BBC Cult - Printer Friendly Version
Dan Cray - LA Times journalist and Star Trek pundit
The Roddenberry difference
What was it about the Roddenberry approach which differed totally from other television at the time?
Roddenberry’s approach was primarily different because you had humans interacting with other species. You had a mix of ethnic races here from Earth interacting together. And you put it all together with some pretty good plots. They had some bad ones, but they also had some very intelligent plots and very good scripts in that three years.
It stood apart because of the characters and the good scripts. Look at it from a turn of the century perspective and the first thing you notice is the cheesy special effects, and the orange and powder blue bridge and those kind of things.
It really dates it in that perspective, but if you just sit back and ignore that, and actually listen to what the scripts are saying, a lot of them are actually saying some really interesting things about the state of humanity and about where Mankind could go in the future.
Kirk 0, Picard 1
What was Kirk’s solution to most problems?
Kirk was a cowboy. Kirk was a man of action. He wanted to get things done and it was his colleagues that restrained him from the immediate off-the-cuff reaction all the time. Kirk, as a character, was probably not a lot different from a lot of the leading male characters of the time. He was somewhat of an action hero, albeit on the small screen. His whole thing was to be a rebel and bend the rules and to pick up the phaser.
When they brought the Kirk character to an end in Star Trek Generations, they ended up re-shooting that ending several times. They really tailored the end of the film towards each character’s characteristics, for lack of a better way of putting it.
Captain Kirk was the man of action right down to the very end. They had him off punching out the bad guy at the end of Star Trek Generations, and meantime they had Captain Picard as the intellectual trying to dismantle the missile by doing it through the computer screen.
If you wanted to see the difference in the two captains, you could see it right there, it was the quintessential difference between the two. I’m not sure it made for the best ending for a film, but really it was true to the characters. That was Kirk versus Picard, right there in a nutshell.
The last real Roddenberry Star Trek
How was the first Star Trek film received in the context of science fiction films in 1979?
Star Trek was given new life because of Star Wars. In a sense, George Lucas saved Star Trek just as much as Gene Roddenberry. Star Wars was an absolute smash hit, so all of a sudden there was a reason for studio executives to stop and say, "Okay, what else do we have that might actually mimic the success of Star Wars?"
They realised that they didn’t have to copy anything, they actually had something had some sort of a fan following. So they did the feature film in 1979 and this was really the only film that Gene Roddenberry had near total control over.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a hugely successful film. Everybody wanted to see this old crew reunited, and another big science fiction movie, and that’s what Star Trek had promised. The flip side of that was that it was regarded as a pretty lousy story.
It was quintessential Gene Roddenberry Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry Star Trek was different from the Star Trek that you’ll find today. There are definitely elements of it, but I will never forget the time that I met Gene Roddenberry at a cocktail party on the set of the Star Trek The Next Generation. It was like a moment of triumph, because they were able to tie in a new Star Trek production with NASA, and they had NASA officials there, and they had Paramount officials there, and they had the whole cast and crew of The Next Generation.
Gene Roddenberry was there, and he should have been in all of his glory that night. Instead, I will always remember, that at some point during the evening there was this little hubbub because Gene started saying, "Space battles, space battles, space battles, that’s all the studio ever wants is space battles. Space battles, that’s not what Star Trek is about."
It was actually a time when his concept of Star Trek was being stripped away. Instead of the motion picture, where you had a lot of high concepts of Man exploring the galaxy he was stripped of control over his own product and that led to the feature films later on, where you had lots of space battles.
Not just for Klingons.
How did people generally regard a spin-off movie from a TV series?
There’s always that fear especially among Hollywood producers, "maybe we’re just going to get the crazies who are wearing Klingon heads at conventions and that’s about it". It turned out to have mass appeal.
I think it actually built up a certain amount of buzz and a certain amount of expectation. The other thing is, the audience for Star Trek, even though it was a cult audience, by the end of the 70s was starting to go a little bit more mainstream.
From Humanity to space battles.
What was the studio’s attitude towards Star Trek in terms of movies?
After the original motion picture, the attitude was, "We have something we can make a lot of money off here, but we need to shift it away from Gene Roddenberry’s focus on the concept of Humanity, and turn it into a bit more of an action film." That’s certainly what they did with The Wrath of Khan, and they’ve done it with the follow-up films.
For Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek was not about space battles, it was not about petty conflicts between human beings. Humans had evolved beyond that. This was always a point of conflict for the series itself because many writers absolutely hated being a part of the Star Trek series, because it’s very difficult to write scripts where you had no conflict between the main characters.
So space battles became a part of Star Trek in a much more grandiose way that they had been years earlier, even on the original series. Star Trek changed from that point on. Even to this day you may get episodes of Voyager where there are various high minded concepts going on, but there’s always a red alert, there’s always going to be some sort of point of conflict between the starship and another opposing side.
Star Trek: the motion turkeys
Which films are considered good or bad, which is the best one?
For the best one, it’s a toss up between Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek: The Voyage Home. The Next Generation films did well at the box office, got good reviews. First Contract certainly is a far different film than you ever would have seen in the earlier years. The entire thing is basically one large battle against cybernetic Borg.
For a while there was a little bit of a myth that the odd numbered films had a jinx to them, and always did poorly.
There’s a real sense that they make money, so who cares?
I don’t think you’re going to see an end to Star Trek films any time soon. You may not even have a smash hit but they know that they’re going to break even, and probably going to turn a profit by the time they do video rights and everything else. They can be reasonably guaranteed that unless the film is absolutely horrific, they’re going to do pretty well.
The only risk that they’re running with this is they’re about to start a fifth Star Trek television series. There’s an argument that they’re watering Star Trek down, a question of whether they can come up with enough overwhelming concepts to put on the big screen that we haven’t already seen on the small screen.
The Final Franchise
There are many forms of Star Trek now. How did this become a massive business?
Star Trek really took off on the merchandising side, during The Next Generation. For years before that they had pocket books that related to Star Trek, the original series, but you were dealing with something that was fifteen years old at that point, and the films only came out every two or three years, so it wasn’t a continuous thing.
It wasn’t a mass merchandise product until Star Trek: The Next Generation, came along. When The Next Generation was on, week to week, you had a product that you could plug year round, year in and year out. All of a sudden, Star Trek was everywhere. Toys all over the shelves. Anything you could slap a Star Trek label onto was done.
The fan base of Star Trek began to change at that point. Suddenly you had a family audience for Star Trek whereas, before you had more of a niche audience or a science fiction audience. Star Trek went mainstream and I think that’s when Paramount really started to realise they had something that they could truly market here. It was something that could be long term and it was actually a franchise.
Roddenberry’s continuing influence.
How well did The Next Generation kick off initially?
The Next Generation got a big audience for its two hour premiere, in the United States. It had mixed reviews. This was a Gene Roddenberry controlled entity. The Next Generation, especially the first season, was Gene’s baby. So, you’ll see a lot of parallels between The Next Generation and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which Gene Roddenberry had had a lot of control over.
For example, you had Deanna Troi, who was a counsellor, but could also sense emotions. This was the same as the character from the original film, Ilea, who could sense emotions. Ilea had had a long term relationship, with the First Officer, and, lo and behold, Deanna Troi had a long term relationship with the First Office on the Enterprise D.
Adapting to the Next Generation.
Did viewers take to Next Generation immediately or did it take a few series for it to become popular?
Viewers were so loyal to Kirk and Spock and McCoy and the rest of that original cast, that it took a while for people to warm up to The Next Generation. For the first few weeks that it was on the air, Paramount was flooded with complaint letters about Patrick Stewart. People felt that you couldn’t have a bald Captain of the Enterprise.
The characters were so different from the original series that I think there was a lot of suspicion. People thought, well, this isn’t really Star Trek. To complicate matters some of the early scripts for The Next Generation weren’t really top notch.
It really wasn’t until the final handful of episodes in the first season that you started to sit back and say, "You know, this is real Star Trek here, they’re actually doing a good product here. But it’s taken them a while to get going on it."
You can’t beat the Borg
What was the point at which The Next Generation really kicked off?
The Next Generation really took off when The Best of Both Worlds aired. That was the first episode in which you had the humans facing off against the Borg and it really clicked. You had great special effects, a great script. You had tension, you had drama, and you had one of the best cliff-hangers that they’ve ever had on television.
That was the episode that absolutely got people talking about it. Especially since part one was a season ender so you had people talking about it for two or three months, "What’s going to happen to Captain Picard, he’s been assimilated by the Borg". At that point you really had a lot of word-of-mouth, a much more intense fan interest, and a realisation that this show wasn’t cheesy science fiction, that it was actually a quality product.
Most of the first season’s episodes were kind of questionable. They had moments of quality and moments of cheese. Even second season, they were still kind of feeling their way through it. And so it really took them until season three to really get things rolling. They got a pretty solid writing staff and got everything going in the right direction.
The people watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, for the first time had a really tough time taking to the new crew at first, and especially taking to Patrick Stewart. Which was ironic, because here is maybe the most talented actor they’ve ever had involved with Star Trek, a Shakespearean actor. Yet he was following on the heels of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, a cinematic icon.
People just loved Captain Kirk, and they couldn’t imagine somebody, older and bald, who wants to sit around and talk about things rather than actually pick up the phaser and shoot, in charge of the glorious Starship Enterprise, so it actually took people a while to warm up to Patrick Stewart, as well.
Only the finest for the Next Generation.
What was The Next Generation premise? What was its attitude and how did it differ from the first series?
The Next Generation was set approximately a hundred years in the future, after Captain Kirk. You could make a very strong argument that Next Generation was emblematic of the late 80s in the United States, because there was at least a feeling that, oh, we’ve had the glorious Ronald Reagan years, and everything’s going well.
As a result you have a starship that instead of having orange and powder blue interiors and a really harsh look to it, is a plush starship with carpeting and brass things mounted around the bridge and only the finest of computer technology on there. Everything was as good as it could possibly be.
All of a sudden you had situations where you have an enemy ship off the bow of The Enterprise, and rather than arming the torpedoes, Captain Picard is calling a conference, and they sit around and discuss it. You’re kind of wondering, "Well, what are these aliens doing all this time?" It’s a very different approach.
The characters on the show also are a little bit emblematic of the 80s and 90s, in particular Deanna Troy. You have a counsellor on a starship, and you could argue that psychologists were at the height of their popularity at that time.
Not just good science fiction.
What was it that the fans really took to, having resisted The Next Generation for the first few seasons?
I think people started to realise that The Next Generation was doing not just good science fiction, they were doing good television. It was a fun show to watch and it was comparable to any of the best shows on TV in its time. People started to respect the fact that they didn’t feel like they were watching some geek science fiction show, they felt like they were watching something that they could talk about at the office the next day. The audience became mainstream, and in part that was due to the production values of the show. I mean, it was well done.
Changing Roddenberry’s vision.
When Roddenberry passed away, in 1991, should everyone have just packed up and gone home?
The Gene Roddenberry concept of Star Trek was very different from the Star Trek that we have today. Roddenberry didn’t like space battles, he didn’t like a lot of the things that you actually take for granted as part of Star Trek today. He opposed the idea of the Klingon cast member on The Next Generation.
With Roddenberry’s ideas, the ideal is wonderful but it doesn’t necessarily translate to television and film. That’s where some of the later people that came along actually saved this franchise and kept it going thirty-five years, because I’m not sure Roddenberry’s vision would have done so.
One of the examples is the phaser. The problem with the phaser that Gene Roddenberry approved for use in The Next Generation and they used in the first season is, when you hold it up, you can’t really see it. This kind of thing would drive the people at Paramount nuts, because Gene Roddenberry didn’t quite have that visual element that he needed.
Gene Roddenberry had the original philosophy, but it really took others to move it forward and keep it going thirty-five years. At that point Gene Roddenberry had virtually lost control over the whole franchise. I think that always bothered him, that he lost control. But, on the other hand, sometimes good ideas come to fruition not under the people who created the ideas but under the people who end up inheriting the ideas.
Everybody always associates Gene Roddenberry with Star Trek, and rightly so. It was certainly horrible that there was his untimely death right before one of the films came out. But I don’t think it was necessarily a death knell for the series.
The problems of Deep Space Nine.
What had changed by the time Deep Space 9 began?
By the time Deep Space 9 came around, you had a whole bunch of television series that were, in a sense, Star Trek spin-offs. When Deep Space 9 came on the air not only did it have to compete with these, it had to compete with Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Deep Space Nine was extremely different from anything before it having to do with Star Trek. Deep Space Nine was a show about politics. Maybe that’s why it never took off with fans as well as The Next Generation did. It was not about exploration, which Star Trek has always been about, it was about a political dispute.
At this stage, was the market becoming too saturated?
I think Star Trek was very saturated when Deep Space 9 came onto the air. People want to watch Star Trek, but I’m not sure they want to watch it two hours a week.
I think there was a certain depressing attitude about it. The sets were very dark, the themes were sometimes very dark, the plots were dark. I think people struggled with wanting to see this show, week in and week out, even though it was very well written.
You can always modulate something.
Explain the Voyager premise and how it differed from the series that came before it.
Voyager was a return to what Star Trek originally represented, exploring the galaxy. It was a series with good production values, good writing overall, but it was never a can’t miss series. They were really battling themselves because they’d watered it down so much. There was a been there, done that, sense to Voyager.
Voyager changed the Star Trek audience, because at some point the creators and the writers for Star Trek started to realise they had a huge audience out there in people who are involved in hi-tech business. They realised that there was a huge respect for technology and what technology could do. So all of a sudden, whenever there was a problem, they could shift right into the techno-speak and then give you a whole bunch of gibberish that you wouldn’t even necessarily understand. You could always modulate something.
Your Enterprise was not shut down correctly.
How do the different casts affect the plots in Star Trek?
Star Trek has gone from a real cowboy approach to handling things. Captain Kirk was a very physical guy, he’d grab the phaser, take care of problems, and hold up the big stick and threaten people. It’s gradually changed over the years, with Picard negotiating quite a bit more and calling conferences. Then on Voyager there’s very much a sense that hi-tech is our solution. They’re appealing to the Silicon Valley types.
You have script after script of Voyager where they’re in a grave situation and all they have to do is modify something or modulate something and they can get out of a situation. That started a little bit on Next Generation, where they had a situation in one of the scripts midway through where alien probes had infested the computer core of The Enterprise. It was damaging the ship and there was a chance the ship could explode because of it.
After trial and tribulation, they realised that, amazingly enough, all they had to do was re-boot. They shut down The Enterprise and then, two minutes later, they started it up again. If that isn’t catering to the hi-tech Silicon Valley type crowd, I don’t know what is.
One of a kind
Has Star Trek achieved what no other TV programme has achieved?
Yes, Star Trek has achieved what no other show has achieved in the sense that it now has a mythic quality to it. It’s gone thirty-five years and there’s no other series that’s really comes close to that.
They’ll probably keep this thing going, really. The only threat to that is if they flat run out of ideas or if they just water it down and put too much Star Trek on at one time.