In the fall of 1986, I was on the staff of a TV show in development. You may have heard of it: “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Early in the process, we had a number of meetings about who our regular characters might be. Bob Justman (one of the producers) said, “If we’re going to have families on the starship, we should have children too. Let’s include a 15-year-old super-genius as a regular character. It’ll appeal to the younger audience we need.”
I shuddered. I remembered something Gene Roddenberry had said 20 years earlier: “If I wouldn’t believe it on the bridge of the battleship Missouri, I won’t believe it on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.” So I thought long and hard about the most politic response.
Finally, I said, “That could pull us off purpose. Writers might start using the super-genius character to solve all the problems on the starship, and if that happens, we’re not doing ‘Star Trek,’ we’re doing ‘Lost In Space.’ ” But being a good team player, I also said, “But if we do include such a character, we should focus on the rigorous training he has to go through to become a responsible crewmember.”
Apparently, that was interpreted as agreement. Later, after the decision was finalized, I wrote a memo suggesting Wil Wheaton for the part. Wil had starred in Rob Reiner’s excellent movie, “Stand By Me.” Later he showed up on several episodes of “St. Elsewhere,” a medical series, playing a 15-year-old super-genius who had just graduated medical school and was interning at the hospital. But the first time the young doctor had to examine a woman for breast cancer was also the first time he’d seen a woman’s naked breasts—and he reacted inappropriately. He said, “Wow. Breasts,” and thereby demonstrated that there is a vast chasm between intellectual achievement and emotional maturity.
And that should have been the way to proceed with the character of Wesley Crusher. I wrote a memo pointing that out and suggested Wil Wheaton for the part. A few weeks later, he was cast in the role.
Over the years, Wil Wheaton has demonstrated considerable acting chops. He’s done guest shots on “The Big Bang Theory,” “Leverage,” “Eureka” and other hit shows. He also writes one of the more interesting blogs on the Internet. And he is the author of Wheaton’s Law: “Don’t be a dick.”
After leaving “Star Trek,” I wrote a dozen novels, adopted a little boy, did a few more TV scripts, won a Hugo and a Nebula, sold “The Martian Child” to the movies, and also worked for a while at a dot-com—until that particular bubble burst. All of these adventures gave me some useful insights into the act of industrialized creation.
Most of these insights are variations on Wheaton’s Law: Don’t be a dick.
Insight #1: If you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reason. The product isn’t going to sparkle.
You have to love what you’re doing. No amount of money is going to make you love it; in fact, the more money they throw at you, the more cynical and bitter you’re going to become. You’ll stuff things into the mix just because you can, or worse, because some demographic researcher tells you that’s what sells—so you’ll just throw things at the wall and see if any of it sticks, and you’ll pretend that’s being creative.
The more you do this, the more you will become one of those people you used to despise, the ones who forgot how to be enthusiastic, the ones who forgot how to be fans.
Insight #2: Don’t be stupid with your money.
Twelve years ago, I had an interesting conversation with a venture capitalist. I wasn’t trying to sell him on anything, so we were both being candid. He told me of a trip he’d taken to Silicon Valley for a week of meetings with potential dot-com startups. He was driving a rental car from location to location.
One startup after another, he’d pull up to a gleaming building with a fancy logo and a parking lot full of Corvettes, Porsches and Mercedes. Inside, the offices were filled with expensive furnishings and lavish demonstrations of wealth, all designed to impress with the performance of success. The entrepreneurs spoke about the promises of billions at the IPO. They just had to maintain their burn rate for a few more months while they finished their code.
Then, late in the week, he arrived at a grimy old warehouse. He almost thought he was in the wrong place. The parking lot was filled with beat-up old Hondas and VWs. Inside, most of the furniture was hand-me-downs, folding chairs, card tables, a couple of white-boards, and all the shelves were planks on concrete blocks. The only real expenditures in the building were the computers. The founders of the company explained, “We have to make our money go as far as possible. We made a promise to ourselves: Nobody gets a new car until our sixth month of profitability.”
Guess which company he invested in?
Oh, and a year later, that particular company was by then profitable enough to pick up a lot of used furniture and equipment at liquidation sales.
Insight #3: Having money doesn’t always prove you know what you’re doing.
Around that same time, another of those Silicon Valley startups invited me in to consult on a game. At least, that’s what I thought. Later, it became obvious that the whole meeting was a setup. One of their key programmers was a big fan of one of my books, and he wanted to meet me, so he invited me up to the offices under false pretenses. He showed me a spectacular game engine, truly lustworthy for the time. I’d been building my own computers since 1978 and was involved with computer games ever since Colossal Cave Adventure (look it up!), so I was able to appreciate just how good a product they were putting together.
Then we had lunch, and I made the silly mistake of assuming that they’d invited me into their Bat Cave because they wanted my input. My advice was candid, even blunt. Based on what I’d seen in other games, and based on what I knew of what gamers were looking for, there wasn’t a lot of demand in the marketplace for more of the same. They had a great gaming engine, no question, but I suggested that should push the envelope and do something that nobody else was doing at that time.
I suggested a storytelling approach. Instead of building one more imitation-Tolkien fantasy-adventure world, there were a lot of great science fiction worlds they could license and take the player through. In addition to the gaming audience, they would also attract a huge new demographic of science fiction fans familiar with those worlds. For instance, Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” would be ideal, offering unlimited expansions.
Then one of the other developers interrupted. “Did you see that Ferrari in the parking lot? That’s mine. I don’t need some old guy telling me how to write a game.” I looked at him and suddenly remembered something my cousin the doctor had told me: The male brain doesn’t finish maturing until the age of 23.
I gathered my things, got up and left. I did not take the free T-shirt they had given me. A year later, the Ferrari was up for sale, along with a lot of desks and computers. (See insight #2.)
Insight #4: Learn from the best. Don’t be afraid of other people’s experience. Experienced people have already made the stupid mistakes and learned from them. They make great teachers. And you get to stand on their shoulders.
In 1974, I was hired as story editor for a TV show called “Land Of The Lost.” It was my first story-editing gig and I really didn’t want to screw it up. So I borrowed a trick from the first season of the original “Star Trek TV” series: I called up all the best science fiction writers I knew and asked them to write stories for me. Most of them were older and more experienced than me: D.C. Fontana, Larry Niven, Ben Bova, Margaret Armen, Walter Koenig, Norman Spinrad, Dick Morgan, and others.
I did this for two reasons. First, I’m lazy. If they wrote a good script, I wouldn’t have to rewrite it. Second, I’m vain. If they wrote a good script, they would make me look good. Based on the available evidence—a lot of people have fond memories of those episodes—it was a good decision. I didn’t have to do all the hard work and I got the credit for much of theirs.
A couple of generations after that, I was sitting in the audience at Comic Con, listening to a panel of young TV producers—the kind whom the industry calls “fetuses in suits.” One of them had the astonishing gall to say, “Oh, I would never hire a writer older than me. It would be like working with my father.” (Hmm, maybe that explained why my phone wasn’t ringing.)
I have to admit to no small amount of schadenfreude (look it up!) when that producer’s show was abruptly cancelled. And his next show and the one after that also didn’t survive the first season.
Insight #5: Sometimes, you’re going to be a dick anyway.
Yes, I know: You didn’t intend to. I’ve been there. I know.
There’s no good example here, because if you’re being a dick, you always have a really good reason for it. “Well, the other guy was a dick first. I was just getting even.”
Oh, yeah, that makes everything all right. Just because someone else is rolling around in a gutter, you’re obligated to get down there and roll around with him?
How does that help anyone? You’re better off apologizing and cleaning up the mess. At least that demonstrates you know how to be responsible. (I have a really good story on this one, but it would take too long to tell.)
Last insight: Wheaton’s Law is more important than Godwin’s Law. Hitler was a dick. Look what happened to him.
David Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes, including the famous “Star Trek” episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He is also an authority on computer software and programming, and takes a broad view of the evolution of advanced technologies. Readers may remember Gerrold from the Computer Language Magazine forum on CompuServe, where he was a frequent and prolific contributor in the 1990s.