Catching Up with Star Trek Writer Mike Sussman
Mike Sussman recently finished as a stint as a writer-producer for Legend of the Seeker, and the cable network TNT just ordered a pilot for a possible show called Perception, co-created by Sussman. But it all began a decade ago, when Sussman landed a job as an intern in the writers’ room at Star Trek: Voyager. Here, in an exclusive interview with StarTrek.com, Sussman recounts his rise through the ranks at Voyager and Enterprise, touches on his experiences with Threshold and Legend of the Seeker, and previews Perception.
You started as a Voyager intern. How did that happen? What were your responsibilities?
My future boss and writing partner Ken Biller found a Next Gen script of mine in the slush pile. He liked it, gave me a call and asked if I’d like to do an internship with the Voyager writing staff. Of course I jumped at the chance. One of my duties as an intern was to read scripts that had been submitted by non-professionals, summarize them and then pitch them to Voyager’s showrunner, Michael Piller. Every now and then they’d buy one of these scripts. But Michael didn’t like any of the ones I’d read. Our meeting was almost over and he said, “Is that all you got?” So I pitched him something I’d been noodling, a story about Tuvok mind-melding with an alien serial killer. Michael stared at the ceiling as I pitched the idea, hands behind his head, then looked at me and said, “I don’t think I’ve heard an idea like that before,” and he bought it. My internship was over that Friday, and the following Monday I was back in the Trek offices as a working writer.
You wrote several Voyager episodes. Which are you proudest of?
“Meld” turned out to be a pretty good episode and Brad Dourif did a great job as the Maquis serial killer. Michael Piller handled the teleplay on that one. “Author, Author” is probably my favorite Voyager script. The Doctor writes a holonovel, a roman à clef that portrays the Voyager crew in a less than flattering light. The heart of the story was the Doctor’s struggle to be accepted as a legitimate writer and a regular person. Bob Picardo really made that episode and he brought the funny — you could give Bob the phone book to read and he’d be terrific.
You were a full-fledged writer-producer when you got to Enterprise. How different an experience was that?
It was nice to no longer be the new guy on deck. Suddenly the writers’ room was filled with a bunch of new faces, people who’d never written Trek before. Rick and Brannon wanted to shake up things, bring in people who had more of a background writing character, and take some of the emphasis off the sci-fi and technobabble. But the result was something of a mixed bag. They were all very talented writers, but Trek is very much its own thing, and it was a struggle for some of the new people to get their head around the show.
Enterprise elicited mixed reactions from the get-go. What went right and what didn't work as intended?
You’re treading on thin ice with science fiction fans anytime you decide to make a prequel. I’m envious of what Orci and Kurtzman came up with for the new film -- setting their prequel in an alternate timeline where anything can happen was a brilliant move and the kind of thing you can only get away with on Star Trek. As for what went right with Enterprise, we did quite a few episodes I think stand alongside the very best in the Trek canon. But at times the show felt more like a prequel to Next Generation and not The Original Series. We corrected that to an extent in season four largely due to the influence of Manny Coto. Like me, he wanted to find the connective tissue to Kirk’s era.
Which episodes bearing your name were you proudest of?
“Twilight” turned out better than I’d imagined and was well-received. It was originally a Voyager story — instead of Archer having a memory affliction and waking up in the future, it would’ve been Janeway, with Chakotay as her caretaker. It was my attempt at writing a love story for those two, but I couldn’t sell the Voyager producers on the idea. It turned out to work better as an Archer and T’Pol story anyway, with the background of the Xindi war upping the stakes. It’s always fun when you can toast Earth before the opening titles. I also had great fun writing the mirror universe two-parter in our last year.
How disappointed were you that Enterprise went unfinished, and what sorts of stories were you planning to tell?
We told 97 stories over four seasons, so it’s not like we were robbed. Still it would’ve been fun to revisit the mirror universe in season five, and hear the first rustlings of the Romulan War. I had this sneaky plan to reveal that T’Pol’s father was a Romulan, but who knows how that would’ve played out. I think I could’ve sold Rick and Brannon on it. The Xindi arc was a lot of fun and we did some great episodes, but if you’re going to spend an entire season on one conflict, then just do the Romulan War. That’s what season three should’ve been.
How did you enjoy your post-Trek experiences on Threshold and Legend of the Seeker?
I had a great time on Threshold, but the network pulled the plug just as the show was finding its footing. Seeker was tremendous fun and a real challenge at first. We had to figure out a way to adapt these violent, philosophical novels into standalone episodes that Disney could syndicate and broadcast on a Saturday afternoon. It took a couple of episodes to find the show, but once we did we were firing on all cylinders. Sadly, first run syndication wasn’t really prime for a comeback. The business model didn’t work at the end of the day. But it was great to work with many of my old Trek colleagues like Ken, Andre Bormanis and Raf Green.
You and Ken are teamed up again for Perception. What's the premise?
Perception is about a neuroscientist, Geoffrey Pierce, a man with an unusual mental state who helps the FBI catch criminals. If the pilot turns out well, hopefully we’ll get a season order from TNT. Perception is a bit of a departure for me, having written so much genre stuff in the past. For me, the hook into this story, any story, is character. Pierce is very much an alien in his world, as much as Data or Spock, and I never tire of writing stories about aliens.
You started on Trek as an intern and now you've co-created your own show. What's it meant to you to make that leap?
I’m thrilled to have gotten a chance to play in Gene’s universe for a little while. It was five years, but it went by in a flash. The great thing about writing Trek is that you get to work out all your muscle groups. One week you’re writing a courtroom drama, the next you’re doing a quiet character piece, the week after you’re writing a screwball comedy. You work on Trek long enough and you feel like you can handle any genre. I think that’s part of the appeal of the franchise -- it can be so many different things to different people.
You can follow Mike on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/writtenbymikes