By Sandy Fries
From a behind-the-scenes point of view I’m going to tell you why some TV episodes suck. I was a Staff Writer for Star Trek: The Next Generation, wrote for the animated Spider Man, NBC’s Quantum Leap and many, many other TV series.
The following example of a lousy situation I had with Gene Roddenberry is a stellar example of some of the weird things writers must deal with to stop their scripts from turning sour. Gene was a great man, I loved him. But, like all humans, he sometimes made mistakes.
So, here’s what happened with me and Gene . . .
Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, one of the most successful franchises in history. There are countless Star Trek TV series, movies, novels, video games, graphic novels, toys, conventions and on and on.
Gene’s nickname was “The Great Bird of the Galaxy.” Through thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, the Paramount Public Relations Department made sure that every body heard about “The Bird.” He was revered as a genius. To me, Gene was a talented, bright guy who needed to lose about twenty five pounds and had a red nose caused by broken blood vessels. He had his flaws, like all of us. The Paramount Studios publicity machine tried to mythicize Gene but, alas and alack, the guy was just a human.
I worked for The Great Bird as a Staff Writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Gene called me his “rewrite man.” I rewrote other writers’ scripts and wrote my own material for the show. After that gig, I was Story Editor of many Star Trek video games, including Vulcan’s Fury and the Borg game. I also co-wrote a Star Trek novel and pitched story ideas to Star Trek: Voyager.
One of Gene’s frailties was a rock-headed stubbornness. I was writing a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation that had, as all well-crafted stories do, an antagonist and a protagonist, also called a good guy and bad guy. Ever since the Iliad and The Odyssey, stories have had good guys and bad guys. In my story, Wesley Crusher, a whip-smart teenager on the Enterprise, was trying to get into Starfleet Academy. Wesley was the episode’s good guy. The bad guy was Mordock the Benzite, a fish faced jerk who was competing against Wesley to get the one open spot in Starfleet Academy. In addition to antagonists and protagonists being classic story elements, conflict is another key element. The good guy conflicts with the bad guy to make the story interesting. Without conflict, the boring scene would read something like this:
EXT. THE ENTERPRISE
The majestic ship zooms through the galaxy.
Wesley and Mordock are in the holodeck, happily sipping malteds.
This vanilla milk shake is really good.
I’m glad you’re enjoying it, good friend.
When you’re happy, I’m happy.
I also got vanilla.
They both sip their straws contentedly.
Next time, I’ll try chocolate.
We hear SIPPING SOUNDS as the Enterprise glides through space.
A string of these no conflicts scenes would kill millions of viewers with lethal doses of boredom. I thought of that as I sat in Gene Roddenberry’s large, imposing office when he said the following to me: “Sandy, the Mordock character you have in your script shouldn’t be bad, he should be a good person.” These thoughts raced through my mind, “Be diplomatic … cool out. You can’t contradict Gene Roddenberry. He hates that.”
“Um … uh, Gene,” I stammered, “If Wesley is good and Mordock is good, where’s the conflict? How do I make it interesting, Gene?”
Gene Roddenberry did a slow facial and body language trip to angry. He said, “It’s my universe and in my universe people are good.” I thought of lots of ways to counter this, but I shut up for a few beats then said, “But how do I get conflict?”
More sternly, he said, “It’s my universe, my future and people are good.” A force field seemed to form around his body. I knew that resistance was futile. The icon had spoken. I got up from my chair and politely said, “OK, thank you Gene. I’ll get back to work.” I went to my office and brooded over the conflict I had with Gene in his office and the lack of conflict that would kill my script. I knew the TV screen would say, “WRITTEN BY SANDY FRIES.” It would not say “WRITTEN BY SANDY FRIES AND WRECKED BY GENE RODDENBERRY.” The blame for a lousy episode would be all mine. Millions of fans would hate me. I felt like The Great Bird of the Galaxy had pooped on my head. After hours of thinking, I figured out some devices to save the script. I created a second story line where there was loads of conflict. I also threw in a short “runner” story where an Enterprise crew member is about to crash his out-of-control shuttle into a planet. That would add conflict and jeopardy. The episode turned out well. Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Picard, said one of the episode’s scenes was his favorite of the season. The lesson to be learned? Even the most difficult obstacles can often be overcome. Also, do not mess with extremely powerful people who can crush you. It’s a loser’s game.
During another meeting with Roddenberry and four other producers, we spent a half hour figuring out the details of how Star Dates worked. How long was a Star Date? How many months? An assistant rapidly took notes on our conversation. When we finally figured out how Star Dates worked, I raised my hand and, attempting humor, said, “Gene, what happens to the Star Date on a Leap Year?” Roddenberry looked at me sternly and said, “Sandy, it’s my future. I abolish leap years.”
I learned another important lesson from Gene Roddenberry: HAVE FUN! Most of the time, he had a lot of fun working on his show. The Great Bird loved visiting the cool, beautiful sets. He loved driving around the Paramount Studios lot at “warp speed” in his golf cart. When I drove with him in his cart, he loved aiming it at people and veering away at the last second! It was fun! Gene and most of the people who worked on the show, me included, were really just big kids playing with the world’s coolest, most expensive toys. Ideally, that’s what your career should feel like. I loved sitting in the Captain’s chair on the Bridge set and firing imaginary Photon torpedoes. Whoooosh!!! CAMERA SHAKE!!!! I wrote a shuttle craft into a script because me and Mike Okuda, a Star Trek designer, wanted to play on it. So, Paramount built us a shuttlecraft toy. It was a quantum leap from when I was eight and built a space ship from a cardboard box.
Gene Roddenberry didn’t like the world as it was, so he created his own universe. In his universe, people were optimistic and noble. Gene had fun in that world. In show business, to a large degree, you can create your own world and enjoy living in it. Screw reality. Lilly Tomlin once said, “What is reality anyway? It’s just a collective hunch.” I choose being delusional and happy rather than realistic and miserable. Sometimes, against your will, reality intrudes and you must deal with it.
Welcome to lack of reality. Welcome to fun. Welcome to show business. Thanks, Gene, for teaching me the importance of fun and also that reality is often overrated.
The above excerpt is from a book I wrote called “Secrets Your Textbooks Will Not Tell You.” It has behind-the-scenes stories about my work on the animated Spider Man, Quantum Leap and other series I wrote for. If you like this excerpt, it is, like most things on the planet earth, available on Amazon.
Here’s a link to buy my book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Secrets-Your-Textbook-Will-Tell-ebook/dp/B0789Q63KS/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8.
It has behind-the-scenes stories about Stan Lee, Sam Simon (Co-Creator of The Simpsons), Joe Barbera, Creator of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Jonny Quest and other moguls.
Here’s a link for a free app that can translate my Amazon e-Book to any format: https://www.epubconverter.com/kindle-to-pdf-converter, iPhone, android devices, laptops, iPad . . . everything.