Beyond the Final Frontier
Fairleigh Dickinson University Alumna and Screenwriter Dorothy Fontana Boldly Goes Where Few Have Gone Before
By Rebecca Maxon
You probably know her best as D.C. Fontana, a name written vividly across the television screen as the starship Enterprise swooshes by. But Dorothy Fontana, AA’59 (Ruth), has done a lot more than her work on Star Trek, the futuristic 1960s television series and cult classic that brought space exploration, science fiction and fantasy to the masses. Fontana has been a writer, an associate producer and a story editor on a wide range of television programming and films and is now educating and inspiring a new generation of behind-the-scenes Hollywood creatives.
The original Star Trek debuted in 1966 and ran a scant three years. Female screenwriters were scarce, but Fontana recalls feeling inspired by the work of Leigh Brackett, who wrote for director John Ford. Another female inspiration was television writer Margaret Armen. “She wrote tough stories, crime shows and all kinds of shows [even Star Trek].” Fontana extols, “She never wrote soft shows in any way, shape or form.”
Fontana was most comfortable with these action-packed genres as well, writing six scripts for westerns before Star Trek. She was proudly credited as Dorothy C. Fontana. But when it came to writing a spec script for the medical drama Ben Casey, she used the initials D.C. Fontana to avoid prejudice. “I figured they probably wouldn’t know me, so they couldn’t prejudge me [as just a woman writer],” she says. “I wrote it, they bought it, and I decided I’m going to use those initials from then on.”
A Unique Enterprise
Using her associate degree from FDU, Fontana first worked in a secretarial position for Hollywood writer and producer Samuel Peeples, who, seeing her interest in writing — and the quality of her work — gave her the opportunity to write several episodes of The Tall Man. Peeples moved to MGM to write a film script, taking Fontana with him. But when Peeples left the studio to work on another movie script, Fontana returned to the typing pool.
Soon after, she was hired by Del Reisman, associate producer of The Lieutenant, a show based on the U.S. Marine Corps and created by Gene Roddenberry. It was the demise of The Lieutenant that would leave Roddenberry and Fontana working together on his new concept, which would take her throughout the universe.
Star Trek only ran from 1966–1969, yet it became a cultural phenomenon. After reviewing the series’ concept, Fontana was asked to write the teleplay for the show’s second episode, “Charlie X.” Based on a story by Roddenberry, this episode explores the depth of humanity through a boy raised in isolation on an alien planet as he attempts to fit in aboard the Enterprise.
Fontana would take her pen to 10 additional episodes of the original series, as both a writer and a story editor, including fan favorites “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” in which a time warp causes the Enterprise crew to accidentally beam a 1960s U.S. airman aboard, and “This Side of Paradise,” in which Mr. Spock, the emotionless Vulcan, falls in love while under the influence of a mysterious plant’s spores.
Star Trek still airs in syndication more than 50 years later. And, its fans still gather at events such as Comic Con and Star Trek conventions everywhere from Las Vegas, Nev.; Chicago, Ill.; San Diego, Calif.; and Miami, Fla.; to Bonn, Germany, and Birmingham, England.
Being a freelance writer has enabled Fontana to write dialogue and stories for many characters on many shows, including The Big Valley, Bonanza, Dallas, Logan’s Run, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Streets of San Francisco, The Waltons, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Babylon 5, among others.
Actors she enjoyed writing for most include Barbara Stanwyck on The Big Valley and Karl Malden and Michael Douglas on The Streets of San Francisco.
“I particularly enjoyed the two Six Million Dollar Man episodes I wrote, which featured strong women,” she says. “The hero was still the hero, but he was matched with wonderful and competent women.” One such episode, “The Rescue of Athena One,” featured Farrah Fawcett as Major Kelly Wood, an astronaut who safely guides her disabled ship back to Earth after her rescuer, Col. Steve Austin (Lee Majors), experiences malfunctions of his bionics while making repairs to the ship.
Fontana’s first return to the Enterprise was Star Trek: The Animated Series, which ran on Saturday afternoons from 1974 to 1975. Fontana served as both story editor and associate producer for the first season.
“As a story editor, you work with writers to help them develop their story to fit within your series. You are a source of information, a source of help, and often you are asked to rewrite or polish.”
The creators of the series benefited greatly from the fact that it was animated. “The nice thing about the animation,” Fontana says, was “we could draw any kind of planet, any kind of creature or alien, any kind of spaceship because it was drawn. You didn’t have limits.”
Though it only lasted one-and-a-half seasons, the show was awarded the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Series in 1975. Since then, Fontana has returned to the Star Trek universe to write/associate produce Star Trek: The Next Generation and to write for Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek New Voyages: Phase II, a fan-produced, YouTube production.
Her work outside of television includes penning the novel Vulcan’s Glory, the story of Spock’s first mission on the Enterprise under its earlier captain, Christopher Pike, and The Questor Tapes, based on another pilot by Roddenberry.
She’s further expanded her reach to include writing three Star Trek video games. The difference: “You have to write a whole lot more! The big thing is telling the guys who are actually going to put it into active form what has to be seen on the screen. You have to be very, very detailed. So the scripts can sometimes run hip high, whereas your average drama script is 56 pages.”
Star Trek: The Original Series showed women they could aspire to careers in science and technology. Fontana says, “We tried to portray women as professionals, doing their jobs. Nichelle Nichols as the communications officer was fourth in command of the ship, if necessary. The several times we had a chance to show her personal side, she was likeable, social and in the mix with the male officers. Christine Chapel was a nurse — excellent at her job — taking over if Dr. McCoy was not there, etc.
“I felt we did a good job of portraying women in important roles — and either winning or failing according to their abilities,” she says. They were “human failures or triumphs — not dependent on [gender] but on training, ability and circumstance.”
When asked about the way women were treated and the recent accusations of sexual abuse in the film and television industry — and the #MeToo movement — Fontana replies, “I think all of the exposure of the abuse that has gone on in the past [is of value today]. I do think that calling attention to past abuses makes future abuses less likely. And I think women will speak out if they are approached in a bad way. I think that’s a good thing.”
Fortunately, there’s more representation and opportunity in the industry today. “There are more women writers on shows now, and in positions of power: executive producers, producers and creators of shows,” she observes.
Passing the Baton
Fontana also guides young creative professionals into the daunting world beneath the glamorous Hollywood sign. A member of the Writers Guild of America, Fontana is a two-time honoree of its Morgan Cox Award for service to the Guild.
She also received a nomination for a major science-fiction award, The Hugo Award, for Best Dramatic Presentation (along with director Corey Allen and creator Gene Roddenberry for “Encounter at Far Point,” the two-hour pilot for Star Trek: The Next Generation); and a Writers Guild’s award nomination for Episodic Drama for a 1969 episode of Then Came Bronson, “Two Percent of Nothing.”
Taking on the role of educator since 1998, Fontana is passing her talents and know-how to students at the American Film Institute. “In the last two years, I’ve taught ‘History of Television Drama’ and ‘Script Development for Producers and Directors,’” she says.
While the first is a lecture series that highlights representative episodes out of each 10-year era, the second gives the student an active role in writing. This is important because when the students pursue professional opportunities with their thesis films as examples of their work, “if they don’t have a script in their hip pocket to pull out when someone says ‘What else do you have for me?’ a door closes.”
So what advice does she give aspiring students? “Just get your ideas on the page. Nobody writes a perfect first draft. Nobody. Not the most brilliant writers in this business. Not the most brilliant novelists. Know the story you want to tell, get it on the page, and then you make it better.”