Trek Writer David Gerrold Looks Back - Part 2
Yesterday, David Gerrold talked about his involvement with the original Star Trek series, recounting his experiences on the episodes “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “The Cloud Minders” and “I, Mudd.” Today, in the second half of our comprehensive conversation, the talk turns to The Motion Picture, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and New Voyages, as well as some longstanding controversies and Gerrold's impressive and steady stream of non-Trek output.
We’ll revisit The Animated Series in a separate conversation, so let’s continue on the timeline and stop at The Motion Picture, in which you made a cameo appearance. How did it come about?
Gerrold: I’d always wanted to do the extra bit and it never happened on TOS. I mentioned that to Gene (Roddenberry) when they were planning The Motion Picture. He agreed, and at first I was going to have a line of dialogue in one of the scenes at the beginning, when a space station gets blown up. But they gave that line to David Gautreaux, who would’ve played Xon in the TV series that didn’t happen. But then they had a casting call for the fans and they gave a list to Robert Wise of the people they absolutely had to include, and I was on that list. When I showed up Robert Wise said, “David, you don’t have to worry. You’re on the list.” He was an incredibly gracious man.
The filming was great fun. They’d invited, I don’t know, about 400 Trek fans and various people who’d been connected with the show. It was like a Star Trek convention. It turned out to be only one day’s work. Robert Wise was very impressed with the fans because he’d scheduled two days of shooting with us, but the fans were so good about everybody hitting their mark – I mean, who wanted to be known as the guy who screwed up the movie? – that he got all the shots he needed in one day.
You also appeared on DS9, in the 30th anniversary celebration episode “Trials and Tribble-ations.” We know there’s an interesting behind-the-scenes story, but please share it for those who may not be aware…
Gerrold: I kept calling them and saying, “Hey, I hear you’re doing a Tribble thing.” Rick Berman kept saying, “No. No, we’re not. If we do, we’ll call you.” All right. No big deal. One day I called again and he said, “No, David, if we do something, we’ll let you know.” I said, “Oh, okay. What should I say to the New York Times reporter who's going to call me back in a half hour? He's preparing a big story about the 30th anniversary of Trek and the DS9 Tribble episode.” There’s this long, uncomfortable pause and finally he says, “OK, what do you want?” I said, “Well, it might be very good press to acknowledge the guy who actually created the tribbles. I think it’d be fun to be an extra.” So I came in and I was an extra for a day or so, and it was great fun. The episode was brilliantly written and even more brilliantly produced. The production values were stunning. And the director, Jonathan West, was just a remarkably friendly guy. There was one moment on the set where they had a tape (of footage from “The Trouble with Tribbles”) – this was back in the day of videotape – and they were trying to match the scene they were about to shoot to the (old) episode, so they were running the tape real fast through the machine, looking for the scene.
Here’s all the cast and crew, about 30 people, staring at the monitor. They don’t know who I am, most of them. And after a moment, I said, “Actually, you’re going the wrong way (in the tape).” They all turned around and looked at me, like “Who the hell are you?” Jonathan – what a wonderful guy – said, “If anybody should know, he should. He wrote this (TOS) episode.” There’s a pause again and they all looked at me, and it was like, “Oh, that’s why he’s here! OK." Jonathan asked me other questions later on, like, “Are there too many Tribbles in this shot?” That kind of stuff. So it was nice to be there and to be acknowledged and included, and I thought everybody on that episode did a brilliant job.
TNG is a touchy subject for you. You were there at the beginning with Roddenberry and other key people who helped develop the show. You stayed through season one. But your name is nowhere to be found in the credits. Take us through your year with TNG and why you left. And what, in the end, do you think were your key contributions?
Gerrold: I think one thing was the idea of creating a bigger ensemble and splitting the hero-ing between a captain who is older and more thoughtful and experienced and also a first officer who actually leads the mission teams. I felt that was the most sensible way to set up a Star Trek show. It was a suggestion I made way back when I wrote those books. I think that was probably one of the best things I added to TNG. Gene liked that idea a lot.
Ever regret beaming off TNG after year one?
Gerrold: No. And I’ll tell you why. Part of the problem on TNG was Gene’s lawyer (Leonard Maizlish) was making it impossible for anybody to do any real work. He was rewriting scripts. He was committing Guild violations. People were very unhappy. It was one of the worst working environments I'd ever been in. So when my contract came up for renewal, I asked Gene not to (renew it). Later, I found out that Maizlish was telling people what a troublemaker I was, that I'd been fired because I was mentally ill, that I never did anything useful for the show -- real character assassination of the worst sort. So my lawyer called him up and said, “You keep talking and we’re going to own your car, your house, your dog, etc.,” and that shut him up real fast. Maizlish was a disgraceful man. Fortunately, my lawyer was a Hollywood heavyweight, and when he said, “Hmmm,” that was a very expensive “Hmmm,” especially to the target. Now I’d invested a lot of time and energy, 20 years, into being a part of something really very special, but after I left the show I walked myself around the block and decided that it was time for me to have my own life and my own career, separate from Trek. I already did, really. I’d written books and done other TV shows, but I wanted to just step out of that whole arena.
So I made up my mind that I was going to do two things. I was going to write only the books I wanted to write and I was going to adopt a son, which was something I’d been putting off a little too long. I went and found a most wonderful little boy who was eight years old at the time, who’d had a really rough ride in the foster care system. If you've read The Martian Child then you know how he became my son. It was the greatest adventure in my life. And while he was in school, I focused on the books I wanted to write, and I think the writing I did in the 90’s was head and shoulders above anything I’d ever done before. I did two more The War Against the Chtorr books. I did a wonderful young adult trilogy for Tor books (Jumping Off the Planet, Bouncing Off the Moon, Leaping to the Stars). I did a book on writing (Worlds of Wonder), which was (about) all the lessons I learned from the best writers in SF. And I did the Star Wolf novels, too.
Ten years after leaving TNG, I looked back and saw that I had 10 books in print that I wouldn’t have done otherwise, and I’ve got a son. And while TNG was on the air for seven of those 10 years, it just never quite lived up to the magic and spirit of TOS. At least it didn't seem that way to me. If you go to a Trek convention, there's excitement for all of the actors, of course, but when Bill Shatner or Leonard Nimoy are on stage, it's something beyond just excitement, and I think that shows that TOS still has a very special place in the hearts of the fans.
My feelings about TNG are mixed. Bob Justman once said that we owed everything to the dedication and enthusiasm of the fans. And I always felt that the fans deserved the best we could give them. That's what I wanted to do. This might offend a few people, but I never felt TNG was living up to that promise -- at least not at the beginning, and not consistently -- and I think it's because the writers were being held back. If you go to a convention and listen to the fans talk about the show, they're very clear about what they were unhappy with. They’d complain about Wesley the super-genius. They’d complain about the scientific double talk. They’d complain about solving problems with a lot of “tech, tech, tech” in the last five minutes of the episode. And to be honest, I think the fans were right -- mostly.
So I was a lot happier working on my own stories where I could challenge myself. By 2000, I was feeling like I was beginning to hit my stride. The book I wrote about my son (The Martian Child) was one of the most passionate and joyous things I'd ever written and it wouldn't have happened if I'd stayed with Trek, because I wouldn't have had time to adopt him. The story won a Hugo and a Nebula and was eventually made into a movie starring John Cusack. I couldn't have predicted that was going to happen, I couldn't even have aimed for it, but in retrospect leaving Trek was a good thing for me for a lot of different reasons. And having a son has been the greatest adventure of all.
Another reason why you left TNG had to do with “Blood and Fire,” a script that went unproduced and caused a firestorm internally and for you personally. You happen to be a gay man, you wrote a script that pushed Trek across a boundary it had never broached: introducing gay characters into the landscape, and it ultimately got shot down despite the initial public support of Gene Roddenberry…
Gerrold: The long story with “Blood and Fire” is that a month after Next Gen was announced Gene and I were at a convention in Boston. We’d both been invited before anyone knew there was going to be a new Trek series, so there was a lot of excitement at the convention because this would be the first time Gene would speak in public about the new series. There were 3,000 people in the room waiting to hear the news. They had a lot of questions. But there wasn't really anything to say yet. We were still getting moved into offices and had not really made any serious decisions about what the new show would be. So it was mostly just promises that we were going to do our best to catch lightning in a bottle again.
One fan asked, “Well, are you going to have gay crewmembers, because in the 60’s you had Black and Asian and Latino, etc.?” Gene said, “You know, you’re right. It’s time. We should.” I was sitting on the side, taking notes, of course. So there it was: Gene had said it in front of an audience of 3,000 people in November of 1986. I was a little bit surprised and delighted that Gene was willing to go there. We got back to L.A. and Gene said it again in a meeting, and somebody in that meeting – I won’t say who – said, “What, we’re going to have Lt. Tutti-Frutti?” Gene balled him out and said, “No, it’s time. And I promised the fans we’re going to have gay characters.”
Then, Rick Berman, who was not yet aboard the show but was still a studio exec, passed us a memo saying, “Here are some of the stories I think you can do.” It was a three-page memo listing, I guess, about 50 ideas, and the third one was an AIDS story. And I thought, “Well, I’ve got this from Gene and Rick, so the studio has no problem.” Now, my cause at the time was blood donorship, and I knew that people were so terrified of AIDS they had even stopped donating blood. So I wanted “Blood and Fire” to be about the fear of AIDS -- not the disease but the fear -- and one of the plot points involved having the crew donate blood to save the lives of the away team. I thought, “If we do this episode right, where blood donorship is part of solving the problem, we can put a card at the end telling viewers that they could donate blood to save lives, too.” I thought it was something Trek should be doing, raising social awareness on an issue, and if we did it right, we could probably generate a million new blood donors at a time when there was a critical shortage.
You wrote the script and…
Gerrold: There were two characters who were not very important to the story, but they were the kind of background characters you need. At one point Riker says to one of them, “How long have you two been together?” That was it. The guy replies, “Since the Academy.” That’s it. That’s all you need to know about their relationship. If you were a kid, you'd think they were just good buddies. If you were an adult, you'd get it. But I turned in the script and that's when the excrement hit the rotating blades of the electric air circulation device. There was a flurry of memos, pro and con. One memo said, “We’re going to be on at four in the afternoon in some places and we’re going to get angry letters from mommies.” My response was, “If we get people writing letters, it shows they’re involved in the show, and that’s exactly what we want. We want them engaged, and a little controversy will be great for us.” And I said, “Gene made a promise to the fans. If not here, where? If not now, when?” But the episode got shelved anyway and that’s when I knew I wasn't going to be allowed to write the very best stories we should be writing. The original show was about taking chances. If we weren't going to take chances, we weren't doing Star Trek. So I let my contract expire and I went off to do those other things I told you about. (Editor’s note: “Blood and Fire” later became the basis of Gerrold’s Star Wolf book series. Also, eventually, he revised the “Blood and Fire” teleplay and a directed it as a New Voyages fan film.)
For some people out there you’re a Trek guy who’s done some other work and to others you’re a sci-fi guy who once had a Trek connection. For our readers who are not familiar with your work outside of Trek, what are you proudest of?
Gerrold: Well, I’m really proud of the young-adult trilogy I did for Tor Books -- Jumping Off the Planet, Bouncing Off the Moon and Leaping to the Stars (known collectively as The Dingilliad). It was intended from the beginning to be a reinvention of the Heinlein juvenile, and I was very pleased with how well they turned out. They got good reviews. They won some awards. But I loved the good buzz they got from readers, how people reacted to the stories. And then there’s the Star Wolf series, which started when I said, “I have this Trek idea I can’t use on Trek. I’ll write a novel.” The next thing I knew it grew into a whole series which, at one point, we tried to develop into a TV show. Those scripts are still floating around. I was very proud of that as well. There’s also (the Hugo and Nebula-nominated novel) The Man Who Folded Himself. But the one everyone asks about is The War Against the Chtorr book series. I am working on book five right now, even as we speak. It’s been almost complete for a long time, but there are scenes that are tough to put together and I keep going back and try to fix them. I know what I want to do; I just want to do it the best possible way.
Are you still involved with New Voyages? Weren’t you supposed to write and direct a Tribbles show?
Gerrold: It’s up to James Cawley. We haven’t locked down a whole story for it yet. I was toying with the idea of “Escape from the Planet of the Tribbles,” meaning we’d go to a planet so hostile and deadly that every guy in a red shirt dies before the show is over. That’s one way to approach it. But everybody wants it to be a comedy, too. I have no idea how or when we’re going to do it, but if James is committed to having it happen we’ll sit and talk and make it happen. I just did one for them last summer that’s called Origins. It goes back to the Pike-era Enterprise and young Kirk gets to go aboard the Enterprise as a cadet because his DNA is critical to solving a problem. That got us to see young Spock, young Kirk, young McCoy, young Scotty, and we had a lot of fun with jokes that were prescient, where the more you know about the characters, the funnier the jokes are. They’re in the middle of editing and it’s got a lot of effects, but I think it’s going to be a fun episode. I co-wrote and directed that one, too.
Let’s bring the conversation full-circle. There was a Tribble in Star Trek (2009). How much of a chuckle did you have when you saw that?
Gerrold: I actually didn’t see it the first time through. Somebody had to point it out, where it was. But I knew it was there, because J.J. (Abrams) told me when I visited the set, “We snuck a Tribble in.” And I was delighted. Harve Bennett did the same thing with one of the TOS movies. I think it’s always fun when one of the shows or movies sneaks a Tribble in. It’s a shout-out, a friendly acknowledgement that Tribbles are a permanent part of the Trek universe.
To read part 1 of this interview, click here.