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A Star Trek story of female inspiration

“To boldly go where no man has gone before.” That was the end of the opening narration for the iconic Sci Fi TV series Star Trek. The modern narration now touts “where no one has gone before.” With the new Star Trek film garnering such buzz, SheKnows thought we would take you back to the beginning.

Dorothy Fontana shares Star Trek memoriesStar Trek the TV show ran on NBC from 1966 to 1969. Back in the era of go-go boots, the Vietnam War and bra-burnings, with the exception of one Russian cosmonaut, women weren’t ‘going’ into space. In fact, women rarely even went into the boardroom unless it was as a secretary to take notes.

A very notable exception to that rule is my mentor and friend Dorothy Catherine (DC) Fontana.As a young student and Trek fan growing up in New Mexico, I always admired this Fontana-person’s very “human” writing and, when I read The Making of Star Trek, Stephen E. Whitfield’s 1968 guide to the show, I was stunned to see, over the caption “DC Fontana,” a very pretty woman’s picture! Oh, my God — my favorite TV writer was a woman!! This opened up whole new galaxies of career possibilities to me. If this talented woman could do it, maybe I could too!I first met Dorothy back in the ’70s when she actually responded to my fan letter asking her advice for a very young female writer trying to break through the Hollywood glass ceiling. I was willing to start as a production secretary, go-fer, whatever it took. I evidently give good letter because she responded and invited me to meet her for dinner! She’d be the woman wearing the hand-sewn ID badge with a flying horse on it. Okay, odd but cool! After chatting and sharing a bottle of wine at the famous watering hole Lucy’s El Adobe across from the Paramount lot, we’d become friends. That friendship has lasted past the new millennium. After the original Star Trek series ended, Dorothy, who had already written Western scripts and other non-science fiction genre shows, went on to write for Bonanza, Big Valley, High Chaparral, Lancer, The Waltons, The Streets of San Francisco, Dallas and continued her love of the science fiction genre with scripts for Six Million Dollar Man, Buck Rogers, Babylon 5 and as Associate Producer on Star Trek Animated and Star Trek: The Next Generation — for which she wrote the pilot episode.Fontana is currently teaching screenwriting to the Fellows at the prestigious American Film Institute in LA while actively continuing her writing career in various media including online series, video games and comics. She recently was inducted into the American Screenwriters Association Hall of Fame and, in 2006 was honored by the She Made It program for outstanding women in radio and TV at the Museum of Television and Radio.With the new Trek film coming out this week, felt it was especially appropriate to chat with this inspiring, amazing woman about her long career and gather some entertaining classic Star Trek insider info on cast, costumes, make-up, pranks and fave episodes etc. Let’s go back to yesteryear. We’ve got on our mini-skirt and tie-dyed tee so beam us back to the ’60’s, Scotty…and don’t miss our interviews with the entire Star Trek movie cast and its creator JJ Abrams all this week!

Dorothy, circa '66

Star Trek: origins

SheKnows: Talk about working your way from the secretarial desk to writing Star Trek episodes and ultimately, becoming Story Editor? Did you just walk up to Gene (Roddenberry) with a script for the show and say, ‘I can write this better’? How did that work?Fontana: Actually, I wrote my first script when I was a production secretary on The Tall Man for Sam Peeples. That was a half-hour TV series starring Clu Gulager and Barry Sullivan. Sam knew that I wanted to write and said, ‘Well, if you come up with a story that I like I’ll assign it to you.’ I did and then I sold two stories and two full scripts for that show. Then I did two more shows. By the time that I actually got to Star Trek I had nine credits. So it wasn’t like just coming in out of the blue.SheKnows: How did you segue from that to Trek?Fontana: I was in the typing pool (at MGM) when I saw this ad posted on the board for a job for an associate producer on a series called The Lieutenant (starring) Gary Lockwood and Robert Vaughn. While there, obviously, I met Gene Roddenberry and he knew that I had written. When The Lieutenant closed down in 1964 after one season, Gene showed me these eleven, twelve pages of format and it was called Star Trek. He said, ‘Read that and let me know what you think.’ I came back and said, ‘I really love this. Who plays Spock?’ I’ve always been interested in Spock. He pushed a photograph of Leonard Nimoy across the desk who had been a guest star on The Lieutenant and I said, ‘Oh, I know Leonard.’ Leonard was in the very first thing that I ever sold to television. He was the guest star and I had known him then for about four years.SheKnows: What a lucky coincidence! But, MGM didn’t produce Star Trek.Iconic character James T. KirkFontana: How many times do you think they’ve kicked themselves around the block for that? (we laugh) Gene was shopping it around town and we went, ultimately, to DesiLu (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s production company) and they sold it to NBC. I was still a production secretary for Gene then during two pilots in 1964 and 1965. I sold three scripts in that period of time to make out my nine. So when the show went into production Gene said to me, ‘You know the show as well as I do. You’ve been with it from the start. Would you like to write one?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And I picked Charlie X. That first season I was Story Editor. I came in at about the thirteenth, sixteenth show. Somewhere around then John D. F. Black had left. Steve Carabatsos had left. Gene looked at me and said, ‘Well, you’ve now written three scripts. If you can do this rewrite to my satisfaction and NBC’s’ then you have the job of Story Editor.’ That turned out to be This Side of Paradise and there I was.SheKnows: And a woman doing that in those days was really rare?Fontana: Yeah. It was pretty rare. There were very few women executives at all and you could probably count the number of women actually writing action/adventure on the fingers of one hand. Most other women were writing either sitcoms or daytimes or they were writing with male partners. They weren’t writing alone. So I was one of the few.SheKnows: Even your husband thought you were a guy before he met you, right?Fontana: I met my husband in 1979. We were working on a Halloween show and he told me later that he used to watch Star Trek and he used to say to his brother, ‘Who is this D.C. Fontana and how come he gets to write all those scripts?’ Now both he and his brother (Dennis and Robert Skotak) are both Oscar Award-winning visual FX people, (specializing in) science fiction. So we’re a family very immersed in science fiction television and movies.

When women wrote under an alias

SheKnows: I also thought you were a guy because we very rarely saw a woman’s name in the credits in those days. You used your initials.Fontana: Yeah and few women were writing under their own names. Pat Fielder wrote under her name, but Pat is kind of a nebulous name. Margaret Arman. She was a great friend. Leigh Bracket in films and there were others who were active then. Joyce Perry came along. Today, the women on the CSI’s are very strong writers. So it’s changed a little bit, but a lot hasn’t changed. On the action adventure shows, you still see more male names than female names. But, it’s a little better.SheKnows: Of the characters that you created for classic Trek, which one is closest to your heart and which one was the hardest to get on paper and get right?Fontana: Well, I loved Amanda and Sarek, Spock’s parents really and the character that Jill Ireland played in This Side of Paradise. Journey To Babel is my absolute favorite show that I wrote because everything went so well on that one. It really was fun. It was mostly a bottle show and so we could spend money on good actors and get the party scene right, all of those things.SheKnows: And then getting Jane Wyatt to play Amanda was so great.Fontana: Oh, she was so lovely, so wonderful. Mark Lenard (who played Spock’s father Sarek) was very imposing — a good actor that died too soon. But they had a little chemistry going on between them, too, because you could feel that they liked each other as people and that came across in the characters, I think.SheKnows: And the hardest show or character to write?Fontana: The hardest one to write possibly was Friday’s Child, the Julie Newmar character because I wanted her to be a tough woman who was making tough decisions, like, ‘It’s my life or the baby’s life? Take the kid.’ There are women like that who are only looking out for themselves and Gene fought me on it. He changed the script and said, ‘No. She’s a mother. She has to behave like a mother.’ I said, ‘Have you met some mothers? I have.’ Not my own of course but, this was a woman who only cared for her own skin and if it was her kid or her, then tough luck. ‘Take the kid.’ Gene softened that up which I had a problem with.SheKnows: Leonard Nimoy said recently in talking about the original series, ‘We tackled some very interesting issues over the years; racial issues, economic issues, ecological issues, all kinds of very interesting subjects and that’s what made Star Trek meaningful for a lot of people. Writers were given an opportunity in Star Trek to tell stories about issues that they could not express in other television shows and they did. Being the key writer on the show, can you also comment on that?Fontana: Well, one (issue) was the war in Vietnam that no one was allowed to write on at the time. If you mentioned it at all, like on The Lieutenant which was 1963/64 it had to be Southeast Asia. You couldn’t say ‘Vietnam’ or anything like that and you certainly couldn’t do that kind of a war story, but we did two of them on Star Trek under the guise of alien civilizations. One was A Private Little War and one was The Omega Glory. We touched on it in a couple of places. Like in Friday’s Child we were (saying) ‘Well, if you supply one side, you supply the other’. And so those kinds of issues we certainly got into.SheKnows: But, when you tackled a controversial issue, the stories still centered on character.Fontana: It was about people because that’s what Star Trek was really about. The fact that they were flying around in this advanced kind of spaceship and had this advanced technology and weapons and communications and all of that, that was just the props. Roddenberry always said, ‘If you’re not writing for people who the heck are you writing for?’ People haven’t changed much over the eons. They still love and hate and are jealous and envious or they’re greedy or they have decent morals or they do not. So any time we could do a human issue, a human story, we were right on the ball. We had a couple that didn’t work, but in the seventy-two shows that I’m familiar with there were like two that we just shelved and never did them. The rest were made to work.SheKnows: Having written The Enterprise Incident and This Side of Paradise, both kind of looking at the sex symbol side of Spock, were you aware that viewers responded that way to Spock?Fontana: Oh, yeah. In This Side of Paradise (a ‘Spock-in-love’ story) Spock was under the influence of the (plant) spores and so he wasn’t acting normally and everyone knew it. Normally he was very much in control of his emotions but he couldn’t control what he was doing. He even cried! I did not write that part of The Enterprise Incident, that involved a romantic thing with (enemy Romulan Commander) Joanne Linville. No. I know Spock. I wouldn’t do that, but I was just another writer and once you turn (your script) over to the show, they have the right to change it. So they did do that and I’m sorry that they did, but as well as it could be handled it was handled. It was kept non-bedroom-like.

Roddenberry: revolutionary

SheKnows: Gene was kind of a pioneer in buying action adventure scripts from a woman, right?Fontana: Both Gene Roddenberry and (later writer/producer) Gene Coon were. As long as it was a good story that’s all they wanted to know. They didn’t care who it came from and Roddenberry would always say, ‘A producer should be willing to stand out with his hat in his hand to get a good story.’SheKnows: Roddenberry liked the ladies, but also felt that they could write television equally as well.Uhuru on the original Star TrekFontana: And it was very courageous to put an African-American woman on the bridge; (Nichelle Nichols who played Uhura) a character that you see all the time and not just as background. She actually has a role and there were stations in the South that wouldn’t run Star Trek‘ (because of this) and Gene just basically said, ‘Well, F them. It’s their loss.’SheKnows: At the recent Trek movie press day, Leonard mentioned the first interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura, that it was a big deal.Fontana: Well yeah, but Kirk was kissing aliens all the time (inter-species romance?).SheKnows: Let’s talk fashion! There were some amazing, really quite risque costumes on the classic series. Can you talk about those? Some of them would rock the runways today!Fontana: (Costume Designer) Bill Theiss’ costumes were really nice, especially on a guy with a good body. With the women, the costumes were a little on the skimpy side all the time but Bill had such exquisite taste and his costumes always looked wonderful. He had the ‘Theiss theory of titillation’ which was you show as much of a non-erogenous zone as possible like the side of the leg, the back, lots of arm, but covering everything essential and make it look like that thing is going to slip at any moment.SheKnows: Ah, so were there any “wardrobe malfunctions”?Fontana: It never slipped. Well, once in a while we got bloopers, but mostly the women were glued in or taped and so those costumes didn’t move. But his theory was you show them a lot of skin, but it’s not sexual in any way and they think they’re going to see something (hot) next. Worked like a charm.SheKnows: Still Does. We talked with Leonard Nimoy and Zach Quinto (playing Spock in the new Trek film) recently and Zach really wanted to know if Leonard’s eyebrows grew back after shaving off the ends. He was worried about his own.Fontana: (laughs) Well, they only did (shave off) the half and, as far as I can tell, Leonard looks just fine.SheKnows: We understand that you have young family members carrying on the Trek legacy, at least in make-up?Fontana: My nephews sell ears at (Renaissance Fairs) and science fiction and fantasy conventions. They came up with a way to make (the Vulcan) ears and they also have Hobbit ears and they sell them for $15 a set. It’s a tad more if they put them on for you. But they have literally made a fortune, or okay, a living out of ears.SheKnows: A great little legacy for you. I remember that every time Spock had to pretend to be human he had his ears covered with little knit caps and things.Fontana: Oh, yeah. Boy those ears took a long time, too! They all had to be cast and molded. I think Fred Phillips, who was the chief makeup man, said that for every two or three that you pull that are absolutely perfect there’s ruined ones. They had to be trimmed and fitted to the actor. When we got new people on the show that had to have ears, it was like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ That’s why, when we did Romulans, and we didn’t do them that often, we tried to put them in helmets or something so that we didn’t have to see the ears because that was so time consuming. We used more Klingons because they were easier.SheKnows: Now, TV shows can include amazing aliens all created on computer. But, in those days…Fontana: Yes, today you can do an alien creature so much better in CGI. You don’t have to worry about the guy in the suit. We were always worrying ‘If he turns around, oh, God, do we see the zipper?’ Literally.

Up next…On set Star Trek gossip and Fontana’s thoughts on the 2009 Star Trek film

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