D. C. Fontana: The Woman Behind Star Trek
Matthew J. Healy
A television series is only as good as its creative team. Star Trek is no exception. For 50 years now the franchise has been a cultural phenomenon, pulling in new fans with each new incarnation. The original series (1966-1969) pioneered many things and seriously went where no TV series, of the time, had gone before. It presented a unique view of the future where humanity had put their differences aside and explored the galaxy peacefully in starships. Our hero ship, the USS Enterprise, was led by Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) with Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) not too far behind. A big behind the scenes imprint came from writer D. C. Fontana. Not only did she write some of the most notable episodes, but she held a position very few women had in the male-dominated era of 1960s Hollywood.
Dorothy Catherine Fontana was born in Sussex, New Jersey, on the 25th of March, 1939. From an early age, Fontana had a great love for reading and writing. She would read whatever she could get her hands on and write short stories and plays, acting them out with friends. Her other great love was the western film genre. This love would go on to play a significant part in her writing style and television career, where she wrote for many series such as The Tall Man, Frontier Circus, The Road West and The Big Valley.
After completing a degree at Fairleigh Dickinson University, majoring in Executive Secretarial, Fontana moved to New York City where she became a junior secretary for the president of a television studio. Her position at Screen Gems didn’t last long as the president fell ill and passed away. With no job waiting, Fontana moved back home. She then tried her luck in Los Angels. She landed employment in the typing pool at Revue Studios. Along with a group of other secretaries, Fontana typed up documents for producer Samuel A. Peeples.
One day Fontana tried her luck pitching a story idea to Peeples. This was her first sell; she was 21-years-old. As time went on, Fontana continued her secretarial responsibilities during the day and wrote at night. She was dedicated making sure neither affected the other. Fontana followed Peeples to the production of The Lieutenant. Here she met Gene Roddenberry for the first time. When filming was wrapping up – The Lieutenant wouldn’t be returning for a second season – Roddenberry slid a document across a desk towards Fontana. He asked her what she thought. The document was the original network pitch for Star Trek.
Around the time she started on Star Trek, Fontana had some stories knocked back from other television series due to gender bias. Male producers rejected her proposals when seeing a woman’s name on the document. She changed her screen credit from “Dorothy C. Fontana” to “D. C. Fontana”. From then on when she met producers for the first time, they were surprised to find a woman behind the script. Many got over the initial shock as they only wanted a good story for their show.
While submitting pitches to other shows (she was quite successful), Fontana focused the majority of her attention on Star Trek. She was still a secretary when Gene Roddenberry asked her to write an episode. “Charlie X” was the second episode of the show to air on television. Fontana penned many notable episodes such as “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, “This Side of Paradise” and “Journey to Babel”. Roddenberry noticed Fontana had a unique understanding of Star Trek and promoted her to story editor. She juggled the responsibilities of the position while still writing episodes. It was extremely rare for a woman to hold such a title as story editor in the mid-60s. Fontana fleshed out much of the Vulcan race’s history and added a lot to Mr. Spock’s background.
Fontana left the production of Star Trek towards the end of the second season. She would write two episodes, including “The Enterprise Incident”, as a freelancer for the third season. Fontana felt she had done all she could on Star Trek and wanted to explore other writing opportunities in Hollywood.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Fontana wrote for shows such as Bonanza, The Six Million Dollar Man, Logan’s Run, Dallas and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. She contributed one episode to the short lived Star Trek animated series, “Yesteryear”. Fontana also started getting further involved with the American Writer’s Guild. She and others felt there was hardly any female representation in the industry and formed the women’s committee. At the time the guild was made up of 90% men and 10% women. Fontana would serve as a board member for the Guild in the late 1980s.
Gene Roddenberry approached Fontana for the production of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the late 1980s. She co-wrote the pilot, “Encounter at Far Point,” with Roddenberry and, again, served as story editor for the show. She pitched a number of ideas and wrote a few episodes for the first season. Fontana and other Star Trek production veterans left the show early on due to conflicts with Roddenberry. Fontana’s Star Trek days weren’t over just yet. The episode “Dax” was written for the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1993. Fontana also wrote three episodes for Babylon 5, another sci-fi series set on a space station.
Since 1998 Fontana has been teaching screenwriting at the American Film Institute. She gives this advice to aspiring writers: “…you can listen to experts tell you how to do it…but you have to write. You have to put the words on the page. You’re the one who has to tell the story”.
Fontana retired from professional screenwriting in 2009. She continues to teach and attends the occasional Star Trek convention.
D.C. Fontana - IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0284894)
D.C. Fontana - Memory Alpha (http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/D.C._Fontana)
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Dorothy Fontana, Part 1 (http://www.startrek.com/article/exclusive-interview-dorothy-fontana-part-1)
Star Trek Fontana, Dorothy (D.C.) (http://www.startrek.com/database_article/fontana)
Writer Speaks: D.C. Fontana, The (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCSp8TnnbNU)