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Haynes Enterprise Manual Co-author Ben Robinson Interview

Haynes Enterprise Manual Co-author Ben Robinson Interview

The long-awaited U.S.S. Enterprise Owners’ Workshop Manual is just about here. We’ve been teasing it for a while, first with news about its upcoming publication and then with a conversation with Derek Smith, editor at the Book Division of Haynes Publishing. And now presents an interview with the book’s co-author Ben Robinson, a Brit who may already be familiar to Star Trek fans thanks to his involvement with the Star Trek Fact Files.

Give us a feeling for your familiarity with Trek and participation in The Star Trek Fact Files and any other Trek-oriented projects...

I can't even remember the first episode of Star Trek I saw. I've literally been watching since before I can remember. I must’ve been watching re-runs in the 70s when I was a toddler. I've been professionally involved with Trek for the last dozen years or so. I was one of the original editors of The Star Trek Fact Files, which was an enormous project. If you're not familiar with it, it's a several thousand page long encyclopedia. It's heavily illustrated and covers literally everything in the Trek universe. It was an enormous success and that led me to become the editor of Star Trek The Magazine, which was published in the US for four years around the turn of the century. While I was doing that I interviewed countless people who'd been involved with the series and movies. During that time I made a lot of good friends in the Trek production team and, among other things, interviewed everyone who ever designed an Enterprise, which came in handy when it came to this book.

How did you come to this project and what was your immediate thought when you heard the concept of a Haynes Manual devoted to the Enterprise?

Haynes approached me through CBS. Initially it was just to offer a little advice, but as we talked it became apparent that it really would make a lot of sense if I wrote the book. There's something particularly charming about the idea of a Haynes Manual for the Enterprises. A large part of Trek’s appeal is that it feels very real and that things have been thought out thoroughly. Obviously Mike (Okuda) and Rick (Sternbach) had already written the two tech manuals, so this wasn't completely unknown territory. It was important to me that we do something a little different with the Haynes Manual. From the word go I knew I wanted it to be a bit more approachable than the tech manuals. I mean, they're brilliant, but they are also pretty hardcore. Sometimes when you're reading them you think it would help if you'd already been to Starfleet Academy. So I wanted to write something that retained that accuracy but would make more allowances for the “casual” reader, something that someone who loves Trek but doesn't have a science or engineering background could really get their head around.

And, you know what? I thought it was about time. There hasn't been a manual for the original Enterprise since the Franz Joseph and Shane Johnson books back in the 70s and a lot of things have changed since then. No one had ever put out anything for the NX-01, the B, the C or the E, so there was definitely a gap in Trek publishing waiting to be filled. And, extraordinarily this would be the first time Enterprise manual would be published in color with the advantage of CG imagery.

What were you most eager to write about? And how did you go about getting the details right?

When I started writing, what most excited me was the chance to write about the Kirk-era Enterprise. At heart I'm an old school Trek fan and the 1701 is my ship. As I worked, I found myself getting really excited by the B and C. So little has ever been established about those ships and when you look at them there’s quite a lot you can work out. For example, when I was looking at the model of the C, I realized there's a warp core ejection hatch on the bottom, and with a little checking I realized there isn't one on the earlier ships. That led us to the realization that the technology must’ve changed. Also, I knew a lot of stuff about the design thinking behind both the B and C that related to how they were equipped. This is where the interviews I'd done over the years really kicked in. I knew what Nilo Rodis and Bill George had been thinking about when they designed the Excelsior, which was the basis of the B. And, Andy Probert and Rick Sternbach had told me how the C was literally designed as a hybrid between the B and D.

I have to say that the single most satisfying chapter was the NX-01, and a lot of the credit for that should go to Doug Drexler, who designed it. Doug was amazingly generous with his time and pulled out sketches and diagrams from his files that revealed all sorts of things he'd put into the ship that never made it on to screen. That ship's incredibly well thought-out and there's masses of fantastic detail that we were able to include in the book.

How did I get it right? I watched a lot of Trek. I know that sounds simple, but the starting point for everything is the episodes and movies. Over the years I've built up some hugely detailed notes that cover literally every reference in every episode. Given how many episodes there are, that's no mean feat. That was only the beginning. I was in the fortunate position of being able to check with people who’d designed the Enterprises. It's a great shame Matt (Jefferies) isn't around anymore, but I once spent a whole day talking to him about the Enterprise. I've already said how great Doug was. I'd interviewed Andy Probert about his work on The Motion Picture Enterprise and the D. I know Rick and John Eaves and, of course, we had Mike as a consultant. There are other people too, who are too numerous to mention. One in particular stands out, and that's Ron D. Moore, who I talked to about the thinking about the thinking behind the E when First Contact was released.

What was your process, collaborating with co-writer Marcus Riley?

This was a really big project, so I asked Marcus, who had worked with me on both the Fact Files and the magazine, if he'd be willing to pitch in and help. He handled the chapter on the D, leaving me to get on with the other stuff. Then, along with Mike, we revised one another's stuff.

What did it mean to you to have Michael Okuda available as a consultant? Give us a couple of specifics as to how he helped you do your job...

Having Mike available was just invaluable. There's so little he doesn't know about Trek and even more importantly he knows how the Trek universe works. I know my Trek, but I'm not a 24th century engineer. Mike's as close to that as you can get. He can tell you exactly how much antimatter it takes to power a warp engine or how many pica seconds it takes to convert someone into a matter stream on the transporter pad. Anything in there that's really technical was thrashed through with Mike. In one or two cases I just handed things over to him. For example, there's a box about why the Enterprise C's warp nacelles are positioned where they are and how Starfleet's thinking about warp fields was evolving in the early 24th century. That's all Mike. On top of that, Mike just knows more about Star Trek than anyone else alive. He'd read everything we wrote and raise anything that he set his alarm bells ringing. We'd go back to the episodes and check. Mike also knows lots of stuff about the Enterprise that nobody else could know - like exactly what's on each deck. He also had a massive role when it came to the artwork.

Derek Smith told us that you introduced him to Robert Bonchune. How did you know Bonchune?

I've known Rob for years. When we were first doing the Fact Files they were just introducing CG on the show and I realized it was an incredible resource for any publication. If you've got a CG model you can look at something in real detail. We approached Foundation and Eden FX about getting people to render CG models out for us. Rob was one of the guys who really took that on and we became good friends, so when I started on this project he was one of the first people I thought of. There’s no substitute for a good render of a starship. It's as close as to the real thing as you could ever get.

How pleased are you with the finished product?

It's hugely exciting to see this book out there and I hope it makes people as happy to read it as it made us to create it. The pictures are gorgeous, we've been able to add to the Trek universe while staying completely true to the show, and I hope it’ll make people smile. It's something I think people have wanted for a long time, a proper history that puts the Enterprises into context with one another and gives you the story of how they evolved, with each ship building on the last.

Why isn’t the Enterprise from the J.J. Abrams movie included?

That's because at the moment the real pleasure of that ship is that we don't know anything about it. I want to go into those movies full of excitement because I'm going to find things out. There will come a time for a manual that covers that Enterprise, but for now it's best for it to stay a mystery.

What else are you working on right now? And if there are subsequent Trek-centric Manuals, what else would you like to delve into?

I’m working on so many things at the moment. I still have a full-time job working for the company who produced the Fact Files. We do a lot of 007 and Doctor Who publishing and we've got some top-secret Trek stuff in the pipeline that I think will make a lot of people very happy. In the meantime I've reclaimed my weekends. For now, it's great just to have the chance to relax, but I'm sure it won't be too long before I get the itch again. If there's an appetite for another manual I'd love to take a good look at the Klingons or Romulans.

You can pre-order the manual on the Store. It will ship November 2, 2010.