The Usenet Deep Space 9 recapper that helped inspire modern TV criticism
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, Exhibit 5,768: the current golden age of TV has clearly inspired a golden age of TV writing. And if you follow today’s TV criticism at all, chances are a handful of names immediately come to mind (people like Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker or James Poniewozik at TheNew York Times, for instance). But time and time again, stories on the rise of this format in recent years end up pointing to one writer—Uproxx’s Alan Sepinwall—as the dean of modern TV criticism.
While landmark TV writing sites like TV Without Pity (1998) wouldn’t come along until the Internet matured, Sepinwall was on the Web back when “Lynx and Mosaic were the only two browsers and you had to drive uphill through the snow both ways to get to the Yahoo! homepage,” as he once put it. Back in 1993, long before he started his own blog or went on to contribute to the Star Ledger and Hitfix, Sepinwall was just a college sophomore posting about NYPD Blue to Usenet.
Ask Sepinwall about the origins of modern TV writing, however, and he has something different in mind: Usenet’s rec.arts.startrek.current and a certain Deep Space Nine recapper extraordinaire named Tim Lynch.
“Tim was, I think, a CalTech prof by day. I tried tracking him down once to thank him for inspiration, to no avail,” Sepinwall tweeted when reflecting on his 20 years as a critic in 2016.
Luckily, Sepinwall ultimately got his chance. In fact, the underground TV writing/DS9 legend recognized the name. “I remembered Alan Sepinwall from my days on Usenet,” Lynch told Ars recently. “He didn’t tend to post to the Star Trek newsgroups all that much, but I remember seeing his stuff here and there. And when I later moved back to New Jersey, The Star-Ledger is where he was writing for years. I read that column and I said ‘I know him.’ He found me a few years ago when someone was doing a feature on him, and he ended up sending me a signed copy of his book.”
Ground zero(ish) of Internet TV writing
Ahead of the recent anniversary of his start with DS9, Lynch happily revealed he didn’t start modern TV criticism, either—he actually got into it because his college buddy Mike was already reviewing Trek on mailing lists and Usenet back in 1988. “After about half a season [of reading], I said, ‘You know, I can do that,” Lynch said. “So very early in The Next Generation S2, I started writing reviews.”
This was the late ‘80s, and Lynch would review TNG all the way through S6. His early work doesn’t resemble what you’d necessarily read in Entertainment Weekly or on The AV Club today: the pieces include recaps of the main plot and any notable subplots before getting into how he feels about the episode (see an early review from 1989 for TNG’s “The Icarus Factor” as an example). Each ends with a rating out of 10, sometimes rating individual storylines or performances even.
But in January 1993, things changed. That’s when, 25 years ago this month, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered.
“I even said it in one of my reviews, I wasn’t planning on reviewing DS9. The time suck was too large,” Lynch said. He had just started his first year of teaching (which was “also not a time-light activity”). “I warned people not to expect reviews, but then the show premiered. I thought ‘I can’t not talk about this.’”
Here, Lynch’s writing evolved into the forebear for modern TV writing. To start, Lynch didn’t shy away from or hide his personal preferences. For instance, slapstick Ferengi episodes? No thanks, see his review of S6’s “Profit and Lace”—“I wrote something to the effect of: ‘There were some nice moments of pathos, some nice cliffhangers, and Armin Shimerman did a great job, but enough with this week’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’” Lynch recalled. “That got a lot of people’s attention.”
Lynch skipped his prior recaps in favor of individual episode discussions involving themes, writing, and performances. His pieces got longer, and separate season wrap-ups emerged. For another example, Lynch looks back at DS9 S2 as a high point, and a late-season review like his take on two-parter “The Maquis” demonstrates that reverence. While all the reps (Lynch imagines he penned well over 100,000 words in total between TNG, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise, and some film reviews) clearly helped him develop a certain style, Lynch acknowledges DS9 also provided a richer text to engage with.
“From early on, DS9 struck me as something with so much meat in the premise. There was an awful lot of stuff they could do with it, and I got very into its potential,” he said. “TNG was depicting a very utopian society, which was challenging for the writers at times. But DS9 and later Voyager dealt more with, ‘How do you maintain a utopia’ or, in Voyager’s case, ‘How do you build one?’ Voyager ran away from that premise as fast as it could, but DS9 mostly tried to keep that. In the end, I wasn’t 100 percent thrilled that they decided to go on a war footing instead, but there was a lot of stuff they did that spoke to more complexity of character and theme than TNG. I love TNG, but DS9 usually gave me more to think about.”
A genuine Internet impact
Though he covered TNG, Voyager, Enterprise, and some films/books, Lynch’s writings on DS9 are what ultimately earned him a lasting place in TV criticism lore. If the Sepinwall namecheck isn’t enough proof, his work eventually inspired fans to create an entire wikia just for these reviews, and his writing decisions (like when he took on Enterprise or eventually retired) made TrekToday headlines just like the announcement of a new film would. (No, he insists his work didn’t inspire the First Contact character, though.)
Lynch kinda, sorta even had an idea at the time that he was gaining more readers than just his other Usenet pals. Early in his DS9 review, Lynch taught science at a school in California “and I was teaching Rick Berman [Gene Roddenberry’s successor]’s son, just luck of the draw,” he said. “I don’t know that his dad was reading my reviews all that much, but his son certainly was. And he asked me for copies of a couple of them from Voyager and DS9 to print out and show dad.”
Lynch would later hear from people like writer Brannon Braga (TNG, Voyager, Enterprise, and now The Orville) and artist Michael Okuda (supervisor on many films and Enterprise), plus fellow TV writers like Bad Astronomer Phil Plait. A UK magazine called TV Zone asked Lynch to review Trek books based on the strength of his DS9 work, studios approached him with sci-fi scripts to review, Tor nearly published a compilation, and the Marc Alaimo (DS9’s Gul Dukat) fan club even asked him to attend an official farewell dinner at the end of DS9 (both Alaimo and Casey Biggs, DS9’s Damar, chatted Lynch up that evening).
Yet the pièce de résistance of his impact seems clear in retrospect—the TNG writers room once invited Lynch to pitch an episode based on the strength of his work near the beginning of DS9. Lynch recalls he wrote an episode following up on Data dreaming as laid out in TNG’s “Birthright;” the writer dug into Trek dream symbolism and Data’s emotions or lack thereof.
“Obviously, I wasn’t taken, but that was very flattering,” Lynch said. “I’m flattered and still somewhat amazed that the decade or so of writing I did was seen as so valuable.”
Born at the wrong time?
If Lynch came up reviewing Trek during today’s TV writing culture, it’s quite likely he would’ve been scooped up by some major outlet (if not a sci-fi show writer’s room directly) to write full-time. But his experience came during a different era of recaps and reviews, so Lynch still teaches science to generations of young students. And if he were to shift careers back to writing, he’d rather pursue science writing than entertainment writing at this point anyway. Yet, today he has no regrets about how it all played out.
“Those reviews made me realize my writing was somehow valuable, and it encouraged me to keep doing it in some shape or form,” Lynch said. “It made me better as a teacher, and it leads to the occasional moment of hilarity when students stumble upon it and say, ‘Wait, is this you?’ A friend who was dean of students at one of my previous schools referred to me as her favorite science nerd, and she said it was because I didn’t write like one.”
A few years have passed since Lynch rewatched any DS9, but he keeps up with new Trek films and intends to follow Discovery once its distribution method becomes a bit more viewer-friendly. Given how much a certain series shaped his life, however—Lynch’s DS9 writings spanned the entire run of the show, which coincided with ages 22 to 29 for the teacher—it’s unlikely his answer to “what’s the best Trek?” will ever change.
“As much as I tended to ride DS9 for not living up to its potential at times, in a lot of ways it was a high-water mark for writing in the Star Trek Universe,” Lynch said. “The advantage of being in a stationary setting versus a starship setting is, you couldn’t run away from the consequences, which is something virtually every other series did quite a bit. In DS9, they really had to push themselves in different ways, so some of the cultural questions and political questions it brought up are still to this day very, very strong pieces of work and things I think about.
“I would love to have some other Trek series come up where I can say, ‘I think we’re finally equalling the strengths of DS9—and without the occasional lows.’ But that remains a pipedream.”
Lynch joked he likely won’t be so eager to chat when Voyager hits its 25th anniversary in 2020. So as far as legacies go, he notes, DS9’s is not a bad one to have after all these years.