Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Star Trek At 50

One of my earliest memories is the landing of Apollo 11.  My parents woke me up for it and dragged me downstairs so that I could wobble bleary eyed on my father's lap as Eagle came down to rest at Tranquility Base.  I couldn't make out what Armstrong said.  The interference was bad that morning. But even at that age I knew what I had just watched something that was supposed to be important.

Everyone else thought so too.

Apollo 11 was the new Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria all rolled into one.  Armstrong was the new Columbus (For the benefit of Millennials; fifty years ago Columbus was generally admired  in this country.  No, really he was.)  A new world was opening up and I as an extremely young child was told constantly that I was going to be a part of it.

The Moon was clearly just a stepping stone.  After that would come Mars.  Then Jupiter, Saturn, the outer planets and...well that would probably have to be it for my life time.  FTL travel was as elusive then as it is now.  But an entire Solar System was likely to be the work of a lifetime regardless.  There was zero doubt at that moment that we would soon be headed out to the rest of the Solar System.

Star Trek had already been canceled for a month.

My first memories of Star Trek are a lot clearer than Neil Armstrong's walk-about.  They mostly involve my father saying, "Hell no!  This is my house and  I paid for this damn TV set.  We are watching Laugh-in!"  There was of course only one TV in the house.  My memories of Laugh-in are resentfully blurry.

Regardless, I was promised that I could watch Star Trek during reruns, since Dad didn't care to laugh at the same joke twice.

And boy-howdy was Dad right.  I certainly did get to watch Star Trek in reruns.  Star Trek the original series was in syndication pretty much continuously until Next Generation came along.

Despite it's short run of 72 episodes it became the most influential science fiction series of all time.  No, I'm not exaggerating. Everything that followed it, either had to implicitly accept or reject what it had brought to the table.

This is not to say that it was good.

A thing does NOT have to be good in order to be influential it just has to have a big footprint.  In the days of three networks and not much in the way of other science fiction show on the air or most especially in reruns, Star Trek couldn't help but have a big foot print.  For ten years there was pretty much nothing else out there.  UFO came and went in one year.  Space 1999 lasted two seasons and then vanished from the air.  There were several one season wonders and a bunch of pilots that never got picked up, I'll get to that shortly.  But nothing challenged the impact of Star Trek because nothing could.

The reason was that  nothing lasted long enough to be picked up for syndication.

In the days before cable, syndication was everything.  That was the market that made money for the production companies.  When a show was on the air for the networks it was more or less being made at cost.  But when a show got picked up for the rerun market the money could come raining down for years.

But and this is the important part... you needed a minimum of seventy five episodes.  At seventy-two, Star Trek was just close enough.

That odd little rule kept Star Trek the Original Series on the air in every market for better than twenty years.  That gave Star Trek time to not just move the needle but to set the standard because there was no other show that had that kind of legs.*

In truth it has not stood the test of time as whole.  Watching it today tends to be a something of disappointment.  You remember it as being better than it was.

The sets look cheap, the lighting looks awful.  Shatner's typical performance was hamtastic but he was hardly alone there.  The entire cast was either completely wooden or absolutely over the top.  A lot of the stories were silly as hell.  Although a few of them weren't.

The shows that weren't terrible all had one thing in common.  They had been either written or produced by Gene L. Coon.

One of the big difference between the Original series and those that followed it was the mindset of the men who produced, wrote and indeed watched it.  All of them had been in uniform at some point in their lives.  The post World War II paradigm predominates throughout the show.

The Cold War Draft had shaped American society in a way that no one can comprehend today.  Between 1940 and 1973 a young man reached eighteen years of age he was presented with a choice.

1. Pick the service of your choice and volunteer.  Volunteers received preferential treatment,  MOSs and assignments.  Volunteers are always preferable because their moral is fundamentally better.  You can always throw it in a Volunteer's face.  "Hey, you volunteered shitbird.  Nobody asked you to be here.  You wanted this."

2a.  Request deferment for college and then go in as an officer.  If you have to be in the band, you are better off being the guy waving the stick.  This was how Bill Clinton skipped the draft.

2b. Become something that the US government did not want to be drafted at all.  Scientists,  engineers and the like.  Also farmers past a certain point.

2c. Get married in college and a have a kid.  That usually got you out of the running.  Particularly if your new father-in-law was somebody who could go cry for the local draft board on your behalf.

3.  Take your chances with the Draft Lottery.  If you were a high school drop out you were definitely getting drafted.(*If you are a high school drop out today...you can not enlist. Ha-Ha!*)

In short the Draft had been used as a very effective club to motivate the young men of America.  The Draft had become a societal engineering tool.  The exemptions to it strongly influenced the choices of young men to proceed along paths that American Society most approved of for them.  Regardless of how they felt about it personally.

Star Trek the Original series is a product of that America.

A lot of hardcore Lefties who would never have considered such a thing, did time in the Service.

And Star Trek was Lefty as fuck.  When it started production written Science Fiction leaned to the right.  No, I'm not joking here, it actually did.  Heinlein, Herbert, Zelazney, Niven, Pournelle.  All of them were some species of rightwinger.

Gene Roddenberry on the other hand was a Mercedes Marxist who usually couldn't afford the Mercedes.

He started out as an LA cop. Then flew B-17s during the war.  He became a commercial pilot after the war and following a nasty crash in North Africa went back to being a cop.  While being a cop he became an adviser to Dragnet.  I have a suspicion that he was the inspiration for "Hollywood Jack" in LA Confidential.

Dragnet was Roddenberry's entry portal to TV.  He worked as a script writer on cop shows, westerns and military dramas.  He combined all three when he pitched a Sci-Fi show as "Wagon Train to the Stars."

The first pilot is quite interesting as it is Roddenberry's closest iteration of what he wanted Star Trek to be.  And The Cage has almost no resemblance to the beloved original series. Stark, dark and gritty come to mind when describing it.  Starfleet was an actual military organization.  It reflected Roddenberry's own experiences in the Army Air Corps.  The captain of the ship was more fighter jock than Horatio Hornblower. There was a ship's doctor who acted as older man councilor to the captain.  The Enterprise had an actual CPO and that never happened again.  Proto-Spock was on hand but he was just some guy with point ears.

Roddenberry's sexual interests were very much on display as well.  Captain Pike's Number One was a woman.  Which in a more Game aware/military aware world could have worked well.  The XO is inherently a more maternal figure in the military hierarchy.  The sympathetic agency that can be appealed to, and one that is inwardly focused on the running of the organization.  In short, the XO is the Mom who wears the pants in the family.  But this Number One


Felt more like this




The Yeoman pictured on the left came across as the innocent lost farm girl in the big city.

And then there was Vina


The woman that could change to fulfill any male fantasy.  All three were presented by the alien overminds for Pike's sexual pleasure.

Roddenberry was the proto WorldCon goer in this regard.

The first pilot was scrapped but a second was ordered.  This new one was less militaristic in nature but still didn't feel like Star Trek.  Roddenberry stayed true to his horrible vision for the first 13 episodes.

His vision of the future, by the way,  didn't include the likes of us.  We were pretty much expected to conveniently die off in WWIII.  This event that was hinted at very strongly through out the series but was never fleshed out in much detail.  Which was typical for the sixties.  Everyone expected to the Cold War to one day turn hot.  This expectation also colored the show through out.

After this cleansing by fire, all primitive thinking nationalists would be extinguished.  And the only thing left would be noble, scientific globalism.  Ready to head to the stars.  Even here Roddenberry was an unoriginal hack.

Advance to 1:02:00 if you are curious about what I mean.**



Roddenberry’s insecurities were apparent from the start. He fought with the studios, the network, the writers, anyone who crossed his path. “During the first year,” he says, “I wrote or rewrote everybody, even my best friends, because I had this idea in my mind of something that hadn’t been done and I wanted to be really there. Once we had enough episodes, then the writers could see where we were going, but it was really building people to write the way I wanted them to write.” But no one could do that. Roddenberry never stopped rewriting. “The problem,” says his biographer Joel Engel, “was that he basically couldn’t write well enough to carry it off.” For 25 years, a script never left Roddenberry’s hands without becoming worse.

Then along came the unsung hero, who is unsung because Roddenberry tried to write him out the picture in completely and in a world before the internet you could totally do that.

Gene L. Coon is the real creator of Star Trek. He was brought on board to be the show runner after Gene Roddenberry lost interest in the project.

Coon is the one who created every hallmark of Star Trek.  The United Federation of Planets, the Klingon Empire.  Starfleet Academy, Starfleet Command and of course KHAAAAAANN!  He oversaw the second and truthfully only good season of the show.

Roddenberry couldn't forgive him for being more talented than he was.  He eventually forced Coon off of the show and took credit for everything he did.

That didn't play well in certain quarters.

"Shatner actually took it up a notch while the "Great Bird of the Galaxy" was still alive. Even though he had not nearly as large a bone to pick with Roddenberry as, for example, his co-star Leonard Nimoy had, Shatner apparently felt damned if he would let Roddenberry get away with the perceived injustice. On 6 June 1991 shortly before celebrating the 100th episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Producers Building at the former Desilu studio lot was renamed "Gene Roddenberry Building", and Shatner was one of the speakers at the dedication ceremony. During his speech, Shatner purposely dropped Coon's name a few times, in an effort to embarrass Roddenberry. Very shortly after Roddenberry's death five months later, Shatner, not in the slightest rueful, explained himself, "In my opinion, Gene Coon had more to do with the infusion of life into STAR TREK than any other single person. Gene Roddenberry's instincts for creating the original package are unparalleled. He put it together, hired the people and the concept was his and set in motion by him, but after 13 shows other people took over. Gene Coon spent a year and set the tenor of the show and there were several other producers who were writer/producers who defined its character. Gene [Roddenberry] was more in the background as other people actively took over." (Cinefantastique, Vol 22 #5, p. 39) Shatner in particular, has not let the issue slide, nor did he mellow over time, when he, as late as 2008, wrote in even harsher tone in his autobiography, Up Till Now: The Autobiography, "After the first thirteen episodes writer/producer Gene Coon was brought in and Roddenberry became the executive producer, meaning he was more of a supervisor than working on the show day -to-day. After that his primary job seemed to be exploiting Star Trek in every possible way."


Coon died long before the Star Trek's rise to dominance in the 1970s.

It was during that period that Roddenberry showed his true genius...as a marketer.  And what he was marketing was a product called Gene Roddenberry, Genius.  He didn't actually produce anything to back this up I'm afraid. 

Of his failed pilots there was Questor Tapes about a sentient android that was part of  conspiracy to save the world through globalism.  There was Genesis II, which was some Buck Rogers scenario about a scientist trying to bring about globalism in a post WWIII world.  Roddenberry kind of went back to this roots with Haven/Future Cop about an android cop. A second version of Genesis II, this time starring John Saxon as a male sex slave.  And finally Spectre, which was basically a supernatural Sherlock Holmes and isn't anywhere near as good as it sounds.  

There were other projects as well. 

(H)e made a deal with Sir John Whitmore, an eccentric former race-car driver who wanted him to write a screenplay about a group of extraterrestrials, the “Council of Nine,” who Whitmore believed were bound to return to Earth any day now. Roddenberry set to work. He shared his draft with friends. “I read this script and the hair began to rise on the back of my neck,” says writer Harold Livingston, “because that’s his, Gene’s, story. He was totally unaware of what he was writing. He was also writing his various sexual perversions, which I certainly don’t hold a grudge against, because I’ve got my own problems. But there’s something very, very amiss there.”

There had been an earlier attempt at a Star Trek film that Roddenberry took from Green Light to Red Light with his constant demands for incompetent artistic control.

However, after Star Wars came out, interest at Paramount drastically accelerated.  A second live action series was planned and then scrapped in favor of  a Motion Picture.

Harold Livingston wrote the first draft. As usual, Roddenberry rewrote it. “Then he brought it in,” Livingston says, “gave it to us in a bright orange cover, and there it is: In Thy Image, screenplay by Gene Roddenberry and Harold Livingston. 

He took first position. We all read it and I was appalled, and so was everyone else. We sat around looking at each other and somebody said, ‘Who’s going to tell him it’s a piece of s—t?’” 

The draft was marked November 7, 1977. Roddenberry’s opening scene: Kirk and a lady friend skinny-dipping. Starfleet hails. But Kirk is distracted when his girlfriend pulls him underwater. After a beat he surfaces, responds to the hail, and says, “I was attacked by an underwater creature.” There is more. The crew of the Enterprise is sent to investigate a mysterious probe heading towards Earth. In one scene, “shapely female yeomans check out the young and inexperienced Xon, straight out of the Academy and the new science officer, and ask him about pon farr,”. 

Admiral Kirk tells another new member of the crew, the empathic Ilia from the planet Delta, “I know that Deltan females are not wanton, hairless whores.” At this Ilia laughs and says, “On my world, existence is loving, pleasuring, sharing, caring.” Kirk asks, “Have you ever sexed with a human?”

Star Trek the Motion Picture was supposed to have a budget of 10 million.  Under Roddenberry's guiding hand, the budget ballooned to a studio busting 35 million.  In those days that was big enough to kill a studio, if it bombed. It raked in 85 million but it was a hair raising few months at Paramount before that happened.

They were done with Roddenberry.

His job title was changed to Creative Consultant and he was quietly kicked off the movies.  So we never got to see the one where the Enterprise travels back in time, Kirk becomes besties with John F. Kennedy and Spock is the shooter on the Grassy Knoll.  I'm not joking about any of that, Roddenberry tried to sell that script for years.

Star Trek the Next Generation suffered through it's first couple of seasons for the same reasons that everything else touched by Roddenberry turned to shit.  Although in that show's case they were rescued Roddenberry's health issues brought on by booze and coke.

He had to step aside and let the show be taken over by younger men who had been inspired by Gene L. Coon.,,Even if they thought they were being inspired by Gene Roddenberry.




*The Whovians are cordially invited to shut the fuck up.  Yes, the Doctor has been on the air a little bit longer but he has always been a much smaller market.

Lost in Space was science fiction for the first six episodes and pretty good Sci Fi at that.  But after those first six it quickly turned into high camp comedy.  Hell, Guy Williams could barely say his lines without laughing.

**Yes, this ecological nightmare has been brought to you by the Left Wing.

6 comments:

Friar Bob said...

Well since I grew up on TNG my perspective is obviously quite different. TOS was just old cheesy crap... (usually) bad writing, worse acting, putrid music, OK characters (sometimes)... etc. Some of the books and movies were quite good but the original episodes? Barf.

But I always thought TNG was pretty good ... mostly, at least. There was something off but it was a pretend future it wasn't all THAT bad ... until it finally dawned on me just how much commie crap was infesting the show and I got sick of it.

I also thought Berman absolutely RUINED the crap that came after DS9. And for that matter I still think he was 10+ years overdue to go. But looks like he wasn't quite as bad as Gene after all.

Jew613 said...

There were 2 series that Gene Roddenberry was credited with being the creator of after his death. Earth: Final Conflict, and Andromeda. Both of which were much better then Star Trek TOS. Andromeda was one of the harder science fiction series though it had its share of eye candy and cheese. I really regret it didnt get more seasons. Captain Dylan Hunt was the role Kevin Sorbo was born to play.

Friar Bob said...

I have to agree with Jew613, both series were excellent. And Sorbo was definitely born to play Hunt (or Hercules).

But based on what Shatner/Cataline/etc are all saying, somehow I bet Gene merely stole the credit for these shows. Or maybe, *maybe* he actually had a good idea with putrid scripts that someone else cleaned up and made worth watching.

RobM said...

Well done. I grew up watching Star Trek in syndication.. I mean, like everyday. Heh. It is unwatchable as an adult. I can remember having debates about what this or that meant in shows... and the aura that somehow glittered above the whole thing as if Roddenberry was a super-genius. I didn't know about Coon, but it all fits. Fun to see my own experience and reflections on the old TV show affirmed and fleshed out.

Quartermain said...

I posted a link to this post at my blog on a post of the same topic:

https://quartermainsquarter.blogspot.com/2016/09/a-half-century-of-star-trek.html

Man of the Atom said...

I watched TOS first run in the 60s, and with one or two exceptions, only 1st and 2nd Seasons have watchable episodes. The uniqueness of ST:TOS at that time helped it stand out amongst the rest of scant SF on TV.

Gene R's hype machine with linking to NASA in the 60s and 70s, hawking ST:TOS at conventions to build fan support writing to Hollywood studios, and a few books Gene "wrote" drove a lot of the mystique of Trek, not the quality of the show or Gene's vision of the future.

Gene Coon never blew his own horn, and Roddenberry was all about the credit. "The Making of Star Trek" by Steven Whitfield (with Gene's direct input) was full of Gene's back-pats to himself, but the book made it clear how integral Gene Coon was to the show's success. I doubt Roddenberry meant that to come through in his writing.