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Credit: CBS

Trekkies can thank Herb Solow for the most famous Star Trek plot device

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Nov 23, 2020, 7:18 PM EST (Updated)

If you love the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises, the man who made both of those TV series happen — Herbert F. Solow — passed away last week at the age of 89 years old. Among his many accomplishments, Solow is most famous to Trek fans for his time at Desilu Studios in the '60s, when he managed to sell Star Trek to NBC and Mission: Impossible to CBS. But, one impossible mission Solow pulled off, that you probably didn't know, was the simple fact that if it weren't for him, we probably wouldn't have the most famous narrative framing device in the entire Final Frontier.

Ever wonder where the idea for the Captain's Log came from? Yep, that was Herb Solow, trying to hammer out a practical way to structure individual episodes of the classic Star Trek.

In the 1996 memoir Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (co-authored by Robert H. Justman), Solow details the painstaking process of taking Gene Roddenberry's loose pitch for Star Trek and turning it into a viable product that TV networks would want to purchase. One of the biggest hurdles they faced was constructing a way in which the individual episodes could be told in a way that would seem realistic to the TV audience. As Solow wrote: "Star Trek, according to Gene's concept, was out there in the future and was going to happen." But, at the time, he worried that this assertion simply wasn't enough because, as he explains, "There was the possibility that the 1964 television audience wasn't going to accept that premise on a continuing series basis." 

In other words, Solow believed that Star Trek needed a grounding point-of-view narrative, something not unlike a Dr. Watson narrator from Sherlock Holmes stories, or as he put it, a looking-backward narrative akin to what Johnathan Swift did with Gulliver's Travels. "My recommendation to Roddenberry: The voyage of the Enterprise [has] already taken place."

Credit: CBS

And so, the concept of the "Captain's Log" was born. In Solow's words, this means that "each episode became a flashback." For longtime fans of Trek, this framing can feel a little bit wonky when you stop to think about it: When does Kirk record the Captain's Log? Sometimes the action seems to be described in the present tense, so when is that happening? What about when Kirk falsifies his logs and we see him do it on screen?

Well, if you think about it, from a narrative perspective, popular books do this all the time. We don't actually think the narrator of a novel — like say, Katniss in The Hunger Games — is writing down everything that happens to her as we're reading it. On some level, we accept, maybe subconsciously, that all of this stuff has happened, and that the narrator (whoever they are) wrote it down or recorded it at some later date. If you fast forward to 2020, Lower Decks showrunner Mike McMahan supports this idea, saying that he believes that within the Star Trek universe "popular logs" probably get circulated around Starfleet, which is why people are aware of such dramatic versions of the Trek stories we all know and love. 

The mega-popular Deep Space Nine episode "In the Pale Moonlight" is probably the best example of using this type of after-the-fact framing device to the ultimate dramatic effect. In that episode, not only is everything framed by Captain Sisko warily recording events that he's not proud of but it also meta-fictionally ends with him deleting said logs.

Credit: CBS

Essentially, this one Herb Solow contribution to Star Trek (there were countless others) is illustrative of the kind of thing you could easily not notice, but at the same time, can't imagine the success of the series without it. If Star Trek hadn't had the Captain's Log, the propulsive sense of the plots of individual episodes would not land the same way they do. The narrative framing of this idea put us closer to the hero — eventually Captain Kirk — and made him not only our captain but the pseudo-author of everything we saw and heard, as well.

The notion of Captain's Logs — and later, personal logs of other crew members — brings the audience closer to the characters, and give the humans, Vulcans, androids, and Klingons of Star Trek a literary quality. The heroes of Trek were never meant to be fairytales. They had to feel like the stories of real people. Solow knew that, and in fighting for that point, helped to save Star Trek before it even began.