Culture

Boldly Going: The Life of Pioneering ‘Star Trek’ Writer D.C. Fontana

22 Dec 2019 6:00am, by

DC Fontana in 2016Earlier this month the world said goodbye to D.C. Fontana, the pioneering writer and story editor on the original “Star Trek.” With its positive vision of where humanity’s technology would take us in the 23rd century, the show became a kind of touchstone for geek culture, and it was Fontana who’d helped guide the Starship Enterprise on its original five-year mission (in a show which ran for three short years in the late 1960s).

But Fontana’s life offers another story about our own world — and about determination, creativity, ambition and service. And the web is full of moments where Fontana offered her own real-life stories, including a special hour-long interview with the Writers Guild Foundation where she looked back over her half-century of work in both television and science fiction.

It’s a reminder that our most crucial mission may be sharing our own experiences — and leaving behind something precious to learn for those who come after us.

Seeking New Worlds

In an interview with comic book writer Marv Wolfman, Fontana remembered that she’d wanted to be a writer since the age of 11. So she began her career with an associate’s degree as an executive secretarial major at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University, then pursued her dream with a series of secretarial positions in the entertainment industry. As a junior secretary to Screen Gems president Ralph Cohn in New York, Fontana’s position eventually involved reading some scripts.

“I made that fatal mistake that most writers make,” she’d told Wolfman. “I said to myself, ‘I can do that.'”

Soon she’d relocated to California and found a secretarial position with a writer and producer of westerns, and again, “As part of my job, I read scripts constantly so I began to see the way they were put together, their pacing and vocabulary.” Fontana became a script reader/editor/producer, according to her biography at IMDB.com, and by the age of 21, she was writing several scripts herself. In this early part of her career, she wrote episodes for now-forgotten early-’60s westerns like “Frontier Circus,” “The Tall Man,” and “The Road West”.

A promotional still for The Tall Man

A promotional still for “The Tall Man.”

Since she was selling action-adventure scripts, she told Wolfman, “Eventually, I started using ‘D.C. Fontana’ as a byline [so] I could get a spec script read without a pre-judgment based on gender…”

Soon she was working as a production secretary for a man named Gene Roddenberry. They’d bonded while working together on his military-themed show “The Lieutenant.” Fontana told the Writers Guild Foundation that it was while shooting a scene in a cemetery that they’d heard the news about the assassination of President Kennedy.

And she often told the story of Gene Roddenberry asking her to read his original 10-page presentation about his idea for a new show called “Star Trek.” In William Shatner’s memoir “Star Trek Memories,” Fontana says “I really liked it, and of course there was nothing like it on television at the time. I thought it had lots of possibilities and you could see the stories. They’d begin to pop into your mind automatically.”

Shatner’s book also includes Fontana’s memories of the day she decided to devote herself full-time to being a writer. “I came to the conclusion that I just didn’t want to be a secretary anymore… And Gene could appreciate that ambition because at one point he had to face a very similar decision in regard to leaving the police force.”

There’s high praise for Fontana’s work in the 1996 book “Inside Star Trek: The Real Story” by the show’s co-producer, Herbert F. Solow, and the executive in charge of production, Robert H. Justman. “When she left her job as Roddenberry’s secretary in September 1966, she wrote an eight-page single-spaced ‘Procedures’ directive for the new secretary who succeeded her. It took a full page to detail her comments about Gene Roddenberry’s desk: ‘Usually looks like a tornado hit it…'”

“As D.C. Fontana, she became one of the most valuable and dependable writers to ever work on Star Trek.”

She was 27 years old.

In the Room Where It Happened

In her Writers Guild interview, Fontana also remembers that two story editors had left “Star Trek” before it finished its first season. “Gene Roddenberry turned to me and said ‘I’m going to give you a re-write. If you can re-write this script to my satisfaction and to NBC’s satisfaction, you can be my story editor. Because, as always, you’ve been there from the beginning and you know the show.'”

The cover of William Shatner's memoir Star Trek Memories

In Shatner’s book, Fontana names that fateful episode that got her the job as story editor — “This Side of Paradise” —  and explains why it made her work stand out. “In the original draft, the love story was between Sulu and the girl, and these spores are off in a cave somewhere, so the script was weighed down by the fact that our characters kept having to blunder into this cave to become infected. The solution to that problem was ‘Don’t go near the cave’… simple enough.”

But she’d also raised the stakes of the episode by making it the usually-emotionless Mr. Spock who has the romance. “Spock would finally be able to feel love and experience its joys, breaking the walls of his Vulcan training, which wouldn’t allow him to feel.” In the episode’s last line, Spock remembers stoically that “for the first time in my life, I was happy.”

Fontana tells Shatner that her new version of the story “was really unique… I got the script in on time and the reaction to it was terrific, so I got the job.”

In a 2013 interview at StarTrek.com, Fontana remembered how that episode had included a reference to Spock’s parents. She later wrote an episode in which both of Spock’s parents visit the Enterprise — his Vulcan father and his human mother. And when asked to pinpoint her contributions to the show, she replied: “Primarily the development of Spock as a character, and Vulcan as a history/background/culture from which he sprang.”

In 2006 Fontana also wrote a Star Trek novel, “Vulcan’s Glory” which, according to the book’s description at Amazon tells “the never-before-told story of a very young Mr. Spock, on his first mission aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.”

Cover of Vulcan's Glory by DC Fontana

But her impact didn’t end there. Fontana was also part of the show’s casting decisions and included within the circle of producers. She’d remember later that she learned a lot by doing. “I learned a lot. It was better than going to film school.” She added that starting in 1998, she began sharing all the things she’d learned by teaching at the American Film Institute — mentoring and teaching people who are going to film school.

After the second season, Fontana told Roddenberry that she wanted to move on. She went back to writing westerns — including top show like “Bonanza,” “The High Chaparral and Big Valley.” In the years to come she’d write for a wide variety of TV shows. There were futuristic science fiction shows like “Land of the Lost,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and the “Logan’s Run” series, as well as contemporary shows like “The Streets of San Francisco” and “Dallas.”

But it was during the great writer’s strike of 1973 that she found a show she could still write for without crossing the picket line: “Star Trek: The Animated Series.” She was named Associate Producer — “Inside Star Trek” reports that Roddenberry delegated his role as the creative force to Fontana — and the show’s second season even won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Series.

In 1987 Fontana also scripted the two-hour opening episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was nominated for a prestigious Hugo award. And she was on the first season’s writing staff. Fontana also wrote a Star Trek comic book and several science fiction video games, according to a Memoriam from the American Film Institute, and took an interest in numerous other projects.

It notes that Fontana’s last writing credit was an episode of the fan-created science fiction web series “Star Trek: The New Voyages” titled “To Serve All My Days.”

Impact Off-Screen

“Inside Star Trek: The Real Story” also credits Fontana with finding writer David Gerrold, who contributed one of Star Trek’s most famous episodes, “The Trouble With Tribbles.” In a glossary at the end of the book, it also remembers that Fontana and Gerrold “initiated and won a Writers Guild arbitration against both Paramount and Roddenberry.” It’s a reminder of the lesser-known part of her career: her fight for the rights of creators.

In the 1970s Fontana also got involved in the Writer’s Guild’s women’s committee, she remembered in her 2014 interview. “The women’s committee was just forming, because we were starting to get the idea into our heads that we needed one, that we were way under-represented in the guild — and still are.” At the time the Guild was roughly 10% women, with the rest being white males, and “We decided we needed to get more women involved in the committee, involved in the Guild, and making their presence known.” Because if they represented only 10% of the Guild, “we wanted to have a voice.”

She served two non-consecutive terms on the Guild’s board. “I ran after the 1988 strike, because I felt that there weren’t enough women on the board, and I wanted to get in there. I wanted to get into that fight.”

On his personal blog, long-time comic book and TV writer Mark Evanier remembered her “service and devotion” to the Writers Guild of America West. “Things can get chaotic within that organization where some committees can feel dominated by folks who are angry about their careers and are taking it out on the Guild. Any time I was in a Guild meeting room with Dorothy, she was a wise presence, dispensing sanity and selflessness, gently reminding all to focus on the bigger picture.

“She was very smart and very principled and, as far as I could see, respected by all…”

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