"Those who respect the law or enjoy sausages should never watch either one being made." -- Otto von Bismarck
For the third and fourth seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation (hereafter referred to as ST:TNG), I was its Scientific Technical Advisor. As I usually explain this to people, my job was to read all scripts and stories purchased by the series' writing staff and then point out things that were either scientifically impossible, or inconsistent with the scientifically-impossible things already established in Star Trek. The job also included suggesting plausible "technobabble" for the impossible things the writers wanted to leave in. Most of my work was done at home -- the stories and scripts were delivered by motorcycle messenger, and my remarks were sent in to the Star Trek offices by fax.
How did I end up in this situation, you ask? I studied Geophysics and Space Physics my first year in grad school at UCLA (1987-88). I left the field after one year (under something of a cloud) to pursue something more applied, but remained on good terms with my advisor, Dr. David Paige. Some time in 1988, Gene Roddenberry asked Louis Friedman, the executive director of the Planetary Society, to recommend an L.A.-area scientist who might be interested in the job, and was directed to Dave Paige, who said yes.
A year later, Dave decided he preferred to devote his time to his research, and recommended me as his replacement, because I had knowledge of both science and science fiction, and because I had shown an interest in the work he was doing for the show.
Actually, it was a bit sneakier than that. Dave went out of town for three weeks and had me fill in, impersonating him. Since the scripts and stories were delivered by messenger, and the comments on their technical content were sent in by fax, this was easy. This helped to grease the bitter pill of Dave's resignation by allowing him to say, in effect, "See, this guy can do the job so well you didn't even notice it wasn't me." Whether this logic was accepted by the ST:TNG writing staff or not, I was hired (at $450 per episode) under the title Scientific Technical Advisor.
During this time I was pursuing a Master's Degree in Information Science full-time at UCLA. The technical-advisor position involved perhaps eight hours of work per week -- not a bad hourly rate of pay for a starving graduate student. My bachelor's degree in physics and math was more than adequate for the show's needs. I only botched once (on whether one circularizes an orbit by thrusting at apogee or perigee; I was in a hurry and didn't double-check my answer).
In the course of two years, the writers at ST:TNG (under the direction of co-Executive Producer Michael Piller) ignored probably a good 60% of everything I had to say, and that was just in the technical realm. I did my best to restrain the growth of the Star Trek particle zoo, but the writing staff, particularly during Season Four (1990-91) seemed addicted to the "Particle of the Week" syndrome.
Though I didn't receive a screen credit, I did put my fingerprints on the show in a number of ways that did reach the screen... mostly by preventing egregious stupidities. "Evolution", an episode in which self-replicating nanomachines or "nanites" nearly take over the ship, was originally about a takeover by common dust mites -- the tiny arachnids that live in your furniture and eat your shed skin cells. In early drafts of the script, these little chaps had somehow evolved not only individual sentience, but language skills and a machine culture (zipping around the interior of the Enterprise in tiny airships!), in the three years since the ship was commissioned.
"Evolution" was the first ST:TNG script I worked on. I laughed out loud when I read it, at the notion of cramming into something as small as a dust mite enough biological neurons to support an intelligence capable of conversation. The story could not be abandoned -- at the time I was brought in, it was days from shooting...sets were being built, guest stars had been hired. This was going to be another "Home Soil" (the worst of the show's first-season episodes).
The only way I could think of to even plausibly cram a self-aware intellect into something as small as a dust mite was by conglomerating a bunch of nanocomputers. In a last-minute fix by the ST:TNG writing staff, the dust mites became artificial organisms that had evolved from laboratory cell-repair machines (helped by Wesley's Frankensteinian curiosity, of course). The writers called these "nanites" (to facilitate, I'm sure, the use of a global search-and-replace to fix the script) and the episode was shot.
("Evolution" eventually brought me to the attention of the Foresight Institute, a Silicon Valley-based think-tank focused on helping society prepare for nanotechnology and other disruptive new technologies -- but the folks at Foresight have now forgiven me.)
The third-season episode "A Matter Of Perspective" emerged from the writers' desire to
rip off pay homage to the Kurosawa film Rashomon. In order to present free-lance writer Ed Zuckerman's idea of using the holodeck to dramatize the wildly divergent testimony of multiple witnesses in a murder investigation, a thorny technical problem had to be solved.
One of the fundamental rules of the series (violated left and right, of course) was that the holodeck "can't create anything dangerous". (If you don't know what a holodeck is, what are you doing reading this far?) Yet, to add the required "threat-to-the-ship" subplot to the episode, it was necessary for the Enterprise to be affected by the same phenomenon that killed the alleged murder victim. The writers wanted this threat to be the result of "re-creating" the destroyed space station in the holodeck.
This was one of the few instances when I actually visited the Paramount lot to participate in a story conference. At the whiteboard in Michael Piller's office, I explained my idea of making the holodeck construct act merely as a reflector/concentrator for an outside radiation source. The reconstruction of the dead scientist's laboratory was not itself inherently "dangerous" (as per the series bible), but in combination with an external radiation source, its geometry made it as effective as the real concentrator in creating the destructive phenomenon the scientist had been studying.
This was good enough for the writers to go with. They said, "Okay, we've got this radiation field -- let's call it 'Krieger waves' for now," and they went on with planning how to make the episode work dramatically. I was surprised that the resulting draft of the script still used the phrase "Krieger waves" and somewhat tickled that that name stayed on the phenomenon throughout the rest of production.
(I had even provided a suitable pseudo-scientific explanation for what "Krieger waves" actually were -- a field that suppressed the strong nuclear force, making any matter exposed to it fissionable. This was inspired by a disintegrator used in Larry Niven's "Known Space" series of stories that suppressed the charge of the electron. The dead scientist, Dr. Apgar, was supposed to be working on a power generator exploiting this phenomenon. However, the line that explained this ended up on the cutting room floor, and in the final version of the episode "Krieger waves" are an unexplained macguffin.)
When the episode aired, I threw a party for my friends, and as we watched the episode we drank a toast every time a character uttered the family name. (Remember "Hi, Bob" parties based on the Bob Newhart Show? It was like that.)
It's too bad it's such a bad episode. The Rashomon idea was clever (at least, it hadn't been done on Star Trek before); but the technical contortions they brought me in for, and the resulting technobabble, brought it to a screaming halt in the final act. Meanwhile, the guest stars were wooden as hell and abominably made up in that patented "prosthetic forehead" style.
In 1990 I finished my master's degree at UCLA. At the beginning of the fifth season of ST:TNG, when I was working at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, I phoned Michael Piller to ask for a screen credit, and was instead told that they "wouldn't be renewing the position." (However, another science advisor, Naren Shankar was hired, with screen credit, a while afterward.)
I was not surprised. Melinda Snodgrass, Hans Beimler, and Richard Manning were the only writers I worked with at ST:TNG who seemed to know or care at all about science, technology, and science fiction, and they all left the show at the end of the third season. (Later on, however, Beimler and Manning would return to work on Deep Space Nine, IMNSHO the best of the latter-day Trek series.) I was somewhat ungentle with the Hollywood egos of the rest of the writing staff. I had already stopped watching the finished product around the middle of the fourth season. It had gone from being an adventure to just a job, and I didn't miss it when it was over.
So what did I get out of the whole experience? Well, the pay was a big help to a starving grad student and "Krieger waves" have been part of my Warholian fifteen minutes of fame. (For another part, check out my game show experiences.) Meanwhile, I get my name in references like the Star Trek Encyclopedia by Michael Okuda, Denise Okuda, and Debbie Mirek. There was an interesting typo in the first edition's entry on "Krieger waves": Instead of saying Apgar (the name of the character) was killed when the space station exploded, the Encyclopedia says "Krieger was killed when his research station exploded in 2366..." Alas, poor me, dead at the tender age of 401! Hopefully not a prophetic error.