Updated: Dec 8, 2019
Dorothy Catherine Fontana, an award-winning writer, story editor, and producer best known for her work on Star Trek, died this week at the age of 80. Fans know the name Gene Roddenberry, but he wasn’t the only creative mind behind one of the twentieth century’s most enduring and prolific franchises, with Dorothy Catherine Fontana among the first rank of those who shaped Trek and built the universe that we’re still exploring more than 50 years later.
Likely Fontana’s most significant contribution to the lore was her work developing the character of Spock from a bit of a cipher into someone who is, by now, almost universally recognized—even people with little interest in watching Trek can tell you the basics of Spock’s backstory, and much of that comes from Fontana. The first season episode “This Side of Paradise” saw Spock infected by plant spores that break down his natural Vulcan reticence. The resulting romance with Jill Ireland ends poignantly when Spock explains, after the influence of the spores has been overcome, that he had experienced happiness for the first time in his life. Fontana’s rewrite of Jerry Sohl’s original script replaced Lieutenant Sulu as the story’s protagonist and threw Spock’s internal conflicts into sharp relief while dropping some hints about his family life that bore fruit in season two. The rewrite was so successful that it won her a job as story editor on the show, and, just as importantly, resulted in an all-time great hour of television. (It was also probably the episode that briefly set up Leonard Nimoy as an unlikely sex symbol.)
Fontana followed up in a big way with season two’s “Journey to Babel,” the episode that introduced Spock’s non-traditional family dynamic: his stolid Vulcan father Sarek, and his very human other Amanda. She has ten original series writing credits, but her role as story editor means that her fingerprints were on almost the entire thing. And, unlike many of the series’ behind-the-scenes creative talents, her association didn’t end there. She was an associate producer and story editor on The Animated Series, writing the Spock-centric “Yesteryear”—the rare animated episode that’s been taken seriously over the subsequent decades, with elements of the time travel story being referenced right up to the present (it’s no coincidence that the very young Spock played by Liam Hughes in the most recent season of Discovery looks exactly like the 1973 animated version). Spock’s foundational family dynamic has never been all that far from the Star Trek forefront—her parents have appeared in several movies, and Sarek showed up on The Next Generation well before Spock ever did.
Fontana was part of the original 1986 team assembled to bring Star Trek up to date for TNG, taking an Associate Producer credit during the first season and co-writing the pilot. Personality conflicts and the generally chaotic nature of the series’ early days saw her leave after thirteen episodes, but she returned for “Dax,” a Deep Space Nine episode that did for the enigmatic Jadzia Dax what she had earlier done for Spock: took a roughly defined character and told us everything we needed to know, building a character as well as a mythology that the show spent the rest of its run having fun with. She wrote a Trek novel (Vulcan’s Glory), comics, as well as several video games set in the Star Trek universe, even penning a 2006 episode of the fan production Star Trek: New Voyages.
Of course, she was so much more than Star Trek: her name is on dozens of episodes of some of the most beloved television series of all time: The Six Million Dollar Man, Streets of San Francisco, Bonanza, The Waltons, Dallas, and Babylon 5 among many others. And it goes without saying that the years during which she was a writer, story editor, and producer were not among the most open to women working at high-level jobs in television (things being only slightly better today). That’s why Dorothy Fontana became D.C. Fontana—blurring one’s gender identity being a bit easier in the pre-Internet 60s. She started out as a secretary, it’s true, but within a year started selling stories to a series called The Tall Man, kicking off a career that saw her twice inducted to the American Screenwriters Association’s hall of fame. Though some fan lore has it that she was a newcomer when Gene Roddenberry asked her to write the episode that became Charlie X, it was only that she was new to science fiction.
Though she’ll be best remembered for her work on Star Trek, and particularly for her association with Mr. Spock, her influence on the last six decades of broader American pop culture is immeasurable. At the heart of all her television writing was a singular ability to seek out the character at the heart of a story and to explore that individual with passion and humanity (even when they weren’t human)—that’s something that any writer should seek to emulate. She gave innumerable honest, informative, and funny interviews over the decades about her life and career, and that voice will be missed as much as her work.
D. C. Fontana, 1939-2019