With the 50th anniversary of Star Trek upon us, it is a good time to reflect back on just what made Star Trek into the powerhouse franchise it has grown to become. Over the course of the next few months, I will be writing a series of articles on what makes Star Trek so special, and why it has survived and grown over a span of time that would see most franchises wither and die.
One aspect of Star Trek that is not readily talked about is the process would be writers and creators went through in order to pitch ideas for the various Star Trek shows. Recently, I had the distinct pleasure to sit down and talk with doctor and professor of psychology, Jay Dill. Dr. Dill – or “Jay” as he likes to be called – is a learned man in his field and a professor at a well-known university. Jay is also a passionate Star Trek fan, but unlike many of us Trekkies (or Trekkers), Jay had the unique opportunity of pitching episode and story ideas directly to Paramount, as well as helping the studio get the rights to a well-known literary character.
I hope you enjoy “listening in” to our conversation as much as I had speaking with Professor Jay Dill.
What got you into Star Trek in the first place?
In college I started watching it, it was around 1986-87 and I really liked it. It isn’t the same now. It was a turbulent time of life and I liked Spock, it was about setting your emotions aside and getting on with it. Not sure if it was healthy or not but it appealed to me at that stage of life, Spock was like a role model. But since then I learned if you were as removed from your emotions as Spock was you’d never do anything. You need to be connected to accomplish what you want. Everything is integrated within us as humans, but Spock was an archetype.
What appealed to you most about the show?
I just happened upon it in college and liked the characters. Kirk could be the ego, Spock could be the super ego and McCoy is the id [laughs], not sure if that’s exactly how it breaks down. I liked it because it had some psychological elements, sci-fi elements and it was nerdy – it all fit and was very interesting.
So Jay, tell me a little about how you pitched your story idea?
In 1990 I went to a different college and was watching The Next Generation. I liked the idea of a holodeck and for some reason thought I could write about it. I went to the library and found out how to write a script using the specific format; with scene settings and indented sentences while using a creative format in an ordered structure. I submitted it and got immediately rejected, which was worth it to receive it on The Next Generation letterhead [laughs].
Did you ever work with anyone else to pitch an episode idea?
I was introduced to someone who loved Star Trek and was a playwright who brought so much to the table. He was really into it, so we worked in the daytime then got together at night to write. We pitched one of our screenplays to Paramount and they liked it enough to have us come out. We went and met with Ron Moore (TNG, DS9, Voyager, Battlestar Galactica), he was fairly new then, and also with Jerry Taylor who was the executive producer in the office.
A pitch takes 10 ideas and you have about 2 minutes to do it. You throw it out and they talk amongst themselves. They minimize the time and maximize the efficiency and what they want is not detail; we had written 60 pages of scripts and that got their attention. One idea we had was to explain why the Klingons look so different from the original series to The Next Generation. Someone left the room to go down the hall to talk to Gene Roddenberry about it, that was very exciting. We walked by his office going into the pitch room and it was just a tiny room, but it was exciting to be there and see it. They ended up denying our idea but they ended up addressing it in one line later on – but never really addressed it, you know Star Trek always tries to get things right, eternal consistency.
Tell me a bit more about the pitching process, and were you able to get some script ideas accepted by Paramount?
You go in and you’re not protected, so everything you say is not protected, they call it “gratis”. They think you should realize you are lucky to be here and that they are listening to you. There is an A and/or B plot, if they happen to buy one of those it’s $40,000. But basically, they are just listening and deciding if they can use any of it and asking, “Can we use that?” What are you gonna say, no!?
We got a few things, they had done an episode in the holodeck where Data (Brent Spiner) plays Sherlock Holmes and Geordi (Levar Burton) plays Watson. They accidentally program a Moriarty in the holodeck that thinks he’s alive. They put him in a buffer until they could figure out a way for him to exist outside the holodeck.
So tell me about the role you played in helping the studio acquire the rights to Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters?
The studio got in trouble because they didn’t ask the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate for permission to use the characters. My friend – who is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars and a playwright – knew a man named Jon Lellenberg who worked for the Pentagon (he was also a Baker Street Irregular). He was the executor of the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate in the United States. My friend called Jon, and Jon called Paramount and said he would let them use the rights for a small fee, and to let my friend pitch the episode he has in mind.
So we were happy, thinking we have the inner track on this one. Turns out they used little bits of our ideas but not enough to justify an A or B plot. They did improve upon our idea and I was happier with what they did in the end.
Which episode was it?
The episode was part two of the Holmes/Moriarty episode [“Ship in a Bottle”]. That was the one we gave the most contribution to. Moriarty is fooled into thinking he is alive when really he never escapes the holodeck, he flies off in the universe but not really, but he’s happy and we’re happy, poor guy [laughs]. We can be credited with behind the scenes help by getting the copyright permission, that’s not screen credit, but I don’t know what they would have done if they hadn’t got it.
We seemed to have influence by addressing certain issues and then seeing it in the show months or a year later. We suggested something and they went, “Oh, oh yeah.” A ship called the Excalibur was a ship that appeared in the season 2 episode, “The Ultimate Computer”. When we were sent our pitch writers kit we noticed that the Excalibur ship was no longer in the Star Fleet registry. We thought it would be cool to bring it back due to Patrick Stewart being in the film, Excalibur. We suggested it and it came back.
Which idea are you proudest of? Which is your favorite?
I’m proudest of this, my idea and–it was in the T.V. Guide rated as the top 100 greatest television shows of all time. It’s called, “The Best of Both Worlds: Part 2”. It’s when they were trying to defeat the Borg. Data got taken over by nanites (microscopic cellular creatures that are computers) that came in through his hands; they were talking to nanites through Data. My idea was to infest a shuttle with nanites, throw it at the Borg. They take it in and crush it up and it will be absorbed. Since they are a collective it will affect the entire ship and turn them into friends by giving the nanites bodies and we all become friends. They responded in the meeting by, “We don’t want Borg to be friends,” but they had to address the issue.
So in the board room, Geordi and Data say they have come up with an idea for the nanite to be invasive – so they basically said my idea – then they asked how long will this take and they say, about a month. They responded by saying all that would be left of the Federation is nanites so that’s how they dealt with it. I’m glad they did deal with it that way or we wouldn’t have the movie, First Contact.
Since you have an insider’s knowledge of the pitching process, do you think it should come back to Star Trek? Should non-professional writers and aspiring writers be allowed to participate in creating Trek?
When I first started contacting Star Trek to see about pitching, I talked to a woman named Monica Lumee [approximate spelling], she was the secretary to the man who created the Borg, and I talked to her about how to talk about my ideas. She was very friendly, told me about the Hollywood Script Writer that had the information in it on how to pitch a script and who to send the information to. I never realized at the time how big Next Generation would be. It was really a great experience for me to be in the room with Ron Moore and have them listen to us. When you “take pitch”, that’s what they called it, you have more diversity in the ideas, you don’t have such a closed… they stopped taking pitch around Deep Space Nine, then you have Enterprise and it went downhill from then on, and I think it has something to do with not getting the ideas of so many of the collective mindset of the fans of the country.
Maybe I should take some ideas out of mothballs and do some pitching again? You never know what the possibilities are. Pitch writers are people who have ideas with a sense of a plot and believe there are no limits. You just have to keep trying; even if you get rejected you keep on.
Thank you, Professor Jay for taking the time to share your experiences with us! I hope we can speak again. I would love to get your opinion on the new Star Trek movie and TV show.