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David Gerrold Interview - Part 1

Posted: 7/26/2004
By David Lambert

In Part 1 of a 3-part interview, David Gerrold talks about why he doesn't write using his birth name, how his career got started on something called Star Trek, and tells us quite a bit about Land of the Lost.


Let's start at the very, very, very beginning. According to the IMDB you were born in 1944, under the name Jerrold Freedman [Note: The IMDB spells it wrong; it's Friedman - D. Lambert].

David GerroldThat's right.

So why don't you use that name?

Too long for the marquee, and it turns out there was another Jerrold Freedman [spelled with two e's] in the Writer's Guild at that time.

Okay, I knew about him, and he's done some work on the Night Gallery, and also Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Bold Ones, even The X-Files...

Yep, and apparently he owns a gun, because at one point I got a visit from the police.

Oh, really? (Laughs)

Yeah. He didn't DO anything; it's just that they were doing background checks on some murder case.

Ah! Then I take it you two have never actually met face-to-face, or compared notes.

I think we exchanged a couple of letters, but I don't think we ever met.

Hmmm. So, how did you basically get your start in writing?

Well, you know the story is told in my book The Trouble With Tribbles [freely downloadable here]. Essentially, there was this show that came on, Star Trek, and I thought, "Gee, I hope they don't screw it up, because science fiction is so hard to do right." And so I had been doing theater arts. I knew script format because I had taken several script-writing courses already. So I submitted some outlines and the next thing I knew I was writing "The Trouble With Tribbles" for Star Trek. And that was really how it started. And then after that I wrote books for a while. Having the Star Trek script was such a strong credential in the science fiction community that I could just about sell anything, anywhere. Which was good for my wallet, but wasn't the best way to learn writing, being able to sell everything. You really need to have editors reject some of your work for a while, so you can learn what works and what doesn't work. So, some of my worst mistakes got published.

What would you consider some of your worst mistakes?

Some of my short stories. The books usually turned out pretty good, but some of the short stories were a little sloppy. But nobody noticed, because we were in the middle of something called "The New Wave". In which you could say, "Oh, well that's New Wave!" to explain your sloppiness. So in '73 Star Trek came back as an animated series and I was asked to come in and do some scripts for the animated Star Trek. And so I did.

So we were doing the animated Star Trek, and that was over at Filmation. After that wrapped, Lou Scheimer, who was head of Filmation, asked me to do some scripts for a proposed Tarzan series for NBC. Those turned out nicely, and NBC came back to me, and asked me if I would go over to help the Kroffts with a show they had just bought for NBC called Land of the Lost. So I went over and met Sid and Marty, and Sid had this book of pictures. And he said, "There's this family, and they fall down a waterfall, and there's dinosaurs, and monkey-people, and a couple of other things." They said, "Can you do something with this?" And I said, "Oh yeah, I can make this work." 'Cause I mean it was all the standard tropes [Note: a "trope" is a metaphor - D. Lambert] from science fiction, very easy to adapt. And they had a Tarzan mystery man, and I said "we'll have to lose him because that's a conflict of interest for me, because I just did a Tarzan, so we'll make this guy for second season." Then I introduced the Lost City and created the Sleestak, so we would have a continuing menace, a continuing threat. What they asked for was a one-hour pilot. And I knew that we weren't going to shoot a one-hour pilot, we were gonna shoot half-hour episodes, so I wrote two half-hour episodes and called that the one-hour pilot. And they liked it, and I came aboard as story editor, and was in charge of hiring writers and deciding what stories to write.

So the two half-hours were "Cha-Ka" and "The Sleestak God", right?

That's right. And in fact I did commentaries on both those episodes for the DVD set.

Which came out this past June 29th. I know you've been waiting for that release for 3 or 4 years.

Um, I've been waiting a long time, because I've never had a set of all the episodes I worked on. Not even on VHS, so this is very exciting.

I bet! When the animated series for Star Trek closed down, several Trek-related folk ended up over at The Land of the Lost. Not just you but D.C. [Dorothy] Fontana...

That was my doing.

That was your doing?

Yeah. I was in charge of hiring the writers and deciding what stories, and I made up my mind that the smartest thing to do was the thing that had made Star Trek's first season so great: is to bring in science fiction writers who knew the genre.

Very smart.

Because if you look at the first season of Star Trek, you've got these really great SF names there. And so I said, "Let me see how many great SF writers I can get for Land of the Lost." And I started with Dorothy, and I got Walter [Koenig] to do one for me, and Ben Bova and Norman Spinrad, and I asked Ted Sturgeon, and he didn't but his wife Wina did. It was the Star Trek influence. The first season of Star Trek, Harlan Ellison worked very closely with Roddenberry for a while arguing that Star Trek needed real science fiction writers to be involved. And so of course the difficulty in those days, and even today, is that there was the perception - justified - that science fiction writers couldn't do scripts, because what they wrote couldn't be filmed. You know, they would write about spaceships and monsters and this and that, and of course right there the special effects budget goes out the window.

Not to mention at the time a lot of special effects were darn near impossible because CGI didn't exist yet.

Yeah, what you could imagine in your head you couldn't show on the screen! Peoples' imaginations were so much more vivid than anything you could put in a movie anyway. So there was this difficulty of some people could write scripts, some people could write science fiction, but finding someone who could do both was very difficult. But Harlan recommended some people, Roddenberry found some others, and they had stories by Fred Brown, George Clayton Johnson, Jerome Bixby, Richard Matheson, Harlan of course, Norman Spinrad...

You're naming Star Trek writers at this time...

I'm naming Star Trek writers, who all knew their science fiction. Who had significant science fiction credits, and could also do scripts. Max Ehrlich, Robert Bloch...

And some of these guys you also got into the act on the animated Star Trek.

Yeah, Sam Peeples was a good one.

And Larry Niven did a great story...

Well, that comes back to the same thing. By then, Dorothy Fontana knew Larry Niven, and so when it was time to do the animated Star Trek, she was a BIG fan of Larry's, and said, "Gee, I'd love to get a Larry Niven story, could we adapt one of your stories, Larry?" And that's when the deal was made.

And he even crossed it over, the Star Trek universe with his Kzin universe!

Yeah, and that was very, very good, and by the time we got to '73 and '74 we had done enough conventions, we had talked enough about why Star Trek worked so well, that we had learned the rap. That one of the reasons why Star Trek worked was because of the use of real science fiction writers or people who had lived the science fiction as part of, you know...people who were science-fiction-aware. And so when it came time to do Land of the Lost, I said to myself, "I'm going to get the very best writers that I can, and because this is essentially a science fiction show, I'm going to get science fiction writers." And so I got Ben Bova, Norman Spinrad...I even invited Harlan to participate, but he declined, unfortunately. Actually, he wrote an outline, which was brilliant! Two acts of brilliance, and then you turn the page and on the third page it says "trust me, I tie it all up neatly in the third act!" And I said, "Listen, you son of a bitch, if I thought I could get this past NBC, I'd buy it on the spot. But NBC won't buy it without a third act. And I KNOW what you did! I know you're doing this on purpose!" And he laughed. But Ben Bova was there that night and asked, "Can I write one?" "Sure, I'd love to have you do one!" And Ben ended up writing an episode.

So what ever happened to the Harlan episode?

Well, I still have the outline somewhere in my files, and Harlan has given me permission to include it when I write my memoir about Land of the Lost. So, I'm trying to think who else I got. Ted Sturgeon! I invited Ted, who I knew would give me a great story, and I knew that he always needed money, but he didn't, and instead his wife came up with a very Sturgeon-esque story, and so I bought from her. And she was something of a local radio personality in those days, so she was working in the industry, she knew format and everything, she was no problem to work with. She was very professional. I brought aboard Margaret Armen. Margaret Armen was my only disappointment: she was late, and the script she turned in was not as good as I'd hoped.

I'll have to apologize, I'm not sure I readily recognize that name.

Margaret Armen did a couple of Star Trek episodes. And I was very disappointed. I liked Margaret a great deal; she's a sweet lady, but she apparently had some other obligations, or something, and I was going to wait one more day. I got on the phone, "Margaret where's your script? Where's your script? We need it! It's our third episode!" And I was about ready to just cut her off and write it myself, but finally she turned it in and I had to do a hasty re-write on it. And I don't mean to put her down, because she is a sweet lady, or she was a sweet lady. But that was the only thing, and it wasn't a major "Oh, my God, the world's coming to an end!" problem. Although Marty Krofft was a little upset that the script was late. But on the scale of upset, 10 being the worst, 10 being the studio burning down, this was like maybe a 3 or a 4. It's "I can solve this problem, it's not a problem, but I wish I didn't really HAVE to solve this problem right now." You know, that kind of thing. You want to fix the loose mailbox, but you've got to first find a screwdriver, and when you go looking for the screwdriver, you find that the handle on the junk drawer is broken, and when you go looking for the glue...you know, it's one of those kinds of things? Anyway, I'm making much too much of this.

No, it's okay! Just a quick question before we move on. You said she "was" a nice lady; I take it she's passed away?

Yeah, just last year. I never felt she was a great science fiction writer, but we brought her aboard at Dorothy Fontana's recommendation that she had been good at Star Trek. And Dorothy was agitating that I needed to hire women writers, and she was right. As it happens, I hired Wina Sturgeon, Joyce Perry, Margaret Armen, Dorothy Fontana, and there may have been one more. So I hired more women writers than most story editors did.

You mentioned Harlan Ellison...

Harlan didn't come aboard, and neither did Ted Sturgeon, but I got Norman Spinrad, Walter Koenig, who although most people think of him as an actor, he's quite a good writer, too. Ben Bova, as I said, Wina Sturgeon...there were a couple of young science fiction writers we wanted to bring aboard, but we weren't able to for logistics reasons at the time. I wanted to get a J. Michael Reaves story, but there was a logistics circumstance there. Let me think who else. But I think the best writer, the one who I was the most privileged to bring aboard, was Dorothy Fontana. I mean, it was a thrill to work with so many good people, but Dorothy was the best. I also brought aboard Dick Morgan. Now this was a very funny situation. My agent called and said, "There's a writer I want you to hire." I said, "Excuse me?" He says, "C'mon, you know, I got you this job, you have to do this." "But you didn't get me this job; NBC got me this job!" "All right, but there's a writer you want to hire." I said, "Why?" He said, "His name is Dick Morgan and he worked on the original Space Patrol." I asked, "How many scripts does he want?"

(Laughs)

So I said, "Bring him over! Send him over!" And I think he did three for me. I know he did at least two. And he came over, and we reminisced about Space Patrol for about 45 minutes, and I said, "Okay, here's your first assignment: I want you to do this, this, this, and this." And I said, "I've outlined this story in my head, and it works like this, but I'm not sure how to resolve it...maybe something like this." "Oh, no problem," and he comes back, and he brings it back perfect, with everything that I outlined. Now basically it was this idea about this lost diary that the kids would find, and that they would follow the diary and it would explain a great deal of the Land of the Lost, by somebody who had been there already. And that gave us the opportunity to also to explain who wrote "Beware of the Sleestak" on that pillar. "Beware of the Sleestak" was written on the pillar because I had named them "Sleestak", and then the NBC Vice President decided that we needed a linguist to make up the Paku language.

Which there's actually a dictionary of on the DVD set.

Yeah, and I was a little bit perturbed, because I felt that this was an "All right...fine!" situation. But she came back with a language where the Pakuni couldn't pronounce H or L. And our people were named Will, Holly, and Marshall, and the Pakuni can't pronounce the names, so they pronounce it "Wera, Arri, and Marshar" or something like that. All right, fine, but what's the word for "Sleestak", then? How do they pronounce "Sleestak"? Oh, "Sarisataka". Okay, fine...but then how do we know that the Sleestak are called "Sleestak"? You know, I'm doing the Story Editor thing. I mean, these are Sleestak, how do we know they're called "Sleestak"? And she says, "Oh, we'll put a note on the pillar! We'll paint it on the pillar: Beware of Sleestak!" "Right...who painted it, then?" And they're giving me these "Why are you making trouble for us?" looks.

(Laughs) How dare you make the story logical?

Yeah, I said, "Why did you make her [the linguist] the final word? I thought I was the Story Editor here? Can't we just change the language?" "No, no, no; she did that." "Okay, fine." So, when we came to this particular story, the kids go through and find the diary and go through it, then you find out who painted "Beware of the Sleestak" on the pillar, and that was how I solved the problem of "how do we know they're called Sleestak".

Which, as a viewer, I would ask the question then, "Who gave HIM (the diary-writer) the word Sleestak?"

Don't go there!

(Laughs) Sorry!

No, but actually it was a Revolutionary War soldier who named them after a particularly unlikable officer named John Sleestak. So they were named after an officer he hated.

Was that actually in the story?

It was in the story, I think.

Okay, it's been so long since I've watched them. But that will change, now that I've got the set!

That was Dick Morgan's first story; I think that was "Follow That Dinosaur". And he did a marvelous job! He evoked in the diary a Revolutionary War flavor. It was just a very, very nice job, and so I put him right to work on the next one. And he really had the sense of The Land of the Lost, as good as any writer who we ever hired. But Dorothy's script is one of my favorites, coming back to Dorothy. Because she did one of the scripts for Star Trek Animated, where Spock goes back in time and meets himself as his younger self. Called "Yesteryear". And I said, "I want you to do the same story for Land of the Lost and turn it inside-out: Holly meets her future self! She finds her future self, and gets her advice. And we called that "Elsewhen". Dorothy did that story, and I actually think the "Elsewhen" episode has some strength to it that the "Yesteryear" episode didn't, because it was trapped in the Star Trek universe.

The fun part about the whole thing, or funny part about the whole thing, is Dorothy wrote the script and she comes to me and says, "Instead of casting a beautiful young woman, could we cast a 40-year-old woman for the part?" And I said, "Write it that way, but I can't promise you it will be cast that way, but just write it that way." So she wrote it, turned it in, everybody loved the script, and we're sitting there in a meeting and Marty Krofft turned to me and said, "Does it have to be a 40-year-old woman? Can it be a young, beautiful chick?" And I said, "Marty, you're going to cast it in whatever way makes you happy. Dorothy wrote it that way because that's what she wanted to do; I know you're going to cast it whatever way." So he cast it as a young, beautiful woman, and I didn't care one way or the other because I felt the script was so strong that it didn't make any difference. And also, you know, from one perspective, little girls want to imagine that they are going to grow up to be a young, beautiful woman. I would have liked to have stayed true to Dorothy's vision, but I was fine with it the way it turned out.

It sounds like Dorothy was a very strong, what was called a feminist at the time.

Not really, no. She was a quiet activist. She believed in producing results, and results were the way you created change. She didn't believe in making speeches, she believed in improving things by results. She was absolutely correct at the time, and she racked up enough credits to prove that a woman writer could be just as good as a man; sometimes even better.

Is she still writing today?

Oh, absolutely! I had called her and said, "You know they cast a young beautiful woman. We both knew that was going to happen." She said, "Yeah." But the story was strong, so we weren't unhappy about that. My biggest upset about this show is that Denny Steinmetz started re-writing scripts behind my back. He didn't come to me and say, "I want you to change this". He just started doing re-writes on his own. And so a lot of times a writer or I had carefully worked out a rhythm of language, a whole way of playing a scene, and the dialogue got dumbed down, and sometimes interesting dialogue was replaced by filler dialogue like [imitates Holly's voice], "Daddy, DO something!" or "Oh my God, what's happening?" And that's not interesting dialogue. What's interesting to the viewer is where Holly would say, "It looks like the big dinosaur is trying to eat the little dinosaur". THAT gives the viewer a bit of interpretation, but Denny was dumbing down the script, and that was not only an insult to me, but it was an insult to every writer. Because he wasn't a writer, in fact he was a director, and I felt he should have kept his hands off the scripts and asked for changes rather than doing them himself.

Did you ever actually do something about it? Confront him?

No. Well, once I told him, and he said, "Well, I'm the Producer now, and that's it" and I said, "All right, fine". And I left it at that.

And you weren't with the show for the entire run.

No, I was there for just the entire first season. It was very funny: in '73 I had published the Trouble With Tribbles book, and I was working all of '74 on Land of the Lost, and very, very carefully saving my pennies, because I wanted to buy a house. And I had it all worked out that if everything worked out just fine, I would able to buy the house and actually the mortgage payments would end up being less than my rent payments. But making the mortgage and everything was gonna be tight, so I was really trying to sock money into the bank for the initial down payment. So the last week that I was on Land of the Lost, well not quite the last week, but whenever it was, I get my royalty check from Ballantine Books for The World of Star Trek and The Trouble With Tribbles, and it was an ungodly amount of money...almost enough to pay for the house in cash!

Oh, boy!

So I was like, "That takes a load off my mind!" It's what they call in the industry, "fuck you money". And I was real pissed, not at the show, but at the circumstance where I had worked so hard on the scripts and then - behind my back - they were being re-written, which I felt was a betrayal of trust. And the funny thing is, is Marty Krofft and I always had a good relationship. He once said to me, he looked me in the eye and he said, "Your problem, David, is you're too smart. You're too smart for your own good." So he and I both knew that I was trying to raise the intelligence level of the show, and he didn't have any objection to that.

But they saw it just as Saturday-morning fun.

Well, a lot of the people working on the show, and I'm not naming names, approached it as a job. Denny Steinmetz came off of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, which was a, "Let's get Rip Taylor to do a double-whammy, a triple-whammy, with a flip-flap folderol, and we got that, okay, move on, now we need Billy Barty to do a run-around in a bit." And that was it, because Sigmund and the Sea Monsters wasn't real storytelling on the level of The Land of the Lost. And what I wanted Land of the Lost to be, and I said going in, and I said it to Marty, I said, "I'm going to do a prime-time level of storytelling, I don't care what the budgets are. If you tell me that we can only afford to do this, then those are the levels of stories we will get. But I will do a prime-time level of storytelling." And I believe, to an enormous degree, we succeeded, because of the very fact that we are doing this interview now. And the very fact that if you look on Amazon and look at the reader reviews, where people call it the very best Saturday morning show ever, I think that is the direct acknowledgement of the quality of the storytelling, and nothing else.

And I will be the first to agree.

Thank you. You know, I very rarely toot my own horn, or pat myself on the back, but where I take credit is that I set out to get the best writers, and the best stories, and I'm very proud of the fact that we did some really good stories! I liked "Stone Soup," I liked "Circle," I thought "Possession" was fun, "Downstream" was a funny one, Larry Niven talks about it on the DVD set. That he wanted a miner '49er with a gun, but NBC didn't want the kids to be able to see anything that they might imitate. So we couldn't have the guy be an old-time western guy with a gun, so we turned him into a Civil War veteran with a cannon, Old Betsy [old Sarah, actually - D. Lambert], and Walker Edmiston played the part. And Joe Taritero, the NBC Vice President, stuck his head into my office and said, "I know what you did here." (Laughs) "With the cannon." I said, "Well, Joe, you told me I couldn't use the gun, you didn't tell me I couldn't use a cannon!" I mean, we couldn't tell the story without some kind of weapon. How did this guy survive the Sleestak? And the story I'm fond of telling is, that I said to Joe, "You know, there's a scene in Larry Niven's script where Will picks up the gun, and Rick Marshall says, 'Will, give me the gun; guns are dangerous, and unless you've been properly trained, you mustn't touch the gun.' " And I said, "We should keep that, because it's a moral. The story has a moral." And Joe says, "There ARE no morals at NBC!" And there's this dead silence in the room, and me - never being one to miss a punchline - just sort of says, "Can I have that one in writing?" And relations between Joe and I were a little bit chilly for a while after that.

(Laughing hysterically)

Joe knew that I had taken an adversary position, but it wasn't an adversary position in the fact that I was fighting him; it was an adversary position in that I was fighting for the success of the show.

Well, he should have recognized that you were playing Devils' advocate.

We had a wonderful story idea; I talked about this on the DVD set. We were going to do an episode called "The Littlest Sleestak," where we find Sleestak eggs. And we hatch them. And we went through several different variations of "The Littlest Sleestak" outline, and finally Joe said, "We are not going to do this story in any way, shape, or form. There is no way we are going to do a story about baby Sleestak. Stop trying to do this story."

Because...? What reason did he give?

I don't think he wanted to get involved in stories of discussions about how the Sleestak breed. And essentially we had baby Sleestak, and Sleestak didn't care much about their offspring until after they've been trained. And so they were just as willing to eat their babies or something. And we toned that way down, because that didn't fly, we toned it down, and I was gonna suggest that the thing at the bottom of the pit, which we never did see, was either a Sleestak Queen that was laying eggs, or a little tiny thing that makes all these big noises...we're afraid that there's something humongous at the bottom of the pit. Which we were supposed to see more than once. But at the bottom of the pit, when we finally got down there, we find out that it's like a six-pound little terrier. But we never got around to shooting that; I was saving that for the second season, I think.

And then, of course, you weren't there.

Nah, I wasn't there. I understand the second season was quite good, too. I give the credit for that to Tom Swale and Dick Morgan, who you know. Again, Dick Morgan had the story sense, and Tom Swale was great. They were both good guys, and I had nothing but high praise for them.

So you feel enormously proud of this season that you did.

I think the first season of The Land of the Lost accomplished a lot of things that I would be proud of on any TV series. The first is that we had a story arc. Every episode was a complete adventure, but we still had a story arc so that you felt that every week, every episode, there was a new piece of technology. Like the cart, or something else that had they had added to the high bluff cave. Or there was something else that they knew about the Land of the Lost. Every week. And the indication was that the family had learned something in the intervening time. So that was the first thing, was that we actually had a story arc. The second thing is that we had a progression that every week you learned something new about the Land of the Lost, every week we revealed another secret. So that by the end of the first season you had a pretty good idea of what this whole thing was all about. And then, finally, I didn't know if the show was going to be renewed, and I didn't want the viewers hanging, so I wrote the last episode [of the season], "Circle", as a way of tying the whole thing in a knot. So that people will say, "Did they ever get out of the Land of the Lost? Yes, here, they get out of the Land of the Lost. But also, there's all these other stories that took place before they got out." So we actually had a last episode; I planned it that way. And most shows don't, they get cancelled, and so what?

And so what? So a lot of viewers get left hanging, and you thought ahead beyond that. And that was also to your credit.

You know, you never know which episode is going to turn into your "magic episode". The one that people talk about the most. The one that's going to be your big one. Like "The Trouble With Tribbles" is one of the most important episodes of Star Trek.

And you never dreamed of it at the time!

Yeah! Nobody thought, "This is going to be our signature episode"! Nobody thought in those terms. But if they had realized it, they would have had a whole different attitude about everything involved in the production. And I think that says that you've got to treat every episode of every show as being important, because you have no idea a year down the line what the audience is going to react to.

Exactly!

An episode of Star Trek that I absolutely loathed, and I won't mention it, but it was a third-season episode. But a LOT of the fans loved that episode, or at least an aspect of it.


Part 2 is available now.
In the 2nd part of our 3-part interview, David talks about his clash with the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, his influences from Harlan Ellison & Theodore Sturgeon, and the adoption of his son Sean.

Part 3 will be posted on Friday, 7/30/2004.
Our interview concludes as David discusses his television history, what REALLY happened to his participation on Star Trek: TNG, and we take a look at a library of DVDs that cover one TV writer's career.


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