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D.C. Fontana, Pioneering 'Star Trek' Writer, Dies At 80

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Science fiction has lost a pioneer. Dorothy Fontana, better known to "Star Trek" fans as D.C. Fontana, died earlier this week at the age of 80. She was one of the first women to write science fiction screenplays for TV. Before Fontana wrote for the original "Star Trek" series in the late '60s, women were relegated to writing soap operas or comedies. Undoubtedly, though, Fontana's lasting legacy will be breaking into a field where no woman had gone before.

And joining me now to talk about that legacy is Jarrah Hodge. She's co-host of "Women At Warp," a feminist "Star Trek" podcast. Welcome.

JARRAH HODGE: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: So tell us, how did Dorothy Fontana first break into this totally male-dominated turf, writing sci-fi for TV?

HODGE: Well, you know, she talks about when she was growing up, reading books and thinking, basically, I could write this, and started out on "Star Trek" in a secretarial role, as well as some of the shows she worked on previously - she had a lot of experience in Westerns - and just putting her screenplays in front of the noses of folks until they got it.

CHANG: Well, OK. So even people like me, people who are not Trekkies - we know who Spock is. He's got the pointy ears, the weird bangs. He talks all stilted. How did she deepen Spock's character and give him more texture and more nuance over the years?

HODGE: So Spock is really, I think, her most impressive legacy. And he is half-human and half-Vulcan. And what D.C. did was really explore that conflict within him. And it became, for the audience, really relatable for people dealing with all kinds of interpersonal conflicts.

CHANG: I mean, she really got in there. She made his identity conflict richer. Like, she almost got psychoanalytical with him.

HODGE: Absolutely. I think that, like us, he has family. He has problems with his father, who doesn't believe he's in the right career. He has issues with his friends maybe not always understanding him. He has emotions inside him, but his society says, you can't express them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES")

LEONARD NIMOY: (As Spock) I am what I am, Leila. If there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else's.

HODGE: So in many ways, like, very, very ahead of its time. And she really was devoted to exploring the characters' humanity.

CHANG: So in the end, do you think she saw herself as a trailblazer for other women writers?

HODGE: I hope so. I think that in addition to carving out that space for women in the writers room, she also was very ahead of her time pushing for more complicated representations of women on TV, which, for us, it's, like, a discussion that's really come to a head in, like, the last 15 years. But 50 years ago...

CHANG: She was already thinking about that.

HODGE: Exactly - already pushing for that.

CHANG: Well, what about you? I mean, you do this podcast about "Star Trek" for women. Do you feel like what you are doing now would even be possible if it weren't for D.C. Fontana?

HODGE: I think that when we look back at the history of "Star Trek," women have played really key roles. And if you had to pick, you know, the top three, D.C. Fontana would definitely be the most influential woman behind the scenes and has really influenced what we're able to do today, as well as just our ability to feel included as women in the "Star Trek" franchise.

CHANG: Jarrah Hodge co-hosts the "Women At Warp" podcast.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

HODGE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDER COURAGE'S "THEME FROM "STAR TREK"") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.