Thursday, February 18, 2016

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

Short review: NBC moves Star Trek to a terrible time slot, cuts its budget, and makes ridiculous demands. Roddenberry quits in a rage. Freiberger takes over, and many terrible episodes and a series cancellation ensue.

The Way to Eden
plus And the Children Shall Lead,
Wow, these are awful

Full review: There is almost no doubt in the mind of any fan of the series that the third season of Star Trek was its weakest. Any list of the worst episodes of the series is certain to be dominated by ones from this season. Any list of the best episodes of the series is highly unlikely to have any drawn from the third season's offerings. When one evaluates the series as a whole, even the best episodes of this season are mediocre, making "pretty good for a third season episode" a statement that damns with faint praise. This does not mean, however, that volume three of These Are the Voyages is a bad book. In fact, it is the best of the series, as it shows in almost excruciating detail the collection of decisions that led to the show's demise. Contained within this book is a detailed look at the awful nature of television production, revealing a sight that is both sobering and fascinating.

This third and final volume of Cushman's series about the original Star Trek follows what by now is a familiar pattern to readers. Most of the book's pages are taken up with chapters about the individual episodes of the season, with a couple chapters at the beginning of the book detailing what happened after the letter writing campaign described at the end of volume two but before production began, and a couple of chapters discussing the events that took place after the set was wrapped on the final episode Turnabout Intruder, and an interstitial chapter concerning the mid-season break. Each of the episode-oriented chapters opens with a summary, then moves to now-familiar sections titled "Quotes", "Assessment", "The Story Behind the Story", "Pre-Production", "Production", "Post-Production", 'Release/Reception", and sometimes "From the Mailbag", and 'Memories". One change, reflecting the poor quality of many of the shows produced this season is the section concerning script development, titled 'The Story Behind the Story" in previous volumes, is frequently subtitled "What Were They Thinking" or "What Went Wrong" in this one.

For many of the episodes of this season, 'What Went Wrong" or "What Were They Thinking" is the appropriate question. Titles such as And the Children Shall Lead, Spock's Brain, The Way to Eden, and Let that Be Your Last Battlefield often elicit groans of disgust from fans of the show. Offerings such as Day of the Dove, The Savage Curtain, and Plato's Stepchildren aren't much better, and the "better" installments of the season such as The Enterprise Incident and Elaan of Troyius are too few and far between to provide much comfort. For a show that gave viewers such top notch material as The City on the Edge of Forever, The Menagerie, Trouble with Tribbles, and Mirror, Mirror, the plunge in quality was dramatic . . . and perplexing. In the first two seasons of the show there were a few missteps, but one could generally count on several good episodes for every clunker. When the third season rolled around, the bad shows dominated, and the good shows weren't actually so much "good" as they were "not quite as terrible as the terrible ones". What had happened to cause the show to drive off a metaphorical cliff like this?

The easy answer, and the one most fans seem to have gravitated to, is to blame the season's producer Fred Freiberger and be done with the question. To a certain extent, this answer is correct. As revealed in this volume, Freiberger was simply the wrong man for the job. He wasn't knowledgeable about the show he took over, and more critically, he didn't take the time to inform himself about it, watching only a handful of the shows produced in the first two seasons and, as D.C. Fontana notes in one chapter, he had apparently never even read the series bible. His instincts for scripts seem to have been weak as well as once the script assignments handed out by Roddenberry prior to the start of season three had run out, the ones commissioned by Freiberger generally ranged from uninspired to awful, and the handful that might have been interesting had any verisimilitude or excitement leached out of them by just enough rewrites to make the network happy and bring the show in under budget. In many cases he managed to offend and drive away talented writers like David Gerrold and D.C. Fontana. While working with new story consultant Arthur Singer (who once walked onto the transporter set and asked what it was supposed to do), Freiberger managed to get so far behind that some scripts had their final pages delivered after filming had been completed. When reading through the production diaries for the third season episodes is that what Freiberger never seems to have understood is that what made Star Trek work was creating a living and breathing world, not just filling air time. Freiberger seems to have been competent enough to helm a standard television show, but under his watch Star Trek became a pale and colorless shadow of its former self.

Blaming Freiberger for the misfire of the third season, while justified in many ways, places too much blame on him, and there is plenty of blame to go around. While Freiberger was a poor fit for the job and the decisions he made damaged the season tremendously, one must also look to the man who put him in the position to do so: Gene Roddenberry. In an effort to secure a better time slot for the show than the 8:30 to 9:30 Friday night position that it held during the second season, Roddenberry promised that he would be more active as producer and would write several of the episodes himself while giving the remaining script assignments to Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana. Given the fact that the executives at NBC really didn't like Roddenberry, this seems like something that would not be a particularly enticing offer, and instead of the 7:30 to 8:30 Monday night slot that Rodenberry expected, the network moved Star Trek to air from 10:00 to 11:00 on Fridays, what was normally regarded as a "death slot". In a fit of pique, Roddenberry essentially walked away from the show, remaining executive producer but abandoning the program in all but name. It was at this point that he passed over Robert Justman, who had been assistant producer since the show's inception, to bring in Freiberger to take over as producer. Through neglect, Roddenberry allowed Freiberger to exasperate D.C. Fontana and drive her away from the show. Roddenberry even managed to alienate John and Bjo Trimble by firing them from the mail order business he had started on the side so that Majel Barrett could take over, after which they abandoned any efforts at a new letter writing campaign to save the show. And so on. By acting as an absentee landlord, Roddenberry allowed the show he created to fall into disrepair and decay in the hands of people who simply didn't care about it as much as he and his team had in previous years.

The lion's share of the blame, however, falls on NBC and Paramount. Moving Star Trek to the "death slot" late on Friday night was their opening gambit in the long, slow execution of the series. But even in this time slot, it was not necessary for the show to drop in quality so precipitously. Unfortunately, NBC and Paramount saw to that by first cutting the per episode budget yet again (following a previous cut in prior seasons), and mandating an almost inflexible six-day no-overtime filming schedule that was almost impossible to meet. Directors who couldn't meet this schedule weren't invited back to direct additional episodes. Ralph Senensky was even fired halfway through the filming of The Tholian Web when he fell behind the production schedule by a half day. Because of the primacy placed upon keeping to the schedule, experienced directors familiar with the show were not rehired, and directors with reputations for working fast were brought in. Unfortunately, most of these new hires were unfamiliar with Star Trek and proved little better at keeping on schedule while turning out programs full of flat and uninteresting direction. These mandates were aimed at saving pennies, but resulted in episodes that were for the most part mediocre to miserable, and drove away viewers. The studio, while penny-wise, was pound-foolish.

Smaller budgets meant that there usually wasn't money to film on location or to build sets, resulting in many shows that were confined to the decks of the Enterprise. NBC clamored for more "planet" shows, but without the resources needed to make them, the production company was forced to ignore those requests. Budgetary concerns even changed the nature of scenes on the ship itself: Without money to hire background extras, many of the episodes for this season feature eerily empty corridors and painfully small landing parties. The network's efforts at killing the show didn't stop with reduced budgets and tight production schedules. The notes handed back from NBC's executives were all but guaranteed to result in a weaker and blander show. The network wanted action, but not only did the reduced budget mean that fewer set changes and fight sequences could be done, the executives continually sent back notes insisting that proposed battles be sanitized to an almost cartoonish level - in one case demanding that the results of a fight to the death be shown with dirty faces, but no blood. NBC wanted expensive episodes, but wasn't willing to pay for them. NBC wanted exciting episodes, but wasn't willing to allow exciting things to be put on screen. In the face of these contradictory demands and restrictions, it is no wonder that the show withered.

Oddly, even though NBC got what it ostensibly wanted - a Star Trek without the headaches caused by having to deal with Roddenberry that was produced on time and within budget - the network decided to cancel the show. What makes this decision somewhat perplexing is the fact that even with the slew of terrible episodes that are scattered through this season, the show had retained fairly good ratings, coming in second most weeks, and even taking the top slot away from CBS's Friday Night Movie a couple of times. At this juncture, the urgency of Cushman's continued campaign concerning the reality of Star Trek's ratings becomes clear. For three books Cushman has included every episode's Neilsen ratings, ostensibly showing time and again that the program was performing much better than fan lore would lead one to believe. But the real goal of this exercise only comes clear in the final chapters of this volume, as Cushman sets about documenting NBC's calculating dishonesty when interacting with fans disappointed by the show's cancellation. For years Herb Solow insisted that Star Trek only drew five million viewers per episode, asserting that shows that perform at that level simply don't get renewed. Cushman shows that Star Trek routinely drew at least twice that many viewers, and that Solow knew that, but lied anyway. Cushman presents the text of a deceptive letter NBC sent to fans who inquired about the show, misleading them into thinking that the show had been renewed when it had not. And Cushman presents details like a letter from NBC executive Stan Robertson to a fan in which Robertson flatly lies about how well the show had done in the ratings. As inexplicable as it seems, NBC cancelled a show that was performing better than anyone could have possibly expected despite its "death slot", and leaps and bounds better than they were willing to tell anyone. Fan lore concerning Star Trek's poor performance in the ratings is rooted in a deliberate lie told by NBC. The story of the cancellation of Star Trek isn't one of neglect and poor decisions. It is a story of a deliberate murder accompanied by a cynical cover-up.

These Are the Voyages: TOS, Season Three is a brilliant conclusion to an excellent series. Loaded with the same level of detail as the previous two volumes in the series, this contains the melancholy tale of the slow and deliberate death of something that started with such promise. By laying out the material in a methodical and comprehensive manner, Cushman tells a story that makes clear who the villains of the piece truly were, and the identities of the few heroes who kept things from falling apart entirely. For anyone who wondered how in the world The Paradise Syndrome or Turnabout Intruder ever got approved for production, this book is a gold mine of information. For anyone who has ever wondered what the process of killing off a show looks like, this book is a guided tour. And for anyone who loves Star Trek, this book, like the previous two volumes in the series, is a must read, although in this case, it is a must read that will probably anger the reader as much as it delights them.

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

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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  1. I guess you'd have to be a HUGE fan to read these. Me, not enough... lol