DS9 & Voyager Writer Lisa Klink Looks Back
Lisa Klink lived the dream of countless Star Trek fans who yearned to write adventures for their favorite shows and characters. It was back in the day, when Star Trek's producers allowed aspiring scribes to submit spec scripts and pitch stories. Klink did so and ended up not only writing a Deep Space Nine episode ("Hippocratic Oath") and more than a dozen Voyager hours, but she won a staff position at Voyager and worked her way through the ranks to executive story editor. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Klink for a candid and detailed interview in which she recounted her Trek experiences, talked about life after Trek and let us know what she's doing these days.
You’ve said in the past, on your old blog, that there's a lot you wish you knew when you started in the business. Such as? And, if you knew it then, how differently might you have done things and how differently might things have played out?
Klink: There is a lot I wish I’d known before I came to Hollywood. I started my blog in an attempt to share some of that information with writers who are just starting out. While I was in college, it would have been nice to know that nobody in Hollywood will care about your major or your GPA. I worked for one show runner who had dropped out of high school. Didn’t matter. He was a great writer and great boss. I also wish I’d known about the importance of spec scripts to get work. I would have started reading them, learning the format and getting my first couple of crappy specs out of the way sooner. Most importantly, I wish someone had warned me that one professional writing job doesn’t make a career. You’ll still be unemployed often and always hunting for the next job. Always.
For those fans not familiar with your story, take us through the steps that led to "Hippocratic Oath" becoming a reality.
Klink: I was very lucky that Trek had an open submission policy. That’s really what got me interested in television. When I first came to L.A., I wanted to direct movies. Then I wanted to write movies. Then I went to a writing panel at a Trek convention and heard about their policy. TNG was on the air at the time, and one of my favorite shows. I thought it might be fun to write a script for that. So I did. I still remember the story – it was about Geordi. His visual implants made him the only crew member able to telepathically communicate with an alien race. He had to deal with a constant flood of emotions, which was way out of his engineering comfort zone. That’s the script which got me in to pitch to DS9. By the time I went in to pitch, I’d fallen in love with TV writing and had written two more specs – a DS9 and a Lois & Clark.
My first DS9 pitch was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. The writing staff was just coming out of a meeting and decided to sit in on the pitch. All of them. Picture five guys, plus an intern taking notes, sitting on couches along the wall and little me on a rolling office chair in the middle of the floor, trying to make eye contact with everyone. I didn’t sell a story. But they invited me to come in and pitch again, which I did. Three more times to DS9 and three times to Voyager, when it started. No sale.
Then I got lucky. That’s one more thing aspiring writers should know – you need to be talented and persistent, but you also need some pure, dumb luck to get your first break. Mine came at a “Duke in Hollywood” function. I went there to schmooze, of course, and who should I run into but Rene Echevarria, who I’d already pitched to a couple of times. We chatted for a bit. A couple of weeks later, I took the advice I’d read in some how-to book and followed up with a note. “Nice to see you” and all that. I mentioned that I’d just left an assistant job to pursue writing full-time. He called me a few days later. The WGA intern who was supposed to start at DS9 next week had flaked out. Was I interested in the job? Hell, yes! I got to spend six weeks in the writing offices, sitting in on pitches and story breaks, going to the set, soaking everything in. At the end of the internship, I pitched to them again. They liked one of my stories, which led to a brainstorming session that changed it completely, but I still made the sale. And because they’d gotten to know me for six weeks, I got the chance to write the episode. Usually, the show would buy the premise from a pitch and a staffer would write the script. This time, I won the lottery. That was “Hippocratic Oath.” I wrote the first and second draft, and then Ron Moore did a great polish. I got full writing credit anyway.
What was it like for you that very first time you saw your name on the TV?
Klink: Of course, seeing my name on screen was exciting, but even better was going to the set while they were filming my episode. I remember seeing a shuttle, which had crashed into a jungle, and an actor in full Jem’Hadar makeup on the set. I thought, “I made this happen.” I wrote the scene and here it was in front of me. Amazing.
DS9 led to Voyager. How did that come to pass?
Klink: I had no idea at the time that Voyager was looking for a staff writer. Ira Behr was pleased enough with my script that he passed it along to Jeri Taylor and Michael Piller. Jeri called me. I was happy to hear who it was because I thought I might get another freelance script. She asked if I wanted to be on staff at Voyager. Total brainlock: all I could stammer out was “really?” Yes, really. I must have said something coherent because I started work on Monday… after calling everyone I knew in the world with the news.
Michael Piller was known to be a great supporter of young talent and also the toughest critic. What was your experience with him and what did you learn from him? And from Jeri Taylor, too?
Klink: Trek was a fantastic first writing job. The show ran like a well-oiled machine. And we knew we wouldn’t get cancelled anytime soon. It was also great that they filmed on the same lot where the writing offices were. I’ve worked on several shows since that filmed in different countries, so there was no chance to get acquainted with cast and crew. Jeri Taylor was a great boss. In addition to being the only other woman in the writing room, she had a calm, no-nonsense style that helped keep a gang of unruly writers focused. I also enjoyed working for Michael Piller. I never found him too critical. He was famous among the staff for always asking: “What’s it about?” In a big picture sense. Is the story about a character wrestling her inner demons, or about how paranoia can infect a group? I remember him asking that question about my episode “Innocence,” which stranded Tuvok on a planet with a bunch of kids. In the first story meeting: “But what’s it about?” Fortunately, I was ready. “It’s about Tuvok as a father. How do Vulcans raise their children to be logical?” Good enough. We continued breaking the ep.
Which of the Voyager episodes bearing your name are you proudest of, and why?
Klink: “Innocence” is one of my favorite episodes I wrote. Tim Russ was great in it, and even the kids were good. I knew that Tim could sing, so I wanted to include a Vulcan lullaby. Tim heard about this and called me, concerned that it would be too cutesy. We agreed that a Vulcan lullaby would be practical and include a lesson. So I wrote it that way, and the Trek composer came up with a suitably somber melody. It turned out really well. As an unexpected bonus, I got into ASCAP, the composers and performers union, and they sent me miniscule royalties when the episode aired in repeats.
I was also happy with the B-story on the ship, with Janeway meeting the alien leader. We hadn’t seen too many first-contact situations that were actually friendly. I loved the scene where they visit sickbay and the Doctor is clearly trying to be hospitable. He has a line: “We don’t often get such distinguished visitors in sickbay. Unless there’s been some sort of accident.” And he smiles, proud of himself. Robert Picardo could make any line funny, and he delivered that one perfectly.
“Blood Fever” is another favorite. I enjoyed pushing B’Elanna to be a little wild. I also got to write a Vulcan marriage proposal, which was fun. On that episode, the crew did something I loved. The script called for our heroes to be exploring a cave, when suddenly several aliens step out of their hiding places among the rocks. The costume and make-up designers dressed up the aliens to look just like the rocks, so that they could stand against the wall and you’d never notice someone was there - until they all stepped forward. It was really creepy and effective.
What's the best comment you got from one of the Voyager actors about one of your scripts or even a specific line or revelation in one of your scripts?
Klink: The biggest compliment I ever got on a script came from Joel Grey. Apparently, he’d been approached by various Trek shows to do a guest role, but had always turned them down. Someone sent him my script, “Resistance,” and he liked it well enough to sign on. An Academy Award-winning actor liked my script. Fantastic. It was the first episode I’d written for Voyager, so I hadn’t had the chance to meet much of the cast. On the first day of shooting “Resistance,” I went to the set and introduced myself to Mr. Grey. It came up that I hadn’t met Kate Mulgrew yet, so he brought me over to her and introduced us. It was a pretty good day.
You rose through the ranks on Voyager from staff writer to executive story editor. What did you enjoy about being on staff versus being a freelancer coming in to pitch? And, once and for all, what exactly is an executive story editor?
Klink: Being on staff was satisfying because I got to contribute something to every episode. The whole show felt like my baby, not just the episodes I wrote. I was on Voyager for three years. The official job titles on a writing staff are pretty meaningless, with a couple of exceptions. A “staff writer” is the entry-level staff job, and doesn’t get paid a bonus for the scripts she actually writes. A “story editor” gets a salary and a script bonus. “Executive story editor” is just the next rung on the ladder. Same for every title up to “executive producer.” That person is in charge. If there are several exec producers, which there seem to be often, most of them are studio or network executives who deal with the money. A successful lead actor can also start negotiating a producer title in her contract. The show runner, who runs the writing and production of the actual show, is an executive producer.
What were your contributions to Borg Invasion: 4D and to the Voyager CD-ROM game?
Klink: I got some fun opportunities through Voyager. I was the “Trek consultant” for a video game in development. That project died. I heard that it was revived later with different people, but I wasn’t involved. I wrote the script for Borg Invasion: 4D, which was a movie/ride in Las Vegas, similar to Star Tours. The film was 3D, and the chairs could move and vibrate to create effects. The story involved the guests being abducted by the Borg and nearly assimilated by the Queen. I remember talking with the ride designers about the idea of synching up the Queen reaching long fingers toward the guests with a poke in the back of the neck from each chair – as if she touched them. They were afraid it might be too scary. What if someone had a heart attack? They ended up not doing it, which I think is a shame. The ride was a bunch of fun, though. We even got Alice Krige, the Borg Queen from First Contact, plus Robert Picardo and Kate Mulgrew doing cameos.
Which of your post-Trek projects have you been most satisfied with, and why?
Klink: Once, I got a nice letter from an editor at D.C. Comics, who said he liked my episodes and would I be interested in writing for them? I’m not a big comic book reader, but the idea was intriguing. He said I could choose which D.C. character I wanted to write for. That was no contest - Batman. I ended up writing two issues in their “No Man’s Land” storyline, where Gotham gets half-destroyed by an earthquake. After Voyager, I worked on other sci-fi/fantasy shows like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Roswell, and a cop show called Martial Law. The show wasn’t great, but was probably the most fun, because the show runners, Lee Goldberg and Bill Rabkin, were terrific and are still good friends of mine. The star was Sammo Hung, a big martial arts star in Hong Kong. He didn’t speak a word of English, which made writing for him a bit of a challenge. He learned his lines phonetically. Of course, we incorporated big action scenes into every episode and it was a blast watching Sammo and the stunt coordinators working out a fight sequence.
What are you working on these days?
Klink: I love writing for TV, but the business of it is very frustrating. I got tired of always looking for work, writing new specs, pitching series ideas, taking useless “get to know you” meetings with studio executives. So I got out of the biz. I currently work at the Red Cross. I’d been volunteering here for a couple of years, so I figured if I was willing to work for free, I’d be willing to get paid for it. I do preparedness education, teaching people how to get ready for a disaster. I also volunteer with Much Love Animal Rescue. I haven’t abandoned writing, just shifted format. I’m writing a novel for a book series that Lee and Bill are editing called “The Dead Man.” I’m also starting to outline a nonfiction book. I discontinued my blog, “What It’s Like.” While it was going, I got generally positive response, but I’m in not really in a position to impart wisdom about the TV business anymore. I’m pretty happy with my career switch. I still have the fun of writing without all the job angst.