Thursday, March 14, 2024

The Trouble With Tribbles, by David Gerrold

As with Craig Miller, I chatted to David Gerrold at the GallifreyOne convention last month and bought his book when I got home. The Trouble With Tribbles charts the development of the first script he sold to TV, which is a classic episode of the original Star Trek. We follow how David first approached the production team, the initial story ideas he sent in, the more detailed storyline and notes he got back, and continue on through to a shooting script - reprinted here in full. There are then his notes on what happened during filming and the response his episode got.

First published in 1973 (mine is a reprint by Virgin Books in 1996), it's naturally of its time, the jokes on set between filming include cast members playing their roles effeminately, while David tells us which women in the cast and crew he thinks beautiful. At one point, he blushes during lunch shared with star Nichelle Nichols when,
"she dropped some cottage cheese down into the cleavage of her skimpy costume." (p. 235)
But this leads to something more insightful as he discusses how meeting Nichols changed his sense of how to write characters from other races and cultures, and the significance of featuring Sulu and Chekhov in this prime-time American show - though not in the same episodes, because Chekhov was brought in while actor George Takei was away filming The Green Berets. This is admirable though I suspect David wouldn't phrase some of this in quite the same language today. Of course, that's inevitable in a book written 50 years ago - and about events from five years before that. But I'm struck by this juxtaposition of an imagined, progressive future couched in a language so much of the past.

Another detail from history is the problem of David's IBM Selectric Typewriter typing 12 characters to the inch when most TV scripts were typed in what he calls "pica", or 10 characters to the inch. The effect was that David typed,
"an extra three words per line, of fifty words per page." (p. 134) 
When his first draft script was copied into the correct format, it came out at 80 pages rather than the required 66 and needed extensive cuts. In my first professional jobs as a scriptwriter, duration was still generally judged by number of pages, and a couple of my early scripts which had lots of quick-fire exchanges, each speaker saying just a few words at a time, ended up running short. Now I'm much happier with a word count: 9,500 words pretty much always comes out as an hour of audio drama.

In fact, a lot of David’s other comments on writing chimed with me, too. On page 10, he tells us he was effectively prepping for his work on Star Trek long before the series was even created, as he'd been a devoted reader of sci-fi for years. Such prep, he says, is essential because it means we're ready to respond when opportunity arises. As he says (p. 15), opportunity knocks only softly - his allusion is to a moth at the window - so we need to be alert as well as ready to respond. I wish I'd read this when I was starting out.

Then there's what he says is the key to breaking into television:
"You're competing with the pros now. You have to be better than they are. ... You have to do something outstanding to make the producers notice you. You have to do it on merit alone, because you have no previous credits and nothing else working for you." (p. 49)
On Star Trek specifically, and ongoing series more generally, he says the usual rules of storytelling don't apply. He'd learned before working on Star Trek that, in movies, novels and plays,
"the importance of the story was that the incident it tells is the most important event that will ever happen to this character."
But heroes having weekly adventures can't sustain this kind of drama.
"You can't run your characters in emotional high gear all the time. You'll burn them out, they'll cease to be believable." (p. 47) 
The trick, he says, is to avoid falling into formula stories; by doing something different, you stand out. But I wonder if your story can be about the most important event in someone's life - that's what your guest characters are for. 

Another telling insight into Star Trek is producer Gene Coon's note on David's story premise, dated February 1967, for what became the Tribbles episode. David originally envisaged it involving a new company on an alien planet going into competition with a huge, well-established corporation over the production of grain. The grain element survived into the broadcast story, but Coon wrote in pencil:
"'Big business angle out. One planet against another.' Translated, this meant: 'On American television, big business is never the villain. Make the conflict between two different planets instead." (p. 55n)
In addressing this, David suggested involving aliens from an episode in the first year of Star Trek; the producers decided to include Klingons in three episodes of the second year, including David's episode. The veto on bad business therefore led to a major development in the wider lore of Star Trek.

On the whole, this is a fascinating and insightful deep dive into the making of Star Trek, and gives the impression of a really fun and supportive show to have worked on. David is an enthusiastic, witty guide, honest about his own shortcomings so that we might learn from his mistakes. He's awe-struck by his experience - and the result is that so are we.

Two additional thoughts. First, this particular edition includes a plate section of black-and-white photographs that is really odd. Two of the photos are from The Trouble with Tribbles itself, and there are a few from other episodes of the time and of cast members more generally. But there are also some pictures of cast members out of character - William Shatner seen with his wife, Leonard Nimoy seen with his wife and with his son. There are then photos from the movies Star Trek V, Star Trek VI, the casts of spin-off series The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and a picture of the USS Voyager - none of which get mentioned in the text. I suppose the intention was to make the book appeal to fans of contemporary Star Trek in 1996, but I think they might have felt a little short-changed. It's odd, because David wrote a new introduction to this edition but doesn't mention his work on the first Star Trek movie (in which he briefly appears) or as a writer on The Next Generation. There's no mention of that year's Deep Space Nine episode Trials and Tribble-ations (in which he again cameos), with which this edition was surely meant to coincide. I wonder what happened - and will ask David the next time we meet.

Secondly, via Genome, I looked up when The Trouble With Tribbles first aired in the UK: on Monday, 1 June 1970 (two days after Episode 4 of the Doctor Who story Inferno). It has been repeated on the BBC 10 times since then, on the last occasion in 2007. 

Of little interest to anyone else but I think I first saw it at 6pm on Thursday, 28 November 1985, when I was nine and a half. That's brought back vivid memories of being sat with my brothers at the kitchen table eating jacket potato and having special permission from my mum to have the TV on at the same time. I remember saying to my dad, though probably not about this particular episode, that Star Trek didn't seem old like episodes of Doctor Who that sometimes got repeated. It felt on the same level as new episodes of The A Team and every bit as glamorous.

This wasn't my introduction to Trek. Earlier in the year, for my ninth birthday, we rented the VHS tape of The Search for Spock which had just come out, because (to me) the cover looked like Star Wars. While I was captivated, my two school friends got bored and went out to the garden to play. My mum told me join then, reminding me that this didn't mean I'd miss the film; I could watch it later. Video was still a novelty. 

Anyway - all a bit self-indulgent but this book has given me a bit of a rush, my own ancient past woven into this vision of the future.

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