BBC Cult - Printer Friendly Version
Michael Piller, Co-creator and Creative Consultant on DS9 and Voyager and Executive Producer on The Next Generation
Turning around the Next Generation
Chaos on the writing staff
When I joined the writing staff of Next Generation, there was still a great deal of mail coming in from people saying, 'Well, yeah, it's good, and we like Picard, we like Data, but it's not the original.' A lot of comments saying it's just not as good as the original. I think, by the end of the third season, that changed.
Well, I think the third season was a breakthrough season in a lot of ways for Star Trek – The Next Generation. Because Rick Berman and I and Gene Roddenberry, found a very, very clear vision for what we wanted to do.
I think there was a great deal of conflict on the writing staff prior to my arrival. And I just basically said, 'We're not going to play politics.' They had a reputation of being one of the worst writing staffs to work on, not that it was turning out bad material, generally, but it was very, very contentious.
A lot of writers had a lot of problems dealing with Gene's universe, because, as everybody knows, Gene liked the idea of Humanity being far more perfect than they are today, no petty conflicts, no jealousies, the kind of emotional context we find in today's television story telling was not available.
So when I got there, I basically looked around and said, 'Look, this is Gene's world, how do we do what he wants us to do in a creative and successful way?' And it hit me, right from the beginning, with the very first story that we had to deal with. when I got there, we were in the third or fourth show of the season. There were no stories in development, there were no scripts in development, there was a great deal of chaos on the writing staff.
How a speculative script made it through the Roddenberry rules
I said, 'Look, I want to see every bit of material you can find. Anything that's in the old scripts, any abandoned scripts, any speculative material.'
Somebody came up with a script that had been sent in by a young fellow named Ron Moore, who was going to go into the Marines any second. And it was called The Bonding. It had a great premise to it and, obviously, it was a raw piece of work by an amateur writer, this guy had never written before.
But it was about a woman who was killed on an away mission and a child of that woman who must get over her death in a traumatic way. And in the story that was told, the aliens provide a mother substitute for this child to bond with. And ultimately it's a story about how the child has to move on.
Well, Gene said, after he read our description of this, that this show wouldn't work for him, because children of the 24th century have learned that death is a part of life and, as such, children would not mourn the loss of a parent in that circumstance.
Well, I came back from that meeting and the staff sort of looked at me with smirking sort of smiles, saying, 'OK, now you see what we've been dealing with.'
And I said, 'Now, wait a minute. Alright, this is what Gene says about it, so how do we deal with this?' And we talked for a while, and we said, 'Alright, what if we use Counsellor Troy in this situation, and ultimately we have the kid not mourn the death of the parent. And, in fact, it is the 24th century education of children that has taken away the emotional context of the loss of a parent, and Troy is saying, before this kid can move on with his life, he must learn how to mourn the parent.' Now we're dealing with Gene Roddenberry's 24th century, we're staying within the rules, but, ultimately, the story's about getting through that, to get to the heart of our emotional feelings, and that made it a much better story.
Gene loved it, he accepted it, and it was an extremely powerful episode. It showed me what Gene was doing – I used to call it 'Gene Roddenberry's box,' he wouldn't let you out of the box, he can put all these nice little controls on us. And we had to learn to tell stories in different ways than we have been used to telling them, as writers, and that made us be more creative when we confronted them directly rather than trying to fight them.
I always felt that Gene's rules were interesting and challenging and made us better writers. I always encouraged the writers to listen to those and not to fall back on easy solutions to story problems.
Loving Next Generation
Were you a fan before you joined?
I would not describe myself as a fan of the original series. But I really was a fan, and my family had already come together before I joined the series of The Next Generation. I was particularly impressed with the courage that it took to cast Patrick Stewart in the role of Picard because it just went against every piece of television wisdom that I'd ever been introduced to.
I had worked at networks, I was involved with those stories what do you need in a leading man? Well, a bald Englishman didn't fit that characterisation very clearly.
Recruiting fans to write
How loving Star Trek helps writers
I'll tell you something. My experience running the writing staff of Star Trek was that people that knew the universe, who grew up with it, who really, really loved the show, the ideas behind the show, and Roddenberry's idea of the future, were far more successful as writers for all the series that I've worked on, than the professional writers.
This is a rule, there are exceptions. I mean, Ira Behr, Jerry Taylor, these are all professional writers that I brought in to, to help craft the series, and they were wonderful people. But Ron Moore and Rene Echevarria and Brannon Braga, these are all people that came out of nowhere, because we were looking for people who understood the Star Trek universe.
We got ideas, we got scripts and we got writers. We were the only show on television, to my knowledge, that accepted speculative scripts from non-pro writers. And that's where the new generation of people running the franchise have all come from. Part of the job of the Head Writer, the Executive Producer part of me, was to find the talent that would take the franchise forward, when I was finished with my job. And those talents came out of that speculative slush pile.
One out of a hundred scripts might provide a clue to an episode or an introduction to a writer, but it was worth it, because we got wonderful talent from that.
What's so good about the Next Generation?
It's a wonderful place to live, it's a wonderful place to come back to every week and say, 'You know what? There's hope for the future.'
I always look at the quote by Whoopi Goldberg when she joined the show, which was just before I got there, and, Whoopi used to say how much Star Trek meant to her as a child, to see a black woman on the bridge of the original Enterprise, and she wanted to do the same thing for a new generation. So the idea that a black woman could be not only alive in the future but in a powerful position in the future, meant a great deal.
To me, the appeal of Star Trek in general, and what made The Next Generation such a gratifying experience, was that the exploration of space, was really a metaphor for the exploration of our existence. The best writing that we've done on Star Trek is really exploring who we are as human beings.
As soon as we turn our attention to space monsters and exploding, space ships, we're no better or worse than the other any other science fiction, but what makes Star Trek special is that Roddenberry humanist adventure, finding out who we are.
Deep Space Nine
How was DS9 different from Next Gen?
We wanted to find a way of exploring a different part of Gene Roddenberry's universe without breaking the rules.
The difference between other Star Trek shows and Deep Space 9 was that I used to compare The Next Generation to cruising Friday nights, where you go to your favourite bar, and then you move on to your next favourite bar the following week. You never have to stay and face the consequences of your actions on Star Trek – The Next Generation.
Deep Space 9, the crew is stuck there, and they are essentially responsible for building a coalition between an extraordinarily different group of people.
I think it was a tough transition, because, Star Trek – The Next Generation, was extremely popular. There's a magic and a chemistry when something happens on a series that's hard to recreate.
Deep Space 9, just because it was something not exactly the same as Star Trek – The Next Generation, immediately people didn't know what to make of it. They said, 'Well, Star Trek is about being in a space ship, going off and exploring, why isn't this about that?' And, that would have been just another repeat of the same themes.
I believe that what we'll find about Deep Space 9 is that, over time, it will be more appreciated for its creative integrity than it was during its own lifetime, in a very similar way to the original series.
What were the pressures that created Voyager?
I think that there was a concern, when Voyager was created that the franchise had been exploited for a long time. You know, Gene used to say, before he passed on, that they would milk it to death. I hope that's not the case. I believe that when Voyager came out, Rick and I were hoping that they would allow Deep Space 9 to be the sole series for a while and let the franchise breathe a little bit. But it was just not on the cards.
What I think everybody felt about Voyager was that it needed to be a ship show, it needed to be a lighter show, because people felt that Deep Space 9's downfall was that it was a little bit too dark. And I'm not sure I agree with that but I'm quoting, basically, my memory of the creative pressures at the time.
The impact on Voyager from that philosophy was that we had a natural conflict between the Maquis crew and the Star Fleet crew, but because people were worried that there was too much conflict on Deep Space 9, I think there was pressure to ease that and get this crew homogenised very quickly. I think we lost a creative opportunity by doing that.
How do you feel about a fifth series?
I think it's in very good hands. It's always exciting to see what they're going to do next. But I think that Star Trek is in a paradox as a franchise. Every franchise needs to attract new viewers in order to flourish and survive.
In the case of Star Trek, the demographics, the age of the people who are watching, has steadily grown older, and the franchise has not attracted as many young people as everyone, studio and everyone else, would like to have. However, the problem with making changes that attract younger viewers, which essentially means more action and more adventure, is that Gene Roddenberry was very, very clear, when he created the franchise in the first place, that he was not going to create a series for kids. He really wanted to tell adult stories.
You can make a very good case that that's the reason for the longevity if the franchise in the first place. So, as you take it forward, what are the choices you're willing to make that will service it in bringing new viewers to it, but doesn't sacrifice the original vision of Mr.Roddenberry. I will be as interested as everyone else to see what those choices are.
Making Q human
How Gene Roddenberry developed Deja Q
One of the great lessons that I learned about Roddenberry's vision came about three or four weeks after I got on the staff. It was about a Q show called Suddenly Human [eventually Deja Q]. The story was about Q coming aboard The Enterprise and pretending he had lost his powers, and taking The Enterprise on a wild goose chase around the universe.
And we went into Gene, we pitched Gene, I said, 'And it's a wild goose chase around the universe and it all turns out to be a Q joke on the crew.'
And Gene says, very simply, 'Well, yeah, but what's it about?'
And I said, 'Well, it's about a wild goose chase, Gene.'
'What is it about? If you want to really tell a story about a god who must find out what it's like to be mortal, then tell that story. But all you're telling me now,' he said, 'is just stuff, it has no theme.'
So, ever since that meeting with Gene I never go into a meeting with any writer on any project without asking the fundamental question, 'What's it about?' And I think that every good Star Trek episode answers that question with a second level, a theme. I think as writers, we have an obligation to explore life, to provoke thought, and that's what that question, 'What's it about?' means.
How do you think the actors respond to having to deliver lots of very technical lines?
Well, Brent Spiner used to call it 'Pillar filler,' when I would write long speeches, and Data obviously got stuck with a lot of those technical language.
Very frequently we will write scripts and put holes that say 'TECH' in big capital letters, 'HERE', and that's a sort of cry to help to Andre Bormans [the show's scientific adviser]. I always tried to make it make sense, somehow. Rick Berman was absolutely adamant about making sure the Tech had some logic to it. And, ultimately, that frequently led to long speeches in order to make some interior logic to these technical speeches.
Star Trek viewers in general are extraordinarily demanding. When we slip and say 'fire phasers,' and then you see a photon being fired, we'll get letters. So we're kept on our toes.