2013 is arguably the biggest year for Star Trek since the late 1990's, and we're continuing our coverage with an all-new, exclusive interview with writer Morgan Gendel - perhaps best known for "The Inner Light", the award-winning fifth season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Gendel is travelling to conventions all across the United States this year to meet with fans and discuss his contributions to The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine - he'll be appearing at the Creation conventions in Chicago and Boston in the next few weeks - and TrekCore caught up with him at this April's convention near Philadelphia.
Morgan Gendel: The Interview, Part I
TrekCore: First, could you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with Star Trek?
Morgan Gendel: I was friends with Joe Menosky, and Joe Menosky had come to the Stephen J. Cannell company. He was, I believe, writing on a show called Hunter, and I sort of helped Joe. Joe was coming in there as a freelancer originally, and I was an executive at NBC assigned to the Cannell company. So I helped Joe, and then Joe - from the inside - helped a gentleman who came to him who had come from the news side of things, and wanted to start doing script-writing - that gentleman was Michael Piller.
Michael - cut to a few years later - is running Star Trek, and he repays the favor to Joe; Joe, in turn, repays the favor to me by saying, "Come on in and pitch!" Joe actually worked with me on the pitch a little bit. What I had was a core tech idea that I was very excited about. It just went through several incarnations, coming in, until we finally all agreed that this was going to make an episode. When I say "we", I mean that Michael Piller had to say, "I can see this now as an episode."
So, in a way, something happened that doesn't normally happen. I don't think it happens at all anymore. The core idea of the show was developed just by me pitching it!
TrekCore: Wow. Yeah, that does sound rare from all the stories we've heard over the years coming out of that writers room.
Morgan Gendel: Yeah. Oh, this would be totally different from most people's experience, because you either come in the writers’ room and they either get the pitch or not. But in my case, they knew they had something, and I made it better each time. I think it's because enough of an insider because of my relationship with Joe, and Michael probably knew where I had come from. Not only was I the NBC exec assigned to Cannell, but then when I made the transition to writer, I went right to the Stephen J. Cannell company. So I was in in-house kind of writer.
You know, as a professional, I was not like a total outsider; I play up the "outsider" part for my talk because there are such parallels with the episode -and I was not on staff - but I came and I think I was really given the benefit to develop this thing as I pitched it each time. By the time Michael agreed to do it, it was pretty well thought out.
TrekCore: Now, I know that a big part of the episode is the music. The title itself comes from that track from The Beatles...
Morgan Gendel: Correct.
TrekCore: The biggest thing people have taken out of it, aside from the wonderful story, is of course that flute song that Captain Picard - the character - plays on the show. It's made it onto all of the soundtracks, and you see people online making their own renditions of it.
Morgan Gendel: Right.
TrekCore: Did you ever think that part of the story would become so iconic to the episode, and the series? I mean, that flute sold for over $40,000 at auction and now it's one of key components of the show.
Morgan Gendel: The interesting thing, when you do away with hindsight and put yourself back in the era when it happened, you never know that something is... you don't write and say, "Oh, this is going to be the biggest episode." You just don't know. You're just trying to do a good episode. As I said in my talk, I knew we needed something like the flute to show that Picard carried these memories back. And I had to push for that. Michael Piller did not like the flute at first - he sort of made a little fun of me for it - and I was trying to think... I remember having a conversation with my wife, saying, "I have to go back in there, and I don't know what to do because you've got to have the flute, you've gotta have something like it."
I thought of all the other possibilities of what it could be, and nothing was as good as a kind of flute. But he changed his mind, fortunately for me, when I went back in. But I did not think of it in terms of music, per se - to me, the flute was just an icon representing that connection. Now, people come up to me and say, "Oh, I'm a music teacher; we use this in our class." So, that's just an added benefit! "The Inner Light" is, I believe, that one episode you get in your entire career in where all the heavens are aligned.
TrekCore: Absolutely - and it was the first television Hugo Award winner since the Original Series...
Morgan Gendel: Yes. The Hugo Award was not generally given out to TV series; it was a literary award, and I think they might have given it out to some movies as well. But when I won the Hugo Award for "The Inner Light", the last time it was given out for an episode of television was to Harlan Ellison, for "City on the Edge of Forever" from the Original Series. So I'm in good company there, and proud to be there.
TrekCore: Of course, the other most recent news with the episode is that you've been publishing a graphic novel as a sort-of sequel to the episode. Is that follow-up something you always had in mind after the original episode was done, or is that something that just sort of came about over the years since the episode's been completed?
Morgan Gendel: No, I had the sequel in mind. As I said earlier, you don't know when you're doing something, but we knew pretty quickly - in fact, I knew when I saw the rough cut to this episode that it was special, and turned out really well. Then, whatever, a year goes by, you can see the fans are reacting already, so I went in a told them about a sequel I had. I can't remember if I pitched it, or just told them I had the idea. I had what I thought was a very clever idea to continue this story.
Gendel's "The Outer Light" tells his long-held sequel to the original episode.
Very simply, it was that these scientists who did the nucleonic mind link probably acted out the roles themselves, because this was sort of like the Manhattan Project. They didn't want to let everybody in on it and scare their whole community of people that the end of the world is near. So I thought, they always had a Plan B - if they send a rocket up with the probe, they probably could send a small rocket up with a few people on it - and that's the core idea of it.
What if Picard comes across the scientist who played the PART of Eline, and he looks at her and says, "You're my wife for fifty years!" and she looks at him and says, "I don't know who you are." That was the core pitch. I don't remember if I pitched it to Michael... but either way, he said, "No, we don't do sequels." I thought, all right... I mean, I didn't know that was a standard that they had that they didn't do sequels. And then, I had been interviewed about it a few times over the years, some sci-fi magazines, I had told them the story - so it had sort-of kept alive.
At some point, I realized I could this as a graphic novel - as fan fiction, I'm not getting rights, I don't really make any money off of it - and that's what happened. So it was a story I had been carrying around with me.
TrekCore: Well, I'm glad you were finally able to get it out there to the public.
Morgan Gendel: Well, one of the things that motivated me... I mean, "Inner Light" has picked up steam over the years. After the first few years, you start reading - yeah, it's always in the fan's Top Tens or something, fans like it... and suddenly it gets to the point where it's like the number-one rated fan favorite of Next Generation on a lot of polls. So somehow, it's just picked up steam over the years. I was slightly motivated by hearing comments that people thought that Picard had a lot to get over; he needed closure for this episode.
TrekCore: I think that Ron Moore's been quoted as referring to that same thing.
Morgan Gendel: Yes, Ron Moore was one of the quotes that got me to revisit the sequel. I'm doing it very low-key, just out of my own pocket as a graphic novel that is essentially free. I might charge for my autograph, but it's not a profit-making thing.
TrekCore: The episode was one of the first on the sampler set of Blu-rays that came out last year, as one of the first releases. As the Blu-ray sets have progressed - Season Three just came out here in April - and there are a whole number of audio commentaries with production staff and writers on the episode - when it came to Season Five, if they would ask you to do a commentary on that episode, is that something you'd be interested in?
Morgan Gendel: Sure! I mean, I don't think they will - I'm not complaining about that, I'm just saying that because I was not in the CBS/Paramount fold, that I'm just not on anybody's radar.
The Ressikan flute reproductions are built in Gendel's basement workshop.
TrekCore: Now, one of the things you're doing is producing these nice replicas of the original Ressikan flute for the Roddenberry company. Is that something you're doing on your own, through your own machine tooling and everything?
Morgan Gendel: There's no machine tooling - the flute starts as a penny whistle, as I believe the original did. If the prop guys actually machined the flute themselves, they sure made it look a lot like a Clark penny whistle in the key of D, which was the prototype. So, I just figured out how to make something that looks 97.8% like the one that was auctioned off. The Roddenberrys approached me and asked me to do those for them.
TrekCore: That's great.
Morgan Gendel: I say that it went for $40,000; I wanted to put something in reach of the fans with a few less zeroes at the end!
Go to Part:
Be sure to watch the second part of our exclusive interview with Morgan Gendel, when we discuss "Starship Mine", his journey through the early days of Deep Space Nine, and weekend phone calls from William Shatner!