Continuing my look back at my internship at Star Trek: The Next Generation from my previous post. This is the remainder of the article I wrote late in 1991, which first appeared in the Trek newsletter Subspace Chatter.
Six Weeks Behind the Wall (Part 2)
The trip to Mexico had been a fruitful one for the writing staff, generating ten new story ideas. Back at their posts for another week’s work (if a bit bleary-eyed) were the owners of some of the names you see on your TV screen during ST:TNG’s “top of the show” credits: producers Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor, Ron Moore, and Joe Menosky, and staff writer Brannon Braga. None of them was at all what I had expected. “The boys,” Ron, Joe, and Brannon, who occupy about half of the fourth floor of the Hart Building, are all very young (late 20s to mid-30s), very irreverent, and very fond of not wearing suits. In fact, to paraphrase our friend Montgomery Scott, there be no suits here. If there’s any kind of standard work attire at Star Trek, it’s jeans, sneakers, polo shirts in various colors, and baseball caps. On exceptionally hot days, a pair of shorts here and there. This struck me as eminently sensible. I’ve always wanted to see someone do a government study of how hard it is to be creative wearing either (a) a necktie or (b) pantyhose.
Mid-morning, Mr. Piller and Ms. Taylor (Michael and Jeri) sat me down in Jeri’s office and explained what was expected of me. I was to view this, Michael said, as a “safe environment;” if I had ideas, or thoughts, or opinions, I was to feel free to express them. Nothing would be rejected out of hand. If an idea or comment of mine didn’t work, it might foster a new thought from someone else. I was then official invited to tag along to most of the meetings the writing staff attended, along with Pam, my fellow intern. (Pam, who had never even watched the show before her internship began, had been at Star Trek five weeks when I arrived and was an “old hand” whom I immediately began to turn to for advice.) Michael then shook my hand, welcomed me to Star Trek, and wished me a pleasant and productive six weeks.
Ron, Joe, and Brannon’s assistant, Mollie, settled me into my office and armed me with pencils, pads of paper, and a promise that one of the three idle computers perched on the conference table would be operational very soon. To the envy of everyone on the fourth floor, I had been given the only available vacant space: “the big office,” a room destined to be occupied by a producer sometime in the near future. Large, bright and airy, it was furnished with a cushy sofa nearly as big as my car, a similarly huge desk, the aforementioned conference table and six chairs, several file cabinets, a bookcase, three tiny end tables, and two phones. I’d never before had my own office, let alone one this big, and I began to feel I should call someone and ask to “do lunch.”
So, as they say, let the games begin.
According to Pam, my soundboard and fountain of advice, the most interesting meetings I’d attend were the story breaking sessions. With the entire writing staff assembled on the mismatched, comfortable chairs in Michael’s office, the story in process would be broken down into an outline of sorts, detailing the action to take place in that episode’s teaser and five acts. This is done with colored markers on a large white erasable board hung alongside Michael’s door. As new kid on the block, I would be the lucky one to wield the markers.
I soon discovered why the new kid gets this job. Uncapped, those pretty colored markers emit fumes. And since the board is tucked into a corner of the room, the fumes tend to linger in a nasty, airplane glue-like cloud. After ten minutes of inhaling marker fog, I began to forget how to spell “Data.” I suppose I should have run straight for my union representative to complain about hazardous working conditions… and might have thought about doing that, except that I was too busy writing down the details of the now famous “Unification” episode.
Michael and Rick Berman had put together a twelve-page synopsis of the two-episode story. Over the course of several hours, we broke this down into sections. (Well, they did. I watched and listened, and sucked up fumes.) What was Sela’s plan? Why did the Romulans need those stolen Vulcan ships? Ideas were tossed around the room that never made it to the screen, including a Picard/Data/Spock escape that involved a takeoff on every escape plan ever hatched by the classic Trek crew. Captain Picard, Spock would suggest, might you not try to seduce Sela? That sort of thing always worked well for the other captain of the Enterprise. Everyone in the room loved the idea, but it only lasted through the first couple of drafts of the script.
Once the outline had been completed, Jeri went to work on “Part One” and Michael on “Part Two.” Since the episode was to be aired in November, the scripts had to be produced very quickly, and it’s a tribute to Jeri and Michael’s talents that the finished two-part story undoubtedly rates as one of STING’s best episodes.
I also sat in on several pitch sessions, where writers from a broad variety of backgrounds tried to woo Michael with their story ideas. Not quite surprisingly, all of them were men. (Among the ST:TNG writers/producers, Jeri Taylor is the only woman. The female freelance writers also seem to be a distinct minority and, as far as I can tell, there’s only one female director, Gabrielle Beaumont.) One of the hopefuls was a student from the college Michael had attended, one a successful writer of science fiction novels, one the writer/director of a series of low-budget movies. The student presented an idea for a “Q” episode that piqued Michael’s interest, and he was encouraged to develop it further. The rest of the proposed stories were firmly, but politely, rejected.
Near the end of my internship I had my own opportunity to pitch story ideas. Having been “on the inside” for over a month, I knew what sort of things would be automatically rejected. Carefully avoiding those, I put together my four best ideas for “character-driven” stories, each focusing on one or more members of the Enterprise bridge crew. My presentations were just the right length, and well done, according to Joe and Brannon. Nevertheless, each one got a thumbs down.
Not that I had really expected a different result. That parade of established writers hadn’t come up with anything useable. And day after day, sitting on the huge, soft sofa in “the big office,” I’d plowed through the pile of unsolicited (“spec”) scripts sent in to ST:TNG from around the country, from people like me, in response to the same magazine articles I’d read. In six weeks I read about sixty of them. I recommended about ten as containing a nugget of something that might be useable. Only one script struck me as useable as is. ST:TNG receives something like three thousand spec scripts per year, and mighty darned few of them go anywhere other than being returned to the sender with a nice “thanks but no thanks” letter. So when my turn to pitch came along, I was fully expecting the response to be “no.” Probably that makes me a pessimist… but I suspect that if I’d gone in expecting a “yes,” I still would have gotten a “no.”
But heck, I was being told “no” while sitting in the office of the executive producer of Star Trek. Which certainly beats being told “no” via mail, sitting on the sofa in my living room.
And what about those opinions/ideas/thoughts that Michael had encouraged me to speak up with? After many days of nervous silence, I managed to produce one. The writing staff was examining the latest draft of “The Game,” in particular a climactic scene where Worf is instructed to capture the alien woman Etana’s ship in a tractor beam. There would be no on-screen response to this move from Etana or any of her crew. Excuse me? I said. We’d already seen that Etana was quite fixed on taking over the Enterprise. If things suddenly turned against her, wouldn’t she respond? Somehow? Fire a few shots? Try to break free? At least curse a little? Nope, I was told; the scene’s focus is on the Enterprise crew. I left the meeting murmuring, “I still think she ought to do something.” Whether it was because of me or someone else, Etana did ultimately do something. In the final, aired version of the scene, she appears on the viewscreen and indignantly demands an explanation from Picard. So, in a sense, that small bit feels like “my” scene.
Although I seem to be the only one who thinks so, more interesting than the story breaking sessions (and with the advantage of being fumeless) were the periodic pre-production and production meetings, held across the “street” in the Cooper Building. Presided over by Rick Berman (another person I never saw dressed in anything other than jeans and a windbreaker), the producers, the director, the writer, and representatives of each of ST:TNG’s many departments gather around a large conference table, and go through the week’s script page by page, discussing what’s needed in terms of cast, costumes, sets, props, and special effects. Most of these meetings take a couple of hours and boil it down to the repeated voicing of one question: “How much will it cost?”
(Why doesn’t ST:TNG have more planet-side shows? More aliens with something other than a weird forehead? More space battles, more new ships, more special effects? Costs too much. Every tidbit you seen on the screen goes into the episode’s budget. New sets. Adapting old sets. Captain Picard’s new jacket. The pound cake seen in the background of Wesley’s welcome home party in “The Game” cost several hundred dollars. Heck, I would have baked them one for twenty bucks.)
As the new kid here, too, I set up a folding chair in the corner near the door and sat with pen in hand, ready to listen and learn. The meeting hadn’t quite officially begun when Pam nudged me gently and nodded toward the doorway. There, peering into the room with a wide grin on his face, dressed in Starfleet uniform (minus the jacket) was Jonathan Frakes. I smiled. He smiled back. Mr. Frakes and I crossed paths nine times during my internship; on the eighth occasion I worked up the nerve to introduce myself and got a cheerful “Welcome to the Enterprise!” in response, along with a warm handshake and another one of those killer smiles.
The rest of the cast I encountered during my handful of visits to the set. Patrick Stewart I found to be the most gracious of the seven: friendly, receptive, and ready with a welcome for each new visitor. When archivist Richard Arnold brought over a group from England for a tour of the set, Patrick spent several minutes chatting about his various acting roles and invited them to return to the set after their lunch in the studio commissary.
Michael Dorn I met both as himself (in white shorts and one of the ubiquitous polo shirts) and as Worf. His latex and makeup Klingon features are applied so carefully and with such detail that, for a moment, if you allow that “willing suspension of disbelief” to take over, you can almost believe you’re addressing the Enterprise’s security chief and not a completely human actor.
The same care has obviously been taken with the dozen odd sets that make up the U.S.S. Enterprise. Visiting the set of M*A*S*H several years ago, I was disappointed with how phony everything looked close up; lots of paint and plywood (Even the “ground” was plywood, covered with a thin layer of dirt.) The Enterprise is composed of a lot of paint and plywood, too… and plexiglass, and wall-to-wall carpet, and molded plastic. Smooth surfaces. Pastel colors. The observation lounge and the captain’s ready room are connected to the bridge, exactly as they appear to be on screen. Nearby, a long, curving corridor connects engineering and sickbay. Prompted by Richard Arnold, I walked down that corridor with my eyes directed straight ahead and squinting a little. Yup, with a bit more of that “willing suspension of disbelief .”
I would rather have suspended the way time has of escaping unnoticed. My last day at ST:TNG featured a lunch at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles with Ron, Joe, and Brannon, after which they invited me to come back for a visit “and bring us ideas.” I hope to take them up on that offer.
A couple of months have gone by in the meanwhile, during which I’ve relocated from upstate New York to Los Angeles. The word processor on which I created “Bond of Loyalty” now sits about twelve miles from Paramount, and I’ve been avidly looking around for something to turn into a Star Trek story. Or two. Or ten. If things manage to fall into place, my name might someday appear in those “top of the show” credits. If not, I was still “behind the wall” for six weeks. I was a part of Star Trek. As a Trekker, I couldn’t ask for more.
Well, maybe I could…
Coming next… looking back on that one-of-a-kind temp job from where I sit these days!