SPEAKING WITH… D.C.FONTANA PART ONE

D.C. Fontana has written such TV shows as: STAR TREK, CAPTAIN SIMIAN, LONESOME DOVE, BABYLON-5, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE-9, WAR OF THE WORLDS, LOGANS RUN, FANTASTIC JOURNEY, THE WALTONS, DALLAS, SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, BUCK ROGERS, GHOST STORY/CIRCLE OF FEAR, THE BIG VALLEY, THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, BONANZA, LANCER, THE TALL MAN as well as many, many more. She received a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Dramatic Episodic Script, 1969, THEN CAME BRONSON. She has written video/interactive games, novels as well as short stories, and crushing into oblivion the concept of those who can’t, teach, has taught writing and has won many awards.

On top of that, Dorothy is a really nice person.

I’ve let folk know time and again that I’m a Trekkie. Not the kind who can tell you how many women Kirk attempted to sleep with (the answer is probably all of them but I could be wrong) or one who even remembers the names of all the main characters on Deep Space-9, but one who has seen Star Trek episode aired and enjoyed many of them. So, being a Trekkie, I knew the name D.C. Fontana as the writer of one of my two favorite episodes of the original Trek: Journey to Babel (the other is City on the Edge of Forever by Harlan Ellison). Babel worked as one of the best character driven ST tale they ever did as well as their best single plot.

Everything came together absolutely perfectly. I assumed, of course, and I’m sure most folk did, that D.C. Fontana didn’t stand for Detective Comics Fontana (a comic book in-joke) but was some guy writer who told guy stories only better than most of the other guys. Years later, of course, by the time I met Dorothy Fontana, I already had had the facts of life explained to me: Yeah, girls can write just as well, if not better, than guys.

I ran into Dorothy every so often; we have a lot of mutual friends, but, as is my way, we didn’t always talk a lot. As is often said, I’d rather keep quiet and be assumed a fool than open my mouth and prove it. But, one weekend, Dorothy and her husband, and I and my wife, went up to a Writers Guild of America, West meeting at Lake Arrowhead about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. I had a chance to sit down with Dorothy, as well as other writers, and chat away for hours on end. These days, Dorothy, I and a few others, get together every so often for lunch and talk. Of course I never say out loud that sitting next to me is the guy who wrote my favorite Star Trek episode. I just quietly giggle over that. Don’t tell her I said that.

I thank Dorothy for taking the time to answer my questions. Her answers are so thorough that I’ll be devoting three columns to them.
And now the interview…

MARV WOLFMAN: HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?

DOROTHY FONTANA: I never had writing classes. I just started writing at the age of eleven because I had stories to tell. At that time, I was interested in writing novels, since I had been an inveterate reader from a very early age. (The first adult book I read for myself – at the age of eight – was A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens.) From age eleven to fourteen, I spent a lot of time writing horror stories starring me and my friends. And no, I haven’t kept any of those early tries. After I gave up the horror stories, I kept on writing, mostly attempts at novels. In high school, I was a business major; in college (Fairleigh Dickinson University), I earned an Associate in Arts degree as an Executive Secretarial major. After graduation, I interviewed for and got a job in New York City as junior secretary to Ralph Cohn, president of Screen Gems, which was the TV arm of Columbia Pictures. That was my first experience at reading television scripts. I made that fatal mistake that most writers make. I said to myself, “I can do that.” I decided later in the year that Los Angeles, not New York, was the place to try to make my way as a script writer. I hadn’t given up on novels; I just liked the pace and immediacy of television.

I started work at Revue Studios (now Universal) as production secretary for Samuel A. Peeples, producer-creator of OVERLAND TRAIL, THE TALL MAN and FRONTIER CIRCUS. Sam knew I was interested in writing and told me that if I had any stories, he would read and critique them. I tried one OVERLAND TRAIL story on him, but it wasn’t quite right. As part of my job, I read scripts constantly so I began to see the way they were put together, their pacing and vocabulary. Ultimately, OVERLAND TRAIL was cancelled, but we went on immediately to THE TALL MAN. I came up with one story, which Sam bought, then another story, which he bought. On my third story, I asked if I could take a shot at writing the script; and Sam said “Go ahead.” I sold him another script on TALL MAN, then did a rewrite on a SHOTGUN SLADE script for executive producer Nat Holt. After THE TALL MAN was cancelled, I was able to sell Sam another story for FRONTIER CIRCUS. Those were my first six sales – all under the name of Dorothy C. Fontana.

After that, there was a sea change in the business. Half hours gave way to hour shows, and Westerns started to fade out. I also found out that, as a woman, it was hard to sell action adventure scripts – despite the fact that they were all I had written and sold to date! Eventually, I started using “D.C. Fontana” as a byline I could get a spec script read without a pre-judgment based on gender. Ultimately, four years after my sale to FRONTIER CIRCUS, I sold a spec script to Irving Elman, producer of BEN CASEY, which started a fairly steady roll of sales, even though I was still working as a production secretary – by then for Gene Roddenberry.

MW: WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR MOST SUCCESSFUL WORKS AND WHY?

DF: I really like my STAR TREK scripts, especially JOURNEY TO BABEL, TOMORROW IS YESTERDAY and THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. (PARADISE was a total rewrite of another script that wasn’t working, and it was also Roddenberry’s “test” for me to become story editor on the show.) Those scripts peeled off new facets of characters on the show – BABEL and PARADISE a human side for Spock and PARADISE and TOMORROW a comedic side for Kirk. Plus they were great fun to write, and they are the most remembered.

Of non-STAR TREK shows, I am particularly proud of the four scripts I wrote for STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO. I was the first woman writer to work for any of the Quinn Martin Productions shows, and Quinn asked me to please use my full name on the first STREETS I wrote (“Badge of Honor”). I said I would – just that one time – and that is the only script, other than the first six, which says “Written by Dorothy C. Fontana.” I am also very proud of the three WALTONS scripts I wrote with my brother, Rick. Of them, the one titled “The Beau” is a special favorite because it featured Ellen Corby as Grandma who, in real life and on the show, was recovering from a stroke. At that time, she could act with facial expression and body language, but she could only say “Yes” or “No.” Therefore, Rick and I had to come up with dialogue exchanges for her that would let her act but only say one of two words! It was a challenge, and it turned out to be a particularly affecting story as well.

In another area of writing, the script I wrote with Derek Chester for Activision’s game, STAR TREK: BRIDGE COMMANDER, is particularly satisfying. I had done dialogue rewrite for two other STAR TREK games (for Interplay), but this was a major rewrite start to finish, including game play, dialogue, character biographies, the manual, etc. Derek was a real partner in this because he is a game player, as well as being a solid writer; and the two of us worked well together – almost entirely by e-mail. The game has gotten extremely good reviews, and I’m told it’s selling very well.

MW: KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, WHICH OF YOUR MORE FAMOUS WORKS WOULD YOU REDO IF YOU COULD? WHY AND HOW?

DF: Oddly enough, I don’t think I’d rewrite any of them – and that’s not ego speaking. I think each represents the show and the time period in which it was written. Each also represents the “me” who was writing at the time as well. My writing style has changed over the years, not just from maturity, but also reflecting the world in which we live and how I see it. Sometimes I reread an old script, just for the heck of it, and realize how my style and my philosophy have changed. What hasn’t changed is that I generally still write about love – between siblings, parents and children, friends, lovers – love gained, lost, envied, stolen, used, thrown away…. It’s all about human beings, isn’t it? It’s who we are; it’s what we write about.

MW: DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR AUDIENCE WHEN YOU CREATE A STORY?

DF: First, I have to like the story to be able to write it with passion and vigor. After that, a producer or editor has to like it as much as I do. And only after that, does the audience come into play. I consider audiences to be intelligent, even the young ones. (I’ve written quite a few children’s shows and animated shows.) I write on a level that I hope will engage, entertain and enlighten; but I never write down to the audience. One of the “children’s shows” I liked best was STAR TREK ANIMATED. I wrote “Yesteryear” which called for the euthanization on screen of young Spock’s sehlat. NBC was a little nervous about it; Roddenberry said, “Trust Dorothy.” Not one letter was received in protest, because I had the Healer explain that the severely injured animal was in pain; and it was kinder to let it go gently in peace and dignity.

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