An Interview with Fred Bronson, Part 3: TNG
I recently interviewed Star Trek writer Fred Bronson, discussing such topics as the character of Robert April and Fred’s work on Star Trek in the 1970s. In this final segment, we discuss his experiences as co-writer of two episodes of The Next Generation: “Ménage à Troi” and “The Game”.
How did the opportunity to write for Star Trek: The Next Generation come about?
Once again, I was proved wrong about there never, ever being any more Star Trek. When TNG was being developed, I was not in on the meetings, but because of my friendship with Susan Sackett and Gene Roddenberry, I was kept informed of the creation of the show.
I remember being told that the captain would be named “Jean-Luc Picard”, way before the part was cast. And that there would be a “Deanna Troi”, named after Susan’s middle name of “Deanna”. The doctor was going to have a daughter on board, Leslie. Later, I was told no, it will be a son, named after Gene’s middle name of “Wesley”.
With all this information coming in, I quicky started coming up with ideas for episodes. By this time, I was a member of the Writers Guild, which made it easier to go in and pitch story ideas. Gene set up a meeting for me with one of the producers, Bob Lewin. I was extremely nervous going in, as it was my first pitch meeting ever. I had several ideas and Bob warmed to one of them, which I titled “The Mnemonic Enemy”. Bob said there was one problem – my episode dealt with a separation of the men from the women on the ship, and they were considering another pitch that wasn’t the same story but did involve a separation of genders. Bob said he liked my story better and would fight for mine. He did not win that battle, and the other story was produced – “Angel One”.
In Season 2, Susan and I decided to team up and pitch ideas. This time, Gene said we should pitch directly to him. We did, and he liked one of our ideas. It sounds like a cliche now, but back then I promise you it was an original idea: a Starfleet historian from the future comes back to observe the Enterprise crew and accidentally causes the death of Captain Picard. Gene bought our story – which means we were paid – but Maurice Hurley was showrunner at the time and he didn’t care for our idea. Then Hurley left and Michael Piller came in, and we thought this is our chance. Wrong. He didn’t care for it either.
So, how did you get the opportunity to suggest the story idea that became “Ménage à Troi”?
Michael set up a meeting for Susan and I to pitch more ideas. We came up with twelve storylines. Although it was up to Michael and not Gene, we took Gene to lunch just to tell him what our twelve ideas were, just in case he hated any of them. He didn’t. So, we met with Michael and the entire writing staff. Our first eleven ideas were rejected: “No, we would never do that,” “No, we’re already doing that,” etc.
Then we literally got to our last pitch, which we called “The Ransom of Mrs. Troi”, based on the O. Henry short story “The Ransom of Red Chief”. The idea: aliens kidnap Mrs. Troi and then can’t wait to get rid of her. Michael liked the idea and gave us the go-ahead to write the story. We developed the story much more, turned it in, and the next day we were told they were going to buy it. We spent a day and a half with two producers writing out all the beats on a large whiteboard. Then Michael Piller came in and read our beats and told Susan and me we had ten days to write the script. We wrote it in five days.
Our title was “Piece of Mind”, but Piller asked us to change it, because he didn’t like doing a play on words. Susan and I went to dinner and came up with a bunch of ridiculous titles, like “My Stepmother Is A Ferengi”. Driving home, we still didn’t have a title and suddenly the phrase “pas de deux” popped into my head. Then I thought, no, its not two, it’s three – Riker, Deanna, and Lwaxana. Three: Ménage à trois! No, not trois – Troi! We were aware that this was still a play on words.
The next morning, Susan told Gene what our new title was, and he wrote a memo to Michael Piller saying, “Fred and Susan have come up with a new title, ‘Ménage à Troi’, and I like it.” And that’s how we got to use that title.
Can you also tell us a bit about writing “The Game”?
Sure! After “Ménage à Troi”, Susan and I came up with a few more ideas and had another pitch meeting with Michael Piller. I came up with the idea for “The Game”, based on playing too much Tetris on my 1990 PC (before I switched to Mac). Susan and I developed it as a story for Wesley, including a romance with an ambassador’s daughter. We wrote it as his going-away episode.
Michael liked it and asked us to write the story. We did, and the notes we got back were that we didn’t quite give them what they wanted. They gave us a list of things to fix, and we did. And the reaction was, this still isn’t what we want. So, they had another writer take a crack at it and they didn’t like that draft either. So, they gave it to yet another writer and they still didn’t like it.
A year later, Rick Berman asked Piller, “Whatever happened to that story about the game that Fred and Susan came up with?” and Michael said, “It’s in the dead file.” And Rick said, “No, I liked that story. We’re going to do it.” So, it was reactivated.
I guess at that point, we were so far removed from it, that they gave it to a new writer to work on: Brannon Braga. He revised the story and wrote the script. Susan and I were given shared story credit with Brannon.
So much time had passed that this was now Wesley’s coming-back story. Brannon’s script was close to our original pitch. I had a title I wanted to use and Piller rejected it, saying we would be sued. The title was “Advance To Boardwalk”, and Michael thought Parker Bros. would sue. I said, “No, they’ll be thrilled.” But, as you know, they decided to call it “The Game”.
Susan and I were very happy with the finished episode. I still remember the day I went over to the studio to have an early lunch with her at 11:30am because the first copies of a new episode would arrive on Gene’s desk at twelve noon, one week before air. Sure enough, we came back from lunch, the VHS tape of “The Game” was sitting on Gene’s desk, and we watched it in his office. He was not there; he had been ill and at home for about six weeks. After we watched it, Susan went back to her desk in the outer office and I was sitting in Gene’s office, and a few minutes later, Susan was standing in front of me, in tears. She had just learned that Gene died in his doctor’s office. It was a terrible day.
That’s really sad, but thank you so much for allowing this interview, Fred.
You’re very welcome. Thanks for asking me to do this. There’s one more thing you might find interesting.
Over almost twenty years, I had a lot of lunches with Gene and Susan. I remember one lunch in 1990 at the Paramount commissary where the topic turned to legacies. I said to Gene, “You know, they will still be writing stories about Kirk and Spock in the 21st century.” He laughed and said, “Yeah, and they’ll do it better than me.” When the first J.J. movie came along in 2009, I remembered that conversation and wish Gene had lived to see the day.
Webmaster of WarpFactorTrek, Dan is an avid Star Trek fan who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Also known as “The Scotch Trekker”, Dan has loved Star Trek ever since discovering it in his childhood. He worked as an administrator, for six years, on the encyclopedic Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which involved studying the making of the various series and films. He has been mentioned in the official Star Trek Magazine, has qualified from a Star Trek course run at Glasgow Clyde College, and ran The Scotch Trekker YouTube channel, which regularly featured live interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek.