Pitching Star Trek

Or, Something from My Past Most Don’t Know About.

I was still working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1990, and True wasn’t to be created for four years. I was the founding Vice President of the JPL Writers Club, and led the Screenwriting Group. While a published writer, I had never written a screenplay, but I had a few ideas to pursue: I was writing a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation (aka “ST:TNG”).

An exasperated Capt. Kirk buried in tribbles that had invaded the quadrotriticale stores. (Desilu Studios)

Star Trek was on my mind in part because in early May, 1990, I met and hosted writer David Gerrold, best known for writing the beloved original series episode, The Trouble With Tribbles, when he came to JPL to give a talk at (cough) the Writers Club’s invitation.

Shortly after, I learned another member of the Writers Club had written a story and sold it to ST:TNG (second season’s A Matter of Honor, Story by Wanda M. Haight & Gregory Amos and Burton Armus; Teleplay by Burton Armus, first aired February 4, 1989).

Of course, several of us Club members had many, many questions, especially the leader of the Screenwriting Group. Greg, who happens to be the son of Wally “Famous” Amos Jr., best known for his Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies, was very forthcoming with answers. One bottom line bit: the Star Trek franchise is well known for reading “spec” (non-commissioned) scripts, but we needed to submit them using an agent.

Getting an Agent the Real Hollywood Way (Cheating!)

Tidbit I didn’t learn until this week: before he was famous for his cookies, Wally Amos was the first Black talent agent at the William Morris Agency, specializing in musical acts. He signed Simon and Garfunkel as clients, and represented The Temptations, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye, among others.

Calling on a family friend who was an independent film producer, I asked if he could set me up with an agent. He was well connected, and could: one of his buddies was Lew Weitzman, a long-time Hollywood agent who founded the Preferred Artists Agency. (Weitzman died at 75 in 2013 from a brain tumor.)

Lew wanted me to write screenplays — films — but I wanted to start smaller, and he said OK, sure, he’d submit a teleplay or two. I sent him the script, titled “Crystal Dreams” (which script I haven’t found yet 🙁 ); it was rejected without comment, but then I had a script with my name on it with a rubber-stamped Received date by Star Trek. That provokes a smile for me even today.

My original script as sent to Star Trek, in the traditional Hollywood style: 3-hole punched with brads to bind it, but only in the top and bottom holes.

“Write a movie,” Lew again advised when he told me it was rejected. “Well, I’m already finished with another idea for ‘TNG’ that’s even better,” I replied. He sighed. “OK, send it to me.” I did: it was called “Honors Pending”, and when I read the script again after finding it in a box last week, I still think it’s a very good story. And yes, it has the Received stamp on it too.

The better news is, Star Trek also liked the script — so much so they invited me to come pitch other story ideas to Michael Piller, the TNG showrunner, and who later wrote the pilot for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — which episode got the highest-ever ratings for a syndicated series premiere. (Piller died in 2005 at just 56 — from “head and neck cancer.” Damned cancer anyway!)

The bad news was, Piller still rejected it because it didn’t center on one of the show’s main characters — because it couldn’t, since one character I introduced had to die, and the other had to do something impulsive, against regulations, and essentially stupid that ultimately led to that death, and you can’t do any of that with a main character. Conundrum!

But being asked in to pitch “3-5” story ideas in person was a huge deal. Lew was very pleased, and the family friend was vindicated in vouching for me. The TNG staff at Paramount meanwhile sent me a sample script to study (weeks before it aired, so I got a preview!), The Bonding, as well as the Writers’ Technical Manual and the Writers’/Directors’ Guide for a crash course in all things to do with the production of the show from the writer’s angle.

I was in geek heaven. It was surreal to pull up to the guard shack at the famous Paramount Studios entrance and have my name on “the list” to get in.

The Other Shoe Drops

But once I got there, the excitement rapidly dissolved. As I waited in the outer office I felt an oppressive (and this is the only way I could describe it at the time) “creative black hole.” I remember being amazed that for the most part, the episodes coming out of that environment were as good as they were.

Then I was called in to see Piller, with two or three others from the writing staff that I was almost certainly introduced to, but was too overwhelmed to remember who they were. I pitched four story ideas.

My original Pitch Sheet for “The Dido” where Capt. Picard pranks the entire crew. “Sounds like a half-hour sitcom, not a Star Trek,” Piller said in response to the idea. My response: “‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ is a favorite among fans.” So there!

The procedure was, I was welcome to have all the written notes I wanted to refer to, but I was absolutely not to hand anything in writing to any of them, so the pitches, which I had printed one to a page, stayed in my possession. I wrote notes on each one as to Piller’s reaction. My favorite of the bunch is reproduced here (click to make it readable).

The responses all did come from Piller (the others in the meeting didn’t get a say either way), and were everything from “Great title!” to “eh.” Mostly “eh.”

I foolishly set my reputation on “I work at JPL!” rather than “I’m a published writer with X and Y experience as a writer.” He couldn’t care less about my real-world employment; what he wanted to know (I realized later) was, could I write? Could I tell a story and finish it?

Yes I can write and finish, but it was too late. I wrote in my planner, “Can you say, ‘Bombed’?”

And frankly, I was glad I bombed the interview: I definitely didn’t want to work in that environment, and as I left I was absolutely determined to not only drop any screenwriting aspirations I had, but to forge my own path. It was lucky that I didn’t have the agonizing choice of being offered a lot of money to work on a fun and prestigious show …where I was convinced I’d be miserable if I took such an offer.

And that’s what a few years later enabled This is True: forging my own path where I answered only to my audience. Not a showrunner, not an executive producer, not a big studio, and not even an agent.

Own a Piece of This Story

The fun thing is, I still have all those documents. If you’re a Star Trek geek like me and want to own any of them, they are were up for auction in my shopping cart:

  • The sample script for “The Bonding” Star Trek sent me before that episode even aired.
  • My ST:TNG “Honors Pending” script — yes, the original one with the original Star Trek stamp on the cover.
  • The Writers’ Technical Manual Star Trek sent me.
  • The Writers’/Directors’ Guide Star Trek sent me.
  • The original pitching sheets I took to my appointment at Star Trek, with my handwritten notes as to Michael Piller’s reactions to them.
  • And unrelated to this story, but still Star Trek: an actual shooting script from the Original Series episode, “The Apple” …probably the second-worst TOS episode behind “Spock’s Brain”. [Irony Note: this is the item that brought in the biggest bid!]

September 30 Update

It’s too late to bid, but you still get a chance to read “Honors Pending”: download it here for your personal use:

Honors Pending Script

The only thing I ask in return: that you comment below to say what you think of the story.

The Buyer’s Reaction

I asked Bob in Arizona, who had purchased the original script, for his reaction.

“I wish I had written it!” he replied. “Did I tell you I wrote scripts and was the Program Director of The Scriptwriters Network when I lived in L.A. in 2002-3? None were ever produced, so I didn’t get much money.”

I’ve met Bob, so I know he’s a pretty smart dude who tells good stories. He hadn’t previously mentioned he has written scripts. For one writer to tell another “I wish I had written it!” is quite the compliment.

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12 Comments on “Pitching Star Trek

  1. I once interviewed for a lab job and they gave me a tour during the interview. It felt like a sink hole. At the end of the interview I was asked if I had any questions or concerns. I voiced my concern that, “It feels like everyone was heavily sedated immediately prior to my arrival.” I was quite content that no offer was forthcoming. Sometimes it just works out that way.

    I’ve learned that I really need to learn to listen to my gut. Sounds like you learned that too. -rc

  2. I’ve been watching a documentary on Amazon Prime: Center Seat – 55 Years of Star Trek. Apparently, you did well by not getting involved with TNG. It’s amazing the series got on the air with all the infighting.

    As for this week’s issue, I’m never surprised to see several stories originating from Florida. I’ve been living in Sarasota for more than 27 years and have seen my share of the insanity. Where else do you know of where a man got immunity for testifying against his subordinates for Medicare fraud of millions of dollars, while taking advantage of the Fifth Amendment more than 120 times, only to be elected governor and Senator.

    It’s a very …special… state. And thanks! I hadn’t heard about that documentary. Once we’re out of the house I’ll get going on that. -rc

  3. WOW Randy — this is awesome anyway.

    I too had to learn to listen to my gut (and not let sick insurance press me into something I already know would not work out).

    Good for you! -rc

  4. You had way more success than I ever achieved, but we both came to the same conclusion — scriptwriting was not for us. I was part of a “hey, kids, let’s put on a film school!” The writers were asked to come up with a pilot for a half-hour series that could be produced locally. We used Hollywood rules — once we handed over our scripts to the in-house directors, we relinquished all control. I wrote a not-brilliant but serviceable pilot, but the experience-free director rewrote it so badly that the whole point of the story was lost. What a painful, valuable lesson. I returned to prose and never looked back. You and I both found where we belonged, and we’re much better people for it. Sounds like a Hollywood happy ending to me.

    An excellent conclusion. The End! -rc

  5. I thought the main characters got plenty of attention. It was probably too ambitious for an outsider to try to solidify what transporter technology actually is. If this episode had been made, we wouldn’t have gotten the one where Riker was duplicated.

    I have a bunch of niggles (but the show always had those so I can’t hold you to a higher standard): I think the medal was approved way too quickly for a bureaucracy like Starfleet’s. Picard and Riker seemed too harsh towards Troi. If the SOP was that the transporter operator doesn’t get to show initiative, then Curtis should have been harshly disciplined. I think the story would have been better if the operator was allowed to show initiative because his sensors were better than the away team’s tricorders. Except at the end it’s established that the tricorder’s sensors were perfectly good, it’s just that notifications were turned off, which seems incompetent of Starfleet. (But Starfleet was routinely incompetent in the series…). It seemed hokey that Data was able to come up with a fix for the transporter so quickly (just like they routinely cured all those diseases before the episodes ended) and that everyone believed his simulations would turn out to be accurate. If it were that easy it would already have been done. (And it doesn’t help the story any, it would just have handcuffed later writers by precluding any more transporter interference stories.)

  6. Herrera’s dying statement that he never got to use his Tricorder conflicts with Jordy’s report in the Conference Room, possibly explained by his lack of full neurological function.

    Perhaps Mr. Piller didn’t want to deal with such an existential philosophical question as the meaning of life.

    Perhaps. 🙂 -rc

  7. I’ve always had a problem with ST:TNG, because I recognize what the Federation had become. It was the equivalent of the Persian Empire—so big, so wealthy, and so powerful no external threat was significant (as the victorious Venetians learned to their distress.) Gene Roddenberry really wanted to create a utopia. Utopias lack conflict and are boring. Enter god-on-a-crane (Q), and the Borg. And, oh yes, space the counselor. I hated the way that character was written, but I liked the way you handled her.

    Your two themes, heroism and the meaning of life, are a bit too complex to fit into a 45 minute episode. As a novella it would work much better. Your technical and scientific background also show in the writing (this is generally not a good thing) but you write fiction far better than most scientifically oriented people who try it. It took me years to overcome stylistic things that are perfectly fine in scientific papers and reports, but deadly to fiction.

    All that said, it would have been better than some of the TNG first season episodes — I’m surprised TNG made it into subsequent seasons, some of the episodes were so bad. DS-9 was redemption, in my opinion.

    Of course, you are now far better prepared to write fiction: If it wasn’t called “This is True,” many would think you were!

    Thanks much for your feedback. My biggest beef with TNG was the implication that only the Enterprise crew were truly competent: only they could save the day (or, for instance, save the obviously sentient Data from being taken apart for analysis, even though he was a senior Starfleet officer). This was in part my way to bring a little humanity back in: my third theme in the story was “lesson learned,” with a little humility built in to balance the usual hubris. -rc

  8. Some compelling Star Trek stories have focused on the events of lesser characters. This one would have had my attention — the events and emotions surrounding of Curtis, the senior officers, and the rest of the crew provide plenty of intrigue, character development, and food for thought. Your presentation of the senior officers is close to my general impressions of their characters. Picard’s role as leader comes through — he is much less the explorer/adventurer and has to be the captain with all that entails. Many of us do not have work roles where life and death are just around the corner, but people have been disciplined or fired for far lesser offenses than Curtis’. Picard has the patience to keep Curtis on duty, wait for the results of investigations, and ultimately maintain the honors for Curtis that were deserved.

    Thanks for your impressions, Joe. You clearly know the show well. -rc

  9. I tried it, but I’m not at all a competent critic. Interesting premise, and I think it would have made a perfectly acceptable episode.

    I’m not just interested in the opinions of “competent critics” (who aren’t even licensed by any Entertainment Authority). Regular people are just fine too, and thanks. -rc

  10. David Gerrold sells tribbles. I bought one at a con where he was GOH. It lives on the fireplace niche. Also a great guy to chat with.

    He also adopted a child who thought he was a Martian. Wrote a great book about the experience: The Martian Child. Who better to raise such a child than an SF author? His son is now in his mid 30’s and doing fine.

    Now if he manages to finish the series The War Against the Chtorr, I will be ecstatic. Maybe camp on his lawn?

    I also enjoyed my time with him. -rc

  11. I lost suspension of disbelief in the episode with Data on the holodeck as Holmes vs Moriarty. The writers allowed Data to leave the holodeck and return with Picard to save the day.

    The whole point was to create a Moriarty worthy of Data. That was explicitly stated.

    After that, I could not suspend disbelief. I was sad, because the series had good characters and episode arcs.


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