Writing for Star Trek

liaisonsSo a few weeks ago, my dad asked me to write down the story of how I ended up working for Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was taking a class on the show through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNLV (which is an amazing program and one I wrote about a few years back). To be honest, I was pretty excited and honored he wanted to show me off! So anyway, here’s the story:

It started with the Science Fiction Writers of America, the professional association of SF and fantasy writers, of which I was (and remain) a member. In 1991 or 92, a message had been sent out saying the Star Trek: The Next Generation was looking for real science fiction writers to come in and pitch for the show (a “pitch” is when a writer comes in and throws out some ideas, and if the producers like any, then the writer is asked to develop the story further and then write a script).

At the same time, I was working as the sound guy/asst. director at The Groundlings, an improvisational theatre in Hollywood (launch point for such stars as Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, Julia Sweeny, Phil Lamar, and Phil Hartman, among many others) and living the starving artist lifestyle. My sneakers were being held together with duct tape, but I was having fun. One of the performers there, Roger Eschbacher, had mentioned he had been watching the syndicated reruns of ST:TNG and making notes, hoping to get in for a pitch meeting. Since I had the in, and he was more established than I was, I suggested we team up. He agreed.

So I set the wheels in motion and requested a pitch packet. What arrived was a huge package containing a detailed synopsis of every episode which had already been aired, a “bible,” which is the information about the characters and universe in which the series takes place. All the rules and regulations of how the 24th century operates, and a tech manual, which explained not only everything about the technology used on the show, but how to refer to it in the writing. When a character spouts off some techno-babble, that’s all orchestrated so it’s the same techno-babble show after show. Saying “energize,” to make the transporter guy do his job and slide the lever had just as much thought put into it as deciding, when the telephone was invented, that “hello” was the proper way to answer said phone.

Anyway, with all the information in hand, Roger and I started meeting to come up with story ideas. One of the things we agreed on from the beginning was that we didn’t like the character of Deanna Troi (played by Marina Sirtis, who I’m sure is quite lovely in real life). With that in mind, every time we sat down to plot out a story, the first question we asked ourselves was “how can we kill Deanna Troi?”

Now, we knew that actually killing her would be impossible. She was a regular character on the show so even if she were to die/be incapacitated for more than a single episode/be fired, it would not be up to us to make that happen. That was a story for the show’s staff writers to come up with and execute. What this meant for us, though, was we had to be clever. We had to be able to take out her character (and restore her by the end of the episode) without leaving permanent damage. And we did. We came up with all sorts of ways to torture her, within those parameters and the confines of the show itself. But at the same time, those thoughts would lead to spring-board ideas about other characters in the show and what kind of situations we could insert them into to create drama and tension and, ultimately, have the good guys win out.

Eventually, we came up with a handful of ideas we felt were worthy and I made the appointment to go pitch. Roger and I met up and discussed logistics. We had decided to use his agent in case anything positive happened (considering that at the time, I didn’t even have an agent, that made the most sense). Before we went in, Roger looked at me and said “If we do this, I’m buying you a pair of shoes.” We shook hands, wished each other luck, and headed in to meet the producers.

The thing they don’t tell you about pitching a show in Hollywood is that a good deal of it has nothing to do with what you’re pitching, but more with how you’re pitching it and whether or not they think they can work with you. It’s a job interview and audition for the school play all rolled into one stressful meeting.

We did okay. The producer we pitched to seemed to like us. He had us elaborate on some ideas and some he threw out immediately. At the end, we thanked him and left.

A few days later, I returned home from running an errand and there was a message on my answer machine (an answer machine is a device on which a caller could leave a message if the person who would normally answer the phone wasn’t home – don’t even get me started about not being able to take the phone with you). The message was from Roger and all it said was “What size shoe do you wear?”

The meaning was clear. We’d sold something. Now it was on to the next step, to go in and meet with them again and discuss the particulars, which we did. The second time, though, the person we met with didn’t like us as much. They flat-out rejected the premise we’d come in with, the story they actually bought, and so we had to come up with something completely different and yet close enough that they were still getting what they paid for.

Ultimately, we delivered a piece we were happy with and that was the end of our involvement. Eventually, they took our idea and handed it off to some other writers (a common enough practice) and we went our merry way. Interestingly, one of our other ideas, concerning none other than Deanna Troi, did make it in to a B-story in a later episode, but we were never credited with that.

So that’s the story of how Roger and I sold “Liaisons,” the second episode of the seventh (and final) season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And yes, Roger did buy me a pair of shoes, which I wore until they, too, had to be held together with tape.

Categories: History, Personal, Theater, Writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Writing for Star Trek

  1. Bjorn Ingvoldstad

    It’s ON, Jaq…. I’m going to share this with my Television Studies class! A blog post about blogging about television, I think that’s what I’m doing to them this week!

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