Along with several thousand others, I am David Gerrold’s Facebook friend. He’s remarkably approachable and has responded to the half dozen messages I have sent him over the years. In January 2021, I messaged him and asked if he had any comments about “Man Out of Time,” my favorite episode of the Logan’s Run 1977 television series. I was writing a review of his episode for Stupefying Stories. He suggested we talk on the phone. On January 30, 2021, I found myself chatting for over an hour with the writer of “The Trouble With Tribbles” and the story editor for Land of the Lost. He was very gracious when the Zoom link didn’t work and even more gracious when he realized that I, unlike every other interviewer, had not taped the interview. Lucky for me, he had. Anyhow, enough about me: sit back and enjoy a science fiction master recounting the glory days of sixties and seventies science fiction. —Peter Wood
Peter Wood: So, you said you have a story for me (about “Man Out of Time,” the episode you wrote for the 1977 television serial Logan’s Run)?
David Gerrold: It’s a couple stories. The producer on the show was Len Katzman, and the executive producers, who I never met, were Goff and Roberts. Now, I enjoyed working with Len Katzman. He later went on to do Dallas, and he was a very, very nice man, and a very good producer. And what I suggested was not just a time travel story but that we actually find sanctuary, and that this would give the show the opportunity to—once we had found that sanctuary was not real—stop searching for sanctuary and start being about rebuilding the connection between all the human settlements all over.
DG: And it was a pretty good intention. So we came up with this time travel story that played a trick I’ve done a couple times—the time traveler is not from the future. He’s from the past. I did that in Land of the Lost as well. But, I have this weird sense of humor, but also a sense that science must be logical and believable.
So the first thing the time traveler does is he sends a rabbit forward to see if it survives. And so they find the rabbit. Now, Jessica and Logan and Rem have never seen a rabbit before. They’ve lived in this bubble. Okay, so they find the rabbit in the cage, and Rem is searching his memory, and I had stumbled across a weird fact that the rabbit is genetically or evolutionarily similar to an elephant. Apparently they have the same root, and so Rem says, “This is an elephant.” And Logan says, “I thought they were larger,” And the joke was that they would carry the rabbit around with them for the entire rest of the episode.
And there was a lot of funny stuff that got written. I think I went through four drafts, and each time the notes would come back not from Len Katzman, but from Goff and Roberts, and they ended up taking out all of the jokes, all of the humor, all of what I had learned on Star Trek, and again on Land of the Lost, was that the jokes made your characters likable, so much that you wanted to spend more time with them. And we particularly saw this with “The Trouble with Tribbles,” but we saw it in all of the episodes of Star Trek where Spock and McCoy would take large bites out of each other. And it seemed to me that there were a lot of comedic possibilities in Rem and the others. And it wasn’t a bad show, and the people there were good. I have nothing against anybody there, but Goff and Roberts kept taking the jokes out.
Now, my first-draft scripts were long because it’s easier to cut than it is to pad, and so I cut, and I cut, and I cut, and a lot of fun stuff got cut, maybe properly so. It might’ve been too talky for television. I’m certainly not going to say I was —I’m not going to do like some angry writers do and say, “I was right and they were wrong all along,” and then you see their original script and you can see, yeah, they had some brilliant stuff in it, but it wasn’t filmable, right? I’m not naming any names.
PW: Right. I think I know who you’re talking about.
DG: Yeah. No, I’ll be candid. Harlan [Ellison]’s script was brilliant, but it wasn’t Star Trek, and it had to be rewritten to fit into Star Trek—and a lot of the dialogue he wrote was simply not the characters, and I learned how to write Star Trek dialogue by reading, I would guess, 25 Star Trek scripts, and watching every single episode I could, more than once, and then watching the actors work.
So I wrote for their speech patterns, and Harlan, who had—it was the last script of the first season—he’d had plenty of time to hang out on the set and read other scripts and get a sense of who the characters were, but a lot of the dialogue he wrote, as brilliant as it is, wasn’t the Star Trek characters very much.
And then you do find these little flashes, these little moments, “I fought at Verdun.” “Oh, a man who fought at Verdun. We have to do something for him,” even though Kirk and Spock didn’t understand, but they knew it was important. So there’s these little flashes of brilliance, and yet— Harlan’s draft of the script, as much as I love it, and it really is a brilliant script, would’ve made a great movie, but it needed to be fixed for Star Trek, and Dorothy Fontana did most of that. Harlan blamed Gene Roddenberry but it was really Dorothy. She admitted it to Harlan many years later when we all believed that some of his anger had ebbed.
Anyway, Goff and Roberts were editing my script down, or wanted my script cut down, and they made extensive notes, and I finally reached a point where I felt that they had leached a lot of the fun out of the story, so I put another name on it, Noah Ward. The funny thing is that it turned out to be a very good episode anyway, one of the better episodes of the series, and they sent me a kind of snarky note when they saw the reviews. They said, “Well, I guess we know what we’re doing, huh?”
But look, they did know what they were doing. They were good producers, but doing science fiction, especially back then, there weren’t a lot of people who understood how to do science fiction, and they had never done science fiction before, and science fiction requires a skill that very few really good writers had at the time. Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, and Norman Spinrad, and—oh God, a whole bunch of people who understood. Gene L. Coon for sure. Dorothy Fontana.
You need to know how to do science in a way that it’s believable, even if you’re making crap up, and then you also need to make your characters likable so the audience cares about them. And then you have to have a story, a drama where something is at stake, and you look at—I’ll give you an example. One of the great episodes of Trek was “The Doomsday Machine.” I mean it’s one of the best things Norman Spinrad ever wrote because you really care about William Windham’s character. He’s lost his ship and he wants revenge. It’s Moby Dick in space, and you realize Kirk’s challenge is, he doesn’t want to lose the Enterprise, and yet he asks, “How are we going to destroy this planet-destroying doomsday machine?” And as a character story, it is one of the best stories Star Trek ever told.
PW: It’s my favorite episode.
DG: Understandably, yes. “The Trouble with Tribbles,” even though we see it as a comedy, if you stripped out all the jokes, because there were never that many jokes in the first draft, it’s just, “Oh, it would be funny if we did this. It would be funny if we did that.” But if you strip out all the jokes, you have a strong character story of Kirk versus Barris versus Klingons.
DG: And it’s my belief that any great comedy has to have a great story underneath the jokes; that if you strip out the jokes, you still have a great story. The jokes are the way you dramatize the story. You could tell Some Like It Hot, which is one of the funniest movies ever made, you could tell that straight, without any jokes, and it would still work. It’d be a little hard to believe.
PW: Some Like It Hot is horrifying. They’re almost killed.
DG: There’s a lot at stake in that story. There has to be something at stake.
DG: And a lot of science fiction by people who don’t understand science fiction, who have not grown up in it, is, “Let’s do a monster”, and the guy who did the third season of Land of the Lost—now, when I did the first season, it was—Spencer Milligan as Marshall says, “This is the land of the lost. There has to be a reason for everything.” You get to the third season, in the third season the story editor is saying, “Crap, have the characters saying, ‘This is the Land of the Lost. Anything can happen,'” which is not true.
DG: That’s not the Land of the Lost that I made up. Anyway, but you see what I’m saying is, you have to have a level of logical consistency, even in fantasy, and you have to have characters you can care about, and you have to have something at stake, and then you have to have those moments that bring the character to life, whether they are funny or tragic or whatever. And in episodic television it’s easier to go for the comedic response. That joke makes your characters likable, and it’s actually a physical thing.
Let me give it to you this way. If I tell a joke, you laugh and you get endorphins. You get an actual physical sense of pleasure, even if it’s a small one. Now, the more that I give you that physical sense of pleasure, the more you’re going to bond; the more you’re going to feel affectionate; the more you’re going to like being around me. So this applies to television. The more that a character makes you laugh, the more you like being around him.
DG: And you can even do that with Klingons because the Klingons, as originally conceived, as nasty as they were, you got a feeling of—you got a little adrenaline rush off the Klingons. That was exciting. Yeah, tell me more about the Klingons.
So I wanted to bring the characters to life, and if you look at the entire 13-14 episodes that were completed and released on the DVD, or the Blu-ray, I forget, what you see is, it’s a very dry, dull show that’s trying very, very hard to be serious. And while that might be fine in a murder mystery, or a detective show, or any kind of the crime shows, it doesn’t work for science fiction. Science fiction needs a light edge.
And you look at films like Forbidden Planet. There are jokes in Forbidden Planet. You look at The Day the Earth Stood Still. There’s a couple of very high-level moments that are actually amusing. You look at—even the 1953 War of the Worlds. There are a couple moments that, while they’re not laugh-out-loud jokes, they’re smiles, and you end up—those characters become vivid because of the likability. And I always felt that, as good as all of the actors were; Paul Shenar and Greg Harrison and all of them, as good as they all were, I think they were defeated by scripts that didn’t give them any fun to have.
I’ll give you another story which you may have already heard, but we were shooting over at MGM, which is just one of the great old studios, and MGM had a tradition with Technicolor going all the way back to Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz. They would pump up the light so that the colors would be saturated on the film. Now, we get to 1970-whatever and they’re still pumping up the light but we’re using a new film stock, 5437, which is a very fast film, and doesn’t need to be pumped up with light. Well, they’re pumping up the light like they’re shooting Wizard of Oz because it’s some of the same people who worked on Wizard of Oz? Wizard of Oz was 1939. This was only 40 years later. Some of the same people were still working there; good guys but they were still working as if they were, the film stock was 50 ASA And we’re using film stock that was 400 ASA, right? Which is great.
I mean, you look at those episodes and they are saturated with color, but the problem was they were burning out the eyes of the actors, and Harrison and the others finally complained that those bright lights were not just physically painful, but at the end of the day they couldn’t see because they were so dazzled by the lights. So they had to redo the lighting, and later episodes you can see the lighting shift a little bit.
So I did not note there the director of photography. You go back to Star Trek. Jerry Finnerman understood the film stock he was lighting for. He also understood that all the sets were gray, so that’s why he used the colored—what do they call them? I’m blanking out on the word, but the colored sheets in front of the light, so you’ve got a purple wash here, and a green wash there, and an orange wash. So he made the sets look different, even though they were all just painted the same color gray. And then he’d also put up this latticework so you’d get these textured shadows in the background.
In terms of making the most out of a limited budget, the man was a genius. He made the show look good, and this was the early days of color television. People were tuning in to Star Trek just because of the bright colors. You’ve got a color TV, you wanted to watch something in color. There was Star Trek.
DG: But by the time we got to Logan’s Run, everything was in color. All the networks had gone full color, and the sets were better. The sets had evolved in just ten years, and you can start to think in terms of subtleties of color. You didn’t have to have everything primary colors. And Logan’s Run looked good. It did look good.
PW: It did. I agree.
DG: I think that’s all I remember from the show. That should give you something to work with.
PW: So I’m guessing you got involved because of Dorothy Fontana?
DG: Yes. Yeah, Dorothy was being hired as a story editor everywhere. Dorothy and I were great friends. She was one of my best friends in the world, but she knew that I was fast, I was dependable, and that they wouldn’t have to do a lot of rewriting. I would turn in a shootable script, and they might have to tweak a line here and there, but she knew she could depend on me and vice versa. When I was doing Land of the Lost, Dorothy Fontana wrote the best script for Land of the Lost. There’s absolutely—I mean, I had some good writers. I had Ben Bova. I had Norman Spinrad. I had a few others. Just great people.
I had some of the best writers I could find, but Dorothy’s script was, she had done this script, “Yesteryear,” for the animated Star Trek. When I brought her along for Land of the Lost, I said, “Let’s do ‘Yesteryear’ but we’ll turn it around. This time, instead of meeting young Spock, we’ll meet Holly as an adult.” And she made it work beautifully. I mean, very limited, but they shot the episode in two or three days—all of our episodes were shot fast. So there wasn’t a lot of time for a lot of nuance. On Land of the Lost we did not have a director who was good at nuance, but he could get the shots in the can, and the actors managed to make it work.
It’s hard work being an actor. Most people think, “Oh, you learn your lines and you get to be glamorous.” No. If you look at what the average actor goes through in just a one-hour episode, they have to learn their lines, there’s 60 pages of script. If you’re the star of the show, you have to learn 10 pages of script every night, which I think explains William Shatner’s delivery. He’s trying to remember his lines all the time.
DG: But anyway, Logan’s Run should have been a better show. I mean, it wasn’t a bad show, but it wasn’t a show that was destined to last long because the network didn’t give it a chance to gel. That was part of the problem. But the other thing is that I don’t think Goff and Roberts understood the magic of what that show could’ve been.
With Star Trek we were visiting a different culture every week, more or less. And Logan’s Run could have done that. They could have been doing this exploration. You could’ve taken the time to say, “Okay, where are they on the map, and where are they going? Okay, so they’re in a desert. Next they’re in the uplands, then the foothills. Next they’re in the mountain range,” and each time they could be visiting a community that has a different way of surviving because of the geology of where they are, or the geography of where they are, and you could’ve done a fascinating exploration of a devastated future and how the people are starting to come back together.
And that would’ve been a very hopeful optimistic show, but the context that they ended up with was, Logan and Jessica and Rem are kind of lost and wandering from place to place without any clue of what they’re really looking for. And wherever they’re going, they’re not finding any more information about where to look next.
And so it became, your context in a series is something that—I had this conversation with Harve Bennett when he was doing Matthew Star—Star Boy — and I said to him—I turned in a couple of really good ideas, and he loved them. He said that we can do these second season. And I said, “If you don’t do shows like this now, you’re not going to have a second season.”
DG: Well, the poor kid who was the star of the show was injured in an accident, burned by some fireworks, and the show got canceled, so they never did get a second season. But what I have always said is, “Tell me what we’re going to be doing for the fourth episode of the third season, and then I’ll know if the show’s going to survive,” because it’s—if you’re doing Perry Mason, the producer will say, “We’re going to be doing a murder mystery,” and you say, “Oh, right, of course.” But if you’re doing a science fiction show like Battlestar Galactica, which is “run away from the Cylons,” three seasons in, we’re still running away from the Cylons. It’s, um, that’s not a grabber. But you say with Star Trek, “We’re going to be doing third season—we’re going to be exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going—”
DG: So, oh, great? I know what we’re going to be doing third season. And that’s a question you want to ask: do we know where we’re going? What’s the punchline of this series? A show like Lost started out real strong and introduced even some interesting mysteries, but nobody knew what the punchline was, and after a while it became obvious they were making it up as they were going. They didn’t know where they were going.
DG: So, the couple of times I have written a bible for a series—and I’ve pitched two or three now, and we’ve gotten great reactions but nobody opened their checkboo—I could always say, “Here’s the finale. Here’s where we’re building to. You tell us this is our final season. Here’s how it’s going to resolve.” If it’s a war story, here’s who wins the war. If it’s a this, here’s how this—
And I think that, especially now when we’re doing series that you get ten episodes a year, there should be a story arc for each episode but also a payoff at the end of the story arc. Doctor Who is the exception, because you just regenerate the doctor and reinvent the whole series, which has happened, if you follow, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi, Jodie Whitaker. Each time they not only reinvent the doctor. They reinvent the context of the series because the doctor has a different challenge each time. And with this latest thing, the timeless child, the doctor is a whole different person. So it’s “Oh, this is going to be interesting. Are we going to play it out? What are we going to discover about where the timeless child came from?” I mean, the whole series has been ripped wide open.
So, that’s the exception to the rule. But if you’re doing a thing —Hawaii 5-0 is a really good example. They went what, 7-8 seasons, and finally McGarrett ages out and gets the girl, finally, in the last episode? But they were building to it. That whole last season was setting up McGarrett—I mean McGarrett had already lost a kidney, and a this, and a that, and the other, so—I mean they were building up to McGarrett’s retirement for a while. They knew where they were going and they paid off all the plot lines that they’d been playing with for seven years. And that’s how you do a series.
So we came away from watching Hawaii 5-0 feeling complete; that we had not been left with—let me say it this way, we’d been given closure. We had not been left hanging. And I think that’s what makes good television, is that you do get that sense of completeness.
The Sopranos is one that has a sense of closure, a sense of completeness, because if you think about it, Tony Soprano gets killed in that last shot. That’s the only real explanation, and the producers of the series kind of hinted that was what they intended.
DG: So that’s really—you have all of this—these problems with doing television, and there are a lot of people in the industry who are only thinking in terms of this episode, and the next episode, and the one after, and they’re not thinking, “What are we going to be doing next season? How are we going to pay this off?” And I think you need an overriding story arc to make any series work.
PW: Like Babylon 5.
DG: Babylon 5, yeah. Babylon 5, once Joe started writing all those scripts himself, he knew exactly where he was going, and Joe’s a good writer and a good producer, and I can only say wonderful things about him. He’s really an admirable man. He knew where he was going and he built toward it, then the network says, “We’re going to stop after four seasons,” so he had to rush the fourth season to get to closure, and then they said, “No, we’ve decided we want a fifth season,” so he had to do a fifth season after he’d already done everything he intended to do. It was very frustrating for him, but he made it work better than most producers would have.
PW: Not bad. I always felt like Logan’s Run would’ve been better if they had done more with Francis or less with Francis, but having it be every week, he’s on their tail and can’t quite seem to catch them, or he captures them and somehow he loses them. That seemed to happen a lot. That got kind of repetitive. It was like an old movie serial or something.
DG: Well, it was like Les Miserables, and he was supposed to be Inspector Javert chasing Jean Valjean. Well, that’s fine, but—and they did that as a TV series called The Fugitive, where Richard Kimball was being pursued every week, but the real interest in The Fugitive was not that Richard Kimball might get caught this week, because you knew he wasn’t going to get caught. The real story was the people’s lives that Richard Kimball got involved with in The Fugitive.
And so, if you kept Inspector Javert in the background as a threat, that might get close. And when he does get close, it’s time for Kimball to move on. The Fugitive was a great TV series because it was not—he wasn’t always running, but with Logan’s Run, because the story was about the chase—of Francis chasing Logan, they were trapped into, “We have to have Francis every week.” Well, I think it would’ve worked better if Francis didn’t show up quite so often.
“I think we’ve lost Francis.”
“Oh, he’ll track us. We’ve got to keep moving.”
So you could have an episode or two where Francis is not there, but the threat is implied. You could bring that series back, but you’d have to really rework it hard. My problem with the entire Logan’s Run context is, they come from a place where, as soon as you turn 30 you get killed. Well, people don’t mature. People don’t even get interesting until they hit their 30s. The male brain doesn’t finish developing until about age 23 or so, and you don’t start really getting a sense of how life works until you’re 25-26-27, and by the time you’re 33 that’s when you start to become—that’s when you are who you are, and that’s when you’re really interesting. You have some control over what you’re doing, especially if you’re a writer. You finally moved into your craft. Whatever else you are working at, you’ve had your 10,000 hours. You’ve had your million words. You’ve got your muscle memory in place. And that’s really about the age where mastery starts to kick in. So killing people before they even have a chance to develop real maturity struck me as being wrong.
Now, if I were redoing Logan’s Run today, I would have Logan discover that the real masters of the city are the people who didn’t get killed but go into hiding, and that there is a secret counsel of older people who didn’t get killed but who went into hiding. You either got killed in Carousel, or if you had proved yourself worthy, you got elevated to be one of the secret masters who were living underneath the city, and making sure everything works.
See, at least that way you would have a believable environment. Why do we have all these kids running around upstairs? Because that’s where we let them learn how to be human beings, whether or not they are worthy of going on. But we don’t tell them that because that would just traumatize them, so we just let them have fun, play, learn, and see which ones are worth saving. See, that would be an interesting story.
PW: That would be. I kind of got the feeling that the original book was almost like a satire because I think there’s this youth revolution in the 21st century and they kill all the old people, so like Wild in the Streets (the 1968 movie), right?
DG: Yeah, which was a dreadful movie, too.
DG: I’ll tell you, George Clayton Johnson and I were good friends. I loved George. He was smart. He could get work when nobody else could. I never understood that because he never came across as being the sharp industry professional, but if you needed a script, you’d call George and he would turn something out. He and William F. Nolan decided they were going to make a million dollars, and they were going to write a book that would be turned into a movie, and they would make their money from the movie sale and the success of the movie. That was their goal with Logan’s Run.
So they analyzed what you need. It had to be an action picture, and it had to appeal to the young audience, and it had to have this and that and the other, so it’s really a construct. It was a deliberate construct to play off all the tropes they knew would sell. And I don’t fault them for it. I actually admire that they solved that challenge. It’s the same challenge I did with “The Trouble with Tribbles”: what do you need to sell a script to Star Trek? Well, you have to be better than all of the other writers who are selling scripts Star Trek, so you have to find a story that nobody else is doing. And with Logan’s Run they came up with something that a studio would look at and say, “We could make some money with this.”
I’m not faulting them for that approach, and I also think there are a lot of really fun elements in Logan’s Run. I mean, I didn’t like the movie very much. I didn’t like the book very much because of the idea that you were killing people at age 30. If they had just not used that as the motivation for the run, they would have had 1984. How does Winston Smith escape Big Brother? Well, you don’t escape Big Brother. But this was a different time. This was a Brave New World kind of tyranny. How do you escape Brave New World? That would’ve been a hell of a story.
So that’s my writer disagreement with them; but on the other hand, every writer gets to create their own story, so they created their story and I had a good time with it to the extent that I could put my disbelief aside. I would’ve done it differently, but I respect that they solved the problem their way.
PW: Well, the book is a quick read. I’ll say that. It comes at you a mile a minute, And then it just, bam, ends.
DG: Yeah, and Nolan, God bless him, he’s been around forever, and the Horror Writer’s Association made him a Grand Master. Good for them. He earned it. He’s a terrific guy, and he’s written a lot of stuff I really do like, so he does understand the horror genre very nicely.
But science fiction has evolved. It used to be back in the ’30s and ’40s it was about, “How do we predict how we’re going to use the new sciences that we’re inventing?” And into the ’50s, and ’60s, and ’70s, “Oh look, here’s how we’re going to get to the moon and Mars, and here’s some of the problems we’re going to deal with in space.” And then along about—after Lord of the Rings became a big hit, and fantasy kicked in, there was another phenomenon.
All of the sudden, we have all these great science magazines; Scientific American, Science, Nature, Discover, and all of these—you couldn’t keep up with the science anymore. There was too much science being developed, so it was easier for the writers to go into fantasy, and fantasy was now a very marketable, very profitable genre to go into. So a lot of writers were going into fantasy. Poul Anderson and Heinlein, the guys who actually did their science, Gordy Dickson, Fred Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Arthur C. Clarke, and Allen Steele—became the hardcore nuts-and-bolts science fiction. Then there were writers like Jack Vance who’s writing more fantasy than science fiction. You get in a spaceship, you go to another planet, and here’s the culture. But it was always a pretty much Earth-like planet, right?
DG: And there are no Earth-like planets. There’s just lazy writers, like, “I just want to tell a story that takes place in this culture,” so all right. And that’s what a lot of science fiction became. It became a foundation for telling stories that were metaphors for—and this is the Star Trek effect as well. Star Trek, we would arrive at a planet and they would have a weird culture and we’d fix it for them. Or we’d get caught up in it and escape from them. Whatever. And a lot of science fiction became that kind of fantasy. There was a lot of science fiction after Star Trek and Star Wars became imitation Star Trek and Star Wars. It was either battles in space or find some unique culture.
And then there were a couple other things that happened in science fiction, too, and these are good things because they expanded science fiction. You got a lot of women suddenly coming into science fiction from Star Trek, and writing science fiction. So now we have, I think, a majority of science fiction writers are women, and they’re writing—I don’t want to call it feminist fiction because it’s not, but they’re writing about sex roles, and gender roles, and they’re writing a whole different context of science fiction, which some people have objected very strongly to, but those objections are wrong because science fiction has always been about expanding the boundaries. And what the women writers have brought—like Annie McCaffrey, for instance, and Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree, Jr., and so on—and Connie Willis—what they have done is expand what the genre can contain. More recently, in the last 10-20 years, we’re getting a lot more minority writers—Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, Chip Delaney, N.K. Jemisin, and Asian writers are showing up very strong recently, too, so we’re getting a lot of really great writers pushing the boundaries far beyond anything we could imagine in the ’60s and ’70s, and this is healthy.
It’s just—we just shouldn’t be calling it science fiction anymore. We should be calling it what Harlan said was speculative fiction, because a lot of what is being published doesn’t have that scientific foundation that was demanded by John W. Campbell and H.L. Gold and Fred Pohl. Now we’re far more into what kind of realm can we imagine, and what would happen in it? And you look at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and in any issue—which is a great magazine— you can see the realm—how far-reaching science fiction has become. We just can’t call it science fiction anymore because it has become mainstream literature.
And if you look at the bestseller list, what’s considered mainstream, a majority of those books on the bestseller list are science fiction books. They’re just not called science fiction. The Time Travelers Wife, for instance. You look at all of the books that are showing up on the bestseller list and they are taking science fiction tropes and turning them into mainstream stories. So what has happened is an explosion of the genre, so far and so wide, that has been very healthy for storytelling.
PW: I agree.
DG: There is also a lot of sloppiness. There’s also a lot of bad writing. It’s Sturgeon’s Law. Ninety-five percent of everything is crap.
DG: Gerrold’s Corollary is, that doesn’t mean the other five percent isn’t also crap.
DG: But we saw this in the history of television with all of the attempts to do science fiction way back when. Ninety-five percent of them were crap, but the standouts are Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Star Trek, and Firefly, and maybe a couple others. Oh, the original Space Patrol, and you can look back at those shows and see that they were trying very hard to kick out the boundaries of the imagination. But then there were shows that were so sloppy and so—just dull. Almost all of the Irwin Allen shows. Lost In Space, which, not to fault the people who worked their butts off on the show, but really, ultimately it became Doctor Smith and Will Robinson and the robot, and all chances of actually doing —when you get to the large talking carrot, played by Stanley Adams, it’s like after a while, this isn’t science fiction anymore. It’s just a children’s show.
There were other well-intentioned efforts. I mean, most recently, there was a show I really liked, called Terra Nova, where the people are setting up a colony a hundred million years ago, or whatever—back when there were dinosaurs, and you go, “Oh, that’s interesting. They can flash back in time to—” and they built a whole little settlement, and every so often you see dinosaurs, or they have a dinosaur story, and I thought, “This is an interesting concept. You could have a lot of fun with this.”
And they got some of their science right. There was more oxygen in the atmosphere. But they didn’t spend enough time on the world building, which was the real interest of that show, is how do you build a world when you’re surrounded by dinosaurs? How do you plant crops when you have different kinds of ecology working with different insects and different things living in the soil and different little rodent things? I wanted to see more of that world building, and instead they got bogged down in the politics of the situation, which was the least interesting part of the show, but at least I give them credit for a great concept that they were—there was room to grow.
So—science fiction is the hardest genre of all to do well because, in addition to all of the other things you have to do to write a good story, you have to create a new environment, a new world, move into it, and figure out how it works, and make it function, put all the pieces together. So that was my complaint about Logan’s Run. I didn’t think it was a stable environment. But if you look at Star Trek we’re going out and exploring the galaxy. That’s a stable, believable context for a series.
So Land of the Lost, the challenge with Land of the Lost was to create a context. “All right, everything that gets lost falls through a time hole, and is here.” So we’ve got dinosaurs. We’ve got aliens. We’ve got Sleestaks. We’ve got this. We’ve got that. And I could justify it by having it—this is like a wrinkle in time where things get trapped and can’t get out. And I had a very strict set of boundaries for that land of the lost. So—which is why I believe the show has become this cult classic after almost 50 years now, and people are still watching those old episodes. They look quaint, but they have their own appeal.
PW: If you compare it to what was on Saturday morning at the time, if you compare it with the Krofft Supershow, and Bigfoot and Wild Boy, there’s no question. Land Of The Lost dealt with sci-fi staples. It had pretty adult characters. It had Enik.
DG: Yeah, that was Walter Koenig’s. What I said to all of the writers early on, I said, “I want you to pretend this is a primetime series, and write like it’s a primetime series. Kids are going to be watching it but I want adults to be able to watch it, too.” So we wrote adult-level stories that kids could watch, which is the secret of any great kids’ show.
Rocky and Bullwinkle. As an adult you can watch that show and laugh your ass off. There’s jokes in there the kids won’t get. The kids will have fun with the stories, but the adults will have fun on a whole other level. The same thing with the Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes. Adults can watch them because they get the jokes on a whole other level. And the kids’ shows that are written specifically for kids are unwatchable for adults, and they are really just unwatchable. I mean some of the great ones: you look at The Real Ghostbusters, the animated series. You look at Scooby Doo. Those shows adults can watch? They’re intended for kids, but they’re written for adults. It’s a unique kind of writing. The minute you think, “Oh, this is a kids’ show, and we have to dumb it down and only do stories that kids can understand,” you’re losing half your audience. What I realized with Land of the Lost is the minute we’re putting dinosaurs in, we’re going to catch the adults. So I have to write an adult-level show.
PW: Well, if you dumb down shows, it’s also an insult to the kids. When I was a kid, I watched adult shows all the time. There wasn’t a lot of stuff for kids on TV in the ’70s except for Saturday mornings and maybe in the afternoon, so I would watch adult shows with my parents. And it was fine. I got them.
DG: Yeah, and then when you grow up you get them again in a different level. You look at the classic Disney animated features, the ones Walt did, and you see —these, as an adult, you can watch them and admire the beauty of the film, and at the same time the stories have a simplicity to them, but the characters are presented with a very adult level of understanding. You look at Cinderella, and that’s adult-level storytelling. The mice are there for the kids. The cat, Lucifer, is the threat, but the stepmother and the stepsisters, as caricatures as they are, they’re very understandable on an adult level.
It’s only when Disney had—the studio had a low period when they get to Lady and the Tramp, and at the end Trusty survives. That was a last-minute decision that, “Oh, you’ve got to have Trusty survive.” Well, the story works a lot better if Trusty dies saving Tramp, but that was when Disney Studios said, “Oh, nobody dies anymore. We can’t do Bambi’s mother anymore because the kids will pee in the theater seats. The theater owners hated Bambi because the five-year-olds would wet their pants and the seats, literally. But Disney would have the false death. Trusty survives. Baloo survives in The Jungle Book. And after that, they would kill a character and then conveniently bring him back to life.
You get to Star Wars and Obi-Wan comes back with a blue glow around him, and so one of the things you get is, death isn’t permanent anymore. And I think we even got it with Star Trek. Spock dies because Leonard wanted out of the series, and then decided he wanted back in, so they had to bring Spock back. The whole thing with entertainment is, it’s a chance to live another life and get greater awareness, and gain an enhanced sense of empathy from all the different lives you’ve lived in movies and books, and if you’re not getting the chance to experience the loss of a loved character; if you’re not getting a chance to experience death, you’re going to be overwhelmed when it happens when a parent throws an embolism. And so, I think one of the great values of fiction is that it not only teaches us about love. It also has to teach us about loss and redemption.
DG: And that’s when you look at your great TV shows, the great episode of Star Trek is “City On The Edge Of Forever,” because even after it was rewritten, it’s still about love, loss, and redemption. And that’s why it’s a brilliant episode. It’s not just about going back in time and saving the future. It is really about— he finally meets a woman he truly falls in love with because, even though it’s the past, she understands the future that’s coming.
DG: And he falls for her, and it’s a true love story, as opposed to all the other episodes later on where he got laid. This was a true love story, and he has to lose her. And the last line of the episode is a killer line. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” And he’s bitter, and he’s angry, but at the same time you realize he has accepted that this is the way it has to be.
PW: Yeah, that episode is a real kick in the teeth. The resolution is kind of happy, but not exactly.
DG: Yeah, no, he saved the Enterprise, and from that point on, that Kirk is married to the Enterprise. And all of the other affairs he has have no dramatic value. After that it’s, “Yeah, he can get laid, but he’s already had his one great love.” Some people are lucky. They have two great loves in their life, but my own sense of it is that, if you get one great love in your life, you’re lucky.
PW: So I’ve got one quick question for you. “A Day in Beaumont” (from the 1980s reboot of the Twilight Zone). Did you have a part in the casting in that show? Because there’s so many nods to 1950s SF, and the writing and the casting—
DG: Well, it was always intended to be a pastiche of 1950s clichés. There were a couple in-jokes that got discarded along the way. One of my favorites was going to be a couple of the signs on the wall of the diner that changed. Early on it would say “plate of shrimp,” and then at the end it would say “plate of worms,” but that didn’t happen.
But the entire script was written as a pastiche of all of the great ’50s tropes, and they didn’t change much when they shot it. Phil De Guerre directed it, and for the longest time everybody thought it was, well, just a throwaway episode; even Harlan didn’t think much of it, and then the night it aired, he calls me and says, “David, this was a better script. This turned out a lot better than I expected it to.” So yeah, because Phil De Guerre understood what we were doing, and played it straight, which is exactly what it needed. I had no voice in the casting, though.
PW: The casting was wonderful because there’s a scene in the diner with Jeff Morrow’s sitting there, and John Agar is nearby, and he makes a sarcastic comment about a tarantula as large as a house, and it’s a reference to the 1955 film Tarantula that starred John Agar.
DG: Yeah, obviously, and that, I think, was Phil De Guerre and Harlan saying, “Well, let’s fill this with as many of the actors from the ’50s as we can get,” but I didn’t have a voice in the casting. The big joke about casting is— Dorothy Fontana and I were friends with Steven Macht, who’s just a marvelous, marvelous character actor, and we were at the Cirque du Soleil one time and she mentioned Steven Macht. I said, “Yeah, he’s a great actor,” and I look behind me and there’s a Steven Macht and his family sitting behind us as I turn around, so we had a great time chatting with Steven again. And I had always wanted to write a script for Steven Macht.
When I was doing Sliders, they said, “Are there any actors you want to suggest?” And I said, “No, I can’t think of anyone.” And so they cast a Steven Macht, and I said, “Ah, I’m glad you did because I’ve always wanted—,” so when I actually ran into him on the set, I said, “I’ve always wanted to write a script for you. I finally got a chance.” I don’t think I told him that it was accidental, but yeah, with a good actor, you really start thinking, “I’d love to—I can imagine this actor playing this part,” and it makes it a little easier to write the part.
For instance, one thing I was writing, I imagined Majel Barrett playing the part. We never sold it, though, but I always imagined that character as Majel Barrett, because Majel had an incredible presence. She had incredible elegance, and I don’t think anyone ever gave her all the opportunities she needed to really shine. I mean, Star Trek was fine, but I really think she needed to be in some big pictures.
PW: She was an amazing actress. Nurse Chapel was not the most well defined character after a great introduction.
DG: Yeah, and Lwaxana Troi was Eve Arden. I was like, okay, great. Thanks very much.
PW: Yeah, she was a bit over-the-top, although she was really good in that episode.
DG: She was good, yeah.
PW: I loved her in the episode with David Ogden Stiers where a planet’s people had to kill themselves at age 60. she fell in love with him.
DG: Look, you hand Majel a script and she is going to give you a great performance, no matter what is in the script. She is going to give you her best. And she had a lot of fun playing Lwaxana Troi.
PW: I could tell, yeah.
DG: But I always felt that she was capable of much better than the scripts gave her, but she always had that presence on screen as Nurse Chapel or whatever. She always had screen presence. So you can’t fault her. Like Cloris Leachman, who could have been a great dramatic actress, but got the comedy parts instead. She would go over the top if necessary. Frau Blucher. But she was in one of the last seasons of Hawaii 5-0 as a demented old lady, and the interesting thing about that is she made it work. It’s like, “Oh my God, that’s Cloris Leachman.” And she made it. It was a small part, but that thing we say, there are no small parts, only small actors. She made her scenes work. You ended up with enormous empathy for this dear little old lady.