There are just a couple of things on my mind that (in light of earlier posts and responses) I want to share before I get back to the various pieces of work I need to be doing today.

Re whatever might have been going on in the ST:TNG offices as the first season got underway: I suspect the full story would probably take nearly as long to tell as it took to unfold. I’ve only heard bits and pieces of the story from those who were there, and I got a sense at the time that the people involved were trying to put it all behind them and didn’t want to go into tons of detail.

This I’ll say, though — and it must be clearly understood to be just my theory, one for which I have little concrete evidence, but am basing on gut feeling and later experience elsewhere. I have this feeling that all the trouble boiled down to money, one way or another, and the influence that given amounts of the green stuff have on any given project in Hollywood.

The more money is involved in something, the more people start to have a say in what’s happening to it and where it goes (since often they’re the sources of the money to begin with), and the more people start mixing in and trying to wrest the context in which the money’s being used into shapes that will serve their own agendas, whatever those might be. For the first time, I think, (televised) Trek was perceived as being about to have truly serious amounts of money thrown at it. (I leave the films out of this equation at the moment, as film and TV hold two very different and separate niches of importance and power in Hollywood.)

This being the case, and Trek having the (even then) considerable effect on popular culture that it’s had, the scrum and scramble for power and influence over the unfolding project would have started very quickly — as inevitable as the jostling and clambering-over-each-other in a bucket of crabs. I have seen this elsewhere since then, from the inside, in other productions; and always the cause of the trouble (or the cause of the lack of it) has been the amount of money involved. The more money, the more severe the agida. From this end of time, this realization leaves me suspecting that the same thing was going on in the ST offices, at root. For details of who did what to whom at the time, and why, and how, those interested are probably going to have to look elsewhere: I have only my one data point to contribute…and a certain reluctance to stir the pot.

But the money thing… Let me suggest a backwards diagnostic that I’ve found useful from the writer’s point of view. You can always tell how much money is being spent on a project, and how hard people are fighting over where it goes, by how many notes you get, and from whom, and how hard they are to deal with.

For those who may have missed the definition in an earlier post, “notes” is the code word for the suggestions (read “mandatory corrections”, usually) that the production staff above the writer in the food chain hand back to that writer after reading the submitted material. (This is not like writing a book, where you don’t have to do what your editor tells you. Notes carry more weight.) Sometimes you get notes as a memo or an e-mail, sometimes (in more informal settings) as literal notes scribbled in the margins of what you’ve turned in. Sometimes you’re given them in a meeting, or a phone call, during which you either scribble them down at top speed and hope not to miss anything, or else record the session (if your story editor or producer doesn’t mind) and play it back later. Then you rewrite your material, taking into account the notes that you’ve been given: doing what they say, insofar as your creative instincts allow you: arguing about the stuff you don’t think works, or can’t be made to work as the notes suggest: sometimes ignoring one point or another in hopes that the person(s) who gave you that note will just forget about it. (It happens. There are people who give you notes Just Because They Can: notes are their power trip, their assertion of their “rightful” position higher up in the creative food chain than yours.)

Then you turn your rewritten work back in, and inevitably, there are more notes on that draft. And so it will go from beginning to end, from premise to final draft script.

(Brief joke here: I very occasionally “dream true” — predicting some minor thing that’s going to happen, rarely anything of interest to anyone but me. These dreams have a specific feel to them, one I’ve learned to pay attention to: and when someone gives me advice in one of these dreams, I’ve learned to work hard, on awakening, to remember what that was. It usually pays off. In this regard, a number of years ago I had one of these dreams, and into it walked the much-missed, much-loved Filmation producer and story editor, Art Nadel — mentor and friend to a lot of the younger animation talent who were working in LA in the early 80’s. I was surprised that he should turn up, because Art had died some time earlier, and in the dream I remembered this. “Art,” I said, “I’m really glad to see you!” “I’m glad to see you too,” he said: and he smiled. “And now I have some notes.” …I woke myself up laughing out loud: first of all because Art was always fun to be around: and secondly, because I knew the dream had to be a “true” one, because Art was going to give me notes.)

You get used to the notes over time, truly: and to dealing with them. (Or, if you’re smart, you get out of TV and film before you are driven completely loopy.) Sometimes the notes infuriate you, and you fight as hard as you can to avoid doing what they say. Sometimes you acquiesce to what they require of you as gracefully as you can, because you realize — sometimes very belatedly — that the person giving you the notes was really right. Sometimes you acquiesce as gracefully as you can because, though the other person is incredibly wrong, there’s nothing you can do about it: that person outranks you, and you and your job will be toast in minutes if you rock the boat too hard. In this regard I have a few (until now) unwritten rules which have served me fairly well so far.

Unwritten Note Rule 1: The more money made by the person who gave you the note, the more attention you have to pay.

UNR 2: The more highly placed in the production entity the person is who gave you the note, the more attention you have to pay.

UNR 3: when notes given you by separate people are at odds, you follow the lead of the more highly positioned / better paid of the two, and let them fight it out if they need to.

It’s always a tightrope walk…or maybe better thought of as a gauntlet that you have to run through with every draft. Or, if you’re lucky and your production staffers and higher-ups are good people who’re genuinely trying to improve something which they want to turn out well, it’s a dance: everyone moves through patterns of agreement or civil disagreement, alliances form and shift from day to day as new people are added to the project or drop out of it. Your co-story editor may agree with you that one of your executive producers is insane, and you may band together to make sure that you only get notes from the other one, the sane one. Or you and your producers may agree that there are some of another producer’s notes that you don’t need to pay attention to, they’ll sort that person out themselves. But at all times…the money talks, and you have to listen to it. The more money is being spent, the harder you listen when dealing with the notes.

And another thing: you always get notes. Not to get notes suggests that you are on another planet. Or possibly working for the BBC in some dim and golden past.

I had this happen while working on an educational show called “Science Challenge”, in the early 1990’s. I had it happen repeatedly, to the point that I began to doubt my sanity. I would turn in a script, and my producers would say “Fine, let’s go.” They seemed to have this weird idea that a writer could be trusted to, you know, write. Sometimes the phone would ring and my producer would say, “You know, we’re shooting episode six this afternoon, and it looks like we’re going to come up three minutes short: can you fax us over a few more pages?” “Sure,” I would say, and I’d write three more pages, and fax them over, and they would shoot them. Very, very unreal. After years of working in Hollywood on and off, I would pinch myself. Planet BBC was a very different place from Planet Hollywood. (I understand this has changed, alas.) But at the bottom of this unusual behavior was, you guessed it, the money. Or lack of it. BBC productions were famous for being run on a shoestring: why do you think the old Dr. Who always ended up in the same gravel pit in Wales (or wherever) when they needed a ravaged alien landscape? (When I first started working for the Beeb, I spent some time walking around the neighborhood of the building where my producers were, and laughed again and again as I recognized background after background from Monty Python. Why go any distance to shoot when you have perfectly serviceable suburbia three blocks away? Waste of money…)

The notes are always about the money. The other end of the dear-Ghod(dess)-they-shot-what-I-wrote spectrum is the OMG-how-am-I-supposed-to-reconcile-all-these-idiotic-ideas?! end: the situation you get into when you’re involved with a multimillion-euro multiple-co-production-partner operation like Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King (aka Die Nibelungen, aka many, many other names in many many markets). Some of the notes that came down from our coproduction partners were beyond surreal…yet they all had to be dealt with somehow, because they were giving us the money to make the thing in the first place. Peter and I were lucky in that our producers at Tandem Communications, Rola and Tim, were smart and sane people, good friends, genuinely committed to making something worth watching. They were our lifeline on that project (and will be again some day, I’ll bet).

But at the end of the day, when you’re working in film or TV, it boils down to this: you’re part of a really big committee. And the heads of the committee are the ones who give you the money.

And we all know what art by committee looks like. It’s amazing when it works at all. Every time you get involved, you run the risk of finding your name on something that looks nothing, nothing whatsoever, like what you initially wrote. And them’s the breaks. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start looking around for the next project. Or, if you’ve had enough, you get the heck out of Dodge. (“What? And give up show business??”)

…Now I have to go to work on another piece of committee stuff. Right now it’s all mine. Right now it’s still at that pristine stage where there are, as yet, no notes.

But there will be. There will be….

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Out of Ambit » Blog Archive » Star Trek: The Next Generation: Where No One Has Gone Before October 31, 2006 - 4:25 pm

[…] (A few more thoughts about behind-the-scenes events during that first season, and a discussion of what else the word “notes” means to a TV writer, are here.)Technorati Tags: Star Trek: The Next Generation, ST:TNG, Where No One Has Gone Before, Wesley Crusher, Wil Wheaton […]

wyldemusick October 31, 2006 - 10:12 pm

I ended up lighting out for the hills in the finish, but part of that was Los Angeles doing its damnedest to kill me along the way.

Production can be insane. I remember going through several sets of producers just on one script for a rather troubled show, and each new team would have notes that often reverse everything the previous team had asked for. Then there was the case of the script where I actually didn’t get notes, but that was a situation where they paid the standard deal out but wandered away with the script after story and first, never asking for the second and polish that had been paid for, and instead had the story editors in Canada grind it into sausage.

My philosophy on scripted shows was always one of “their toys, their money paying the freight” with the cocomitant attitude that no matter what I’d do my best to craft something good and functional. I had books and poetry and music to write, so I could step aside from the rigors of the susage factory. Unfortunately it doesn’t break out quite that cleanly, as you note; there is some price in madness to be paid.

As far as TNG went, I’m sure you’re right overall that money played a significant part, as did position and power — there was some sense of Roddenberry looking for his payday after toiling in the wastelands, and much has been said of Majel reinventing herself within all of this. Certainly Rick Berman ended up positioning himself to take pole position when Roddenberry’s health forced him completely out of the main chair.

The to-do that I was sandblasted by, though, seems to have been triggered in the main by creative factors, with David Gerrold running into massive resistance to his “Fire And Ice” script, which tackled serious sexual issues, as well as serving up an AIDS metaphor long before that became a glossy issue. the battle seems to have been mainly between David on the one side, and Maurice Hurley on the other, with Roddenberry leaning to Hurley’s side. David’s lawsuit for a creator’s percentage came after that. For a while it got very angry and very messy, though it was overshadowed the next year by Roddenberry getting defiant with the Writer’s Guild.

I iamgine this is documented in greater (and hopefully more accurate) detail somewhere.

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