SWORDS, STARSHIPS AND SUPERHEROES:
From Star Trek to Xena to Hercules,
A TV Writer’s Life
Scripting the Stories of Heroes
About moving from Providence to L.A
Senior year. I got serious about attending college in Los Angeles. Most La Salle grads stuck around and went to Providence College or Brown University, so the guidance counselor wasn’t much help to me. It was back to the library. I found a list of L.A. colleges: UCLA, USC, Cal State Northridge. And a few two-year community colleges. There were a lot of film courses and writing courses to choose from. One in particular grabbed my eye. Los Angeles City College was offering a night class on “Writing for TV.” The teacher was Dorothy C. Fontana. Hers was a name I knew from watching TV credits! Star Trek, Bonanza, Lancer. (At first, she wrote under “D.C. Fontana.” Apparently male producers were more inclined to read a sample script if they thought it was written by a man.)
That was it – a plan. I would attend LACC. I found information on enrolling, and transferring my high-school records. It was a community college, so luckily tuition was free (or practically free). I would need to go to L.A. and establish residency, before registering. But that was six months away. I started mowing lawns and/or shoveling snow for pocket money. Moving three thousand miles wouldn’t be cheap.
My first pitch meeting at XENA
The Xena offices were in a bungalow-like building in Studio City, a mile or so off the Universal lot. (Today a row of condos occupies the block.) At my meeting, all the big guns turned out. The Xena writing staff consisted of three people. There was R.J. Stewart, showrunner … Steven L. Sears, Supervising Producer … and Chris Manheim, Story Editor. (I recognized Chris’s name from Murder, She Wrote and other credits. I’d naively assumed it was a guy. She isn’t.) Also there, crammed into R.J.’s office for my pitch, were Executive Producer Rob Tapert, and Liz Friedman, Producer. Oh, and Alex Kurtzman, whose title was something like Creative Associate.
It was overwhelming. I expected to be meeting with R.J., maybe one other staffer. Everyone who had anything to do with the show creatively was there! Were they expecting Aaron Sorkin? Did they gangbang every freelance pitch? Well, I figured if they hated my stories and I wasted everyone’s time, at least they could have a production meeting after I’d gone. Or a séance.
Actually, nobody was the least bit intimidating. They were all friendly, in fact. I’ll spare the details of the stories I pitched, because I mostly don’t remember them. I blacked out and went into auto-drive mode. And after all that research into Greek mythology, the one they liked was – “How about a version of Agatha Christie? Xena’s swept up in a deathmatch among warlords. They’re trapped in some Gothic castle, killing themselves off one by one.”
A wave of enthusiasm seemed to sweep the room. (Which beats a wave of nausea any day.)
And just like that, I was a Xena writer.
On writing Xena
I had an idea for a scene. “Why does Callisto go along with Xena’s proposal? I know, it’s so she can get her hands on the ambrosia. But that’s just the MacGuffin. It’s just plot. Why does she really do it? I mean, emotionally?”
I already had the idea. This was in line with one of my personal rules: Don’t criticize something – a plot point, a line of dialogue – in your script, or especially in someone else’s – unless you have a “fix.” (That’s the best tip I always pass along to writing students.) I pitched mine …
“What if Callisto says, I’ll help you on one condition. There’s something I want you to do first, Xena.”
Her plan is to put Xena through an emotional hell. Xena’s backstory was that she was a badass warrior; her army wiped out Callisto’s village of Cirra. Young Callisto saw her parents slaughtered in front of her eyes. Xena’s thing now is to atone for her past, but she’s never made a public mea culpa. “That’s what Callisto demands of her now,” I said. “Stop in a public square, and make a confession. For the world to hear.”
A simple scene. It wouldn’t take long, and it wouldn’t detract from the mission to lure Velasca to a box canyon, where Xena planned a trap. But this set off a shitload of objections from Liz Friedman. Liz was a fierce protector of Xena’s character, of her mantle as The Hero. There were unwritten rules I wasn’t aware of.
Xena can’t be tricked.
Xena can’t be made to do something she doesn’t want to do.
If Xena makes this speech, it has to happen in such a way that Callisto gains no satisfaction from it.
And on and on and on. Liz was stubborn, she was passionate. And she was right. I put the scene in, and somehow made it work for her.
On writing Hercules
The script mixed two extremes … broad physical comedy (the Bruce Campbell half) and drama, even poignancy with Hercules getting a second chance at saving the love of his life, thanks to time travel. As the story got restructured over multiple outlines, I proposed an early scene with Herc finding himself in a village “frozen in time.” People are like mannequins; birds are frozen in midair. Autolycus has swiped the Chronos stone, and learns he can use it to manipulate time in all sorts of cool ways. Herc is immune because, well, he’s Hercules. As he discovers the frozen tableau, before he realizes why or that Autolycus is involved, Herc intuits what’s happened. It’s the big “out” of the teaser. But I was stumped. How was I supposed to announce to the audience the information that’s in Herc’s head? How could I convey his thought that Someone has stopped time?
“Simple,” Rob Tapert announced. He had an impish grin. “Herc looks around, the camera pushes in on him. And he says, ‘Someone’s stopped time!’”
He was right. It worked. Funny, I never had Karl Malden or Michael Douglas talk out loud to themselves to convey plot points on The Streets of San Francisco. But this was a different show, a different world. I was learning to loosen up, and go with it.
On meeting Lucy Lawless
One day at the Renaissance office, I met Lucy Lawless for the first time. This was months after her injury; she’d resumed filming, and was back on a break. What a surprise, finding Lucy – at that point one of the most famous faces in the world – just hanging out. Of course, she was there because she was dating Rob. She seemed a little tired that day, and I think she was comfortable being in the Renaissance offices because nobody made a fuss over her. We were introduced, but it wasn’t until subsequent meetings, including on the Xena set in New Zealand, that I got to have a few longer chats with her. Lucy was always charming and approachable, a “real person.” Luckily, even though I was on staff at Hercules, I wasn’t done writing for Lucy. I handled all her crossover guest shots on Hercules, and later wrote several more Xenas.
On dealing with fans
After the Xena season finale aired in May 1998, I spent that summer hiding from the fan community. I was sitting on a big secret – that Renee/Gabrielle would be back, after all. I skipped speaking at conventions. I could’ve stuck with, “My lips are sealed,” but I was afraid of spilling something inadvertently. Better to avoid the spotlight.
There has been controversy in the fan community for years over the death of Callisto. That is, in Xena’s killing of Callisto. The setup was, Callisto wants to die. More specifically, she wants oblivion. She makes a deal with Xena – in return for her help defeating Dahak and Ares, she wants Xena to use the Hind’s-blood dagger – the only thing that can kill a god (remember, Callisto achieved godhood when she ate ambrosia) – to kill Callisto. Xena agrees.
Then, when Callisto witnesses Gabrielle’s unexpected plunge into the lava pit, she (Callisto) is overjoyed. She decides she wants her life back after all. “It finally makes life worth living again! And I have YOU TO THANK, XENA!!”
Xena thrusts the knife into her heart, with a simple “No more living for you.”
Of all the questions from fans I’ve ever gotten, this may be the biggest. “Callisto said that to trick Xena, right? To trick her into using the Hind’s-blood dagger to kill her?” It’s often a statement, not a question. Hudson Leick, Callisto herself, subscribes to this theory, saying as much on her commentary track to “Sacrifice 2” on the Anchor Bay Season III DVD release. “But I understand if I had to pretend,” Hudson says on the audio track, “so I can get Xena to actually obliterate me.” (As the actress playing Callisto, she understandably needed to see Callisto as the prime mover in the scene.)
Once and for all, everybody, the author’s answer is: No, Xena wasn’t “tricked.” Callisto didn’t manipulate her. (Sorry, Hudson.) In that moment, Callisto really did want to go on living. But Xena gave Callisto the thing she’d promised her in the first place: death.
No need to overthink it. Sometimes a thing is just a thing.
On the 3-D Hercules
I didn’t have time to bemoan losing the Norse two-parter, because I was immediately handed my next assignment. Rob wanted a sequel to “Stranger in a Strange World,” my Bizarro World episode. Lucy would be in it again. More exciting still, he announced: “We’re gonna shoot it and air it in 3-D.”
As a kid, I loved 3-D movies. I remember going to the Castle Theatre in Providence, donning the special glasses and seeing Thirteen Ghosts, The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler. Those movies passed out the 3-D glasses at the box office. But showing a Hercules episode on TV, in 3-D, would be much more complicated. Glasses would have to be included in copies of TV Guide, or the local newspaper. Or picked up at 7/11. And filming in 3-D wouldn’t be easy. Special cameras and lenses would have to be shipped to New Zealand – not cheap. I had my doubts we could pull this off, but Rob was determined. Anything to make a splash! I looked forward to the challenge.
On my misadventure writing an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series
In 1973, I was hired to write an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series … If you’re a hardcore Trekker and you remember the animated revival, you never saw my name. My story was bought and paid for, then shit-canned – it happens. So, my story “Point of Extinction” (formerly called “Albatross”) never got made.
Except… maybe it did? Forty-five years later, I learned there was a second-season episode of that animated series, also called “Albatross.” I never saw it. I’m told by someone who both read my story outline and saw the finished show, that it’s pretty much my story. And it’s credited to someone else.
I’ve never used Star Trek: The Animated Series as a credit, and, frankly, I hadn’t thought about it in years. I later wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager. I did credited episodes, as well as rewrites of other writers’ scripts I didn’t get onscreen credit for. Always a Trek fan, I was honored when I got to contribute to those later shows.
On writing a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, and encountering the actor who starred in the episode a few years later
I had a ball writing the script. It was a bit off-format for Deep Space Nine. The whole story was told from O’Brien’s first-person point of view. Since he was suspicious of everyone, I could never cut to the other characters apart from him. Because then they’d be saying “What the hell’s wrong with O’Brien??” O’Brien always had to be front-and-center in every scene. Colm Meaney, who played O’Brien, probably never had such a busy shooting schedule on the show.
“Whispers” aired on February 6, 1994. The “O. Henry-esque” twist ending (O’Brien is a replicant!) really seemed to catch people by surprise.
A few years later, when I was on staff at Hercules, I was backstage at one of the conventions. Our Executive Producer Rob Tapert grabbed my arm. “There’s someone I want you to meet,” he said. I found myself face-to-face with Colm Meaney… “Chief O’Brien” himself. (I didn’t visit the “Whispers” set, so I hadn’t had the chance to meet him then.) He was there with his young daughter, who was a big Xena fan. He thanked me for writing him such a meaty role, and I thanked him for his terrific performance.
On my first pitch to Mike Piller at the brand-new Star Trek: Voyager
I had prepared maybe five or six stories. I always work out a high-concept logline. Then the details. A beginning, middle and end. A strong involvement for one of the regulars. With, I hope, some fresh twist the producer hasn’t already heard a hundred times.
My first story centered on Chakotay. He was leader of the Maquis rebels, now turned into Janeway’s first officer. “One of Chakotay’s Maquis crew, a Bajoran woman, comes under suspicion. Turns out she’s a spy – a Cardassian genetically altered to pass as a Bajoran. She infiltrated the Maquis.”
Piller seemed interested. He started throwing out ideas… “What if she’s already stolen some tech gizmo from Voyager, and passed it along to some enemy race. Not for profit, but for survival… “
He was already running with the idea. And it was the first pitch out of my mouth! Still, Mike’s poker face was hard to read. I figured, It can’t be this easy! So I said “Let me pitch my next story. If it doesn’t work, we can come back… “
I proceeded to pitch a few more. Each time, Mike listened politely. Then he returned to musing aloud about that first one. Stubbornly, I kept trying to top myself. (Maybe he’ll buy them all!)
After my third or fourth attempt, Mike interrupted. “Stop. I’m not making myself clear. This is an assignment. I’ll have the deal memo drawn up. Go home, write an outline.”
It’s never happened that fast, before or since. When a producer likes an idea, he or she usually has to run it by a network or studio or an Executive Producer. On that show, at that time, Mike PIller had complete authority. If he liked it, that was good enough. I floated out of there.
It turns out that I was the very first freelancer to sell a story to Star Trek: Voyager.