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Apples and Oranges:

John K. Muir Interviews D.C. Fontana

In the hallowed halls (and chat rooms) of science fiction fandom, one question always seems to loom large: Has genre television improved in the last thirty years, since the heyday of the original Star Trek? Specifically, is today's crop of TV series (The X-Files, Andromeda, First Wave, Farscape, and Star Trek: Voyager) better or worse than that which preceded it? Do these new ventures merit comparison to Star Trek, The Prisoner, Space: 1999, Doctor Who, Blake's 7, Logan's Run, V, and other entries in the Valhalla of SF TV from decades past?

We all have our own opinions about that, of course. However, one way to answer the question with a degree of impartiality is to take a pilgrimage straight to the Oracle of SF TV herself, a talent who was on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s, and who is further exploring the genre today: writer Dorothy Fontana.

For those whose memory banks require an upgrade, D.C. Fontana not only penned some of the best episodes of classic Star Trek (including "This Side of Paradise," "Friday's Child" and "Journey to Babel") but also served as story editor on TV initiatives as diverse as The Sixth Sense (1972), Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973), The Fantastic Journey (1977) and Logan's Run (1977). She has written for just about every genre program imaginable, from the obscure William Castle venture Circle of Fear (1973), to that spandex-bedecked guilty-pleasure of the disco era, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ("Planet of the Amazon Women").

Yet one factor that makes Fontana so valuable a resource on this particular subject is her durability and longevity in an environment that is notably inimical to the fragile life-form known as the writer. After all, Fontana is still writing today, and more importantly, is still selling what she writes. Just recently, she penned episodes for such contemporary hits as Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict and J. M. Straczysnki's Babylon 5 ("The War Prayer," "Legacies," "A Distant Star"). When one considers the scope of all these credits, it's a little amazing. Fontana is positively ubiquitous, having toiled on acknowledged classics (Star Trek), in animation (Star Trek), on live-action Saturday morning fare (Land of the Lost [1975]) on a film-to-TV adaptation (Logan), and even into the modern age of CGI (Babylon 5). And those entries only represent her credits within SF! Outside that stricture, one can find her name on productions from The Streets of San Francisco to Lonesome Dove. In other words, she's been there, done that, for thirty years and is in a unique position to compare the past with the present.

Recently, this author had the opportunity to conduct a brief interview with Dorothy Fontana on the subject of yesterday versus today, and the development of science fiction as a genre on TV. In the eyes of American SF TV's most experienced scribe, one of the primary differences between today's science fiction television programs, and those of decades past involves the all-important arena of special effects. "We were limited by technology in the 1960s and 70s." she admits, referring in particular to her experiences on Star Trek, The Fantastic Journey, and Logan's Run. "You couldn't do the kind of special effects you can do today, and relatively cheaply at that."

Which brings us to her second—but no less important—point: money. "The budgets have gotten much, much bigger today. There's no question that in the 1970s we were hampered by the fact that visual effects were more expensive and far more primitive than they are today." Indeed, the British series Space: 1999 cost $275,000 per episode in 1975, a mere pittance compared with the multi-million dollar budget of today's mega-hits, like Deep Space Nine or Voyager. David Duchovny's salary per season on The X-Files is likely a good deal higher than Space: 1999's yearly cost, which was—once upon a time—considered staggering.

But which is better? Yesterday's crop, or today's? On this question, Fontana pauses thoughtfully before issuing an answer. "It's like comparing apples and oranges. You can't do it." Okay, but what does she watch today? Maybe we can learn something important from her choices. "In the science fiction field I like Farscape a lot. I think it's a good show." And what shows does Fontana dislike. "I don't want to name names," she comments amicably.

And what about the actual writing process? How has it changed over the years? This writer knows a number of industry writers who have complained, in some cases quite vociferously, about today's favored approach to writing science fiction for television. Specifically, there are some prominent genre series that are written, literally, by committee. This Kafka-esque process is more complicated then getting a bill through Congress: a freelance writer pitches a one-sentence story idea or a hook to a producer, and, once accepted, a team of staff writers and producers then outline that idea, put in their two cents worth, and compromise on the final product after laboriously agreeing on how each story act should be formed. Much latte and cappuccino is consumed as these twenty-somethings decide, in essence, how best to mold the creative ideas of other writers into parameters acceptable to their group tastes. To many, this is a process that drains the life out of invention, and substitutes team-sanctioned solutions for personal inspiration. But, having survived in a world where other writers have de-materialized, and consequently remained a force of individual, human storytelling in an increasingly techno-obsessed genre, Fontana is pragmatic about "committee writing," seeing it all as "part of the business."

Interestingly, Fontana has been on each side of the desk, serving as both freelance writer and as series story editor, part of the so-called establishment, as it were. "Each show has a different process, and you have to respect that." She affirms, "It isn't unusual to work with staff writers and producers, and literally get together to break down stories," she acknowledges. "But even in those cases, the writers still have to go home and write the screenplay. The writer remains the writer, so I don't really consider it writing by committee."

On the other side of the issue, Fontana spotlights a positive individual experience on a recent, and popular, TV series. "I wrote three episodes of Babylon 5. The first one had a story that Straczynski wanted to tell. He had a page-long treatment complete with main-line and subplot. I took that home with me and wrote the script based on his material." However, to her delight, she also found the same series open to original ideas from outside writers. "On my second contribution, I told the producers the story I wanted to tell, and they liked it so much, they let me do it." And, even though the third episode was another that Straczysnki provided the main-line and sub-line for, Fontana feels that "overall there was a freedom to come in with a story that you thought the producers would like. If they did, they sent you home to write the script." But, she stresses again that "every show is different."

So where does that leave the question we opened with? Is science fiction television better or worse now than it has been in the past? Our oracle, D.C. Fontana, has a succinct, if not particularly helpful, answer. "Some of the shows on the air today are really dumb—and some are brilliant. " She pauses briefly before adding this final caveat "And that's exactly how it was twenty years ago."

That answer may not satisfy some of the more partisan camps, which desire an affirmation of a favorite production at the expense of the rest, but it does land us at a final point for consideration. So many of these older series are viewed through the magnifying glass of nostalgia. At least in that category, the new series are at a distinct disadvantage, even with bigger budgets and better special effects: They have not yet achieved the status of "beloved," or lived long enough to grow legendary in the mind of the viewer. But there is some solace for the hotly-criticized newbies. In twenty years, the battlefield will look very different. On that far off date, Voyager, Babylon 5, First Wave, Andromeda and the rest of today's newcomers may very well be considered the yard-stick by which to measure the next generation of production.

And, if patterns hold, Dorothy Fontana will be writing for them too.


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