Writing TNG: “Checkmate”
Some of my memories related to Star Trek: The Next Generation came as a result of my love of writing.
In 1990, the film The Hunt for Red October hit theaters to commercial and critical success. Partly based on actual events, the film portrays the defection of a Russian submarine captain who brings with him the latest in naval technology, a submarine that can disappear from the most advanced radar systems, and a CIA analyst determined to uncover the truth. I thought to myself that this would make a great episode of TNG. Someone should tell that story, and I decided I wanted to be that person, even though I wasn’t a professional television writer.
It was in 1991 that I read, in an issue of Starlog, about how TNG’s Open Submissions Policy had enabled writer Lawrence Conley to submit a series of speculative scripts to The Next Generation. I recalled The Hunt for Red October and immediately began forming an idea for a similar TNG script, substituting the Romulans for the Russians, and the Federation and the Enterprise for the United States.
Conley had contacted Paramount for a document containing speculative script guidelines and an address for registering his script with the Writers Guild of America West (or WGAw) before sending it to Paramount for consideration. To submit my script, I had to do likewise. At my request, Paramount sent me a copy of the 1991-92 script submission guidelines, which gave clear instructions for registering the script with the WGA (either East Coast or West Coast) before sending it to the studio with a release form.
I had collected, at a local comic book store, multiple scripts from different movies and TV series, including various episodes of TOS and TNG, as well as a very rare writer’s technical manual for The Next Generation that aided scriptwriters in understanding the technology of the series. These would prove valuable resources for me in seeing how scripts are formatted on the page, and I regularly referred to them as I developed my script.
Key to my story was a piece of prototype technology that would enhance the Romulans’ cloaking device. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Enterprise-A had managed to counter technology that allowed a Klingon Bird-of-Prey to fire while cloaked. I saw a then-modern parallel in the form of audio and video duplication. In the 1990s, the methods to prevent video piracy were progressing, as were the efforts to counteract those methods. This gave me the idea that, if Starfleet had developed methods of detecting cloaked ships, any alien race could find a way to override that signal, forcing Starfleet to build a better detection system.
It took me about five or six months to type out my script, which I named “Checkmate”. In it, the Enterprise-D was sent – in order to prevent a full-scale war – to intercept a Romulan ship and determine from its captain the nature of the vessel and his intentions.
As TNG continued into its fifth season, I made sure my portrayal of the Romulan culture reflected what was shown on screen in each of the episodes that season. All the main characters’ nuances had to absolutely correspond with everything established to date. I wanted what I wrote to honor the series in every single manner.
As with everything else I wrote during those times, I drafted the script on my Brother word processor, which my mom and I found at the old Service Merchandise at Metrocenter for about five hundred US dollars. It held little data, only 256 kilobytes on a floppy disk.
Once I completed my spec script for “Checkmate”, I printed out a copy to send to the Writer’s Guild of America West (WGAw), and paid a nominal registration fee. The WGAw, in turn, sent me a registration number. Then, I sent myself a bound copy of the script, apparently to cover the bases with the studio. Finally, I sent the script, the registry number, and a submission form to the series’ script coordinator, Eric Stillwell.
All I could do, then, was wait. And the only news I got was a certified return receipt in the mail, signed by a Paramount representative.
Four months passed. Just when I was starting to wonder if I would ever hear back from Paramount, I received, one Spring day in 1992, a package in the mail. It was the copy of my script, along with a letter from Eric Stillwell, thanking me for the script submission. However, the writing staff had declined my script idea, which didn’t surprise me much, considering that TNG received approximately two to three thousand such scripts per year.
“Checkmate” was an ambitious story, one that would have been visually exciting. Perhaps it was too visually exciting, ambitious and cost-prohibitive in terms of production design. Maybe I should have proposed something smaller scale.
But I was still determined to break into the industry, and I had another idea, involving Counselor Troi losing her empathic abilities. A subsequent episode of the series, entitled “Violations”, coincidentally broached some of the ideas I had in mind.
And the sixth season episode “Face of the Enemy” ventured into similar territory to my spec script, with the idea of a group of Romulans defecting with their knowledge and technology, but with a twist: Troi would undergo plastic surgery to resemble a Romulan and mediate the defection. That episode was larger in scale than some of the others. Besides that, I couldn’t find any significant similarities to my script idea.
Once the ripple effects of “Checkmate” had subsided, I went back to my life. Today, I no longer have my Brother word processor, the floppy disks that contained the script, nor the script itself. I had looked into having the data transferred to modern technology, but it would have been too cost-prohibitive. As far as I know, the only surviving copy of the script is with the WGAw. However, the memories of those days remain with me.
A lifelong Star Trek fan since the age of six, Bill Williams has written and reviewed numerous Star Trek novels, videos, and products since 2001 for TrekWeb.com. He has also contributed material to the 2006 publication Voyages of Imagination: The Star Trek Fiction Companion from Simon & Schuster, and has written and published several independent books. He currently contributes articles for CapedWonder.com and maintains a writer’s page on Facebook.