INTERVIEW: The Inner Light of Morgan Gendel

TV writer Morgan Gendel talks about his career, his Hugo Award winning episode of Star Trek, and his first novel.

Morgan Gendel

Morgan Gendel is a veteran of TV writing. He’s written on The 100, Law and Order, Nash Bridges, and, most famously on Star Trek. Recently, he wrote and released his first novel Planet Six, the first in a series. I recently sat down with Mr. Gendel to discuss his novel, his Hugo Award winning Star Trek episode, and his upcoming projects.

Mr. Gendel, for those who are unaware of your work, please give a brief introduction of yourself.
Thanks for talking with me. I’ve been a TV writer for 30 years. I was a writer, producer on Law and Order and before that as a freelancer I wrote several episodes of Star Trek, including Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, including one that I’m pretty well known for. And then over the years did a lot of different shows. Most recently I was a co-executive producer and writer on the show, The 100 on the CW network. I’ve got two pilots that, I’m pushing for, I don’t want to say in development because it’s actually a little further along than that. I have a studio that’s backing one through kind of a plan where you put together a consortium of finance in different territories in Europe and then you just go straight to series. So that one is on target to get written hopefully next year and shoot probably end of next year. And, recently, my company published a book I wrote, it’s my debut novel, which Ben wrote a terrific review of. And I think that that about gets us to present day.

Just a quick side note, for those who are interested in that review, you can read that on Tell us, how did you get into TV writing?
Well, I kind of always knew I wanted to do that. I don’t remember why or when it hit me, but you know, even as a kid, as early as junior high school, I used to tell people I wanted to be a TV writer and that was living in Hartford, Connecticut. So, I don’t know where the idea came from, but, I kind of zigged and zagged my way into it. I didn’t study TV writing because there weren’t a lot of courses in that back in the 70s, and I didn’t go straight to Los Angeles. But eventually I found my way down there. I was a reporter for the LA Times covering the TV business and then I got hired by NBC. And uh, from there I became very friendly with a producer who was very prominent at the time, and we’re talking about back when there were only three networks, and he hired me as a writer and that was my start.

And of course, you’re most prominently known as a Star Trek writer on The Next Generation as well as a Deep Space Nine. Did you grow up with the original star Trek?
Oh yeah. I watched it. I remember watching the premier episode and it made a big impression on me. I just thought it was a terrific show. I don’t know if people remember this or not, or maybe Trekkies or Trek fans know this all too well. But really it was only on the original series was on three seasons and the third season was, well, pretty corny. So you’re really talking about a couple of seasons and really good shows. But keep in mind, back then it was probably 22 or 24, maybe even more every year. So you’re getting a lot of episodes and that obviously had a big impact. I had already always been a sci-fi fan. The nice thing is later on, early in my writing career I became very good friends with William Shatner because I was a writer on his TekWar series of TV movies, not the TV series, which I didn’t think worked out very well. He and I were very friendly for long time I mean, we still are to this day when I see him, but we used to, we used to kind of hang out a bit and he really embodies the whole kind of thing. He did. His Captain Kirk is really just baked into part of his personality.

Have you ever read the book Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk?
No, but it sounds pretty funny.

I recommend it. It’s a pretty fun read. So you are most known for the episode on Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Inner Light. It’s a very emotionally heavy one that’s very well written and won a Hugo Award. Tell us a little about what the inspiration behind that was.
Well, like I said, I made the transition from being a network guy to doing exactly what I wanted to do, which was writing, but , I had an interesting deal, which was I was kind of an in-house freelance writer for a pretty big TV studio. And so I was writing for all their shows, which was a great learning experience, especially learning how to pitch an episode. A friend of mine, somebody who I had helped when he was starting out as a writer, went on to TNG. He said I should come in and pitch. So he arranged that and I just had this idea in my head about kind of a technology that could embed all these permanent memories that you would not be able to distinguish from real.

I was thinking a lot at the time about how do we know the difference between, what’s a memory that we’ve earned the old fashioned way by experiencing something or just a memory that’s just been embedded in the wiring in our brain. And I concluded on my own kind of thinking about this, that we would not be able to tell the difference. So I really went in with that idea and it was through talks with the staff and especially Michael Piller, the executive producer, that we eventually came around to this idea. I had brought it around to being kind of a romance thing. There was this probe that beamed this experience into their heads, and I had more than one of the crew involved with this. The more we talked about the more we said this should just be an opportunity to show the road not taken for Captain Picard. And that’s what it became.

Do you believe that The Inner Light is your best work so far? Is that your favorite thing that you’ve written?
Well, that’s the thing to answer. I mean, over the years I saw it gain in popularity. I mean, believe me, after five years after it was written, nobody was really talking about it. Then 10 years after I saw a Roundup of episodes and it was kind of highlighted and it just grew and grew and grew. I started going out on the convention circuit as an invited guest and conventions to talk about it. So now, I feel pretty fondly about it, but there’s actually an episode of Law and Order I wrote that I like even better, I have to admit it. Part of the reason is that I feel The Inner Light, I could look at that episode, and I know exactly where everything came from. There’s so much going on there. The way his family life work, raising kids, little things like that baby naming ceremony and the tree of life that they erect and his relationship with that administrator, which I kind of modeled after my dealing with the network executives, who I thought were little intransigent and unimaginative at times. So I feel very close to coming up with the idea of finding one man good and true to carry on their name, which kind of I went back to when I was a kid and reading Green Lantern comics. I kind of got the idea from there and the flute and all things like that. I feel very personally close to all those, but I think it was an episode of Law and Order that was based on a real story that I just probably liked a little better.

Often a writer’s personal favorite work differs from their most popular work. Did you expect The Inner Light to get as popular and win a Hugo as it did?
Well, yes and no. I mean, what happened was by the time I finished kind of convincing them to do it because I kept pitching this and every time I pitched it we would fine tune it a little. After I wrote the first draft, everybody kind of knew this was a special episode. So from that point we thought it was going to be pretty good. Even though I was a freelancer, I was not on staff, I got invited to come see the rough cut and I was blown away. I have seen hundreds of rough cuts in my life and my career on shows I’ve either been working on or been a showrunner on. It’s pretty rare that you see a rough cut and it’s actually better than what you pictured in your head. This was one of those rare cases. So after it had been shot, everybody knew it was going to be a pretty special episode. We weren’t thinking about Hugo awards or things like that. But yeah, we knew it was special.

That’s a good way to look at it. I think very few people write with the eye towards awards. Early on I mentioned Jeff Berk earlier, a Bizarro writer. You also worked with another Bizarro writer, Andre Duza, for a comic sequel on The Inner Light, The Outer Light. Can you tell us a little bit about that? It seems to be out of print at this point.
Oh yeah. How do you know Andre?

I’ve reviewed some of his books. I’ve been a fan of his work for a while now.
Oh, that is fabulous. I’m so glad to hear that. He’s just a terrifically creative guy. That is so neat.

Since Jeff Burk was in the Bizarro scene along with Andre, I thought of him. While I was doing research on your work, I found I was interested to see you had worked with Duza. I love that guy’s work.
So you’ve read his books. And when you say Bizarro, is that kind of a general category of like the kind of stuff you’d find in Silent Motorist’s reviews? Is that what Bizarro means? I mean, I know what Bizarro was in Superman by the way. I learned to read with the original origin of Bizarro in a Superman comic.

That’s a good place to start. Bizarro is a scene of odd, speculative fiction writers. Andrea Duza is part of that with more leanings towards horror with his books, like a Dead Bitch Army. Jeff Burk’s Shatnerquake is part of that as well. It’s like a small collection o writers who pride themselves on their weirdness. A few of them like to compare themselves to Troma films. I know that Andrea Duza has also done some other work outside of his own Bizarro and horror writing. Working with you on The Outer Light was one of those projects.

Oh my God, this is the most interesting thing I’ve heard in any interview I’ve ever done because Andre is just a great guy and he’s so talented. I discovered him because I was involved with a little production company. We made a couple of movies and I think we were looking at Dead Bitch Army to see if we could turn it into a feature and that’s how he got to know Andre. And then I wanted somebody to collaborate with. I mean, it’s funny, I haven’t mentioned the outer light in years. I call it fan fiction because it wasn’t a licensed or an authentic canon version of the sequel. But I’d always pitched a sequel and I thought it was crazy that they didn’t do it. I mean, this episode is so popular. Did you read The Outer Light? Did you get a look at it?

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to. It seems to be out of print and I wasn’t able to find a copy.
I probably have a digital version of one. When I was going to conventions, one of the reasons I wrote The Outer Light as a graphic novel because I just wanted to have something else. So I self-published that. If you look at it today, you’ll see I filled it out as a full story. There’s a whole thing going on with the Romulans and stuff and you know, I don’t really care that much about that. That’s not the greatest. But the basic storyline of The Outer Light can I tell you what it is, or do you know?

I read some of the reviews, but go ahead and give a synopsis for the people who haven’t read it or heard of it.
So the whole thing in The Inner Light is that somebody had to make this Nucleonic beam, they knew they were going to die, their sun was going to super nova, they were going to burn to a crisp, and they only had rudimentary space technology for some reason they had this advanced Nucleonic beam thing, which you never saw any sight of. And I have an answer for that. It came actually a fan when I was speaking one time he said, “Well, you know, just because they made this indirect thing to go to beam into Picard’s head, doesn’t mean it was a literal version of who they were at time, they just want to put their best face forward.” And I thought that was pretty astute. I hadn’t come up with that myself because we never really needed to. You don’t want to analyze things too much. I think the perfect example of analyzing things too much, or I should say deconstructing them in a midichlorians style. I mean bone-headed.

The Force is such a cool thing. The last thing you want to do is say, “Oh, you’ve got some things traveling through your bloodstream.” Give me a break. That killed it. That killed Star Wars for me. It’s hearing about where the Force comes from. You know, they’ve never mentioned it again after those middle three. Anyway, that to me is an example. The Disney films, at least they don’t mention that. And there are a lot of flaws to those. That’s why we never thought to explain it, but this one person who came to hear me speak had this explanation, which I thought was great.

Okay, so let’s move forward from there. A group of scientists, as a last ditch effort, had to make this Nucleonic beam and send it out to find somebody. Well, I believe that the underpinnings in the Nucleonics beam are kind of like an interactive video game. It means you have to kind of imbue it with the essence of real people who really existed. And those were the scientists. They didn’t want to go out and start casting this thing and alert people that the sky is falling and the world is going to end. So they cast themselves in others. Ilene, who we saw in his mind through this experience was actually one of the scientists who worked on this project. With me so far? So years later, like maybe a year after The Inner Light episode, they see some probe floating in space and when they look at it, it’s a larger version of the probe and there are people on it and they’re in suspended animation.

And what happened was at the last minute they sent out the probe with the Nucleonics beam, but that last minute they said, you know what, we’ve finally perfected just some kind of suspended animation thing we can squeeze, like, you know, half a dozen of our scientists into it. We just have to take the chance. And so they beam those people on board and revive them. And one of them is Ilene. So Picard looks at Alene, he says, Oh my God, my wife. And in his mind it wasn’t like a dream. It’s reality. He says, “Oh my God, my wife of all those years who I lived 50 years with? It’s you!” And she looks at him and says, “Who the fuck are you?” She’s never met him. Even telling it, I have to admit, I just think that’s a great source of conflict and to do as a sequel. The way I dealt with it in the graphic novel is after a while, they didn’t really perfect the suspended animation and he’s going to lose her all over again. That’s the nutshell of The Outer Light.

Are there any plans to bring The Outer Light back in the front or do you believe that’s not really something you want to do? Or is it stuck because of licensing issues?
I mean, there was always a licensing problem. Nobody would bug me if I would just sit there with these things and sell them out to conventions. don’t think the storyline overall is that great. The story I told you is the story I wanted to make. To fill enough pages for graphic novel, I had to come up with this BS story about the Romulans and it’s just kind of not great. The artwork in it is good but not great. It’s not something I really want to put out there. Also, I feel that with the series Picard coming out, I am betting money that they are going to do some sort of sequel. I mean Michael Chabon just wrote an essay in the new Yorker in which he says the inner light is one of two episodes of TV ge thinks are the best episodes of TV ever. He’s a fabulous novelist. I’m a big fan of his and he’s show runner of the card. I would be surprised if they didn’t try and attempt to do some kind of sequel on their own. So I don’t want to be out there. He like competing with my own idea. That being said, I just wish they had done it at the time and there was a certain that we say stubborn streak running through the star Trek next generation, uh, hallways that, uh, I think made them just not want to do it.

It will be interesting to see if they do do that with the Picard series. This year you released your first Planet Six. Tell us a little bit about that.
Well, this is an idea I’ve been carrying around with me for decades and I had started writing novels a couple of times and, being a screenwriter and loving screenwriting, I found writing novels a little daunting. There are several people who make the transition well or I think more likely they go the other direction from novel writing to screenwriting. But screenwriting, I just really got it down the way I like to do it, that I think works in telling an action packed story and yet getting to your emotions. As a point of reference, Starship Mine is if you’re familiar with that episode of TNG is much more action oriented. And I just really like telling that kind of story. I like doing the emotions too, because as I said, the Law and Order episode called White Rabbit is very emotional. So, I like doing both, but I’ve had this idea I’m carrying around and as I said, I found it was a little, it was a little daunting to start writing a novel.

At some point I said, I’m going to write the novel that I know I can finish. And that was this idea I had about the SkyRiders. Long before I knew about Jedi Knights, I had this idea about this patrol unit that is on planets colonized by earth and they all fly on these flying disks. Really you only see one or two at a time because one person, man or women can patrol thousands of square kilometers of area from on high. And it was just an idea I had and I knew I could write it and get it done. That was my goal with Planet Six. I wanted to get it done, but there was something else which is, which is, I’m a big fan of the Horacio Hornblower books. Funnily enough, Robert Iger just said they’re his favorite books.

So I’ve got to see if he’ll agree with me about the SkyRiders books. So really when I wrote Planet Six, I had in mind that I want to write until I’m too old to even lift my fingers to the keyboard. I want to write a dozen of these books tracking this character as he gets older and rises through the ranks and when he has a family and all those things. So those are the two things behind this. But I’ve actually started my second novel and it’s a much more serious emotional kind of story.

Planet Six reads as a very pulpy kind of a science fiction book, very action packed and like it was written to be serialized and episodic. Did you originally go in with the SkyRiders concept as a novel or did you originally conceive it as a TV series or maybe a movie or something like that?
No, this was an idea I had to be a novel and I had never thought about it as TV or movies, mainly because I don’t think there’s a big market for “original IP” is the buzzword in Hollywood. To come up with something totally new as a sci-fi action kind of thing between Marvel and Star Wars and DC, I just think there’s so much. I don’t think anybody would want the problem of marketing a totally new idea. So it has to exist first as a book. Now, I didn’t write the book thinking I’m going to sell it to Hollywood. I wrote the book thinking it’s a book I can write and finish and I want to write many, many sequels to it. But the other thing I did mention earlier,the other reason behind it is when you say it reminds you of pulp stuff, to me that’s, that’s exactly how I want it to be appreciated.I’ve been hearing for years that there’s a whole swath of potential book readers who don’t read books anymore and I think they’re talking about people from the age of, in Hollywood, 18 to 35 is the magic number, so let’s use that.

I think there’s people between 18 to 35 not exclusively male, but maybe heavily male or leaning toward male who probably don’t find science fiction that speaks to them. And by the way, Ben, this is why I want to do an interview. I think this is a book that can appeal to those people that are playing video games and going to Marvel movies. Don’t you think so?

I certainly think so. I definitely think this would appeal to the type of person who would otherwise be playing a video game or reading a comic book. It definitely does read like the sort of thing that me as a teenager would have been really enjoyed picking up and reading.
Well, that’s great. So that’s why I wrote this book. I had this idea and I’ve been carrying around the book for like I said, decades. So I had it when I was that age. It was an action adventure kind of thing. And yet I have to be honest, when I read all the reviews, I didn’t read those pulp books they’re talking about. I have an essay you can refer to now on something called, it’s like a poor man’s goodreads. It’s about why I wrote this and goes through all the books I was influenced by and I would love it if you would take a look at that. It’s not really pulp books, but would contend that if you go look at Isaac Asimov, it was, I even read a quote from him and I’m not comparing my writing to his.

This is my first novel and I was trying to do a certain kind of actiony kind of thing. But what I am saying is what I read as a young man, teenager a lot of Asimov, and what I would call it, an unadorned writing. It wasn’t really going deep into the emotions of characters. It was really just laying out a story. So that’s the kind of writing I was trying to do. People are calling it pulp, but I wonder if that’s more because of the cover than of the writing itself. But yeah, that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get this out there enough, but I think once young people discover this, they’re going to find it’s a really viable alternative to playing a video game or watching an action movie because it just plays like that as you read it.

Yeah, I definitely agree with that. Because, even though I like emotionally deep science fiction, there does seem to be a dearth of science fiction of that kind of fiction. It exists and it sells, you can get off the rack at the dollar store and this book seems in that vein, which isn’t an insult. I’ve missed the the days where where every store had a rack of books that you could go through and find a variety. It does seem to be a bit a narrow now and there’s a lot less science fiction. It all seems to be either romance or sometimes a Western. If you’re lucky you’ll find an Elmore Leonard book on there. This definitely reads like a science fiction version of something like Elmore Leonard, something that is very fast paced, very action oriented, but still very much well crafted. It’s a very populist type of writing. It’s a not something that’s trying hard to be “literary.”

Well, thank you. And I’m a huge Elmore Leonard fan. I’d be lucky to get that comparison, but I do know what I think you mean. I’m frustrated because some of my favorite literary science fiction authors are becoming too intellectualized and I’m having trouble getting through them. And so I can imagine there they might be turning off younger readers. Some of the other reviews talked about how well this character seems like he doesn’t even have any emotional thoughts and everything goes his way. I think the whole book hinges on his big emotional flaw, and I don’t want to give away where it goes because I think there’s a pretty big twist in it, but he’s a very cocky guy and yet all through the book he’s revealing his own self doubts every step of the way. So there’s a push and pull between him being like, I think younger people are, kind of cocky and full of himself. And yet at the same time has self doubts. And you know what I am referring to people, both good guys and bad guys kind of play into that too to bring about what I think is an unexpected ending.

I thought the ending worked very well. I wouldn’t personally call it unexpected. It is a kind of ending I would expect in a book like this, but I do think it fits.
Okay, fair enough. So you could see it coming is what you’re saying?

Yeah, it’s the type of ending I would expect to this story. I’m trying not to give anything away, but I think it earns that ending. I don’t think it ended that way because you felt obligated to end it that way. No, I think it earned, uh, that type of ending. So you’ve said you are starting to work on the second in the SkyRider Chronicles. Can you tell us a little bit about what you plan to do with that, or do you want to keep it under wraps for now?

Well, actually what I said is I’ve started my second novel, but it’s not in the SkyRider. I know that’s what I should be doing. But like I said earlier, you know, Inner Light, deeply emotional Starship Mine, action packed, White Rabbit from Law and Order, very emotional. And yet I wrote tons of action stuff. I like both ends of that spectrum. So I actually thought that I’ve proven to myself, not to anybody else, but to myself I can start a novel and finish it. And it took a few years. I did almost a page one rewrite on this after I was finished with an earlier draft. Now, I’ll have started on something that I think is a lot deeper and more emotional and that’s going to be my second novel. And then I’m going to come back to the SkyRiders.

Oh, okay. Is the next novel also a science fiction novel?
It is. So I’m sticking with science fiction because, you know, I think I can get people such as yourself to talk to me and interview me. And I think that’s really because of the extent to which I’m known in science fiction. I love science fiction. I had sort of a big stretch in the middle of my life when I didn’t read science fiction so much, but I’m back to it now. Although now I read a little bit of everything, but I do like science fiction. Robert Charles Wilson, Neil Stevenson, Peter Watts. I mean, there’s a lot of relatively newer science fiction writers I love and read everything I can get my hands on. So yeah, it’s science fiction, but it’s set in a more realistic future on earth that we can see on the horizon.

It’s a very different story. It’s a very down to earth, and it’s about a time on earth, 50 years from now when things have changed. I’ve gotten tired of kind of this post-apocalyptic or dystopian stuff. It’s not really like that, but it does lay out a world where by the time you have like seven, 8 billion people living on the planet, you have to have some kind of strategy for enabling people to live cheek by jowl with each other and have things go smoothly. So that’s what I’ve laid out, a near future where there are a lot of rules that enable people live together. But the question is, does it, can people take it or does it really make everybody kind of soulless and tamp down their own really inner desires? And so at its heart, this, the second book is a love story.

Besides you, the novel, what are some other future plans that you have? You mentioned you have pilots in the works.
I mentioned earlier the a series I have that’s moving forward. That is set in the Arctic in, like what we say in Hollywood, five minutes in the future, which means maybe 10 years from now. So science fictiony and has to do with a team of scientists from all over the planet. They’ve been brought together to, not just study climate change and global warming, but trying to figure out how to reverse it. But then something happens, something lands there that changes everything and they don’t know where this thing is from and they spend some time trying to figure out where it is from and what it’s here to do. I’m not going to give any of that away, but that’s what drives this story. And the fact that you have people from all different nations means at some point they have to decide where their loyalties lie and it turns out after a while they have to regroup and say they’re the only ones that can help the planet. And that’s all I really want to give away about it. But it’s definitely science fiction.

That definitely sounds like a fascinating series. So I look forward to that. Is there anything that perhaps is not set in stone yet that you would really like to do?
Yes, I have a second pilot that is sort of on the periphery of getting the go ahead. By the way, that first one I mentioned in the Arctic is called Isolation. You know, it’s funny, maybe my unconscious mind was making this happen, but I don’t know if you read about where the title for The Inner Light came from. I’ve seen in Wikipedia entries where they say The Inner Light was partially inspired by the Beatles song of the same name and that is absolutely not true. But I named it for the Beatles song of the same name, which was composed by George Harrison. I’m going back to the dinosaur age when there were singles, meaning records with just two songs on them, one on each side.

That you actually had to go and buy it and couldn’t just download.
No doubt, and there’s nothing to download it onto. So the flip side of the Beatle song Lady Madonna was The Inner Light, and it was kind of a throw away. They frequently, on the what’s called the B side, would put some song that they didn’t care if anybody ever heard it or not. But I heard it and thought that the whole concept of an “inner light” really spoke to what I was writing about in that script. So I named it after the song. Cut to my next Star Trek: TNG episode, I thought I would call it Revolution, but they got wise to me getting away with naming every episode I wrote a after Beatles song, so that became Starship Mine. Here we are 25 or more years later, and I’ve written the pilot for this series.

Actually it was some studio executives I was dealing with too, I think suggested the name Ice. And lo and behold, what led triggered in my brain is that there’s a great John Lennon song called Isolation and the lyrics to that one have to do with this one too. So that’s just an interesting little Beatles side note. I wanted to get out the name of that one. Isolation. You asked me about my next one or what else is percolating. I have a show, a script called The Convergence, which is descended from The Inner Light because it has to do with thetechnology of, again, embedding other memories into somebody’s brain. I’ll just tell you this much about it. This takes place kind of present day. The idea is, there’ve been a lot of things about downloading the human brain into computers.

My contention is that to have a computer with today’s technology big enough to store a human brain, it would probably have to fill the empire state building. I mean, it’s just unfathomably large to do, recreate all the trillions of neurons and pathways in a human brain, in the connectome, which is the map of the human brain. But there is something that is big enough to hold a human brain, and that is another human brain. So the jumping off point for this is that the military has come up with a way, since they’re not really supposed to torture our enemies anymore, not to mind read, but to download one person’s brain into an other brain. So if you download the bad guy’s brain into a good guy, the good guy can access those memories and find out, for example, where did the terrorist plant the bomb. But the other thing that happens is now that good guy is partially that bad guy too. That’s the jumping off point for this story, and I really love this. I’ve been working on this one for years. I have a lot of people interested in it. Let’s see what happens with The Convergence.

Those sound like fascinating projects. We can look forward to both your new book and your upcoming pilots. Before we end this, is there anything else that you would like to plug or promote?
Well, I’ve been asked once the show,Picard debuts. I’ve been asked to guest host along with the making of it so podcast. So I thought I’d put a little plug for that. I’m going to be appearing, weekly on the podcast that reviews the Picard series and the name of that podcast again is Making Itself. I think that’s it. Isolation, Convergence, and I want young people to read Planet Six.

Okay! Go out and pick up a copy of Planet Six for a young person who’s played too many video games and needs to pick up a book. Thank you very much for this interview, Mr. Gendel.
Well, thank you Ben. This was terrific.

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