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Home » Archives » April 2008 » How to Give Maris Hives, Alphabetized
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04/08/2008: How to Give Maris Hives, Alphabetized

Gentle Reader Julie in New Jersey writes in to ask about show bibles. She wants to know how they're organized, what exactly is in them, whether they're ever published for the general public, whether they're updated as the show continues, etc. These are all great questions.

My impression is that this varies. Not all shows have bibles, and when they do, they can look very different. There is no standard format. In fact, there is no standard function.

Once, years ago, I got my hand on a copy of the "Frasier" show bible, and it was a wonderful and meticulous document that was scrupulously maintained to reflect everything known about the characters and their history. If something was established on air -- the name of Frasier's mother, Niles' favorite professor, Martin's favorite bar, it was reflected in the bible which then served as a resource for the writers to keep everything consistent. I remember with particular delight a list of Maris' food allergies that must have been fifty items long.

That's the only bible I've seen that worked that way, though. (It may be a half-hour vs. hour distinction.) The other ones I've come across (and there have only been a couple) have generally been sales documents used to help a television network or studio understand a new show, and are sometimes given to new writers as they join the staff, for the same reason. They discuss the characters, especially their back stories, and the world of the show. In the sales document version, essentially a much-expanded pitch, there may be a discussion of plot lines projected into the future of the show, perhaps in the "season one will be about..." form. But since shows often take off in unexpected directions, this kind of feature is quickly outdated and irrelevant. It's possible that a bible may contain some firecracker of information about the way the creator envisions the eventual end of the series, but since everything is subject to change, that firecracker may be a dud. Especially if the fuse was lit many years earlier.

I haven't seen this kind of bible get updated as a show continues. This means that they often contain information about the characters or their world that has been changed by subsequent scripts and is no longer valid.

Often, shows rely on their writers' assistants or script coordinators to be walking bibles, in that they're often tasked with remembering or researching questions like, "What did we name our lead character's childhood pet hamster?" or "How much time passed between episodes two and three?"

Julie asks if show bibles contain "rules" for how that particular series' universe operates. Yes, this is one of the things a bible can contain. I haven't looked at it for a while, but I remember that the Battlestar bible has lots of detailed explanation for how the ship itself operates, including the function of various features of the hangar deck, and a discussion of the technical language used by the pilots, and even a neat little essay on why it's not plausible for anyone to abscond with a viper.

As you've probably gathered, show bibles sound really cool -- and they can be -- but they just aren't as important as you might think to the daily life of the staff. The truth is that once you're living inside a show, you're swimming as fast as you can from one island to the next, and there is neither the time nor the need to record decisions that have been made (these are in the scripts), or that are in the process of being made (these are in the notes taken in the room as the writers work).

I don't know for certain of any show bibles that have been published the way that scripts are sometimes collected and published. If anyone has done this, it would probably be one of the Trek series. Let me run to Amazon... Yes, it looks like a version of the Voyager bible is included in the "Star Trek Voyager Companion." You might want to look at that, Julie and other interested parties, to run your eyes across one of these in the flesh.

If I receive any emails from my friends on various shows saying that what I've written here doesn't reflect the role of a bible on their show, I will let you know.

Lunch: avocado, lettuce and tomato on olive bread. The olive bread tends to dominate.


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