I was 9 years old, prowling through the Van Nuys public library, when I discovered a book called "Rocket Ship Galileo," by some guy named Robert A. Heinlein.
That was the first one. Very quickly, I discovered there were so many more.
I wanted to know all there was to know about spaceships and robots and aliens and time machines. I figured out how to use the card catalog, and over the next few years I ransacked the library for every science fiction book I could find. The authors' names were the trail I followed. Heinlein, then Asimov, Van Vogt, Bradbury, and very quickly all the others. I just wanted to know how the universe worked.
I could read a book a day, so even before I finished high school, I felt like I was caught up, and keeping up. (Back then, it was possible. Today, it is not.) I was a weird kid, and a weirder teenager -- I knew I didn't fit in, and I couldn't figure out why I couldn't figure it out. After a while, I stopped trying. The books and magazines were taking me to much more amazing places.
College was an adventure. I studied everything that fascinated me: Art, journalism, psychology, a lot of science, screenwriting, acting, and directing. One Thursday night in 1966, a weird-looking spaceship flashed across my TV screen. Interesting.
Of course, my fannish arrogance kicked in immediately.
Okay, they got one thing right -- a spaceship doesn't have to land. But that transporter beam thing, really? And that guy with the pointy ears with no emotions. What was that all about? Without emotions, he's not going to be very interesting.
But then -- that alien pyramid. The doors weren't proportioned for humans. That was the moment they hooked me: Maybe these people are trying to do real science fiction.
So I sat down and wrote an outline over the weekend. It was big, it would have been expensive, and I wrote it as a two-parter. I had an agent (California, okay?) and he submitted it the following Monday. Before the end of the week, Gene L. Coon, the show runner, called me in for a meeting.
He said, "Your outline shows a lot of promise. It's not something we can use, we're all bought up this season, but please submit more stories after we're renewed."
"Star Trek" was renewed for a second season the following February, and I had five outlines ready to submit. One of them was called, "A Fuzzy Thing Happened To Me… ." Dorothy Fontana thought it had whimsy, and Gene L. Coon bought it and gave me the chance to write the script. That was the beginning of a half-century love affair with the most amazing television series ever produced.
"Star Trek" had, and still has, a unique format. Because of its episodic nature, because it visits different worlds every week, it can tell stories that are heroic, or tragic, or simply comedic. It can explore moral dilemmas and personal conflicts. It can go anywhere and examine any human question.
In that regard, it is fulfilling the essential goal of science fiction -- it is asking, "What does it mean to be a human being?"
Science fiction is a subversive literature. It says that the way things are is not the way they have to be. Science fiction is about possibilities. It predicts, it warns, and ultimately it prescribes. It offers us choices.
"Star Trek," at its best, did all of those things. It gave us morality plays about cold wars and hot ones, it talked about politics and poverty, and even my own little comedy was an exercise in ecological awareness. The show examined the foibles of human existence, over and over.
But more than that, "Star Trek" was inclusive. For the first time in American television, we saw a black woman in a position of authority, and an Asian man at the helm, and in the second season, a Russian man joined the crew as the navigator. The message was clear: There's room on the Enterprise for all of us.
"Star Trek" was an optimistic view of the future as well. It was bright, it was colorful, and it said that we were not only going to survive the challenges of today, we were going to become a better species, able to challenge the bigger task of exploring the galaxy. Of course it was destined to become the most iconic expression of humanity in television history. We just didn't realize it at the time.
The night that "The Trouble With Tribbles" was first aired, I had a party for my friends from school. After the final credits rolled, one of my friends went on at some length about how good he thought the show had been. Finally, I had to stop him, I said, "Bob, Bob -- it's only one episode of one TV series. In 20 years, who's going to remember it?" (Apparently, the universe said, "Challenge accepted, David.")
I could have gone on to have a much different career. For instance, I used to love building and programming computers, and it turned out I was pretty good at teaching too -- probably because of my enthusiasm for the subject.
But I'd rather be a science fiction writer.
A science fiction book is a doorway into possibility -- everything from horrifying to marvelous, and back again from the far side. A science fiction book expands the event horizon of the imagination. Science fiction is the most ambitious branch of literature. It's dangerous, it's astonishing, it's frustrating as hell -- and it takes us to places no other genre can.
Science fiction writers are the Research & Development Division of the human race. Whether it's things as mundane as sliding doors or smartphones, or as mind-blowing as a moon-landing, a space station, robots taking pictures of Pluto -- none of these things happened by accident.
They happened because somebody had to dream about them first -- and most of those dreams came from science fiction writers.
Being a science fiction writer is the best job in the world. You get to go anywhere in time and space, past or future or sideways into alternate realities and other dimensions. You get to visit all the possibilities and all the impossibilities. A science fiction writer is a literary Timelord. And yes, every book is bigger on the inside.
"Star Trek" stopped being just another television show and became a phenomenon a long time ago. There's no question in my mind how this happened. "Star Trek" awakens the imagination. It's different for each viewer, but for each of them there's something in the "Star Trek" universe that says, "This is a great place to play. And someday it'll be a great place to live."
Let me add this. We were blessed with one of the greatest ensembles in television history.
William Shatner was a treasure. Few other actors could have demonstrated such range -- heroic one moment and thoughtful the next. He could be ironic, compassionate, and occasionally hysterically funny.
Leonard Nimoy didn't just play Spock, he was Spock -- intelligent and insightful throughout. The pairing of those two was lightning in a bottle. Watching them work, you knew you were seeing something special.
Behind the scenes, we had Marc Daniels and Joe Pevney, great directors, and Jerry Finnerman, one of the most imaginative directors of photography in the business. We had Matt Jefferies as a designer and William Ware Theiss creating costumes week after week after week.
And of course, the writers. We had scripts by Gene L. Coon, Dorothy Fontana, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, George Clayton Johnson, Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and many other authors with serious science fiction credentials. (And yes, I remain humbled, grateful, and overwhelmed that I had a small part in this incredible adventure.)
I don't predict the future, I'm only a science fiction writer -- but if I were bold enough, I would predict that the "Star Trek" phenomenon, in all of its iterations still to come, will continue for as long as audiences are excited about the possibilities that exist on the other side of the sky, and for as long as audiences want to consider the underlying questions, "What is our place in this universe? Who are we? And what does it mean to be a human being?"
Indeed, as history unfolds over the next hundred years, and possibly the next thousand as well, future historians will come to regard "Star Trek" as the great American mythos. They will say, "If you want to understand Americans, you have to understand the hopes and dreams embodied in this very strange and very wonderful little TV show that touched the hearts and souls of this nation first, and eventually the whole world."
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
*David Gerrold wrote "Star Trek: The Original Series'" most popular episode, "The Trouble With Tribbles." His novel "The Man Who Folded Himself" is a time travel classic, "The War Against The Chtorr" a cult epic, and "The Martian Child," David's beautiful story about adopting his son Sean, was the basis of the 2007 John Cusack film.
(Photo via trekmovie.com.)