Recalling "Yesterday's Enterprise" with Eric Stillwell - Part 1
“Yesterday’s Enterprise” is widely considered one of the best-ever episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, not to mention one of the most-memorable hours of any Star Trek series, period. And, from the file called “Scary but True,” the episode debuted almost 21 years ago – on February 19, 1990. Contemplating how best to celebrate the latest anniversary of the episode, StarTrek.com reached out to Eric Stillwell, who shared “story by” credit with Trent Christopher Ganino. Stillwell’s personal/professional saga – how he hooked up with TNG and went on to be involved with numerous Trek adventures in myriad capacities -- is nearly as remarkable as the back story behind “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and its bumpy ride to fan-favorite status. In order to fully capture the dovetailing threads, we’re going to run our extensive interview with Stillwell in two parts, with part one down below and part two set to go live tomorrow.
Let's go all the way back. How did you land the job of TNG production assistant and what were some of your stranger, less glamorous responsibilities?
Stillwell: I had just finished my first job in television on the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie of the week called Promise starring James Garner and James Woods. It was a Warner Bros. production that filmed on location in Oregon. On the day the film wrapped, I heard the news on my car radio while driving home from location that Paramount was planning a new Trek series. So I sent my resume to Susan Sackett, who worked for Gene Roddenberry, and during one of my trips to Los Angeles I landed an interview with producer Bob Justman. I didn’t initially get the job, but I got a lovely letter from Bob which was very encouraging. When I moved to L.A. a few weeks later, I got a job at Paramount as a studio tour guide and guest relations page. As luck would have it, I was assigned to do door duty at the cast and crew screening of Encounter at Farpoint to check off names of guests as they arrived for the screening. When Bob arrived with his wife, he remembered me by name and seemed surprised to see me working on the lot – mostly because I hadn’t been bothering anybody in the Trek production offices during my time as a studio page. Literally, the next day I got a call from Bob telling me that there was an opening for a production assistant job and could I start the next morning? I nearly dropped the phone!
As a P.A., there were a lot of less glamorous responsibilities, but the one that sticks in my mind was having to go to the studio cashier window each week to collect petty cash payments for the various cast and crew who were owed money for various things. Some of the actors, for example, would get petty cash payments for facials they’d get outside the studio due to the heavy makeup they had to wear at work. Every week on petty cash day, Marina Sirtis would hunt me down and start bugging me for her money. I don’t think I ever missed a week of petty cash distribution, but for some reason Marina felt compelled to remind me!
At what point did you start developing an interest in writing scripts, or was that always your goal when you arrived at TNG?
Stillwell: Actually, when I first arrived in Los Angeles I wanted to be an assistant director because of the work I’d done on the Hallmark movie. In fact, when I landed my original interview with Bob Justman, I’d gone to L.A. to take the entrance exam for the Directors Guild’s trainee program. Of course the competition was steep. There were thousands of entrants for just a few openings each year. And the Catch-22 in Hollywood is that a lot of jobs are union and you have to be in the union to get one of those jobs, but you can’t get into the union unless you have experience doing one of those jobs. It’s very frustrating.
My interview with Bob was rather odd in the fact that he did most of the talking and didn’t really ask that many questions. It was more like a lecture on how to be successful in Hollywood, and it was all wonderful advice. One of the things that stood out was when he said the fastest way to become a producer in Hollywood was to be a writer. I gave that a lot of thought because I’d always excelled in writing in school and was definitely fascinated with the creative process. And I was no stranger to writing. I’d written and produced my own super-8 sci-fi film in high school. I’d entered a Trek story writing contest once sponsored by Majel Roddenberry’s company, Lincoln Enterprises, and the story I wrote placed third in my age category.
Take us through how Michael Piller ultimately brought you and Trent Ganino together on Yesterday's Enterprise.
Stillwell: Trent had submitted a speculative script called “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” about an Enterprise from the past coming through a time anomaly into the TNG present day. There was no altered universe scenario, just Picard confronted with the dilemma of sending these people back to their own time to fulfill their own destiny and avoid any possibility of altering time. Problem was, we knew from the history books that their fate ended in death and destruction. But do we tell them this and give them a fighting chance for survival, or do we avoid telling them to prevent any possible alteration of history and send them back to a certain death? This is the ethical dilemma that confronts the crew throughout the story.
Simultaneously, I’d been working on my own story for a pitch about bringing Sarek on the show. Gene Roddenberry had circulated a memo saying it was unlikely they could ever afford to bring Leonard Nimoy on the show, but that Mark Lenard might be interested in making a guest appearance. I’d been working on a story that would’ve involved the Guardian of Forever and a Vulcan archeology team doing historical research on ancient Vulcan in the days of Surak, the founder of modern Vulcan philosophy. The Enterprise takes Ambassador Sarek to the Guardian planet to retrieve the archeological team, but an accident occurs and Surak is killed. Suddenly all of history is changed when the Vulcans fail to follow the peaceful, logical path, and the present-day Federation finds itself at war with the Vulcan-Romulan Empire. Sarek, who was on the planet at the time, realizes what has happened and must convince Picard to send him back in time to repair the damage caused by Surak’s death. In effect, Sarek becomes Surak. This idea came to me years ago as a Trek fan because I always thought it was odd that Spock’s father’s name was so similar to the name Surak. I used to think to myself, what if they were the same person? So I set about to tell that story.
In any event, Trent and I had become friendly over the months he’d been waiting to hear back about his script submission. I helped him get a job as a studio page. Together we had attended an employee screening of Star Trek V. Afterwards we both agreed that we could write a better script than that! So we started discussing ideas. I told Trent about my Sarek story, which he loved. One weekend we ran into Denise Crosby in Trent’s hometown of San Jose at a convention and she expressed an interest in returning to the show and told me I should write a script to bring her back. I told Trent about the idea and we realized that a time-altered universe story would be the perfect way to bring back Tasha Yar.
One day at the office I heard scuttlebutt that the producers were looking for a way to bring Denise back to the show in a guest-star capacity. I went into Michael Piller’s office and ended up doing an unscheduled pitch. Michael had shown some interest in Trent’s spec script and I told him that Trent and I had been working on a time-altered universe story that’d be the perfect vehicle for bringing back Denise. I basically pitched the Sarek story and Michael was intrigued with the time-altered universe portions, but he thought Sarek and the Guardian of Forever were gimmicks from TOS that he wanted to avoid. But rather than reject the entire idea outright, he said Trent and I should combine our two stories and put the time-altered universe into “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and have Tasha Yar still alive in the altered universe. Trent agreed to the proposition and off we went to write the new story which ultimately became the “Yesterday’s Enterprise” we know today.
The script went through a lot of drafts and many hands touched it. What were YOU aiming for? How much of that remained in the teleplay by the time they rolled camera?
Stillwell: I have to say that Michael Piller, Ira Behr, Ronald D. Moore, Hans Beimler and Richard Manning, all did a wonderful job on the screenplay considering the time restraints involved. The episode was originally scheduled to shoot in January 1990, but it got moved up to the first week in December 1989 because that was the only week both Denise Crosby and Whoopi Goldberg were available. Because of the accelerated production schedule, the writers had to work over the Thanksgiving holiday that year to get the script written in time. Ron had done some great revisions to the story after Trent and I submitted our drafts, but none of the changes dramatically altered the basic premise. In the end, Trent and I were very happy with how the story evolved. Regrettably, the Writers Guild rules prevented Michael Piller from sharing teleplay credit with the rest of the staff because of some rule that prevented more than four writers from sharing a screenplay credit.
Were you physically on set during the shoot? What was that like?
Stillwell: I probably made more visits to the set during the filming of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” than I normally would, but I still had a job to do back in the office, so I couldn’t spend all my time at the set, as much as I would’ve loved to. It was thrilling for both Trent and I to spend time on the set and see our idea come to life. The production was so much more elaborate than we had ever imagined. For example, when we described the time-altered Enterprise bridge in our story we had suggested perhaps a darker mood with lighting changes. We hardly expected to walk on the set and see the entire bridge redesigned and much more militaristic. It was fantastic.
I also had a chance to interact with the cast. Patrick Stewart asked me character questions. He wanted to know if he was the same person as the Captain Picard in the real TNG universe, and I tried to explain how he was the identical, same person up to the point in time 22 years ago when the Enterprise-C disappeared and his life experiences would’ve changed due to the changes in the universe, the long war, etc. Jonathan Frakes would just shake his head. To this day, Jonathan claims he has no idea what was happening in that episode.
The general perception in advance of shooting was it’d be a mess because it was done by committee and finished at the 11th hour, but how much did that feeling change as the camera rolled, as the episode took shape in the editing room?
Stillwell: It’s true that some of the writing staff were convinced the script was a terrible hodgepodge. And it’s hard to know during filming if that will improve over time because everything is shot out of order. To me it was terribly exciting no matter what. But in the end, everybody’s fears were unfounded. I didn’t get to see the evolution of the show in the editing room, but when we screened the final edit, I’m pretty sure nobody was worried about how well the show would be received. In fact, it became the highest-rated episode of the series at the time. I think we had over 13 million viewers for the initial broadcast of “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” which was astounding for a syndicated television series.
What did Crosby say to you about the episode?
Stillwell: Denise was very appreciative to be back on the show. I think it was a real showcase for her, some of her best work on the series.
How amazed are you by how popular it became and how popular it remains?
Stillwell: It’s really beyond description, just such a wonderful thing to experience. I think part of me felt some sort of vindication for all the years of being teased for being a Trekkie, even by some of the producers and production crew. It felt good to know that a couple of Trek fans could write a story that other Trek fans would really love and appreciate. I think we brought some of the TOS spirit to TNG.
Our conversation with Eric Stillwell continues tomorrow in part two of our interview. In it, he discusses playing a Klingon extra in Star Trek VI, his hand in writing the Voyager episode "Prime Factors," his long working relationship with Michael Piller and what he's doing now.