On 50th anniversary of ‘Star Trek’ premiere, executive from Totowa reflects on show’s popularity
The morning after the very first episode of “Star Trek” was broadcast – Sept. 8, 1966, 50 years ago today – the very first Trekkie made himself known.
Though in fact, as D.C. Fontana points out, he was known already.
“I was in the office at 9 o’clock as usual, and the phone rang,” recalls Totowa native Dorothy Catherine Fontana, then production secretary to “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry.
“Roddenberry wasn’t in yet, so I picked up and answered ‘Star Trek,’” Fontana says. “This very familiar voice on the other end said, ‘Hello, this is Leslie Nielsen.’”
Yes, that’s Leslie Nielsen as in “Airplane!” and the “Naked Gun” series. Only before he became a camp icon in spoofy movies, Nielsen was known as Commander J.J. Adams of United Planets cruiser C-57D in the 1956 sci-fi classic “Forbidden Planet” – a film that many, including Roddenberry, regard as the most direct precursor to “Star Trek.” Now two starships were passing in the night – and Nielsen wanted to pay his respects to James T. Kirk, captain to captain.
“He said, ‘I saw the show last night and I thought it was wonderful and had a great future,’” Fontana remembers. “I’m paraphrasing him a bit, but he was very effusive about the show. . .I was thrilled to death, because I loved ‘Forbidden Planet.’ For him to call and say he really liked the show – what a huge compliment.”
That moment set the future course of the Starship Enterprise — in its 50-year voyage from quirky TV outlier to pop culture phenomenon, with 13 movies and a half dozen spinoff series. From that first episode 50 years ago, “The Man Trap,” about a “salt vampire” that threatens the Enterprise, “Star Trek” was driven by fans, not ratings.
“The first week, we got a bag of mail,” Fontana says. “The second week, we got three bags of mail. After that, we got tons of mail, which we couldn’t handle. There was no time for us to deal with any of it. So an answering service had to take over.”
Fontana had her hands particularly full. In short order, she graduated from Roddenberry’s secretary to “Star Trek’s” story editor – one of the show’s key artistic shapers, and herself the writer or co-writer of some of the best-loved episodes in the series, including “Charlie X,” “Journey to Babel,” and “This Side of Paradise.”
“I think ‘Star Trek’ is ever-popular because it relates to the times we’re in,” says Fontana, a multiple award-winner who has also written for shows ranging from “The Streets of San Francisco” to “The Six Million Dollar Man” to several of the “Star Trek” spinoff shows, and now teaches screen and TV writing at the American Film Institute. “In the sense of [our] being aware of space, and our adventures in space. We’ve been to the moon, we have Voyager out there, we have a Mars lander that is exploring Mars for us. Etcetera. I just think that ‘Star Trek’ is so up-to-date.”
One of the most forward-looking things about “Star Trek” was its multicultural casting and stress on equality. Including – to some degree — equality of the sexes. Fontana, on the other hand, was making her way in a mid-20th century TV industry, in an era when talented women had to struggle in a field dominated by men. Her start as a secretary was not uncommon.
“That was kind of the only way at the time,” says Fontana, who was born in Sussex, moved to Totowa a year later, and lived there for the next 19 years.
“Unless you were already a published author, and had the name recognition. . .the way to do it was basically to get on staff somewhere,” she says. “And for most women, it was as a secretary or something like that.”
Which is why Fontana, though she had early dreams of being a novelist, majored in business – first at Passaic Valley High School where she graduated in 1957, and then at Fairleigh Dickinson University (at the now-defunct Rutherford campus) where she graduated in 1959 with an Associate in Arts degree, Executive Secretarial major.
“My mother strongly suggested that I get an education in something I could earn money at, and pay for all the novels if you’re going to do that,” Fontana says.
Even as she got secretarial jobs in Hollywood — she began working for Roddenberry in 1961 — she was also selling teleplays of her own, many for the Westerns that were then the dominant genre on TV. The earliest were under her own byline, Dorothy Fontana. Which proved, in the early ’60s, to be problematic.
“I found I couldn’t pitch to certain shows,” she says. “ ‘Oh, she’s a woman, she can’t write our show.’ Come on, give me a break! So what I did, I wrote a ‘Ben Casey’ spec script, with the byline ‘D.C. Fontana.’ Figuring they can’t turn me down because I’m a woman, because they wouldn’t know. And I had my agent turn it in, and it was bought. From then on I thought, ‘You know what, this is the best way to go, I’m going to go with D.C. Fontana’ ”
Beyond vetting “Star Trek” scripts, and sometimes writing or re-writing them, Fontana was instrumental in shaping the characters’ back-stories, and keeping the fictional “Star Trek” universe consistent from episode to episode. In scripts like “Journey to Babel” and “This Side of Paradise,” she helped devise much of the background of the show’s most fascinating character, the half-alien Mr. Spock.
“I kind of made myself the Vulcan background expert,” she says. “I loved ‘Journey to Babel,’ because it gets into, who is Spock, why is he who he is? Because there’s a human side to him and a Vulcan side to him. We get a bit of that when we meet his parents.”
As she watched “Star Trek” grow its fan base over two seasons and into a third, she was also on the front lines for the battles that went on between Roddenberry and NBC. The network judged the show by its Nielsen ratings (middling-good, not terrible, as has sometimes been reported), moving “Star Trek” to consistently worse time slots over three years and essentially – many feel – killing it off.
Fontana, Roddenberry, and the rest of the “Star Trek” team knew there was something more going on, something the ratings didn’t reflect. They were the ones who heard from the Trekkies (or “Trekkers,” as some fans prefer to be called). Starting with that first phone call from Leslie Nielsen.
“The amount of mail at the time indicated – and remember, there was no other way for people to let us know they loved it – was an indicator that we had a big audience out there,” Fontana says. “And some of the letters that went to us directly were amazing, astounding – professionals, scientists, technicians, people who were involved in the sciences we were talking about. . .When ‘Star Trek’ went into syndication it was just run and run and run, and we said, ‘Hey NBC, you really missed the big one. You should have kept this on the air.’ ”