Dorothy Fontana’s death on December 2nd was a huge loss for Star Trek fans everywhere. Her contributions to, and impact on, Star Trek were enormous, and cannot be overstated. Her stories bore a richness of theme, character and dialogue, and continue to resonate decades later. She, along with Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon, and Bob Justman changed the television medium forever.
She also had an immeasurable influence on the development of Spock, a character who captivated fans, TV critics, and future generations of writers. And it was Fontana who introduced Gene Roddenberry to costume designer William Ware Theiss, who helped shape the look of The Original Series as much as anyone else involved.
In honor of Dorothy, we each chose one of the episodes she wrote to talk about what makes them so memorable.
Christine – “The Enterprise Incident”
Dorothy’s threads were woven throughout all of the Star Trek scripts she was involved with, and she was instrumental in developing Vulcan society and customs. This episode is the first mention of an alliance between the Klingons and Romulan Empires. We had seen Sarek and Amanda doing that sensual finger touchy thing in “Journey to Babel,” and then Spock and the Romulan Commander do it in “The Enterprise Incident.” I liked the seductive interactions between Spock and the Romulan Commander, even though later Fontana remarked that the scene was her biggest objection. It’s a side of Spock we don’t normally see, whether he is merely acting or actually allowing himself to feel his human feelings. And the way they parted leaves you wondering… did he indeed feel emotion/arousal, or was it all an act? Spock tells her that his interest wasn’t all pretend and “I hope you and I have exchanged something more permanent.” Fontana thought that the Commander would have suspected Spock of something shifty, but I like to think that she was simply smitten with Tall, Dark, and Pointy-Eared.
In this episode, we are told that Vulcans are incapable of lying, but that “it is not a lie to keep the truth to oneself.” Given that it’s an episode about subterfuge, we are left wondering if this is true. Spock not only puts on an act of ambition and flirtation for the Romulan Commander, but feigns a fake Vulcan Death Grip on Captain Kirk after telling the lie that Kirk is mentally unstable and saying, “I say now and for the record, that Captain Kirk ordered the Enterprise across the neutral zone on his own initiative and his craving for glory.”
An interesting background note from Memory Alpha states that Fontana was flooded with letters from fans. Aware of the pon farr and believing it meant Vulcans had sex only once in seven years (which was Theodore Sturgeon’s original idea), they complained that the scene was out of character. Years later, Fontana wrote sex scenes into the novel Vulcan’s Glory, establishing that the pon farr is only a fertility cycle and that Vulcans can have sex anytime.
Brian – “The Ultimate Computer” (teleplay)
The reluctant installation of the M-5 aboard the Enterprise and the machine’s subsequent malfunction could have easily become yet another cautionary tale about technology run amok, and the episode does indeed show the effects of that, but it’s the quieter character moments that make this story so memorable. Kirk’s insecurities about having his livelihood threatened and Daystrom’s overwhelming need to prove himself gives the story a great deal of emotional weight and makes this episode a classic.
Dorothy’s gifts for character and dialogue are on full display in this episode. Richard Daystrom could’ve easily been a one-note caricature, but she carefully created a well-rounded character whose longtime resentments ultimately drive him over the edge.
The moments where Kirk receives counsel from Spock and McCoy are very touching, and her inspired use of John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” leads the captain to reveal just how much being an explorer means to him:
You could feel the wind at your back in those days. The sounds of the sea beneath you. And even if you take away the wind and the water, it’s still the same. The ship is yours. You can feel her. And the stars are still there, Bones.
It’s one of my favorite moments in the series, and a lovely, romantic piece of writing, written by a great talent whose impact will be felt long after she’s gone. Godspeed, Dorothy Fontana.
Denes – “Tomorrow is Yesterday”
Written by D.C. Fontana from an uncredited treatment by Bob Justman, “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” marks Star Trek’s first proper foray into time travel.
There are a lot of things that make this episode great. I love that Captain Christopher’s first indication that he’s aboard a futuristic ship is the presence of female crew members. There’s a ton of humor in it, much of it through understatement, which is twice as fun in my eyes.
It’s a great Spock episode; Spock makes a number of jokes, is the straight man for several sight gags, and his relationship with McCoy is playfully acerbic. It’s a great Kirk episode; there’s a fantastic fight sequence where Kirk takes on three Air Force officers, and Kirk is by turns impishly humorous, commanding, exasperated, and insightful. There’s a poignant little moment where Kirk empathizes with the unconscious Capt. Christopher, “I know how he feels, but I can’t send him back.” True, there are some sexist moments mid-episode where Spock grimaces at the stereotypically-female new personality of the ship’s computer, but that scene also mentions a planet dominated by women who are skilled computer programmers—avant-garde, even while being sexist.
But the moment I always remember is the humanity of the scene in sickbay, while Spock, Kirk, and McCoy are debating the serious implications of time travel, where Capt. Christopher smiles in his own world as he realizes he’s going to have a son one day. It’s a powerful, counter-cultural message that has stuck with me all these years—it’s okay if your chief contribution to the history of the world is the children that you raise.
Humor, intelligence, advancement of women, and a true humanity amidst the science fiction: That’s what makes this episode a classic, and all are hallmarks of the lady who wrote it.
Laurie – “Journey to Babel”
It’s easy to talk about this episode in terms of the information it delivered: we see Andorians and Tellarites for the first time and learn that they are founding members of the Federation, and get a look at how Starfleet diplomacy works. We hear about sehlats, find out that McCoy can’t do the “Vulcan salute,” and learn about tal-shaya, used by Vulcans for merciful execution.
But what this episode does best, and what Dorothy Fontana always did, was weave character and story together so expertly and seamlessly that every piece fits, and each scene reveals something new. Every revelation we get about Spock and Sarek, Sarek and Amanda, Kirk and Spock, Amanda’s life as a human on Vulcan, Spock as a Starfleet officer, is all revealed as the story moves forward, scene by scene. No need to stop down for character development or create an A and B story; it’s all happening at every single step along the way.
Fontana gives us the nuanced relationships between deeply fascinating characters inside a conflict-filled, event-packed mystery story. “Journey to Babel” is about friendship, family, battle strategy, politics, diplomacy, subterfuge, communication, sacrifice, duty, and love, all at the same time, all in a sci-fi setting, all with amazing subtlety. It’s layered storytelling, with the characters of Sarek and Amanda so well-drawn that other writers (including Fontana herself) would come back to them in movies and other series for decades to come.
When I rewatched this episode, I was struck by all the subtler moments. Christine Chapel and Amanda both know what Spock’s plan is to save Sarek before McCoy figures it out, because they both see the emotional side of Spock that McCoy often doesn’t. Spock’s anguish when his mother leaves after he tells her he can no longer save his father’s life is palpable without a word of dialogue spoken. We don’t need to hear anecdotes about Amanda and Sarek’s courtship to see how they were drawn to each other. When Kirk comes up with a plan to get Spock to give up command and save Sarek, we see how deep their friendship is and how well he knows Spock. He knows he has to create a way for Spock to make the choice he wants to make but can’t, and does it for him in the only way he can.
And in that final scene in Sickbay, Spock and Sarek are reconciled without any sappy sweetness: it’s a shared joke and a raised eyebrow that tells us these two are on a new path, united by their love of Amanda and their understanding of each other.
Dorothy Fontana knew how to tell a story in the most powerful of ways, giving us big action (space battles! murder! pirates! peril!) along with deeply personal character moments, interweaving them in a way that feels organic and effortless. She is one of my all-time writing heroes, and an inspiration.
Iain – “Friday’s Child”
For all the talk of Trek’s “holy trinity” of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, episodes focusing on the good doctor are few and far between. Fontana’s “Friday’s Child” is one of the precious few where McCoy takes center stage, and she gives DeForest Kelley a great showcase for his talents. I love how the episode expands on his traditional role, showing him as an expert on Capellan culture, and his inspired bickering with guest star Julie Newmar (we’ll skip over that very non-PC slap he gives her). It has one of the all-time great “I’m a doctor, not a… ” lines (“an escalator” in this case), and of course, there’s his glee in the final scene when he reveals the baby was named after him and Kirk—it’s second only to his reaction in “Journey To Babel”’s tag (also a Fontana episode).
Elsewhere, Fontana gives others a chance to shine, from Kirk and Spock’s defense against the Capellans and the Klingon Kras, to Scotty—commanding the Enterprise—engaged in a battle of wits with a Klingon battle cruiser. Eleen (Newman) is one of the series’ strongest female characters, more than holding her own against both the trio of Starfleet officers and her own kind.
Fontana also skilfully sidesteps making the less technologically advanced Capellans seem simplistic, imbuing them with a detailed, fascinating culture. Trek’s portrayal of less advanced cultures can occasionally fall into the trap of coming off as patronizing (such as TNG’s notorious “Code Of Honor”), but in Fontana’s hands, we’re presented with a richly detailed, believable race.
Although both Genes Roddenberry and Coon polished the script, it’s Fontana’s episode through and through. It may not get the kudos awarded to her next script “Journey To Babel,” but it’s every bit a warm, humorous and exciting episode. Plus it’s got Catwoman!
We’d love to read about YOUR favorite D.C. Fontana episodes in the comments.