Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One: 1

These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One: 1 These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One: 1 by Marc Cushman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Star Trek just turned fifty, and since I’m a fan only a few years younger than it I’ve soaked up enough of its history and trivia over my lifetime to qualify as a bridge officer on the USS Nerdlinger. Yet this book opened my eyes to all kinds of things about the show including debunking several myths I’ve taken as Trek gospel.

It starts off as kind of your standard behind-the-scenes story of how a pilot turned cop turned TV writer/producer named Gene Roddenberry came up with the idea for a sci-fi show, and then it describes the often painful process by which it eventually was brought to life by a dedicated cast and crew. That’s a fascinating story in itself, but by going through the production documents like script drafts, shooting schedules, and memos as well as drawing on personal recollections of those involved Marc Cushman also provides what becomes almost a daily diary of the initial creation and filming of each episode.

So we get a big picture view of things like how the television industry worked at the time so that the executives of Desilu Productions had good cause to think that shows like Star Trek and Mission Impossible might bankrupt the studio, and how Lucille Ball had to repeatedly step in to override her own board to keep them from being scrapped. We also drill down to the level of noting exactly who wrote each draft of a script and what changes were made as well as personal stories for all the guest stars and crew as well as the major figures like Roddenberry, Shatner, and Nimoy.

What emerges from all of the this is an intriguing picture of the controlled chaos that the production of the show frequently was. It also provides a lot of facts that contradict the general wisdom we usually hear about the original series. The story I always heard was that the show was low-rated at the time, cheaply done, and that the broadcast network NBC frowned on it’s progressive social messages and attitudes. In fact, the show had very respectable ratings in its first season against stiff competition from other networks, it was one of the most expensive made at the time, and NBC was actually encouraging things like diverse casting.

So why does nerd lore tell us something else? It was probably a variety of misconceptions and myths that grew up for a variety of reasons. Networks didn’t release ratings back in those days, and in fact might not want the producers of a show to know exactly how popular it was to prevent them from asking for more money. The show often looked cheap and slapped together because the technical demands had them constantly over budget and behind schedule. As for why NBC was often painted as a villain you could probably say that's due to Gene Roddenberry's habit of blaming NBC when he had to make an unpopular decision.

In fact, while Roddenberry certainly deserves a huge share of the credit for creating the show his behavior frequently caused issues that probably hurt the show and helped lead to its cancellation after three seasons. His style of dealing with freelance writers and insisting on unpaid revisions which he would then rewrite himself rubbed many the wrong way, and he routinely pissed off NBC. Roddenberry would then spin these disagreements as examples of the network pushing back against his social messages when the reasons might be directly due to his more selfish motives. For example, Majel Barrett was cast as the first officer in the original pilot, and the story I’d always heard was that the network didn’t think a woman should have such an important role and made Roddenberry change it in the second version. In reality NBC balked at Majel Barrett because she was Roddenberry’s mistress at the time so it seemed like bad business, and it’s hard to fault them for thinking that.

At the same time we learn how the show was hiring people like Gene Coon, a veteran writer/producer who stepped in at a critical time and showed an amazingly quick ability to to write his own scripts and revise the problematic work of others. Dorothy Fontana was an aspiring screenwriter who initially took secretarial jobs to get her foot in the door of the industry which she first used to sell scripts to TV westerns as D.C. Fontana. Eventually she became Gene Roddenberry’s secretary, then a freelance writer for him, and finally took on the position of story editor which made her one of the most important Trek creators.

The only problem is that sitting down and reading about all these episodes in a row gets a little repetitive. The production of the show fell into a rhythm that the book captures, and that starts to feel monotonous after a while although there’s always plenty of amusing anecdotes like how they got an actor to be in the rubber suit of the lizard-like Gorn creature by calling the guy in at the last minute without telling him what he’d be playing.

So as a straight up reading experience it can get a little tedious after a while although I think any TOS fan would like the initial stories about the show’s creation and find it a great reference when revisiting individual episodes.

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