On February 17th, 31 years ago, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” aired for the first time. The episode quickly became one of the most beloved in the Star Trek universe. According to a fan poll conducted by StarTrek.com, it’s considered one of the top ten Star Trek episodes ever made.
In honor of the episode’s airdate anniversary, Heavy spoke to Eric Stillwell, one of the minds behind the story that became the episode. He shared insider details about the storyline, the scriptwriting process, and what it was like to work with the incredible cast of The Next Generation (TNG).
The Ideas That Became ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’
Stillwell worked behind the scenes of TNG from the very beginning. He started out as a studio page, moved up to production assistant and by the third season, he was a script coordinator. He was responsible for reviewing and proofreading all of the scripts for each of the episodes and reviewing the spec scripts that were submitted through the studio’s open submission program. That’s how Stillwell first read the spec script for “Yesterday’s Enterprise.”
A writer named Christopher Trent Ganino, who Stillwell calls Trent, submitted a script that contained many of the main ideas that would eventually become “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Though the core of the story was there, as Stillwell told Heavy, Ganino’s original script was missing many of the key elements that ended up in the episode.
“In his version of the story the captain was a man and the characters were all different and there was no time alteration. The dilemma in the story was Picard knew that in their timeline they were destroyed after going back. So, he had the moral dilemma of deciding do we send them back and not tell them what’s going to happen or do we tell them with the chance of altering the timeline, but there never was an actual altered timeline.”
Stillwell read the script and passed it on to the writing staff. He said it took about a year for anyone to seriously consider the script. By that time, Stillwell and Ganino were friends and Stillwell had gotten him a job as a tour guide at the studio.
During the time that Ganino’s script was being considered for development, Stillwell was working on his own episode story involving time travel. In his proposed episode, a time-travel accident while researching ancient Vulcan history sent Sarek, Spock’s father, back to the time of Sarak, the Vulcan leader who’d changed the course of Vulcan history by teaching the value of logic over emotion. Stillwell’s story dealt with the implications of creating an alternate timeline and how it would impact both Vulcan and Federation history. It also explored how an altered timeline could be fixed through time travel.
Stillwell said that he and Ganino had never really considered combining their stories because Ganino’s script was already under consideration and Stillwell’s hadn’t yet been pitched. However, a chance conversation during a Star Trek convention changed the course of both their stories.
Denise Crosby Asked Them to Bring her Back
A while later, Stillwell and Ganino went to a Star Trek convention in San Jose. Crosby, who’d left the show two seasons earlier, was one of the speakers. As production staff, the two were able to chat with Crosby between panels. As they were talking, Crosby mentioned that she wanted to come back to the show for a guest appearance. She told Stillwell and Ganino that they should write a storyline that would bring her back.
They began thinking about the request and brainstorming how it could happen. Crosby’s character Tasha Yar had been killed when Crosby left the show. So, there would need to be a logical reason why she’d be back. Of course, Stillwell thought of his Vulcan time-travel pitch and started musing about how he could adapt it to involve Crosby’s former character,
Not long after that, the opportunity arose to pitch his idea.
“I heard scuttlebutt going around the offices that Denise Crosby’s agent had called and was saying she was interested in coming back to the show. So Michael [Piller] was putting out feelers for any ideas that the staff might have. So I immediately went across the hall, without even an appointment and I said ‘Can I speak to you for a minute?’”
He pitched his Sarak/Sarek storyline and suggested it could be adapted to include Crosby. Unfortunately, Michael Piller, one of the lead writers and showrunners, didn’t love the idea. However, Piller had read Ganino’s spec script for “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and he suggested that Stillwell propose combining his idea with Ganino’s.
Stillwell talked to Ganino and he loved the idea. So, they got to work on combining their stories.
Finalizing the Story Elements
The writers had to figure out which elements of each story to keep and how to combine them into a cohesive story. They kept Ganino’s idea that the Enterprise-C had traveled to the future as the crucial event of the story. They also decided to maintain the central dilemma — Picard’s choice about whether or not to send the Enterprise-C back to their own timeline.
From Stillwell’s story, they decided to take the idea of creating an alternate timeline and the mechanics of fixing the timeline through time travel. Stillwell also proposed a change that ended up being one of his favorite contribution to the Star Trek universe.
“In Trent’s original spec script, the captain of Enterprise-C was Richard Garrett, named after Trent’s favorite pizza parlor in his hometown of San Jose, but it was my idea to change the character to a woman so we could have the first woman captain of the Enterprise — and make the argument that when she died outside of her own timeline, that Tasha Yar could replace her, not as captain, but to re-balance the universe… Getting to create the first woman captain of the Enterprise is one of my proudest achievements during my association with Star Trek.”
So, they ended up with a storyline about how the Enterprise-C traveled to the future, creating an alternate timeline where the Enterprise-D was totally different, which could only be fixed by sending the Enterprise-C back to its own timeline. They brought the story back to the writing team and it was accepted for development.
Writing the Script was Kind of a Disaster
Once the story was finalized, the writing team, which included Trek greats Ronald D. Moore and Ira Steven Behr, had to synthesize it into an actual script. Because of the shooting schedule, this had to be done in a really rushed and haphazard way. The two most crucial characters in the story were Yar and Guinan, played by Whoopi Goldberg. That meant that the episode needed to be shot when both actresses were available.
Literally the only week they could shoot was the second week in December, which meant that the writing team only had a few weeks to get the script together. Stillwell described the chaotic way it ended up coming together.
“The whole writing staff… took pieces of and wrote different acts of it and came back on the Monday after Thanksgiving. They all hated me because they had to work through Thanksgiving to write my script. And they were all convinced it was gonna be a piece of crap because there was like five different writers. They really honestly thought that this was going to be a waste of time and then it turned out to be amazing.”
They put the final touches on the script and the episode went into production soon after.
Working With the TNG Cast
As the story writers for the episode, Stillwell and Ganino got the privilege of being on the set while the episode was being filmed. Stillwell said that being on set gave him the opportunity to talk to the actors about their characters and help them understand the complicated storyline.
“Patrick Stewart called me over and said to me ‘Explain to me this altered timeline… Am I the same person that I was?’ And I said ‘You’re the same person, but 22 years ago… your whole life took a different path. So your life experiences and the history of the Federation has all been altered. So, you’re now a product of those 22 altered years…’ He was like, ‘Oh okay. I get it.’”
However, some of the actors didn’t get the concept so easily.
“Then Jonathan [Frakes] called me over and he’s like ‘Now explain this to me!’” Stillwell told Heavy. “I explained the whole thing and he was like ‘I still don’t get it.’”
To this day, Frakes is open about the fact that he never really understood “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Apparently, he still tells Stillwell he doesn’t get the episode every time they run into each other at conventions, which happened regularly before the pandemic.
Still a Fan Favorite
Though he’s biased, Stillwell still believes that his joint creation with Ganino is one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever made. He revealed that he and Piller, who wrote “Best of Both Worlds Part I & II,” often argued about which of them had come up with the best TNG storyline. The only agreement they could reach was that Stillwell had envisioned the best single episode and Piller had brought to life the best two-parter.
Fans seem to agree as both Stillwell and Piller’s creations made it into the top ten Star Trek episodes of all time.