Review by C.J. Bunce
For most television viewers, the names after a show scroll by without much notice. But if you pay attention, you may find the writer of one of your favorite episodes is the writer of many of your favorites, which may point you to other series and episodes you’ve not seen yet that you may like. You might not have heard of Paul Robert Coyle, but it’s likely that anyone who is a fan of one or more genre shows has watched the results of his work. Or maybe you haven’t heard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Star Trek Voyager, Star Trek: The Animated Series, Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Superboy, The Dead Zone, Simon & Simon, or earlier detective and police series like The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, Crazy Like a Fox, Jake and the Fat Man, and CHiPs. Coyle wrote for these series, and readers of his new book Swords, Starships, and Superheroes: A TV Writer’s Life Scripting the Stories of Heroes may find he wrote some of their favorite episodes.
Coyle’s story is a snapshot of the life of a typical TV writer over 30 years in Hollywood, a career of many challenges, highs and lows, with plenty of freelance opportunities (and missed opportunities), failures and lessons learned, ultimately achieving the success of full-time work in the writing department of successful TV series with international fan followings. Coyle notes it’s a different world for writers today, so this isn’t a “how to” manual as much as a TV retrospective that would pair nicely with any of the previously reviewed TV insider autobiographies The Show Runner (executive producer), Cinema Alchemist (set decorator and designer) and Beaming Up and Getting Off (actor).
If you watch a lot of genre TV, this book is for you. It’s the first time I’ve seen a thorough account of a versatile genre TV writer who made his way across an impressive spectrum of genres. I’ve seen nearly all his episodes and even count some among my personal favorites, especially the Simon & Simon episode, “Almost Completely Out of Circulation,” my all-time favorite episode of my favorite 1980s series. It was about a comic book creator who left a clue to his death in a panel of one of his comics. Coyle infused his love of comics into a show for adults, the story creating a great conflict between the series lead characters, brothers Rick & A.J. when Rick learns A.J. threw away his rare comics collection. If you ever see Michael Piller’s name attached to a TV episode, watch it–his work is among the top of all TV writers in any genre. Coyle’s second major script was working with Piller on Simon & Simon, and this helped springboard Coyle to Piller’s attention across several more future projects, including Star Trek episodes. Coyle was one of the dozen or so contributing writers to one of TNG’s most famous episodes, “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and he worked on the acclaimed story “Sarek,” by Marc Cushman (whose numerous books I’ve reviewed here at borg) and one of the world’s greatest fantasy authors, Peter S. Beagle (who I’ve been lucky enough to talk with several times over the past three decades).
Coyle came from the D.C. Fontana writing school–literally–Fontana (one of the original Star Trek series’ most beloved creators) taught a TV writing course Coyle attended. As a young upstart Coyle’s failure at following rules (“always follow the instructions”) meant a Star Trek animated series opportunity passed him by, or, as he explains, maybe it didn’t entirely.
Coyle emphasizes the numerous rejections he and all writers get as a matter of routine, and advises aspiring writers to develop a thick skin. He takes readers through Deep Space Nine ideas he pitched, along with process steps on a script that finally made it to production, the Chief O’Brien showcase episode, “Whispers.” How much struggle does a writer encounter? Twenty-one years of submitting stories for Star Trek, yet only one got him a story credit, netting $40,000 in royalties over the years. Coyle would go on to create the character Seska on Voyager and he explains how he didn’t get royalties for it–Coyle seems to have been conflict-averse, letting many potential challenges go and moving on rather than being confrontational. Readers will find several features TV writers encounter–some good, some bad–with the Writers Guild.
Half of Swords, Starships, and Superheroes is devoted to Coyle’s experience in the Hercules/Xena universe. He shares great insight into the season of Xena: Warrior Princess where star Lucy Lawless was injured and the writers had to move forward without her (the Callisto swap!) and deja vus on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys when star Kevin Sorbo missed work recovering from strokes, and another actor died in an accident, causing the need for some quick re-writes. Coyle was actually played on-screen by Hercules co-star Michael Hurst, who switched from Iolaus to play the writer in a parallel storyline in two of the series’ more off-the-wall episodes. His episode, “The End of the Beginning” starred genre icon Bruce Campbell in a dual role.
Coyle’s work includes classic tropes, like Western homages, parallel worlds, and pairing enemies against a common foe, even drafting fake script pages to avoid fan leaks and spoilers before we called them that. He includes script excerpts from Xena: Warrior Princess. Ultimately Coyle would land the ultimate gig, as producer on the writing staff of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, Crazy Like a Fox, CHiPs, Space Precinct, The Cape, The Dead Zone, and Legend of the Seeker round out Coyle’s work and recollections in Hollywood.