Duke University Alumni Magazine


Station DS9
© Paramount Pictures

Star Trek is more than a television adventure series; it's an obsession. And for one writer and producer, it brings a refreshing dose of optimism in a cynical age.

ollywood. The entertainment frontier. A place where style battles substance, where almost everyone is alien (usually from New York), and where lunch is the most important meal of the day. This is the home of Rene Echevarria '84. His continuing mission: to pen gripping space adventures; to seek out stars who don't mind full-body latex costumes; to boldly go down in sci-fi television history--while making sure an episode's special effects don't send it over budget. (Cue the ethereal theme music.)

If you didn't recognize the Star Trek-like opening, you're probably not from this planet. In that case, Echevarria would like to meet you. For the past six years, he has visited deep space through a worm-hole of a room in the Hart Building at Paramount Pictures Studios headquarters, 555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood. His name appears in the credits of more than thirty episodes of Star Trek's Next Generation and Deep Space Nine series. The co-design of Star Trek: The Experience--the Las Vegas, space-themed casino, shopping plaza, and motion simulator--also bears his signature; it attracts more than 10,000 visitors a day.

Currently, most of Echevarria's energy is focused on Deep Space Nine, where, as the show's co-supervising producer, he is responsible for making sure many of the episodes go from the page to the camera without too many crises in Engineering. What sometimes gets lost in his producer title is that he is, at heart, a writer. That's okay by Echevarria. "I still think of myself as a writer," he explains, "but I like the title executive producer, because I get all the letters."

Anyone who has caught an installment of the original Star Trek series or its subsequent spinoffs (Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager) knows the schtick: Space is a place populated by exceptional androids, devious Ferengi, honor-bound Klingons, assimilating Borg, and, oh yes, the occasional omnipotent being. But Star Trek is more than a television adventure series; it's an obsession. A significant number of astronauts, doctors, and even actors attribute their career choice to Trek. Thousands of fans gather for multi-city Star Trek conventions and debate the shows' story lines, characters, and technological advances --sometimes conversing entirely in Klingon.

Echevarria: on the bridge of Paramount's science fiction phenomenon
Photo: Laurel Hungerford

While Echevarria is not the type to don plastic Vulcan ears or carry a toy phaser set on "stun," he is known to visit online "Trekkie" chat rooms and attend a live gathering on occasion. "These are very sweet-natured people who want to believe in a better future," says Echevarria. "There's never a harsh word exchanged." Why are they so attracted to Trek? "People are fascinated by what might be out there," he says. The show also suggests that humanity has a future--a refreshing dose of optimism in a cynical age.

Echevarria didn't beam into the world of Trek directly. His father was a doctor, and

Echevarria planned to follow suit upon enrolling at Duke. But one semester of organic chemistry persuaded him that, decent grades notwithstanding, his interests lay outside medicine. ("I'm a history major, Dad, not a doctor!") He strayed even farther into the humanities when he met a female classmate on the East-West bus and accompanied her to an audition for The Real Inspector Hound. Attempting to impress her, he told a joke in a British accent and landed a part.

The accidental actor soon made theater an intentional enterprise. In his senior year, Echevarria enrolled in an improvisation class taught by the drama program's Jeff Storer that required students to write and perform a play from start to finish. Three of the play's sketches flowed from Echevarria's pen; the feedback was exhilarating. "I was so much more excited about getting a response from the audience over something I'd written than something I'd acted," he says. After graduation, he moved to New York City with plans to write or direct. He settled in Brooklyn and took a table-waiting job on the Upper East Side--a forty-five-minute train ride--but it kept him afloat.

Storer introduced Echevarria to Marshall Mason of the Circle Repertory Company, for whom Echevarria began to act and serve as an assistant director. Meanwhile, he teamed up with his girlfriend at the time, Kristin McCloy '84, to write another full-length play, a black comedy about--ahem--nuclear war. The seven-person cast took the play to the 1986 Edinburgh Theater Festival, where they advertised by wearing radiation suits and walking through the town in slow motion. "We got twenty or thirty people every night that way," Echevarria recalls, laughing at his troupe's looniness. "Truth be told, I had ridiculous expectations that it was going to be a career-making thing." Against a jet stream of emotions, the flight back to New York, he says, felt much longer than it was.

The situation would soon appear to get better. Just a year after their nuclear play bombed, McCloy received a $100,000 advance for her first novel, Velocity, and the couple quit their day jobs to write full-time. Though happy for McCloy, Echevarria, for his part, entered a period of uninspired funk--a fretting that ended with the first episodes of Next Generation in the fall 1987. The idea of a new Star Trek series had passed through Echevarria's imagination before, and this one appeared to need help. Weeks later, he had his first Next Generation episode on the page.

Unhappy with it, he sent a revised script to McCloy's agent. The story--in which the starship Enterprise encounters a quantum duplicate of itself--received a reading, but was ultimately rejected. (A similar story by a different writer eventually did see production.) Undaunted, Echevarria developed yet another idea, an episode in which Data, the show's emotionless android, conspires with the ship's computer to conceive a daughter. Echevarria skipped the step of an agent when he learned that Star Trek considered work by unestablished writers, a practice unique in television.

Nearly a year passed, but Echevarria still believed in his fledging script. Even a Magic Eight Ball promised success. "I'm not a superstitious person at all," smiles Echevarria, "but every time I asked [the eight ball], it said, 'Yes, undoubtedly, it's going to work out.' Every time the phone rang I thought, 'It's them.' " One day in 1989 it was them--the executive producer of Next Generation, Michael Piller, who liked the script; it would eventually become "The Offspring" and air in the show's third season.

Echevarria would sell two episodes a year to Next Generation, usually stories he pitched himself, with each episode netting an impressive $18,000. In 1992, the show's producers asked him to move to Los Angeles for its last two seasons. Then, when Deep Space Nine was conceived, Paramount moved him over to the new series. Unlike Next Generation and Voyager, the action in Deep Space Nine would hinge on a mostly stationary space station. Owned by the United Federation of Planets, the port would serve as the gateway to a nearby worm-hole, which would allow characters to transport across space at quicker-than-warp speeds. Efforts to take over the station and control the travel route would constitute constant threats to the station's staff.

Echevarria says he knew he would enjoy the switch. Creating conflict on the Next Generation's starship Enterprise had become difficult because the ship's security made it hard for the bad guys to get on board. It was also tough to find the conflict between characters. "NG had iconic characters who were larger than life--wonderful, perfect people who were nice to each other," Echevarria explains. They all listened to classical music, and conversations often careened into psycho-babble. "It's like everyone was in therapy or something. I'd sit down to write a scene with Geordi and Beverly and think, what are these two going to say to each other?" The genre for Deep Space Nine was entirely different. "The people there are more like I think people really are. They don't analyze what's driving them, they're indirect. You sit down to write a scene with Bashir and O'Brien and you've got ten pages."

Ferengi vs. Klingon: Quark and Worf
© Paramount Pictures

After writing an episode, he must cast it, locate a director, supervise production, and make sure all the beans are counted. The high level of detail required surprised even Echevarria, who started at Trek with zero television production experience. "They'll ask me, 'We're wondering about her hair. Do you want pig-tails or a pony tail?' And I'll say, 'I don't know--pony tail, I guess.' And they'll say, 'Thank you, sir!'" Echevarria laughs. It's not the kind of technical expertise he ever expected to need.

Echevarria explains that as much as he and other writers appreciate graduates of Star Fleet Academy (you've seen the back-window stickers, haven't you?), diehard Trekkies are not the primary viewers Trek writers aim to please. In television, a fan of a show is defined as someone who watches 40 percent of a season but only 20 percent of each episode. (Television viewers tend to do a lot of tuning out while tuning in, such as talking on the phone or vacuuming the carpet.) The staunchest Trekkies don't even know what they want from Trek, he says. "What they think they want to see is old characters coming on to the show, space battles, and remakes of original episodes. But I think if we gave them that they wouldn't be happy. They'd say this isn't moving forward, it's all about nostalgia."

"Trials and Tribble-ations" (co-written by Echevarria and Ronald D. Moore) in DS9's fifth season was Echevarria's brainstorm and the year's most direct tribute to the original series, a "Forrest Gumping" of DS9 cast members into footage from the "Trouble with Tribbles." "We got a huge budget for that [an extra $500,000] and some special-effects houses did work for free. They were old-time fans and they loved the idea so much."

Echevarria's DS9 episode "Explorers" (1995), in which Commander Sisko builds a spaceship from an ancient blueprint, won an award from the Space Frontier Foundation and allowed the writer to shake the hand of astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Echevarria's other notable bylines include NG's "I, Borg," in which the Enterprise crew meets a young Borg drone separated from the mother ship, and DS9's "Rejoined" (also co-written with Moore) in which Dax--formerly male, now in a female "symbiont" body--is reunited with his former wife. The "lesbian" kiss received viewer mail that was ten-to-one supportive. "The only time we get negative mail is when we kill somebody," says Jill Sherwin, Echevarria's assistant. "But then it's science fiction, so we can always bring them back."

In a futuristic universe, issues of racism, sexism, and nationalism can be explored unthreateningly. Star Trek has proven a notable vehicle for social progress from the start. The original series had one of the first black actresses, Nichelle Nichols, to appear as a regular character. (Her character, Uhura, also took part in the first on-television, interracial kiss with Captain Kirk.) Breaking such barriers is not always a straight-forward enterprise; for example, the issue of how to portray Voyager's Janeway, Trek's first female captain. "She's played by a woman, but nothing about her command style differentiates her from the male captains we've seen," Echevarria says. "Is this right? Should there be a difference? It's a tough call. Say yes and some people will call you sexist. Say no and some people will say you have a hopelessly male-dominated view of the world."

Some have criticized Star Trek for being too old-school in one respect, in that the characters still relate within a military command structure. Don't democracy and non-violent problem-solving have dominant spots in humanity's future? Echevarria maintains the characters on his series use force only as a last resort, but sometimes drama requires some rumbling. "Let's face it: If the only thing you saw on Star Trek every week was a bunch of explorers meeting nice new aliens with unique and interesting ways of doing things, you'd think you were watching National Geographic," he says. "Sometimes you need bad guys. And if they're really bad, then our people are as justified in opposing them as the Allies were in opposing the Nazis."

All fiction is about story, even when it's laced with Treknobabble. According to Echevarria, many DS9 writers don't consider their series strict science fiction. "We think of it as a drama that happens to be set in space," he says. "Sometimes there's no science fiction in an episode except for the fact that they are in space and some of them happen to be aliens." Episodes range from romance to comedy to adventure and political intrigue. While the philosophy may hook those who never did very well in physics class, it may have also cost the show ratings. "Television is all about the same show every week," says Echevarria. Formulas such as Murder, She Wrote or countless sitcoms present a comic dilemma and then deliver a moral at the end. "I don't think people know what they are going to get on DS9."

Even the producers don't know what's going to happen too far in advance. The writing for a season's episodes starts in June; filming begins in July. Each episode, which consists of a teaser and five acts, requires seven to eight days to shoot. An hour-long teleplay is approximately fifty-six pages, which translates to seven to eight pages of teleplay a day, five days a week. "It's a machine that needs to be fed all the time," says Echevarria, who generally writes a script every four shows. Often, he says, it's a mad dash to make the prep date, about eight or ten days before shooting, and sometimes massive rewriting is required. "You can't be precious. You have faith that when you kill your babies, you're going to have something that works even better."

Even in the lucrative business of Hollywood, a story's possibilities can be limited by cash. Each DS9 episode has a budget of $2 million, but most of that figure consists of fixed costs: actor salaries, studio rental fees, and the like. About $300,000 is left over for guest stars, new sets, special effects, and extras. When he first began writing for Trek, he says he was surprised to find his dialogue cut for monetary reasons. In Hollywood's union environment, having an actor say, "Yes, sir," costs $1,500; a nod requires a mere $100.

A successful show is defined as lasting four seasons, or about a hundred episodes. This fall is DS9's seventh and final installment. (The original deal with affiliate stations was for six years; all the actors but Terry Farrell, who played Dax, rejoined the show for an encore.) Echevarria is almost certain that a new Star Trek series will emerge, but not until Voyager has run its course. With more than one Trek series at a time, "people don't know what you mean when you say Star Trek. They ask, 'Which one?' "

While nine years in deep space has rubbed off on Echevarria, he hasn't left firm ground far behind. The often utopian outlook of Star Trek still appears, to him at least, several light-years away. "I believe in a better future, but I do believe it is a long way off and it will take a lot of radical change to get there." Technology, he says, has a bad habit of creating new problems even as it solves old ones. For example, "We're going to have to confront the problem of what we do when we're so efficient that we don't have the jobs for everyone to work." Already much of France is going to a four-day work-week, he points out. Will someone have to invent a way for people to share jobs?

Echevarria's own work schedule certainly hasn't shrunk. In December 1997, he struck a deal with Dreamworks to write Domestic Partners, a romantic comedy. While he is enthusiastic about stretching out of his sci-fi pigeonhole, Echevarria says he's already anticipating the drawbacks of Hollywood film-making.

"In movies, others don't feel like they've done their job if they haven't hired someone to 'improve' a script. For a writer, it's devastating," he says. "It doesn't happen that way in television."

Though DS9 is ending, Echevarria's future in TV is not shutting down. He's signed a year-long development contract with Paramount that will allow him to pitch television-series ideas to the networks. And he's open to the idea of working on another Trek series. Being on the command bridge of a new show would be gratifying, he says. "If your show is successful, you're telling a 200-hour story. That's more time than your audience spends with your characters and your story than in any novel or any movie."

Added to another airwave phenomenon--the Principle of Infinite Syndication--it's likely Echevarria's stories will be reaching viewers well into the next millennium. And--who knows?--maybe into the next galaxy.

Larson '93 is a freelance writer and assistant to Reynolds Price.


Now Voyager: the latest startrek spin off
© Paramount Pictures

If a group calling itself the PT Collective sends you a package, you call in the bomb squad, right? Not if you're a writer for Star Trek. In that case, you go ahead and open it. The terrorist group in this case was actually an America On-Line "Trekkie" fan club that admired Tom Parris and B'Elanna Torres, two of the characters on Star Trek: Voyager.

The object of the group's affection, Lisa Klink '92, had helped to write "Revulsion," an episode in which the two characters kissed for the first time, and "Scientific Method," in which the two were constantly caught necking on the spacecraft. The special-interest groupies wanted to show their appreciation in seeing their favorite characters hooked up on screen. "They loved that kissing scene," says Klink, somewhat flattered but a little unsure just how to take her own admirers. "I thought the flowers were very nice, but just a little creepy."

From her secure condominium in Beverly Hills, Klink is anything but creeped out. The three years she served as a staff writer for Voyager, putting words into the mouths of aliens, were well-spent, she says, not only because it got her foot in the door of Hollywood, but also helped make her mark in a series that will be remembered in TV history. "Everyone in the world knows what Star Trek is. They at least know Spock," says Klink, recalling the Leonard Nimoy character from the original series. "The cool thing about Trek and sci-fi in general is you can tell allegories. You can talk about race without mentioning whites and blacks. It makes it more universal. Then it's about racism all over the world, all through history."

Klink learned allegory--of story and of dreams--tackling both English and psychology at Duke. If she "had any head for math," she might have gone to graduate school in her psych concentration, neuro-psychology. Instead she headed for California. A fan of James Cameron's Terminator and Alien movies, Klink originally set her goal at directing action films. Writing was barely in the back of her mind. At Duke, she had taken a playwriting class taught by Yussef El Guindi and "hacked at a screenplay," but she didn't think she had the necessary skills, she says, to make it as a writer in Hollywood.

Six months after arriving in Tinseltown, Klink found a job reading scripts for director Kathryn Bigelow. Besides providing insight on the development side of Hollywood, her eighteen months of reading taught her a lot about the competition she would find as a script- writer. "It was good to see the mistakes that professional writers were making, writers coming from high-level agencies," she says. The quality of writing was much lower than what she would have expected, seeding the notion that she had a chance.

In college, Klink had been a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now in Hollywood, she decided to attend a Trek convention that was offering a writers' workshop. There she learned that the producers of the series read scripts by unestablished writers. Why did they do it? "It's because they're nice," Klink puts it simply. "Part of it also has to do with the fact the franchise is so stable. There's so much of a fan following they wanted to tap into that."

Script writer Lisa Klink, in such a short time, already has a history of memorable teleplays--thirteen total-- for fans of Voyager and Deep Space Nine.
Photo: laurel Hungerford

Her first spec script for Next Generation involved Geordi, the sight-impaired chief engineer, who finds he is able to pick up telepathic communication between two aliens using his infra-red visor. Counselor Troy teaches him to understand their language and retrieve information vital to the crew's safety. "I assumed the script had been tossed," Klink says.

In the meantime, she enrolled in a UCLA extension class in television writing. For the class, she wrote a teleplay for the Lois and Clark Superman series and showed it to several people, including a Lois and Clark producer, who provided encouraging feedback. "I thought, 'This I can do!' " She then returned her sights on Trek, developing a plot line for Deep Space Nine in which Dax's "symbiont" is stolen. A week after mailing the script, Klink was shocked to see the story on television. Someone else had thought of the plot long before her. "It's a pretty obvious story for a character like that," she admits.

All was not lost. Eight months after submitting that first script, she received a phone call. Though Star Trek's executives didn't want to buy either of her teleplays, they liked her eye for story and wanted her to pitch ideas to Deep Space Nine. "I was stunned," she says. For her pitch meeting, Klink was allotted twenty minutes to present three ideas. Staring her down was the staff writing team of Ira Beahr, Robert Wolf, Rene Echevarria '84, Ronald D. Moore, and Michael Piller. She let fly her first pitch: a na夫e, fairly tenderfoot Bashir having his mettle tested in an alien prison camp. "They started riffing on all these prison movies--Bridge Over the River Kwai, Escape from Alcatraz," says Klink. "I was going, 'Yeah, that's what I meant!' " The team told her to think more about her idea and come back later.

Klink pitched three more times in the next eighteen months. During one of the visits, she pitched the Bashir-River Kwai idea again with Bashir as the Alec Guinness character. Still she came up empty. She began pitching for the Voyager series, with no results there either. "It's frustrating, but it's par for the course," she says. "You have to expect to be rejected a lot, but they were encouraging. They kept inviting me back."

In the spring of 1995, Klink found an agent and quit her job with Bigelow to concentrate on writing. She told her new plans to Echevarria, whom she had run into at a Duke-in-Hollywood alumni function. A couple weeks later, Echevarria called her back to offer her an internship at the offices of Deep Space Nine. Klink's agent, seeing it as a step down from pitching stories, tried to dissuade her, but Klink thought better of it. "I knew six weeks of being in that office couldn't possibly hurt me."

For a month and a half, she served as a shadow to the DS9 writers. With no formal duties, she got paid to attend production meetings and watch episodes coalesce on the set. When the internship ended, a greater glory was in store: Star Trek decided to buy her Bashir story and wanted her to begin writing it immediately. Her script became the episode "Hippocratic Oath," in which Bashir and O'Brien are at odds over whether to help their captors break the genetically engineered drug habit that keeps them in line.

Klink's script ended up in the hands of Jeri Taylor, the executive producer of Voyager. In July 1995, Taylor's assistant called to offer Klink a staff writing job on the new series. Her first episode was "Resistance," in which Joel Grey (an old hand who won an Oscar for Cabaret) plays an aging rebel fighter helped by Janeway, Voyager's captain. "Innocence" was her story of aliens who aged backwards. In "Sacred Ground," Klink helped send a normally ultra-scientific Janeway on a spiritual quest.

In all, Klink wrote thirteen scripts for the series. In March, she left Voyager to pursue a freelance career. Her first gig was "Loss," an episode of Hercules, in which the demigod literally goes to Hell, that aired in October.

Klink says she considers her Hollywood experience, if not science fiction, at least beyond the norm. Few people achieve success in "The Business" so quickly. But she says she doesn't think anyone with a measure of talent ever has to play Hollywood games. "I've never been into the whole schmoozing thing. I don't go to power lunches and I don't know a lot of executives. If you have a script that people want, that's enough."

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