D.C. Fontana, who helped craft the lore of “Star Trek” and developed one of its signature characters, Spock, as the first female writer for the 1960s television series, died Tuesday at a hospital in Burbank, California. She was 80 and lived in Los Angeles.
The cause was cancer, according to her husband, Dennis Skotak.
Fontana was part of the “Star Trek” universe from its early days, working alongside its creator, Gene Roddenberry, on the series as a story editor and writer.
The original series, which premiered in 1966, introduced audiences to Captain Kirk, the United Federation of Planets and the Starship Enterprise. But Fontana was best known among fans for her work on Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan Starfleet officer portrayed by Leonard Nimoy.
The character was torn between the emotionality of his human side and a Vulcan’s zealous commitment to logic, a narrative tension that powered much of the television series and several of the 13 feature films that followed it.
“From Day 1 she was there helping Gene, in the early days, as a confidante,” Skotak said. “Captain Kirk always found a way to solve whatever problem they were facing, using Dorothy’s words in a lot of cases.”
In a 2013 interview with StarTrek.com, the franchise’s official website, Fontana said she thought her greatest contribution to the franchise had been “primarily the development of Spock as a character and Vulcan as a history/background/culture from which he sprang.”
She fleshed out the character’s backstory as the child of a human mother and a Vulcan father while she was a story editor and associate producer for “Star Trek: The Animated Series” in the 1970s. She later co-wrote, with Roddenberry, the 1987 pilot that launched “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Dorothy Catherine Fontana was born March 25, 1939, in Sussex, New Jersey. She was raised by a single mother in Totowa, New Jersey, and dreamed of becoming a novelist, she said in an interview with the Writers Guild Foundation in 2014.
After high school, she studied to become a secretary at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. She told the foundation that she thought clerical work would be a good day job for an aspiring novelist, but her goals changed when she became a secretary at Columbia Pictures’ television arm, which was based in New York.
“I was seeing scripts come across our desks for the various shows we had on the air at the time and I thought, ‘I can write this,’ like so many fools before me,” she told the foundation. “I had watched television for years and years and kind of got the idea of how stories were structured.”
When her boss died of a heart attack, leaving her jobless after just two months, she decided to move to California in December 1959 to see if she could break into writing for television. She achieved early success selling scripts to television series in the Western genre popular in the early 1960s, including “The Tall Man,” “Shotgun Slade” and “Frontier Circus.”
Fontana told StarTrek.com in 2013 that her big break came when she was hired to be the secretary to Del Reisman, the associate producer of a show called “The Lieutenant.” She was soon reassigned to work for another producer, whose secretary was hospitalized for two months because of complications from an appendectomy: Gene Roddenberry.
When “The Lieutenant” went off the air, Roddenberry sold “Star Trek” to Desilu Productions and asked Fontana to work for him there as a production secretary. But her role soon expanded.
“She would read the scripts and retype them and things like that,” Skotak said. “Then she thought, ‘I should try writing these because I have some ideas.’ “
Roddenberry recognized her ambition, and her record of writing for Westerns, and asked her to pick which story she wanted to write from the production outline for Season One. Her first script, about the ship’s encounter with a mysterious human teenager who possesses strange powers, became the second episode of “Star Trek.”
Fontana wrote for all three seasons of the original series. She later wrote for other science fiction shows, including “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and “Babylon 5,” as well as influential shows outside that genre, including “Dallas,” “The Waltons” and “Bonanza.”
In her later years, Fontana taught at the American Film Institute. She is survived by her husband, Skotak, a special effects designer, who said she continued to teach at the film institute until just a few weeks before her death.
“She was a very, very tough lady,” Skotak said. “She carried a phaser with her right up to the end.”
Speaking to StarTrek.com in 2013, Fontana reflected on what it was like to be a female writer in Hollywood in the 1960s. While working on “Star Trek,” she said, she did not realize that she had gone where no woman had gone before.
“At the time, I wasn’t especially aware there were so few female writers doing action adventure scripts,” she said. “There were plenty doing soaps, comedies, or on variety shows. By choosing to do action adventure, I was in an elite, very talented and very different group of women writers.”