TrekMovie continues to celebrate the Star Trek’s 48th birthday with an exclusive interview with one of the writers for the original Series. David Gerrold (best known for "Troubles with Tribbles") talks to us about the legacy of Star Trek, his relationship with the Genes (Coon and Roddenberry), LGBT characters in Trek and more. Plus we have a contest to win five David Gerrold e-books.
Interview: David Gerrold
David Gerrold is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter who is best known to Star Trek fans for writing “The Trouble with Tribbles”, one of the most famous and beloved episodes of the original Star Trek series. He went on to pen two episodes of The Animated Series (“More Tribbles, More Troubles” and “Bem”), and served as a story editor on Star Trek: The Next Generation. His non-fiction book, The World of Star Trek, was for many years considered one of the definitive books about The Original Series.
Gerrold has written many non-Trek science fiction books, including the “Star Wolf” series. His novel The Martian Child was adapted into a feature film starring John Cusack, which was released in 2007.
TrekMovie sat down with the science fiction legend for a 2-part interview where we discussed his feelings about Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, and a great deal more.
TrekMovie: The original Star Trek series is closing in on its 50th anniversary. Do you feel the show is still relevant half a century later?
David Gerrold: I am biased in the matter. I think the original series is still the best. Part of it is the circumstances in which it was created. We didn’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations. We knew going in that we could be cancelled any time because we did not know we were a big hit. NBC’s demographics showed we were a big hit, but the ratings were just one number, and they weren’t split by demographics at that time and we weren’t in the top 10 so we could be cancelled. So the attitude on the show was a very simple ‘let’s just do the best show that we can, for us – let’s just be the best Star Trek we can be.’ Nobody was worried about ratings. Maybe we will get renewed for a second season and maybe for a third season, but we didn’t have the pressure on us that we were a hit series. When Next Generation and all the other shows came along, the studio already knew ‘we have this big hit, we must not endanger the franchise, we can’t take chances.’ Well if you look back at the original series, we were taking chances almost every other episode. There were the anti-war stories in the middle of the Vietnam War, stories about drugs, stories about mutually assured destruction. We were the only show talking about peace when every other show was justifying war. We were examining social issues such as haves vs. have-nots and all kinds of things. And no one ever said “You can’t tell this kind of story.” It was always about how to make this kind of a story work. “How do we do good television and tackle this idea?”
So it was really an idea show, but when we get to Next Generation – even though the studio promised “you can tell any story you want because you don’t have a network censoring you” – what happened was the studio’s attitude quickly became ‘we mustn’t do anything that will endanger the success of the franchise, therefore we cannot risk offending anyone.’ So for that first couple of years, that series was kind of bland. I believe the original series remains relevant, even though some of the issues we talked about now look quaint. You go back and look at the ambition of the original series and what we were attempting every time out with no money – it was an expensive show but we didn’t have enough money for half the stuff we wanted to do. But if you look at the ambition of what we were attempting, what you see is a landmark in television’s history.
TrekMovie: You were very young when you started in the business, and Gene Coon was a mentor of yours. What are some of the lessons you learned from him that you have applied to the rest of your career?
David Gerrold: I learned several things. I learned to not be afraid to rip apart the story and dismantle it completely to see what worked and what doesn’t work and you need to get where you need to go quicker. All of the discussions we had on “[Trouble with ] Tribbles” and “I, Mudd” and a few other conversations was “don’t get married to any specific scene, you may have to cut it to get from there to here faster.” But at the same time, don’t throw away the good stuff if this is a very funny scene, or important scene or dramatic scene. So it was a kind of learn how to balance and dance with your own script to see how it worked. There is something else I got from Gene Coon, which is even more important, which is the integrity of the writing process and respect for other writers. Every writer is a human being and needs to be treated with courtesy and respect. Every script needs to be treated with courtesy and respect. And don’t forget every writer who brought in that script has an investment – both emotional and financial – and you need to respect the writers who are involved in the story you are telling. And to respect the Writers Guild rules. And so the thing I took away from Gene Coon was a respect for the integrity of the process, which I know there are a lot of people in the industry who don’t have that same respect.
TrekMovie: Touching on another thing about Gene Coon – I know you are familiar with Marc Cushman’s books on the original series (These Are The Voyages). In the second volume he talks about Coon’s departure, saying that some of it was motivated by how Gene Roddenberry didn’t like that Coon was adding more touches of humor or levity, like with “Trouble with Tribbles” or “Piece of the Action.” Do you have any insight into that?
David Gerrold: I am glad that Marc was able to find evidence of that in the memos. Yeah, the thing I know about Gene Roddenberry is that he had no sense of humor. He didn’t understand jokes. It was not that he was a grim man. Writing comedy is a strange, bizarre kind of mindset. Not everybody can do it. It comes from timing. You need to have a bizarre sense of a look at the world. It’s manic. I think Gene’s military training kind of beat his sense of humor out him. He took things very personally a lot. I think he didn’t recognize something – which was fairly new at the time, anyway. There was a movie called From Russia with Love. And it demonstrated you could have an action-adventure story and if you punctuated it with funny dialog, then the relationships were cleaner and clearer and made the whole picture a lot more fun. From Russia with Love is the picture that really established the whole James Bond mystique. You have guns, girls, gadgets and quips. So that after James Bond fights Rosa Klebb and she’s got the poison shoes he says “she’s had her kicks.” It says “we’re done.” It puts the punch line on that and you move on to the next moment. And Gene L. Coon got that. You see a lot of that in “The Apple,” which ends with Kirk and McCoy teasing Spock, who looks like a devil with the pointy ears, which is a fun piece of business. And it lets you know these people like each other. When people tease each other, they like each other. Gene L. Coon’s mistake was going over the top. “Piece of the Action” was a little too much over the top. It was slapstick.
TrekMovie: Yeah, the humor was very broad.
It was fun slapstick and I think Star Trek needs one or two of those every season. I think you need to let your hair down once in a while. Not only is it fun for the actors, it is fun for the audience. We don’t have to save the galaxy every week. I think Gene L. Coon was trying to bring a sense of scale to the show. I think he got a little slapstick on “Piece of the Action.” I have never liked that episode that much, but I like it better than the one where they went back to the Nazi Planet [“Patterns of Force”]. Trek is a difficult show to do. Not a lot of people understand how to do Star Trek. Even Gene Roddenberry -when we got to Next Generation – was losing his own sense of perspective, because of a series of little strokes.
TrekMovie: A lot of people may not know this but you are the person that
gave James T. Kirk his middle name (in the animated series episode “Bem”). I wanted to know how you came up with Tiberius and if you had any trouble convincing Gene to go along with it.
David Gerrold: No, it kind of just happened. We were at a Star Trek convention and somebody asked Dorothy and I what was Kirk’s middle name and I had just finished a book on Roman history and was still thinking Tiberius and so it popped out of my head, “Tiberius.” And the audience loved it, so later on when we were doing the animated show which was a few months later and we passed it in front of Gene and he said “OK” and that was about it. There was no big deal about it. If we really stopped to think about who Tiberius was and who would name a kid Tiberius? And so when I did my Star Trek novel (“The Galactic Whirlpool”), I explained how Kirk got that middle name, which was more of a nickname than a real middle name. You do things for the fun of it sometimes.
TrekMovie: There has been some debate as to whether Star Trek is better as a television or feature film franchise. What are your thoughts on that?
David Gerrold: I think Star Trek works better as a TV series because you can do episode ‘here is an issue, here is a story, here is an idea, a theme, a challenge’, and whether or not that episodes succeeds or fails you can come back next week and take on another. Like Law and Order takes its cases off the front pages of the newspaper. And Star Trek as a series should be doing the same thing, taking its story ideas off the front page of the paper – if anyone is reading newspapers anymore!
TrekMovie: Since the mid eighties, the LGBT community has become much more mainstream in a why that people couldn’t imagine in the 80s. With another Star Trek movie coming in a couple years, isn’t it time for a gay character on the Starship Enterprise?
David Gerrold: Oh it is long past time. It is so long past time. We should see a Jew; we should see an Arab; we should see somebody from South America; we should see people from all over world in a diverse crew. We should also see people of different faiths and we should see gay man or lesbian. Or gosh, they might even have a real relationship. They might have a boyfriend or girlfriend. We are long overdue. Star Trek could have been, and should have been the first show to acknowledge that gay people are part of our society and culture, but instead by the time it happens – if it ever happens – Star Trek will be the last show. Doctor Who is way ahead of us, Battlestar Galactica too. There wasn’t a show on the air that wasn’t having gay characters or something. Well that boat sailed and we missed it. The thing is, there was time when that sort of story was going to be dangerous and that was what Star Trek was supposed to do, the dangerous stories. Now, not only is it not dangerous, but it is boring. Oh, a gay character? We’ve seen that before. It is like the token negro in the sixties. We are long past even the token gay character.
TrekMovie: There has been some questions put to Roberto Orci about doing that and he seems to be receptive, so we will see.
David Gerrold: You know, you don’t do it like "look how smart and clever and whatever we are and here is a gay person." You do it like – there is a show called The Bridge – and one of the reporters – the didn’t make a big deal out of it – but one day she wakes up gets out of bed and besides her is her girlfriend. That’s it.
Check back later this week for part two of our interview with David Gerrold, which will focus on the the development of Star Trek: The Next Generation and his departure from the franchise.
New Gerrold.com Site + Win David Gerrold eBooks
David Gerrold recently rebooted his website, Gerrold.com, and it’s full of new features and free stuff, including a free copy of “The Kennedy Enterprise” when you subscribe to David’s mailing list, free excerpts from David’s newly-released eBooks each month, giveaways, and more. Twelve of David’s classic works have been recently released in eBook formats, and you can get details on those eBooks on Gerrold.com.
And you have a chance to win some of those Gerrold’s recent ebook on the making of "The Trouble with Tribbles" plus four more e-books, thanks to David. Just click on the contest embed below.