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‘Fifty-Year Mission’ Explores Trek Many People Missed

First volume of Star Trek’s oral history from Mark A. Altman, Edward Gross a fascinating read

In their new book, “The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek,” co-authors Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman intend to deliver the definitive story of Star Trek, as told by the people who lived it.

The book contains excerpts from hundreds of interviews the authors conducted with cast, crew, writers, directors, studio executives and other key people associated with the franchise. Both authors have decades-long relationships with Star Trek and are well-equipped to guide the reader on this journey.

“Volume One: The First 25 Years” focuses on the original 1966 television series — its creation and development, achievements, production challenges and cancellation after three seasons. Also included are dedicated chapters on the rise of fandom, “Star Trek: The Animated Series,” the failed attempts to relaunch the series including “Star Trek: Phase II,” and each of the first six Star Trek films.

The number of individual voices contained in “The Fifty-Year Mission” is truly impressive, with comments sourced from almost 200 people. Altman told me that “we reached out to so many people no one had ever spoken to before” and estimates that about 90 percent of the interviews were conducted over the last few years, with older material used primarily to hear from those who have passed away.

Gross also noted that “so many of the people involved with Star Trek over the years were not only willing to talk about their experiences with the franchise, but they were dedicated to make sure that the story was told in full.”

The material is presented in a mostly chronological manner, and grouped by topic or theme (casting decisions, design of the Enterprise, specific episodes etc.). Contributor comments range in size from a few paragraphs to a single sentence, with each segment adding some detail or flavor that deepens the overall story. Opinions are provided candidly, sometimes revealing strong emotions or conflicting perspectives.

Not surprisingly, Gene Roddenberry has an enormous presence throughout the book, both as a “speaker” and as the subject of discussion. As the creator of “Star Trek,” he is rightfully recognized as a visionary whose passion, drive and unrelenting stubbornness were critical in bringing the original television show to life. However, according to those who worked most closely with him, he was also controlling and manipulative, and his open antagonism toward the studio bosses caused no small amount of trouble.

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are frequently commended for their professionalism and dedication to the series. But while Kirk and Spock may have appeared inseparable onscreen, the story was very different behind the scenes. In the chapter “Family Feud,” Shatner’s insecurity over the Vulcan’s unexpected popularity is recounted, a situation exacerbated by Nimoy’s increased contract demands which almost resulted in the actor being replaced for the second season.

My favorite thing in “The Fifty-Year Mission” has to be the previously unpublished letter written by Roddenberry and sent to the primary actors in an attempt to reduce the escalating friction on the set.

“I think it may be the most significant contribution to the Trek mythology of anything in the book,” Altman said. “We’ve heard a lot about the feud and Roddenberry’s feelings about his cast, but this memo really gives you an idea of the extent of it.”

Especially entertaining are the “what if” moments — ideas that were suggested but never executed (and definitely for the better). Imagine watching Kirk fighting Jesus on the bridge of the Enterprise, or Spock assassinating President Kennedy to preserve the purity of the timeline, or “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” with Eddie Murphy in a starring role.

“There’s so much I learned from researching this book which is amazing, to be honest,” Altman said. “I had no idea Paramount had briefly dabbled with the idea of developing a spin-off of ‘Star Trek II’ about Khan on Ceti Alpha V.”

Gross added he was pleased they could delve into the decade between the end of “Star Trek” and the release of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” a period of time that has not been explored too deeply.

“We spoke to the guy who first came up with the idea of airing reruns of the show five nights a week against local newscasts,” he said. “The woman who created the first Star Trek fanzine, and many of the people involved with the very first convention held in January 1972.”

The amount of information jammed into “The Fifty-Year Mission” will guarantee that even the most hardcore Trekkie will learn something new. The multitude of voices ensures that the narrative never becomes dry or predictable. It should be considered required reading for anyone interested in exploring the nooks and crannies of Star Trek’s rather unbelievable history.

“The Fifty-Year Mission: Volume One” is available now from St. Martin’s Press retailing at $30, with the second volume spanning the time from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to the current movies, arriving later this summer.

And just a quick note for those attending San Diego Comic-Con this week. Both Altman and Gross are scheduled to attend the “Fifty-Year Mission: Star Trek Then, Now & Beyond” panel July 24 at 1 p.m. local time, to discuss their book.

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