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A Wolfe Among Jackals

Robert Wolfe
Defending the Faithful: "Deep Space Nine" writer Robert Wolfe often ventures into the harsh world of online invective about the relative merits of TV's sci-fi offerings.

Photo by Zade Rosenthal

Star Trek producer Robert Wolfe braves insults and kudos alike to discuss his show on the Internet

By Zack Stentz

As anyone who's perused the television-themed newsgroups on the Usenet can attest, arguing about television can be a nasty business, at least on the Internet. Insults, accusations, and bruised feelings are the norm in this simultaneously personal and anonymous medium (sample exchange--first person: "Don't make me bitch-slap you, man." Second person: "I'd like to see how he'd 'bitch-slap' me, since I'm 6'5 and 300 lbs." Third person: "I think you'd quiver like a bowl of jello."), so the rough-and-tumble Internet would seem like the last place to find an actual creative executive for one of the debated shows hanging out.

Enter Robert H. Wolfe.

A co-writer and producer for the syndicated drama Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Wolfe regularly reads at least some of the numerous Star Trek-oriented newsgroups, and sporadically decloaks to correct errors, answer fan questions about already aired episodes, and offer maddeningly vague, teasing hints to upcoming shows. "I was originally making some clarifications and clearing up what I thought were some people's misperceptions about the show and how the television business works," says Wolfe of his reasons for joining the fray. "But I was doing it from an account I shared with my wife, and I didn't want her mailbox to get filled, so I ended up getting my own."

Once he started down the path of online communication, Wolfe found himself hooked on the medium, and obviously enjoys the rapport he enjoys, at least with the more civil members of the Internet community. "Oh yeah, it's right up there with Tetris as a distraction," he laughs. "I don't have a regularly scheduled time when I read and respond, and I can't do it when I'm really busy with the show, but I enjoy responding to people when I have time."

Commenting on the rather vicious nature of much of the online debate, Wolfe speculates: "I'm not entirely sure why the level of vitriol exists. It probably has to do with the immediateness and anonymity of the medium, and the fact that they don't think we're reading. People will say all sorts of things when they think you're not listening that they wouldn't dare say to your face.

"I tend to simply not read some posts," he adds ruefully. "Some people, and I'm not gonna name names, just don't like the show and are going to grind that axe over and over again, so I feel okay just skipping them."

Other messages have to be skipped by Wolfe as well, but for entirely different reasons. "For legal reasons, I never read a message with a story idea in it," he says. "I've gotten pretty good about filtering those messages out when I see them on the newsgroups, and people have been pretty respectful about not sending them to me. There are established channels for doing that." (Star Trek, almost alone among television shows, welcomes unsolicited scripts and pitches.)

"And then there are other posts that reveal a certain naivete about how the television business works, like the people who ask: 'Why can't you have a big spaceship battle every episode? Well, obviously it's because we don't have the money to do it every week. But that doesn't bother me as much, because a lot of those posters are young, or they're not in the position to know how the show is actually produced."

Aside from setting the tykes straight as to why the starship Defiant doesn't go blasting Klingons and Jem' Hadar every ten minutes, Wolfe also values the feedback he gets on the program. "The newsgroups are a useful gauge to people's immediate, emotional response to a show they just saw," he says. "The medium doesn't lend itself as much to a measured, intellectual response because it gives people that immediate gratification of writing their thoughts and sending them off. They're shooting from the hip. But seeing what people feel emotionally about a show is still valuable to us."

Wolfe is also careful to draw a distinction between the few hundred people who post Trek-related messages online with the several thousand who merely read the newsgroups (called "lurkers" in Usenet vernacular), and of course, the 10.5 million Americans who are simply content to watch the show on tv every week. "The online fans often come the closest to reflecting our own opinions about the show," Wolfe says. "They tend to like the more stories with more political and cultural intrigue, and we like writing those kinds of shows. If you did a study, you'd probably find that those are the stories that appeal to an older, more educated audience, and that's more of who you find on the 'net.

"Of course," he adds slyly, "we like to do the big action shows, too. Everyone likes to blow stuff up every once in awhile."

And despite the sometimes vituperative nature of the feedback he recieves from netizens meaner than a bunch of Vulcans in pon farr, Wolfe has no plans to abandon the medium. "I'm a writer, so I make my living from free and unfettered expression, so I'm all for the sort of free exchange that you get in the newsgroups," says Wolfe. "Like anything, it's something that can be abused, but it's been a positive experience, and one I plan to continue."

Producer/writer Robert Wolfe typically appears on the alt.tv.startrek-ds9 and rec.arts.startrek.current Usenet newsgroups.

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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro

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