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David Gerrold - The Trouble with Tribbles writer
Trekking into writing
Tell us about your break into the industry.
There were a lot fewer people working when I started, so there was a lot less competition. It seemed easy to me, but later on I realised how hard it was.
What happened was that Star Trek's first episode came on the air on a Thursday night. I tuned in to watch it with some curiosity and an enormous amount of anxiousness, because there had been so much science fiction on the air that hadn't been very good. I thought, "Well, this show has promise, but nobody's really done science fiction right on television yet."
I looked at it and thought, "Well, gee, that transporter beam, mmm, I don't know, I'd really rather they had a shuttle craft. That guy with the pointed ears, I don't think he's going to work out at all." But I liked what I saw enough that I wrote an outline and submitted it to Star Trek.
They were all bought up for the first season but they said, "Please submit for the second season," so I wrote a whole bunch of outlines which I turned in and they picked one.
Now the way I approached it, and I think this is the advice I would give to anybody wanting to try to get into any TV show, is to realise there's a finite number of stories that they can do. They had twenty episodes a season, so what you have to do is come up with a story that is so good that they actually want to put aside something else they've planned [in order] to do your story.
You're not just competing with what they've got, you're competing with everybody else who's pitching stories, so you actually have to write not just the best story you can but the best story they've ever done. My approach to Star Trek was, "I know science fiction, and I know screen writing."
That was very arrogant of me, but you really need to be a little bit arrogant to think that what you have to say is good enough to justify the expense of hundreds of thousands - now millions of dollars - to make an episode of the TV show. So you have to say to yourself, "What can I do that's better than anything that anyone else has done?" And that means putting aside your own fantasies of, "Gee, how about the teenage girl who falls in love with Spock," and actually do the one that challenges the format of the show, the nature of science fiction, and you.
I would say they picked the right one. I wanted to do the Tribble episode and I had submitted five or six stories, and they picked the right one because that one I felt was totally unlike anything else they had ever done. It gave them all a chance to do comedy and ultimately, and I have to admit even I'm surprised by this, it proved, according to Paramount, to be the most popular episode of the series.
Here's the joke. We had a party at my house when the show aired, on December 29th, and I invited all my friends from college who were still finishing school. One of the folks there was Bob Englund who played Freddie Kruger in all the Nightmare On Elm Street movies. He's a very talented actor, and he said, 'Boy, David that turned out very very nice.'
I said, 'You know I'm proud of it but I'm going to be real honest, I don't think in 20 years anyone's going to remember this, it's just one episode of one TV series and after the last rerun it will be forgotten'. Well, there's never been a last rerun and here it is almost thirty-five years later and everybody knows about this thing. I think everybody on the planet has seen it now and it's a little scary. And kind of flattering too.
Are you phobic towards small animals?
No, I love small furry animals. You should see my dogs, they're all small furry creatures, except for the two that aren't small or furry.
I had always been fascinated by the whole idea that Australia was this different ecology and that when rabbits and prickly pears and other things from Europe were introduced into Australia they ran amok. I always thought this was a remarkable story about the law of unintended consequences, so I thought, "What if you could have rabbits or mice [in a story]."
The girl I was seeing at the time had a little fuzz ball on the end of her key chain and I thought, "What if you had little fuzz balls that bred like crazy," and the next thing it was like, "Yes that's obvious because all we have to do is get little fuzz balls off the key chains, we'll go and buy five hundred key chains."
Actually we didn't do it that way, but that was where the idea came from. Essentially, it's what if you had rats on the space ship - where do you go from there? And it turned out to be a lot of fun.
I think for me the most fun was that I would visit the set and for the actors it was the first time they had really had the chance to do a show that was a comedy. They were just having a party. Everybody was having an enormous amount of fun, especially William Shatner who's normally a very funny man.
I think this was one of the first chances he'd ever gotten to do a comedy of any kind. Previously he'd done a couple of Twilight Zone episodes where he'd done the very intense guy who sees the thing on the wing, the gremlin on the wing of aeroplanes, stuff like that. He'd done an episode of Thriller where there was this painting that was hacking people to death.
He was only doing dramatic parts and I know he loved the opportunity to do comedy, so for him this was a chance to break out. I think it's part of the reason people look at him as a comic actor today, where he can do things like Miss Congeniality. Last time I spoke to him he said he loved doing the comedy.
From K7 to DS9
How did you feel about the Deep Space Nine episode Trials and Tribble-ations?
They denied they were doing a tribble sequel over and over and over, and I kept hearing the rumours, over and over and over.
Finally they announced it, and I picked up the phone and called Rick Berman. I said, "Rick I just got a phone call from [someone], and they want an interview and I told them I'd get back to them. It would be really embarrassing for you guys if I said Paramount hasn't told me anything at all about this, it would be a lot better for everybody if I could say this is really a great thing". Rick said "You know, you're absolutely right."
He was an absolute gentleman about it, so they bought me in to be an extra in Trials and Tribble-ations. They gave me a copy of the script and treated me very kindly. I read the script and I said, "You guys are going to get an Hugo nomination off of this, this is the best Star Trek script I've ever read, it is absolutely brilliant."
They did a marvellous job of taking the Deep Space Nine characters and weaving them into the [Original] Star Trek characters. There was a moment with the director Jonathan West when everybody was lined up in front of a monitor with a video tape of The Trouble With Tribbles, because they wanted to see how this scene that we were about to shoot was going to fit in.
They're saying, "Well it's, there's the scene where they're all lined up and Kirk is balling them out," and they're running through the tape and I was standing there and I'm looking at it and I say, "No, you should scan that tape backward, reverse it because the scene you're looking for happens [there]."
On the sound stage, nobody ever contradicts the director and there's this silence, and the director says, "David's right, if there's anybody who knows this show it's David," so they run it back to the right scene.
A minute later they're setting up the tribbles in the corridor and he says, "Are there enough tribbles or are there too many tribbles? Or what?" I said, "Well this scene comes between this scene and that scene and you're fitting it in here, therefore there's too many tribbles, we need to take about seven or eight of them away…" I suddenly realised I'm directing the director.
The episode turned out beautiful. I think it was the best episode of Deep Space Nine ever and possibly the best episode of Star Trek after the Original Series. I want to give a lot of compliments on that one. The Art Department totally recreated the original sets, they recreated the look and feel, they got the same paints, the same size cords to make the corridors the same, they matched everything.
There were only two things they couldn't match and they found matches for them both by accident. They couldn't find the original stuff but they were able to create matches that photographed perfectly. They used the same make-up from thirty years ago, the same lenses, the same lights, the same lighting, even the same film stock, so that when you go back to that it looks identical and it matches perfectly to the original Star Trek footage.
Then they did a new master of the original Star Trek footage to get an absolutely pristine copy and it looked perfect. It looked so good that the studio decided to remaster all of the seventy-nine episodes for the DVDs. All in all I think it was one of Paramount's best ideas.
Boldly carrying on
Could you tell us about the work you did on The Next Generation?
The Next Generation was a lot of fun for a while and then it wasn't a lot of fun. The reason it wasn't a lot of fun was that this one was going to be a guaranteed hit. The original Star Trek was never a guaranteed hit.
They didn't even know how good it was until it went into syndication and the ratings took off. Even to this day if you talk to people at NBC they say, "We're so sorry Star Trek got away from us".
With Next Gen everyone knew it was going to be a big hit, so everybody wanted to be a part of it. We got a few people on board who didn't know Star Trek at all but they wanted to be a part of a hit show. They wanted the money, they wanted the power, they wanted the glory. The office politics got out of control because where we were originally all having fun doing this really great show, twenty years later here was this thing guaranteed to be a hit and everybody wanted to be the boss of it.
Gene's health was failing. He didn't have the strength to control the show and into that vacuum [came] were a lot of people who weren't plank holders from the original starship, so there was a lot of tension. But I will tell you in the early days when we were actually deciding who was going to be on the crew, Gene said, "David, I want you to write the bible," and so I said, "Well, who are the characters?" He said, "Who would you put on the Star Ship?'
I said, "Well, it's an enormous responsibility you've just handed me, let's try something different." Let's have an older captain, more thoughtful, who stays on the bridge and doesn't put himself in danger because Starfleet doesn't want him doing that any more. The first officer, the number one, beams down to the planet and he's head of the mission team, and he takes with him specialists who are just for the mission so you can have lots of different guest stars on your away team.
Gene liked that because it gave us two heroes, in a sense two captains, and it let us play more of an ensemble cast, so that was the way that happened.
Now I and about fifteen other people suggested, "Let's add a Klingon to the crew." [To show] that we'd made friends with the Klingons. Gene was adamantly opposed to it. I'm going to tell a tale out of school now.
It got to the point [where] new people would come on the team and one of the first memos they'd write was, "How about a Klingon as part of it." We finally just started warning people, "Gene has adamantly said no Klingon." I don't know why Gene felt that way at the time.
The first draft script of the first episode came out and Dorothy Fontana had written the ship split[ting] into two parts. That actually was part of the original Star Trek. The starship was supposed to have that ability, but we never used it. We decided we'd use it here, that the living quarters would go this way and the battleship part of the ship would go that way. Dorothy needed to know, "Who's the captain of this part [of the ship?"
Gene hadn't answered the question so she created a woman officer and put her in charge. I think she was testing Gene. Gene was supposed to do the re-write on that pilot so he created Q. Dorothy had done 90 minutes because he told her to do 90 minutes, and then he expanded it to 120 minutes by adding Q. When the ship breaks apart, suddenly Dorothy's female character has gone and there's Worf, a Klingon bridge officer, who should actually have been on the other part.
That's the way Worf got created, because Dorothy had a woman in charge. Gene would stand up and make all of these great speeches about he was in favour of this and that and the other but when it came to the writing, something old-school kicked in for him. He was never able to give a woman the lines for putting her in charge of this ship.
Trouble at the top
Was Gene Roddenberry an easy person to work with?
Gene, no. He was a silver-tongued devil. He would tell you exactly what you wanted to hear whether there were three thousand people in the audience or two people in the room. He was an absolute charmer but he wasn't a great manager, so if something had to be done that wasn't nice, like firing someone or whatever, he'd have his lawyer do it.
He just wasn't a good manager. He'd tell you, "I want it this way," and then you'd go out of the meeting and tell people, "This is what Gene said he wants." Then someone would go in and check, "Gene, David said you wanted this," and Gene would say, "No, no, David can't speak for me, this is the way."
I left because I recognised that we were not in a working situation where the quality of the show was most important. And I wanted to be on a show like the original Star Trek the year that Gene L Coon was running [it]. There was a guy there who loved story-telling so much he didn't care who brought in the story, how old you were, what you looked like if you could come up with an answer to the story problem.
Gene L Coon one time handed me a story problem and said, "We've got fifteen pages of script, how do we cut it?" The episode was I, Mudd. I said "You can't do this because Scottie didn't believe it in the first season, but you've got all these really strong robots, so they just beam up and grab everybody and beam them down. You don't even need to show it, you just have an android walk in and say, 'We've completed beaming down the crew of the Enterprise.'"
Gene L'Coon's jaw dropped and he said, "My god, you've just solved in one line of dialogue what we haven't been able to solve in fifteen pages of script." I realised then that I did have some kind of story-telling skill. That was the point at which I realised I was starting to think like a script writer. What can you put on the screen that doesn't cost you money?
Because I got away with that one I said, "Let's take identical twins and photograph them so that we can show six beautiful robots all identical, and we'll put all these numbers, five hundred of them. " He said, "That's a funny idea, let's go for it."
Without Gene L Coon there, without any moderating force, Rodenberry would forget from one moment to the next what he would decide. My frustration was that he was never willing to recognise anyone else's idea. He always had to make it up himself, so he'd throw out a good idea just so he could put something in. Sometimes what he put in wasn't better, sometimes it was pretty bad from a story-telling point of view and it was very depressing, [and] very distressing to all of us, for several reasons.
We loved Gene enormously, we would have thrown ourselves on hand grenades for him, but clearly somewhere along the line he'd forgotten how to write. Gene was a great visionary and a great figurehead, a great spokesman, a great leader, but not a good manager. The reason [the Original] Star Trek worked [was] because he had good managers working for him.
On the new one, he was afraid to have anyone else manage for him and the result was that that show was actually in chaos for the first two years, and that's why they promoted him to executive whatever and Rick Berman took over. Rick Berman's an excellent manager. Some people don't like his storytelling direction, but he's an excellent manager.
What does science fiction mean to you?
I'm frustrated with Hollywood and television and the movies because they see science fiction as an excuse for eye candy, for lots of great special effects.
I love seeing the dinosaurs and the space ships and the time machines and whatever they want to create, I love it, but once they get there, they don't start asking, "What does it mean, what's the next step?" It's just an excuse to have the dinosaur chase somebody in a jeep or whatever.
I say, "No, there's more to this!" Science fiction is a unique literature. Science fiction is the first literature that says, "Tomorrow is going to be different than yesterday, it's going to be a lot different." This really started just in the last hundred years, it started with Verne and Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle a little bit, where you had guys predicting possibilities.
When you get to Wells talking about the time machine, to me that's the breakthrough story, because he's saying the future will be vastly different than the past. In the 20th century we had a century where at the beginning of the century, most of the world was agricultural and industry was very primitive.
At the end of that century we had men in orbit, we had been to the moon, we had people with cell phones and colour televisions and the internet and amazing medical technology of all kinds. We could photograph atoms. We had telescopes that could look to the far end of the universe and our computers could say, "If this trend continues we'll have this much pollution or we'll have this little something or other," and we actually could look into our own future in a way that we'd never been able to do before.
If you were a kid in 1955 you would pick up a copy of Popular Science and it would say, "This is the kind of car you're going to be driving in five years or in 20 years you'll be able to take a jet plane from New York to London in four hours," or something like that. We actually got used to the idea that the future's going to be different.
Star Trek, as a popular phenomenon, brought that idea into the mainstream of human thought. It was no longer science fiction as this fringe thing, now here it's on television, we're saying, "Look, the future's going to be different." To me that's the first step.
The second step is if we have this future that's going to be different, then we also have the responsibility to design our future. If we're going to be able to design our future then we have to ask ourselves what future are we going to design? Who are we? Who do we want to create? How do we want to create it?
Ultimately it comes back to the question of what does it mean to be human. Who are we as human beings? What are we going to give up from the past? We have to give up a lot of stuff, we have to give up superstition, some of the fairy tales that we've wrapped up our faith in. I'm all in favour of faith but if you have true faith you don't need all of the fairy tales.
If we can get rid of superstition then we're going to ask ourselves questions about how we relate to each other as human beings. How do we treat each other? What does it mean to be in love? What does it mean to communicate? Who are we? And to me that's the essential question that's always been in science fiction. A lot of science fiction stories are - at their very best - evocations of that question.
When we look up at the night sky and wonder, "Is there anyone else out there?" we're also asking who we are we in relation to them. When we go into the past, go into the future, when we postulate alternate kinds of human beings we're asking what's the core of humanity. If we could grow gills so we could breathe underwater, would we still be human? Well, our bodies wouldn't be human as we define humanity [now] but would our souls be human? To me science fiction has always been about that question.
All for charity
Could you tell us about the charity work you're doing?
I got tired to going to conventions that were all the same. I thought. "I keep getting invited to conventions, I've got to do something to make the convention worthwhile."
Celeste Holm carries this little purse with her and any time someone asks for an autographs she asks for a dollar and it goes to the Heart Association I believe. I heard about that, and thought, "That's a great idea."
I started carrying around a jar and the money was going to the AIDS project in Los Angeles. Other charities have [also] been the beneficiaries of this, right now it's the Science Fiction Writer's Emergency Medical Fund, and there will be other charities in the future.
I went to a lot more conventions, holding auctions and asking people for money and I got real good at asking people for money without feeling guilty about it. I liked it so now I go to conventions and the idea is - I have this game I play, how much money can I raise. Oh, let's see, there's three hundred people at this convention, okay I'm going to raise three hundred dollars, or if there's ten thousand people at this convention, I'm going to go for ten thousand dollars.
The idea is to see how much money I can raise for whatever charity I'm working on at the time. It's just a fun game to play.
Do you ever get annoyed that people just think of you as the tribble man?
No. You cannot believe how many doors the tribbles have opened for me. I've gotten into the Houston Space Centre and NASA and JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and just every studio I can get into [by saying], "I'm the guy who wrote the tribbles", "Oh, come on in!" So I don't mind, it's a great door-opener and I've dined out on it for 35 years.
What I wish is that people would look beyond the tribbles and see I've written some other books that I really would like people to notice. There's The Man Who Folded Himself, there's The Martian Child, which is about my son and the adoption. There's The War Against The Chtorr, which is my magnum opus, my great epic story. So there's so much other stuff I've done.
Yes, I'd like people to read those books but I don't mind it, it's fun, and I live in hope that somebody will tell me a tribble joke I haven't already heard.
Oh, tell us a tribble joke.
A tribble joke, okay. Well, the tribble limerick I wrote is:
Since I first wrote that damn script for Gene
and the electrical picture machine
Tribbles have chased their creator
From here to Decatur
Nobody knows of the tribbles I've seen.
[Decatur is a city in Georgia, USA]