By popular demand, the story of that time I almost got to write for STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.
On 28 September 1987 I, along with everybody else, was parked in front of a television watching the pilot episode. I was a third year student at the University of Arizona whose enjoyment of the original series in re-run had instilled my ideal of sci-fi television grounded in the work of Harlan Ellison, Charles Beaumont and Norman Spinrad – science fiction greats who had turned their hands to writing STAR TREK scripts which justly became some of the most influential episodes in television history. What excited me about the original TREK was its willingness to discuss Big Ideas™ on the small screen. And, having been bitten by the writing bug, what excited me about THE NEXT GENERATION was the possibility of contributing to that cultural conversation. I was twenty-one.
Three years as an undergraduate English major had taught me, if nothing else, to do research. I videotaped and watched the pilot twice through, identifying character names from the closing credits, noting changes to the world of the United Federation since the original series and, as the first season progressed, relationships develop between crew members aboard the sleek new Enterprise-D. Having had a few scripts produced for a local community access cable show, I knew the basics of writing a teleplay. I had also read enough literary science fiction to have a sense of its breadth and possibility. I was quite sure the new show would be flooded with unsolicited submissions, so sought to write something that would stand out. That first season, episodes alternated between a half-hour and an hour-long format. I crafted a half-hour tale about an alien being that inadvertently finds itself a stowaway onboard the Enterprise. I framed it as a mystery and used the pairing of Dr. Crusher and security chief Tasha Yar as an opportunity to develop an unlikely friendship between the two women. After a few rewrites I felt I had something good. I held my breath, printed it and mailed my script (“The Shelter”) off to the STAR TREK production offices.
About three weeks later, rushing out the door on my way to class, I grabbed a stack of mail without bothering to glance through it before jumping into the car. I made the lecture on time and, afterwards, paused on a bench outdoors to smoke a cigarette and rummage through mail. In amongst the bills and junk was a cream-colored envelope addressed to me with the STAR TREK logo in the upper left-hand corner.
They had written back.
I just sat and stared at it for the longest time. It will be a pro forma rejection, I cautioned myself. Established sci-fi and pro TV writers would be vying like sharks for the opportunity to place a script with TREK. What chance did I have? I imagined a Spock-like calculation of infinitesimal odds. Still … this was pretty freakin’ cool! Trying to convince myself I didn’t care, yet determined to treasure my little piece of television history, I opened the envelope carefully and read a short letter from a man named Maurice Hurley. Sadly, the original has been lost, but the gist of it was this:
I liked your script.
And there was a phone number.
I almost choked on my Marlboro. “Call me”? Holy shit, I thought. Hollywood, here I come! In that instant, I think I was probably the most hopeful soul on the U of A campus. What were the chances of an opportunity like this coming my way? This could very well be the fulcrum upon which my life turned …
Take it easy, bub, I chided myself. One thing at a time. Breathing deeply and working to control my heartbeat, I found a bank machine and made a withdrawal. I converted twenty dollars to quarters, found a pay phone outside the economics building and, there in the blazing sun surrounded by a milling crowd of university students, dialed the number.
A young woman answered. “STAR TREK production offices,” she said.
“Um, hi. My name is … Jamie Mason. And, uh, somebody named Maurice Hurley wrote and asked me to call -?”
In the background, a man’s voice: “Who is it?”
“A … Jamie Mason?”
“Oh, yeah yeah! Yeah, put him through right away.”
I was shaking. I lit a cigarette.
“Hello, Jamie? Hey, Maurice Hurley here. I’m one of the show’s producers. Thank you for calling!”
“Um, yeah. Actually, thank YOU … For writing, Mr. Hurley …”
He laughed. “Maurice, please. Jamie, your script was excellent. I showed it to Gene. He loved it.”
I was floored. “Gene … Roddenberry?”
“Yeah, him.” Hurley laughed again. “I wanted to talk to you because … Well, I mean it was a great idea. An alien being that shape-shifts into a meteor-like form to travel through space? Neat concept. And I liked what you did with the doctor and Tasha Yar. Some good dialogue there. And I liked how you made their different educational levels a barrier they had to overcome in order to relate to one another. It was clever. Well done, Jamie.”
“Um. Yes. Well … hey, thanks.”
“I wanted to talk to you personally about it. We’re lining up scripts for season two and yours made it. But unfortunately, we can’t use it. I can’t tell you too much right now but, well … the actress who plays one of the two characters you focused on isn’t returning next season.”
“But please! Write another one. Send it along. We’d really love to see something else from you.”
“I … Sure. Thank you.”
“Not at all. We’re opening up the script pool to all comers. We want depth and breadth of ideas because that’s what STAR TREK is all about. We’ve got some great authors pitching us. But we’re also discovering some gems in the slush pile. Like yours. Keep writing. You’ve got a future.”
“I … I will.”
“I have a production meeting to go to, but it was great talking. Keep in touch okay, Jamie?”
“I will,” I promised. And he hung up.
I felt like I was standing atop a skyscraper in a windstorm.
It was the fulcrum on which my life turned, only not in the way I imagined.
Shortly after that phone call, my life would be overtaken by a series of catastrophes. My family would be rocked by successive scandals ending with a grand jury indictment and the arrest, by the FBI, of my mother and father. I would lose everything in the ensuing legal apocalypse, and be forced to start from scratch at a gig selling magazine subscriptions by phone for $4.75 an hour (the minimum wage in Arizona at the time). It would take me years to gain any semblance of financial stability and two marriages, several career changes and a return to Canada before I would start writing again with any regularity. But that phone call with a kind and gracious man on that hot October morning in Arizona remains with me to this day.
I showed it to Gene … He loved it ….
Eight words, and the proudest achievement of my life.