Book Review: The Fifty-Year Mission
The Fifty-Year Mission – the Next 25 Years: From the Next Generation to J. J. Abrams
edited by Mark A. Altman & Edward Gross
Thomas Dunne Books, 2016
It would be tough to dispute the assertion that Paramount has done a spectacularly bad job commemorating Star Trek in 2016 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the franchise’s first appearance. Star Trek debuted on TV in 1966, ran for three seasons, got cancelled, went into reruns, and then came rocketing back: movies, TV series, comics, books, video games – the various iterations gathered under the “Star Trek” umbrella have combined to create a cultural phenomenon virtually unequalled in Western pop culture, and earned Paramount billions of dollars in the process. In a different reality, Paramount would have taken the 50th anniversary as an occasion to pull out the stops in showing gratitude, but instead, the studio has stumbled and fumbled through the opportunity. 2016 has seen the standard smattering of paperback novels (none of which is even set in the current continuity-universe of the show), the continued monthly publication of the uninspired comic book series from IDW, a big-screen movie that was even more atrocious than the two directed by JJ Abrams (and that featured the fourth destruction of the starship Enterprise in three movies, which is as clear a case of franchise self-loathing as you’re likely to come across), and, in the autumn, the release of an updated edition of the classic Star Trek Encyclopedia. No commemorative volumes. No new TV series. No sense that Paramount is even aware of, much less appreciative of, the importance of this property they just happen to own.
Even the one bright spot in this dreary record has its share of problems. Mark Altman and Edward Gross have created a vast two-volume oral history of Star Trek from its plywood and styrofoam beginnings to the lens-flare insanity of the present, and the volumes have been brought out by Thomas Dunne Books in two plump books in which virtually all the major players in the show’s half-century of incarnations are heard. The first volume of The Fifty-Year Mission concentrated on the original series and the original-cast movies, and the second volume is subtitled From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams and encompasses The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, and the first, second, and third atrocious movies in the “rebooted” cinema universe slapped together by director J. J. Abrams. A huge amount of work went into creating these volumes, and the results are invaluable.
Invaluable and damn depressing. What was a thread running through the first volume has become virtually the entire tapestry of the second: rancor. Sour, bitter, cynical, litigious, bourbon-for-lunch rancor. This second volume isn’t the Star Trek equivalent of finding out there’s no Santa Claus; it’s the Star Trek equivalent of finding out Santa Claus works for Al-Qaeda.
At every turn, the cast, directors, producers, show-runners, gaffers, staffers, and parking lot attendants take the microphone, look back on their experiences on this fabled, much-loved show, and immediately proceed to kvetch the rafters down. We hear from Diana Muldaur, who played fan-disliked Dr. Pulaski on The Next Generation:
It wasn’t working out at all. It had nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t have stayed. There was a lot I loved about it, but it was not what I thought it was going to be. You go into something with a good group of people, but it wasn’t a great, creative, wonderful world, it was all tech. There was no humanity in it, there was nothing to get my creative juices going whatsoever, and that was a waste of time by me, so my leaving the show was very mutual. The directors were all kids, who had just come over from the old country and didn’t know what they were doing. It was not a great creative mix of people and directors. But it was fun, none of it is regretted. What’s happened since then is they pretended I wasn’t in it and that I was just a guest person.
Kids who’d just come over from the old country … yep, that sure sounds like it had nothing to do with her …
We hear from Walter Koenig (who played the pre-Abrams Lieutenant Chekhov) about his guest-star role in the movie Generations: “According to Rick Berman, Paramount didn’t care if anybody was in it besides Shatner.”
And what about executive producer Rick Berman? Surely the man who was responsible for producing so much modern-day Star Trek must have a love of the show running through his veins? A colleague of his on Deep Space Nine begins with praise – and then, Kobayashi Maru:
Rick can be incredibly charming and funny. You walk into a meeting, and he has that gift that you sit next to him and he’s going to start telling you a story or an anecdote and put you at ease. He has that gift of gab. He was very dedicated to the show, but I think on some basic level he was embarrassed that he was there. I don’t think that’s where he saw his career going. He wasn’t a writer. It wasn’t his thing. It was Gene’s thing and it was Star Trek. I think he always had a conflicted relationship with it as a result. He didn’t like the fans at all. It was kind of a bad thing to be known as the fan on the production.
And so it goes, for hundreds of pages a great, inspiring TV and movie franchise is reduced to workplace grievances and snacks that get stuck on their way out of the break room vending machine. Robert Beltran, who played Commander Chakotay on Voyager, in summing up his experience on the show, unwittingly also sums up the experience of reading this book:
It was around the fifth year that I just thought, “God, I can’t wait till this show is over.” I was just living for the end of the show. I wanted out. The scripts are the main reason. The tension was another. Seven years is a long time on any show, and when the writing isn’t want you want it to be and there are character conflicts and actor conflicts, it makes it that much more unpleasant. I was ready to get out.
Taken together, the two volumes of The Fifty-Year Mission represent a first-hand record of the show that cannot be duplicated or surpassed. But the cumulative effect of reading these books, especially for Star Trek fans, is exactly equivalent to attending the dinner celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary of Uncle Fred and Aunt Esther only to have them show their latest colonoscopies on the big plasma TV and follow it up by passing around photocopies of their divorce papers. If any of those fans do end up reading these volumes – and the content here is virtually irresistible, so they will – they’re strongly advised to administer a palate-cleanser afterward: a smiling re-read of Star Trek Lives! Followed by a viewing of “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “I, Mudd.”