"Star Trek" Contributing Screenwriter David Gerrold Headlines "Star Trek First Fridays"
Gerrold, who wrote 'The Trouble With Tribbles,' will discuss the show and the 'Star Trek' phenomenon tonight at the St. Louis Science Center.
Most people think about the future while in college, but David Gerrold took it several steps further by envisioning the future and writing about it.
While enrolled in a college screenwriting class in 1966, he contacted a new TV show called Star Trek and submitted several story ideas. One of them was “The Trouble With Tribbles,” which became one of the show’s most popular episodes ever and launched Gerrold’s career as a writer.
“It was a career choice that grabbed me, rather than the other way around,” Gerrold said.
Gerrold, who will appear at the St. Louis Science Center tonight as part of “Star Trek First Fridays,” has written over 50 science fiction books. Among his works are “The Man Who Folded Himself,” “The War Against the Chtorr” series and “The Martian Child,” which won the Hugo and Nebula awards and was made into a 2007 movie starring John Cusack. But in 1966, he was not yet an author, merely a sci-fi aficionado.
“Here was this TV show that was going to be science fiction every week, and I thought it would be fun to do a script for them because they should do real science fiction, not the kind of silly stuff that Lost In Space was doing,” he said. “Things like talking carrots, right?”
Gerrold had no inkling what the show would become.
“I always thought it was just one episode of one TV show,” he said. “I had no idea ‘Star Trek’ was ever going to become a cultural phenomenon, a landmark. Practically wherever you go, you see people referring to ‘Star Trek’ like they refer to The Wizard of Oz or The Godfather. It’s part of what defines us as a society now. It’s not just the costumes and the spaceship. I think it’s the aspiration to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Gerrold was certainly doing that when he submitted “The Trouble With Tribbles,” originally titled “A Fuzzy Thing Happened To Me.” It was one of five story outlines he submitted to Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon.
“Gene L. Coon was very understanding of my lack of experience in the professional world,” Gerrold said. “So he would explain things very carefully – ‘This is how we do it.’ He was very supportive. He said, ‘Well, we’re gonna buy your story. Now we’re not going to assign a writer to do the full outline for a couple of weeks, but if you want to try doing an outline, we’ll look at it.’ And they bought the outline. Then the next step was ‘We’re not gonna assign a scriptwriter for a couple of weeks, so if you want to try doing the first draft, I’ll read it.’ Which was kind of on the borderline, because you’re not allowed to ask someone to do a spec script, but it’s the only way, at that time, that I could sell the script.”
Gerrold turned in a first draft, and Coon made some suggestions, one of which was it needed to be shorter.
“Most of the changes and suggestions were so minor that I don’t remember most of them,” he said. “I do remember he said, ‘Put this scene back in – it’s one of the funniest scenes in the script.’ It was where Kirk asked Scotty who started the fight (with the Klingons). … But there was a point at which it became obvious we were going to go the whole distance with me writing the whole script, and he was very supportive. It was more like a partnership effort than anything else. I think he was very pleasantly surprised that I gave him a very workable script.”
The experience “was quite an adventure,” Gerrold said. “I learned a great deal from that process, which I think was what Gene wanted to do. He wanted me to learn.”
Gerrold had no initial contact with “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry, who was on vacation at the time.
“The script was already filmed and in the can by the time he got back,” Gerrold said. “I think he was a little put off by it, because it was a comedy. When we started working on it, I had not seen it as a laugh out loud farce. I wanted it to be a little bit whimsical with a little bit of ominousness to it. But as the script developed, everybody realized ‘This is funny – let’s have fun with it.’ By the time it got to the sound stage, it was a comedy, and a very funny one. It still holds up today, according to the viewers.”
It was also a “Star Trek” groundbreaker.
“Tribbles was the first comedy,” Gerrold said. “After that, Gene L. Coon started putting more comic bits in the various episodes, and did another comedy episode, ‘A Piece of the Action.’ I think Roddenberry was a little disturbed by that because Roddenberry did not have that kind of a sense of humor. So I think it bothered him to see ‘Star Trek’ going in that direction. That’s just a guess on my part. I never heard him say that specifically.”
“Tribbles” also introduced more humanity into the show, and gave most of the primary actors a chance to shine.
“That was a conscious choice on my part,” he said. “As a viewer, I had started to get a little bit tired of only seeing Kirk and Spock together, and occasionally Bones, and not seeing who the rest of the crew were. I wanted to see the rest of the crew, so I made it a personal thing that every other actor in the series was going to have a scene – a good scene – something interesting to do. … Then when it got to the sound stage, they all had a great deal of fun with it. They were playful. It was a cast that had an excellent morale. It was a fun place to go to work.”
About every other month, typically during the summer, Gerrold gets invited to some sort of convention or event featuring Star Trek. Fans want to discuss the show, of course, but they also want to talk about the future.
“There are younger fans who are excited about the show, but we now have a fandom that has been around for (nearly) 50 years,” he said. “A lot of people, they have careers, they have families, but they have visions of a future that they want to live in and want to build. So there’re a lot of questions about space, or what are we going to do to make a difference on Earth? Listening to the fans talk is very inspiring, because as much as they’re enthused about whether this is the right uniform for that character or whatever, then they start talking about larger things. That’s what gets me excited. That’s why I like coming to conventions, to hear what the fans have to say.”
Gerrold is looking forward to talking with fans in St. Louis, and is pleased that “Star Trek: The Exhibition” exists.
“It’s very exciting to realize that people are finally starting to recognize the importance of preserving our movie and television heritage,” he said.
Exhibits like this also give people an inside look at the collaboration among writers, directors, actors and crew members that is necessary to create a successful show.
“For me, the excitement of any production, whether it’s a movie or television, is how this army of people can put all these things together and create this illusion in front of the camera," he said. "And it’s so compelling that you’re caught up in it. … That’s what we go to the movies for, or (why we) watch TV – to believe in something.”
The difference between Star Trek and other shows is Star Trek encourages people to believe in themselves, Gerrold said.
“This isn’t about us, this isn’t about the Enterprise,” he said. “It’s about what all of us are capable of. The fans want to get on board the Enterprise. Not just to wear the costumes or go for the ride, but to be part of that human adventure, which is the adventure of self-discovery.”
Early Interest, Personal Favorites
Gerrold initially became interested in science fiction because the genre “says the world the way it is, is not necessarily the way it has to be,” he said.
The first science fiction book he ever read was Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein.
“It was about a trip to the moon, but the way he wrote it, it was believable,” he said. “It wasn’t, ‘Let’s fire them off in a cannon.’ It was, ‘We can build a rocket ship that works like this, and this is what you’re going to find on the moon.’”
Gerrold got to meet Heinlein, who was well known for mentoring other science fiction writers.
“I had the privilege of being friends with Robert,” he said. “He was a very joyous man, although you wouldn’t think so, because he didn’t come across that way. But he was a very joyous man who had a very active mind. He was always asking questions. He and I, we had some fun conversations about different things.”
Gerrold wrote an homage to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers titled A Matter For Men and dedicated it to Heinlein. But Gerrold’s favorite novel is the semi-autobiographical The Martian Child, inspired by Gerrold’s 1992 adoption of his son Sean, who was eight at the time. Sean is 27 now, enjoys rebuilding cars and is smart, honest, dependable and “really the person you hope your kids grow up to be,” he said.
“My son is just the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened in my life, and he likes to say that I’m the best thing that ever happened in his life, which is good to hear,” Gerrold said. “But even if (the novel) were a totally made up story, I’d still be very proud of it because it really is about the discovery of humanity.”
The film version had too much “Hollywood slapstick” and didn’t focus enough on “how you build a relationship between a father and a son,” Gerrold said, as his dogs Chester and Jasmine barked in the background.
“People who watched the movie say that they liked it, so I’m not gonna argue with that,” he said. “I just wish that they had stayed closer to the themes of the book.”
Gerrold’s favorite movies, like The Godfather, John Wayne’s The Searchers and the Gene Kelly musical Singin’ in the Rain, are about how people interact.
“These movies are about the relationships between the people, and you love watching those relationships develop. … And I think that’s the real reason, to a great degree, that Star Trek has endured, like Dr. Who, because you care about the characters – they are real to you,” he said.
Know Before You Go
“A Conversation With David Gerrold” will begin at 8 p.m. today in May Hall on the lower level of the St. Louis Science Center, 5050 Oakland Avenue, St. Louis.
Gerrold’s lecture is free, with tickets available in the lobby starting at 6 p.m. Seating is limited to 425. Gerrold will also sign autographs starting at 8:45 p.m. and introduce three Tribbles episodes starting at 10 p.m. in the Omnimax Theatre. Tickets for the Omnimax “Tribbles” shows are free and are available starting at 6 p.m. today.
Tickets to see “Star Trek: The Exhibition,” which is open 6-10 p.m. during First Friday, are $14 for adults and $12 for children ages 5-12. First Friday parking is free.
Gerrold will also sign autographs at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday at the Science Center.