In 1967 when Gene Roddenberry was accused of personally organizing scores of protesting fans who physically demonstrated in front of NBC Studios to keep Star Trek on the air he said “That’s very flattering, because if I could start demonstrations around the country from this desk, I’d get the hell out of science fiction and into politics.” This quote is one of thousands found in the new book, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: Volume One: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. It’s the first volume of two, and like that Roddenberry quip; the entire text shines a bright light on the chasm between what you think you know about the history of Star Trek and what the history of Star Trek really was.
I was 13 years old when Star Trek Generations came out in 1994. And in the months and weeks leading up to its release, I recorded every snap of information I could find on a VHS tape that my parents let me use specifically for “Star Trek Junk.” One particular collection of press interviews conducted on the E! Channel stands-out in my memory: Malcolm McDowell (the evil Dr. Soran) talking mad shit about Star Trek fans. Here’s what I remember him saying: “They [fans] don’t care if it’s good or bad or what. They just get on their Trekkie-treadmill and keep going…” 13 year-old me was crushed! Not only that, but I was also confused as to how I was supposed to feel. The comment felt flippantly cruel: like that scene in Superman III where Supes gets embarrassingly drunk at a bar. Because Trek was sacred to me, smack-talk about it was difficult to reconcile. And yet, Malcolm McDowell was obviously right: a lot of Star Trek fans—both then and now—see Trek itself as being somewhat unassailable. If you attack one aspect of Star Trek, you’re disloyal, even if you’re just being honest.
In The Fifty-Year Mission, David Gerrold—most famous for writing the classic Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”—states clearly his low opinions about the original Star Trek’s controversial third season producer, Fred Freiberger, saying:
“With the third season, the reason that it was the way it was, is that the guy at the center…he wasn’t doing Star Trek. You try and explain that to the fans, and they think you’re disloyal to the show. Where that comes from is a loyalty to what the show represents.”
Whether you agree with Gerrold or not about the third season of Star Trek sucking isn’t really the point. (I’ve even been known to defend “Spock’s Brain” from time to time.) Instead, what’s illuminating here—and throughout this whole book—is that the way we think about Star Trek’s identity is linked to assumptions we have about its origin. If you have ever believed that Star Trek was simply a beautiful vision from the mind of Gene Roddenberry and was misunderstood by idiots and studios, then The Fifty-Year Mission, Volume One might read as a total rude awakening. Through oral and written recollections, the book depicts not only the chaos behind the scenes of the original Star Trek, the animated series, and the first six films, but also the cacophony and obscuring that results from opposing recollections of the same event. The Fifty-Year Mission, Volume One is to Star Trek history what Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is to a whitewashed version of American history. The word “uncensored” is in the subtitle of Fifty-Year Mission and it’s not screwing around.
George Lucas has often been accused of not knowing how to communicate with actors, but in reading this book, you’ll discover that Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry may have been even worse. Gene L. Coon’s manager, Dorris Halsey mentions Roddenberry had a “very low respect for actors,” and Coon’s widow echoes that sentiment by explaining that “Gene wasn’t crazy about actors.”
Fifty-Year Mission also highlights showrunner Gene L. Coon—the other Gene of Star Trek—as probably the person most responsible for Trek’s consistent tone in its first two seasons, being among the five or six biggest unsung heroes of the entire franchise. (D.C Fontana, Nicholas Meyer, and Harve Bennett being a few others.) Nearly everything fans love about the original series, from humor to Hortas, comes from Coon’s direct writing or influence. Surprisingly, when Coon leaves the show before the third season, Roddenberry quit as a producer, too, causing the entire tone of Star Trek to change. This isn’t exactly a secret, but the wonderful thing about The Fifty-Year Mission is how it gives fans the context of how difficult Star Trek was as a business proposition before it became the bankable brand we think of today.
But what was Star Trek? Was it “Wagon Train to the Stars?” Was it serious science fiction? Was it even supposed to be funny? These were questions that Roddenberry, the actors, and crew struggled with even after the completion of the original series. During the writing of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, humor and fun seemed to be completely outlawed. As Leonard Nimoy says in the book:
“One of the things that Star Trek fans always enjoyed a lot about the series was the humor…There was always some wry look, a line, an eyebrow raised, something that let them in on the joke. On Star Trek 1 it was forbidden. I mean it was forbidden! It was decided that we were doing a very serious motion picture here, we would not do funny stuff…”
Star Trek: The Motion Picture may have said “The human adventure is just beginning,” but in many ways it was just as maddening as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, as Manny Coto (Enterprise producer) says in the book:
“I sympathize with the guys who went to see The Phantom Menace and convinced themselves that it wasn’t as bad as it was. Phantom Menace is worse, I would argue, than Star Trek ever was, but we were kind of in denial.”
In reading all of the insight and recollections in Fifty-Year Mission, you get the sense that Star Trek as a thing is an artistic entity perpetually at war with itself. It’s like Star Trek is both the “good Kirk” and the “evil Kirk” from “The Enemy Within,” only here those warring sides are split into myriad pieces comprising producers, writers, actors, fans, and critics. Fifty-Year Mission editors Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman have curated it all into a tome that can only be described as—wait for it—fascinating.
Revealing some of the better bits from Nicholas Meyer, or Walter Koenig, D.C Fontana or even Gene Roddenberry himself, would be ruining too much of the beauty of this book. If you are the type of Star Trek fan who only likes speculating about the temperature of a phaser pistol after it fires, this might not be for you. But, if, like me, you loved Nick Meyer’s The View from the Bridge, David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek or even William Shatner’s recent book Leonard, then you’ll love this.
At risk of pretending like I know nothing about Star Trek when I, in fact, know probably way too much; The Fifty-Year Mission, Volume One is the one totally essential, endlessly researched, and complete behind-the-scenes Trek book to rule them all.
The Fifty-Year Year Mission: The Complete Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: Volume One: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman is out this week from St. Martin’s Press. The second part, Volume Two: From The Next Generation to J.J. publishes in August.