David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

my VOYAGER spec script: commentary

Now that the whole thing's posted, here's some behind-the-scenes commentary on "Don't Gimme That Old Time Religion" (Part One, Part Two).

Here's how the process worked. At the time, STAR TREK accepted scripts over the transom, unagented. This made them pretty much unique in town. You sent in your script and a release form; if they liked it, they would contact you and ask if you wanted to pitch stories at them. (If they *really* liked it, they bought your script, but that almost never happened.) A pitch is basically a meeting where you briefly describe the stories you want to tell, and they say if they like 'em or not. Trek would do pitch sessions over the phone or in person, depending on the writer's location.

I was in LA around that time, and so got to do one of my pitch sessions in person (I did a couple more over the phone, later). C'mon, like I'd pass that up? I parked on the Paramount lot in the water tank used for THE TRUMAN SHOW, then walked to the Trek writing office. I passed Ice-T on the way. I smiled and nodded; he nodded back. ("Hi. You're famous and busy so I won't bother you; but thanks for entertaining me." "No problem. I'm cool.") The ambiance was interesting. They made you wait in a little room that was lined with shelves. On the shelves were binders. In the binders were the reader reports on spec scripts submitted to STAR TREK shows: summaries of the scripts, characters featured, and an estimate of the feasibility and suitability for production, which pretty much translated into the details of how and why they sucked. It was like going into a room wallpapered in other people's rejection slips. I can't tell you what they said about my script, because I didn't find my own. I think because the most recent ones weren't there, but I'm honestly not sure. I kind of wish I had read it; be curious to know what somebody thought.

Here are some things about DGMTOTR that you may or may not have noticed, but that I think are worth noting:

  1. It's a "bottle show." Two guest roles, neither of them too demanding; no need to build any new sets. I did this for two reasons. One was gamesmanship. If my script was simple and cheap to produce, and they suddenly needed something to fill a hole in the production schedule, well, hell, here was something ready to go. The other was to show that I didn't need anything fancy and new: I could make a good story out of what they showed me. It was me saying, "Look, your characters and your premise are interesting; I can make a good story out of them as they stand."

  2. There's a fair amount of bawdy humor. This is surprising for me, right? And surprising for Trek. We've got Tom and Belanna screwing at lunch, peephole holographic porn, a dude staring at Seven's ass (with an obvious Frank Miller-esque Seven ass shot), all kinds of stuff like that. This was also deliberate. VOYAGER took a turn for the sexy -- they had the holographic beach club, and Harry Kim's visit to Castle Anthrax -- to try to goose ratings. Brannon Braga, who was executive producer, had an epic reputation as a perv of the first order; he'd gotten into trouble a few years back over an article in DETAILS magazine in which he told the reporter that if he had a holodeck, he'd indulge his fifty-foot woman fantasy, because "That would be the ultimate -- to actually crawl up inside a vagina."

  3. It's an ensemble piece. I tried to give pretty much every character a moment to shine, to be smart or
    empathetic or moving. Even Neelix. This was to show that hey, I get the characters and will take them seriously. (Seven of Nine comes off as the least sympathetic of the characters -- I think it's clear that I don't think much of the "sexy Borg" concept -- but she's a prime mover in the plot, and she has some good funny lines. The serious ones are the most fun to take the piss out of.) I liked playing with the character relationships: Tom and Belanna were more fun to write than I'd thought, but for me the non-romantic relationships -- Tuvok and Janeway, Chakotay and Belanna, Tom and Harry -- are the most interesting ones. I really liked the relationship between Belanna and Chakotay in my script, actually; they can confide in each other and she can call him on bullshit. That's pretty cool.

  4. There were some referential bits.
    • Two of the original characters are named for friends of mine: Arthur Levesque and I hung out on Usenet together, and that quip about "First Janeway came for Tuvix" was actually his wisecrack. I emailed him and said, "Hey, I'm writing a spec; can I use that line? It's bloody perfect. I'll name a character after you." He said sure. As I recall, when I emailed him the script, he expressed
      surprise; he hadn't expected to have so many lines.

    • Ensign Egolf is named for a friend of mine, a massive BABYLON 5 fan, famous for her con parties (and mini-cheesecakes).

    • Tom Paris turned into a newt in "Threshold," arguably the worst episode of any STAR TREK series ever produced. It's up there with TNG's "Sub Rosa" and TOS's "Spock's Brain."

    • Chakotay's hallucinatron being a "Wah Chang series neural stimulator" -- Wah Chang was the prop designer and fabricator on TOS. He designed the tricorder, the hyposprays, all that stuff; Matt Jeffries designed the phaser, but Wah Chang built it. Dude was a legend.

    • The Jewels of Sound, mentioned as Levesque's former addiction, are from the original draft of Harlan Ellison's "City on the Edge of Forever."

  5. Rather than stuff the flowers in a recycling chute, I kind of wish I'd thought to have Seven hand the flowers to Janis Montgomery, who shows up later. For Seven, it's just getting rid of flowers; for Montgomery, it'd be intriguing and a surprise. Could be a cute bit, though it would smell of Ivanova giving Marcus flowers on BABYLON 5. ("Keep them!" "Thank you!")

They didn't buy DGMTOTR, but they asked for more story suggestions. I pitched several stories to VOYAGER, none of which they bought. Here are some of 'em.

  • "After the Rains." As the first test of his command abilities, the Doctor is sent out in charge of an away mission to a deserted planet. The Doctor is delighted with his new authority, ephemeral as it is. Belanna, in particular, resents being subordinate to him in a command situation. But the Doctor's command doesn't last long: Tuvok takes charge when it turns out that the planet *is* populated -- by androids. Their masters destroyed themselves in war centuries ago, and the androids rebuilt the world afterwards exactly as it was, and have kept it neat and polished for their masters' return. The androids are elated to see the Voyager crew. They have been masterless for nearly a thousand years. Now that masters have come, the androids are eager to please. And they fawn over the living (that is, non-holographic) crew: the machines were designed to feel pleasure in service. They do. They are literally begging to be slaves. Because that's what they were *programmed* to be. This sets up a conflict between the Doctor, who wants to champion freedom for the androids, and Belanna, who frankly needs grunt workers.

  • "Day After of the Moron." An alien race is terraforming a marginal world in their solar system by dropping comets on it; they're also strip-mining nearby asteroids, and neither of these are particularly appealing to radical environmentalists, who decide to kill two birds with one stone by directing the latest comet into one of the asteroids. Both will, of course, be reduced to small chunks of rubble and burn up in the atmosphere. Harmlessly, right? Well, no; turns out that if you do the math an asteroid that burns up as rubble all turns into heat at once -- and if it's big enough to do damage, it's actually worse than if the rock had come down in one piece and atomized a city. Think Dresden, on a planetary scale. The environmentalists are horrified; they'd only planned for property destruction -- but what do you do with people who've manslaughtered an entire planet?

  • "Multiple Janeways" -- Janeway has to go back in time to prevent Voyager's destruction. Unfortunately, she doesn't get it right the first time. Or the second. Or the seventeenth. This results in a horde of increasingly screwed-up Janeways descending on Voyager's original timeline in desperate attempts to change the past.

  • "Office Hours" -- To better get a sense of the crew's needs, Janeway holds office hours. She deals with several unusual problems, including an alien ambassador who doesn't want to leave and a crewmember who keeps making appointments because he has a crush on her.

  • Voyager finds the remnants of an alien SETI program. The catch: the aliens who set it up were doing insanely big-ass stuff, like moving stars around. And they were looking for another race of their caliber. Janeway wants to find out more -- but when you're dealing with such powerful Lovecraftian beasties, that may not be a wise idea...

  • "Sins of the Grandfathers" -- Voyager assists an alien historian with her archaeoreception project: the use of FTL travel to capture historical broadcasts. The historian's work has present-day political implications, and Shit Ensues.

  • Neelix acts as the ship's representative in crucial dealings with a telepathic alien ambassador. The ambassador is so alien that Neelix winds up fearing for his sanity.

I also pitched an episode in which Tom and Belanna find a spaceship that works by plugging into its pilot -- a human brain is its control mechanism, and the pilot perceives of the ship as being his body. Now, this is interesting: they passed on it, but then *an episode like this actually aired.* Now, it's one thing to understand full well about simultaneous invention, and independent creation, and coincidence, but when you see a promo for something looks exactly like something you pitched, it doesn't feel like that. And then I saw the episode ("Alice") and realized: no, they're not ripping me off. They're ripping off Stephen King's CHRISTINE. Okay! That's fine!

(A side note: when I pitched this episode, the staffer was critical: "Okay, I can see Belanna being into this -- she's an engineer. But why is Tom so interested?"

"Er," I said, "he's a *pilot.*"

And when they made it, it was a Tom Paris episode. *grin*)

At the time I pitched, I was trying to break into scriptwriting; then I got a fellowship for grad school, and started working on a Master's and a Ph.D. instead. I wonder what would have happened if I'd gone the whole hog and moved to LA; I know folks who made it and folks who didn't. Some folks did one, then the other. I'm nNot sure where I'd be. It's an odd business, and it takes talent, tenacity, and luck. And, ultimately, the ability to deliver competent pages on schedule. (That's one of the things that explains a lot about bad TV: once the production beast gets going, it must be fed; great is wonderful, but far better is competent and now.) As for my future -- who knows?

I am very glad for having had the experience. If anybody reading this pitched to STAR TREK, email me or leave a comment: I'd like to hear how it went for you.
Tags: screenwriting

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