This was back in college and I was 19 or 20 years-old…as green as a spring pasture in Ireland. Now I was by no means a Trekker or hard-core Trek fan, but I grew up on reruns of the original Star Trek series and started watching the Next Generation (TNG) in school because my housemate and our buddies would get stoned and watch it. I was very anti-TV during that time and tried to resist as long as possible but, in the end, resistance was…uh…futile. I did enjoy the show but if I wasn’t a big fan, why did I pick that series to write for? Honestly, for one simple reason…it was the only show on the air that accepted unsolicited scripts. So even a nobody like me had a shot in theory.
In almost all cases, no Hollywood production company will read unsolicited scripts from people they don’t know. If a legitimate agent, manager or attorney does not submit your work for you, no one will touch it. As far as I know, the various Star Trek series were the only shows in the history of the medium to welcome and read unsolicited scripts. Basically, you sent in a self-addressed stamped envelope and the Star Trek folks would mail you a release form to sign and you would send that back with your completed teleplay. I think the producers felt that no one knew the world of Star Trek better than the fans so they wanted to open up the process to them. Occasionally, you’d read about some average Joe in the Midwest submitting their episode and it being bought and produced. That was the dream.
I knew nothing about writing for TV but even in my youthful naivety, I knew I would only get one shot so whatever I wrote had to be good. This was in the prehistoric days before the internet so you couldn’t simply download sample TV scripts off the net. I had to go into a comic shop and pay $20 to purchase two teleplays of past TNG episodes which was a big investment considering I was broke. I needed to study the format so my effort would look and feel professional. I also checked out all the books on writing for TV from the library so I wouldn’t make any mistakes.
But the one thing I had to come up with completely on my own was a great idea for my episode. Like I said, I knew I only had one shot so whatever I submitted had to be shit hot. I’d think up ideas and ask my Trekker friends what they thought of them and they’d tell me the ideas had already been done so it was back to the drawing board.
Then I hit upon a premise that hadn’t been tackled before and it even had a totally mind-blowing Sixth Sense-type twist; years before The Sixth Sense. So I wrote what I was sure was an absolutely brilliant episode (with an awesome twist—don’t forget that) and mailed it in. And then…I waited. And waited.
I think the hardest thing for any young writer has nothing to do with the writing itself—it’s actually the waiting. Once you submit something to someone who has the power to either give you a break or dash your dreams with a single response…that can be excruciatingly difficult. Each morning you wake up wondering if this could be the day you get the news. Days turn into weeks into months and sometimes into years. I feel for every writer in this position.
About nine months after I sent the script, I got the letter. It’s always a bad sign when you receive a letter—it’s almost always a rejection. Usually you’ll get a phone call if it’s good news. And sure enough, it was a very nice form letter from the show’s production office thanking me for my submission but informing me they had decided to pass. My heart sank. I don’t care if you have a cold android heart like Data—that first rejection is always devastating. However, the truth is my script most likely sucked. I still think the premise had potential but as for the execution…well, how good can you really be at 19? I still had a lot to learn and if I read my script now, I’m sure I would deem it cringe-worthy. But lesson learned and time to move on…until about a year later.
I got a frantic call from a Trekker friend of mine who had read my episode. He had taped that week’s episode of the spin-off series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and said I needed to watch it immediately. So I did. And what I saw was the exact plot of the script I wrote right down to the surprise twist at the end. The only difference was that it had been transplanted to the new spin-off show (both Star Trek series were produced by the same folks). I was incensed—Star Trek had ripped off my episode! A year after they had rejected my script, they used my very story without permission. At least that’s what I thought. My friend suggested I should “sue the pants off the producers,” but the truth was that there was nothing I could do. Even if they had indeed stolen my idea, I had signed a release form stating I couldn’t do anything about it. Another lesson learned.
Did they really steal my idea or was it just a coincidence? The reality is it’s hard to prove theft in a situation like that (although occasionally someone is successful as in the Buchwald vs. Paramount case). But does creative theft happen? Of course. There are producers and executives who call in unsuspecting writers to hear their pitches, but have no intention of hiring them. They’re just fishing for any good ideas they can take and claim as their own when they develop that script with another, more high-profile writer.
But there are also genuine coincidences when two very similar things do come out at the same time, like the competing Truman Capote pictures from a few years ago:
I can attest to this. A few years after the Star Trek experience, my friend Corey and I wrote a spec episode for the then-popular TV show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In our story, Superman is transported to an alternate earth where that world’s Superman is dead (having been secretly killed by Lex Luthor) and Luthor is now both engaged to Lois Lane and about to be elected President of the United States by an American public unaware of his evil nature. Superman teams up with that world’s Lois to thwart Luthor and expose him as a criminal.
When John McNamara, Lois & Clark’s executive producer, read our spec script, he called us in and told us he really loved it but (there’s always a “but”) the episode that was in pre-production at that very moment was also an alternate earth story. In their version, Lois is the one who gets transported to an alternate earth where that world’s Lois is dead and she helps that world’s Clark Kent realize his destiny as Superman. Our script was now obsolete and he had to pass on it even though he said we showed a lot of promise. But to John’s credit, he backed up his words with action and invited us to pitch another idea and eventually hired us (you can read about that experience here).
And another lesson learned—sometimes good things can come out of rejection too.