, Star Trek Style and Beyond
By Alaina G. Levine
Andre Bormanis fills in for Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles profiling people trained in physics who have gone on to make their mark in a variety of careers. The first article appeared in the April APS News.
If you conduct a Google search for “Andre Bormanis”, the first thing you’ll find is that he is one of the privileged few to have their biography listed on startrek.com, the official website of all that was and is Star Trek (ST). He didn’t explore strange new worlds, but rather helped shape them when he served the…um… enterprise, initially as science consultant for ST: The Next Generation, ST: Deep Space Nine, and ST: Voyager, and then later as a writer, story editor, and producer for the last series, ST: Enterprise.
The physics-trained scriptwriter doesn’t go to Star Trek conventions anymore, although he still hangs with his buddy Bob Picardo, who played the holographic doctor on Voyager. Bormanis is quick to point out that for him, serving as the Star Trek science consultant was simply a gig, though a successful one at that, which was obviously bolstered by his formal education in atoms, stars, and globular clusters.
“Like physics, storytelling involves problem solving, formulating hypotheses, exploring unexpected connections between phenomena, and seeking a solution,” Bormanis explains. In writing, “The premise of the story is the hypothesis. Connections you explore become the plot. The solution is the climax and resolution of the story.”
Bormanis holds a Bachelor’s in physics (with minors in math and English) from the University of Arizona and a Master’s in science, technology and public policy, with a focus on the space program, from George Washington University (GWU).
After graduating with his undergraduate degree, he completed a year of post baccalaureate study each in physics and music composition, but found physics graduate school not to his liking. “I didn’t have a good reason for being there,” he says. “Graduate school was a fallback plan because I couldn’t get a job. But starting a PhD in physics as a fallback plan is a bad idea.”
He eventually got a job in software development and education in his home city of Phoenix, but having had “the writing bug” since he was a youngster, he soon realized he “had a hankering for some kind of creative arts career,” says Bormanis.
He reconnected with friends who were making a living as comedy writers in La La Land at about the same time that the new Star Trek franchise, The Next Generation, launched. Bormanis found himself wondering if he could come up with innovative ideas for a script.
On his own he learned about TV script format and structure, and over a few months, he massaged some ideas into a workable script. Through Bormanis’s connections, the script landed in the lap of a Star Trek producer who liked it, but did not purchase it. Bormanis was encouraged, however, and signed up for some scriptwriting classes at Arizona State University (ASU) to hone his new- found craft.
While at ASU, under the apprenticeship of Steve Geller, who had written the award-winning screenplay for the film version of Slaughterhouse-Five, Bormanis received a NASA Space Grant Fellowship to pursue graduate studies at George Washington University. He spent two years there, working on his Master’s, all the while becoming a master at not only scriptwriting, but also the battering business of Hollywood as well. Call after call to agents was left unreturned.
In 1993, Bormanis decided he would make one more call to actualize his dream. And like a scene from a movie, not only did he get an agent on the phone who was interested in his work, but more importantly, the woman had a possible job opportunity for him–the position of science consultant to the Star Trek series. With Bormanis’ background in physics and writing, the agent was certain he would be perfect for the part.
He flew to Hollywood, where he “auditioned” for the break-out role, by writing a set of tech notes to accompany an actual script for Deep Space Nine. A few weeks later, as Bormanis was completing his fellowship at GWU, he was offered the job as science consultant.
Bormanis’s continuing mission at Star Trek was simple: use his knowledge of science to punctuate scripts and make them believable within the realm of the Star Trek universe. He provided suggestions for changes in science content, “filled in the spaces with techno babble”, and incorporated both real and invented Star Trek “scientific theory”, of which there is an exhaustive history and nomenclature, says Bormanis.
One of his favorite examples of the fictitious Star Trek scientific landscape in which he dwelled revolves around the so-called “Heisenberg Compensators”. According to the shows’ producers, these “devices” are employed in teleportation to deal with the fact that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that “you cannot know a subatomic particle’s exact position and its exact velocity at the same time,” the 1994 Time Magazine article, “Reconfigure the Modulators!” explained. So if you don’t know this information, how can you teleport someone and not end up with a mess? Simple. The “Heisenberg Compensators” save the day. And how do they work, you ask? Michael Okuda, a technical advisor on Star Trek, famously countered, “They work just fine, thank you.”
Bormanis’s physics background was clearly an advantage in his science consulting job. Not only did he better understand the technical “subjects” of time travel, phase shifting, and tricorders, but he was also able to better comprehend and apply terminology from other scientific specialties such as medicine, oceanography, and geology as well. This ability to grasp interdisciplinary technology came in handy on more than a few occasions, and sometimes generated controversy from Bormanis’s own fan base.
For one ST episode dealing with a disease, Bormanis recommended the use of the word “antibody” in the script, to accurately describe what the body secretes to fight foreign antigens, such as bacteria, to produce an immune response. Entertainment overruled fact, however, and the producers felt using the word “antigen” in place of “antibody” sounded “cooler”, despite its blatant inaccuracy, recalls a tickled Bormanis. When the episode aired, he received emails from irate science aficionados who were insistent on pointing out what they perceived as a mistake on Bormanis’s part.
When the last Star Trek show went off the air in 2005, Bormanis emerged victorious from the experience like a Klingon after battle. He had worked his way up to being a writer and producer on Enterprise, and had gained valuable expertise in the broad operations of a television program. He even wrote a book about the science of the show, entitled “Star Trek Science Logs.
He immediately jumped into other projects, working as a producer and story editor on the now defunct show Threshold, which teamed him with his previous Star Trek collaborators, including Brent Spiner, the actor who played Data on The Next Generation.
Bormanis continues to pursue his love of science fiction storytelling. He is currently busy pitching, writing, and researching various new television and film projects.
He easily rattles off the benefits of having studied physics for his career. “It teaches you to think logically, how to work through a problem and stick with it until you finish, and it encourages creativity,” he says. And as Andre Bormanis lays in a course for his triumphant future, it is logical that physics will help make it so.