Back when I was a kid, I begged my mom to buy me what I thought of as the Holy Grail of Star Trek reference books, The Star Trek Compendium by Allan Asherman. Of course, it didn’t help that I told her that the name of the book was The Star Trek Emporium–but eventually, trusty mom figured it out and it picked the book up just in time for my birthday. Unwrapping that puppy, I couldn’t wait to jump in and read about all the behind-the-scenes goodness that I hadn’t already picked up from David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek and the journals of the James Doohan fan club (yes, I was a proud member). Asherman’s opus didn’t disappoint. He detailed every episode of the original series in order, topping them off with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was, at the time of publication, the only movie produced. I don’t know how many times I pored over that book in my youth, obsessively looking up some obscure Trek factoid–which probably explains why I never lost a Star Trek trivia contest, at least until Next Generation came along.
Well, it only took around 30 years–but now Ed Gross and Mark Altman have done Asherman one better with the publication of their epic two-volume documentary extravaganza, The Fifty Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek. It’s Star Trek as told by the people who literally lived it–the actors, designers, producers, studio execs, and especially writers. Using interview snippets cobbled together from original interviews and hundreds of other sources collected from far and wide, Gross and Altman have indeed compiled the most exhaustive, top-to-bottom reference I’ve ever read on any pop culture subject–over 1,000 pages worth between the two books.
I initially picked up the first volume because I was most interested in the original series–and found out quickly that yes, this was indeed the uncensored version of Star Trek history that has mostly gotten lost in the legend. Egos abounded on the set (and not just William Shatner’s), with Gene Roddenberry–ostensibly trying to balance the creative direction of the show with network demands to dumb it down–managing to piss everybody off while pretty much chasing every piece of tail he could find. And while the stories still pay Roddenberry a high level of respect as an idea man, they make no bones that Gene L. Coon, whom Roddenberry brought in as a producer, was the man who probably contributed the most to pointing Star Trek in the direction that ultimately made it successful.
Volume two, which is the longer of the books, covers The Next Generation through the J.J. Abrams films–and I must confess, I actually ended up enjoying it even more than the first volume. Even though I gave up on TNG around the middle of the fifth season and never really watched Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise, the stories from the writers room made for some fascinating stuff. Did you know, for example, that Kate Mulgrew resented the hell out of Jeri Ryan when she came on board Voyager as the sexy Borg babe? Or that the writers on Deep Space Nine could pretty much do whatever they wanted because the studio largely ignored them? Or that TNG was notorious in Hollywood as a revolving door for writers? There’s some great inside baseball here.
Reading volume two also brought back a flood of memories for me, as it touched on my own experience pitching stories to TNG during the show’s fourth season. I remember going to the Hart Building on the Paramount lot, sitting in that writers room and peddling my wares to the likes of Ron Moore, Joe Menosky and the late Michael Piller (who in the book comes off pretty much as I remembered him, somewhat cold and distant). That was my first brush with writing professionally, and I’ll never forget the experience.
My only quibble with the books are some snarky political asides (it’s clear that the authors don’t think much of the Tea Party or Republicans, which may be why known conservative TNG actor Dwight Shultz is mysteriously missing from here), but those are few and far between and don’t detract from the stories too much. So if you’re a Trek fan–or even if you’re just interested in how the show biz sausages get made–this 50 year mission is definitely worth taking.