Trek Writers Talk 'Dumbing Down' SciFi

By Amy
March 30, 2001 - 9:27 AM

Original Series script writers Dorothy C. Fontana and Harlan Ellison, as well as former Deep Space Nine producer and scribe Ronald D. Moore were among the panel of writers at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills Monday evening as past of the museum's University Satellite Seminar Series. Entitled 'From The Outer Limits to Roswell: Writing the Fantastic for Television', the seminar was transmitted via satellite to colleges and universities across the United States.

Fontana is attributed with some of the classic Original Series episodes, including 'Journey to Babel, not to mention to pilot episode of 'The Next Generation', 'Encounter at Farpoint' and several episodes of the oft-forgotten animated series. She sees science fiction as a medium for telling stories you normally wouldn't be allowed to do. "I learned this very early on in Star Trek," she began. "This is during the Vietnam War, and other shows could not approach that territory at all, and yet we could because we were doing it under the guise of science fiction. We could comment on many issues that other shows couldn't."

However, one of the biggest topics of conversation was the way that the television industry has changed over the last forty-odd years, often for the worse. "We have a lot less storytelling time now," Fontana commented. "In the 60's when we were doing Star Trek, we had 54 minutes of storytelling time. Now it's down to 44 minutes. I mean, they just jam in commercials. We have a lot less time to do our main story, let alone the subplots, and you're not getting the kind of quality we can give you, or the story we'd like to give you. We're restricted in what we can do."

Ellison was similarly minded. "Things have changed in the world," he said, "but they have not changed in the view of the people who actually put these shows together, who still conceive of most audiences as chacma baboons with shoelaces." His chief complaint? "They always want to dumb it down. They always want to turn something simple or scientifically accurate into something a little stupid, because they're afraid the audience won't understand. What they mean is that THEY won't understand."

Another complaint he has is the lack of a sci-fi background among the current heads of the industry. Calling those in charge "parvenus", he believes that most of them "have no grounding or background in the literature of the fantastic," and are thus stuck "recycling ideas that were old-hat in 1926," failing to realise that the audience has become more sophisticated since then. "'Different'" he concluded, "is anathema to television, and that's why most of television is recycled versions of Friends."

"The Internet is a curse and a blessing, which is a clich but it's very true," Moore replied when asked how the internet affects their work. Moore, as many may recall, during his Deep Space Nine days, was a visible part of the Star Trek Fandom, visible at major Trek websites and newsgroups.

"On the one hand," he explains, "you have immediate access to the fans of your show. Fans just by magic suddenly have all these websites that are dedicated to your program, and of course the writers and producers on the show obsessively read what people say about them because we all are egomaniacs and we all want to know what people say about our work. And so each morning after an episode broadcasts you go and you log onto the Internet and you have an instant response to see what people think about it." And the curse?

"...The curse of it is that you usually hate them all!" he exclaimed. "'How can these people be watching my show each week-they hate my work, they hate my episodes, they hate the characters-why does this guy write 15 pages every single week about the show?'" However, he says that he and his fellow DS9 staffers eventually came to realise that "People who take the time to actually sit down and write something about your show actually care about your program on some deeper level. I've never done that for any show I've ever watched, ever."

More on the seminar, including commentary by another Original Series writer, Richard Matheson, can be found in this report at the official site.

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