Friday, December 16, 2011

Trek Nation

I did watch Trek Nation, but I haven't blogged about it before now because I wasn't overly impressed. Aside from a few celebrity interviews there wasn't much that we haven't already seen in Trekkies (1997). It was enjoyably, but not overly impressive.

The angle of the documentary is that Gene Roddenberry's son, Rod Roddenberry, explores his father's legacy. There are some short interviews with people like Seth MacFarlane, super-fan Bjo Trimble, Stan Lee, and George Lucas, et al. However, for the most part it retells stories we've heard before. Nichelle Nichols talks about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being a fan of the show. They suggest that the shows' optimism appealed to people, etc. Rod does deserve credit for portraying his father warts and all. He covers his philandering and his clashes with screenwriters like Trek mainstay D. C. Fontana. In addition, some interesting trivia gets covered. Rick Berman, who took the helm after Roddenberry died, kept a blindfolded bust of Roddenberry on his desk to express his opinion that the Great Bird of the Galaxy would not approve of the changes being made to his franchise. The most intriguing new angle highlighted was the possibility that Wesley Crusher was something of a surrogate son for Roddenberry. As if he tried to compensate for his disappointment in his real son, Rod, by creating an idealized fictional child. Unfortunately that reading isn't explored in any depth, and Rod's meeting with Wil Wheaton is all too brief.

"How do you like me now?"

Another interesting bit of trivia clarified the notorious "Wagon Train to the Stars" thing. The way Rod tells it, his father's original pilot, "The Cage", was rejected by the studio. When Roddenberry asked why it was turned down he was told it was because they wanted a western. So he re-shot a new pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before", added a fistfight at the end, and pitched it as "Wagon Train to the Stars". This time the studio gave the green light. For me this dispells the common opinion that Roddenberry set out to make a western set in space. On the contrary, it validates my opinion that calling it "Wagon Train to the Stars" was just a ploy to frame the show in a way that would appeal to studio executives. Unfortunately Rod immediately undercuts this interpretation by immediately repeating the tired saw that Kirk was a cowboy, the ship was his horse and the phaser his six-shooter. Then what about Forbidden Planet (1956)? Was that a western set in space? But it was based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. Does that mean Shakespeare wrote westerns? The way I see it Kirk has more in common with Horatio Hornblower than with Hopalong Cassidy.

The most disappointing thing about this doc was that there was little or no mention of the wider science fiction genre or even the science fiction authors who worked on the show. It's a baffling omission since one of the things that sets Star Trek apart from most TV sf is that Roddenberry hired professional sf writers to pen many of the episodes. And it was all the more aggravating because in the course of talking about how the show was aimed at an adult audience rather than being another kiddy show they flashed a scene from "Arena". Yet there was no mention that it was based on the classic story by Fredric Brown. And when you consider that it was Theodore Sturgeon who wrote "Amok Time" which did so much to define Vulcans it's really an inexcusable oversight. When Roddenberry was trying to bring the show back to the airwaves he solicited a script from Norman Spinrad, and for his record Inside Star Tek (1979) he sought out Isaac Asimov for comment. He seems to have had a respect for sf writers that's rare in Hollywood.

For the most part Trek Nation stuck to a familiar script. Not disappointing, but also not much in the way of new revelations. It's the kind of show that's most likely to appeal to those who are unfamiliar with the backstory of Trek or to die-hard Trekkers who can't get enough of Roddenberry's world.

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