Notes on blueprint culture 1

My conversation today with an interesting young man — a Swarthmore student — about Mass Effect 3, a topic on which I’m preparing a future post, reminds me that blueprint culture arises not just around the “metatexts” and “hyperdiegeses” of literary, television, and film franchises’ fictional worlds, but those of video games as well. In fact, mapping and schematizing activities subtend any number of fictional media worlds, including those associated with comic books and fantasy wargaming (the latter a particularly interesting case in that its maps frequently function as actual spatial matrices of player engagement, its tables of character attributes actionable scripts for determining the turn-by-turn progressive generation of narrative and battle; in this sense, perhaps, fantasy wargames constitute a purer ur-form of referential play whose hallmarks, applied to more authorially-locked territories of noninteractive media, are unavoidably adulterated by a secondary, paratextual distance).

What makes a fictional world particularly amenable to blueprinting and referential treatment? (Note for further investigation the close lexical kinship between reference and reverence.) Looking at the invented universes that spring most quickly to mind as examples — Star Trek and Star Wars — I would argue for a list of attributes that includes the following:

  • belonging to the genre of science fiction, esp. “hard” SF, and some forms of fantasy
  • primarily visual in their base form (e.g. movies and television)
  • marked by distinctive design motifs that are also proprietary in nature, marking off one intellectual property from another
  • serial in nature and consisting of multiple instances (i.e. single, standalone films rarely have blueprint cultures associated with them; similarly one-off TV episodes, rare entities within that medium in any case); see “transmediated” below
  • as a consequence, containing large amounts of detail rendered still vaster and more extensive within the blueprinting practice
  • strong on continuity, often an outgrowth of limited numbers of repeatedly-visited settings
  • active or once-active fan bases (here an archeological/tautological factor: the very study of blueprint culture is premised on the availability of an archive constitued through blueprinting practices, themselves inherently textually generative; the wave of fan activity, once passed, leaves documentation in its trail like a waste product, or less pejoratively, something like a coral reef)
  • frequently the locus of officially-authored blueprinting as well, via tie-in texts
  • transmediated, or implemented across multiple media platforms, its very proliferation in part a function of blueprint materials that stabilize the fictional universe as an IP, organizing its extension and seeking to maintain coherence (an action whose continuousness suggests an equally relentless counterforce that threatens to decohere and scatter the storyworld’s textual instances)

On Blueprint Culture

As promised in my last post, I am undertaking a new essay project, one whose first draft I will write in public on this blog. I haven’t yet committed to a deadline, but my hope is to pull this together rather quickly, writing in small daily chunks — let’s say as a ballpark estimate the end of the month. I face some challenges here: with classes ending in two weeks, it’s the height of a busy semester (and I’m at my most burned out), and revisions on our essays for the BFI special effects anthology need to go out by April 15. But as JFK said of going to the moon, “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The essay in question is a long-simmering project involving blueprint culture, something I’ve only recent started to blog about but which has been on my mind since summer 2005, when I wrote the earliest version of my Star Trek chapter for the dissertation at Indiana University. Since then, my conception of the project has broadened past Roddenberry’s franchise to embrace a larger set of fan and professional practices devoted to mapping, drafting, indexing, and historicizing the storyworlds of fantastic media, from film and television franchises to literary and video game universes. In tomorrow’s post, I will condense my current thinking about blueprint culture and sketch out the argument I plan to make, before moving on to identify subtopics and amass resources.

Franz Joseph and Star Trek’s Blueprint Culture

As part of a larger project I’m preparing on “blueprint culture” — fan subcultures devoted to drawing, drafting, charting, mapping, and playing the worlds of science-fiction media — here is a brief history, excerpted from my book manuscript on special effects and transmedia, of Franz Joseph and the Starfleet Technical Manual he created in 1975.

One man in particular would dominate Star Trek’s design-oriented fandom in the 1970s. Though not a fan himself, Franz Joseph Schnaubelt was the first to awaken a broad base of fans to the pleasures of charting and extending Star Trek’s diegetic backdrop. By the same token, Schnaubelt brought to the attention of the show’s license holders the enormous profit potential of Trek manufacturing: first through supplementary materials expanding on the Trek universe, then through relaunching Trek as a storytelling franchise.

Schnaubelt, who in his professional life went by the name Franz Joseph, was born in Chicago in 1914. A designer and draftsman, Joseph began working at the aeronautical and military research firm General Dynamics in 1941, drawing up plans of seaplanes and fighter planes. “For being a man who was vehemently opposed to war,” Joseph’s daughter Karen Dick writes, he “certainly worked on some of the most formidable war machinery of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.”[i] Laid off in 1969, Joseph entered an early retirement that ended when his attention turned to Trek – not as entertainment, but as intellectual exercise. During the original series’ run, Joseph and Karen had watched the show together, but her passion outstripped his (he considered Star Trek only slightly superior to Lost in Space). In April 1973, Karen took her father to the inaugural meeting of the San Diego branch of the Star Trek Association for Revival (S.T.A.R.).[ii] The fans gathered there brought with them homemade models of Trek equipment such as communicators and phasers. According to Joseph, the ersatz props “were made out of cardboard, balsa wood, tape, wiring, glue, and paint and, for college kids … the workmanship was pretty bad any way you looked at it.”[iii] A former Cub Scout director, Joseph told the amateur craftsmen he thought “they could do better.”[iv] When they asked for assistance, Joseph agreed to bring his own professional training to bear.

Working from more than 800 film clips Karen had amassed, Joseph began to draft blueprints of the props, basing his work on a principle of architectural draftsmanship in which schematic drawings are projected into 3D views. Joseph reversed this, moving “from picture to plan” rather than from plan to picture.[v] In this sense, he inverted the process by which Matt Jefferies, a decade earlier, designed Trek’s sets and spacecraft: Jefferies would prepare both top-down plans and elevations – 3D views, some in color – showing how the finished object would look from camera viewpoint. According to Joseph,

I could take a picture of an enemy airplane and, as long as there was something on the airplane, or in the picture, that permitted me to determine the scale or make a fairly good judgment of the scale, then I would simply reverse the procedure and draw the plans of the airplane in that picture. This is what I was doing with the Star Trek slides. I drew the plans of the communicator, and then plans of the hand phaser and the pistol phaser.[vi]

When Karen’s friends saw the drawings, Joseph said, they “went wild over them. They wanted a lot more. They wanted everything. They made a whole list of stuff they wanted to see and I decided, well, I would do it if there was an interest in it.”[vii] When Joseph examined the lists, he realized that the fans were asking for “a ‘technical’ manual,” and set to work drawing up a comprehensive mechanical anatomy of Trek’s diegetic contents (Figure 3).[viii] From Lincoln Enterprises, the memorabilia vendor run by Roddenberry and Majel Barrett, Karen obtained a set of Matt Jefferies’s drawings of the Enterprise, the Galileo shuttlecraft, and the shuttledeck. “From those sketches and those in Whitfield’s book [The Making of Star Trek],” Joseph “laid the drawing out, scaled and sized it, and made a drawing of the Enterprise.”[ix] He then departed for the first time from canon, extrapolating a new type of Starfleet vessel – a massive warship called the Dreadnaught, which rearranged elements of the Enterprise configuration. Joseph topped off this initial set of drawings with a pattern for the standard Starfleet uniform, again demonstrating the seamless slippage among visual effects and more concrete elements such as sets, costumes, and props.

In the course of preparing the technical manual, Joseph decided it would be necessary to map the Enterprise’s internal layout. This was because the fan community

wanted bridge stations and other things concerned with the interior of the Enterprise, which did not exist except in a book or in somebody’s mind as a throwaway line. So it became rather obvious that I would have to lay out the Enterprise far enough to get to those areas – to see whether I could make drawings. This is how the Enterprise blueprints came about – in the middle of making the technical manual – they were primarily an afterthought.[x]

In “lofting” the ship, however, he discovered several errors in scale and perspective, most stemming from the change from 203 to 430 personnel (and a corresponding change in length from 180 to 947 feet) made by Roddenberry and Jefferies during preproduction on the original series. He also noticed that the bridge was 36 degrees out of alignment with the rest of the saucer – throughout the series, Captain Kirk had been facing slightly to the left of the ship’s angle of travel, a mistake that had to do with the producers’ need to create dramatic visual compositions by placing the “turbolift” elevator so it was not directly behind the captain’s chair. Drafting the technical manual and ship blueprints was, then, largely a matter of reconciling the “imaginary” object of the Enterprise miniature with the “real” object of sets such as the bridge, sickbay, and engineering, explaining in graphic form how exterior and interior aspects of the Enterprise fit together into a coherent whole. In this sense, Joseph’s work might be described as operationalizing the Kuleshov effect, tying down and standardizing relationships created through editing. The technical materials upon which design-oriented fandom thrives – blueprints, models, hand-crafted props – thus serve an essentially conservative function, knitting together loose seams of an imperfectly-manufactured diegetic reality, as opposed to the exploding/perverting of officially preferred meanings that occurs in fan fiction (particularly slash).

Nevertheless, his technical productions did ultimately bring him into conflict with Trek’s legal authors. Interviews with Joseph demonstrate the care he took not to step on the toes of Trek’s copyright holders; from the start, he corresponded with Roddenberry and Paramount executives, sending them samples of his work. At the same time, Joseph’s encounters with the fan community convinced him there was substantial interest in his technical drawings, a site of imaginative investment as well as potential profit. By May 14, 1973 – only a month after the S.T.A.R. meeting that inspired the project – Joseph, having completed a dozen drawings, contacted Roddenberry and received a go-ahead. Roddenberry hinted that Lincoln Enterprises would market the drawings once Joseph completed them. For a brief time, Roddenberry even employed Joseph as technical consultant and designer on a new science-fiction series he was then developing, Planet Earth.

But months later, with a major Trek convention approaching, Joseph had still not received official permission to sell his work. Bypassing Roddenberry, he made a one-time deal with Paramount to sell the “General Plans” (the Enterprise blueprints) at the upcoming convention. Equicon 1974 took place in Los Angeles from April 12-14. Of the 500 copies of the General Plans Joseph had prepared, 410 sold immediately; 450 requests for additional copies were taken on postcards. Paramount, which received Joseph’s royalty check shortly thereafter, sensed it was on to something, and began negotiating for a mass-market release of both the General Plans and the still-growing Technical Manual. The results exceeded all expectations. The blueprints went on sale across the nation on May 24, 1975, selling out within two hours. By May 28, 50,000 additional copies had sold, prompting Ballantine to print 100,000 more. In July the New York Times marveled,

It lives! There’s one publication that’s been selling so furiously in book stores during recent weeks that it would be included on the list [of bestsellers] above except for one fact. It’s not a book. “Star Trek Blueprints” is a set of 12 reproductions by Franz Joseph Schnaubelt showing “every foot of every level of the fabulous starship Enterprise.” Since mid-May Ballantine Books has sold 150,000 sets, enclosed in a plastic and leatherette portfolio, at $5. This week it goes back to press for 100,000 more.[xi]

The blueprints continued to sell strongly throughout the summer, reaching 10th on the paperback bestseller list and receiving a fourth printing in October. Meanwhile, interest in Franz Joseph’s other creation, the Technical Manual, was growing: at a time when a typical first printing of a Trek-related publications might run 20,000, Ballantine Books planned an initial run of 450,000. Both the General Plans and the Technical Manual ended up as bestsellers.

Although he found the widest audience, Joseph was by no means the first or only producer of design-oriented Trek material. In addition to the substantial body of such work that went on unremarked in bedrooms and basement workshops, many fans printed blueprints and manuals and sold them at conventions and through mail order. Geoffrey Mandel’s Starfleet Handbook, for example, came out in September 1974 and featured “schematics of the phaser, communicator, tricorder, and shuttlecraft.”[xii] Nevertheless, Franz Joseph’s creations inspired numerous others throughout the mid- and late 1970s to map the fantasy world of Trek in exacting detail through blueprints of the bridge, K-7 Space Station, and Klingon and Romulan cruisers. The success of the General Plans and Technical Manual led to a string of similar publications at the mass-market level, and constituted an access point for fans wishing to join the ranks of professionals: The Star Fleet Medical Reference Manual, published in 1977, featured the work of Geoffrey Mandel and Doug Drexler (who would later go on to create Christopher Pike, Commanding and other imagery for the “Ships of the Line” calendars). The popularity of Joseph’s technical materials arguably influenced the development of the “Star Trek Poster Magazine,” whose first issue came out in September 1976, and the Trek “Fotonovel” series, both of which showcased Trek’s spectacular visuals through color reproductions of film frames.[xiii] This trend would eventually lead to a series of official Trek publications such as Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise, as well as technical manuals for spinoff series The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.[xiv] With the growth of the personal-computer industry, software products such as the Interactive Guide to the Enterprise and Starship Creator joined the lineup.

Franz Joseph himself, however, did not go on to do more Trek projects. In part this was due to a series of illnesses affecting both him and his wife; but the larger obstacle seems to have been caused by Gene Roddenberry and Paramount themselves, who, during Trek’s pop-culture renaissance, were hard at work on relaunching the Star Trek franchise. In the early 1970s, Roddenberry assured Joseph that development of the General Plans and Technical Manual could continue unimpeded because Trek was, to all intents and purposes, a dead property. “Before I started seriously on the Manual,” Joseph said, “I had talked to Gene, Paramount, NBC, and Ballantine Books, and they all assured me that the Star Trek TV series was dead, it would not go back into production.”[xv] But the show had left a uniquely profitable corpse in the form of “the seventy-nine jewels,” as industry insiders called the original series, which continued to earn revenue through constant rebroadcast. The syndicated series was profitable in a secondary, subcultural sense, as Joseph himself acknowledged: “the reruns were maintaining continued fan interest, and gaining new fans every year. So I felt it was all right if I made the manual. It was something the original series never had, Gene wanted me to go ahead and finish it, and Ballantine was interested in publishing it.”[xvi]

[i] Greg Tyler, “Karen Dick” (June-July 1999 interview), <>, accessed 18 June 2005.

[ii] Paul Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph” (June 1984), <>, accessed 18 June 2005.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Gerry Williams and Penny Durrans, “These Will Be A Reality Sooner than You Think” (October 1976 interview with Franz Joseph Schnaubelt), <>, accessed 17 June 2005.

[viii] Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Gerry Williams and Penny Durrans, “These Will Be A Reality Sooner than You Think.”

[xi] “Paper Back Talk,” New York Times (13 July 1975), 210.

[xii] Joan Marie Verba, Boldly Writing: A Trekker Fan and Zine History, 1967-1987, 2nd Ed. (Minnesota: FTL Publications, 2003), 17.

[xiii] Lynn Simross, “Fotonovel: The Movie-Picture Book,” Los Angeles Times (18 September 1978), OC_B1.

[xiv] Shane Johnson, Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989); Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda, Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991); Herman Zimmerman, Rick Sternbach, and Michael Okuda, The Deep Space Nine Technical Manual (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

[xv] Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph.”

[xvi] Ibid.


The fund drives that biannually interrupt the flow of intelligent goodness from my local NPR station like to trumpet the power of “driveway moments” — stories so called because when they come on the radio, you stay in your car, unable to tear yourself away until they’re finished. The term has always interested me because it so bluntly merges the experience of listening with the act of driving: treating the radio as synecdoche for the car, or maybe the other way around (I can never keep my metonymies straight).

Anyway, I had my own driveway moment tonight, when All Things Considered broadcast a story on the vidding movement. Of course, fans have been remixing and editing cult TV content into new, idiosyncratically pleasurable/perverse configurations for decades, and the fact that mainstream media are only now picking up on these wonderful grassroots creations and the subcultural communities through which they circulate is sad proof of a dictum I learned from my long-ago undergraduate journalism professor: by the time a cultural phenomenon ends up on the cover of Newsweek, it’s already six months out of date.

Credit to ATC, though, for doing the story, and for avoiding the trap of talking about vidding as though it were, in fact, something new. I did tense up when the reporter Neda Ulaby used male pronouns to refer to one CSI vidder — “the vidder wants to say something about the dangers faced by cops on the show, and he’s saying it by cutting existing scenes together” — thinking it surely incorrect, since the vidding community is dominantly female. Oh, great, I thought: yet another rewriting of history in which a pointedly masculine narrative of innovation and authorship retroactively simplifies a longer and more complex tradition developed by women. (Yes, I do occasionally think in long sentences like that.)

But then the piece brought in Francesca Coppa, and everything was OK again. Coppa, an associate professor of English and the director of film studies at Muhlenberg College, is herself a vidder as well as an accomplished scholar of fandom; I had the pleasure of hearing her work at MIT’s Media in Transition conference in 2007. With her input, the NPR story manages to compress a smart and fairly accurate picture of vidding and fandom into a little under six minutes — an impressive feat.

The funny thing is that the little flash of anxiety and defensiveness I felt when it seemed like NPR would “get it wrong” was like a guilty echo of the way I’ve “gotten it wrong” over the years. My own work on Star Trek fandom focuses on a variety of fan creativity based on strict allegience to canon, in particular the designed objects and invented technologies that constitute the series’ setting and chronology. I call it, variously, hardware fandom or blueprint culture, and I’ve always conceptualized it as a specifically male mode of fandom. It’s the kind of fan I once was — hell, still am — and in my initial exuberance to explore the subject years ago, I remember thinking and writing as though feminine modes of fandom were mere stepping stones toward, really a pale adjunct to, some more substantive, engaged, and commercially complicit fandom practiced by men. I’ve learned better since, largely through interactions with female friends and colleagues in dialogues like the gender-in-fandom debates staged by Henry Jenkins in summer 2007.

For fear of caricaturing my own and others’ positions, I’ll spare you further mea culpas. Suffice to say that my thinking on fandom has evolved (let’s hope it continues to do so!). I am learning to prize voices like Coppa’s for prompting me to revisit and reassess my own too-easy understandings of fan practices as something I can map and intepret based solely on my own experience: valid enough as individual evidence, I suppose, but curdling into something more insidious when generalized — a male subject’s unthinking colonization of territory already capably inhabited.