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25 years ago, I was an intern on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Contributed by
Jan 5, 2018

"We're going down to the set. I think they've got all the lights wired. You wanna come?"

Because I was an intern who chose to interpret every question as a directive, I said yes. (I find that when you're the lowest person on the totem pole, it makes so many decisions easy.) So we left the writers offices — not many of us, I remember three, but it could've been five — and walked down to the soundstage. I can't recall which stage, specifically, but this isn't a deposition so whatever.

We walked through a small door next to those giant doors you see in the movies, made a left, a right, and a straight, and there we were. The Promenade on Deep Space Nine. Lit as if for camera. Like walking through two stories of a Christmas tree. You could rap a knuckle on the railings and not feel like it was hollow. It was real. A damned sight realer than any other Hollywood experience I'd had previous, given that I was then a 20-year-old student, between my junior and senior years of college, who somehow stumbled ass-backwards into a writing internship the summer Paramount was giving birth to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

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"Stumbled" is almost definitely the wrong word. One of my college professors told me I should enter a writing-for-television contest, only open to students, being administered by UBU Productions. ("Sit, Ubu, Sit. Good dog." Yes, you're now as old as I am.) Long story short, I won. The prize: A summer in Los Angeles, interning on the writing staffs of UBU's latest show, a period sitcom called Brooklyn Bridge, and another Paramount show to be named later.

Because I wrote a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode as my entry, UBU's big cheese, Gary David Goldberg (who'd previously created Family Ties), called in a favor with Rick Berman, who was then the executive producer who oversaw TNG. I'd spend the first month of my summer shadowing the Brooklyn Bridge staff and the second month on Next Gen.

Except that's not what happened.

I did get to work on The Next Generation for a little bit. I got to sit in on production meetings, spend days quiet as a mouse in the writers room, and spend some time with Michael Piller, the executive producer and head writer of TNG, and the guy who spearheaded Trek's open-submission policy.

(An aside: In almost every scripted endeavor, you need an agent/manager/lawyer to submit your materials in hopes of selling an idea or being invited to pitch or getting hired on staff. Under Piller, Trek was the only show, before or since, that invited anyone to submit a sample script directly to the producers. Bryan Fuller, Ronald D. Moore, Jane Espenson — and many others — got their starts via a Trek submission.)

But The Next Generation was a well-oiled machine by that point. Where they really needed the help of an eager, enthusiastic intern not old enough to drink was on Deep Space Nine. They'd shot the pilot, but were ramping up for episodic production. Michael Piller introduced me to the DS9 executive producer/showrunner, Ira Steven Behr.

Ira was from New York. New York City. The Bronx. I knew this because he sounded like he was from New York. And he had a giant street map of The Bronx on the wall of his office. I was born in the Bronx and, to that point, had lived in New York all my life. He laughed when I told him about my first time in a kosher deli.

(Aside #2: When I was, maybe, 13 years old, I went with my friend Adam and his dad to a kosher deli on Long Island. When the guy asked me what I wanted, I looked at the menu and asked him for a cheeseburger. He said no, without explaining why to the newly teenaged black kid. But I said, "You have hamburgers on the menu." He nodded. "And you have grilled cheese." He nodded again. "Can I have a cheeseburger?" He said no. "Okay. Can I have a hamburger?" He said yes. "And a side of American cheese?" A thin smile spread across his face. "No… because I know what you're gonna do with it.")

Ira took a shine to me, a young writer from the Bronx trying to infiltrate Hollywood via science fiction. He let me sit in on pitches from freelance writers. He let me watch as they broke stories on a giant whiteboard. He listened as, weeks in, I summoned enough courage to pitch a wee idea for an episode they were working on — that bit in the 10th episode of the first season, "Move Along Home," when Sisko and the gang have to play hopscotch? YOU'RE WELCOME.

 

(Aside #3: I also got to read hundreds of scripts. Remember that open submissions policy that Star Trek had? You know who read the thousands of teleplays that got mailed to the Trek offices? The interns. We had to comb through the slush pile to weed out the gems. I read 25 a week. There weren't a lot of gems. But I learned a lot of what not to do.)

I got to see the birth of a show from nearly the beginning. The stumbles and false starts, the character cul-de-sacs investigated and then backed out of. For the first time, I got to see the totality of what goes into making television — even bad television.

Because, yes, the first season of DS9 ain't great. Parts of it are downright awful. Need I remind you, there's a sequence in which the main characters of a science fiction TV show play hopscotch? But everyone wanted it to be great. And Deep Space Nine would get great. It would become, for my money, the best of the Star Trek TV shows — notably, after I left. It would go, pardon the pun, where no Trek had gone before. It would compromise its characters. It would have vast, serialized storylines. It would tell stories about war, about drugs, about greed, lust, torture — it would be the Star Trek Gene Roddenberry never could've imagined, but still would've recognized.

And for six weeks in the summer of 1992, I was in the middle of it.

Post-script: In May 2011, after a long time as a journalist, I wanted to make the transition into TV writing. I was still living on the East Coast at the time, so my agent had to set up a lot of phone calls and Skype meetings. He'd set up a Skype call with the producers of a new SYFY show called Alphas, about superheroes that operated out of a strip-mall in Queens. The writers room was already open, but they read my material and thought maybe I could offer something. When the Skype window opened up, I saw three faces: Creator Zak Penn, co-executive producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and executive producer/showrunner Ira Steven Behr.

Ira said, "You look familiar. You're from the Bronx, right?"

I got the job.