Today is the 79th birthday of one D.C. Fontana, for half a century one of the most influential women in television westerns and even more so in sci-fi television.
Dorothy Catherine Fontana made a name for herself with her definitive and optimistic voice, adding depth and complexity to a number of well-known fictional characters primarily on Star Trek but on other Sci-fi shows as well. Breaking in television was not easy for a woman in those days, and her big break came when she was working as a secretary on the Western The Tall Man and was able to sell a story to her boss.
Still as a secretary, she began working for Gene Roddenberry and was in her twenties when he tapped her to help develop what would become Star Trek. Fontana had no background in sci-fi, but had grown up on Westerns and understood adventure.
Fontana, now being credited as D.C. Fontana because she found her spec scripts were better received if the reader thought she was a man, went on to write or co-write several of Star Trek’s most influential episodes. Arguably most importantly she wrote “Journey to Babel,” the episode that introduced Spock’s parents and perhaps more than any other single episode expanded upon Spock’s backstory.
Among other things, Fontana deftly realizes the figure of Amanda (Spock’s mother) giving her a wit and temper that emphasizes her humanity without caricaturing her. Near the end of the first season, Fontana was promoted to the position of Story Editor. She was the youngest story editor in Hollywood at the time and if not the only female story editor, one of a very small number.
Even while making her creative mark on Star Trek, she simultaneously sold scripts to a number of contemporaneous Westerns, including Ben Casey and The Big Valley. She left Star Trek to pursue freelance writing full-time before the beginning of Trek’s third season. While there are several reasons why the third season of Star Trek faltered, the loss of her voice as a quality control in the writing was certainly one of heaviest blows.
Fontana did write three episodes for that last troubled season, but ended up taking her name off of two of them after they were re-written by a producer and the new story editor who (in her words) “hadn’t even read the Writer’s Guide . . . didn’t even have a working concept of the show.”
Star Trek crashed and burned under a pile of what Fontana called “drek,” but Fontana’s own star continued to rise. She continued to sell stories to westerns like Bonanza, but she was also continuing to become a force in the sci-fi world. She worked on the proto- X-Files/Fringe horror series The Sixth Sense as well as the supernatural anthology series Circle of Fear.
When Star Trek revived as an animated series in 1973, she returned to the franchise not just as a writer but mainly as an associate producer. She wrote only a single episode herself — and it is indisputably considered the best episode of the animated series. For decades it was the only episode of the animated series that Roddenberry and later writers considered canon. Called “Yesteryear,” it provided even more detail into the backstory of Spock and the prejudice he faced growing up. Between this episode and the previously mentioned TOS episode “Journey to Babel,” neither Spock nor his parents would be the characters they are without DC Fontana. Echoes of “Yesteryear” ripple through the franchise, as both the depiction of Spock’s childhood in the 2009 film and elements of Michael Burnham’s backstory in Star Trek Discovery are based on Vulcan upbringing (and discrimination) as defined in this episode. It also informed script elements in Star Trek V, the TNG episode “Unification,” and the ENTERPRISE episode “The Forge.”
Fontana’s other sci-fi work in the seventies and into the eighties included scripts for The Six Million Dollar Man (writing about the then far-fetched idea of a female astronaut — as she put it in 2016: “I was writing about women . . . and they were not doing what you expected them to do.”), Land of the Lost (an episode that was all about character development for the girl, Holly, this time by looking into her future), The Fantastic Journey, the TV series version of Logan’s Run, and even an episode of He-Man (the one where Battlecat’s back-story is given, continuing her specialty of fleshing out characters through exploration of their past).
Fontana once again returned to Star Trek as both producer and writer when TNG was in development. She co-wrote the pilot and four other early episodes. (Along with several others, she left TNG after clashing with Roddenberry’s lawyer who would rifle through other people’s desks, surreptitiously rewrite scripts, and forge notes that he claimed were from Roddenberry. His name was Leonard Maizlish and his role in almost sinking the first season of TNG is a strange story all on its own).
Her final time writing for Star Trek was the DS9 episode “Dax,” an episode that once again peered into a character’s past to reveal her backstory. Other work of hers in the nineties included Babylon 5, Earth: Final Conflict, and the cult cartoon ReBoot. She’s also written a Star Trek novel (about Spock’s past, of course) and has written for several Star Trek computer games and Star Trek: New Voyages (an ambitious fan series).
Throughout Fontana’s career, she has held high the standard that understanding character is paramount to good writing. Leonard Nimoy said that she was one of the few original series writers who understood how to write fully believable women. There’s an argument to be made that the creative genius of Star Trek was never Gene Roddenberry but rather the talented circle who surrounded him, and of that circle the nuanced and attentive writing of DC Fontana is one shining star.
(Trek.fm did an interesting interview with her not too long ago that focuses on her work in the animated series. http://trek.fm/saturday-morning-trek/13 )