Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Dorothy Fontana (1939-2019)

She wrote a show about labels not mattering. And sometimes, labels matter, anyway. Hers did.

Symbolic of authority. Trustworthiness. The Final Word. But also complexity, choice, due process, and something essential to the apotheosis of the Enlightenment:


People called her Dorothy, but her voice was not that of a little girl lost and longing for Kansas. No, the voice belonged to DC, with all of the best that implies. Yes, yes, adopted because of industry sexism that said women had no place writing for television. (Unless you’re Violet Welles.) But it worked.

She wrote westerns. Medical programs. Martial arts stories. Period dramas and, of course, soaps. And even though she started off not being much on science fiction, her imagination, work ethic, and authorial prowess made her, arguably, the most valuable player on Gene Roddenberry’s team for the first two seasons of Star Trek (including the second episode), the inception of The Next Generation (co-writing or writing the first three hours of the show), and beyond to DS9 and Star Trek’s grumpy, beatnik neighbor, Babylon 5. (The latter of which is no more related to the Trek family as Ronan Farrow is to the Sinatras.) As consistently and doggedly as St. Gene Coon, she worked in the shadow of Roddenberry and others, actually delivering the final frontier and creating much of the core mythos. Not all of her episodes are standouts; some are timeclocking examples of filling airtime because RCA’s new color tv’s aren’t going to sell themselves. But they all are solid storytelling, solidly delivered, and help to give Star Trek the weekly substance to keep going. And that’s selling her short, so let’s not. As the author of “Journey to Babel,” she gave us the best parts of Spock and Sarek and the Vulcan culture not yet given to us by Gene Coon. Was responsible for popularizing the cloaking device. Helped to rescue “City on the Edge of Forever.” Fontana had an innate sense of dramatic stakes, pace, and gravitas while humanizing the characters with a uniquely sensitive and witty ear for dialogue. Many of Spock and Sarek’s exchanges in “Journey to Babel” cut terribly close.

Her best work for me is “This Side of Paradise.” Like “The Naked Time,” it uses the forced removal of inhibitions as a shortcut to learn about the characters. The nature of Kirk’s loss as he stands alone and helpless on the Enterprise, packed to reluctantly join the Spock and the crew, who’ve abandoned duty for happiness, is one of the show’s most quietly resonant images. Having established the Kirk/Spock dynamic, she twists it in the episode until we see that Kirk is the joyless adherent to order while Spock is the passionate and sybaritic half of the duo. Always have been. In the end, Kirk confronts his limited capacity for authentic joy while Spock must return to pretending he has none. There is too much truth here. It’s an episode of sweet joy, sad loss, and a solid meditation on the futility of drugs and easy escapes. If the characters are important to you, it’s mandatory viewing and poignant to a degree that eluded most TV shows of the era… and our own.

It’s also indicative of the kind of pop cultural nuttiness that Fontana would accidentally create… more than once. The episode became the basis for the Leonard Nimoy-written-and-sung song, “Once I Smiled,” which seems to be based on the episode. In it, you hear Nimoy say “monkey pup.” Thanks, Dorothy!

She was also at the center of a weird Catwoman crossover regarding Star Trek. In two separate episodes, she insinuates Catwomen into Kirk’s life. Julie Newmar appears in “Friday’s Child,” and Lee Meriwether appears in “That Which Survives.” Coincidence? We’re one Eartha Kitt away from a David Icke lecture. So, you tell me. Maybe it somehow connected to space hippies.   

In the “The Way to Eden,” she proved that she was totally not Herbert. You’re Herbert. She’s not Herbert. But you, you’re totally Herbert. In it, we got Charles Napier as the, yes, space hippie Adam who’s gonna crack his knuckles and jump for joy, because he got a clean bill of health from Dr. McCoy. This is writing. And I mean that. Sometimes you’re profound. Sometimes you’re paying the bills. Sometimes, in between, at the crossroads of deadlines and staying relevant, you make space hippies. She was a working writer, and there’s no apology for that. It’s what made her a spiritual kin to the writers of Star Trek’s “cousin show,” Dark Shadows, which explored many of the same themes of otherness and tolerance in the TV fantasy boom of the late Sixties.

She would have been right at home with the crossover between the shows. Kathryn Leigh Scott did it with TNG’s finest episode (yes, I said it), “Who Watches the Watchers.” Mitch Ryan did it with BMX armor on in “The Icarus Factor.” Art Wallace went so far as to sneak off to do a backdoor pilot in “Assignment: Earth.” And it goes both ways. Rob Bowman, a seasoned TNG director, slipped over to Greystone to direct two episodes of the 1991 Dark Shadows. That was before he helped to ruin the 2004 pilot of the WB Dark Shadows by abandoning it to direct Elektra.

You know who didn’t ruin the 2004 pilot to the WB Dark Shadows? You know who didn’t direct Elektra? Yep. Dorothy Fontana.

She was more than just that. Voice of reason. Consummate professional and storyteller, it would be easy to speculate that Star Trek would have perished (several times and far too soon) without her ability to dream on demand. Given Star Trek’s influence on the arts, humanities, and sciences, we owe her.

Dorothy is at rest. Long live DC.

- Patrick McCray

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