Tribute to a Star Trek Great

I've just read the sad news of the death of Michael Piller - co-creator of Deep Space Nine, Voyager and The Dead Zone, at the unfairly young age of 57. It's not been a good year for Trek, with James Doohan's loss still fresh in our minds, and now Piller who, in my opinion, was responsible for saving Star Trek. As a hardcore Trekker, I, along with millions of other fans worldwide, owe him a tremendous debt for everything he did for the franchise.

He began his career in New York working for CBS news but eventually, after working at various news agencies, he left to become a full-time script-writer, inspired by his time at CBS' docudrama department. Amongst other shows he worked on Cagney and Lacey, Miami Vice and Simon & Simon but it was on Star Trek that he made his greatest contributions to television.

When he first climbed aboard the starship Enterprise, at the beginning of The Next Generation's third season, TNG was, frankly, a mess. Behind-the-scenes the writing staff was in constant flux, with people coming and going almost weekly as difficulties with the producers made life extremely difficult - scripts would be re-written or dropped, and there was no guidance as to what the show should be. No one really had a clue and it was showing on screen. While the second season hadn't been as bad as the first, the very fact it ended up with a limp clips show called Shades of Grey says everything about the lack of inspiration and the malaise of the staff.

Piller changed all that. He came in and was instantly a stabilising force. Much more so than Berman - and even Gene Roddenberry - he understood exactly what the show should be and how the characters should be handled, and he organised his writing staff into a coherent team, with a single goal. Watch Season Two and then Season Three of TNG and it's almost a different series: more confident, more sure of itself, and with far better stories. It escaped from the shadow of TOS and became its own entity, and that was Piller's doing.

He was also responsible for opening the door to fresh new talent. He began an open-door policy on scripts - no longer did you need professional credentials and an agent to work on the show, anyone could just send in a script and, if it was liked, you were asked in to pitch further. Thanks to him we now have some of the best writers working on US television today - Ron D Moore of Battlestar Galactica and Jane Espenson of Buffy being the two examples that immediately spring to mind (as well as one Brannon Braga, but as he's a contentious individual probably best not to mention him). It was a farsighted policy, unique both in its time and since, and even though only perhaps one in every five hundred pitches received paid off, it was still a worthy exercise that, ultimately paid dividends (TNG would certainly have been a far poorer series without Moore).

Although he didn't actually write that many episodes himself, those he did are some of the most memorable of the entire run: Unification Part 2 which saw the generations meet when Spock joined forces with Picard, Ensign Ro which set up the premise for DS9, Yesterday's Enterprise and, most notably The Best of Both Worlds. For this alone we should be thankful, as it's an episode that still appears on, ironically, "Best of..." lists, both for cliffhangers (Riker's order of "Fire!" still sends shivers down my spine), and Best Episode of a show, period. Personally speaking, I had a great time with the episode, as I had a (normally quite tranquil) friend at school who was only just getting into TNG after watching some of the later episodes on BBC2. I lent him the video of the first part of BoBW telling him nothing about the story at all, and sent him home with it telling him "he might quite enjoy it." The next day he came in goggling, bouncing up and down and demanding "What happens, what happens?" I'd never seen him so fired up about anything before in his life. The whole imagery of that episode was magnificent: Picard's rape by the Borg, the complete, seemingly-indestructible nature of the threat they posed, the smallness of the Enterprise against the mighty Cube - hell, even the annoying Borg expert Commander Shelby - are enough to have been ingrained deeply on anyone who has seen it. For many people, that was TNG's finest moment.

Piller also co-created what many feel is the superior Trek series, Deep Space Nine, a show that dared to show conflict between its leading characters. One of Roddenberry's golden rules had always been that the crew of a starship would have long since put aside their petty differences and would all get along, which is a nice premise but terrible to generate drama from. For DS9 Piller decided the only way to get around this, while remaining true to the ideals on which Roddenberry had created The Original Series, was to set the new show in a world where Starfleet is stuck dealing with non-Federation members, people who didn't share their utopian ideals. This resulted in a very different show, one which actually had a background that didn't change episode by episode. He gave us some of the most memorable characters of any Trek: Odo, Quark, Kira, Dax. Unlike TNG, which beyond the obvious examples of Picard, Data and (once Ron Moore got hold of him) Worf had a pretty dull cast of characters, each of DS9's protagonists were alive, vital, each with their own agendas and beliefs and preconceptions, all different to each others but all forced to interact in the cramped station they lived in. There was no such thing as the Harry Kim Syndrome here: everyone was interesting and worth watching. Even the Starfleet personnel weren't flawless: one of my own favourite arcs of the entire show is that of Dr Bashir, who in the first season comes across a bit of an arrogant, wet-behind-the-ears, naive pain in the ass, but who matures before our eyes to become the battle-hardened, world-weary character of the last year. It was Piller that gave us these: Berman has shown that, on his own, he can't come up with interesting characters and situations even if his life depended on it (see Enterprise and Nemesis in particular).

Of course, Piller also gave us Voyager, for which there isn't much excuse. But at least he gave us (in my opinion) the best pilot of any of the five Treks, even if subsequently it was all a bit of a mess. In his defence he wasn't nearly as much hands-on for Voyager as he was during the TNG years - the same year Voyager started he also created the short-lived Western series Legend (starring John "Q" de Lancie), a project which, reading between the lines, he had a lot more passion for. He left Voyager officially at the end of year two, his swansong two parter The Basics his mission statement for the flagging series to which, sadly, not much attention was paid.

Despite leaving, he remained an executive producer on the show, and in general maintained his links with Star Trek, always happy to talk about it and contribute the odd story (his son too, who pitched the story for Q's appearances in Voyager. He returned to the fold to write the feature Star Trek: Insurrection, which wasn't great but benefited from a lighter touch - the first few scenes on board the Enterprise are great fun, something First Contact had been lacking. He has also continued contributing to the DVD releases on the various shows, even when he was obviously not well, and was also welcoming to the fans and so enthusiastic about the series, which was always nice to see.

More recently he co-created The Dead Zone, starring DS9's very own Nicole de Boer, which has proven very successful. But it his work on Star Trek for which I will always be thankful. It is no exaggeration to say that without him, modern Star Trek would not have achieved anywhere like the level of success it did, crossing over to the mainstream and lasting so long. He was in charge during the glory years, and he was largely responsible for them. And it's not just us Trekkers who should be thankful either: when TNG started, the industry scoffed as science-fiction as a television genre was all but dead in the water: no one would touch it with a barge pole. TNG's success showed it could be done, and it could draw the punters and, as the Nineties dawned, shows with a more fantastical bent began being commissioned in numbers again. Without TNG it is arguable The X Files wouldn't have got off the ground. Without The X Files, would Buffy have seen the light of day? Difficult to see it. Piller's contribution ranged far larger than the walls of the Enterprise. In Star Trek terms he was one of the best things to ever happen to the series and one of the show's finest ambassadors (unlike some other nameless individuals he was a genuinely nice guy). On a personal note, he's given me many, many happy hours of entertainment, both in TNG and DS9 and for that I am thankful, and I am very sad we've lost him.

Category Blog