Monday, June 22, 2009

David Gerrold and the Birth of "The Next Generation"

Here's a great promotional clip from 1987 where Entertainment Tonight interviews David Gerrold, who was, in almost every sense the co-creator of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Almost every idea that, from the outset, defined TNG as distinct from its predecessor was Gerrold's idea, not Roddenberry's:

  • Families living aboard a starship;

  • The First Officer should lead landing parties, so as not to place the Captain in any danger;

  • The office of a ship's therapist or counselor;

  • The idea of a Klingon on the bridge.

There are probably a few more I'm forgetting. That last one was an idea that Roddenberry resisted for an extremely long time; Worf was actually the last member of the bridge crew to be cast. Indeed, there are some early promotional materials that don't include Worf at all.

In fairness, there were a few ideas that Gerrold wrote that didn't make it to the series. One of them (years before SeaQuest!) was that the Galaxy-class Enterprise would have giant tanks to hold dolphins and whales, for both research, and to allow the cetaceans to work as navigators, made easier by their natural ability to think in three dimensions. Apparently, TNG held Cetacean intelligence very highly, if they were actual parts of the crew. I'm actually kind of glad this ideas wasn't used, as it would have dated the series terribly. The faddish American love of all things dolphin reached a crazy feverishness in the late 1980s.

In some ways, what happened in the first series of TNG was understandable. Gene Roddenberry had the Star Trek movies taken away from him after the cost overruns of The Motion Picture, where he had to acept the humiliating credit, "Creative Consultant." In fact, I remember hearing the idea for what Gene's version of Star Trek II would have been like: it would have involved Klingons going through the Guardian of Forever to assassinate JFK, which sounds as goofy as some of the silliest episodes of the original series, where Kirk battled evil alongside Abe Lincoln.

One of the biggest not-so-secret secrets of Star Trek (along with Wesley being Picard's son and Shatner wearing a rug) was that Gene Roddenberry was responsible for the plot leaks during production of Star Trek II, which he did to whip up fan outrage over the death of Spock. Nichelle Nichols, Gene Roddenberry's mistress during his first marriage, explained and defended Gene's actions on this point. Still, Gene vowed that if he got the chance, he would do HIS Trek, and the Great Bird of the Galaxy controlled his series with paranoid zeal that alienated a lot of the people that worked there, who claim Roddenberry took sole credit.

This is why it is so surprising to see a TV spot with David Gerrold. Writers have described First-Season TNG as an armed camp, with Roddenberry against the writers’ room. People that have worked on Star Trek for decades, including Dorothy Fontana and David Gerrold (arguably TNG’s co-creator) left Trek at this time. There was one very moving scene, remembered by Gerrold, where he once found Roddenberry face-down on his desk, weeping, and said “all of my friends have abandoned me.”

It’s obvious this atmosphere didn’t affect TNG for the better. The First Season of Next Generation was mostly unwatchable and boring. Everything the critics said about TNG was mostly true: it wasn’t a worthy sequel to the original series. The gigantic, unreal popularity of TNG was at least a season or two away.


David said...

Picard is Wesley's father?!! Shatner wears a rug?!! Spoiler warnings, please!

I used to feel guilty for believing that Star Trek always got better whenever Roddenberry left the picture, but I got over it. It's actually kind of ironic how Gene's leak of Spock's death forced Paramount to rejigger ST:II into a much better film, one so successful it convinced Paramount once and for all the franchise didn't require his services. Oops!

This clip is new to me, but I'm not surprised to find Gerrold at the center of a lot of the ideas behind TNG. If you read his "World of Star Trek" book from the early 70s, his criticisms of TOS almost read like a blueprint for TNG, including the suggestion for Captain-less "away teams".

Worf turned out to be an interesting character, and the consequent remaking of the Klingon race into one based on honor was fascinating, even if it did fly totally in the face of all that had gone before. In fact, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the TNG Klingons owe a lot more to Space: 1999's "Nomen" than any preceding Trek.

Julian Perez said...

One of the best episodes of TNG's first season was "Heart of Glory," a long overdue Worf-centered episode that really got into the head of this other culture, and gave them an unusual way to think: hostage-taking was beneath them and they were terrified of dying in their sleep. This episode, incidentally, written by Dorothy Fontana.

D.C. gave the Klingons great speech patterns like "I have tasted your heart!" and so forth.

What you say is true, but it needed to be done. One of the weaknesses of the original series was that Romulans and Klingons were interchangeable. In fact, didn't they both use similar ships and have cloaking devices? I always got a feeling in the original series they were a space version of the Nazis or Communists, but the Romulans were the Nazis in movies where the evil Nazi villain has a puppy dog and is shown as a good father, whereas the Klingons were the grimy peasant Bolsheviks that run the Gulag.

Come TNG, this was reversed. The Romulans were a lot less sympathetic: sneaky, subtle, deceptive and arrogant.

I don't know if the Klingons, come TNG, became totally different from their portrayal in the original series. TNG just showed a different side, a greater complexity to them. Even in TNG they were never a "nice" culture. In the episode where Riker joins the Officer Exchange Program, he finds out the Klingons go through the ranks through assassination of their commanding officer!

Incidentally, I recently saw the DS9 episode where an elderly Kor, Koloth and Kang from the original series (along with Jadzia Dax, whose previous host was their son's godfather) hold a blood oath to kill the albino that murdered Koloth's son. It was a great episode, I was whistling Wagner all while watching it.

Finally, to tie all this together, I believe it was Gene Coon - not Roddenberry - that created the Klingons.

David said...

One of the weaknesses of the original series was that Romulans and Klingons were interchangeable. In fact, didn't they both use similar ships and have cloaking devices?

Yes, but I always wondered if this wasn't another case of the "mythos" being shaped by budgetary limitations. The "Enterprise Incident" script called for three Romulan ships, but hey, we've only got one model. We have three Klingon D-7s, though, so let's say the Romulans and Klingons shared technology.

Frankly, it's inconceivable to me that the Klingons and Romulans would form an alliance. Of course it did come in handy for ST:III when the Klingon ship needed a cloaking device, but even then it seems somehow out of character for Klingons to sneak around cloaked when it's more their style to stomp noisily into any situation.

Come TNG, this was reversed. The Romulans were a lot less sympathetic: sneaky, subtle, deceptive and arrogant.

Yes, and with Enterprise it's the Vulcans who assume this role. :-(

I don't know if the Klingons, come TNG, became totally different from their portrayal in the original series.

I don't have it with me at the moment, but a year or so ago I re-read Stephen Whitfield's "The Making of Star Trek," which as you know was written between the 2nd and 3rd seasons of TOS and featured excerpts from the show bible (plus lots of input from Gene Roddenberry, who may have even been listed as co-author). In that book, there's a section describing Klingons and they pretty much say they are a despicable race of conniving schemers who don't know the meaning of the word "honor." Again, I'm paraphrasing, but when I read that I was struck by how different it was from the TNG Klingons, who may be filthy, smelly and unrefined, but have a powerful sense of personal honor, and a respect for worthy adversaries.