Friday, February 5, 2016

Review - These Are the Voyages: TOS, Season One by Marc Cushman and Susan Osborn

Short review: A comprehensive series biography of the first season of the original Star Trek, complete with biographies of the people involves, and accounts of the making of every episode.

Fifty years ago
A new show was created
And changed television

Full review: The opening volume in a three book series, These Are the Voyages: TOS, Season One is a must read for committed Star Trek fans. Actually, this book is probably a must read even for slightly less dedicated fans of Star Trek, or even for those who are merely interested in the history of televised science fiction (or, more broadly, the history of television). This installment of These Are the Voyages contains a detailed history of the people behind the series, the development and sale of the series, and finally, the production of both pilot episodes and the twenty-eight remaining episodes of season one. While at least some of the information contained in this book has been published before, there has never been a comprehensive resource that compiles all of it into one place as this volume does.

These Are the Voyages is an incredibly detailed work, starting with a fairly extensive biography of Star Trek's creator and executive producer Gene Roddenberry. Cushman's treatment is methodical, working through the chronology of Roddenberry's life one step at a time, following him from combat airman on World War II, to Pan Am pilot to Los Angeles police officer, to television writer, to television producer. The book provides a similar biographical background for virtually every person who worked on Star Trek in any substantial capacity, although most are not nearly as extensive as that supplied for Roddenberry. As a general rule of thumb, the more important the person was to the show, the more extensive their background sketch is. In short, if you ever wanted to know a fair bit about the personal and professional history of, for example, the actress who played Yeoman Barrows in Shore Leave, then this is the book for you.

The book devotes a fair number of pages to Roddenberry's efforts to get a television series on the air, including background on his failed proposals, as well as material concerning his short-lived series The Lieutenant. The book then moves on to Roddenberry's pitch for Star Trek and his attempts to convince first Desilu executives and then network executives to put his brain-child on the air, both of whom were fairly skeptical. The book details the work that went into creating the first pilot The Cage, and then when that was rejected and the studio approved the unprecedented step of filming a second pilot, the book explains the process that led the show from how it looked in The Cage to how it looked in Where No Man Has Gone Before. The most important evolution that is covered in this section regards the changes to the crew and how they came about, as Leonard Nimoy playing Spock was the only cast member carried forward from The Cage to Where No Man Has Gone Before.

Though the sections detailing the production of the two pilot episodes, Cushman sets up the format that will be carried through the rest of the book. Each chapter covers one episode and starts with a brief synopsis of the episode, and frequently, a quote from TV Guide about it. Then there is a section titled "Sound Bites" consisting of a selection of quotes from the episode, followed by a brief "Assessment", giving Cushman's own evaluation of the episode as a whole. Each chapter then proceeds to the details of the development and production of each episode starting with "The Story Behind the Story", which identifies the scriptwriter for each script and the process that took their script from idea to being approved for production, then moving to "Pre-Production, which outlines the selection of the director for each episode, the casting decisions related to it, as well as set design, and then "Production", describing the day-by-day work on the episode. Finally, the chapter details "Post-Production", including the editing and scoring, but also (and in many cases, critically), the special effects work done for the series. After covering the production aspects of the featured episode, each chapter then goes on to "Release/Reaction", discussing the Nielsen ratings for each show, as well as the comments given by reviewers of the day, then to "From the Mailbag" which presents a few letters written to the series or one of the featured actors, and then sometimes a section titled "Memories" in which those associated with the production reminisce about making it.

Once this pattern is established, the book develops an easy rhythm as Cushman works his way through the two pilots and twenty-eight other episodes of the first season of the series. There is a break in this format to discuss the mid-season hiatus, and then a chapter at the end capping off the book, but otherwise, most of the book is presented in a fairly predictable manner. Rather than making this book dull, as one might expect, this regularity highlights the unique features about each episode. By comparing an episode with its peers, it becomes apparent where in the script development process The Alternative Factor went off the rails, or why The Corbomite Maneuver suffered the post-production delays that caused it to be repeatedly pushed back in the broadcast schedule. The descriptions provided are incredibly detailed, and include excerpts from internal production memos as various involved parties debate the cost and practicality of various script elements, and argue over whether an episode has enough action or not (with "action" mostly seeming to mean "some member of the crew gets into a fist fight") or whether an episode was too cerebral (with "cerebral" ending up meaning "an episode people who love Star Trek will love). These memo excerpts are supported by quotes from various individuals, either from interviews done for this book, or from other sources such as magazine and newspaper interviews.

Putting all of this material together makes some things quite clear about the series, or at least, the first season of the series. One important note is that there seems to have been very little connection between the cost of an episode and its quality. Some fairly poorly regarded episodes, such as The Galileo Seven were incredibly expensive, while others, like Tomorrow Is Yesterday, that are fondly remembered were brought in for a much more modest budget. One other thing that becomes readily apparent is that Star Trek's biggest proponent, Gene Roddenberry, was also one of its greatest weaknesses: His rather abrasive personality resulted in the show burning through large numbers of writers, directors, and staff members. While some friction with the network was almost inevitable with a show as experimental and expensive as Star Trek was, Roddenberry seems to have made things worse by at times intentionally thumbing his nose at the executives. On the other hand, there is no doubt but that some of the hurt feelings and bruised egos were the result of Roddenberry taking steps that improved the final product, in other cases he seems to have gotten involved just to have a hand in, and his involvement actually was detrimental and annoyed those he was working with for no good reason.

These details also show why the series developed as it did. They show how D.C. Fontana went from being a secretary to being a script writer to the show's story editor all in less than a single season. They show why John D.F. Black (who wrote the introduction to this volume) quit his staff position in disgust after Roddenberry rewrote several prominent writers, as well as one of Black's scripts, making them worse in Black's estimation. They show the importance of Shatner to the show, and how his abilities provided much of the drama infused into the show. They show how important the addition of Gene Coons was to the show, and how many of the elements that we now associate with Star Trek - the Federation, the Prime Directive, the humorous banter between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy - simply would not have been introduced to the show without his influence. They show just how petty and trivial many of the network concerns were - focusing on whether one could use a hypodermic needle to inject someone or not, or criticizing how brutal a fight was while clamoring for "action" at the same time. And they show just how expansive the vision some of the writers for the show had, and exactly how much had to be excised from their scripts to come close to fitting into the budget allocated for each episode. One thing the details also show is just how pervasive Westerns were in television programming of the mid-1960s. Virtually every actor with any experience who took a job on Star Trek had appeared in numerous televised Westerns, which probably accounts for the constant urging from then network to ramp up the fisticuffs.

The details also highlight just how shameful the network's treatment of Grace Lee Whitney, who appeared on several early episodes of the series as Yeoman Rand, truly was. By the middle of the first season, the network insisted that she be dropped from the show as a cost-cutting measure, insisting that her role could be filled by one-shot deals with individual actresses, possibly including Grace among their number from time to time, albeit at a reduced salary. Grace, however, told a much darker story, alleging that a network executive sexually assaulted her after a holiday party, and to cover it up, had her fired from the show. Buttressing the notion that someone associated with the production of the show had an ax to grind with the actress, her role in The Conscience of the King, her final contractually required episode, was reduced to little more than a walk-on. At several points after her contract ended, it was suggested that she be brought back for a particular episode, but each time this idea was quickly shot down. Adding insult to injury, immediately firing her for "cost-cutting" reasons, the network approved several scripts that turned out to be among the most expensive to produce in the season. In short, the material provided in the book shows just how shamefully Whitney was treated by the production, and just how little Roddenberry, famous for butting heads with the network, did to prevent it.

Another thing that is readily apparent from the material is just how prevalent Westerns were on television in the mid-1960s. Virtually every actor cast on Star Trek who had any amount of experience had appeared in numerous Westerns over the course of their career. DeForest Kelly, for example, had carved out something of a niche as a "heavy", with a career playing villainous characters in multiple Westerns. The dominance of the straightforward action adventure Western genre explains why there was so much pressure placed upon Star Trek's producers to add action to the show, and is also the probable explanation why virtually everyone was blind-sided by the popularity of Nimoy as Spock. Reading through the book it is obvious that no one expected Spock to be a popular character - network executives feared that his "Satanic" appearance would play badly in Southern markets, and even Nimoy was hesitant to take the part as he thought it would be cartoonish. But, like the show, this "cerebral" character proved to be wildly popular proving that a steady diet of fast paced adventure had been ignoring a possibly more intellectually inclined segment of the television viewing audience.

These Are the Voyages is not entirely without flaws. Cushman is almost obsessed with demonstrating that Star Trek did well in the ratings in its first season. He spends a fair amount of time first complaining about, and then attacking the myth that the show did poorly when it came to Nielsen ratings, and he backs up his argument with convincing evidence. The problem is that he belabors this point, returning to it time and again, even well after any reasonable person would have been convinced. Eventually, the constant harping on the fact that Star Trek had a strong viewership despite the belief that it did not becomes a little tiresome. Cushman is also quite clearly a fan of the series, which seems natural, as almost no one would write a book of this sort if they were not. Unfortunately, this means that his assessments of the various episodes, and his evaluations of the events surrounding the development and production of the show, are sometimes less than objective. It is clear that he tries to be as even-handed as possible, but even still there are times when he cannot prevent his inner fan from poking through, at which point the book veers from a biography of the show to a hagiography.

But these are minor quibbles. Taken as a whole, These Are the Voyages: TOS, Season One is a brilliant work of historical scholarship. Although much of this information has previously been available in some form or another, it has never been compiled together and organized into a cohesive whole as has been done here. Some of the information, such as the Nielsen data for the series, has never been made public before. Gluing all of these bits of historical trivia together is Cushman's text, weaving together what could have been a collection of dry details into a fast-flowing and engaging narrative. Anyone who is a Star Trek fan, or just a science fiction fan, should have this book on their shelf.

Subsequent book in the series: These Are the Voyages: TOS, Season Two

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  1. The original Star Trek is my favorite of them all. Provided this book and its' information are put forth in an entertaining manner, I would much like to read it.

    1. @fredamans: The book is very entertainingly written. Even though it covers an enormous amount of material in fairly fine detail, it is presented in a manner that makes the pages flow by quite quickly.