When Dorothy Catherine Fontana entered the television industry in the early 1960s men wrote scripts and women typed them up. She started off in the business as a typist and secretary, but managed to break into the male-dominated world of script-writing, by using male pseudonyms before deciding simply to abbreviate Dorothy Catherine to the initials DC.
She was in at the start of Star Trek in 1966 and wrote or rewrote many of the classic episodes from the first two series.
The episode Journey to Babel – which introduced Spock’s Vulcan father Sarek and human mother Amanda - was one of her storylines. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, credited Fontana with being one of the few writers on the series who could create believable female characters.
Despite several clashes with Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry, Fontana’s association with the franchise continued on and off into the 21st Century, long after Roddenberry’s ashes had been launched towards the final frontier. She not only fleshed out Spock’s backstory, but also Scotty’s – all the way back to West Lothian.
She also wrote episodes of several other high-profile hit series, across a range of genres, including The Six Million Dollar Man, Kung Fu, The Waltons, Dallas, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Babylon 5.
She was born in Sussex, New Jersey, in 1939 and by the time she was ten she had made up her mind that she wanted to be a writer. That ability to write credible female characters was developed early. She would write horror stories with herself and her school chums as the characters.
After college she secured a job as secretary with the TV company Screen Gems. “Scripts for various TV shows would come across my desk. I remember thinking, ‘Gee, I could write those!’ In 1959, I moved to Los Angeles which was the place to be for TV productions and worked in the typing pool at Revue Studios.”
While at Revue she worked as secretary to Samuel A Peeples, one of the writers on the western television series Overland Trail and he encouraged her writing ambitions. Peeples subsequently created another western series The Tall Man in 1960 and Peeples used several of her story ideas for the show. It was not long before she was writing actual scripts as opposed to just selling plots. “I was 21 years old and have been writing ever since,” she said in an interview last year.
Budgets were tight on some of those shows. One could afford only four significant speaking roles and on another all the outdoor scenes had to be quickly rewritten for indoors because it was raining on the day of the shoot.
And although she sold her first story at 21 it was not exactly an uninterrupted rise to the top of the profession. Peeples was very much her mentor and when he left Revue she found herself back in the typing pool.
And although she had written her first stories and scripts under her own name she found it difficult to be taken seriously as a woman. She did however manage to sell scripts for The Wild Wild West under the name Michael Edwards.
“As a woman it was hard to sell action adventure scripts,” she said, “despite the fact that they were all I had written and sold to date. Eventually I started using DC Fontana as a byline. I could get a spec script read without a pre-judgment based on gender.” Even then her writing was only part-time and her main job was still secretary.
Her association with Roddenberry began before Star Trek when he was working on a show called The Lieutenant. His regular secretary was ill and she stepped into the breach.
She impressed Roddenberry with her ambition and her talents. And when he moved on to Star Trek in 1966 he gave her the chance to write several episodes.
And when the original story editor left she took over that position, meaning she was reworking other writers’ scripts, sometimes just tweaking the dialogue, on other occasions completely rewriting the whole thing.
“I really like my Star Trek scripts, especially Journey to Babel, Tomorrow is Yesterday and This Side of Paradise,” she said.
“Paradise was a total rewrite of another script that wasn’t working, and it was also Roddenberry’s test for me to become story editor on the show. Those scripts peeled off new facets of characters on the show – Babel and Paradise a human side for Spock and Paradise and Tomorrow a comedic side for Kirk. Plus they were great fun to write and they are the most remembered.”
Fontana left Star Trek after two seasons, but continued to write for the series on a freelance basis, though the relationship was sometimes a difficult one, as she had invested so much in the series and did not always appreciate her own work being rewritten.
She was writer, story editor and associate producer on Star Trek: The Animated Series in the 1970s and writer and associate producer on early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation the following decade.
She also wrote for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek New Voyages: Phase Two, she was involved with the development of the Star Trek video games and her 1989 novel Vulcan’s Glory seemingly established the childhood home of the Enterprise’s engineer Scotty as being Linlithgow.
She told the Linlithgow Gazette: “I’ve visited Linlithgow many times on trips to Scotland. It is a most beautiful place… Linlithgow Palace is stunning – a person can wander through and around it for hours and just drink in the spectacular scene and its haunting, stirring history. I thought it was a fitting reference for the character of Mr Scott and his family background.”
For many years Fontana taught at the American Film Institute. In 2001 she was inducted in the Screenwriting Hall of Fame. She is survived by her husband Daniel Skotak, an Oscar-winning visual effects director.