Monday, 17 October 2016

Second Half: Altman and Gross' 50 Year Mission Continues

Focusing on everything from The Next Generation onwards, Altman and Gross are back to finish their 50 Year Mission.

It's actually a little inaccurate to call this the second 25 years since it actually kicks off in 1986 but don't allow such a minor nit pick put you off because this is one killer book. 

While the substantial volume one took us from inception through to The Undiscovered Country and thereby a verbal history of the Kirk years, the second - and just as substantial - book explores the spin offs in all their brilliant and sometimes flawed ways. Picard's Enterprise and the four feature films clearly get the largest chunk of the book and rightly so because there's so much to tell and recount. William Shatner's recent Chaos on the Bridge might have unravelled the mess that was the first two seasons but Altman and Gross push even further into the challenges of seasons three through seven, the relentless pace of the show and the unforgiving challenge of maintaining the quality of The Next Generation in its later years. 

Once again no hold is barred here as everyone from Rick Berman down through the bucketload of constantly changing writers to the steady hands of the main cast are brought into play to explain their experiences for good or bad on the show and it's definitely an eye opening read. Usually these Star Trek histories are all nicey nicey and safely written but given that the authors are using material from decades of interviews, articles and convention appearances it allows a much broader and realistic story to be told. 

In the case of The Next Generation things generally were a team game on the studio floor while havoc reigned backstage but the real intrigue comes from reading about the three series that followed; Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.

With the space station-based drama it's clear how much cast and producers felt it became the forgotten child while producing some of the most brilliant and groundbreaking episodes of the entire franchise although being allowed to exist in the shadows meant it could do as it pleased for a good proportion of its years especially after the arrival of Voyager in 1995. Most revealing is how the cast of this show actually worked together and related to each other. It wasn't all  happiness and joy it seems but that's nothing in comparison to what Altman and Gross cover in their section on Voyager.

Truly this feels like a proper warts-and-all history of Star Trek as related by the people who were there at all levels of the production and it provides a much more intimate and at times uncomfortable read. There are certainly comments that will make you watch scenes of Seven and Janeway very differently and you will pay much more attention to any dialogue that Robert Beltran was given as the writing staff became more aware of inherent issues surfacing behind the scenes. 

Both Deep Space Nine and Voyager get a good share of the book here. Perhaps not as much as I would have liked but it's significantly more pages than they receive in a lot of other publications commemorating the 50th anniversary. Ironically their lack of coverage just backs up exactly what people like Ira Behr say within this very work. It also shows how much of a free reign the "forgotten child" of the franchise was given in comparison to the more controlled/restrained Voyager that was leading the United Paramount Network in 1995.

Even Enterprise is given a good deal here with only Phlox actor John Billingsley conspicuously absent from any comments. The final series is served well from Broken Bow up to its cancellation which you do find yourself begrudgingly agreeing with once you've understood the challenges it was already facing during the Xindi arc of season three. Agreeably though there is a lot of praise for the fourth and final season which was helmed by Manny Coto and really attempted to provide an origins series and some of the short-lived shows most memorable episodes. The conversations and relationships that developed during those spin off series are truly fascinating reads as they lurch from close working friendships in some cases through to barely manageable working relationships.

The most juicy parts of this oral history though are in fact the parts that you don't know too much about - the in between years from the end of Enterprise's fourth season to the rebooting of the seemingly ailing franchise under the direction of JJ Abrams. It's these lost years, the lost series, the attempted animated web series, J Michael Straczynski's 14 page treatment and all the suggestions stuffed in between which get the pulse pounding - what exactly could have happened if the franchise had taken one of those directions? If that's not enough there's even reflection on the lost novels that would have come out following the 2009 movie but were ditched after being written and edited because they might have jeopardised future movie plot options. Instead we were treated to the graphic novels from IDW which are also covered in skating detail here.

Keeping the book confined to short and sharp quotes and memories from key contributors is a massively effective way of retaining your attention over the course of 700 pages of which I read every single damn word it was that entertaining and informative. As this is the 50th, the book does acknowledge the reboot trilogy especially the ease of '09 and the torments of Into Darkness from both an internal and external point of view. This section uses perspective most effectively gleaning a good angle from the production side and viewer side which includes the thoughts of such Star Trek luminaries as Ronald D Moore and Brannon Braga.

The Fifty Year Mission in both volumes pulls out the stops to provide an intensive reflection on the ups, downs and strife that has affected the show over five decades of success and failure. Splitting it between original Star Trek and the second book focusing just on the spin offs and reboots was a sound call since not everyone will want every aspect but Altman and Gross have to be congratulated for the extensive work that has gone into accumulating all these stories from such a broad spread of individuals across the last 30 years. For note and for those that might think it's out of date before the print has even dried, there is discussion of both Beyond and the "2017 series" although it is not named (in the version I had) as Discovery. Reading quotes from Bryan Fuller in both this and volume one is quite insightful when you consider that he had no idea he would be doing the new series when he was talking about the show over the years!

Sadly not an official production but it is as near as dammit as you could get since every word is the viewpoint of someone who has been closely associated with Star Trek since (in the case of volume two) 1986. I cannot recommend this enough to fans of the show. Not only is it a superb read from cover to cover but one of those books that you can slip in and out of with ease. I would stick my neck out and say that these two volumes are the most important Star Trek works to be produced in its fiftieth anniversary year. Top marks. No question. 

Volume One and Volume Two of The Fifty Year Mission are available now...

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