Lately, I’ve been watching Star Trek again. Or more to the point, I’ve been watching The Next Generation on Netflix, that is, when I’m not working, writing, taking media courses or running copious errands. Ever since I became a father, television has dropped several ranks on the priority list. My wife and I were joking the other night about how we used to lie on opposite couches on a Sunday afternoon and mumble to each other, “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” That boredom was so frustrating at the time; now it’s looked back upon with reverence and longing. We’d murder for a boring day like that.
When our son came to us his taste in TV was a bit, shall we say, delayed. Cartoons well below his age level were the go-to. Trying to encourage him to take a step ahead we suggested he give TNG a go, figuring he’d grok the whiz-bang of the space battles while subliminally processing the messages. And of course we’d be happy to watch it with him. So what began as an exercise in maturity for our lad has turned into a nostalgic trip for myself.
Some of these episodes I haven’t seen in a decade or more, and it’s sometimes sad to realize that what enthralled you as a teenager can come off to a more seasoned palate as cheap, juvenile or otherwise lacking. That first season in particular was really rough going, in terms of the writing, the acting (with the sole exception of the masterful Patrick Stewart, probably the only reason anything worked in the first year) and the show’s overall ambition, or lack thereof. Airing in first-run syndication rather than on a network saved it from becoming a swiftly forgotten, ill-advised follow-up to a 60’s classic, along with the devotion of fans so grateful for new Trek on TV that they stayed with it throughout its growing pains. (One wonders if the struggling Agents of SHIELD will likewise endure.) But I remember sitting on my mom’s bed glued to her television (the main one in our basement didn’t work most of the time) being thrilled by the sight of the Enterprise-D blasting through the warp barrier to travel beyond the boundaries of the universe to a place where thought and reality intertwined in “Where No One Has Gone Before,” and wondering how they could possibly make it back unharmed. I recall thinking how awesome it was to see the Klingons back causing trouble in “Heart of Glory.” I remember the nightmares I got when a guy’s head exploded under Picard and Riker’s phasers in “Conspiracy.” I remember the massive crush I had on Gates McFadden as Dr. Crusher and how stunning she looked made up as a 40’s moll in “The Big Goodbye.” And I remember obsessively checking Starweek to see when the next new episode was going to air – in fact, I believe I may have insisted that my mom purchase the Saturday paper strictly for that reason – and being crestfallen at the long wait between seasons one and two (thanks a lot, Writers Guild strike of ’88).
As wobbly as some of the earlier episodes of the show were, what endeared it to me and I suspect the majority of the fans, was the ever-present nobility of the characters, effortlessly upstanding in their morals and always trying to do right by the universe even when challenged at their very cores. Was it a realistic portrayal of human beings? Probably not. But we could aspire to be like them. The Next Generation provided that model for me as I grew through my teenage years and evolved from being embarrassed to admit I liked it lest the girls think I was weird, to going merrily to conventions and “talking Trek” with comrades at every opportunity – often to the chagrin of my best friend who’s indifferent to it to this day. As the show went on and I got older, I found my response to it evolving as well. My tastes were growing more sophisticated the more I learned about literature and history, and I found myself less than enamored with the show’s switch in its golden years to out-there-for-the-sake-of-being-out-there sci-fi premises and plots resolved through mindless technobabble. Maybe another time I’ll get into a detailed analysis of where I think things started to go wrong (it all began when they changed the style of the music late in Season Four), but by the end I was ready to vomit if I saw one more episode about reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit tetryon or verteron particles. And yet this too was a formative moment for me. Because it was when I began to think, “you know what? I could do better.” I understood there was no drama in pulling an imaginary subatomic particle out of the proverbial arse to deus ex the machina. That wasn’t how you told stories. Not well, anyhow. Not how I wanted to tell them, or how I wanted to see them being told.
As the number of episodes remaining in Season Seven dwindled, I was still watching, but with a sense of sadness at lost opportunities – “all the stories in the galaxy to tell and they did another broken holodeck episode? And why is the music so bad?” There were gems here and there but the entire enterprise (sorry) felt a bit like it was slumping to the finish line, with the creative energy diverted to getting Deep Space Nine up and running, but oh yeah, we’ve got this other one that I guess we have to pay some meager level of attention to. Stewart and the gang were giving it their all, but it was obviously time to go, just as the teenager inevitably turns twenty and braces for a new set of challenges. The finale, “All Good Things…,” was a great sendoff; not perfect, as it too relied on technobabble to solve the central dilemma, but it did top the gift with a beautiful bow in Captain Picard sitting down for the senior staff poker game for the first time and announcing that “the sky’s the limit.” It was a touching parting sentiment for myself as well, reminding me that I didn’t have to be satisfied with stories that didn’t give me what I wanted from them. Instead, I could create my own. The end of their journey was the beginning of my own.
And now I’m seeing it again, with my boy, and wondering how he’ll look back on it in future years – if it will ever mean as much to him as it does to me. If watching The Next Generation does nothing else for him, I hope it will at least inspire him, when he’s out on a clear night, to look up – and imagine what might lie out there in the stars.
A great deal of blogging advice says you shouldn’t talk about yourself. I think I’ve been pretty good about staying true to that axiom, presenting my take on world events rather than extolling the mundane details of my boring existence. This is one story about me however that I think is worth telling, not only because there’s a good lesson in it but because it involves my closest encounter with one of the biggest entertainment franchises on the planet – and if that doesn’t grab your interest, then don’t worry, I’ll be back to criticizing Republicans soon enough.
We flash back to an era when Star Trek: The Next Generation was coming to the end of its initial television run and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was taking over as the sole keeper of Roddenberry’s flame. I’d grown a bit disenchanted with TNG as even at that age I had figured out that stories about deus ex machina subatomic particles and other varieties of technobabble weren’t remotely as compelling as the richer, more character-driven pieces DS9 was attempting. The stories were more emotional and more consequential, as the space station couldn’t fly off at the end of the episode as the Enterprise could. Characters had to live with their choices, and their mistakes would continue to haunt them. For a young mind enamored with the idea of making storytelling his life’s pursuit, this was ambrosia. Imagination soared with potential adventures for Captain Sisko and company (yes, nitpickers, I know he was a Commander during the time I’m talking about, but just roll with it, okay?). Fortunately, because of a guy named Michael Piller who was one of the executive producers of the franchise at that point – and had arguably been responsible for turning TNG around after its wobbly first two seasons – those adventures did not have to remain confined to my brain alone.
Breaking into television writing is incredibly difficult because it’s a closed shop. If you have a great idea for an episode of say, True Blood, and mail a script in to HBO, you’ll get it back without it even having been opened. Too much history of litigation brought by angry writers hollering “You stole my idea!” has led to every single series accepting submissions and pitches only through registered agents. Short version – you can’t land a TV writing gig without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’ve had a TV writing gig. When Michael Piller was running Star Trek, however, he enacted an open submission policy. Anybody could send something in and have it considered – didn’t matter if you were a groundskeeper from Bangladesh, so long as you could write in proper teleplay format and enclosed the correct postage, they’d look at it. Ronald D. Moore, who became one of Star Trek’s most prolific writers, working on Next Generation, DS9 and two of the movies before shepherding the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, was discovered in this way. It was possible – you didn’t need an “in” with somebody who worked there, you just had to write something that grabbed them. You had the same chance as everybody else.
Over the summer of 1993, as friends either slung burgers or soaked up rays on cottage docks, I got to work. I researched how to write a teleplay, learned about scene headings, dialogue formatting and stage direction, and started writing. My premise? It had been mentioned a number of times on DS9 that Dr Julian Bashir had been salutatorian in his graduating class at Starfleet Medical, that he’d messed up on a single question on the final that had resulted in him coming second. Obviously someone had beaten him and been valedictorian. What if this person came to the station? And what if it was a woman with whom Bashir had had a romantic history, but their competitive nature had dashed the possibility of a lasting relationship? What if they were forced back together to solve a mystery that threatened the entire station? Once those questions were in place, the teleplay came together fairly naturally. I opened with a scene on the Promenade between Bashir and Lt. Jadzia Dax. Dax is going over some personnel reports with a bored Bashir who is longing for some adventure to come into his life. (For fun, the names of the crewmembers Dax is discussing are all the last names of my closest friends.) Bashir notices a comely figure strolling across the Promenade – his old flame, the valedictorian herself, Dr. Sabrina Keller. Sparks ensue, old rivalries resurface, and eventually Bashir and Keller have to team up to save the station from a rogue comet that plays havoc with the Bajoran sun – a crisis in which all their shared medical expertise is worthless. I type this up in WordPerfect, print it out on my cheap dot matrix printer, bind it, label it and mail it off to Paramount Pictures, 5555 Melrose Avenue. And wait.
Fast forward to February 1994. I’m home from my first year of university on reading week. My family and I are coming home from an afternoon out when I spy a huge envelope shoved in our mailbox – from Paramount Pictures. It’s my original teleplay being returned, along with a pile of resources – the DS9 writers’ guide, copies of two previously produced teleplays and a form letter from Ronald D. Moore inviting me for a pitch meeting. For a 19-year-old Trekkie, the reaction resembles what happens to Louis del Grande’s character in Scanners.
They weren’t interested in purchasing the script I’d sent them, but they felt that I had shown promise and been able to write the characters’ voices well. They wanted to hear more. A few days later, I received a phone call from a very nice lady named April who was Moore’s assistant. She wanted to know if I’d received the material and if I was interested in pitching. I replied, naively and sheepishly, that I was a Canadian student and couldn’t afford to come to Los Angeles. After what I’m guessing was an eyeroll on her end, she explained that they took pitches over the phone. It’ll be a half hour conversation with one of the show’s writing producers during which you’ll present several story ideas. Well, in that case, of course I’ll do it, said I. Just one caveat – I’ll be back at university so here’s my dorm room phone extension. Thank you, said April, and she hung up, and I was left there feeling a bit shell-shocked, and intimidated that now I had to come up with at least five more stories for this meeting. Well, at least I had a whole month this time, unlike the year it took me to come up with the first one. Gulp.
A month fades away. I banish my roommate one night and sit on the bed awaiting this call, story ideas spread out around me, the Beastie Boys blaring from next door. The phone rings, it’s April again, and she tells me I’ll be pitching to René Echevarria, a writer whose episodes of both Next Gen and DS9 have been among my favourites. Echevarria comes on the line, we exchange brief greetings, and I launch into my pitches – beating down the butterflies roaring away in my stomach.
Star Trek has always been about big ideas couched in science fiction premises. The coolest space anomalies and weirdest aliens are meaningless if there isn’t a strong social message underneath. In coming up with my pitches I tried to start with the social message first and build the plot around it. The first story I pitched was about religious prejudice. The planet Bajor, which the Deep Space Nine station watches over, is a highly religious world. What if, I suggested, there was a minority of Bajoran atheists? And a few of them had done something really awful, like blowing up a monastery, resulting in every Bajoran who doesn’t believe in their religion being treated with disdain – the same way some blame every living Muslim for 9/11? Arriving on the station is one of these atheists, suspected of selling out his world to the Cardassians. He proclaims his innocence, and the Starfleet crew, who are secular, are more inclined to sympathize with him than the religious Bajoran Major Kira, who hates this guy sight unseen. A few twists and turns later, it’s revealed – after the atheist is shot dead while affecting a very unsubtle Christ-like pose on the Promenade – that he wasn’t selling anyone out, he was buying time for his family to escape from Bajor. Bajor’s conservative attitudes take another black eye as Kira is forced to reevaluate what she believes.
Echevarria doesn’t waste a beat. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the story, he says, but for the third season they are trying to reinvent Bajor as a happier, more positive place for the audience to sympathize with and root for, and this would run contrary to that objective. Plus there are a couple of plot holes he doesn’t like. What else ya got?
I move on to my next story. I’d always been fascinated by the concept of the “red shirt” – the nameless, non-speaking security officer who dies and is never thought of again. I opened the story with a shootout on the station, and one of these guys goes down. You are supposed to think nothing of it. But we stay with his story as Security Chief Odo is filling out the paperwork regarding his death. His name is Warrant Officer Charles F. Kensing (deliberate allusion to Citizen Kane, which my film class had screened recently), and as Odo digs deeper, it turns out he wasn’t a random casualty, he was a deliberate target as part of a conspiracy involving Starfleet Intelligence that leads all the way to Commander Sisko himself.
Echevarria isn’t sold on this one either. He doesn’t buy that Sisko would keep Odo in the dark the way I’ve suggested. The entire plot could have been resolved by the two simply having a forthright conversation. Next.
I re-pitch the valedictorian story. I’ve tweaked it since my original script to play up the romance and competition angles, and sharpen the sci-fi mystery element. But it’s still a no-go. Echevarria tells me they featured the valedictorian in a recent episode that has yet to air at the time I’m speaking with him. (When the episode does air, although the valedictorian is female, her name is Dr. Elizabeth Lense, and not only does she have no romantic history with Bashir, she doesn’t even know who he is – and their fairly forgettable encounter is an unrelated B-plot in a story about Sisko and his son Jake building an interstellar sailing ship.)
With his comments about making Bajor a happier, sunnier place, I know he’s not going to like my last story before I even start in on it. It’s a dark tale about a Bajoran militia exercise involving teenage cadets, and Jake Sisko somehow being shoehorned into taking part. Eventually he is forced into killing one of these cadets to save another and grapples with the consequence of having taken a life. I can feel the cringing on the other end of the phone – it just isn’t happening for me tonight.
Finally, Echevarria thanks me for my pitches. He asks a little about me and is surprised when I tell him I’m 19. He also invites me back to pitch again. Clearly he senses that there’s some potential to be harvested here. I’m a bit apologetic about some of the stories that he’s passed on and he laughs it off, saying, and I quote, “you wouldn’t believe some of the shit people pitch.” We exchange goodbyes and I hang up. Looking back on it now I can see how every one of those stories wasn’t ready for prime time, but the experience itself was invaluable. It showed me at a very young age that I could play with the big boys – that my writing was good, that it could stand up to professional scrutiny. And the door hadn’t been closed – they were willing to hear more. I had my “in.”
You may be wondering now, two thousand words on, why I titled the post “Gather ye rosebuds.” As you can gather based on the fact that you’ve never seen my name in the credits of a Star Trek episode, I never took them up on Echevarria’s invitation to pitch again. Not long after this call, my mother’s cancer worsened and she landed in hospital, never to emerge. Star Trek stories were the very last thing on my mind. I don’t blame myself for not ever following up, at least, not to the degree where I mope about it constantly. Life, as John Lennon observed, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. But these days, as I try to build a writing career, I think back to my “big break” and reflect on how I could have made better use of it. Honestly, I was lazy and I chickened out. I made excuses. I could have fought through the grief – used it, shaped my pain into heart-rending adventures for Captain Sisko’s crew. Perhaps. For whatever reason, at the time I was not in the mood to try. So I let the opportunity slip away like sand through fingertips. DS9 is long off the air, Michael Piller has passed on and the open submission policy on television is history. And René Echevarria certainly doesn’t remember me.
As the summer of 2012 draws to a close and new opportunities begin to present themselves, I’m determined to gather my rosebuds while I may, even if they may be fewer. Carpe occasio. That’s the advice I take from my Star Trek experience, and the best advice that the relating of this tale can bestow upon anyone. Don’t chicken out of life. The perfect time never comes. And as they said in Vanilla Sky, every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around. So send that book in. Get your blog going. Publish that article. Submit your screenplay. And if someone gives you a break, grab onto it and push until it hurts, until your fingers are bleeding and your arms are ready to fall off. You have nothing to lose and the world to gain.