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Writing For Star Trek Part VII: Writing & Pitching

By Joseph D. Di Lella
Posted at January 1, 2003 - 11:06 AM GMT

Earlier in this series of essays, we did a quick and dirty analysis of a Trek teleplay. Today, we'll turn out attention to the specifics of constructing a great Star Trek story. We'll hear in particular from Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, Jeri Taylor - and the master himself, Gene Roddenberry - about writing teleplays specifically for Star Trek. If one knows the formula for penning a winning script, it's that much easier to pitch a winning idea. Later in the piece, we'll hear sage advice from D. C. Fontana and Jimmy Diggs, among others, on what one needs to do before going into the pitch session.

Words From Berman, Braga and Taylor

The Trek Formula

In a 1996 article written by Jeff Greenwald for Wired, Rick Berman, Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga spoke in-depth about the concept behind Star Trek, the value of good writers and freelancers, and what type of stories work well in the series.

According to Rick Berman, "Star Trek is a formula. It's not my idea, it's not your idea, it's not Paramount's idea. It's Gene Roddenberry's idea of the 24th century, and it's very important for me to remember that. Not because I'm 'faithful to Gene's legacy,' it's because that's what Star Trek is. To change that is to not be doing Star Trek anymore."

In that formula, contends Berman, rests the 'Prime Directive' and the effortless chemistry between the characters of Trek. "Gene had incredibly harsh rules. He believed - at least when he created The Next Generation, though he didn't feel this way about the Original Series - that Starfleet officers didn't squabble, that they were above all that shit. That sounds great, but it's terrible for writing drama." Berman went on to say that is why he and Michael Piller created Deep Space Nine - in order to generate conflict between the characters, but not between Starfleet officers. Placing Odo and Quark and the others in the environment of a space station opened up the opportunity for great drama, without breaking Gene's rules.

The Continual Changing Of The Guard And The Value Of Freelancers

In the same article, Rick Berman and Jeri Taylor commented on why freelance writers and pitch artists are continually in demand by the Star Trek television franchise. "I would love to have enough quality scripts that were rewriteable without major difficulty. But it's not the case," Berman said.

According to Taylor, "Many writers and producers went through a revolving door here because they simply couldn't accept the limitations and kept trying to change the concept. When a group of writers work within the limitations, they stick around."

"We embrace 'em, pay 'em a lot of money and put 'em on staff," said Berman, referring to the remarkable men and women who finally make the final cut. "You have to know something about science, about astronomy and physics and all that shit. [...] You have to write in a style that's both modern and stylized at the same time. Star Trek's a period piece; you can't write in a contemporary fashion. If a person is capable of writing a 19th century drama, that person is more able to do a Star Trek than somebody who can write the greatest NYPD Blue."

What Do Freelancers Truly Add To Trek History?

Hilary Bader, a very successful freelancer who jumped aboard in the early 1990s, received story credits for eight episodes, including TNG's 'Hero Worship,' 'The Loss,' and 'Dark Page,' DS9's 'Rules of Acquisition,' and Voyager's Eye of the Needle.' In early November, 2002, she passed away. In a statement sent to StarTrek.com on November 14, Piller recalled that Bader came to Trek without any professional credits, but "since she had gone to the trouble of writing a good spec script, she got her break to come in and pitch."

"Hilary was a sparkplug kind of writer," Piller recalled, "she had one idea here and if you didn't like that one, she had twelve others right behind it - pop-pop-pop-pop-pop ... try this, how about that ... sometimes the ideas flowed so quickly, her own mouth couldn't keep up."

Unlike The Next Generation, Enterprise does not accept unsolicited script submissions. "The open spec script policy that introduced Hilary to us has ended now at Paramount due to new legal restrictions," Piller said. "Had it not been in existence then, I may never have met her, those eight Star Trek stories would never have been written, her career may have taken an entirely different turn. I can't help thinking today what a loss it would have been for me and for our industry if the door to Hilary Bader had never been opened."

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

What makes the perfect Trek script? "[It] begins with a great science fiction concept that allows you to tell an exciting adventure, while at the same times serves as a metaphor for contemporary humanity," said Brannon Braga, who has written, or co-written, nearly fifty Next Generation, Voyager and Enterprise teleplays and stories. "For instance, [we had a] TNG show called 'The Host.' Someone pitched a story about host bodies and worms, which was, at first glance, a repulsive idea. But it would turn out to be the best love story we ever did. Why? Because one of our characters [Dr. Beverly Crusher] is forced to confront the true nature of love. Is it the person? The body? Both? That's classic Star Trek, right there." Braga went on to cite 'The Best of Both Worlds' as another great Trek story because it has a "great villain, based in part on the concept of cyborgs with a collective mind. The Borg represent everything the future humans despise. Perfect. That's what we look for, what we strive to do every week."

Jeri Taylor penned a controversial episode called 'The Outcast.' In the story, Commander William Riker falls in love with an androgynous alien who is not allowed to feel or express gender and sexually. Though not widely liked by respected Trek critics because of its heavy-handed implication of homosexual love, the story does try explore the issue of gender in a respectful manner. "Star Trek is very much a series about storytelling, and at the heart of every episode, I think, is an intensely personal story," Taylor said. "Something that shows character growth or development, some kind of emotional conflict for one or more of our people."

In the second half of the episode, Riker must choose between kidnapping his beloved and violating both Starfleet protocol and cultural laws of an alien race or leaving her behind. After she's brainwashed into believing that love and sexual feelings are for deviants, Riker's decision is an easy one. Though there is a nice speech delivered by Riker's alien love interest in the court room, the show falls flat. The nugget of the story is a good idea, but a difficult one to construct considering the political correctness which abounds in America these days.

I believe we'd all agree that 'The Best of Both Worlds,' was a well-constructed story, while 'The Outcast' was not so well devised. So, what can we say are the ingredients of truly "poor" Trek episodes?

Ronald D. Moore, arguably the best freelancer ever to land a job on the Star Trek staff, has either re-written or penned a few bow-wows in his day. For example, in the TNG story 'Aquiel,' fans must follow a convoluted mystery revolving around Lieutenant Geordi La Forge's new girlfriend. "It's a technical murder mystery combined with a lukewarm romance. At the end, you find out the dog did it. It was terrible," according to Braga. Moore agreed, calling it "a disaster."

Moore went on to say that he did a re-write for the TNG episode 'Rascals' that had "an absurd premise [about an away team that comes back to the ship as children]. I never liked the idea. I never though it was going to work, and of course I was the guy who had to make it work. I still look back on it and cringe."

Wisdom From Gene

An Open Letter From The Master

During my first panel discussion on writing for Trek at the San Diego Comic Con, D. C. Fontana pulled a Xeroxed copy of a letter from amongst her notes, written by Mr. Star Trek himself, Gene Roddenberry. In a general letter written nearly twenty years ago to aspiring television scribes, Gene noted that "most early problems are attributed to the lack of experience." According to him, "the first million words are free," before anyone garners respect or money from their craft.

Like any occupation, scriptwriting is a process to be learned from a master. Gene believed that any truly ambitious soul must take classes from talented screenwriters or have a great mentor to guide the learning process. Self-taught screenwriters are few and far between in Hollywood.

When the 'big break' doesn't arrive, writers often complain that they "never really had the chance." In Gene's opinion, these type of writers are simply making an excuse for not learning the craft or putting in the time. It's easy to quit, much tougher to take the high road and admit to oneself that he/she isn't worthy.

What Does One Need To Do To Become A Better Screenwriter?

Regardless of the particular genre, Gene believed that all writers must: 1) develop their own writing style, 2) develop mental muscles, and 3) learn the tricks of the craft. As I mentioned earlier in this series of articles, a writer must find his own 'voice' to develop any thing that remotely resembles a 'style.' 'Mental muscles' for Gene referred to the determination and diligence it takes to write and re-write drafts. The tricks of the craft? Learning the subtle points to writing interesting stories that are transferable to the world of television.

In Trek writing, Gene believed that all good stories must have: 1) a statement or point, 2) a clear cut lead character whom the audience can identity with (though he or she doesn't need to be the lead character of the show), and 3) a need for something to happen or not happen. In general, these principles apply to most episodic television shows.

Even Enterprise Has Its Moments

For our purposes, let's focus on a recent first-run, Trek episode. Does the new Star Trek series have these three elements?

To be fair to the staff, let's look at a decent episode from the new series. Looking at the Enterprise episode 'The Seventh', we see that the over-arching 'statement or point' was a simple one: we must confront our darkest demons bravely, with the primary purpose of conquering potentially debilitating fears. Great. Braga and Berman met Gene's first requirement. How about Roddenberry's second point? Does the story's main character pique our interest?

T'Pol is easy for the audience to identify with - not because she shares the lead with Archer - but because the writers finally show her frailty and vulnerability. As human beings, we can smell fear and recognise distraught emotions that traumatic events can bring into our lives. In this episode, our Vulcan finally reveals such 'human' qualities. Second point met. Now, does something happen/not happen to hold our interest?

T'Pol captures the criminal, but the 'need for something to happen' is only partially addressed. When she re-captures Menos after his daring escape, thus facing her self-doubts about killing the other wanted man long ago, T'Pol completes her final passage to redemption. Third point accomplished. Bravo, Berman and Braga. Gene would be proud.

Other Elements Of Story Construction

As a writer, Gene also believed that the viewer must have a 'reward' by: 1) theme of enlightenment, 2) laugher or tears, and 3) a level of examination of life never seen or experienced.

In 'The Seventh,' the audience witnesses a way for humans (through the story of a Vulcan) to rise above the darkness and doubt in their lives. Theme of enlightenment - achieved. Still, do we feel real emotions through the trials of the character?

Sure. We empathize with T'Pol as she finally kills the sixth of seven criminals under her watch. We may even cringe as we see her go through the ancient Vulcan ritual of repressing the emotion of guilt.

Does the tale make you examine a way of life never experienced before? Unless you've killed in the line of duty (police officers/war veterans are exceptions), T'Pol's story gives you the opportunity to live an unknown life.

Though 'The Seventh' is not the best Trek ever written, it certainly makes good on all of Gene's prerequisites for a solid story.

Pitching For Star Trek

Don't Send Trek Scripts To The Experts

Now that we know what makes a great Trek story, should we save our best ideas for a pitch session or write a teleplay and have our agent submit it on our behalf?

According to D.C. Fontana, an episode of a "current television show is preferable to writing a Trek episode. They want to see you that have the talent to write outside the Trek world."

"They'll nit-pick you to death if it's a Star Trek speculation script," said Jimmy Diggs, whose contributions to Trek include the stories for DS9's 'Doctor Bashir, I Presume' and Voyager's 'Infinite Regress.' "They know everything about Trek, so there's no advantage to preaching to the choir." Diggs also noted that a friend once received an invitation to pitch from an old spec I Love Lucy teleplay. "It was so darn funny that it really impressed the writing staff. But that's an unusual scenario. Preferably, you'll hand in a script for CSI or any other great drama currently on TV."

You've got the main ideas down, so are you ready to pitch?

Pitching Prerequisites

Before pitching, both Fontana and Diggs highly recommend that you obtain 'script summary' reports. "An agent can obtain this for you," Fontana said. Or you can go to the Internet, which often has episode summaries that Diggs said he is "not even aware of."

A pitch artist must know what the writing staff is looking for in this current season. "I once pitched a story for Voyager in season one and they said, 'We love it, but that's a season two episode'," Diggs said. "You must stay ahead of the curve, but not too much ahead, to make a sale." The same is true pitching for Enterprise.

Pitching A Story Idea

"Big names in the literary field have come into the offices with as many as a dozen ideas and left without even one sale," Diggs said. Unlike big-shot science fiction authors who can regale the staff without time restraints, you must come in with no more than six concepts, three of which are back-up ideas. If you're charming or impress the writers, you'll have time for more than the usual allotted three.

"It's hard, but I love the challenge to sell stories," Diggs said. According to the writer, it's not merely the name that gets you the quick sale. "It's like juggling all these different balls at once when you pitch. You must be an egotist, a businessman and a storyteller to sell in Trek."

In terms of logistics, Fontana said that "each concept, each pitch must have beginning, middle and end" that can be communicated in under three minutes. Additionally, the pitch person must know his/her main storyline, the key problem and the character arc of the proposed episode. "If they like your idea, but you can't explore it beyond the initial one or two line pitch, you're in trouble."

Fontana recommended that "to know your points of reference," you must rehearse them constantly. "If you're in an elevator, or at home, even a friend's house - rehearse the pitch - deliver them to anyone who will listen. Get their feedback." Diggs concurred. "You must be able to pitch anywhere, anytime, even in elevators, to producers who are scrabbling off to their cars after a late production night; you never know when the opportunity arises, and once there, you've got to make your stand."

Coming Soon: A day-in-the-life of a pitch artist. Good writing!

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Joseph D. Di Lella is a freelance writer and panelist at the San Diego Comic Con. He can be reached via this page at AllExperts.com.

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