Respect for DC Fontana
by Travis Hedge Coke
“It never took me that long to sell a story, unless it wasn’t going to really sell.”
– DC Fontana
Television and comics writer, journalist and personal assistant, producer and secretary, novelist and story editor, Dorothy Catherine Fontana wore many hats and she shined in them all. I have become aware, after first learning of her passing via Thomas Fortenberry, that even amongst my acquaintances and friends, there are Western fans (and professionals) and Science Fiction fans (and pros) who mourn her death and celebrate her life, without, it seems, a great deal of crossover. She meant a lot to both. She wrote the Silver Surfer for television, she wrote Star Trek for comics, she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for an episode of Then Came Bronson, and she shaped Star Trek for television and everything after, more than nearly anyone. The first episode of the relaunch of the Stark Trek franchise with The Next Generation, entitled, Encounter at Farpoint, was, with the exclusion of the Q character, almost entirely down to Fontana. With Deep Space Nine, she gave us the depths and structure of Dax, one of the major trans characters of science fiction television, and on the original Star Trek, as screenwriter and story editor, she fleshed out Spock, his parents, and Vulcan culture more than anyone.
Leonard Nimoy, much later (in The Fifty-Year Mission, ed. Edward Gross and Mark A Altman, a Star Trek oral history), would remember her telling him, “I’m going to write a love story for Spock.” He replied, that, “She couldn’t do it, because it would destroy the character, destroy the whole mystique about whether or not he’s emotional. The whole story we’d been telling was that he was completely in control of his emotions,” and said, she replied, “I have an idea that might work, and I’m going to try it.”
He called the episode, This Side of Paradise, “beautiful.”
Outside of science fiction, there was Dorothy Fontana, the Western writer, who wrote for Bananza, The Big Valley, The Waltons, The High Chaparral, and Lancer. Her first novel, The Brazos River, was a Western. I cannot help but put Fontana and Leigh Brackett into a special class, myself, and maybe John Carpenter is in there, but I have a love for both SF and cowboy stories and not a lot of folks go all in for both. It is, for me, one of the things that sets Fontana apart from other writers in both genres. That, and that, on top of writing for both, she did both that damn good.
When asked in a Writers Guild Foundation interview, what she watched on television before selling her first stories, she said, “Every Western that was on at the time… I had always loved Westerns.”
DC Fontana grew up writing collaborative stories as a child, who always wanted to write, always did. And, she always showed respect for her audience, her entire professional life. She showed respect for her colleagues and coworkers, while not bowing and scraping to their every whim. Sometimes, in response, you can just smell the sexism steaming off the words of others, and many of her contributions in both genres, are woman who are people, not props.
Raised by a single mother in New Jersey, and having helped raise her two younger brothers, Fontana was, in all of her writing, a writer who gave heart to stories, who dealt in people, social dynamics and internal anxieties and passions, but she was also politically savvy. More, I think, than some of her nameable contemporaries, and even colleagues. Her work in the 1988 writers strike remains significant. One of her Babylon 5 episodes used historical anecdotes of Abraham Lincoln’s body, for impetus towards her plot. The dynamics of political actors, in his screenplays and her stories are delicately firm, they are of people aware, or brashly unaware of the totality of their immediate influence on their world. And, the world’s heavy effects on them.
When crafting a Star Trek episode based on the then-current Pueblo Incident, wherein an American ship was where it was not supposed to be, and was held by North Korea, in 1968, and has never, physically, been relinquished, other agents pressed for a sexual encounter between Spock and a Romulan officer, of the steamy sort. As producer, Robert Justman wrote at the time, “Surely we could make room for a scene between [them] in which he, perhaps unwillingly perhaps not, must make love to her.”
Fontana’s response was to lay out exactly how Vulcans do, what Vulcans are, citing previous episodes and reminding them that even in 1968, fans published fanzines, they, “Are very hip to what is and what isn’t ‘Vulcan.’”
With the animated Star Trek series, Fontana fostered in the euthanizing of a pet in a children’s cartoon, which is not only radical or the era and for its broadcast nature, but by being an action of a young Spock, was an innovative move in going back and doing stories of established television characters – at length and in depth – as children. All of this is radical and yet, so heartfelt, so human, that it does not appear so as you watch.
Fontana respected her audiences. She respected fans. She knew that score in ways that many involved in that series, and many in science fiction and “wagon train” television had not yet really grasped: They make fanzines. The fans, especially the vocal ones, know these not only as episodes, as jabs towards something, but as worlds. This was the kind of television that Fontana, herself, was shepherding in.
What follows are testaments from fans, from colleagues, friends, because who Fontana was, what she did, will always be bigger than just her effects on me. She reached many of us in different ways.
I’m going to be fine. But it’s going to take some time.
We used to meet at Jerry’s Deli for lunch, Dorothy and Denny and me. We’d sit and talk for hours. I looked forward to those lunches. We could talk about stuff with each other that we wouldn’t share with almost anyone else. (Dorothy almost never let me pick up the check.) I always came away stuffed with good food, good conversation, and good feelings.
I will miss her forever. I can’t imagine a world without her wisdom.
Fantastic writer who wrote believable female characters at a time when this was rare. She gave us Dax’s back story, lots more Spock and opened the doors that so many of us now have the opportunity to walk through. ??
We lost an icon today. I celebrate Dorothy Catherine Fontana as one of our groundbreaking women science fiction writers. I find it hard to give a complete measure of the influence that she and Star Trek had on my youthful imagination or my consciousness.
In 2011 at the NYC Star Trek Mission convention, Walter Koenig spoke movingly on how the movements of the 1960s had great significance for the show, from the vast youth movement against the Viet Nam War to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and so much more. The Earth in the original Star Trek future had overcome poverty, hunger, war, racism and sexism. They did not have money! Society prioritized peoples’ needs, not profits. This was and is the kind of future I still have hopes for our Earth.
DC Fontana wrote great stories; she wrote stories that made us think about important issues, and we had fun doing it. And some of them were just plain fun. One of my favorite Next Generation episodes is her The Naked Now! I still laugh when I hear Worf say: “I don’t understand their sense of humor either.”
She was amazing and an icon in not only ST but SF.
A pioneer in that she was a woman in a male dominated industry. Also a damn fine writer!
Like most Star Trek fans, I had no idea that DC Fontana was a woman until long after I had absorbed her writing. I just knew that if her name was on an episode, it would be one of the good ones. The Star Trek animated series, even with the horrible cheap Filmation production, shined when you got to her episode about Spock’s childhood, and remains one of the few episodes of that series that stands out as being as good or better than episodes of the original series.
When there was more Star Trek available than ever before in the 90s, she still was a cut above with her novels and episodes of Next Generation. As I read the books about the behind the scenes of the series, I saw how she guided Star Trek, adding many of the things that solidified the things about the series that fans took to heart. More importantly, it talks about how helped people navigate writing for TV. She wrote for a lot of different TV shows as well, everything from The Six Million Dollar Man to The Streets of San Francisco to Bonanza.
However, if you want to know her impact, read the tributes to her on Facebook. People talk about how she was helpful to them in their careers as creative people. How she supported those around her. How she gave encouragement to people when it was needed. While we fans will remember the legacy of her words, we can’t even imagine all of the words, art, and stories that came to be because she was giving of her time, talent and knowledge.
When I was a boy in Junior High School and set about learning everything I possibly could about Star Trek—immersing myself in it as I had never done with anything else outside of classic Marvel Comics—the name D.C. Fontana was one that I encountered a lot, and learned to respect. I didn’t care that “D.C.” was in fact a woman named Dorothy. A good storyteller is not made by her body parts, but by the contents of her mind, and Dorothy Fontana, I was to learn, was one of the most important minds in the world of Star Trek. My seventh-grade self knew nothing of old-boy networks or glass ceilings that prevent women getting ahead, or of women authors, especially in science fiction, who might hide behind pseudonyms or initials to have a career. I knew only that much of the most important development of the Star Trek universe, and in particular the development of Spock, was the work of this woman, and I admired and respected what she did.
The story of Spock’s boyhood and his relationship with his parents was Dorothy’s creation. I have never been able to watch one particular scene in the 1967 episode Journey to Babel without wanting to cry or getting a lump in the throat. You probably know what scene I mean. It’s when Spock and his mother, Amanda, argue about Spock commanding the Enterprise in a crisis (Kirk having been wounded) instead of giving blood to help his critically ill father, Sarek. Amanda warns Spock that if he adheres to his logic and his duty and lets his father die, she will hate him for as long as she lives. When Spock still won’t budge, she slaps him dead across the face and storms out, leaving Spock, his back to the camera, to stand silently and just put his hand on the door. I defy you to watch that scene without feeling the emotional wallop of it. It’s one of the most lump-in-the-throat moments of Star Trek or anything else on TV.
We can thank the late Dorothy Fontana for that episode and so much more—including coming aboard in the development of Next Generation and talking Gene Roddenberry out of making Deanna Troi a female with four breasts. I’m sure Marina Sirtis is grateful for that too. (Gene, as you may know, was not without his predilections and fixations.) Dorothy has left us in body, but her star will shine brightly over Star Trek forever.
D.C. Fontana was one of the first writer’s names I recognized as being a brand. Back in the Long-Ago Times, when there were only reruns of the original Star Trek series and of the animated series available on television, and the only books were the ones adapting those same series episodes to prose, I quickly learned that Fontana’s name on a story meant it was one of “the good ones.”
It also taught me to look for the writer’s name on other TV shows I liked. So for me Dorothy Fontana wasn’t just the Star Trek “good ones.” She was also did “the good ones” on The Six Million Dollar Man, The Big Valley, Kung Fu, and a bunch of others. My very favorite show when I was a kid was the Wild Wild West and I recently discovered she wrote a couple of those too, under the pen name Michael Edwards.
Her legacy will always be Star Trek, of course, and especially Mr. Spock (whose background she defined for literally generations. The J. J. Abrams movies and Star Trek Discovery are still riffing on the backstory D.C. Fontana created fifty years ago.) I never met her but she was the Trek writer I admired more than any other and it’s always nettled me that she never gets the credit for essentially creating the Spock we know, not even in Adam Nimoy’s movie. It’s a shame that it took her passing for people to finally figure it out.
Apart from all that—she was a writer other writers admired and sought to emulate. Pro tip: that’s how you spot “the good ones.”
Dorothy (DC) Fontana is a writer I really liked as a kid and grew to love as an adult. I discovered her–as so many of my generation probably did–via the missions of the starship Enterprise. She wrote some of my favorite Star Trek episodes, including Journey to Babel, The Ultimate Computer, That Which Survives, Tomorrow Is Yesterday, and The Enterprise Incident. What I appreciate most about her work was the depth of character she explored. The deep dive into Spock and his father’s complex relationship was a shocking eye-opener in Journey to Babel. Fontana was able to create interesting, truly feeling, three-dimensional characters in the typically cheap and flat TV universes she explored. Her focus was always on relationships–whether micro- or macrocosmic–and she was able to expand personal backstories and simultaneously explore entire cultures, such as the complex Romulan-Human-Vulcan triangle in The Enterprise Incident. I did not learn of her true identity and pseudonyms or her powerful impact in feminism until I was an adult. However, my appreciation only grows each year as I re-watch or read her works and see the powerful characters which remain etched in our collective conscious, beautiful and haunting like Losira. Fontana definitely helped capture that sense of wonder that so inflamed my youth and has since informed my life and writings with the nuanced complexities she exhibited.
Respect for DC Fontana
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