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spacer.gif (836 bytes)Jim Carlson began his writing career working with comedian Morey Amsterdam, and also worked for Bob Newhart and Phyllis Diller. His first break into television came as a staff writer on Laugh-in; Morey Amsterdam introduced him to Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. Carlson also wrote scripts for The Jeffersons, and then moved into drama, writing for Adam-12 and Emergency! About Emergency!, Carlson said, “That was an interesting show. It was a very easy show to write for, and it was one of Jack Webb’s shows. In fact, that was my first hour show. You could write those scripts in no time flat because they were basically little vignettes, there were four or five vignettes that you hung on what was called a spine, something that was going on at the station. So structurally it was a very easy show to write. It was fun. And they paid on time!” It was while working on The Six Million Dollar Man that Carlson met Terrence McDonnell and the two became a writing team. Carlson describes their usual way of work as sitting down together to hash out ideas, coming up with a script outline, and then retiring to their typewriters. Carlson would write acts one and two, McDonnell would write three and four, and then they would sit back down together and edit what they had written into a seamless whole.
spacer.gif (836 bytes)When Carlson and McDonnell were hired as story editors for Battlestar Galactica, they found the series in a state of near-crisis. Originally intended as a series of specials, the change of BG to a weekly series had left the producers with a shortage of material. Carlson and McDonnell were brought in to write their own episodes and help edit some of the others. It is well known that when they arrived, they were given a basic story idea for a “Patton in Space” episode as a sample of what they could do. Some in fandom have assumed that Glen Larson then stole the idea for Living Legend from the two writers, but Carlson and McDonnell both confirm that what they wrote had little in common with what eventually ended up on screen; “Patton in Space” was clearly an idea the producers had been tossing around and served as a useful test for the new story editors; in fact the script for Living Legend must have existed as a finished document at that time since the two writers started work in October 1978 after seven episodes had already been shot.
spacer.gif (836 bytes)Surprisingly, the production team never sat down and talked out the direction they wanted the series to go. Carlson and McDonnell found themselves working mostly with producer Don Bellisario. “Don was very good at trying to bring everything together. We would sit down with him. But Glen was gone so much, and I don’t mean to imply he wasn’t working, he was working wherever he was, but he would be in Hawaii, et cetera, so we saw very little of Glen at the time. But we did have a lot of discussions with Don Bellisario regarding the direction of the show, guest stars, premises for possible episodes, things like that. Don worked very closely with us.” Carlson and McDonnell felt that the series should focus more on characters, and submitted story ideas that had the main characters interacting with people on other ships in the fleet. Carlson explained, “What we tried to do is bring them together with other people in the ships to show how they’d interact, to give them a kind of feel of being human, so that they could react to other people other than Adama and the rest of the crew of the Galactica…. …that’s where we came up with Two for Twilly and we had other ideas that just never got approved. We usually found Don was pretty much in agreement with us but somewhere up the line, whether it was Glen or the network or the studio, we were never sure because we never asked and were told where some of these things ended. What we would do is submit a list of story ideas, like a paragraph each, maybe five or seven at a time that would go through Don and once in awhile Don would pull one out, say, ‘no, we don’t want to do that,’ but usually he would either add something to them or change them slightly or just let them go through as they were, and then when they were passed on up the line, somewhere along the line somebody would make a decision. Rather than a bunch of them being rejected, one would be accepted, and we would go ahead and work on that one, like Take the Celestra.” Unfortunately, the story ideas that were rejected have vanished completely, although Carlson has the impression that some of them might have made good episodes.
spacer.gif (836 bytes)The two writers found Don Bellisario a pleasure to work with. Carlson describes Bellisario (whose current hit series is JAG) as “…a good producer and a good writer. I think Don’s brilliant.” After working hours he and McDonnell would relax with Bellisario in Bellisario’s office over coffee or beer. One of these sessions led, entirely by accident, to a name for the series’ most memorable villains. “Terry and myself and Don Bellisario were literally standing in the doorway of his office, and the guy that played the main nomen, Lance LeGault, he was there too. And we were all just kidding around and Don had said, ‘we’ve got to come up with a name for this group of villains.’ So we bounced a whole bunch of things around and I think, I can’t remember exactly, but I think I said something like ‘well, too bad this doesn’t take place in the arctic ‘cause we could call them snowmen.’ And Don looked at me, he said, ‘There’s no snow where these guys are gonna be!’ So I said, ‘then knock off the snow and call them nomen,’ it was something like that, it was just off the cuff, making a joke. And Lance and Terry and I laughed and Don looked and his eyes got wide and he said, ‘That’s it, that’s the name. That feels right.’ Don’s instincts are wonderful. I would have gone right by that, I just made a joke, but Don heard it and it just rang in his ear, that’s what he wanted to use.” When I mentioned that it seemed odd that Bellisario had written and casted his episode without having a name for his villains, Carlson added, “We’d been toying with this off and on for I don’t know, a week or ten days trying to find something.” I commented that fans had been wondering for years what on earth the name ‘nomen’ meant, and Carlson laughed, “It meant it was about 7:30 in the evening and we were standing around Don’s office kidding around!”
spacer.gif (836 bytes)Carlson and McDonnell’s first story assignment after their arrival was Fire in Space. Glen Larson and Don Bellisario took the two writers to lunch and explained what they wanted from the episode, then Carlson and McDonnell set to work. What the two men didn’t know at the time was that the idea for Fire in Space came from an early BG script of the same title written by Michael Sloan. Carlson remembers being confused when Sloan, who was also working at Universal at the time although no longer on BG, began to give him the cold shoulder; it was some time before he found out why, but Sloan clearly felt that Carlson and McDonnell had infringed on his territory (indeed Sloan confirmed to me in a letter “I didn’t like the rewrites that were done on my script”). Quite inadvertently, Carlson and McDonnell found themselves nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Fire in Space thanks to the extensive roles in the episode of Terry Carter as Colonel Tigh and Herb Jefferson as Boomer. They were pleased, but as Carlson points out, BG was a laudably colorblind show.
spacer.gif (836 bytes)Richard Hatch always had useful suggestions for the writers. The script for Fire in Space originally ended without a meeting between Adama and Apollo; Hatch suggested there should be one, and the writers agreed and added the final scene.
spacer.gif (836 bytes)While Richard was making useful suggestions, ABC was tinkering the series to death. Everyone who has worked on BG, including Carlson, agree that network interference was at a high, and that it had a negative influence. Carlson remarked dryly, “The best thing that can happen to you is you get on a mediocre show because most people don’t bother monkeying with it. But you get on a hit show, which Galactica was at the beginning, and everybody wants to have their fingerprints all over it and wants to get their input. And that can get very difficult because you have network executives who are out there trying to do a good job but they’re hoping to make it better. No one wants to make a bad show, but they want to be involved and what they don’t realize is that in most cases, because there are a few rare exceptions, that is not their forte, story and character development and scene construction, all of those creative things that a writer has to exercise in order to make something work. Sometimes you might meet someone who really knows about it and has a flare for it and they understand, you can talk at the same level. But often you find yourself in discussions with people that don’t understand what you’re talking about, not because they’re stupid, because they’re not, it’s just that they don’t have the experience and the talent in that arena…you have to be quite a diplomat and sometimes it’s very frustrating. Nobody really wanted to destroy the show, but they all wanted to have an impact and they all felt they knew what they were doing. Unfortunately they thought they knew more than the production staff, and that’s not the case, but that’s not unusual in network television.”
spacer.gif (836 bytes)ABC interference hit home in two of Carlson and McDonnell’s scripts. In their original draft for Fire in Space, Starbuck and Apollo were setting explosive charges on the hull of the Galactica as another Cylon attack wave closed in; ABC objected, as there had already been a Cylon attack and they felt the second was repetitive. In fact, the excision removed what would have been useful extra tension and urgency to the scene. In the second case, Carlson was able to salvage the situation. “In doing Take the Celestra we had a firefight going on, and this goes to the quota of violence that’s involved and ABC had some kind of formula that you could have x number of incidents of violence within a show, and I think it was like four or five but I’m not sure. But meantime we had a ‘B’ story going on back aboard the Galactica and we had to cut away from that firefight, then we come back to the firefight and then finish that. Well, I got a call from this young lady at ABC who was new at that time in the Standards and Practices division and probably very imbued with ‘follow the rules and regulations as they’re set down on paper.’ And she was counting that firefight as two instances of violence because we cut away to go back to the Galactica and she said you have to drop either the beginning or the ending of the firefight. And I said we can’t do that, it’s impossible, besides, it’s only one incidence of violence with this cutting away, it’s not two. And she said no, it’s two, you have to drop one, and I said we can’t, it’s impossible, and she said, no, it’s not. And she became very adamant about it and finally I lost my cool, I didn’t swear at her or call her names or anything, I just said I didn’t think this was going to work and invited her to come over and write the episode. So she hung up on me and I picked up the phone again and called her boss and explained the situation to him. And he listened to what I had to say and I didn’t say a word about her except that she didn’t agree with me and he listened to my explanation and said, ‘that’s fine, go ahead.’”
spacer.gif (836 bytes)After writing Fire in Space, Carlson and McDonnell turned to Murder on the Rising Star, which led to a marathon writing session. As Carlson told it, “Pressure and time constraints never let up. And some of that could have been avoided but certainly and probably not all of it. In the case of Murder on the Rising Star, where Terry and I worked 36 hours straight through, that was because Glen took almost a week to make up his mind what story he wanted us to do. And the rest of the time, prior to getting the OK we were sitting around twiddling our thumbs and he was in Hawaii reading over our premises and we kept trying to get an OK from him and Don Bellisario called at least once a day and we just couldn’t get an answer out of him until we were right up against a very hairy deadline. ...you can’t do your best work in a situation like that.” Carlson remembers xeroxing the script at 6:30 in the morning.
spacer.gif (836 bytes)Take the Celestra was their last script for BG, and during rewrites, their contract ran out. Carlson described the scene that ensued: “We got one of those classic Hollywood notices…we were working on Take the Celestra, we were supposed to have the script ready for prep…this was on Thursday, we were supposed to have the script ready for prep the following Wednesday. And our agent called and said our contract was over, which it was, and that they weren’t picking us up for the rest of the shows because they’d already been written, and that we had to have our desks cleaned out and be off the lot by six o’clock the following day. This wasn’t throwing us off the lot, it’s just that it was over and they want you out of there. So we went in to Don Bellisario and said, ‘Don, we can’t finish the Celestra script, the rewrites, because we only have tomorrow;’ and it was going to take a couple days. And he stood up behind his desk and, ‘What?! Who told you that?’ And he said he’d see about that right now, and go back to work. So we went back to our office and kept on working and he came in about ten, twenty minutes later and said ‘you’re going to be here…’ I can’t remember if it was a week or two weeks. But the funny thing is, by the time we got down to the parking lot that night they had already painted out the names on our parking spots.”
spacer.gif (836 bytes)Carlson noted that he and McDonnell seemed to have a fundamental difference of approach to Battlestar Galactica than Glen Larson did. “Glen is a very good writer, but he tends to write very expansively. Take the episode with Commander Cain and the other one, War of the Gods. Those are very expansive, broad-canvas shows and very good shows, very well written. But they’re not particularly character-oriented, they’re immense and panoramically oriented, which is fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. But Terry and I were always pushing for this other direction to go, and who knows? Terry and I may have been wrong.” Asked what he would change if he had the power to do so, Carlson said, “What I would have done is make the continuity more even. There was unfortunately between episodes a lack of continuity. You get these very intense episodes, then you get a light-hearted one, then another intense one or two or three and then you get some that were right in the middle and it was like searching around trying to find the right light switch in the dark.”
spacer.gif (836 bytes)In spite of the pressure, the differences of opinion, and the problems with the network, Carlson enjoyed his work on Battlestar Galactica. “Galactica was one of those experiences that comes along once in a lifetime. I’ve worked on a lot of forgettable shows and I’ve worked on a lot of very memorable shows, but Galactica to me was, I just remember it with fond, fond memories, ‘cause it was so much fun, in spite of the hectic pace and all of that it was just…we were on a high all the time, no matter how tired we were or anything else, we were always on a high. And it seemed like everyone else on the show was. And the whole production staff, Harker Wade, Jean-Pierre Dorleac, Stu Phillips…all the people involved, we just all got along real well. It was like having party while you’re working hard and it was just so enjoyable. Everybody like everybody else and we all enjoyed what we were doing.” I pointed out that Galactica could have run for ten years, easily, and Carlson agreed, “It should have. It really should have. From what I understand, there was a lot of politics going on, in the network, between the network and Glen’s production staff, and I don’t know what it was. I don’t think it had to have been canceled. Even knowing that with almost absolute certainty that Terry and I wouldn’t have been part of it for the second season, we would have both loved to see the show go on, find its momentum, find its place. It could have done a wonderful run.” He summed up, “It was the best of times and the worst of times, and that was kind of really Galactica. All in all, if I have to shake it out and say, what do you remember, I remember the fun.”

2000, Susan J. Paxton

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