Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Trek Interviews: Ron Wilkerson (Part 2)

Here continues our interview with Trek writer Ron Wilkerson. This time, we focused on individual episodes that he worked on. If you haven't read it yet, check out the first part, too!


Q: What was your original story pitch, and how much did Brannon Braga change? What was he like to work with?

A: The final episode was pretty much our original story pitch.  We worked with Brannon only for a day during the story meetings.  We were supposed to write the teleplay for the episode, as it was originally slated to be a mid-season show in season six.  But midway through the story development sessions, the network decided that they needed a more "action oriented" show earlier in the season, as most of the episodes in development for the first part of the season were apparently more thoughtful or philosophical in nature.  Our episode was the one in development that fit that bill for action.  So, unfortunately for us, "Schisms" got bumped up to Episode 5, and because of the time constraints, Jean and I didn't get to write the teleplay.  The assignment was given to Brannon who was a new staff writer, and I think he did a good job of it.

Q: Were there any contemporary or past influences for an alien abduction story? 

A: The inspiration for this episode was the book "Communion" by Whitley Strieber.  I had seen the film based on the book, and wasn't much impressed by it.  But a relative of mine, one who had actually had a UFO experience himself, convinced me to read the book, and I found it to be compelling.  Searching around for ideas for TNG, I thought that it would be a really interesting concept for crew of the Enterprise to be subjects of abduction for examination by an even more powerful alien race.  The idea that the Enterprise, with all of its sophisticated scanners and sensors, could be victimized by beings possessing even higher technology was somehow very creepy.  We titled our pitch "Examinations" which was deemed to be a bit "on the nose," and so Jeri started calling it "the Communion episode," knowing it would eventually require a title change.  I think Brannon came up with "Schisms," which I always thought was odd, but somehow, it seemed to fit.

Q: Did you choose the particular character spotlights (i.e. Worf, Riker, Geordi, random lady)?

A: Usually, when you pitch an episode, you tend to base the pitch around one of the regular cast.  In this case, since various and random people on the ship were being abducted, the concept was far more general.  It wasn't until we were developing the story that we decided to make Riker the central character.  He was also good in stories that needed action, so he was the one we chose to focus on.

I will say that our biggest disappointment in this episode was how the aliens were rendered in production.  They were kind of odd fish-faced guys, and I think that their appearance limited the appeal of bringing them back in a sequel.  Don't think that we didn't try to pitch other episodes based on this one.  Unfortunately, we never saw them again.


Q:What was the genesis of this story idea? Did your initial pitch get changed by the editorial staff to fit their needs?  

A: I wrote a lengthy review of this episode on my own web site.  This question is best answered for your readers by referencing what I've already written.

Q: What were your goals in creating Daren? Why (the hell) not Crusher? Did you intend to make them so similar, or did you strive to differentiate them? 

A: The seed of this story originated with Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor.  At the time, they were very tired of fans writing in to suggest a relationship between Picard and Beverly, which they were not AT ALL interested in developing.  They just didn't want those weekly complications between two main crew members.  They also wanted this episode to end speculation that Picard and Beverly would ever get together.  But, at the same time, they didn't want Picard to be sexually neutered.  So Michael suggested that Picard have an affair, and, to show the complications of the affair, he wanted an "inter-office romance" with a guest star.  Nobody on staff had been able to come up with a take on this idea, so Jeri suggested it to Jean Matthias and me, partly to make up for us not getting the teleplay assignment on "Schisms."  I go into great detail on my web site review on how we developed this idea, so I'd rather not cover that same ground here.  But briefly, we pitched music as the element that would form a connection between Picard and his new love.  That was what sold our take on the episode to Michael and Jeri.

Q: Was Nella Daren ever intended to be recurring, or was it always to be limited to one episode?

A: We loved her character, and we thought the world of Wendy Hughes's performance.  We tried a few pitches subsequent to this episode in which we would bring her back, but none of them were quite right.  So, though we thought of the possibility of Nella being recurring, we just couldn't find the right vehicle that worked for her.

Q: Did you choose the musical pieces for the show? Was the use of the Ressikan flute from Picard's vision (The Inner Light) your idea?

A: The idea that Picard used music as an expression of his lost love (from "The Inner Light") was central to our idea.  So yes, the Ressikan flute, and the music he played from that episode was our idea.  We thought that, following the events in "The Inner Light," Picard would still be playing the Ressikan flute, alone, in his quarters, and perhaps also be playing to accompaniment from the computer.  I'm a musician, and I know the feeling of playing along with a computer, which is fine, and great for practice.  But I also know of the unique interplay between individuals playing music together.  When the music between musicians is really working, it becomes something you feel emotionally, and it takes the form of a relationship.

Q: How conscious was the sexual innuendo from Daren? Did you have other come-ons that were edited out?

A: Nella Daren was attracted to Picard from their first meeting in the Teaser, as was he to her, as evidenced by his discussion about meeting her with Beverly over dinner the next night.  Then he was surprised to see her performing music with Data in Ten Forward, and was intrigued by this other aspect to her personality, apart from her job as Stellar Science Officer.  Their conversation after her performance indicates a mutual attraction.  So, when she shows up at his quarters the next night, it is a bit of a surprise, but it's not out of line, because she's there to play music with him, not to have sex.

Q: What do you take to be the "Roddenberry" response to the question of superiors being in romantic relationships with subordinates?

A: Well, we dealt with this in Picard's conversation with Troi.  He's beginning to be seriously attracted to Nella, and since there are no specific regulations about relationships between Starfleet personnel, he's there asking for Troi's guidance in a manner that could be "fraught with complications."  But we see that, even though Troi essentially gives him the green light, he is still conflicted as to how this appears to others like the crewman they encounter in the turbolift.  He is also concerned that he may be seeming to give Nella preferential treatment due to his relationship with her.  We see this conflict play out in her requests for time on the sensor array and transfers of crew to her department which brings her into conflict with Riker.

Q: Did you receive a science consultation on things like the Bersallis firestorms, or on stellar cartography?

A: We had great assistance as we were developing this from Naren Shankar, who was the science advisor to the show before he became a writer/producer.   We knew we wanted to have a Federation outpost on a planet that Nella would have to help rescue.  This would put her life in danger, which formed the next big question of the episode.  What is it like to send someone you love on a dangerous mission in which they might die?  This became the really big question for Picard.  Can he do it?  Can he live with the consequences of his actions if Nella were, indeed, to die under one of his orders.  When he tells the landing crews to "hold their positions" he knows it may be a death sentence for Nella.  But as to the exact danger on the planet, Naren came up with the idea of the firestorms, which we further developed as we wrote the script.

Lower Decks:

Q: How did your initial pitch differ from the final result? Who chose which crewmen were featured? Why were some created new and some recurring? 

A: The basic premise of this episode was: what is it like to lose someone who you are close to, especially someone young who has a good deal of life ahead of them?   We know that, in any given episode, even though we frequently place one of our main cast in danger, that odds are they will be back next week, same as before.  With a guest cast, you never know.  So, this was the impetus behind the episode, and it changed very little from the pitch to the final episode.  The one episode from TOS that did influence me was "Balance of Terror" in which we see a young couple being married by Kirk in the opening scene, yet by the end of the episode, the groom had died in the line of duty, and Kirk had to comfort the bride, now a widow.  It was touching, and memorable.  But these characters were incidental to the main action of that episode.  In "Lower Decks" I wanted to do a story in which the young people were the main action.  The other concept of our pitch was seeing an adventure play out from the POV of those in the lower decks of the ship.  I wanted to do an episode in which we never once went on the bridge of the Enterprise.  I thought it would give a really unique feel to the episode.  It didn't exactly play out that way, but for the most part, it did.

We weren't at all specific about characters in our pitch except to pose questions like: what is it like to take orders from Worf?  What kind of a teacher is Geordi?  That sort of thing.  Once we were developing the pitch in the Writers' Room, we got more specific as to who they would be.  I believe it was Ron Moore who brought up the character of Sito in "The First Duty," and we all liked the idea of showing how she had overcome her problems in that episode and had found her way onto the Enterprise.  The fact that she was Bajoran contributed to the "B Story" we developed with the mission in Cardassian space.

Q: Lavelle seems too much a Riker clone, but it did allow for some reflection on Riker's character. Was this your idea?

A: Well, that was the joke.  We wanted to create a character that was exactly like Riker, and in fact be so much like Riker that Riker was irritated by the guy.  The topper of the joke is that Riker wouldn't see the guy as being at all similar to him.  I thought it was beautifully cast, and acted.  Sam Lavelle, by the way, was named after my beloved Labrador Retriever, Samwell, who was likewise coltish and eager to please.

Q: The Ben character was an interesting opportunity to explore civilians in Trek.  How would you explore such an idea were it your script? Was he a stand-in for Guinan? 

A: The character of Ben was created by Rene Echevarria, who wrote the teleplay.  He certainly filled a role in the group as Guinan filled the role with the bridge crew.  He was the one with inside information that nobody else knew.  I liked Ben, though I had nothing to do with his creation.

Q: You seem to have a thing for degaussing - this episode and "Learning Curve" both feature it prominently. What is it in this context, besides the thing you do to CRT monitors?

A: Just coincidence.  In "Learning Curve," it was the stand-in for scrubbing a floor with a toothbrush.

Q: Is Picard manipulating Sito into participating in a risky mission? He seems to break her down just to build her back up again. What was Picard thinking in his discussions with Sito?

A: He's testing her strength of character to see if she could handle the responsibility of a mission that would be of vital interest to the Federation.

Q: The parallel poker game usage was clever - your idea or someone else's? Why is it always the lamest poker variety (five card stud)? What are they playing with/for? What do the chips represent?

A: I think the thing that sold the episode to Jeri and Michael was the poker game.  I conceived the idea of a regular poker game between the junior officers, much as we had seen among the bridge crew of senior officers.  It was a nice way to establish visual parallels between the two groups of personnel on the Enterprise.  We also originally set the "Lower Decks" poker game in the cramped quarters of one of the crew.  I have no idea about the game as I don't play poker.  Fortunately, Rene wrote that part.

But the idea of "the empty chair" at the end of the episode which symbolized the friend who had died, was a major part of our pitch, and to me, it was ultimately that moment that clinched the deal -- the visual element of the empty chair.  As we finalized the story, we realized that having Worf take the chair in place of Sito was a meaningful way of bridging the two groups and bonding them all as Enterprise crew, comrades in arms, united in their grief.

Learning Curve:

Q: Were you asked (possibly by Jeri Taylor, since she seemed to have the greatest hand in creating the character dynamics of the show) to develop conflict between crews? How did you work to create the Maquis characters? was this episode delayed from earlier in season one?

A: No, this was our idea from the start.  When you are a freelance writer (as we were) you are always looking at the show to see what places you can go that haven't already been covered by the staff writers.  It seemed that, with the pilot, they had created a conflict by merging Starfleet and Maquis crew onto Voyager.  But, as the season went along, they hadn't really explored that conflict.  We came up with the idea of a "Starfleet Night School" which was a way to bring the Maquis who hadn't had any Starfleet experience up to speed so that they could integrate better with their new home on Voyager.  Also we pitched the episode as a "Tuvok episode" as his character hadn't had a lot to do up to that point.

We had had success in creating new characters on "Lower Decks" that interacted with the main cast, and, to some degree, we thought we could do something like that here to add a bit more to the development of characters like Tuvok and Chakotay.  The episode wasn't delayed from earlier in the season, however, it wasn't originally intended to be the season finale.  They had several other episodes in development, but the UPN Network decided to go with a short season, so they cut it off at "Learning Curve."

Q: Were you asked to reprise the period holodeck scenario, and what were you trying to do with it, since it seemed to have little to do with episode?

A: This was a continuing serial story line that Jeri had developed and was to become a part of a larger story in a subsequent episode.  We  were essentially told what beats she wanted in the scenes, though I believe we were the ones who came up with the idea of the holodeck fritzing out in order to tip our hand to the problem with the ship that would occur later.

Q: Is the Bajoran earring policy just on the Enterprise or is it fleetwide (Ensign Ro is allowed to wear it, for instance)? Was this mentioned at all in writing/editing?

A: It wasn't discussed in detail, although my personal belief is that Ensign Ro was cut a bit of slack because of her Bajoran background, and the political need for the Federation to make friends with the Bajorans.  Tuvok, as the Starfleet "drill instructor" in the episode was more of a "by the book" character.  So it was certainly within his command to make the decision that the earring on Garron had to go.

Q: It seemed like a missed opportunity for Academy wash-out characters (such as B'Elanna) to reflect on their experience. Why doesn't Dalby call her out on it?

A: I would say the only reason for this was that we wanted to make the episode more about Tuvok, and there simply wasn't room in the episode to explore that possibility with B'Elanna.  But I loved her character, and wished I could have written more for her.

Q: Is it challenging to write for Kes? Why, if so?

A: Not really.  We liked her character, and by the time this episode was in development, they had come up with the idea that she had moved into Sick Bay in order to learn from and help the Doctor.  So this episode was really more procedural for Kes, and didn't really involve changes to her character, so there was no real challenge there.  It was fun to put her in the center of the action in Sick Bay.

Q: How does gravity plating work? Was it your idea to create a tougher environment for training? Did you receive a science consultation?

A: There is an explanation for the gravity plating in the Writer's Guide that hadn't been discussed in any great detail in previous episodes.  There are these elements that are placed in the floors that can be activated in various ways to create gravity and keep people from floating around.  We didn't have any science consultation on this, but just reasoned that it would make sense for the gravitational field to be variable as a means of preparing landing crews for experiences they might encounter on different planetary environments.  Once you think that through, you realize that it would be fun for Tuvok to use that variable to make the training that much harder for his recruits.

Q: Is two 10k runs in two days realistic? Do you run, or did you research it?

A: I run on a treadmill to stay in shape, and know enough about running to know that two 10k runs in two days would be very hard.  And this is what we wanted Tuvok to demand of his recruits.

Q: Was the holodeck bridge simulation a conscious Kobayashi Maru reference?

A: Not intentionally.  However, I do take some pride in the fact that in the two instances in our episodes where the holodeck was used, it was used for a purpose outside of entertainment.  We used it in "Schisms" as a means of the crew comparing notes on their individual abduction experiences to put together a complete picture of what was happening with them.  So, in that instance, it was used as a diagnostic tool.   We used the holodeck in "Learning Curve," as a means of bridge training for our Maquis characters.

Q: I liked the investigating of Neelix's kitchen, and it got me thinking about writing comedy. Is it harder than writing drama or action?

A: Writing well is hard no matter what the genre.  If it was easy, everyone would do it.  But, as many of us learned from studying Hitchcock's films, comedic moments are essential to lighten even the most dramatic scripts.  We wanted to play the comedic element that something as simple as cheese could bring down the mighty starship Voyager.  I do think that "Get the cheese to Sick Bay," is a pretty funny line.

Q: The fever idea seemed like something of a technobabble solution - do you get those sorts of ideas, or at least the dialogue, from Andre Bormanis? I assume you had the basic fever idea.

A: I believe that Naren Shankar was on the writing staff at that point, and we all discussed the ship problem, but, as often happens in the Writers' Room, ideas get bounced around.  Not sure exactly if any one person came up with it.  I remember it as being more of a group effort.   The idea of the bio-neural gel packs was something that was developed in the Voyager Writers' Guide, but again, hadn't been explored in an episode.  The gel packs were an invention by Starfleet engineers to give the ship a more organic response to problems, essentially to allow the circuitry of the ship to "think" through issues and resolve them.  Remember, Voyager had a lot of new technology, and was never intended to be launched into another quadrant on its maiden voyage.  That just happened.  So a lot of shipboard issues hadn't been thoroughly field-tested in Federation space.  The idea of the bio-neural gel packs catching a cold seemed like a fun way in which a high and mighty starship might be humbled by something rather small and insignificant.

Q: Do you see the cargo bay rescue scene as a "Galileo Seven" TOS parallel, with an injured crewman and a Vulcan's unwillingness to rescue? Why does Tuvok make the opposite decision?

A: Well, I can assure you that (although I love the episode), "Galileo Seven" never came up in our story break sessions, even though I can see your point that there are similarities.  But Tuvok's decision to rescue Garron did have a logical basis: the crew was depleted, and could ill afford to lose young, potentially qualified personnel to run the ship.  But the main reason it was done, of course, was to allow Tuvok to be seen as more human and caring by the other Maquis crew, by making an impulsive and  seemingly emotional decision.  But showing that he was willing to go through self-sacrifice for a lesser officer, he proved himself to them, which is what he needed to do throughout the entire episode to bring them around to the necessity of being a part of the Voyager crew.

Q: Are there any episodes of TNG or VOY that you wish you had written?

A: This is an interesting question, and one that is perfectly understandable, but a bit hard to answer.  If you are asking -- are there original episodes by other writers that I wish I had written -- the answer is no.  I feel the most connection to my own original ideas, and while there are a great many episodes of the Star Trek shows that I have admired, I can't say that I wish I had written others than the ones I have actually written.  If you are asking -- are episodes on which I only wrote the story and I wish I had written the teleplay, I would say that the Voyager episode Ashes to Ashes is probably the one.  The basic sci-fi premise of an alien race propagating its species by reanimating the dead from Voyager (and other species) remains, but the character story I had originally written was quite a bit different.  I don't want to go into the gory details of the story development, but I was not particularly happy with the way this one ended up.  But I'd rather not conclude this interview on a sour note, so I'll just say that my collaborations with the various writing staffs on Star Trek shows was nearly always wonderful, I am really glad that I wrote for the shows and remain very proud of my work there.

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