Tag Archives: Star Trek Deep Space Nine

Gather ye rosebuds – How I *almost* wrote for Star Trek

Close, but not quite…

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.

What are you waiting for?

Close encounters of the celebrity kind

Sean Bean, 53 years old today.

It’s Sean Bean’s birthday today – in my humble opinion, one of the coolest actors alive.  For a couple of reasons:  one, that he brings gravitas, dignity and believability to anything he’s in, regardless of the silliness of some of the lines he has to utter; two, that he is such a badass that he was once stabbed in a bar fight and instead of going for medical attention, went back in and ordered another drink; and three, that he happens to be a very nice and genuine person in the flesh.  I met him briefly during the Toronto International Film Festival a few years ago, and even though I was some nobody interrupting him on the way back from his smoke break, he was warm, friendly and seemed interested in what I had to say (even if most of it was star-struck fanboy gushing).  One thing you do notice when you do talk with him is how thick his natural Sheffield accent is, and how much he tempers it for his roles.  I’m pretty good with deciphering British dialects and I was having a hard time catching everything when we were chatting.  (Or, it could have just been the rather heavy cigarette breath.)

I have always found the experience of meeting celebrities a bit weird.  You have a kind of ersatz relationship with them going in, a sense of who they are based on the characters you’ve seen them play, or how they’ve been in interviews you’ve watched; you become acutely aware of their quirks and this creates a sort of false familiarity that part of you expects to be reciprocated, even though you know they have no idea who you are, nor should they for any reason.  Call it a substantially less-psychotic version of stalker syndrome, I suppose.  It can be tremendously disappointing if the celebrity happens to be in a bad mood that day, if they are sullen and withdrawn, in contrast to the larger-than-life wisecracking persona they display in their work.  Christopher Guest, of Spinal Tap and Best in Show fame (or the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride), says that people are often shocked when they meet him and find that he is a very serious, somewhat humorless man offstage.  For Guest, being funny is his job, not his personality.  That dichotomy between the public persona and the private life is hard to reconcile when you’re a fan.  I suppose a way to articulate how it must feel for the celebrity is to imagine you’re out shopping at the mall and a random individual approaches you and starts gushing about how much they loved your last PowerPoint presentation and how your reports are worded and what it must be like to work with your immediate supervisor – who you think is an absolute douche.  Now try feigning interest in that.

Of the celebrities I’ve met, some have been terrific – Bean, Anthony Stewart Head (Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Uther on Merlin), Chase Masterson (Leeta on Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine).  Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, was an incredibly nice bloke who seemed like he would have loved to have gone for a pint with us if there weren’t myriads more autographs to sign.  I also have it on good authority that Hugh Jackman is a pretty amazing fellow.  Others, for whatever reason – bad day, headache, any one of a thousand things that are none of our business – have been far less genial in my brief encounters with them:  Terry Gilliam, William Shatner and most recently, Dean Stockwell.  I met Mr. Stockwell this past weekend and immediately stuck my foot in my mouth when I asked him excitedly about Gentleman’s Agreement and what it was like to work with Gregory Peck (who played his father in the 1947 Best Picture winner).  He became very quiet and muttered that Peck was cold, that he was one of those actors who did not enjoy working with children or animals.  Stockwell then sort of looked away, conveying quite clearly that he was done with this conversation.  I made my excuses and wandered off.  I of course had no way of knowing that only a few days prior he had given this interview indicating how miserable an experience that movie and indeed much of his childhood was.  Oops.  Should have asked about Blue Velvet instead.

Celebrity worship is one of the strangest behavioural phenomena, and one suspects it derives largely from a sense of inadequacy and lack of fulfillment that many of us carry.  Some are disappointed in how (relatively) little their lives have amounted to, and look up with awe at those who have achieved what they perceive as greatness.  Yet greatness and renown are not necessarily the same thing.  More often than not these days it seems that celebrity is achieved for all the wrong reasons – from national or worldwide embarrassment, or for utterly hollow pursuits.  One wonders why we cannot simply appreciate the work being done without raising the person behind it to godlike heights.  I’ve enjoyed Sean Bean’s performances, it was nice to have the opportunity to thank him for them, and that’s more than enough.  To treat any of these people with the reverence accorded to kings is diminishing our own sense of self – they are, after all, simply human beings, and neither of us is fundamentally any different from the other.  Just different ships sailing down the long and often stormy river of life, all equally vulnerable to the rocks and shoals.