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INTERVIEW: FTN interviews Star Trek: The Next Generation writer Melinda Snodgrass

January 2nd, 2013 by Irwin Fletcher 2 Comments

Melinda M Snodgrass is a professional writer best known for her work in science fiction in print and television. She wrote the classic Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man that has just received an extended cut for the second season Blu Ray release. The Nerd caught up with Melinda recently to discuss her career.

Hi Melinda, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. It truly is an honour.

FTN: Can you tell us how you got started as a writer?

MS: I was an unhappy lawyer, and my best friend at the time was a science fiction writer, Victor Milan. I had read S.F. since childhood, and he said to me, “I bet you could write it you tried. So I did. I wrote romance novels under a pseudonym to pay my mortgage (I had quit the law firm), and to learn how to plot and finish a book. At the same time I was working on a big space law book called CIRCUIT about a Federal Court judge riding circuit in outer space. But I was a new comer, and I couldn’t break in. Then David Hartwell met me and suggested I write a Star Trek novel since I was such a fan. That would get my foot in the door. So I wrote The Tears Of The Singers, and it launched my career. David also gave me another piece of advice which I have followed. He told me to never write a second Trek book or I would end up being known as a Trek writer and never get out of that. Shortly after Tears came out I sold the Circuit Trilogy.

FTN: Were you a science fiction fan growing up, if so what influenced your writing?

MS: [I’m a] Huge SF fan. I read through every science fiction book in the library. I just started at A and went down the shelves. Maybe this was due to my dad reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea aloud to me when I was tiny. Then I discovered Asimov and Heinlein and Norton and Poul Anderson, and, and, and,

FTN: You wrote for LALaw before Star Trek; did you find it a culture shock at all switching genres?

MS: Actually I didn’t write for LA Law. Star Trek was my first gig. I managed to sell a story to LA Law, but that was it. Here’s the story of how I got into Hollywood. So, I had become (and still am) very close friends with George R.R. Martin (left). We were gaming buddies, and we created the Wild Card series so (as George put it) “we could make some money off this Superworld game obsession.”

Then George went off to Hollywood to work on The New Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. I’m back in N.M. writing my books, and George calls me one day and says: “I think you’d be good at this script writing thing. You’ve got a strong sense of structure (plot), crisp dialog, and powerful characters. If you write a spec script I’ll show it to my agent.”

So I did.

I didn’t want to write a B&B script — that would have put George on the spot, L.A. Law looked too tightly plotted, and I had grown up watching original Trek so it was a no brainer. I wrote The Measure of A Man as my spec script.

FTN: Can you tell us exactly what a story editor does?

MS: Story editor is just a fancy title for writer. You help develop and beat out the outlines for scripts. You write scripts. You often hear pitches from freelance writers (though that is less common now.) You rewrite scripts that come in from freelance writers to bring them more in line with the tenor of the show. You have to understand if you have the word “writer” in your title in Hollywood you are the lowest of the low. For example Staff Writer is the entry position. What you want is that producer title which has no mention of writing anywhere. I made it up to Co-executive producer on a pilot I wrote that got filmed, but didn’t get picked up to series.

FTN: One of the best episodes was of course, the Data story, the Measure of a Man where our favourite android had to fight for his right to be recognized as an individual. How did that story come about?

MS: As I said above that was my spec script, and I wrote it because of my legal training. When I was watching Next Gen I found Data to be the most interesting character — which is sort of sad when you think about it. Anyway, it occurred to me that the infamous Dred Scott decision was a perfect analogy to Data’s situation. In that case the Supreme Court held that a black man was in fact property and not a person. It worked beautifully for Data. George had warned me that you never, ever, ever, never sell your spec script. The best I could hope for was to get invited in to pitch so I should prepare 3 to 5 more story ideas. I said to George — “But this is such a good idea maybe I ought to hold it back for a pitch and write a different story.” That’s when George gave me one of the single best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten as a writer. He told me “never hoard your silver bullet.” Meaning lead with the strongest thing you’ve got. So I did, and they bought the script and hired me on the show.

The other piece of invaluable advice I got was from my boss, Maurice Hurley on Trek. He said to me “Just say the words.” Sometimes writers try to get too cute or too subtle. What you need to do is just say the words.

FTN: My favourite moment is when Data sees the hologram of Tasha Yar and is forced to reveal they were intimate.

MS: It’s that expression on Bent Spiner’s face as we see him express sorrow at her passing without a word. That was simply beautiful.

Thank you. The fact that Data was “fully functional in every way” was actually kind of a pain. I cause a lot of problems on my script the Ensigns of Command. People can read my original version of it on my website. I think it’s better then what aired.

FTN: You recently did a commentary for the Blu ray release. Was the episode still as good as you thought or was there anything you would have changed? (Personally it’s the perfect script and still stands today as first class drama, never mind science fiction)

MS: Thank you again. That’s very kind. I was actually surprised at how well it held up, and I thought the scenes that had been cut due to time issues added a lot. They were character moments, and sadly those are always the first things to get cut when a script runs long. I’m a much more accomplished screenwriter now, and I wince a bit over the rookies mistakes. There’s one place where I came into a scene way too early, and repeated stuff the audience already knew. Today I would have started that scene in the middle of the conversation between Picard and Data.

FTN: Is it true we were going to see Maddox again?

MS: I had hoped to bring him back. I thought the actor did a good job with playing the obsessed scientist. Just didn’t work out.

FTN: I have to ask, did you get to go on the bridge set?

MS: Maurie took me over one day to watch a bit of filming. I actually don’t remember the set. I just remember the stunned awe and amazement at hearing actors deliver my lines. I think it was one of the courtroom scenes. Trek was odd in that the writers weren’t welcome or even permitted on the set. I later learned that was a strange rule. Every other show I worked we went to the set when we wanted, watched dailies, set in on casting and editing, etc.

FTN: Which of your scripts are you most proud of?

MS: Meaure.

FTN:  Your third season script the High Ground was controversial over here because it mentioned a United Ireland , a line that was cut over here in transmission. It was seen as an allegory on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. As an Irish person that line never bothered me, the story was such high quality and balanced both sides of the argument. Did that reaction surprise you?

In this country anti-abortion people got angry when Riker talks about his right to choose. Guess it depends on the each culture which reaction you get. I just wanted to do a story about how immigrants and fresh blood are good things. They make societies stronger.

FTN: Is there a trek story you would loved to have seen made but never happened?

MS: I wanted to do a triptych about Data. First Measure – is he a person. Then Ensigns — he learns that command is an ephemeral thing, I wanted to end it where Data had to premeditate and kill in defense of another. Never got to do that one.

FTN: You also wrote for SeaQuest DSV; Knight of Shadows. Its first season was notorious for trying to avoid sci fi fantasy stories, how did you get a supernatural tale in there? Personally I thought it was one of the better episodes because of that.

MS: I’m not sure how that got through. I was just a freelancer on the show. I was thinking of all those wonderful stories about ghost ships, and I thought it would be fun.

FTN:  I imagine it’s a dream writing for Roy Schneider, he has such a distinctive voice and personality.

MS: A character with a powerful and distinct voice is much more fun for a writer.

FTN: Your own project Star Command was originally a pitch for a Star Trek spin off series wasn’t it?

MS: Actually no. At the time a couple of studios really wanted space shows with young characters. Mine was just one of the ones that got picked.

FTN: Is there a certain pressure when you write for a show like the Outer Limits to be as good as the old version?

MS: Definitely. You’re up against people’s memories of those shows. Sometimes those memories aren’t all that clear. I was so excited when I heard I could watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E. again. I watched two episodes and called a friend, and said “When did they refilm this show and make it crappy?” Outer Limits was good, but it was never in the same class as original Twilight Zone.

FTN: Odyssey five was one of our favourite shows and went before its time; I honestly can’t think of a bad episode and was hooked five minutes into the pilot. It’s a shame it was cancelled with its superb cliffhanger. Did you feel the same way as a writer on the show? It was such a strong first season I couldn’t believe they cancelled it.

MS: I also couldn’t believe it. It was such a great show and it had good numbers. I’ll never understand what happened. I loved writing my one script. I was especially heart broken because I’m pretty sure they would have hired me on full time if the show had returned.

FTN: I know you’re a huge original Star Trek fan (like us). Are you looking forward to the new Star Trek movie?

MS: I’m a bit ambivalent. The first film had all the fun and energy of the original show and I loved that, but the script was a god awful mess. I kept wanting to say to the Romulans “Why don’t y’all just go home and warn folks that the planet is going to get destroyed instead of chasing around after Spock and blowing up Vulcan? And what they did with the transporter was terrible. Why have ships? Overuse of the transporter like the horrible holo deck can lead to bad story telling with unintended consequences.

FTN: what are you currently working on?

MS: I’m writing the Wild Card movie for Universal Pictures. I’m into the final third of the next book is the EDGE series. I have another urban fantasy to write in my personae as Phillipa Bornikova, I need to prepare a proposal and chapters for a new space opera series, and I’ve got a TV show we’re going to pitch after the holidays.

And I have a new horse arriving to join my Lusitano stallion Vento. Sometimes I just want to take a nap.

FTN: Please tell our readers where they can find you and your books.

MS: Right now you can only get my Edge books as an ebook though that is going to change. They are going to reissue the first two to lay the ground work for book three. The titles are The Edge Of Reason, The Edge Of Ruin. The new one is The Edge Of Darkness. There will also be Audible versions of all three books coming soon.

This Case Is Gonna Kill Me written under my pen name is available both electronically and as a trade paperback. The second book Box Office Prison will be out sometime next year.

I would suggest Amazon. There are also links to independent book sellers who keep them in stock. You can find those on my website.

FTN: Melinda, thank you so much for taking the time to do this; if there’s anything you don’t want to answer, that’s fine but again it really is an honour to talk to you. Be well and good luck.

Owen Quinn

I'm an LA journalist who really lives for his profession. I have also published work as Jane Doe in various mags and newspapers across the globe. I normally write articles that can cause trouble but now I write for FTN because Nerds are never angry, so I feel safe.