Monday, February 3, 2014

Review: THESE ARE THE VOYAGES, TOS, SEASON ONE

TREKKIE.

That word probably conjures a distinct image for you: The unkempt, basement-dwelling virgin that's been giving fandom a bad name for five decades. It doesn't really matter that the public perception of a "Trekkie" is a myth generated by lazy journalists who latched onto the meme as a shortcut to thinking. Imagination is threatening to those who have none, so you can bet your ass that these kinds of fans will always be presented as weird and creepy by J-school hacks.

But that doesn't mean there's not an element of truth to the myth.

"The closest I've come to knowing myself is in losing myself," Kris Kristofferson said a few years back. "That's why I loved football before I loved music. I could lose myself in it. Music and drugs and rock 'n' roll — all of it is for you to lose yourself." While it looks like escapism to many people, fandom can sometimes be a revelatory experience. It's easy to know why you hate something; it's not so easy to understand why you love something. And you can't solve that mystery without sacrificing some part of yourself to it.

Whether it's NASCAR, punk rock, pro football or DARK SHADOWS, fandom will always have its share of socially handicapped men and women, people with an attention to detail that borders on absurd if you don't understand the mechanics behind their behavior. And THESE ARE THE VOYAGES, TOS, SEASON ONE by Marc Cushman and Susan Osborn has an attention to detail that will make a great many people feel uncomfortable.

Documenting the making of the first season of STAR TREK, the book is being marketed as the first of its kind to rely on the show's original production files stored at the University of California, Los Angeles. THESE ARE THE VOYAGES, TOS, SEASON ONE provides insight into the show's actual ratings, the often combative creative process behind the writing of the series, the development of STAR TREK's core cast, and SO. MUCH. MORE.

Ever wondered what the top pop songs were the week MUDD'S WOMEN was shot? How about whether or not the cast and crew were able to finish shooting in time to see SPACE SEED when it first aired? What kinds of barriers did the stuntmen playing the Gorn in ARENA have to overcome when having to take a leak? How many episodes did actor Sean Kinney appear in? Well, get ready to have a lot of questions answered that you probably haven't asked.


While it might sound dismissive, I actually liked how the book's tone favors the scalpel over the shovel as its favored tool. But, THESE ARE THE VOYAGES, TOS, SEASON ONE has two crippling flaws. The first is that it doesn't go far enough in its investigation into the creation of individual episodes. The second is that it leans heavily on a rigid, often boring structure. Each chapter begins with the official episode summary from NBC, a few thoughts about the episode from the authors, character quotes, a look at what news stories were making the headlines, popular songs on the radio, and a list of dates documenting the various drafts of the script as they were submitted. The authors are so attached to this structure that they are unwilling to abandon it, and it quickly loses relevance and novelty. This structure becomes insufferable by the time you reach the season's final episodes.

It's easy to see how this happened. The original archival documents are probably exciting to review. The physical documents represent history but there's a huge difference between handling an original network memo detailing an episode's plot, and reading a transcript of it. The authors confuse the issue throughout the book, often mindlessly regurgitating data in the name of consistency. Some of this information is interesting and worth discussion, specifically STAR TREK's allegedly suppressed Nielsen ratings (which were much better than advertised.) But, I don't need to know the date that draft #3 of CHARLIE X was submitted to network executives for approval.

Still, there's some good information here. I enjoyed hearing the stuntmen and bit actors reminiscing about their time on the show, and THESE ARE THE VOYAGES, TOS, SEASON ONE takes an unflinching look at how Gene Roddenberry and STAR TREK's various producers not only meddled with individual screenplays, but pressured many of the show's writers to work without compensation. I lost track of the moral and ethical dilemmas documented in the book, and feel torn about the authors' unwillingness to pick sides. While they've got no problem telling you their opinions on the content of specific episodes, they seem hesitant to call out the producers on their bullshit.


Worse, many of these conflicts go unrecognized. Roddenberry's most famous nemesis, Harlan Ellison, was once the show's biggest booster.  During the show's first few months, it was natural for producers to reshape early scripts in order to meet their vision for the series. Many of these scripts were submitted before the first regular episode had been shot, so it was natural for the writers to miss key elements of what we think of as "Star Trek." Roddenberry's handling of these early script revisions alienated many of these writers, though. THESE ARE THE VOYAGES, TOS, SEASON ONE paints Ellison as being critical of his contemporaries early in the season, and fails to note the irony of his disproportionate response to famously being re-written, himself. I wondered what guys like Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson thought about Ellison's change of heart, but their opinions were nowhere to be found.

More troubling is the investigation into the sexual assault of Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Rand  at the start of the series before being unceremoniously dumped after shooting just eight episodes. Whitney has long maintained that she was forced to have sex by an unnamed network executive in order to save her job, and was immediately fired for her trouble. The authors seem inclined to side with Whitney, but were unable to get anyone involved with the show to comment on anything other than the "official word" that Rand had simply become superfluous to the show. The book raises the issue, but curiously doesn't mention who, if anybody, was asked to comment. William Shatner offers a brief account of Whitney's departure that seems to contradict her story, but it's left unchallenged.

Still, I managed to enjoy THESE ARE THE VOYAGES, TOS, SEASON ONE for what it is. While the writing won't dazzle many people, the book still functions as a really long, if poorly edited, collection of Internet Movie Database trivia. I learned quite a lot about the show from the book ... I just wished I'd enjoyed myself a little more while doing so.

1 comment:

  1. That image is incorrect both Star Trek and Dark Shadows have fans that run up into their 80's now but the first generation fans are probably 55 to 75 years old.

    ReplyDelete

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