Star Trek legend D.C. Fontana on how she climbed out of the studio typing pool to carve out a 50-year career in TV writing.
Written by Denis Faye
“When I came to producers, they never said, ‘You’re a woman, you can’t write this.’ They said, ‘Give me a good story.’”
With a few minor exceptions, television writer Dorothy Catherine “D.C.” Fontana claims gender has never been an obstacle in her long and winding career. The work has always been there, simply because she’s had the chops to write it. “When I came to producers, they never said, “You’re a woman, you can’t write this,” she insists. “They said, ‘Give me a good story.’”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the 1960s, when Dorothy got her start, weren’t without their equality flaws. Along with the likes of Margaret Armen, Pat Fielder, and Joyce Perry, she was one of just a handful of female freelance television writers in a male-dominated industry. Even the original Star Trek, the highly progressive show for which she is best known, can cause many a Vulcan eyebrow raise when viewed from a modern perspective. True, the show featured an interracial cast and pointed, thinly veiled social commentary, but what about the miniskirt uniforms, Orion slave girls, and Capt. James T. Kirk’s insatiable libido? When asked about all this, Dorothy just laughs. “That was out of my control so I didn’t worry about it. I just worried about telling a good story.”
When Dorothy Fontana sits down and writes, her method is simple: sit down and write.
Here’s how she explains it:
“Basically, when I get a story in my mind, I sit down with a pad and a pen and try to work it out. I can scratch things out and move things about and not worry about that screen. When I go to write it on the computer, I’m basically writing a second or third draft. Then I print it out and change it again and work on it, work on it. By the time a story editor or producer gets what is a “first draft,” for me it’s a third draft or sometimes a fourth draft. I’m a fairly fast writer, so it works out well.
“When I sit down, I don’t usually see the steps along the way, but I see the beginning and the goal. Then it’s just, ‘Okay, what step does the character take next? What step does the character take next? What decisions are going to be made? What obstacles have to be overcome?’ It’s a fairly standard procedure, and it’s the way I learned how to write. Sometimes, if I’m really, really, stuck in a place, usually about the third act, I turn around and think ‘Hmmm. What’s my goal? Now let’s work backwards.’ Sometimes that solves my problem, but usually, it’s just straight ahead, let’s go for it.
“I can come up with all kinds of creative ways to do that, but that’s how I learned to tell stories and that’s how I’ve always seen stories. When they’re produced, they go from end to end. Occasionally, you get one like Memento [screenplay by Christopher Nolan] that goes backwards, but most of them follow the standard procedure.”
Then she offers a pragmatic counterpoint. “We tried it a different way where the women were all wearing pants for the first two pilots,” she explains. “That didn’t seem to go over too well so they changed the costuming.” After all, a show can knock down all the walls in the universe, but it won’t do much good if no one’s sitting in front of the tube watching.
This practical, do-what-you-gotta-do attitude seemed to weave through a conversation with Dorothy. Perhaps this – and talent – explain a career spanning five decades, including novels, comic books, videos games, and a dizzying array of television assignments ranging from Star Trek to Babylon 5, to Dallas, to Bonanza, to Six Million Dollar Man, to the Waltons, and on and on.
It became clear to Dorothy that writing was her calling at age eleven when she used to craft adventure stories about friends in her New Jersey neighborhood. Immediately upon graduating college, she took off for the Big Apple and landed a gig as the junior secretary for the president of Screen Gems. When he died shortly thereafter, she needed to regroup. “I got myself back in Jersey, saved my money, and I headed out to California.”
Despite the unfortunate circumstances, this turned out to be a bit of good luck. She quickly found work in the typing pool at Revue Studios, which would eventually become Universal. There, she haunted the jobs board, jumping at the chance to work for established Western writer Samuel Peeples, who would eventually write for Star Trek as well. “I was there on the spot. I was reading any script that was available,” she says, explaining how she made her big move while working on Samuel’s show The Tall Man. “I said, ‘I would like to try to sell you a story.’ Sam said, ‘You sell me a good story, and I’ll buy it.’ So I did, and he did, and that was my first story sale. I was 21 years old.”
It might seem like an unusual genre for a woman, but not for Dorothy. “I grew up on Westerns. I grew up on action shows. Not so much science fiction – but male-oriented shows, I always loved them. So when I started writing, that was the kind of show I wrote. I just got into science fiction because of Star Trek.”
And “got into science fiction” she did indeed. Dorothy started working with Gene Roddenberry on his show The Lieutenant, a present-day Marine Corps drama. When that run ended, she kept working with Gene on a science fiction pilot. (You know the one.)
They produced the 1964 pilot. Then the 1965 pilot. Then, in 1965, they finally got the greenlight for Star Trek. At this point, there was no denying that Dorothy was a shoe-in.
“Gene said to me, “You know how to do the show. You’ve been with it since 1964!”
Her first assignment was a teleplay based on Gene’s idea. The episode was “Charlie X.” From there, she started writing her own ideas. Says Dorothy: “We were getting close to having our second story editor leave when Gene said, ‘I’m giving you a major rewrite assignment. If you do it to my satisfaction and to the satisfaction of the network, you’re going to be my story editor.’ And that’s how that all happened.”
As any serious Comic-Con attendee knows, Dorothy’s career reads like a science fiction DVD box set wish list. In the Star Trek universe alone, she staffed The Animated Series and The Next Generation and wrote for Deep Space Nine. Along with partner Derek Chester, she’s written several Star Trek video games and the comic book series Star Trek: Year Four published by IDW. She also wrote the Star Trek novel Vulcan’s Glory. “When it comes to Star Trek,” she admits, “I can walk in the room and say, ‘I kind of know the show.’”
D.C. Fontana in the 1960s.
Then there’s the other science fiction work, including Buck Rogers, Logan’s Run, and Babylon 5, as well as animated shows such as He-Man and The Silver Surfer.
And lest we forget, there’s a host of non-science fiction under her belt: Westerns like Bonanza, cop shows like The Streets of San Francisco, dramas like The Waltons. The reason Dorothy can hop from genre to genre is simple. Whether she’s writing about strange, new worlds or Depression-era families who all go to sleep at the same time, there’s only one thing she focuses on.
“What I always write about is the people,” she says. “There are starship shows like Star Trek and there was Babylon 5, which was a space station. In a way, it’s the same, but it changes a bit. For instance, the approach of what they did on Battlestar Galactica was different from what we did on Star Trek, yet you always have stories about people. That’s the key thing about science fiction. The best shows are always about people.”
Currently, Dorothy is putting these people skills to work on more personal projects, choosing to limit any potential staff work to shows she’s either created or co-created. At this writing, she’s shopping a “family, action science fiction show” around town. “Nobody’s doing that right now,” she explains. “By saying that, maybe somebody else will, but I’m trying to get mine in first.”
So why has she waited this long to stick to pitching her own shows? Again, it’s a question of simple pragmatism. “I had a couple ideas,” she shrugs. “I thought they might go.”