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How ‘Star Trek' writer Ron Moore pulled off this underrated ‘TNG’ episode

The only thing better than a good, ol' fashioned disaster movie is Star Trek's version of one. 

By Phil Pirrello

30 years ago this week, on October 21, 1991, Star Trek: The Next Generation delivered "Disaster," a riveting (and vastly underrated) hour of TNG’s fifth season inspired by Irwin Allen's popular '70s disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure. Writer Ronald D. Moore swapped out Posideon's cruise ship vs. rogue tidal wave premise for a gripping sci-fi tale centered on Picard and crew's disparate and desperate attempts to survive aboard the Enterprise after their starship is crippled by an anomaly known as a quantum filament. (Think of it is as space’s version of a very big pot hole). With Picard trapped in a turbolift shaft with the one thing he dislikes as much as the Borg — children — and his junior officers dealing with their own mini-Hells around the ship, "Disaster" takes our heroes out of their comfort zones as each crisis they face tests their resolve. (Especially when Counsellor Troi is put in charge on the bridge.)

While not as flashy or high profile as other memorable Season 5 TNG episodes, like "I, Borg" or the time loop-centric "Cause and Effect", this bottle episode is pure polish. The script's constant keep-the-plates-spinning tension, coupled with his outside-the-box character pairings, makes "Disaster" an episode more fans should talk about when rattling off their all-time faves. To help spark that conversation, and to celebrate the 30th anniversary of "Disaster", SYFY WIRE recently spoke to Ron Moore about the making of this (pun intended) engaging episode, where he revealed how an abandoned action scene from Star Trek: First Contact (co-written by Moore) first originated in "Disaster".

With “Disaster” turning 30 this year, do you recall how you were assigned this episode? Was it just luck of the draw or did you want to write this one? 

I think I wanted it. I think I thought it was a fun concept and I love disaster movies. I could kind of see in my head how much fun this was going to be. And I think I really wanted to do it. 

There’s so much good stuff in this episode, but one of its best storylines in terms of tension is the one where Geordi and Dr. Crusher are stuck in the cargo bay, and they have to empty it out into space to save the ship. It’s full of constant complications. Was that always the character combo or did you consider others?

I remember being fascinated by the idea of them being in a vacuum and I wanted, originally, to see them maybe put a spacesuit on. Because sci-fi always treats one’s exposure to a vacuum as cause for, you know, your eyeballs to pop out or something, I had read somewhere that that’s not exactly true. And there's a great scene in 2001 where someone goes into the Discovery through the vacuum of space and survives. And so it was like, “oh, well, we could do this — and the idea of [Geordi and Dr. Crusher] trapped in the cargo bay and having to expose themselves to a vacuum was a lot of fun. 

Was that an easy sell among your fellow TNG writers?

Well, it took some convincing to get Naren Shankar on board with it, who was the show’s scientific advisor at the time. He was helping me try to explain, dramatically, why that would actually work on the ship and how it would be scientifically plausible. And then some people were still doubtful and went to outside resources, who came back and said: “Yeah, I mean, it is actually kind of plausible.” 

As for the Picard-trapped-in-the-turboshaft storyline, in an early draft of Star Trek: First Contact, you and Brannon Braga wrote a scene where Picard and Alfre Woodard’s character, Lilly, are being chased up a turboshaft by the Borg and the area they are in is so big, it has its own weather system. 

Right! Yes, [on the Enterprise-E in First Contact] I think we had lightning and some rain or something in the shaft. 

Yup, that’s it. It’s a really great scene, but obviously too expensive for a Trek movie at the time, but did the genesis for that start here, in "Disaster"?

Oh yeah. As you were talking about it earlier, I remembered that about the turboshaft scene. Originally, in “Disaster”, Picard would be climbing up with the kids and it was supposed to start raining on them. And he was trying to keep them safe and keep ascending, but it would be dangerous because the rain would make the ladder slippery. So he was trying to talk to them, to help them focus and hold on. And then somebody slips, and of course he grabbed them just in time, but there was no way at the time they would go for it. It was just too expensive. You have to remember, we barely would go outside to shoot. It was mostly on stages to keep budget down. But I am gonna try to work it in somewhere. 

At the time, it was well known that Patrick Stewart wanted to see more action-oriented episodes and storylines for his character. Was this episode partially in response to that?

No, not particularly. This was more about the fact that we hadn't played up the thing about Picard and his aversion to kids in a while. And that seemed like fun. I don't think Patrick was fond of that storyline — not the “Disaster” storyline — but the general idea that Picard didn’t like kids. So I think he was always a little uncomfortable with it; it didn’t seem like it was interesting to him. But, I think he liked it in this episode because it did have more of an active component to him trying to keep them all together as a group. And it was just fun. It seemed fun that Picard would be stuck with kids during the disaster as opposed to being in command. 

What was the break session like for this episode? It sounds like it must have been a fun one, to bounce around ideas. 

Oh yeah. I remember it was a good break session. ‘Cause you just kept coming up with lots of people trapped in different places and what could be happening over here and what could be happening over there [on the ship]. And you know, in that kind of classic disaster movie kind of way, they can't talk to each other and they're in a very tight location and these other people are at a different location, but they have no idea what's happening over there. I remember there were lots of pitches of different pairings of people. And it went through quite a few evolutions until we stuck on the particular storylines that we followed.

The storyline on the bridge, with Ro and Chief O’Brien paired with a very in-over-her-head Troi, was that always the intent to have Ro and Troi at odds there?

I am trying to remember where Ro was in her development at that point. She was a relatively new character, as I recall. And I think we were just looking for ways to use her. And we wanted Troi to have to referee between two opposite points of view and for her to have to make a command decision. And we had separated everyone else. Troi wasn't senior to anybody else on the ship, really. So you needed her to be with people that were or could be subordinate to her, that weren't involved in something else. So it was a very limited pool that we had to draw from and we didn't want to just make up completely new characters. They would have more resonance if they were characters the audience already liked and cared about. 

I think we just had a general mandate to try to find interesting things to do with Ensign Ro. And so it just felt like a good fit for her character to be in that spot. 

What I really like about the Troi-Ro plot is how it gives the show a dose of conflict that fans didn't normally see on the show. It’s basically Ro telling Troi that, whatever strategy she decides to help save the ship, if it works, it only works because she got lucky. 

And that was a good beat because Ro was that kind of character. I mean, she was a breath of fresh air in that she would — and could — say things like that. Whereas the rest of the [main crew], we were still in the “Gene’s-perfect-world-view” of it all. Where any personal rivalries and conflicts always had to be smoothed out and people couldn’t say cutting things to each other like that.  

So a character like Ro, someone that had permission to behave that way, you just couldn't wait for her to tee off on someone. You, as a writer, would have fun putting her in a scene where she could do or say something shocking like that one of our characters. 

It’s a scene we’d expect to see in something like your Battlestar Galactica reboot or more modern sci-fi.

Right. For sure. And, now that I think about it, with Troi, [the writers] had to kind of wrestle through her position in the hierarchy of the ship. She's the ship’s counselor, right? Does that mean she's not a line officer because — if you're in the Navy, in the U.S. Navy — there's this concept of the line officers and the non-line officers. So the line officers are in the more hierarchical command of the ship, but like the doctor or the supply officer are non-line officers. So they're not qualified to take over a ship in an emergency. So for our purposes, we decided to kind of push her ahead a bit in the chain of command. 

And when we did that, when we put Troi in a command position for the first time, it raised other issues. Like, what do they call her? Do they call her ma'am? Sir? And that was a whole internal debate because, you know, Star Trek II had done this thing with Lt. Saavik, where she is called "Sir" and "Mister." Which I thought was genius and interesting and said something about how, yes, Starfleet had adopted a male gender for salutations in the future, but they had adopted one standard. There wasn't a differentiation. And at that point in time, it was interesting that nobody in the show had ever talked to a superior female officer and had to answer to her. We hadn't faced this question before. It was like a weird day when we realized that, that we were that far in that series without that ever happening. And it said a lot about, about the state of the state of gender on television at the time.

There are a lot of great little moments and scenes in this episode. Do you recall one that sticks out as a favorite? Or at least one where you go “Yeah, I think we did a good job with that"?

I was proud of the whole episode, it was one of my favorites. I really liked that there was a balance to it. I liked that it wasn't just the “Picard saves the day” episode and it wasn't just, you know, Data talking his way out of it. It was a situation where it was tailored to their characters, flaws and strengths, and it tested all of them. And I liked the fact that they were all on their own and it was a very human show. And I liked that even the Enterprise could just suddenly break down, out of nowhere, and that the people within it would rely on their own resources just to put it back together. It was fun to write and I thought the final episode turned out really good.