Thursday, 14 July 2016

The 50 Year Mission: Altman and Gross Take a Different Tack

One of the most anticipated books of the 50th anniversary year has to be The 50 Year Mission.

Written by Edward Gross and Mark A Altman, it supposedly offers a comprehensive look back at the history of the franchise across two extensive volumes which are both out this year. In fact it's subtitled The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek so there's no mistaking what you're reading here.

Now if you recall the 1990's, Gross and Altman produced a series of very unofficial guides to The Original Series, the movies, The Next Generation and the first couple of seasons of Deep Space Nine. I was never enamored with these books. The pictures were unrelated to the show, the production felt a bit cheap but y'know there were still a lot of great information to be gleaned if you stuck with them. 

So my first thoughts when this book was announced was "Uh huh" and that was it but after I did some research into what was coming I was pleasantly surprised. In fact very surprised. I expected another chunky, slavishly written "this is what happened and then this happened and then this happened..." style book just like all the rest but not so. Instead the authors have chosen to talk to a host of key players from the franchise history plus seeking out quotes and interviews from sadly deceased individuals such as Majel Barrett and Gene Roddenberry. 

What this means is that the book becomes very easy to read and can be digested in little bites rather than having to stick with a chapter for hours. The set up is well conceived with each chapter focusing on an event in the show's history from The Cage through to each of the three original seasons then onto the wilderness years, The Animated Series, syndication, the movies and ending in 1991. The second volume due in September will continue the story from the 25th anniversary to the present day and the Kelvin Timeline.

The difference between this and numerous other Star Trek history books is that the text from Gross and Altman is actually kept to a bare (very bare) minimum with them more as guardians and caretakers of the words of others. Occasionally as part of each chapter we are given a paragraph explaining some factual background to offer context and that just helps the reader align themselves for the story that unfolds from then onwards. Usually we get a single story strand but here the comments and memories from people such as the main cast, Roddenberry, Bob Justman, Gene Coon's widow, Fred Freiberger, the guest cast and more provides a whole host of varied opinions. Indeed the part which talks about Shatner's regard in the eyes of his fellow performers is a real eye opener and is definitely not as one sided as we might have been led to believe.

Freiberger especially has had a bad press but while Shatner gets a good mix of opinion, the dislike for Freiberger's third season work is scathing in all comments except for his own.  It's also great to find out how many stories just aren't true or have been spun off into multiple directions over the years becoming more lore than fact such as how Gene Coon left the show, the many views on cancellation, multiple viewpoints on how the convention circuit began and what led to the revival of the series through syndication and the animated episodes. The views of that final year come from both internal and external viewpoints with set visitors as well as fans and cast all offering memories on the demise of the show. Add to that we get individual episode critiques from the producer as well as writers such as David Gerrold, DC Fontana and Judy Burns and the story is completed. Their recollections of how their stories came to the screen aren't totally happy experiences either with parts they wanted omitted or amended due to budget restraints.

One thing that really was a superb addition was the choice to examine the growth of the sci-fi fandom and fanzine literature that came after the series went off air. Gross and Altman made a good decision to include such a vital area of the franchise history and include quotes from players such as the Trimbles and future Star Trek effects legend Doug Drexler who, I didn't appreciate, had a big part of the maintained presence of Star Trek in the minds of fans during the 1970's.

It's a fascinating read with every page providing something new or a unique angle on an event that you never appreciated. Sadly Gene Roddenberry can't be around to defend some of the comments in regards to his show since we lost him 25 years ago and in that respect two and a half decades might have changed a few opinions or altered some perspectives. There's nothing that can be done about that however on the whole there are enough individuals left to offer an extensive recollection of events from touting the show around the studios to being picked up by Desilu and the story that evolved from that point onwards.

As you get further in it becomes more apparent that there was dysfunction at just about every single turn, internal sabotage, hate mail, deception and a ton of other personal battles and conflicts that marred - or in some ways improved - the path that Star Trek took especially through the motion picture saga from 1979 to 1991. I think my only gripe is that other reviews seem to have picked up and run with a couple of references to the Kirk versus Jesus fight that never happened. There's so much more to this book than that and much better points to attract readers and I was gripped to the last page. There's a new piece of information about virtually everything or a new viewpoint you never got to understand. I for one didn't appreciate how much Walter Koenig grumbles or the challenges and dealings that Nicholas Meyer encountered on each of his three visits to the franchise.

I'd prepared myself to be let down and disappointed by the tome that is volume one of The 50 Year Mission. But now I have to eat my words because this is a fascinating book that I did put down once but was then told to pick it back up and finish it to review by none other than author Mark Altman. Mark, I did just that and now here's the finished article!

The book is truly a great (unauthorized, uncensored) masterpiece of collected memories and information from the history of the beloved Star Trek universe. What I do hope from the second book is that the story of Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise in particular are not skated over as broadly as I've so far experienced with every other book this year that has promoted itself as a recollection of the show's half century. From the size of the first volume (my advance uncorrected proof ran to 554 pages) I somehow doubt that any of those three shows is going to be horribly short-changed.

Have you read The 50 Year Mission?

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