Monday, 13 May 2013

The True Story: Star Trek


True, probably. The full story? No.

Thanks to the wonders of SKY On Demand I caught up with this Channel 5 special last night (13th May 2013). Originally aired on the Discovery Channel earlier this year (January 5th 2013) and clearly positioned at a time when interest in the franchise is beyond its peak, The True Story offered us a chance to see what made Star Trek a reality back in the 1960's. Hyped up as a "Documentary (that) reveals how the original Star Trek series almost didn't take off..." (UK Daily Express headlineI should've realised the error of my ways before settling in for an hour.

While BBC 2 decided to show a repeat of The Star Trek Story on Saturday night (11th May 2013) at least this was a new(ish) programme. The problem was that unless you've lived under a rock for the last 50 years the story of Star Trek's conception is hardly mind-blowing since it's been out in the open for decades: pilot one failed, got recommissioned for pilot two, Roddenberry got to keep Spock and had to lose everyone else, there you go, all done in two lines.

Discovery Channel
There of course had to be more to it than that considering we had a full hour (minus adverts) to fill here - and there was with mixed results. Retelling the story through the use of actors, the history of Star Trek's creation focuses on Herb Solow and Roddenberry with the occasional swerve to feature Matt Jeffries and Bob Justman. Jeffries ultimately should be credited with the look of the series while Justman kept the ball in play.

What I was perhaps aware of, but not THAT aware of was how little Roddenberry began with , how little he seemed in control and that the bulk of what we saw on the screen was created by others (the obvious example being the USS Enterprise herself). Roddenberry had a lot of self-belief and that's evident here - mistresses (all bar two female guest cast apparently), publicity campaigns, standing with the fans to help save the series - The True Story stands Gene out as a hero who loved the attention just as much as he loved the series he created. Indeed he preferred "creator" to "producer". 

Quite an amazing journey considering he pitched the show from a piece of A4 and was not the greatest orator yet managed to convince Herb Solow to help him get not just one but two pilots commissioned. Solow is quick to point out that he had to give Gene a lot of help to pitch to NBC and that it's not Roddenberry who deserves the credit overall. Sadly we can't get the other side to this story since Roddenberry died in 1991. 

At least they ensured that, while he might have been a handful to work with, Roddenberry's vision was noted and spoken of. His all-consuming passion helped bring the series about and that's something that should never be forgotten no matter what "bad press" may exist in regards to some of his other questionable activities away from the limelight of Star Trek

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There were two massive chunks I was surprised were omitted from the documentary and as a casual viewer these would probably have bee  appreciated. From a fan perspective it's two massive gaping holes that should not be there. Firstly, there's no mention of the situation Roddenberry found himself in for the third season following Star Trek's revival and how Fred Freiberger took on the running of the show. Secondly, the transition to the big screen completely jumps over the reaction to Star Wars as well as the fact that the franchise had originally been planned for a small screen comeback with Star Trek: Phase II rather than a multi-million dollar movie. Both factors were key in the history of the programme but neither was covered even in a passing, throwaway comment. The birth of the conventions and the renaming of NASA's space shuttle as Enterprise meanwhile are ticked off as you would expect with the former getting nowhere near the appreciation it warrants as a subject. I thought perhaps another 30 minutes to an hour on this show might have added more depth and detail particularly in this area.

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Luckily the programme is saved by the diversions into the real world by some of its contributors namely Andre Bormanis who acted as science advisor to the later generations of the franchise as well as contributions from CERN in Switzerland in regards to anti-matter. It adds weight to the story and shows that Star Trek and Roddenberry had always attempted to keep an eye on reality and that whatever was featured was truly possible. Warp speed could indeed happen and transporters are even now being tested in the smallest ways to get particles to mimic each other. 

There were also examples cited of 3D printers replicating body parts in fine detail, the work of IT experts in the field of android development which all backed up that science and Star Trek were truly linked and influenced each other. The only scary thing is when the scientists involved in these experiments work out how long it would take to beam a human from one point to another...put it this way you'd be long dead and dust before it got halfway through the process. What I would also add is that while these diversions were great and added another layer to the mythos, were they really necessary and did they help tell the true story? I would argue no. In fact they removed time that could have been dedicated to the story and maybe some bits we hadn't heard before from one or two more people associated with the series.

Discovery Channel
OK, so The True Story wasn't that bad and at least it managed to retell an oft-told tale in a new way with live-action "reconstruction". The shame was the shocking limit of actual Star Trek footage and first-hand accounts. The only original cast member to provide any insight into Roddenberry is Leonard Nimoy while fandom get Gene's son, Rod along with Bjo and John Trimble - again. It's  real shame that there's not more diversity in the first hand accounts because, frankly, we've heard it all before from these familiar faces. Not only that but we're only treated to clips from The Cage, Plato's Stepchildren and The Motion Picture to fill out the onscreen story and this really was a let down. Is that all the producers were allowed? While there are some glaring omissions, we're still reminded of Jeffrey Hunter's decision to quit before Where No Man Has Gone Before filmed. Two episodes and some clips from the first movie though is pitiful - and additionally they even managed to use the promotional poster from pre-pre-release with the conceptual Enterprise in relation to the latter (below right). 

You could see that the effort was there and this was a valiant attempt to retell and retread some old paths with a twist but ultimately it was a bit of a letdown. Ideal timing on the TV thanks to the release of Star Trek Into Darkness but more relevant footage and interviews would have been appreciated. In fact there were no clips post-The Motion Picture which really missed out on some opportunities to talk about the first six movies and the way in which the TV series developed. The only real lip service the 79 episodes got was from the interracial kiss from the third season's Plato's Stepchildren. Another tragedy was the referencing to the 1974 Voyager probe - which was not the same one which was featured in the first movie. Whoever did the research for this show didn't do it that precisely and for a moment when it got mentioned I was scratching my head trying to work out what had gone on.

While a bit of a let down, new fans who have just sat through 133 minutes of JJ Abrams' re-imagining will probably find this of interest. Those people of a more discerning ilk and a greater knowledge of the series might wish to avoid it it they spot it in the schedules in months to come. I would suggest that you seek out either William Shatner's The Captains or Rod Roddenberry's Trek Nation if you're looking for something with considerable more meat on the bone. While they offer little into the actual history of the show, their insight and anecdotal nature provide much more detail into the world of the franchise in front of and behind the screen. This on the other hand is akin to skim-reading the back cover of an autobiography - and one chapter of it at the most.