Dorothy Fontana, the first female Star Trek writer and a stalwart presence in television science fiction for four decades, died on Monday. She was 80.
The screen credit “D.C. Fontana” became a familiar one to several generations of sci-fi television viewers — and Star Trek fans in particular — but many never know the pen name belonged to a trailblazing woman looking to side-step at least some of the gender bias challenges in television writing and sci-fi circles. Decades later, author J.K. Rowling would take a similar initial approach to her fantasy novelist career.
Fontana’s considerable contributions to the Starfleet universe include the classic episode “Journey to Babel” from the original Star Trek series (1966-1969), “Yesteryear” from the well-regarded Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973), and “Encounter at Farpoint,” the pilot for Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), which she co-wrote with the brand’s creator, Gene Roddenberry.
The New Jersey native’s television writing career began in 1960 with an episode of The Tall Man that introduced an intrepid new character named Deputy Johnny Swift — a part that went to a young actor from Boston named Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy, of course, would become a sci-fi icon by the end of the decade in the role of Mr. Spock on the NBC series Star Trek and one of the key episodes shaping the half-Vulcan officer’s backstory was Fontana’s “Journey to Babel,” which introduced Spock’s imperious father (Mark Lenard) and his devoted mother (Jane Wyatt).
Fontana’s long odyssey with the Star Trek brand began when she worked as a secretary for Roddenberry in the 1960s. After writing memorable episodes of the original series like “Charlie X” and “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” Fontana became one of the youngest story editors in television ad one of the few female staff writers of the era.
With their two-part pilot script “Encounter at Farpoint,” Roddenberry and Fontana ushered in a new era in Federation space in September 1987 by introducing Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Commander William T. Ryker, Lieutenant Worf, Counselor Deanna Troi, Lieutenant Commander Data, and other Starfleet officers aboard the USS Enterprise 1701-D.
The first voyage of Star Trek: The Next Generation was watched by 27 million viewers, making the special-effects series the highest-rated syndicated one-hour drama on television. The series would become the longest-running Trek television franchise to date and yield four feature films as well. The ongoing mission continues, too, with the upcoming premiere of Star Trek: Picard on the CBS All-Access subscription streaming site with Patrick Stewart returning to the role.
Fontana (who also wrote under the name Michael Richards and J. Michael Bingham) also worked on episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the television iteration that she identified as her personal Trek favorite.
Fontana’s eclectic credits include episodes of signature hits of the 1960s and 1970s including Dallas, The Waltons, Bonanza, Kung Fu, The Streets of San Francisco, The Big Valley, and Ben Casey. It was in science fiction, however, where Fontana made her biggest mark. In addition to multiple Star Trek franchises, she also wrote episodes of Babylon 5, The Six Million Dollar Man, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Logan’s Run, War of the Worlds, Land of the Lost, and The Fantastic Voyage.
Much like the restless souls aboard the Enterprise, Fontana was eager for the next frontier and newest adventure and that was reflected in her writing craft, as she explained to an interviewer for the Television Academy Foundation: “My style has changed over the years. I look back at my original scripts and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I wrote that?’ Because I don’t write like that now. It evolves, it changes, because as a person you should be evolving and changing. That comes out in the writing.”
In 2012, D.C. Fontana was interviewed at the Writer’s Guild Foundation. Here’s video from that interview…