In memoriam: D. C. Fontana, the creator of Mr. Spock from Star Trek

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
And so, the voice-over of Captain James Kirk would introduce each episode of Star Trek. From Thursday, September 8, 1966 to Tuesday, June 3, 1969, coming-of-age college students, such as this Kat, followed each of the 79 episodes, even if viewer ratings were never high. We prided ourselves on knowing all (or nearly all) of the episodes by name and in order (although I cannot recall whether that skill ever helped me at the Saturday night social).

Kat readers younger than I will have come to know the original series through broadcast syndication and, later, via internet access. Whatever the medium, for many, one character stood out, Starfleet officer Spock, as portrayed by Leonard Nimoy.

The son of a human mother and a Vulcan father, Spock embodied the tension between the emotional (his human side) and the analytical (his Vulcan side), a dichotomy that reaches back to the foundations of the Western philosophical tradition, and which sets the tone for the series.

Spock was largely the creation of an American television and screen writer, Dorothy Catherine (known as D.C.) Fontana, who passed away on December 2nd, at the age of 80. Fontana was a female pioneer as a television and screen writer, and her story not only reminds us of the creative enormity that was “Star Trek”, but the struggles endured by women at that time (only then?) seeking to find their way in the creative industries.

Fontana was raised by a single mother in New Jersey, dreaming of being a novelist. She went to college where, as The New York Times wrote, “she studied to be a secretary”, since she “thought that clerical work would be a good day job for an aspiring novelist.”

Indeed, she secured a secretarial position in New York at the television arm of Columbia Pictures, where she would see show scripts crossing the desk. It led to a Eureka movement, in her own words—
‘I can write this’, like so many fools before me. I had watched television for years and years and kind of got the idea of how stories were structured.
About that time, her boss at Columbia Pictures passed away, and Fontana found herself without a job. The decision was made: she would move to California and try her luck as a fledgling script writer. Modest success followed, as she managed to sell scripts for several now-forgotten television western series.

But that was long way from Star Trek and Mr. Spock. It was then that “fate”, or “opportunity”, depending on your point of view, kicked in. Fontana had been hired as a secretary to the associate producer of a series called “The Lieutenant” but found herself reassigned to fill as secretary for another producer, while his regular secretary was recovering from medical complications. That producer was Gene Roddenberry, the creator and producer of Star Trek.

Roddenberry had sold Star Trek to Desilu Productions. He asked her to stay on as a production secretary, as her remit began to expand. Fontana’s husband relates—
she would read the scripts and retype them and things like that. The she thought, ‘I should try writing these, because I have some ideas.'
Her creative ideas went into two directions. First was her specific development of the Spock character together with the history and culture of his Vulcan background, which became part and parcel of the character and central to the entire series. Second was her contributions as a script writer of various series episodes.

In this latter capacity, she wrote the script for the second episode of the series (from an idea by Roddenberry) of the series, “Charlie X”. She went to write, either from her own idea, or as a material rewrite, additional series episodes, including “Tomorrow Is Yesterday”, “Journey to Babel”, “Friday’s Child”, and “This Side of Paradise”.

She was one of the four writers of perhaps the most memorable episode from the original series, “The City at the Edge of Forever”, based on a story by Harlan Ellison. [This Kat is almost embarrassed to admit that he still recalls these episodes by name.]

“This Side of Paradise” had a special meaning for Nimoy and the Spock character. In it, Spock (even sometimes smiling) encounters emotions, especially the feeling of happiness, to the potential endangerment of the mission. Spock, ever the (part) Vulcan, declared that he was experiencing such emotion for the first time.

Through it all, there was the question of how Fontana would be credited for her contribution to a given episode. As she explained—
You either had to do a light polish, sometimes just on dialogue and then you took no credit for that of course, because it would not be fair, but when you really do a total script overhaul, then it has to automatically go into the Writers Guild for arbitration.
One wonders to what extent her gender influenced the ultimate decision how to credit her contribution. Indeed, her preference for “D.C. Fontana” over “Dorothy” (or “Dorothy Catherine”) might have been a concession to the challenge of being identified as a woman. Also, in the third season, she worked as a freelance scriptwriter and was credited as Michael Richards.

Fontana went on to have a distinguished career as a script writer in several genres (including westerns), as well as a producer and novelist. In the words of her husband—
She was a very, very tough lady. She carried a phaser with her right to the end.
But it was for her work on Star Trek and the development of the Spock character that she will likely be best remembered. In doing so, as The New York Times reported, Fontana realized only later to what extent-
she had gone where no woman had gone before.
Photo on left by Larry Nemecek and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

By Neil Wilkof

In memoriam: D. C. Fontana, the creator of Mr. Spock from Star Trek In memoriam: D. C. Fontana, the creator of Mr. Spock from Star Trek Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, December 06, 2019 Rating: 5

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