Star Trek: TNG "Lessons" (1993)
“We want to get Picard laid” was the way Jeri Taylor, Co-Executive Producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation put it to my writing partner Jean Matthias and me at one of our meetings in her office in the Hart Building on the Paramount Pictures lot.  It was the sixth season of the series, and it was thought by the staff that Picard, as captain of the Enterprise, and heir to the legacy of James T. Kirk,  was not as sexually active as he should be.  Oh, he had had relationships in previous episodes, but somehow they always ended up being women who used him to get something they wanted, (Captain’s Holiday) women intended for others (The Perfect Mate), or women who had actually died thousands of years before (The Inner Light).  He had never had a romantic relationship that might actually turn into something. 

We were lucky to get this lead on a potential episode.  Freelance writers, which we were at the time, are always on the outside looking in, desperate for any clue as to what the producers might want in an episode.  But Jeri Taylor, being one of the nicer people working in television, felt, at the time, that she owed us a little something.  We had written stories for two previous episodes of the show, Imaginary Friend, and Schisms, but had only received a “story by” credit on each of them.  In screenwriting, the holy grail is the “written by” credit.  “Story by” is good, “teleplay by” is better, but “written by” is the combination of the two and it means that you wrote the whole Magilla, the story (concept) and the teleplay (script).  “Written By” is the name of the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, which should tell you the importance of that credit among writers (that, and the fact that you make a lot more money with that credit).  

Earlier in the season, Jean and I had sold Jeri the story for Schisms, and we were supposed to write the teleplay for that episode which would have given us our first “written by” credit.  But because Schisms was an action-oriented story, Paramount asked the producers to bump it up earlier in the season to balance some of the more “philosophically oriented” episodes that were already on the schedule.  So Schisms got moved up from episode 10 or 11 to episode 5, and that meant that they didn’t want to take the chance that Jean and I (being freelancers) might not deliver a finished teleplay by the time it was needed for production.  So the teleplay assignment was taken from us and given to one of their staff writers.  I felt that the writer (a well-known name to Trekkers) did a pretty good job with it, but that’s another story.  At any rate, because Jeri felt that Jean and I had gotten the short end of the photon torpedo on Schisms, she decided to give us a gift.  That gift was the possibility of writing a story that Michael Piller, Executive Producer (Show Runner of Star Trek: TNG), had interest in, but had not yet approved an actual approach.

“Michael has this idea that it might be interesting to give Picard an inter-office romance” she told us.  Apparently, nobody on staff had come up with a take on the idea, so she threw us the bone.  Jean and I set to work, and a week or so later, had several approaches to Picard’s potential relationship.  We met with Jeri and Ron Moore, who was, at that time, rising up the ranks in the story department.  We pitched our ideas, and then sat back and watched each of them rejected for one reason or another.  Worse, our ideas actually provoked a disagreement between Jeri and Ron over how Picard would meet his new relationship.  Jeri wanted them to meet on the ship, Ron wanted them to meet off the ship, and before we could get in a word, the discussion escalated into an argument.  Jean and I looked at each other realizing that if we didn’t intercede soon that the whole thing was about to fall apart.  I signaled for a time-out and asked Jeri and Ron if we could table the discussion for the moment, so that Jean and I could go and re-think the concept.  We walked off the lot, totally dejected.  An idea that looked like it might turn into an episode for us was hanging by a thread.

Over the next few days, we both tried to find an approach to the story, without any success.  And, just at the point where I was about to give up, I remembered the painting.  

It was called The Kreutzer Sonata, an oil painting from 1901 by René François Xavier Prinet that was made into a print that I had seen framed in antique shops.  The image was of a male violinist and a female pianist, exchanging a passionate kiss at the keyboard.  The implication was that they had been playing music together, when the emotions of the music simply overwhelmed their inhibitions.  Music! This was my “door in” to their relationship.  We had seen Picard learn to play a kind of flute in The Inner Light as he settled into married life in that long-dead world, and at the end of that episode, we saw him playing the flute again on the Enterprise, and remembering his lost love through his music.  Why not use music now to bring Picard together with a new love? 


We pitched it, and it was immediately bought by Jeri and Michael.  We had cracked the nut that had thus far eluded the staff.  Over the next month, we wrote the story outline, and through another meeting received feedback from Jeri and others on the staff as to possible directions in which the story might go.  The title of the episode came from the concept that Nella might be giving music lessons to Picard, but also life lessons.  I was a fan of the band Level 42, and listening to one of their songs entitled Lessons in Love (still a great song!).  This became the original title of the pitch, which then got shortened to Lessons, which was decidedly less “on the nose.”


We got really lucky with the casting of Australian actress Wendy Hughes as Picard's romantic interest, Nella Daren.  It was just another moment of serendipity that made the episode work.  Wendy was a little closer in age to Patrick Stewart than other actresses with whom Picard had relationships.  I thought she struck exactly the right note between being the professional, extremely competent Starfleet officer, while being absolutely intriguing and damned sexy at the same time.  Wendy and Patrick had apparently worked together previously, which made the chemistry between the characters all the more believable.  Patrick Stewart's performance, it almost goes without saying, was superb.  He revealed a vulnerablity in Picard that we had never seen before, while maintaining his firm captain's resolve.


One thing I fought hard for was that Nella Daren should play the piano.  The piano is my instrument, and frankly, I felt a little proprietary interest in having that be Nella's instrument, too.  Jeri originally wanted Nella to play the “fiddle.” I was insistent that she play the piano and stuck to my guns.  As a musician, I realized that we’d get a lot farther musically if she could accompany Picard’s flute playing on a piano, rather than on a violin.  Also, we had seen concerts given in Ten Forward, the social hall on the Enterprise-D, and it seemed like a great way for Picard to meet Nella, as she performed an orchestral piece with Data, who had become an expert violinist, as we had seen in previous episodes.  Eventually, I won the point, and Nella became a pianist.


A side note on this concert scene... a few years after this episode aired, I was talking with an actor who was working with my wife Beverly in a local theatrical production.  He mentioned that he appeared in Lessons  and I asked him what part he played.  He said, “I played Data’s hands.”  He was a violinist, and told me that they made up his hands to appear to be Data’s skin color, put him in a uniform and he got up underneath Brent Spiner, the actor playing Data, and played the violin for him as Brent played the emotion of the moment.  It’s an amazing bit of theatre.  You can’t tell that it’s not the actor playing the instrument. 


The next development in the relationship between Picard and Nella came when she arrived, uninvited, at his quarters to play music with him.  This episode allowed us a glimpse into Picard’s personal life, and I really appreciated how the costume designers came up with such interesting casual clothing Picard would wear when he was off duty and out of uniform.  It’s really one of the delights of the episode, and one that makes writers look good, even though we had little to do with it but set the scene.



The next bit came with the “keyboard” that Nella brings into Picard’s quarters.  She needs to bring in an instrument to accompany his flute playing, but we couldn’t exactly have her roll in a piano.  In one of the story sessions we came up with the idea of a roll-up keyboard that is carried by Nella under her arm when she enters Picard’s quarters.  When she rolls it out, it sounds like a grand piano.  My personal belief is that each key is a mini force field, so that it actually feels like you’re playing a piano keyboard.  A few years ago, I saw that some company had actually made a roll-up keyboard and put it on the market.  Of course, they didn’t bother to send us any royalties, and it probably doesn’t have force-field keys.


This scene of Picard playing music with Nella is tricky because it is pivotal to the growth of Picard’s character, first allowing Nella into his quarters, and as well, into his music.  This is the first opportunity he has to get close to her, and she to him.  So, if this scene doesn’t work, there goes the entire concept.  As to the actual music played in the scene, there is only so much you can do in a script.  I’m sure that a great deal of this scene was improvised by the actors and director on the set, along with a music supervisor to make sure it would work.  Again, somebody was smiling on the production, because this scene works wonderfully well in opening up the characters and allowing us to see more of Jean-Luc the man, rather than Picard, the Captain of the Enterprise.


The next scene is a cute bit that shows how Nella is getting to Picard, and I admit, I had nothing to do with it.  This was totally the creation of Rene Echevarria, who did the final polish on the script before it went into production.  Picard invites Riker to fill in for his fencing partner who has taken ill.  Riker begs off at first saying he’s not very good.  Picard then reveals how Nella has influenced him by quoting her from the previous night when she said “it doesn’t matter if your’re good at something, as long as you enjoy it.”  Riker is more than a bit startled by his captain’s new-found enthusiasm. 


Meanwhile, in Sick Bay… One of the motivations of the producers with this episode was to put to rest the notion of any possible romantic future between Captain Picard and ship’s doctor Beverly Crusher.  Michael, Jeri and the other producers on the show had had their fill of fan letters suggesting that Picard and Beverly were really soul mates meant for each other.  Michael and Jeri simply wanted to end that speculation, and hoped to do so with this episode.  So, when Beverly and Picard discuss Nella, and later when Beverly examines Nella in Sick Bay, the intention was for Beverly to essentially give Picard the green light to have a relationship with whomever he chose.  But Gates McFadden, the actress playing Beverly, decided not to follow that particular direction.  In fact, she played this scene with Nella with a not so subtle shade of green-eyed jealousy.  When she says the line “I didn’t know he played duets,” it was supposed to be something of a joke.   She played it straight, and, in so doing, revealed a desire for a relationship with Picard that the producers ultimately caved in to in subsequent seasons, particularly in the show finale in which Picard and Beverly ended up together.  Good for her!  


Back to the story... now we’re leading up to the pivotal scene, where Nella and Picard actually become lovers.  Up to this point, it was just playing around, but things are starting to turn serious.  We had to set the scene in a way that would make it memorable.  One of the things that made this episode appealing to the producers was that, in format, it is what is known as a “bottle show.”  A bottle show is one that utilizes only standing sets, meaning, sets that are already built.  A bottle show is very attractive to producers because, if they can get good drama here, they can produce the episode very inexpensively compared to others for which major set construction, or location shooting might be required. 


One of the dictates we had with this show was that we were to build no new sets.  So we had already seen Picard and Nella playing music in his quarters.  Where could we go next that might be interesting?  The inspiration for this next scene came from my experiences at college in upstate New York.  

At my school, many of the stairwells in the classroom and dorm buildings were built as cylinders of concrete and, because of the design, produced a really incredible natural reverb effect.  As a result, you couldn’t walk up or down stairs in most buildings without tripping over some acoustic guitar player (sometimes whole bands) practicing playing or singing. 


Thus, we created the scenes in the Jeffries tubes, as Nella takes Picard to an isolated place that just happens to be “the most acoustically perfect location on the ship.”  Again, these were standing sets, so shooting these scenes was relatively inexpensive. 

From one good idea comes another.  I remember that once I had pitched the idea of Picard and Nella playing music in the Jeffries tubes, Ron Moore laughed and said “wouldn’t it be great if Geordi started hearing the music coming through Engineering but couldn’t figure out where it came from.” 


Then I added the bit about Data coming to verify hearing the music and hearing nothing because Picard and Nella had stopped playing to kiss.  Jeri Taylor loved this moment. 

I loved it too, especially because I remembered its original inspiration, the Kreutzer Sonata painting.  This is the exact moment I hoped to recreate when I pitched the idea of Picard and Nella finding each other through music.  Is it art imitating art imitating life?  Who cares?  It worked.



The next section is, to me, the weakest of the episode.  Picard comes up against what happens when you fall in love with someone in your workplace.  First he’s embarrassed to be seen by other ships’ personnel with Nella.  Then Nella asks Riker for time on the sensor array.  Does he give it to her because she deserves it, or because she’s involved with the Captain?  Picard’s confused about his feelings.  He needs to talk with the ship’s counselor about it.  I suppose we were essentially mandated to do these scenes because the original episode concept grew out of the complications of an inter-office romance.  So we had to do them to honor that concept.  But, in retrospect, they seem a bit forced.  OK, Picard’s falling in love.  Better go talk with Counselor Troi about it.  I mean, really!  Are people in the 24th century that embarrassed about interpersonal relations?  Thankfully, these scenes were short, and dispensed with fairly quickly so that we could get on to the big issues of the story: Picard sharing his heart with Nella, and then sending her out on a mission in which she may die.


The issue of the heart came in the next scene in which Picard takes Nella away from her work and explains to her how he learned to play the flute and what exactly his music means to him, that when he shares his music he is sharing something very deeply personal.  I love this concept.  And it was great that we were able to tie Picard’s feelings to a previous episode (The Inner Light), but more importantly, I think that this scene gets to the heart of what all good musicians feel when they play music with others who are trying as hard as they are to transcend the moment.  There’s one level in which you are playing the notes on your instrument and making it work by getting through the song with the other musicians.  It’s coming together, and that’s great.  But there’s another level when you realize that what you’re creating in any musical moment is something more, that it deserves a bigger effort, and you try, through the non-verbal communication that your performance allows, to take it up another notch, to make it something, not just of your brain, but of your heart.  That’s the moment that only musicians can understand -- when musicians talk to each other through their art.  And it’s that moment when music brings you to tears and you realize that it is truly one of God’s gifts to us.


Jean wrote a beautiful moment for this scene, and a good deal of it survives in the final product.  The producers had allowed us one unique set to be built for the episode.  Jean conceived of the ruins of a castle (created on the holodeck) built by a king for his queen, with each brick laid by the king accounting for an occasion in which he expressed his love for her.  A great moment.  Unfortunately, the set was never built, because Michael Piller had grown to like this episode a lot during its development, and he found several hundred thousand dollars in the budget for more set construction.   He decided to forego the holodeck scene in place of something bigger.  We were now allowed to go down to a planet in the final act.


The jeopardy in the script came from the firestorms on planet Bersallis 3, which were unspecified through most of the development process.  We knew that there would be a problem which would put Nella’s life in danger, but had no idea what it would be.  When developing such a concept, Star Trek writers simply write TBD [to be determined] or [TECH HELP HERE] which lets the show’s science advisors know that we needed a concept.  We had great assistance from Naren Shankar, then the science advisor, now a major show runner (as well as a terrific writer).  He came up with the idea of the firestorms that were threatening a Federation colony. 


Thus we created the “dread Obs Lounge scene” as the producers called it, which was a typical scene in The Next Generation which all the major players sat around the conference table in the Observation Lounge and discussed the problem of the hour, and how to solve it.  Nella was naturally included in the scene, and I came up with the idea that she had previously used portable deflectors to forestall such a problem in the past.  Geordi realizes that Nella's solution "just might work," and they set about making it happen.  Note to the patent board: when portable deflectors are eventually invented, please send royalties to my heirs. 


Then comes the big moment, when Picard agrees to send Nella down to the dangerous planet knowing that she might die.  But what can he do?  She is the most qualified, due to her previous experience with portable deflectors.  When he sees her walk out of the Observation Lounge and later sees her dematerialize on the Transporter Pad, he realizes that it may be the last time he will see her alive.  This, is what the episode is about.  It’s damn hard to be in command.  Hard to send out people to missions in which they might not return.  That much harder to send out someone with whom you are in love.  I think we hit the moment.  The one thing to realize is that, when we were developing this beat of this episode, we didn’t know any better than Picard did, whether Nella was going to live or die.  Could have gone either way.  It was, at this point, a TBD in the story outline.


Another, in the remarkable amount of kismet in this episode for me, had to do with my experience at Digital Magic, the FX house that was doing the visual effects for the show.  At the time, I was teaching screenwriting at UCLA Extension, and for every class I taught, as a bonus, I got to take one class from the program for free.  That semester, I was taking a class in digital compositing from Rich Thorne, head of Digital Magic.  It so happened that we had a field trip to their office to watch a Star Trek episode being rendered.  Amazingly, it was the scene in which Nella encounters the firestorms on Bersallis 3. 


I remember our class filing into the edit bay and watching the scene.  I couldn’t believe my luck.  The digital artist posed the question to the class about the firestorms.  “How fast should they be moving?”  “Three hundred kph I stated unequivocally.”  He looked at me with amazement.  “How the hell would you know that?” he asked.  “Well,” I said, “because I wrote it.”  Nobody would believe me until they saw my name on the script.  The firestorms moved at the proper speed after that.



I was happy with how all of these scenes played out.  The digital FX looked great, I thought Wendy did a great job of conveying fear mixed with responsibility on the planet as she held her ground, as ordered by Captain Picard.  Again, we wrote a good script, but so many other contributions from acting, directing, visual FX, music and so many others contributed to make the moments work as they had been been envisioned in our heads.  Finally, the beautifully crafted moment (by the director, Robert Weimer) in which Picard believes Nella has died and he sits alone in his quarters, looking very small before getting up to close the box on his flute which he will probably never play again.  Then, he gets the word from Worf that survivors are beaming up, and he arrives in the Transporter Room to see Nella, amazingly, still alive.


Yes, it was better this way.  If she had died, Picard would have been wounded, and that would have been hard for him.  But he had lost love before.  The realization that, because of his role and responsibilities, that love now was impossible for him was, in fact, a bigger burden.  So when he and Nella exchange a final kiss, we know that it may, indeed, be the last he may ever have.  Their parting line says it all “don’t give up your music” which means, of course, don’t give up your heart.

 
So as much as I like this episode, and because it ended up embellishing so many of the ideas in which we started out, it remains a rather bittersweet experience.  The romance of this episode was certainly an unstated subplot for Jean and me.  We had been involved in a relationship previously, but, by the time this episode was in development, we had been broken up for more than a year, and had begun relationships with other people to whom we are each now married.  So, in a way, I supposed we were writing about our own relationship which, though it ended much as did Picard and Nella’s, we could look back on fondly for the good times we had shared.


Because writing and producing television is a collaborative affair, there are lots of other people who have ideas and opinions that find their way into your episode.  Sometimes, those ideas take your story in unexpected and sometimes just awful directions, and then you end up watching the episode later and thinking to yourself “what the hell was I thinking when I thought this up?” “What was it about this idea that I liked?  Because I sure don’t like it now.”    

However, there are other occasions, when the ideas that are added to your story by others actually make it better than you had even hoped.  “Lessons” is one of those instances.  I can say that many of the additions to the original concept, even the ones I resisted at first, ended up making the story better.  And in repeated viewings, I think I can say that I believe this one holds up quite well over time.  I feel good about having my name on it, and if you want to give me credit, then, fine.




Thanks to CBS/Paramount who own copyright to all of the images in the above story.

05.24.12

By the way, this episode is available for instant viewing on Netflix (Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Lessons," Season Six, Episode 19)