Before “Star Trek Generations,” it was probably safe to say that William Shatner had never seen “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and never really cared to.
The series, through most of its run, was not exactly embraced by the whole community, and Shatner touches on that particular fact rather quickly in his latest Trek-themed documentary, “Chaos on the Bridge.” Using his access as an icon and considerable talent for probing interviews, Shatner presents a fresh look at the tumultuous first three years of TNG, from its inception to finally overcoming the hump and becoming an Emmy-nominated series.
But I didn’t come into “Chaos” confident Shatner could tell an objective story about a franchise that certainly didn’t include him. While he had built a friendship over the years with Capt. Picard’s Patrick Stewart, Shatner also had a close friendship with the now late Maurice Hurley, who some fans claim created much of the turmoil of the second season. When Shatner released a trailer for “Chaos,” which happens to be the opening sequence of the documentary, my fears grew even more, because it seemed apparent that all of the blame of TNG’s problems in the 1980s would lie right at the feet of Gene Roddenberry.
And don’t get me wrong, Gene certainly had issues with all this, stemming from not even wanting to do a new series in the first place, according to the documentary. His health was failing, and he was depending on proxies, like attorney Leonard Maizlish, to ensure everything ran smoothly. But by far, many accounts say Maizlish only made everything worse, to the point that it’s amazing TNG ever got out of the second season in the first place.
In 60 minutes, however, Shatner not only proved my concerns to be misplaced, but once again he tells a compelling — and mostly fair — story of what happened behind the scenes of TNG. Bringing in everyone he can, including former Paramount Television head John Pike (who was responsible for there being a new series in the first place), Shatner not only goes where no documentary has gone before but isn’t afraid to call people out on their bullshit, either.
One particular story involves both Stewart and Pike. Throughout the documentary, it seems that either Pike has forgotten a lot, or has recreated much of what happened in his head. He shares an incident where he made Stewart wait in Paramount’s commissary, in his Starfleet uniform, for him to come and play hardball with him. Stewart, he said, didn’t like some lines, and was threatening to leave the show. And Pike bluffed by telling Stewart he was working right now to write him out of the show, knowing Stewart didn’t want that.
Except Stewart remembers it far differently. The actor says he wasn’t angry about a line, but instead Paramount’s insistence that a morning talk show produce an episode from the set of TNG. Stewart didn’t want to do anything that would harm the suspension of disbelief of the fans, and he felt putting a morning show on the set could do that. Stewart was supposed to appear for an interview, but when he arrived on the set, he saw one of the morning show personalities wearing his uniform while giving a weather report. Stewart stormed off, and didn’t appear for the interview.
He was later called into Pike’s office, and “read the riot act,” only with Pike to add “off the record” that he completely understood why Stewart left.
Whose version is right? Who knows. Shatner leaves it up to the viewer to decide, and I like that. Present both sides, and leave it there. Shatner doesn’t even give his insight.
And that is what’s been so great about these Shatner documentaries. While fans, of course, are tuning in to see Shatner, he really moves into the background. Yes, we see him on camera and we hear his voice, but it’s not about Shatner, and he doesn’t even attempt to steal the spotlight.
Shatner also takes absolutely no potshots at TNG. In fact, he celebrates it — he shows true empathy for what the actors had to go through. For instance, Denise Crosby — who lasted less than a season as Tasha Yar — would talk about how she would sneak onto the set of the sitcom “Cheers” to just have some halfway decent food.
No one gets a free pass in the problems that plagued TNG throughout its first three years, but Shatner does ensure that proper credit for its turnaround goes exactly where it’s due: to the late Michael Piller.
Shatner also shares some other great insights — many of which have been known before, but probably forgotten by many of us. One includes how TNG was originally developed by Paramount Television for the new Fox network, only to have the episode order cut to 13 episodes. Pike pitched the show to the other networks, but the only interest he had was from CBS, who wanted to do a miniseries.
Also talked about were the other actors who read for Picard, and who were in the running before Stewart’s toupee incident. They included “Dark Shadows” star Mitch Ryan, Roy Thinnes of “The Invaders,” and even “Live and Let Die” villain Yaphet Kotto.
The running time for “Chaos” is a bit shorter than one would expect at 60 minutes, especially at the $15 retail price (although I rented it on iTunes for $4). But Shatner puts in quite a bit, and you don’t feel the story drag down at all.
If you liked “The Captains,” then you’ll certainly want to check out “Chaos on the Bridge.” It’s available on digital platforms and is expected to be released next month on DVD.
“Chaos on the Bridge” was written and directed by William Shatner.