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Monday, July 20, 2009


Last week I was starting to tell you what my days were like as a Screenwriting Intern at the TV series Star Trek Voyager. One thing you may be enlightened to know is that in writing and producing for television, as in many other occupations, one spends a great deal of time in meetings. Meetings, meetings, and more meetings. The difference is that in television, there’s a fairly decent chance that the meetings will actually be interesting and will actually be about something.

For instance, there was the meeting in which we were in the midst of going over the details of some episode, I forget which one, and a makeup artist came in with an actor wearing preliminary facial prosthetics for the alien Voths of the episode “Distant Origin”. This is the episode that was being shot as I arrived, and as fate would have it, also the episode that would become my favorite of the Voyager series. (I wrote about this in a post quite a while back.) I find it particularly pleasing that they were producing my favorite episode just as I was starting my tenure, and that I may have been the first fan to see the “aliens” from that show (who turned out to be actually from Earth, but look it up and see for yourself.)

There was also the afternoon when Kate Mulgrew--Captain Kathryn Janeway herself--came in to pitch a story idea. I was informed in advance that Kate would be joining us that day, so I had the chance to admonish myself, Put on the poker face NOW! And don’t you DARE act like a fan when she comes in! I said before we were going to talk about what to do when you meet a star, and consider that a little preview.

So, in walked Kate Mulgrew, just as poised and lovely and professional as you please, and sat down on the couch not six feet away from me. Had anyone ever told me that this lady who used to be Mary Ryan on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope (which I used to sit through while waiting for All My Children) and was later a most unlikely Mrs. Columbo would one day be the Captain of a Federation Starship in the Gene Roddenberry universe, I would have called such a person daft. But there she was, and she was charming. Remember last week’s story of Executive Producer Jeri Taylor and how she came to Star Trek out of left field, as a crime show producer in her 50s, after cramming every bit of Star Trek that had been produced to that point? A similar story is that of Kate Mulgrew, who also had no science or science fiction background and no knowledge of Star Trek, but came in at the eleventh hour, during the shooting of the pilot episode, to replace Genevieve Bujold as the Captain of the Voyager. She had to hit the ground running, learning not only the basic dialogue of the show but also the Star Trek terminology (including the dreaded “technobabble,” which had become thicker than wet cement by the time they were doing this series) and the inner workings and history of Star Trek and science fiction itself. And she had to do it all on the fly, as the lead in an hour-long dramatic series! And more, she had to do it under the scrutiny of Paramount executives who’d had to be sold on the idea of a Trek with a woman Captain in the first place! (I wonder what they thought of having a black Captain on Deep Space Nine.) A woman of brains and bravery to match her talent is Ms. Kate Mulgrew.

I should also mention that it was an eminently wise decision to replace Genevieve Bujold. She reportedly had no rapport with the rest of the cast, and as for her performance... Well, when I got Netflix one of the first things I did was to rent the Voyager DVD with the “Extras” of the first season on it, just to see Bujold as the proto-Janeway. She may be a great actress otherwise, but I swear she did her scenes for Star Trek as if she were mentally making out her grocery list at the same time. She had no presence at all. Kate Mulgrew really saved the day.

But back to our meeting. What Kate Mulgrew was doing there that day was to pitch her idea for something interesting for Captain Janeway to do outside of her command duties. Trekkers may remember that at the end of the third season of Voyager they introduced a Holodeck tableau in which Janeway whiled away her free time in the studio of Leonardo DaVinci (John Rhys Davies) and befriended the great Renaissance Master, which continued into the following season. This thread on the show evidently was Kate’s idea. She came prepared with a story proposal and read it to us, and there was some discussion of what they’d do with it, and the writing/production staff, to please their star, took it on board. This was not the last I’d see of our Kathryn Janeway, but Kate Mulgrew, as I think of it, was the only Voyager star that I saw out of character and uniform. When I visited the set--and we’ll get to those stories in due time--all the others were always in uniform and makeup, in the midst of shooting the show.

Brannon Braga cracked that my meeting with Kate Mulgrew was the first time he’d seen me smile since I’d gotten there. (Well, I was being professional and taking all this seriously!) Brannon Braga liked to crack on everything, especially about interns (of which he’d originally been one). In this endeavor, his peers, Ken Biller and Joe Menosky, liked to help him. Interns were typically the butt of jokes and the object of mockery and derision and heckling during meetings, as if it were a fraternity hazing. I’m calm about this as I tell you about it now, but I must say that at the time I found it a little maddening--a word that I actually used in remarking about it after Kate left, in a break with the professional sangfroid that I carefully maintained most of the rest of the time. It was a true test of my powers of forbearance, as there was more than one time I wanted to take Braga in particular into Jeri Taylor’s office bathroom and give him a swirlie. (You should have heard the mental chewing out I would give him when I was away from the studio! My dear friend Nancy L. would later disclose to me that she had a major infatuation with Braga, whose pictures she had seen in studying Star Trek for her own writing interests, so there’s no accounting for taste.) In a later, private conversation, Joe Menosky--who actually was a good friend for the brief time I knew him--confirmed my observations about the “frat boy” mentality and said it was just their way of getting to know people. Frankly, taking me out for a drink would have been ample.

Now, everyone’s least favorite meeting--and the one for which I had unwittingly prepared myself in a small way before I got there--was what was called “the Break Session”. This was when the writer/producers and the intern would get together in Jeri’s office with the initial story document for a given episode, and they would “break” the story into its component acts, working out the details as they went along. The intern’s part in all this was to write what they were saying on the white board in a different color for each act (opening Teaser and Acts 1-5), and later dictate it to Jeri’s secretary to be disseminated to the staff. The reason the Break Sessions were the least popular meetings was that they were the ones that dragged on the longest. (And the reason they were my least favorite meetings was that they were the time I most wanted to bean Braga with an eraser.)

However, the reason I note the Break Sessions as the part of the experience for which I had an unknowing foreknowledge is that I did a Break Session in miniature as part of the process of creating the Outer Limits script, “Ice,” that got me there in the first place! It’s true. Before I wrote “Ice” and after I had carefully studied the way The Outer Limits was written, I took a little piece of paper--it couldn’t have been more than half of an 8.5 x 11 sheet--and “broke” my intended story into a Teaser and five Acts. I wrote it in pencil, in little sentence fragments, just a little mini-Break Session. I still have that little piece of paper somewhere. The next time I find it, I should probably scan it for posterity.

Anyway, there was a break session for every episode during my tenure. They usually took large parts of two consecutive days. And I got through all of them, and never once did we have to send Brannon Braga to the Emergency Room. (I’m especially proud of that.) Those weren’t the only meetings. For every episode there was also a lengthy conference with the member of the staff who wrote it, to work out the specifics more minutely. These meetings resulted in an accumulation of drafts of the script. And there were what was called “the Tone Meetings,” in which the writers and producers would meet with the director who was working on a given episode, and again they’d go over it with a fine-toothed comb. The purpose of the Tone Meetings was to direct the director on how the episode was supposed to be shot, how the actors were to be directed, how the pacing of the scenes was to go, how the overall attitude and “tone” of the show should come across. Once a show was actually in front of the cameras, the director was in charge, so the Tone Meeting was meant to make sure he and the writer/producers were, so to speak, on the same page. More drafts of the script came from this.

Scripts were revised in sections, and the revisions would frequently be in progress while the episode was actually being produced. New sections of the script would come in different colored pages, which had to be carefully combined into whatever draft of the script you happened to have, the result being a script that looked like a Gay Pride flag by the time the episode was in the can. (Thankfully, I wasn’t responsible for all that script-splicing; I could never keep track of what color pages they were shooting on a given day and I was glad I didn’t have to! I don’t know how they did it!)

From the shooting in progress came what are called “the Dailies”--that is, the videotaped (I’m sure they do it on disk now) record of all the work that was shot in a day. The writing/production staff dutifully went over the Dailies, watching sections of the episode in their rough form and signing off on them before they went into post-production. Interns got to sit on on the Dailies, and it was intriguing to see parts of the show as they were with just the actors on camera, without any of the editing and special effects and music. It’s like watching “raw television”. When there was a pitch session going on with outside writers, interns had the option of skipping Dailies to sit in on the pitch session. This was encouraged, as interns were expected to start pitching anyway and attending and observing pitches was required.

Television series are produced in a kind of assembly-line process, and this includes the Star Treks. Every series essentially has three episodes in different stages of completion at all times. One episode is in pre-production, which is everything that has to be done before the cameras start rolling. That includes writing, costume and makeup design (which, for Star Trek, included creating the aliens and any alien accoutrements including spaceships), set design and construction, selection of locations (if any), and casting (the only meetings in which interns were not included were the casting sessions), plus all the meetings I mentioned above. Some of those meetings took place across the lot in a large room in the Gary Cooper Building, where writer/producers and interns met with other sections of the production staff, including the makeup people and alien designers. In one such big meeting I got to meet Michael Westmore, the great makeup master whose shop created all the show’s extraterrestrials and a lot of Hollywood’s other non-human beings. Part of one of those meetings was the discussion of the initial design of Species 8472, the creatures who were kicking the nuts and bolts out of the Borg at the end of Season 3. So I was probably the first fan to see them as a work in progress too!

While one episode was in pre-production, another would be in production, which was the actual physical process of filming the performances of the cast. And while pre-production of one episode was under way and another episode was in production, still another episode would be in post-production. That was where they did all the cutting and editing and putting the scenes into their proper order, and inserting the music and the special effects and opening and closing titles and credits and finishing the episode to get it ready to go on the air. So in television, it’s never just one episode at a time; you’re always working on three at once. And it is an intensely collaborative process. It has to be that way because the job is so huge and requires so many people with so many different skills that you’d never get a show on the air any other way. Seeing a TV series from the inside makes you marvel that TV, much as we may complain about it, is as good as it is!

Next time: More about what went on in some of those meetings and in the Interns’ Office--and more celebrity encounters, as we go to the other side of the Paramount lot and visit the set and meet the stars of Star Trek Voyager!


1 comment:

  1. I'm loving this blog & am passing it along to fellow Trek lovers.