His YouTube channel is called “Mr. Sci-Fi”, and I can’t imagine a more apt nickname for author/television-writer/producer/director Marc Scott Zicree. Zicree started out, like so many of us, as a kid who really loved science fiction television and books. He grew up watching “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” and the show the groundbreaking series that was like no other…the original “Star Trek.” But unlike many of us, Zicree would eventually parlay that love of the genre into something more concrete; a writing career. At the brave young age of 22, he began writing the book that would first put him on my personal radar; “The Twilight Zone Companion”; an indispensable guide to all things of the Zone. My sisters and I read that book down to the spine in our teens.
Later, Zicree would go on to write for several animated television series, but he always kept an eye on writing for his first love; live-action science fiction. He sold a story to “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and would write for many other series, as well as co-produce Fox’s “Sliders” before going on to write the story for what is arguably the single greatest episode of “Deep Space Nine”; season 6’s “Far Beyond The Stars.”
In this first part of a two-part series, I had a chance to talk to Zicree at the 2018 Las Vegas Star Trek convention about the origins of “The Twilight Zone Companion,” how he got started writing for television, his esteemed friends in science fiction, and his work on “Star Trek,” a series he’s wanted to write for since he was a kid:
Q: What was the genesis of your book, “The Twilight Zone Companion”?
MZ: Well, I grew up watching Twilight Zone, and Star Trek, and The Outer Limits, all the original versions of those three shows, and they were the three shows that made me want to be a writer. And for me, my heroes were the writers on the shows, not the actors. You know, Leonard Nimoy was wonderful, Shatner and DeForest Kelley and all of that, but I was paying attention to the names of the writers; D.C. Fontana, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, George Clayton Johnson, Theodore Sturgeon. And so, as soon as I was old enough, when I as a teenager, I started going to science fiction conventions and meeting them. And many of them became friends and mentors. And so, I always wanted to be a visual artist or a writer. So my college career was as a painting, sculpture, graphic arts major but I knew at 19, I went to a Clarion Writer’s workshop, and I sold my first short story. Damon Knight—
Q: The author of “To Serve Man”?
MZ: Yeah, he wrote the short story that became the famous (Twilight Zone) episode, and that told me that someone would pay for my writing! * laughs * That big fifty dollar sale, and so I knew then that I wanted to be a writer/producer for TV. I read “The Making Of Star Trek” (Stephen Whitfield, Gene Roddenberry), a great book, and it really told me how TV was made. So out of college, I knew I wanted to be a writer/producer in TV, but there were no classes. So the question became ‘how do I learn that?’ And so I thought, I’ll write a book about one of my favorite shows, and that would be a way of learning how to do this job and how to make great television. And so, it was two years after Rod (Serling) had died (1977), I was 22 years old, and so I just started interviewing (people associated with the show). I met George Clayton Johnson (a writer on the series), because I knew that I went directly to Carol Serling, Rod’s widow, she’d say no. Because I had no publishing credits beyond one short story, and and art degree…
Q: So it was sort of a passion project.
MZ: Yes, but I knew that Carol had already turned down major journalists that wanted to write about Rod and the Twilight Zone. So I interviewed 30 people who worked on the show, and then I went to Carol. Because by then I knew a lot of information, and how I was going to do the book, and I was certain I could do it.
So Rod’s house was exactly as he had left it, his Irish setter was still there. And there was one room full of trophies, and there were the Emmys, the Peabodys and all of those. So I told Carol what I had in mind, she talked to some of the people I’d interviewed who said, ‘well it seems he really knows what he’s doing’ and so she said, “Okay, you got full access to everything.” And so I worked with Rod’s scrapbooks, his files, taking home his 16 mm prints of the Twilight Zone, a garage stacked full of film cans. Many of the prints had never even been put through a projector. They had the original commercials, it was phenomenal. So, it was five years of work on that book, from when I started to when it came out. It became an instant best-seller, it’s sold over half a million copies since. I just updated it for the new expanded (4th) edition.
But by the time I was 23, Theodore Sturgeon (writer of Star Trek’s “Shore Leave”, “Amok Time”) had become one of my mentors, from a class I’d taken. Great guy. And from a class I’d taken with Ted, his teaching assistant was a young man named Michael Reeves, who taken the Clarion Workshop three years before I had, and we became friends. Michael was writing books, and television scripts as well, in animation. I’d never thought to write for animation but that was my way in. Michael said, ‘you wanna write a script with me.’ So I wrote a script for “Space Ghost” for a show called “Space Stars.” And then “Smurfs” was just starting up. So I cowrote a Smurfs script and it became obvious I could write (scripts) on my own. And so I started writing for “Smurfs,” “He-Man,” and “SuperFriends” and “Real Ghostbusters” and I was like, the god of animation. * laughs * I was writing for every major company. But my goal, of course, was to write for live-action, for shows like “Star Trek.” So I earned enough to live on for the year, writing in animation, and then stopped. I wouldn’t take any more assignments. I wrote a spec live-action feature. It sold, and it got me a pilot deal with NBC, and that pilot got shot, and I was off and running. Then I was hired to develop “Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.” So I developed that for a year. Then I was in live-action.
Q: Segueing into live-action, your script for the “Star Trek: The Next Generation”’s 4th season episode “First Contact” (not to be confused with the same-named 1996 feature film). To me, it always felt like a Star Trek episode inside out…
Q: The audience gets its perspective from the aliens who encounter the Enterprise crew. How did you pitch that, and how did it come to life?
MZ: The fun part about pitching for Star Trek, and what I love about Star Trek… Star Trek debuted when I was 10 years old, the original series, it was like nothing that had ever been on television before. It was astonishing. Week after week after week, I was seeing episodes that were dealing with issues in a way that had never been done before. In (George Clayton Johnson’s) “The Man Trap”, they exterminate the last of a sentient species. They’re actually on the wrong side of that equation! ‘Why don’t you just give it salt?’ ‘No, we’re just gonna kill it.’ Wait a minute, you know? They’re wrong. So that was interesting. There was the one with the Organians (“Errand of Mercy”) where they’re absolutely wrong, and that was a Vietnam parable. And “City on the Edge of Forever” (story by Harlan Ellison) where Kirk literally throws his love under a truck!
So when you went in to pitch for Star Trek, you would say, ‘what do I care about, the foundry, what do I want to talk about as a writer, what haven’t I seen on Star Trek before, what’s fresh and direct from my life. This was the lesson Harlan Ellison taught me, he said “Don’t waste your audience’s time.” So the challenge with Star Trek was to come up with something profoundly truthful but a story they had never done before. Because Harlan Ellison taught that lesson, you come up with something that you’ve never seen.
I’d pitched to Star Trek a number of times. Each time I pitched, from the first season on, the producer would one to buy one or more of my stories and he’d be fired before he could (produce them). And this happened over and over…
Q: Star Trek: TNG’s famous ‘revolving door’…
MZ: It happened with David Gerrold, with Tracey Torme, on and on. So finally, Michael Piller was in charge of Star Trek Next Generation, so I went in to pitch again. I would usually take about two weeks to come up with a pitch, and I would generate maybe about 100 ideas. Then I would boil them down to about six that were fully worked out. Some were just paragraphs, some were just, like, a sentence. Usually I would sell one of the first six that I’d fully worked out, on any show that I’d pitched to. I was very proficient.
Back then, you could be on staff, or you could be freelance, and I alternated between them. So I was a producer on “Sliders” for instance, and I was a story editor on “Friday the 13th: The Series”, but with Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was a pitch. I knew everybody on the show. So I went in, and it was a terrible time and day, it was the day before Thanksgiving at 5 pm. So no one wanted to be there. No one wanted to be in that meeting. So I remember going in, there was Michael Piller, his big desk at the back of the room, and the entire writing staff was sitting on two sofas. It was Ron Moore, Ira Behr, everybody, Hans Beimler, everyone who was on staff at that time.
For some reason, I was standing, like, you know, like facing a firing squad. Either they didn’t offer me a chair or I chose to stand. So I pitched the first six, and they liked them, but there were various reasons…they were too similar. So (they said) keep going. So then I started to tell them about the paragraphs, right? And they said, ‘keep going, we like what you’re saying.’ I never got to a point where I was pitching the one-liners. My entire body was covered in cold sweat. I was pitching for a solid hour. Ira Behr said, “This guy’s like a writing machine. We should just put him in a room and just slide pages out from under the door!”
So finally I got to one, and I said this, “You’ve done stories with the Prime Directive, where there are cultures that the Enterprise can interact with, like the Vulcans, the Romulans, cultures at their level of technology, or beyond. And you’ve done stories about cultures where they have to maintain the Prime Directive, and they can’t reveal themselves, because they’re (the culture) is below a certain technological level. But you’ve never done a story where a culture reaches the point in their technology where the Prime Directive switches off, and the Enterprise is sent to make first contact. And everyone kinda went, ‘wow.’
Because the trick with Star Trek was, by then, there were the original series, and the movies, and the comics, and the novels. You had to be versed in all of it to know what hadn’t been done, and I was always looking for a hole in the mythology where you could tell a meaningful story but something they hadn’t thought of. And their eyes just lit up. All of knew, it was like, ‘that’s great.’ And then we started talking about it, and the idea was, that it’d be like “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, except the flying saucer that lands on the White House lawn…
Q: Picard is Klaatu.
MZ: Yeah, and it’s our guys! Our guys are the aliens! So we could see them through a different perspective, through a different lens. So the idea was that this was a planet that’s come up the warp drive. So they said, ‘we’ll notify the studio.’ I think we all knew that was going to be a sale. So it was like a day or two later that they called me, and they said, ‘yeah, absolutely.’
And I was very proud of it, because again, Star Trek gave such an opportunity to do meaningful stories. And because Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan and Ray Bradbury and all those others were all mentors of mine, the lesson from all of them was, write something that’s profoundly from your heart. Because that’s the way you create a career that’s worth having.
Q: Speaking of from the heart, the scene with “First Contact” character Mirasta Yale (the alien scientist who is taken aboard the Enterprise-D) is in the Ten-Forward lounge of the ship, looking out at the stars…it’s every Star Trek fan’s dream.
MZ: Yes, there was an original Star Trek episode, from the original series (Dorothy Fontana’s “Tomorrow Is Yesterday”), where a jet pilot…
Q: Captain Christopher.
MZ: Yeah, right, he gets beamed aboard the Enterprise. And again, for me as a kid watching that… again, it’s that same fantasy.
Q: So that moment inspired that scene.
MZ: Yes, well, it didn’t inspire it; that episode really moved me. What really inspired me was, just the idea of, I wonder when the Prime Directive shuts off. I wonder what that criteria is. So when we were talking about it, we said it was when a planet develops warp drive, because then they’re going to be mucking about… the galaxy! * laughs * And we’d better say, ‘wait a minute guys, you’re on somebody else’s land!’
Q: Let’s move on to Deep Space Nine’s “Far Beyond the Stars.” In my opinion, the greatest episode of the series, is getting a great reception this weekend (at Star Trek Las Vegas 2018). What was the origin of that idea, and what were the differences between your original version and the final version. I understand there were some differences?
MZ: Yes, but not significant ones. Here’s the way it worked. I would pitch regularly to all the different Star Trek series while I was working on other shows. And I got to know all of those guys. For instance, I was executive story editor on a show called “Beyond Reality” that ran for two years, and Richard Manning and Hans Beimler were my bosses. So they were also executive producers on various iterations of Star Trek. So I went in to pitch to DS9, and this was after I sold “First Contact” to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and you generate a bunch of ideas, a bunch of ideas.
One of my mentors when I was a teenager was Ted Sturgeon, as I mentioned earlier. One of the great writers of Star Trek and science fiction in general. He was an amazing man but he also wrote for those magazines in the 1950s; Galaxy, Worlds of If, Astounding. And he told me stories of writing for like, a penny a word, five cents a word. And when I knew him, he was sort of living this life of poverty. But he was this giant science fiction writer, so when he’d go to conventions he’d be idolized. But then he’d be living this life of struggle. And so, I realized the writers back then were doing it for the love of it. Because now we have Star Trek and Star Wars, and people are getting rich off of them, but a lot of the writers who wouldn’t have had Star Trek or Star Wars if it were not for those writers writing for a penny a word, five cents a word back then… and I wanted to show that world. And so I was very interested in showing that world and where science fiction came from, and what it meant to write for the love of it, and the truth of it, and just let everyone know, because Star Trek fans didn’t generally know that world, and I wanted to show them that world because it’d never been dramatized.
And then Harlan Ellison, who was another one of my friends, did a recording, a cassette tape where he just talked for an hour remembering what it was like to write for those magazines. And one of the things he talked about was, what he would do because he was in New York, was…there would be a certain day of the week where the cover artist would deliver their art, their cover to the magazine editors. And they would commission the artwork before they would commission the story. So he would rush there before any other writer, and no matter what the artwork was, he’d say, “Oh, I got a great idea for that. It’s a wonderful piece of artwork. I love it. It’s gorgeous.” And he said the hardest time he ever had was, he rushed over to the editorial office one day, and there was a cover…and it was a woman sunbathing on a New York tenement building, and there was a giant grasshopper looking over the lip of the building at her. It was just just godawful. But he had to talk about it as though it were the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and he got the assignment and years later, I found that issue! * laughs* And I always wanted to have Harlan sign it himself. But sadly, we lost him a few weeks ago. I actually did a long commentary about him on “Mr. Sci-Fi”, my YouTube channel. So those two things, Ted Sturgeon and Harlan, that was the germ of the idea.
So my idea was, let’s show the world those magazines of the ‘50s. And we’d have all of the actors from Deep Space Nine playing writers and the editor. So you could see what they looked like, their real faces. But my original idea, the pitch… see, it’s very different when you’re on staff than when you’re freelance. Because when you’re freelance, you can never say ‘well, it’s just a dream. He wakes up…it was just a hallucination.’ You can’t do that. They’ll just say, “Next!” Whereas when you’re on staff, you can say ‘let’s have this be something that the Prophets (DS9’s wormhole aliens) are putting into his mind, and say it’s tied to the wormhole, and blah, blah, blah. But you can’t do that when you’re a freelancer because you’re not there day after day after day where you’re steeped in the mythology, where you could get away with that.
So originally I called the story “Astounding Amazing Fantastic”, it was all titles of magazines of that era. And my initial idea was because Jake wanted to be a writer, was Sisko’s son. It was going to be Jake. And the idea was, and I didn’t like this part, but I liked the part in the 1950s, with our guys being the writers. I liked the idea of Deep Space Nine being a ship, a 1950s version of it, on the cover.
But the rationale I’d worked out was, to have a rationale, was that DS9 was under attack by an alien race that was telepathic. And so any attack you could mount, they could counter it, because they could read your mind. So what they did basically was created the holodeck as a 1950s magazine, with writers. And they put Jake into a hypnagogic state, and he would believe that he was a writer and that he was creating the fictional story of DS9. Because (Jake) thought he was just writing a story, the aliens would not be able to countermand that attack. It was a very strange idea, and that was the aspect of the story that I didn’t like. And I was hoping that we would come up with something better if it sold.
And so I went in and I pitched to Hans Beimler, who’d been my boss on “Beyond Reality”, and we were on very friendly terms. And I told him that story, and he thought it was really cool. He liked the idea of the 1950s, and all that stuff, as did I. But you couldn’t convince anyone on the show to buy it. So a year passes, so then I’m hired as a producer on “Sliders,” so I’m writing episodes and I’m at Universal, and I’ve also been hired to do all the outlines and several scripts to set the template for “Anamorphs.” And I’ve sold the three “Magic Time” novels to Harper-Collins, the first I’m cowriting with Barbara Hambly, and laying out the second one with Maya Bohnhoff.
Q: So you weren’t busy or anything? * laughs *
MZ: Yeah! So I’m sitting in my office at Universal and I get a call from Hans, and he says “I have some good news for you.” And I said, “What is it?” And he said, “We’re buying Far Beyond the Stars.” And I said (sarcastically) “Good timing, Hans! I got a lot on my plate right now.” So the only time I can go to the DS9 offices and meet with the writing staff and Ira Behr, the showrunner, was on my lunch break. So I met them at Nickodell’s, a restaurant next to Paramount. I drove over from Universal, and I sat down for lunch with them, and…it was all of them. So it was Ira, and Bryan Fuller, and Hans, and Richard Manning I think, and whoever else was on the staff, Ron Moore, you know, everybody. And Ira. And we started talking about the story. And Ira said, “First of all, let’s make it (Ben) Sisko (instead of Jake), because that ups the stakes. And they’d all read “The Twilight Zone Companion”, and they all said ‘we loved The Twilight Zone, and we loved your book, and we’d really like this to be more like a Twilight Zone episode.’ And I said, “Great!” Everything they said was great, because a good showrunner takes a show to a more profound level and a more risky level. And Ira was a very good showrunner. So he said, “How about we take out about Jake and all of that stuff about the attack, and it’s just the Prophets are putting this in his mind.” And the idea was that as the writer in the 1950s, Benjamin Sisko doesn’t know that he’s another person…
Q: Benny Russell, right.
MZ: Right. Benny. So we said it’s Sisko, he’s back there, and the idea was also, that he’s a black writer having to write his truth. A black writer, writing under a white pseudonym, and basically he’s given the illustration of Deep Space Nine, and he has to write a future in which there are all these different races, different species, and they’re getting and they’re working together and it’s the hope and vision of the future. So it’s profoundly about why we write science fiction, and why science fiction matters.
So we’re batting it around and it’s like, this is great, and we were thrilled. And we all knew that this was going to be a huge, huge story. I mean, like a breakthrough. Because Star Trek had never overtly talked about race. Not with any of the main characters. You know, they’d done the half-black, half-white guy with Frank Gorshin, but that’s…
Q: A little heavy-handed.
MZ: Yeah, but it was never like Uhura saying, “I’m a black woman.” And so Star Trek ostensibly was a non-racial society by then. This is where Sisko’s character Benny Russell gets to say, “I’m black.” This was dealing with black characters. And the idea was that he’s writing white future in his day job and hanging out with white writers, but then he goes home to Harlem and all of his friends say, “Why are you writing a future where we’re not in it?” So all of this is what we talked about at the lunch.
So I went home, and on the weekend I wrote the outline for the story. We knew we had to convince Paramount to do a very risky story. So we all agreed that (series star) Avery Brooks should direct it. And I knew that Avery would be very enthused about the story. By then, Armin Shimerman (Quark) was a very good friend of mine, and I’d talked to him about it before I’d written it. And he was very enthused and very excited about it.
I wrote the outline on the weekend, and one of the people I called for background and research on it was Harlan Ellison. And, of course, Harlan was very embittered against Star Trek in general but we were friends. So I said, ‘I’m working up a storyline and here’s what it is, and I listened to your tape, and it was great.’ And I asked him, ‘were there any black writers back then who were writing under white pseudonyms?’ He told me about a writer he knew who did that. Not in science fiction, but in mainstream fiction. He told me some things about that world, and what work was like back then, and what the magazine business was like back then, and science fiction.
So I wrote the outline. It basically followed the structure of the story as it stands, but there are several key differences. One key difference was that the magazine editor was inspired by H.L. Gold of “Galaxy” magazine who was a little short Jewish guy, and so Armin was going to play that role Rene Auberjonois (Odo) was going to be the liberal, may have been a communist in the 1930s…
Q: They switched roles.
MZ: Yes, because Ira was afraid that if we had Armin in that role, it might seem anti-Semitic, and that it was pitting blacks and Jews, and all this stuff. He didn’t want any whiff of that. He wanted the controversy to be the right kind of controversy, not the wrong kind of controversy. So we thought, yeah, we’ll switch those roles. So Rene Auberjonois was much more like a John W. Campbell of Astounding (magazine). Tall, thin, non-Jewish guy. So that was very much in the Campbell mode, so then Armin became the firebrand.
The other big difference was that, in my version, Benny has the breakdown and Armin’s character goes to the editor, and goes to bat for him, and his story is published. Because for me, the point is that the truth gets out and changes the world. It’s not that you write it and it doesn’t get out. So that’s one aspect of the produced episode that I’m less happy with, simply because I wanted the point to be that passion and truth and having people who care about you matters. And that science fiction can act as a positive force in the world, just like Star Trek did for me. But that’s a small quibble, because I think the episode is spectacular.
The other change is that Worf’s character wasn’t a baseball player, he was a boxer. And he had a white girlfriend on the side, and the cops find out about this and beat him to a pulp. So that was that idea. That was sort of taken from “The Great White Hope” and that notion. And I actually preferred that, because Worf is just kind of a baseball player and there’s no negative thing that happens to him. But they switched that out with Jake, trying to steal a car or whatever, and getting shot.
But the cool part was, it’s overtly about racist cops. So I turn in the outline, and I knew it was a great outline, because Ira said “We’re going to position it in Sweep’s Week, and we’re going to put a lot of money into it.” When you see the episode, you see it’s got… they dressed it, the New York street scenes, there’s buses, there’s orthodox Jews, there’s newsstands. It’s just gorgeous! It doesn’t look like any other Star Trek episode, and uh, it’s just phenomenal.
But then, the next thing I hear…I assumed I was going to write the script. Because I’m the producer on another show, and I don’t get cut off at story. But then Hans called, and he said, “We’re going to do it in-house, because it’s being fast-tracked.” So I called Ira, and I said “I want to write the script.” And he said, “You’re a producer on another show, you don’t have the time.” Because I was writing two scripts of “Sliders” back-to-back, but I know my own capabilities, I know I absolutely have the bandwidth to write that script. And Ira said, “I’ll make you a deal; you quit your job on Sliders, and I’ll give you the assignment.” And I actually considered it, but I couldn’t do it because Sliders was depending on me, they were ramping up, they were shooting two of my scripts back-to-back. If I’d quit, they were really screwed. So I had to say, “Okay, I can’t do it.”
But I knew that Ira and Hans, writing the script from my outline would do a great job. And they did a great job. So I knew that they wouldn’t drop the ball. It wasn’t like writers you don’t have faith in, because I knew Hans very well and I knew his capabilities, and Ira was a good writer too. So then the irony was, that one of my episodes of Sliders was being shot the same week as my episode of Deep Space Nine. It was an episode I’d wrote called “World Killer” on Sliders. So I actually got photos of myself, in the same clothes, with both casts, on the same day.
Q: * laughs * How often does that happen?
MZ: There’s a photo of me in the same sweater, on the Sliders set. So yeah, the episode came out, and we knew it was going to be one of the great ones. But I went on set to take that photo, and of course, Armin knew who I was, but Avery Brooks didn’t. I hadn’t met him. You go on that set, and it’s a magazine office of the 1950s, and it looks so prosaic, but it was a set on a soundstage at Paramount. I’d been on the DS9 sets before, but they’re these cool space station sets. So they were shooting this scene. So then Avery Brooks was looking at me, kind of out of the corners of his eyes. Then he said to everyone, “Okay, that’s a cut. One hour break for lunch.” Then I walked over, I shook his hand, and I said, “Hi, Mr. Brooks. I’m Marc Zicree, I came up with this story.” And he said, “Everybody! Everybody stop!” And he put his arm around me, and he said, (in an imitation of Brooks’ voice) “Say to them, what you just said to me.” And I said, “I came up with the story.” And he said, “He came up with the story!” And everyone applauded me. So that was great.
***** TO BE CONTINUED *****
In Part Two, Zicree discusses his continuing mission with the “Star Trek: New Voyages” episode, “World Enough and Time”, as well as his all-new self-produced series “Space Command” and beyond!
Marc Scott Zicree, “Mr. Sci-Fi” part 2: More from the Final Frontier, the new adventures of “Space Command” and beyond…
9 Comments Add yours
What a fantastic and insightful interview! 🙂
Thanks again so much, Paul.
Honestly, I could’ve sat and listened to his stories all day. Zicree is a fascinating guy! And part two should be posted later on today/tonight (or tomorrow morning in the UK).