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Smart Pop Classics: I Remember Star Trek…

In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. This week in “I Remember Star Trek…” from Boarding the Enterprise, the late Star Trek writer D. C. Fontana shares some of her memories of working on the show with Gene Roddenberry.

I was there, and it was never dull. Gene Roddenberry usually held the center of events, his inventive mind solving problems and, often, creating mischief. Everyone has heard about the pair of Danish-designed, futuristic-looking salt and pepper shakers our prop man, Irving Feinberg, brought in for Gene’s approval. Gene designated them McCoy’s handy-dandy surgical instruments (with some buttons and little lights added), instead. The props actually used in the scene looked like restaurant dispensers because, as Gene said, “Sometimes salt shakers should look like salt shakers.” Another time the greensman brought in an exotic plant for approval as set dressing. Gene looked at it, pulled it out of the pot and stuck it back in upside down so the roots dangled grotesquely and announced, “Now that looks alien.”

Gene had a different way of looking at things. Late in the second season, I did a rewrite on “By Any Other Name” (2-22), which Marc Daniels was set to direct. The script had a problem: we couldn’t figure out a way in which a small handful of aliens could capture and control a starship with a crew of 400 on board. We wrangled and wrestled with it and couldn’t find an answer. Finally, we went in to Gene’s office and told him our problem.

He listened, thoughtfully pushing a many-sided Mexican onyx paperweight around on his desk with his forefinger. At last, he looked up at us and said, “Suppose the aliens have a little gizmo that captures the ‘essence’ of a person and turns it into a block that looks like that?” He tapped the paperweight. Bingo! We posited that the gizmo had a wide range, could affect a number of people at a time and, if desired, could turn the block back into the individual(s) with no lasting harm. The prop department came up with numerous blocks, cut from Styrofoam and shaped just like the one on Gene’s desk, and the aliens easily took over the ship, leaving Kirk and his bridge crew as the only people to deal with.

There were always practical jokes, of course—with Gene as the chief ringleader. In his first week as story editor, John D. F. Black was working in his office, blissfully unaware of the plot being hatched in Gene’s office. Gene called John and asked if he could interview an actress in Gene’s place that afternoon.

Gene was persuasive, as only the Great Bird of the Galaxy could be. He said he was very busy overseeing all the production aspects of the start-up of the series, but he had promised the lady’s agent she would have an interview. John could certainly ask the appropriate questions, couldn’t he? John innocently agreed that he could.

What he didn’t know was the actress was Majel Barrett, who had played “Number One” in the first Star Trek pilot. Although he had seen that episode, John didn’t know Majel’s real hair was short and blonde (not long and dark like the wig she wore in the pilot), or that she could change her appearance quite easily with makeup. So the tall, leggy blonde in the short-skirted dress who showed up for the interview went totally unrecognized as she was escorted into John’s office by his secretary, Mary Stillwell. Mary was in on it and didn’t blink an eye as Gene, associate producer Bob Justman, Bob’s secretary and I dashed into her office and listened at the closed door.

Majel told us afterward how she played it. She sat down opposite John, displaying a lot of leg. John gamely ignored it, explaining that he was deputizing for Gene and would be happy to take her photo and resumé. Majel gave him a dazzling smile and said she hadn’t brought a photo or resumé, but she’d be happy to show him her “credits.” She started to unbutton the already low-cut front of her dress.

“Ah, no. That’s not necessary,” John said, starting to panic.

“But you wanted to see my credits,” she replied.

On Gene’s cue, Mary buzzed in on the intercom, announcing that John’s wife was on the phone (she wasn’t), and Gene began banging on the office door demanding to see John immediately. We fell through the door as Gene opened it and found Majel laughing her head off, with John as far behind his desk as he could get, red-faced and embarrassed. As soon as we burst in, he realized he’d been had. Fortunately, he was a writer and a gentleman; the language he used to express his opinion about the stunt was to the point—but clean.

When Steve Carabatsos joined the production team as story editor after John left to write a Universal movie, he was given a week or two to settle in. Then, of course, he had to be properly “welcomed.” Gene elicited the aid of Jim Rugg, our special effects supervisor, on this one. Jim came up with a weather balloon, a long line of hose and an air pump. The balloon was placed in Steve’s office on the far side of the building; the hose was then snaked across the hall through the production office and out the window to the pump stationed in the studio street. The motor pushed the air into the balloon, and it inflated inside Steve’s office.

When Steve came in and tried to push open his office door—it pushed back. Somewhat startled, he pushed again. Same result. Finally, he managed to shove it open far enough to look around the door and see a huge, orange balloon with a happy face inked on it completely filling his office. Naturally, the culprits were hiding around the corner watching the joke play out.

When I was hired as story editor—Gene sent flowers. I was a nervous wreck for weeks, waiting for the rest of the joke. There wasn’t any. Darn, I was disappointed!

The makeup department had its share of excitement as well, and the writers were usually the cause of the problems. After all, we wrote the scripts that called for the unusual makeup requirements. Something bizarre always had to be dealt with, usually with cleverness, creativity and a short budget.

Take ears, for instance. Spock’s ears were designed specifically for Leonard Nimoy, but not every set fit precisely or blended believably. Fred Phillips, the chief makeup artist, had to cast them in molds and bake them, and he usually made several pairs at a time every few days. Still, there were a lot of rejects, which meant wasted time and money.

Imagine then an episode that required ears for a number of actors. “Balance of Terror” (1-14), written by Paul Schneider, introduced the Romulans, cousins of the Vulcans, who, of course, had the same ears as Spock. Costume designer Bill Theiss was able to get around some of the difficulty by designing helmets for several of the actors portraying the aliens, but two had to have ears that could be seen, including the guest star, Mark Lenard. Lots of fitting, lots of baked rubber, lots of rejects. Excellent episode, though.

The ear problem persisted, although Fred got very good with Leonard’s ears. The second season saw “Amok Time” (2-1), by Theodore Sturgeon, with a lot of Vulcans. And a lot of Vulcan ears. The third season had “The Enterprise Incident” (3-2), which brought back the Romulans. That one was on my head—but I really liked those mysterious Romulans, and damn the ears!

Actually, the ear problem was the reason the Klingons got to be our most useful villains. Created by Gene Coon for the episode “Errand of Mercy” (1-26), their makeup made them very attractive, timewise. Primarily consisting of dark skin coloring, facial hair and various hair styles, their makeup was fairly easily applied and relatively inexpensive—at least compared to ears.

Hair was also a pain at times. Bill Shatner, whose hair was thinning, had to resort to a toupee on every show. Walter Koenig, who came aboard in the second season as the Russian Ensign Chekov, was supposed to be our little nod to the popular Beatles, so he needed the Beatle cut. However, when cast, Walter’s hair was short, and he had to wear a wig until his own hair grew long enough.

Wigs came off in stunt fights. They also tended to be pastel-colored, braided, teased and elaborately coiffed. Sometimes the women’s hairdos—wigs or their natural hair enhanced with artificial braids and extensions—looked like wedding cakes on steroids. I occasionally wondered why the hair of supposedly professional, military women on a starship of the future should look like it took ten hours and three stylists to turn out.

And then there was wardrobe. In my opinion, Bill Theiss’ costume designs were the most beautiful and the sexiest on television, bar none. That the sexy part was true did not exactly make NBC’s Broadcast Standards Department turn handsprings of joy. Our Broadcast Standards person, Jean Messerschmitt, was tasked by the network to see that we did not overstep the bounds of decency, according to the tenets of the time. That included revealing costumes.

Well and good, except they didn’t understand the “Theiss Theory of Titillation.” Bill designed with the understanding that a great deal of non-sexual flesh—such as a woman’s back or the side of the leg—could be revealed safely by industry standards, keeping everything else decently covered, and still be sexy as hell. Often he used the theory a different way: promise everything would be revealed, but never deliver. Many an actress on Star Trek found herself securely glued into a gorgeous Theiss creation that looked like it would slide off at any second but (of course) never did. The only battle Bill ever lost with Broadcast Standards was on “Space Seed” (1-22), written by Carey Wilber. The tight-fitting and low-cut costumes on both the men and women of the Botany Bay were so revealing, Jean Messerschmitt didn’t just caution us; she insisted the shots of the revived people exercising their bodies had to be trimmed to the absolute minimum—something like a ten-second shot. If one looks carefully at that episode on tape or DVD, and freezes it at just that point, one can see why Jean was adamant on the issue. In 1966, no show could get away with showing that much obviously sexual flesh, even when it was tastefully covered.

Aliens were another major problem. Star Trek was handicapped (as was every other science fiction show of the period) by technological immaturity—and lack of budget. We just couldn’t afford to put the time or the money into heavy-duty alien costuming or makeup, and Computer Generated Imagery was definitely a thing of the far future. Therefore, we tried to avoid stories with non-humanoid aliens. Where we could get away with blinking lights or clouds or a really impressive voice actor, we did.

Still, we had to have some aliens, and one of the best aliens we ever did was the Horta in Gene Coon’s “The Devil in the Dark” (1-25). Janos Prohaska, a freelance stuntman and creature creator, came over to the studio one day wanting to show the two Genes and me a new critter he had invented. We went out into the studio street in front of the office where there lay a large orange, brown and black blob of rubber. Janos put a rubber chicken out in front of it, and then crawled inside the thing. The ugly creature began to bump along the street, advancing on the rubber chicken. As it crawled over the chicken and “absorbed” it, a little trail of chicken bones came out the back end. We burst out laughing, and Gene Coon said, “I have to do something with that!” Later, the Horta appeared as an apparently horrific, mindless killer of innocent miners—until the crew realized it was only a mother protecting its young.

That kind of story was what set Star Trek apart from its on-air rivals, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space. Privately, we called them “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sink” and “Last in Space,” and I’m sure they had equally derogatory names for us. The fact remained, however, that we told different and far better stories because Gene Roddenberry called us to a higher level. We were not writing for kids; we never talked down to our audience; we didn’t recognize an “average” audience. We wanted the best. We wanted the viewers of Star Trek to soar with us—and they did.

There was nothing wrong with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or Lost in Space. They just catered to different audiences and told different kinds of stories. My brother used to do a very funny riff on how every Voyage show had a “creature of the week.” The creature always wanted the Seaview crew to send either the Captain or the Admiral into its arms so it could do terrible things to their minds and bodies. Every week.

Our tales weren’t like that. Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek writers were more interested in stories that reflected the issues and problems of our times. We were the only show on the air that managed not just one but several episodes that examined aspects of the Vietnam War during a time when networks had decreed the subject absolutely taboo for anyone else. Against a backdrop of science fiction, we talked about racial discrimination, determining one’s own future, defending personal and national freedoms, compassion, love and friendship that held against all odds. Star Trek told stories of how Man could be far better than he was, how there could be a better future if we could only reach for it and build it.

One network executive, frustrated by our insistence on honesty in the science and truth in the stories we were telling, finally blurted out in a meeting, “You people think that ship is really up there!”

Bob Justman had the last word on that occasion. He said, “It is.”

And maybe that’s why—almost forty years on—people watch the original series, time and time again, in countries all over the world. We believed in that starship and in Man’s future. Our audience still does.

About the Author

D. C. Fontana has credits as a writer on such diverse television series as Star Trek, Bonanza, The Waltons, The Streets of San Francisco and Dallas. She served as story editor on the original Star Trek series, Star Trek Animated, Fantastic Journey and Logan’s Run, and as associate producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation.


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