My Star Trek: The Next Generation Spec Scripts
This is the first script I ever wrote, a spec submission to Star Trek: The Next Generation circa 1991. I was 16. I think I found it in my mom’s basement when I was organizing my old stuff some years ago and brought it out to Los Angeles.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was unique amongst television shows in that they had an open submissions policy. This was instituted under the writing showrunner/Executive Producer Michael Piller circa season three.
Piller is a pivotal figure in Star Trek’s history, as he straightened out the show’s writing staff (after two years of turmoil and inconsistency under Gene Roddenberry and Maurice Hurley) and, in a nutshell, made the show good.
Piller’s major innovation was to focus each episode on one of the characters. It seems shocking that the show did not think to do that before, but when The Next Generation began, it mostly hewed to the action-adventure format of the Original Series. The characters were important, but each episode was really driven by a sci-fi concept. Piller insisted that each episode could (and needed to) have a sci-fi plot, sure—but it had to relate to one of the characters in a meaningful way.
I enjoyed his episodes and writing philosophy at age 17, but I didn’t have the maturity to execute it myself.
Piller died from cancer in 2005. He was only 57. I read that he could be a little bit awkward and some writers didn’t get along with him, finding him aloof and/or disliking his rewrites. (Remember when Barclay told Troi that he is shy at parties and would find himself just standing and pretending to look at a potted plant? Apparently that was something Piller said about himself, verbatim, to Ira Steven Behr, who put it into Barclay’s mouth.)
Piller undoubtedly saved the franchise. He wrote a book about the screenwriting of Star Trek: Insurrection, and the book is very good. Piller’s writing style as a memoirist is...a lot like mine, actually. I don’t really care for Insurrection so it’s a little sad seeing how all the changes and revisions watered down a premise that was probably flawed to begin with.
Piller recognized that Star Trek had a unique format and that the show couldn’t rely solely on staff and television freelancers to supply its 26 episodes per season. The Star Trek lore was too specific, and Roddenberry’s latter-day dictum that the characters not be in conflict with each other drove writers crazy—because what is drama if not conflict? The show instead needed to manufacture conflict from circumstance and misunderstood/misguided aliens and outsiders, and it took a certain kind of writer to have the patience for this.
So Piller opened up the submissions to everybody—you didn’t need an agent, you could just send your own script to the production offices, and it would be read and could even end up being bought and inscribed in holy canon as an episode of Star Trek. Holy cow!
To my recollection, the episode “Tin Man” was a fan script that was bought and produced near the end of season three with minimal revisions—the show desperately needed filmable scripts, as the staff was gravely behind schedule. You’ll notice that episode is principally about the guest star, Tam Elbrun, but per Piller’s mandate, it ties into Data’s own sense of belonging aboard the Enterprise.
More often than not, either an idea would be purchased, and then written or rewritten by staff writers; or a writer whose script showed promise would be invited to pitch other ideas. And then if an idea was intriguing “in the room,” it would be purchased and developed in-house. The most famous example of an episode sold this way was “Future Imperfect.” Apparently the writers (not sure if they were fans or TV freelancers) began, “Riker wakes up with no memory and it’s 16 years in the future and he has a son,” and Piller bought it on the spot.
A whole bunch of episodes were produced that originated in fan pitches. And famously, a fan ended up as a staff writer—and, later, a major television creator—on the basis of a spec script, Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, For All Mankind). His script “The Bonding” was a pivotal production early in the third season, establishing the focus on character and more mature tone that Piller wanted.
I read about all of this largely in the pages of Cinefantastique (thanks to Mark Altman’s annual Star Trek cover story)—and boy, I wanted in!
So I bought a couple of scripts from Lincoln Enterprises (Roddenberry’s mail order company; if he could have sold an actor’s dandruff, he would have). I definitely had the script to “Peak Performance.” I studied the format and thought, I can do this!
I remember getting started by formatting Microsoft Word with a cluster of the tab stops to replicate screenplay format. If there was screenwriting software at the time, I was not aware of it. I learned how to create “macros” in Word so I could just hit a number on the keypad and get the tab stops for dialogue, for example. It was a huge pain in the ass.
I do remember I cheated the font size to 11 so I’d have more room. Bad!
It was all such a hassle that it reminds me to be thankful for screenwriting software, which makes this terrible process fairly effortless. I’ve long used Final Draft, personally.
My first script was called “Conspirators,” because at the time I didn’t think like a screenwriter, more like somebody who sent letters to the editor of comic books (which I in fact was). The show had never addressed the cliffhanger of the disturbing first-season episode “Conspiracy,” with the “neural parasite” neck creatures and exploding head at the end which totally bummed me out upon first viewing.
So I figured I’d write a sequel about what happened to the parasites.
I also thought, being a big nerd, I would bring back Dr. Pulaski, because I liked her—not knowing that she had been let go because neither the character nor the actress were felt to be working out (by mutual decision).
Just now, I flipped through a few pages—none of which I care to share, sorry—and while it’s not as incompetent as I feared…it’s of course lame and amateurish.
I do remember having a hard time getting started. I wanted Picard in his ready room to start the teaser, and I wrote this long paragraph explaining the camera move on the actor, revealing the room, etc. It was driving me crazy, until I finally realized, “Just say, ‘Picard’s at his desk,’ don’t direct on the page.”
I submitted the script and thereafter spent every day bracing with excitement at the mailbox (which was at the end of our dirt road) as I awaited the good news that of course my script was so brilliant, they wanted to buy and produce it immediately.
I even called the production office a time or two to follow up, and I’m pretty sure I spoke to Eric Stilwell (one of the credited writers for “Yesterday’s Enterprise”), the pre-production staff member who coordinated the amateur submissions, who politely said a version of, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
After a few months I forgot about it—and then maybe six months later I got the script returned to me in the mail with a rejection latter.
Undaunted, I tried coming up with more ideas, and I think I wrote at least two or three other scripts, and maybe submitted one of them, which was also rejected.
In time, the show came up with a rule, “two submissions per writer,” to weed out people like me who were just wasting their time.
And I gave up on my dream of writing Star Trek.
I didn’t have much interest in writing any other shows or movies at the time. I was just totally enchanted and immersed in the world of Star Trek and wanted to see my name on screen.
I do remember having Star Trek pen pals at the time. This was before the Internet was publicly used, so that’s what you did if you wanted to talk about Star Trek. There were fanzines where you could post your name and address and write to one another. I corresponded with a guy who was trying to do the same thing I was, and he sent me his scripts, although I think they were more like treatments. They had fancy plastic covers. His stories were even worse than mine—one of them had a Borg beam onto the ceiling of the bridge and attack the crew like in Aliens. I wrote to him trying to politely say, “Hey, I don’t think they’d really do something like this,” and he wrote back a stern letter telling me to back off, where he used the word “impolitic” (as in my comments to him were “impolitic”—I think I had childishly used curse words to try to emphasize my points). That’s when I looked up the word “impolitic.”
This was also, by the way, around the time when I was sending out the first few newsletters that became Film Score Monthly.
As a final note, when I bailed on writing any more Star Trek scripts, I did have a list of ideas, and one of them was called “Invalid Warrior” (terrible title), where Worf suffers an accident and gets paralyzed. I successfully anticipated the episode later written and produced, “Ethics.” But I never wrote it, let alone submitted it.
Because I’ve carefully migrated all my digital files since our first home computer in the late 1980s, I actually have all of my scripts and notes. But they no longer open easily—there’s a lot of garbage characters in the text—and I don’t want to read them, anyway!
Tomorrow, I’ll tell the story of when I finally got to go in to pitch Star Trek, for Enterprise circa 2001–02, courtesy my friend Fred Dekker.