Confessions of a ‘Star Trek’ Writer

It was one of those Hollywood parties where if you are a normal-looking person you feel ugly. I’d been invited by a young actor friend who wasn’t a big deal, but whose father had been. So it was a good mix. T shirts, silk blouses. Cheap jeans, fancy jeans. The fancy ones were the ones that were ripped. I gravitated to a woman who looked a notch below the others, too thin, but it turned out she was a very successful model. An attorney whose outfit would have been a fair trade for my car stepped over to talk to us, but really to her. Turned out she was a Trekkie—and so was he. Soon he was quoting from Klingon history, something about a treaty negotiated in the 78 years between the era of Kirk and Spock and the time of the then-current series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I stood there with a blank look, obviously over my head. Too much detail for my taste, but I wasn’t the one he was trying to impress. I was, however, in awe that he remembered all that arcane stuff. Then, somewhere in the middle of his Vulcan dissertation, I realized something: I had written it. (Story continued below…)

So here I was in the odd position of wanting to raise my hand and say, “Yeah, yeah, now I remember that, too! And by the way, I write for Next Generation.” The situation felt surreal. Not just because I’d forgotten my own dialogue—you’d be surprised how easy it is to blank on entire scenes—but that they had remembered it, and in such detail. Of course, the Star Trek franchise has become famous for its obsessive fans, including reputedly sophisticated people such as Apple cofounder Stephen Wozniak, Pulitzer Prize—winning writer Michael Chabon and physicist (and my sometime coauthor) Stephen Hawking, whom I have otherwise known to watch only Marilyn Monroe movies and the BBC news. But now that I was up close and personal with that devotion, I started to wonder: why? Why all the Star Trek movies (the 11th is set to open next week, with the first 10 having grossed more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office)? Why the six TV series comprising 726 episodes, the videogames and the Star Trek Cookbook with its recipes for Yigrish cream pie, Klingon skull soup with tripe and Captain Picard’s breakfast croissant? Why the indispensable volume The Ethics of Star Trek, which, among other things, promises to examine Star Trek from the point of view of “the decidedly capitalistic values of Hobbes’ social contract theory?” (I had thought the only social contract in Star Trek came at the receiving end of a photon torpedo). Even non-Trekkies recognize there’s something special and unusual about Star Trek. What is it?

If someone in the industry was going to use the word “special” in conjunction with Star Trek when it first began in September 1966, it would have been followed by the word “loser.” The launch was about as successful as a North Korean rocket, despite the many nights when my brothers and I chose to watch the series instead of doing homework. Star Trek was such a grand failure that after it folded Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, became a pariah. “I was perceived as the guy who made the show that was an expensive flop, and I couldn’t get work,” he said. “Thank God college kids discovered the show because I made enough money lecturing to pay the mortgage.”

It took a decade before Star Trek blasted off. Hard-core Trekkies created enough demand that in 1979, Paramount developed it into a film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It received an awful response from the critics but did well enough at the box office to spawn more. Soon there were three sequels, earning better reviews and an even healthier box office. The series I wrote for debuted in 1987 (after having 44 candidate titles, none of which was Star Trek: The Next Generation). Given Star Trek’s history, it’s no surprise that the television networks were skeptical of the idea. Next Generation was launched directly into syndication because all four, including the then fledgling, take-a-chance network Fox, turned down Paramount’s offers to have them air it. Paramount was “betting they can catch lightning in a bottle again,” said Leonard Nimoy at the time. He didn’t think that would work, basically because he—and his costars—weren’t in it (they’d become too expensive). “The chemistry of that group of characters was unique,” Nimoy said.

Today, another 20 years have passed, and it is clear Nimoy was wrong. The cast wasn’t the key to “Star Trek’s” success. Nor were the characters, since the original “Star Trek,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (the one with Patrick Stewart) and the later series all employed different heroes and villains. Yet again and again Paramount did capture the lightning. If it wasn’t Nimoy and his fellow stars, or even the characters they played, how do we account for the more than 40-year run of “Star Trek”? I would like to think it was the work of a few of us talented scribes, marching in lockstep with the genius series creator. Since Star Trek, unlike James Bond, Star Wars and most other megafranchises, is the child of television, its vision is really the vision of its writers. Films are more image- and director-driven. So it is certainly plausible to wonder if all that success meant that Roddenberry was a Hollywood Steve Jobs, a person who ran the show with an iron fist and whose vision resulted in product after product that commanded the love of his followers. But as I told Olivia, my 8-year-old daughter, when she said, “Just tell that policeman you’re sorry that you were driving so fast,” life isn’t that simple.

While Roddenberry was the dominant force behind the original series, he had relatively little influence on the films beyond the first, after which the studio demoted him to a “consultant” role. And though he was again deeply involved in creating Star Trek: The Next Generation, the show floundered in its first year, and by the time I joined the staff in year two, I was told that he had handed off most of the day-to-day operation. We saw Gene only occasionally. We were told that when we did see him, we had to take whatever advice he gave us, whatever we thought of it. Gene liked to speak in great detail about life in the 24th century, the era in which our series took place. He spoke with more certainty about the future than I had about the present, a certainty that I suppose comes from knowing that all over the world attorneys and models and kids like I used to be have studied your every word. Sometimes he would remind us of simple things, like the fact that Vulcans don’t smile. Other times he’d explain how human nature will have evolved, that personal acrimony will have been conquered, so there could be no conflict among the crew. Some writers tried to sneak in a little conflict anyway, so you didn’t have to depend on heavily armed two-headed aliens. As for me, I was pretty sure that unless lobotomies had become routine neonatal procedures, people would be as nasty to each other in the 24th century as they are today. I would have bet Gene on that, except I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be around to collect. By the time the next Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine, was created, neither was he. Roddenberry died in 1991.

In Hollywood, as in life, the real power rests with the moneymen: the studio, or whoever is financing the enterprise (small “e"), and the network, or whoever is putting it on the screen. That’s why one writer-producer I worked with on Star Trek always carried a wad of thousands of dollars in his pocket, which he fondled when things got frustrating. “To remind me of why I’m here,” he said. That producer, who’d been hired during the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, told me that writers were fired at such a swift pace that year that at one point the studio almost closed down the show because it couldn’t find new ones fast enough. Another writer-producer with waning influence kept getting “demoted” into smaller offices, until he finally just worked at home. Then one day, without telling him, the producers fired his secretary. In the end, the series had 155 writers (including freelancers) for 198 episodes over its seven-year run. We writers have been temporary passengers on a voyage that has continued for decades. So the “great auteur” theory doesn’t pan out.

Before I joined Star Trek, I had a different explanation for what made the show work. As it happens, I’m a physicist. How I became a writer is a long story, but let’s just say I got into Hollywood like anyone else, except my day job was being on the faculty at Caltech. Naturally—at least while I was an outsider—I believed that the key to “Star Trek’s” success resided in its science. I also felt its science could be improved. I was told that my then-writing partner, Scott Rubenstein, and I had been hired because the studio liked an episode of another one of its shows, MacGyver, that we had written. But I took the job believing that we had also been hired in part to put real science in the science fiction. There is a long tradition of that in literature, going back at least to Johannes Kepler, who, in the 17th century, both discovered the laws of planetary motion and wrote a very scientific fictional work about a voyage to the moon. I hear it’s still a good read, if you know Latin.

One of the first staff meetings I attended concerned a script that had come in from the outside, and was considered insufficiently exciting. The consensus was that it needed a good injection of crew jeopardy so that it wouldn’t drag. That could be difficult because it had to make sense in the context of the existing story, and, to keep from sending the episode over budget, it had to be cheap to film even though special effects are generally costly. I had what I thought was an idea that fit those constraints and, even more exciting (for me), an idea rooted in real astrophysics. I took about half a minute to pitch it, and for the first time everyone’s attention was focused on me, the new guy. When it was over I turned to my boss, a producer who was a gruff middle-aged former NYPD homicide detective. He stared at me for a moment, his face totally unreadable. Then he said, with great force, “Shut up, you f——king egghead!”

That producer and I eventually became close enough that when he later sensed he was going to be axed, he gave me advice on what to do in the unlikely event that I survived. (No. 1: never mention the “old days.” No. 2: when you do see the inevitable pink slip coming, turn down the heat on your swimming pool.) One thing I learned from him is that I had had it backward. The fun in Star Trek didn’t come from copying science, but from having science copy it. My job wasn’t to put real science into Star Trek, but to imagine new ideas that hadn’t yet been thought of.

If that sounds farfetched, then consider this article that appeared in a recent issue of the academic journal Science: “Quantum Teleportation Between Distant Matter Qubits.” OK, the teleportation distance was only a meter, it concerned only a single atom and it was only 90 percent successful. Yes, you’re still better off walking. And yet, it is the same concept from the show, an example of science and technology following art. And it is only one of many. Rob Haitani, product design architect for PalmOne Inc., says that his first sketches for the user interface of the popular handheld personal computers were influenced by the design of the Enterprise bridge panels. During his Apple design days, Wozniak would leave work and go to his apartment to watch Star Trek reruns, then head back, inspired to toil late into the night. And Stephen Hawking, who has a photo of his appearance on an episode of Star Trek hanging on the wall in his office, told me that in his opinion a matter/antimatter engine—another Star Trek staple—might be the eventual key to interstellar travel. (How did a brainiac like Hawking end up on a silly sci-fi drama? He was on a visit to Paramount to promote a film based on “A Brief History of Time” when he mentioned he had always wanted to visit the Enterprise and asked if he could be taken from his wheelchair and placed in the captain’s chair. The writers went a step further and added a scene with him in it.)

Having spawned or inspired these ideas is not what made Star Trek a success, but it does give a clue to what the franchise has done right. In the years after World War II, American industry produced a stream of revolutionary innovations, such as the transistor and laser, prompting many to ask the same question about the success of American industry that I am asking about Star Trek. Many, such as Geoffrey West, president of the famed Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, believe the spurt of invention happened because places like Bell Labs fostered “a culture of free thinking without which it’s hard to imagine how these ideas could have come about.” The vision of teleportation, warp drive, tricorders, holodecks, a huge assortment of strange aliens and cultures, and cocoa beans aged 400 years for use in Thalian chocolate mousse are all products of my favorite part of working on Star Trek, the franchise’s own atmosphere of free thinking. What sets Star Trek apart is the imagination put into every detail, from the set and prop design, to the issues raised in the episodes, to the backstory of the various cultures depicted. Only on Star Trek could you have been encouraged one week to examine whether an android could be a sentient being and fantasize on another about intelligent aliens that, like bees or ants, seem to act with a collective consciousness. And only on Star Trek could my writing partner and I have been free to explore the details of the mating rituals of aliens, as in the following exchange in which the Klingon warrior Worf talks about love to the human teenager Wesley Crusher:

WORF: Men do not roar. Women roar. Then they hurl heavy objects. And claw at you.

WESLEY: What does the man do?

WORF: He reads love poetry. He ducks a lot.

Some people invent a machine. Others create a machine for invention. To me, the success of the Star Trek franchise is based not on an irresistible world or set of characters, but upon its “corporate culture,” a culture of imagination. Bell Labs was not the only precedent. Think of Walt Disney, who didn’t just pioneer a few cartoon characters, but built an empire based on an environment that valued and nourished creativity—it is no accident that the company has an arm called Imagineering. Or think of Google, a company created on the very idea of searching. Google seems to invent the future, and ways to see into it, every day, taking us under the oceans, above the Earth and, of course, into the worldwide web of knowledge. Similarly, Gene Roddenberry’s real creation is a franchise culture dedicated, like his fictional characters, to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” That makes Star Trek more enduring than any set of characters or episodes Gene himself created, and bigger than any one of its products or the people who pass through it.

It has been four years since the last Star Trek television series, and seven since the last film. Has the new team absorbed and applied the Star Trek culture of imagination? That’s hard to say, but it seems that Paramount has. It has imagined that its new film is already a hit, and on March 30 announced that it is hiring people to imagine the sequel. “There’s obviously a lot of hubris involved in signing on to write a sequel of a movie that hasn’t even come out yet,” said one of the new writers. True. As for me, I’m just waiting to see whether these 21st-century 24th-century Vulcans behave as usual, or surprise us and crack a smile.

Join the Discussion