Friday, February 12, 2016

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

Short review: A comprehensive series biography of season two of the original Star Trek series.

Gene Roddenberry,
D.C. Fontana, Gene Coon,
Made this season work

Full review: In volume one of this series, Marc Cushman took on season one of Star Trek. In this volume, he turns his attention to season two of the series, providing an extensive and detailed account of the development of the individual episodes that comprised it. This volume also includes background on the personnel changes and corporate changes that affected the course of the season, as well as the struggles to get bthe show renewed for seasons two and three, including an overview of the letter-writing campaign spearheaded by John and Bjo Trimble.

Following an introduction by Walter Koenig, this volume picks up right where the first left off, discussing the struggles the show faced in getting renewed for a second season. This section also includes information about the status of numerous scripts that were in various stages of development at this time, including a number that were never produced. After this, the book turns to discussing the preparations for the season itself, including the elevation of DeForest Kelly to being a series regular, the addition of Walter Koenig as Chekov to the cast, and the contentious negotiations with Leonard Nimoy in which the production company went so far as to tentatively cast a replacement Vulcan for the series.

The preliminaries taken care of, the book returns to the episode-by-episode format that those who had read the previous installment will be familiar with. Starting with Catspaw and running through Assignment: Earth, each episode of the season is given a thorough treatment starting with a brief summary, then going on to "Sound Bites" providing quotes from the show, followed by an "Assessment", in which Cushman gives his own evaluation of the finished product. Each chapter details the development of the script in "The Story Behind the Story", the selection of the director, casting of guest stars, and construction of sets in "Pre-Production", the filming of the episode in "Production", and then the editing, scoring, and effects in "Post-Production". Finally, Cushman covers the ratings for each episode and the critical reception in "Release and Reception", the feedback from fans in "From the Mailbag", and reminisces from both contemporary fans and those involved in the production in "Memories".

These episode accounts are the meat of the book, and constitute most of its page count. For someone interested in Star Trek, this is a gold mine of information, providing in-depth detail on almost every aspect of each episode of the second season of the show. But this book is more than the dry details of how each episode was made, it is a living document that allows the reader to follow along with the highs and lows of the cast and crew as they celebrate orders for additional shows, and react to rumors of cancellation with trepidation. The book also allows the reader to follow along with the overall course of the show in smaller ways as well, such as the sage of Shatner's slowly increasing (and then decreasing) waistline, and the efforts made to hide the enlarged gut by the costuming department.

Where the book really shines is showing how the combination of Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana, and to a lesser extent John Meredyth Lucas, shaped and guided the show for the season, for better and, at times, for worse. The detailed accounts of the development of the various scripts, including notes and memos from all of the involved parties, reveal whose fingers were on each particular episode and exactly how they felt about them. In many cases, the various members of the production staff were of like minds concerning a particular script, but in many others, they had wildly differing opinions. What is especially interesting is to see just how often it was Roddenberry whose instincts were quite simply dead wrong. If Roddenberry had his way, fondly loved stand-out episodes such as Mirror, Mirror, I, Mudd, and Trouble with Tribbles would have never made it to the screen, or if they had, they would have been dramatically different.

As the book makes clear, much of what made Star Trek into the long-running phenomenon that it has become is traceable to the efforts of Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana, who injected much-needed humor into the series, and most notably developed the friendly sparring relationship between Spock and McCoy. These efforts weren't opposed by Roddenberry at absolutely every turn, but it was close. Without Coon and Fontana, the series would have been much more dour and stern, and I suspect, probably would have fared much more poorly over the years. On the other hand, Roddenberry's own track record was decidedly mixed, as he pushed some stories that were among the weaker ones of the season, including the terrible episode The Omega Glory.

In some ways, the story behind the development of The Omega Glory encapsulates the relationship between Roddenberry and NBC. This script was among the three that Roddenberry originally proposed as the "second pilot" following NBC's rejection of The Cage. After NBC wisely suggested that the script be shelved, Roddenberry begrudgingly set it aside, but then continued to farm it out to be tinkered with, and then tinkered with it himself, trying to mold it into a usable form. Finally, against the advice of Robert Justman, D.C. Fontana, and essentially everyone else associated with Star Trek, Roddenberry put the script on the production schedule without getting approval from NBC, or even telling them. Needless to say, NBC was nonplussed, but Roddenberry was enraptured by the script and put all of his credibility on the line. When one reads about NBC's reluctance to renew the series for a third season, these sorts of shenanigans by Roddenberry make it clear why they felt that way.

The book makes clear that the show's struggles were not all the result of self-inflicted wounds. Both the production company and the network bear a substantial share of blame. Desilu, in financial trouble as a result of producing expensive shows such as Mission Impossible and Star Trek, was sold to Paramount halfway through the season, at which point the show's budget was cut yet again. In addition, Paramount insisted that the production schedule be shortened, effectively reducing the filming schedule for a complicated show that often ran long to a mere five and a half days of work per episode. These troubles seem somewhat minor compared to the travails imposed upon the series by NBC, first moving the show from Thursdays to a much less desirable slot on Fridays, and then surrounding the program with other shows that were almost putrid in quality. Most damaging was NBC's start-and-stop approach to the production of the show, first ordering sixteen episodes, then waiting until the last minute to purchase two more, and then waiting until the last possible moment yet again to place an order for a further eight. With the entire show under near constant threat of cancellation, developing scripts ready to be put into production was incredibly difficult, and morale on the set was low.

By telling the story of the series in an episodic format, Cushman is able to walk the reader through all of these developments in a step-by-step manner that is easy to follow along with. As a result, when Gene Coon departs from the show, his reasons for doing so are readily apparent. When Shatner and Nimoy cross swords with various writers, one can easily understand their position - and the position of the writers on the other side of the debate. One quirk in the presentation is that among the details presented, Cushman provides what amounts to a "what was happening in pop culture" update in conjunction with the production of each show, telling the reader, among other things, what songs and movies were most popular when the cast and crew started filming the episode. But this information seems almost out of place, as one would expect a pop culture phenomenon like Star Trek should be put into context with what was popular when it aired, not a couple of months earlier when it was filmed. Cushman also continues to flog the fact that Star Trek performed better in the ratings than fan mythology would lead one to believe, but some of his assertions seem to be stretching the facts a bit, and even though much of what he says is probably true, it does get a bit tiresome after the first dozen or so times the point is made.

Aside from these admittedly quite minor criticisms, These Are the Voyages: TOS, Season Two is an excellent piece of work. Covering topics ranging from the decisions concerning renewing the show for the second season, to the development of scripts (and an account of the many unproduced scripts), the interactions between the cast and fans, and the battles between the production team, the production company, and the network, there is something for almost everyone in this volume. This book even contains an entire chapter devoted to the unprecedented letter writing campaign spearheaded by John and Bjo Trimble that resulted in a third season renewal. These Are the Voyages is obviously appealing to hard core Star Trek fans, but it will probably be of interest even to more casual fans of the series, or to those who are merely interested in television production or pop culture of the 1960s. Quite simply, this is an excellent and detailed account of the cultural phenomenon that was Star Trek, and is, as Spock would say "Fascinating".

Previous book in the series: These Are the Voyages: TOS, Season One
Subsequent book in the series: These Are the Voyages: TOS, Season Three

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  1. Sounds highly fascinating if you're a fan.

    1. @fredamans: It is. I am currently in the middle of the next volume in the series, which is about season three, and it is even more interesting.