In the Star Trek universe, Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana was legendary for her role as a scriptwriter.
Fontana, who died Dec. 2 at age 80, contributed - at least in part - to almost half the original Star Trek series’ scripts and went on to write in various capacities for the Star Trek animated series, as well as “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine.” She even contributed to the fan-created online production of “Star Trek New Voyages: Phase II.”
While the vast majority of her work involved television (including other shows such as “Babylon 5,” “Dallas,” “The Waltons,” “Logan’s Run,” and dozens more), she penned novels and, when I interviewed her in 2018, was still writing.
“I’ve got five or six scripts out for consideration with themes such as science fiction, fantasy and historical romance, as well as a contemporary murder-mystery horror story,” Fontana told me from her home in Los Angeles.
Young Dorothy’s writing journey began in fifth grade, composing horror adventure tales featuring her classmates as characters. “I’d write stories out on yellow notepads and pass them around to my friends. So I always wanted to write and hoped to become a novelist.”
That all changed after graduating from New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University when she became a secretary for the head of Screen Gems in New York.
“At the time, it was the television arm of Columbia Pictures and scripts for various TV shows would come across my desk. I remember thinking, ‘Gee, I could write those!’ In 1959, I moved to Los Angeles which was the place to be for TV productions and worked in the typing pool at Revue Studios (later to become Universal Television).”
She was encouraged by the studio’s writer/producer Samuel A. Peeples.
“He knew I wanted to write and said if I came to him with a good story, he would buy it,” Fontana recalled. “In June 1960, I sold my first story for the TV western ‘The Tall Man.’ I was 21-years-old and have been writing ever since.”
While she contributed to four episodes of the series, it was the “A Bounty for Billy” episode that introduced her to a future Star Trek actor.
“Leonard Nimoy was a guest star,” she said. “He was such a fine man and became a good friend. Leonard, William Shatner, and I all have a cluster of March birthdays, just a few days apart and we got along well.”
Nimoy would find immortality as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and Fontana emphasized he was the only actor creator Gene Roddenberry ever considered for the role. Despite claims to the contrary by others, it’s a piece of TV history Fontana said she knew firsthand, having worked briefly as Roddenberry’s secretary during his pre-Star Trek days.
“In 1964, Gene was working on his (short-lived) series, ‘The Lieutenant,’ and asked me to read a 15-page draft of a story that would become Star Trek,” she said. “I read it overnight and told him it was really, really good and asked who would play the Spock character. He nudged a photo of Leonard across the desk to me. I’ve heard stories all my life that others were considered or auditioned for the role, but it was always only Leonard. Never anybody else!”
Aside from Roddenberry, Fontana was therefore one of the first people on the planet to learn of the Star Trek concept. But what if she had advised Roddenberry to scrap his idea for the new sci-fi adventure series? Could she have photon-torpedoed Star Trek and rewritten television history?
“I don’t think so!” she said, laughing. “Gene was committed to Star Trek and no one was doing anything like it at the time. I was with it all the way - through two pilots, the writing and the casting.”
Fontana wrote the first season’s second episode, “Charlie X,” and later that season one of the series most popular episodes, “Tomorrow Is Yesterday.” She remembered Roddenberry later handing her a draft for “This Side of Paradise,” an episode dealing with spores on a planet that provided their human hosts with health but at the cost of eliminating all desire of ambition.
“He told me to fix it which was a massive re-write,” she said. “Originally, it was a love story for George Takei, but I took one look and knew it was perfect for Spock. In the early draft, the spores were only found in a cave, and I pointed out that the crew could simply avoid going into the cave and no one would be affected, hence no story! So I said the spores had to contaminate the entire planet so there’s no escaping them. It was a hell of an acting job by Leonard getting into the Vulcan heart and soul, as well as by Jill Ireland. The episode also mentioned Spock’s mother and father and I was later able to introduce them in the ‘Journey to Babel’ episode.”
In addition to writing for sci-fi shows, westerns were a favorite for Fontana.
“I watched them since I was a kid,” she said. “I wrote for ‘Bonanza,’ ‘The Big Valley,’ ‘The High Chaparral,’ and others. While I can put some light moments into a serious story, comedy is not my forte.”
Nevertheless, Fontana appreciated good comedy writing. In fact, the one and only time she ever appeared on screen was as a background extra in the 2011 “Big Bang Theory” episode, “The Russian Rocket Reaction.”
“I love the show and the comedy writing is brilliant - it’s clever, sharp, funny, and scientifically accurate - and my husband and I have frequently gone to watch the tapings,” she recalled. “I know (creators) Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady and they took us backstage to meet everyone. Just out of the blue, they asked if I would like to be in the background on an episode and I said ‘Yeah!’ David Gerrold, another Star Trek writer, was also in it. And what was also funny was that a couple of days after being on the show, I received a check for $65 for being an extra!”
Whether creating just a basic story outline or flushing out a full script, “D.C. Fontana” is a screen credit that will always signal to viewers that a good story lies ahead.
“I’ve written for wonderful people who have been welcoming, cooperative, and helpful,” she said. “They all told me if I wrote something good, they would buy it. And they usually did.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala, and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.