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WHAT A LONG STRANGE TREK IT’S BEEN
Mark A. Altman
HOLLYWOOD IS THE ONLY BUSINESS WHERE YOU GET TO SHAKE HANDS WITH YOUR DREAMS
—writer/director NICHOLAS MEYER
Sitting across from me at a small table in a cluttered room in a Miami cemetery was the bearded rabbi with a small yarmulke resting atop his mop of thick gray hair, who was about to conduct my grandmother Edna’s graveside funeral. As we all sat around in a melancholy haze as the fateful time approached to bury Edna, I’ll never forget the words he shared with me when he found out what I did for a living at the time. “I love Star Trek,” he stammered excitedly. “You know why I think that show is so significant? Every story had a moral; it was a parable for the same ethical issues we grapple with in religion every day. I think it’s a very meaningful and important show. The original, at least. The others were crap.”
Now, I wouldn’t necessarily say “amen” to that (although admittedly some of the series are way better than others), but the reality is the original Star Trek was the center of the Big Bang that gave birth to a universe that is still expanding to this day. From the voyages of the original starship Enterprise (no bloody A, B, C, or D) as well as their animated adventures, to the Next Generation of twenty-fourth-century explorers, the gallant crew of the wildly underrated Deep Space Nine, the Voyager ensemble lost in space, Captain Archer and the crew members of Enterprise and, of course, J. J. Abrams’s latest reinvention of one of pop culture’s most beloved and lucrative franchises.
One can’t escape the inexorable gravitational pull of Star Trek, much like the Beta Nairobi nova. I know I haven’t. Ever since September 8, 1966, I’ve always had a very special connection to the Star Trek universe. It might have something to do with the fact we both made our respective debuts on this planet the same year. I’m not sure exactly when I first discovered Star Trek, but I do have vivid recollections of obsessively watching the series every weeknight at six o’clock back on WPIX in New York City (“Oh no, not ‘The Way to Eden’ again!”) and lashing out at the television when a self-professed Trekspert on The $100,000 Pyramid responded dumbfoundedly to a question about the name of the ship that was destroyed in “The Doomsday Machine” (“The Constellation, you moron!”). Yes, I loved Star Trek … a lot.
It was shortly thereafter that I waited on line for several hours to get the late Leonard Nimoy’s autograph at Macy’s inside the Kings Plaza Mall in Brooklyn, New York (probably the first—and last—time I ever cared about such things). But knowing this was the man who had called his first autobiography I Am Not Spock, I decided I would cleverly avoid asking anything about Spock and instead inquire about In Search Of.… Because in my sadly deluded mind, I was just the coolest nine-year-old on my block. (And in case you were wondering, he didn’t go to any of the exciting locales they visited in that series; Nimoy just did the voice-overs. Seems obvious now, but back then it was less than readily apparent.) It was an exciting time to be a Trek fan. Rumors of a new series or movie, the release of Franz Joseph’s brilliant Star Trek Blueprints, followed by the the even more sensational Star Fleet Technical Manual, Susan Sackett’s Letters to Star Trek; as well as Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Sondra Marshak, and Joan Winston’s Star Trek Lives!, the birth of Starlog, and a litany of novels, poster books, and Mego action figures (I went on that mission to Gamma VI a lot as a kid).
In the years ahead, I continued to passionately follow Trek. As anyone who’s familiar with my first feature film, Free Enterprise, may recall, my junior-high-school friends and I went to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture excitedly on the day it debuted, December 7, 1979, another day that shall live in infamy. After we were turned away from the box office by an overearnest ticket taker who refused to allow children under sixteen into a G-rated movie due to some recent unruly theatregoers, I was forced to boldly seek out my mother at a nearby bank as she was depositing her paycheck with a teller (this was way before ATMs, you know) and prevailed on her desperately to accompany us to the film since they wouldn’t let us in otherwise. She did—and she’s never forgiven me since.
Many years later, I was visiting Los Angeles for the first time and found myself on the Paramount lot, where I got a giddy thrill from seeing Starfleet uniform–clad extras for the first time milling around during a break at the studio commissary as production commenced on “Encounter at Farpoint,” the premiere of the then-new series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s hard to understand now—it was almost impossible to believe at the time—but Star Trek was finally coming back to television two decades after its inauspicious cancellation on NBC. It was with an all-new cast, but with much of the same creative team in place that had stewarded the original seventy-nine episodes, spearheaded by the so-called Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, Gene Roddenberry. At least, for the time being.
A few months later, as editor in chief of my college newspaper, The Justice, I received a query letter from Paramount publicity as part of their first-season press kit for the series that suggested ways news outlets could cover their new show. They were desperate for some good press (any press, actually) and success was in no way assured. Buried amongst all the hyperbole about this exciting new program was the suggestion of a set visit. Sounded good to me. I proceeded to hastily arrange for myself and my two best friends (my college roommate and the copublisher of a mimeographed fanzine I had produced since I was ten, Galactic Journal) to make the trek out to Hollywood to visit the set. We arrived in sunny Los Angeles ready to beam down to Paramount Pictures Stage 8 where the first-season episode “Too Short a Season” was filming, and we proceeded to spend the day interviewing the new cast and crew. Mitchell Rubinstein, my college roommate, still waxes nostalgic about the lobster he shared with “the very visual Rob Legato” that day in the studio commissary. For me, it would be the first of many visits.
Shortly thereafter, a professor of mine at Brandeis, who contributed many thoughtful analyses to the preeminent genre magazine of its time, Cinefantastique, introduced me to its publisher and enfant terrible, the late, great Frederick S. Clarke. Fred was J. Jonah Jameson incarnate. A man who did not suffer fools gladly and unlike others in the field was not a cheerleader for every schlocky sci-fi film or TV series that came down the pike, but a hardheaded, even harder to please arbiter of taste. I could never watch Jason Robards in All the President’s Men as Ben Bradlee without thinking of Fred … and still can’t. He offered me a chance to write about the series’ revolving door for writers during that turbulent first year in space. And I did. Fred was happy … and I was ebullient. And it was the beginning of a beautiful professional friendship as I contributed numerous feature stories to the magazine over the next several years (prompting a deluge of mail from readers to beg him to stop covering Star Trek every issue, but they sold so well that he kept printing them incessantly) in which I used to joke I spoke to everyone associated with The Next Generation with the possible exception of the gaffer and the craft service PA … mostly because I got paid by the word. In the heady days before the Internet decimated print journalism, not to mention quality entertainment journalism in general, this gave me unprecedented access to the show for its seven-year run and its savvy creative team.
It was about this time that another writer, who was a frequent contributor to Starlog, Cinefantastique’s less erudite but equally essential periodical, contacted me, the jocular Edward Gross. Ed, who had spent years interviewing virtually every living member of the original TOS production team and has an insatiable and buoyant enthusiasm for the subject matter, suggested we might make good collaborators, and we subsequently worked together on a number of projects culminating with this—I suspect, and hope—definitive accounting of the past, present, and future of the Star Trek franchise.
Covering Star Trek for those many years for CFQ proved a film school of a sort as I learned about the minutiae of television production, inside and out. When offered my own genre magazine to launch by none other than the infamous Larry Flynt, I jumped at the opportunity, with Fred’s blessing, and Sci-Fi Universe, the self-proclaimed magazine for sci-fi fans with a life, was born. Snarky and smart, Sci-Fi Universe was a great and beloved magazine that also undermined my relationship with the Trek brain trust when our honesty proved a little too, well, honest. After that magazine was sold, I was done with genre journalism forever … or so I thought.
My days at Sci-Fi Universe proved to be the basis for my first feature film, originally called Trekkers, later Free Enterprise. If they say “write what you know,” then Free Enterprise certainly validated that axiom. The film, about two die-hard and dysfunctional Star Trek fans who meet their idol, William Shatner, and find out that he’s more screwed up than they are, was the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only did I get to write and produce my first movie, but it starred William Shatner, a man I had admired and idolized since I was in utero. And still do.
Prior to the film’s premiere—it opened in theaters in 1999, propitiously on June 4, the same date that The Wrath of Khan was released in 1982—director Robert Burnett and I traveled to the Cannes Film Festival with Mr. Shatner … or Bill, as he preferred to be called. Although he was on the Concorde and we were flying coach on Delta, it was a wonderful week of screenings and walking (more often staggering) along the Croisette as Bill admired the view of the beach and winked with a sly grin as he muttered in his legendary staccato fashion, “Topless … topless is good.” A few hours later he was giving away a bomber jacket to Planet Hollywood Cannes that he had worn in the film, telling the assembled throngs of press that he unearthed it in a secondhand thrift store in Los Angeles and that it had once belonged to the famous World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. He added that he was now returning it to the beaches of France.
I was stunned. How come he had never told us this? What an incredible find. “I made it up” was his simple and elegant reply. And I learned something that day about the art of great storytelling and a great storyteller.
Because in the end, the magic that had always endeared Star Trek to me wasn’t necessarily its optimistic (some would say, Pollyannaish) view of the future, the gee-whiz and prescient peek at the technology of tomorrow (although I did dig those sliding doors and Automat-like replicators), the cutting edge of visual-effects technology or even the great writing, directing, and scores. It was its anchor: William Shatner as Kirk. A man who, I’ve often said, had the respect of his crew, the loyalty of his friends, and a green girl on every planet. What more could you ask for in life? But perhaps that’s too frivolous an answer. Maybe the rabbi was right, maybe there’s more to this Star Trek stuff than just some cool spaceships and crazy alien characters. The thing about Kirk that makes him a great leader is that while he is open and inviting of the opinions of others, he’s ultimately decisive, smart, and insatiably curious. And willing to disregard rules and regulations when necessary. He is a leader in the best sense of the word. John F. Kennedy by way of Bill Clinton. With the debut of The Next Generation, Captain Picard proved a different type of leader for a different era. Not the twenty-fourth century, mind you, but the early 1990s. He was a consensus builder, and thoughtful and deliberate; George H. W. Bush meets Barack Obama. These two templates would color the captains that would follow and forever define what Star Trek was for a generation of viewers.
While Star Wars is wonderfully elevated pulp, Star Trek is something else entirely. At its heart have always been characters who are a family, united by friendship, loyalty, and an insatiable curiosity about the unknown. In a culture in which cynicism and fatalism are the currency of the day—whether it be because of political gridlock, economic depression, famine, or the horror of disease—in which all our best contemporary television series from Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead plumb the darkness of man, what makes Star Trek so unique is that even when it goes into the heart of darkness, it still manages to come out the other side extolling the human adventure with a palpable sense of optimism and hope for the future. It’s a progressive, liberal vision that is to be lauded and not deconstructed or replaced with the fashionable pessimism that permeates the zeitgeist of today. I don’t think optimism needs to be old-fashioned, but it needs to be earned. In the end, it’s harder to write characters that aspire and situations that inspire without being hokey and, dare I say, passé. It doesn’t mean there can’t be conflict—there must be both interpersonal and interstellar conflict in order for Star Trek to be good drama—but humanity united has always been at the very heart of Star Trek rather than humanity divided. At its best it’s space opera writ large with something profound to say about the human condition.
Since Free Enterprise, I’ve produced many films and worked on a number of popular TV series, but Star Trek has continued to remain a source of continued fascination for me. After Fred Clarke’s death, I was involved with the acquisition of Cinefantastique and published it for several years with Mark Gottwald until selling it, and even launched the fictional Geek Magazine featured in, you guessed it, Free Enterprise as a real publication.
But I never suspected that one day I would find myself once again going back to the future. So when Ed Gross approached me with the suggestion that we create the definitive history of the Star Trek franchise for the show’s fiftieth anniversary, I didn’t exactly jump at the chance at first. Frankly, I didn’t know if there was anything left to say. But I was embarrassingly wrong. It was shortly after reading a lively and lacerating oral history of MTV, as well as Tom Shales’s magnificent Live From New York about Saturday Night Live, that I realized that Ed and I were in a unique position to tell the Star Trek story in a new, fresh, and, most important, uncensored way that no one had before … and no one else could. And while it would mean reaching out to hundreds of actors, writers, craftsmen, sociologists, executives, and fans again for new insights on the dawn of its fifth decade in space, it would also allow us to honor the many richly gifted and all too deserving talents whom we have spoken to over the last thirty years who are no longer with us to tell their stories: Gene Roddenberry, Gene L. Coon, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, John Meredyth Lucas, Ricardo Montalban, Michael Piller, Harve Bennett, and the remarkable Leonard Nimoy … the list is sadly all too long to recount here.
So our mission was clear. Our mantra: learn all that is learnable, know all that is knowable … and print not the legend but the real story. The whole truth and nothing but the truth. And that’s what you now hold in your hands. I am immensely proud of this volume and, if I hadn’t written it, you could bet credits to navy beans, I would be reading it.
It is my sincere hope this isn’t a book cherished by just Trekkies, Trekkers, and Trekophiles, but rather anyone who’s interested in the truly Shakespearean drama behind the scenes of the making of an iconic television series. You don’t need to love Star Trek—or even have seen Star Trek—to appreciate the Herculean (some would say Sisyphean) task of creating and re-creating this franchise, but as Groucho Marx might add, it couldn’t hurt.
In the end, I don’t think this is necessarily a traditional work of scholarship or even an artifact of a pop-culture phenomena. After all, the original Star Trek series easily ranks alongside The Twilight Zone, Hill Street Blues, Crime Story, Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, The Wire, Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men as one of the greatest television series ever made. This book is a love letter. It’s a love letter to a show that has given us so much … and, hopefully, will continue to do so until the twenty-third century and beyond. And if you don’t get it already, maybe you will after reading this volume.
Live long and prosper,
Mark A. Altman
September 8, 2015
Copyright © 2016 by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman
Foreword copyright © 2016 by Seth MacFarlane