Sunday, June 14, 2009

Summer reading for nerds

With all the renewed interest in Star Trek these days, thanks to JJ Abrams marvelous and entertaining reboot of the franchise on the big screen, I've been rewatching some of the original series episodes on TV. Yes, I'm a huge Trekkie (or Trekker, to be politically correct in the geek world) and have seen every episode of every Trek series, multiple times. But it's amazing how well many of the original episodes hold up, particularly when you consider the state of sci-fi on television at the time (it was consider a ghetto of kids programming), and the challenges of bringing an ambitious program like this to the air at all.

I was at the library the other day, and picked up "Inside Star Trek, The Real Story" by Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, who worked for Desilu, the production company (owned by Lucille Ball) that produced Trek. There is a lot of myth and legend now about the show, but this is a clear eyed, fairly objective retelling of the story of how Trek came to be, told by people who were on the inside of the production. It's a great look behind the curtain, and details the difficulties of producing a TV show and keeping it on the air in the late 60s.

Just a few of the interesting tidbits covered in the book:
  • The weekly budget to produce the show was, on average, around $185,000.
  • Gene Roddenberry's legendary womanizing, and how we have him to thank for all the cast's short skirts and diaphanous gowns.
  • The inherent problems in developing shootable scripts.
  • How the cast handled the instant embrace of the Spock character as a cultural icon. (Originally, Shatner made $5,000 per episode and Nimoy $1,500, others much less).
  • Roddenberry created the Chekov character in response to an article about Trek in Pravda, and the popularity of Davy Jones on The Monkees.
  • Nimoy wanted to renegotiate his contract after the first season, and based on a misunderstanding about how much the leads of Mission: Impossible (another Desilu production) made, his agent overplayed his hand asked for way too much money. In response, producers developed a short list of actors to take over the Spock ears and replace Nimoy. The list included Mark Lenard (who had already played a Romulan, and would go on to play Spock's father later), Larry Montaigne (who would play a Vulcan in "Amok Time") and even David Carradine!
  • Trek's relationship with prominent sci-fi authors of the day, including Isaac Asimov and the notorious Harlan Ellison.
  • The real contributions of other Trek vets, including Matt Jeffries, Gene Coon and "D.C." (Dorothy) Fontana.
  • Roddenberry's clandestine involvement in the fan campaign by Bjo Trimble to keep the show on the air.
If you're a Trek fan, it's a fascinating read and well worth picking up for some insight on how the iconic show came to be and struggled to say alive during its original run on NBC. A-

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