The suc­cess of a doomed En­ter­prise

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - The Times

On pa­per, the suc­cess of Star Trek seems a com­plete mys­tery. The orig­i­nal tele­vi­sion se­ries, chron­i­cling the ad­ven­tures of the star­ship En­ter­prise dur­ing the 23rd cen­tury, ran for just three years from 1966 and at­tracted poor au­di­ences. The sto­ry­lines were repet­i­tive, the per­for­mances of­ten laugh­ably wooden and the spe­cial ef­fects frankly ris­i­ble. As sci­ence-fic­tion fran­chises go, the show had none of the epic grandeur of Star Wars and none of the wit and imag­i­na­tion of Doc­tor Who.

By the se­cond se­ries, ob­serves Mar­cus Berkmann in his good-hu­moured 50th-birth­day trib­ute, the pro­duc­ers were mer­ci­lessly reusing in­ci­den­tal mu­sic and ef­fects shots in or­der to save money, while the plots were so pre­dictable that al­most ev­ery new ad­ven­ture felt like “a vari­a­tion on a pre­vi­ous Star Trek episode”. In­deed, even when Berkmann is try­ing to per­suade us how good the se­ries was, he can­not help ad­mit­ting how bad it was — or, to use his own words, “wit­less ... truly un­watch­able ... lazy ... wil­fully in­com­pe­tent ... a turgid slab of drivel”. As for the films, they were even worse. The open­ing hour of the first film, re­leased in 1979, isn’t bad, he ad­mits. “It’s just the last seven hours that drag a bit.”

None of this, how­ever, dents Berkmann’s en­thu­si­asm. He is a Trekkie, and proud of it. He has seen all 13 films, all 79 episodes of the orig­i­nal se­ries and al­most all of the 622 spin-off episodes. He knows much of it is rub­bish, but he loves it any­way. As a grown-up, he once spent a sum “con­sid­er­ably north of £15” on a compact disc en­ti­tled Star Trek Sound Ef­fects. “Al­though it would be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that I play it of­ten, I know it is there,” he ex­plains. “If my house were burn­ing down and I had saved my fam­ily and the cat, this would be the next thing I went back to re­trieve.”

Why, though? There is more to it than es­capism. The an­swer, Berkmann ex­plains, is that Trekkies are drawn to the show’s “pal­pa­ble se­ri­ous­ness” and preachy lib­er­al­ism, which re­flect its ori­gins in the op­ti­mistic mid-1960s. Star Trek’s cre­ator, the for­mer Los An­ge­les cop Gene Rod­den­berry, orig­i­nally planned a se­ries set on a di­ri­gi­ble at the end of the 19th cen­tury, the crew made up of “all th­ese peo­ple of mixed races [ who] go from place to place each week”. The di­ri­gi­ble turned into the En­ter­prise; the mixed-race crew and moral­is­ing mis­sion, how­ever, re­mained in­tact.

Rod­den­berry was far from a saint: as Berkmann notes, one of the main themes of his work on Star Trek was that “the women, whether hu­man or alien, would never be wear- ing quite enough clothes”. But the show’s ba­sic out­look has never changed. For Berkmann, the essence of Star Trek is “a knotty moral dilemma solved by an enor­mous amount of talk­ing”. Think of it as a French ex­is­ten­tial­ist play, only with slightly worse spe­cial ef­fects.

For two men in par­tic­u­lar, Star Trek was both life-chang­ing and ca­reer-defin­ing. Born just four days apart in 1931, Wil­liam Shat­ner and Leonard Ni­moy were both the sons of Jewish im­mi­grants from East­ern Europe, and both were job­bing ac­tors when Rod­den­berry picked them as Cap­tain Kirk and Mr Spock. They were not, how­ever, nat­u­ral bed­fel­lows. Shat­ner was the kind of star who ob­ses­sively counted his lines, de­manded that other char­ac­ters’ wit­ti­cisms be given to Cap­tain Kirk, and was never hap­pier than when tak­ing his top off. But Ni­moy, who bor­rowed his fa­mous Vul­can salute from a Jewish bless­ing, saw him­self as a se­ri­ous, po­lit­i­cally com­mit­ted ac­tor. “We’re do­ing real sto­ries,” he told one reporter. “We’re do­ing sto­ries about over­pop­u­la­tion. We’re do­ing sto­ries about racial is­sues. We’re do­ing sto­ries about ecol­ogy, about loy­alty and broth­er­hood.” Well, that and aliens.

Af­ter years of chain-smok­ing, Ni­moy suc­cumbed to lung dis­ease last year, and Shat­ner has now pro­duced a gush­ing bi­o­graph­i­cal trib­ute. The open­ing page alone reads like some­thing trans­lated from Klin­gon: “I am ded­i­cat­ing this book to a hu­man be­ing who lived his life for over 83 years, whose jour­ney was filled with joy and anger, cyn­i­cism and ide­al­ism, the end­less ar­ray of emo­tions that con­stantly change and evolve. We hu­mans go through life bar­na­cled with the de­tri­tus of life ... Thus, I am that, you are that, and he was that.”

As con­nois­seurs of Shat­ner’s mu­sic will know, this is the au­then­tic voice of the man. But the rest of the book is not nearly so in­ter­est­ing; in fact, it is one of the least in­ter­est­ing books I have read. Even as a bi­og­ra­phy, it is not re­motely in the same league as Ni­moy’s Wikipedia en­try. “I’m quite sure that ... I have no doubt at all that ... He must have ...”, writes Shat­ner (or, rather, his ghost­writer David Fisher) when dis­cussing Ni­moy’s early life. Why not do some re­search and find out?

Above all, though, the book is as­ton­ish­ingly disin­gen­u­ous. Shat­ner claims Ni­moy was one of “my dear­est friends”. Later in the book, how­ever, he ad­mits that for long stretches they never spoke, and even­tu­ally their re­la­tion­ship broke down com­pletely. The cause was ris­i­bly ba­nal: af­ter Ni­moy re­fused to ap­pear in a doc­u­men­tary Shat­ner was mak­ing about — you guessed it! — Star Trek, the lat­ter sent a cam­era­man to se­cretly film him speak­ing at a con­ven­tion. Ni­moy promptly sev­ered all ties, though they did meet one last time to film a Volk­swa­gen TV ad­ver­tise­ment. Months later, when Ni­moy died, Shat­ner did not bother to at­tend his fu­neral, send­ing his daugh­ters to rep­re­sent him in­stead. It’s friend­ship, Jim, but not as we know it.

Wil­liam Shat­ner, cen­tre, and Leonard Ni­moy, se­cond from right, as Cap­tain Kirk and Mr Spock along­side fel­low En­ter­prise crew mem­bers in Star Trek

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