David Gerrold’s 1973 non-fiction book The Trouble with Tribbles may be the only SF-related biography I own whose subject is not a person but a story. By 1973, Star Trek novelizations and tie-ins were nothing new. Blish was credited with
seven eight collections of Trek adaptations1, as well as the tie-in Spock Must Die! And then there was Mack Reynolds’ obscure Mission to Horatius. Gerrold’s book was something else. Let the subtitle speak for itself:
The Birth, Sale, and Final Production of One Episode.
Twenty-two-year-old David Gerrold was well aware the odds were against him when he tried to sell a script to Star Trek: thousands of people had submitted scripts and many of them were more experienced than he was. To have any kind of chance at all
- he needed to be not just as good as the experienced writers but better (because they were known quantities and he was not);
- he needed to be lucky;
- he needed even more luck if he were going to be allowed to actually write the script, rather than having his idea handed off to an old reliable to develop.
Three of the ideas Gerrold pitched to Star Trek were discarded (at least one was salvaged for a later Gerrold novel; waste not, want not). The fourth was selected. Gerrold leads the reader through the long, twisty path between the treatment he submitted and the fifteenth episode of the second season, The Trouble with Tribbles, He gives us a snapshot of how television worked behind the scenes half a century ago. It was not all lofty social ideals and nifty props. Practical constraints like budgets came into play. It did not matter how great a script was if it could not be filmed because it cost more to film than the show could afford.
I am going to assume that anyone reading this at least knows what the Star Trek series was and has become. What younger readers may not appreciate is that this book is an extremely odd artifact. Just how likely is it that someone could write and manage to conventionally publish a tie-in product four years after the show went off the air? No, this did not happen because Star Trek was already a mass phenomenon. In 1973, there was no sign Star Trek would become the media behemoth we know today. The series had been cancelled, there had never been any movies, and there had been no follow-up series. Even the short-lived animated show was still months in the future. Roddenberry himself spent the 1970s experiencing failure after failure. Nevertheless, people bought Trek-related works in sufficient numbers that someone at Ballantine Books — the book’s dedication leads me to suspect Betty Ballantine herself — thought people might be interested in the story of how an idea becomes an episode.
As it happens, I find books about process fascinating. This would have been one of the first books I ever encountered that got into the details of the vast gulf between an idea in someone’s head and the final product on the page, stage or screen. Works like this, laying out the steps involved, make it clear writing does not just happen thanks to some magical, inborn talent but is something a person could learn to do. Work like this led to me becoming a reviewer.
One interesting aspect of Gerrold’s book is that it highlights the tremendous technological changes between the 1960s and the present day. The script was a pre-Word Processor work2. This meant that even a minor correction could require hours of work, because each page with and after the correction might have to be retyped by hand3.
(My editor adds: I remember working for a local publisher, trying to fix errors discovered after a book had already been laid out. I had to figure out fixes that did not require redoing the rest of the book. I assume that this sort of constrained fix was done then as well, so as to avoid retyping if at all possible. Adding or taking out dialogue … that would have required retyping!)
One also notes cultural changes between then and now. The 1970s Gerrold makes a point of leering at the scantily clad actresses on the show; there is no hint that the author might be gay because 1973. He was also not the suave cosmopolitan we know and love today; he had a rather shaky grasp of the world outside the US. As was typical of most Americans (and Canadians) in ye olden times before the net. Note the stereotypes:
“Somewhere aboard (the ship) must be a fanatical German officer, a high-spirited Israeli, a soft-spoken Hindu who quotes continually from the prophet, a couple of Amerinds and an Eskimo.”
The prophet? Was he confusing Hindus and Muslims?
But, in mitigation, I must add that information was harder to come by in the 1970s4. So very unlike our glorious current era, when information is only access-to-the internet and a few keystrokes away. Truly we must live in an unprecedented era of mutual understanding! Or so I am compelled to conclude.
Gerrold’s writing style is the informal, jocular one might expect from a writer who expected to rub shoulders with his readers (at cons, presumably). The book is illustrated with amusing caricatures from Tim Kirk, as well as a small section of black and white photographs5.
The Trouble with Tribbles proved a popular episode. It has had at least two sequels of which I am aware: 1973’s More Tribbles, More Troubles and 1996’s Trials and Tribble-ations. Gerrold’s non-fiction book on the episode seems to have fallen out of print after the 1980s … but of course we live in a golden age of ebook reprints.
The Trouble With Tribbles: The Birth, Sale, and Final Production of One Episode is available here.
- Alan Dean Foster’s Star Trek Logs, which were to the animated Trek as Blish’s collections were to the original show, would not begin appearing until 1974 due to the linear nature of time and the fact the animated show didn’t air until 1973.
- Well, word processors were around in the 1960s (unlike mass-produced digital wrist watches, which would not come along until 1970). They ran on big iron like DEC PDP-11s and someone like Gerrold would never have had access to one.
One of the highlights of my years as a first reader for Bookspan was getting Donald E. Westlake’s books months before most people got to see them. The first Westlake galley I was sent looked odd. It took a while to work out what distinguished his galleys from those of other writers: his were photocopies of pages clearly done on a manual typewriter.
There were never any typos in Westlake’s galleys.
- Certain aspects of Gerrold’s Chtorr series — foreigners generally being either useless or scum — suddenly have a context I previously overlooked.
- I feel I must assure my younger readers that we had colour photography by 1973, even in Canada. Presumably anticipated sales levels for this book did not justify the cost of colour plates.