The original Star Trek was a revolutionary television show... that came to an ignominious end. The classic space opera saw a huge drop in quality in its final season, and then was cancelled. Legend has it the ratings were terrible, and the new producer, Fred Freiberger, ruined it. But the truth is a bit more complicated.
The third volume in Mark Cushman's essential These Are The Voyages series of books about the making of Star Trek is out, covering the third and final season. And it's a fascinating inside look at a TV show that's coming apart at the seams, due to a variety of factors.
As with the first two volumes of the series, Cushman gives a really complete overview of the state of Star Trek at the start of the season, as well as at a few places in the middle and end of the season. There's a lot of attention to Trek's place in the zeitgeist, and how the show was actually being talked about at the time. And then he goes through episode-by-episode, exploring how the story was developed from proposal to screen.
And this volume has the most impact if you've already read volumes one and two — readers of the first two books will know just how much attention and thought went into every single Star Trek script. And how much the stories were changed, sometimes for the worse but frequently for the better. A lot of the best writing on Star Trek was actually re-writing, with a cadre that included Gene Coon, Dorothy Fontana, creator Gene Roddenberry and a few others paying intense attention to every detail and keeping the characters consistent and believable.
With the third season, all of those people are gone — except Roddenberry, who's tossing in edicts from on high, but then not sticking around to make them work.
As with the first two volumes of These Are The Voyages, Cushman goes out of his way to demolish fan lore about the show. Chiefly, the idea that Trek always got terrible ratings, and it was a miracle the show ever stayed on the air. Though Trek was moved to the Friday night "death slot," it continued to be popular for much of the third season — "Spock's Brain," the season opener, won its time slot, and the show came in second for several episodes after that.
The real villain behind Trek's cancellation: Jerry Lewis
And in fact, reading this book, you learn a surprising culprit behind the doom of Star Trek: comedian Jerry Lewis. Actually, comedy in general hurt Trek — the show lost its planned Monday 8 PM time slot because the network wanted to keep the popular Laugh-In at that time.
But in November 1968, NBC was having second thoughts about burying Trek on Friday nights at 10 PM, when few young people could watch it. (And the show was also not shown on a number of NBC stations, which chose to show the Grand Ole Opry on Friday nights instead.)
And there was an alternative. NBC was showing The Jerry Lewis Show on Tuesday in the early evening, and Lewis' show was a ratings disaster. So NBC decided to swap the two shows around, giving Trek a prime early evening slot and burying Lewis on Friday nights. But Jerry Lewis and his agents at William Morris went into what Variety called "a frenzy" at the time, and they managed to invoke a contractual clause that would cost NBC a lot of money if the show was moved, by forcing NBC to buy them out.
NBC wasn't willing to spend that much money just to pay off Jerry Lewis, so it kept the show in its prime slot, and kept Star Trek in its terrible position.
But who's to blame for the declining quality?
There's a whole lot of blame to go around for the drop-off in Star Trek's scripts in its final season. The studio was slashing the show's budget, meaning more "bottle" episodes set on board the Enterprise (while the network, meanwhile, was angrily demanding more episodes set on planets.)
The producers tried to push the show in a more adult, thoughtful direction, but ran into network interference — the behind-the-scenes story of "And the Children Shall Lead" is particularly sad. The show was originally going to be brutally bleak, with much more emphasis on mass suicide and much more psychotic, terrifying kids. But the network balked, and then the producers cast famous attorney Melvin Belli as Gorgan the evil angel, instead of hiring an actual actor.
But the usual scapegoat for the drop-off in Star Trek's quality is Fred Freiberger, who took over as producer from Gene Roddenberry. Cushman's book is certainly full of quotes from people like Leonard Nimoy and James Doohan, who placed the blame firmly on Freiberger.
Freiberger himself is quoted, from a 1991 interview, as saying "I thought the worst experience of my life was when I was shot down over Nazi Germany. A Jewish boy from the Bronx parachuted in to the middle of 80 million Nazis. Then I joined Star Trek. I was only in a prison camp for two years, but my travail with Star Trek has lasted 25 years... and counting."
But after reading Cushman's book, to the extent that a single person winds up shouldering the vast majority of the blame for Trek's drop in quality, it's creator Gene Roddenberry, who abandoned the show in a fit of pique after the network reneged on that prized Monday early evening time slot.
Roddenberry had already ordered a number of scripts for the third season (several of which turned out to be unworkable) and then made a series of impossible decisions that his replacement, Freiberger, had to live with. Roddenberry also strung producer Robert Justman along, leading Justman to believe he was going to be Roddenberry's replacement, and then let him down. It was Roddenberry who hired story editor Arthur Singer, who seemed somewhat baffled by Star Trek, and meanwhile Roddenberry didn't make much effort to keep Dorothy Fontana around, when she could have been convinced to stay on. Roddenberry kept pushing unworkable story ideas (like his prized "world where blacks enslave whites" idea.)
Most of all, Roddenberry enjoyed his antagonistic relationship with NBC, encouraging the fans to "twist the peacock's tail," and created an environment where network executives loathed Star Trek because of its creator.
And for his part, Freiberger had some good ideas for Star Trek, that he lacked either the time or the ability to implement. He wanted to develop the supporting cast further, including Chekov and Scotty. He wanted more serious, relationship-based drama, and stronger female characters — one of Freiberger's main initiatives as producer was to hire three new female writers, in addition to Margaret Armen and Dorothy Fontana.
Roddenberry was going through a bitter divorce, and was frantically trying to get a movie-writing career off the ground (doing a new version of Tarzan). And while he was neglecting Star Trek, he was also hanging Freiberger out to dry, bad-mouthing his replacement in letters to people like John W. Campbell.
There's a bizarre moment in the middle of These Are The Voyages Volume Three. One of the show's producers, Eddie Milkis, decided to go to Roddenberry's office and "nail him." Miklis recounts:
I called him, told him I wanted to come speak with him, and then I went to his office to chew his ass out and to tell him that I thought he was letting everybody down... I went in there and I said, 'Gene, we've got tremendous script problems, and I really think Fred Freiberger could use your help.' Now, as I continue talking, out of the back of Gene's office comes Nichelle Nichols, who's wearing one of Gene's long cardigan sweaters, and NOTHING ELSE! No shirt, no pants, nothing... So now Nichelle says something like, 'Oh, I'm sorry, Eddie, I didn't know you were there.' I'm immediately going red and I'm completely flustered until I notice that Gene's just kind of sitting at his desk, smiling and enjoying the embarrassed look on my face.
Seeing how the sausage is made
What's fascinating, and somewhat depressing, is just how many of the mediocre-to-terrible stories in Star Trek's third year started out as brilliant story ideas. Or at the very least, stories that everybody involved thought were going to be great. ("Spock's Brain" was envisioned as a serious look at the hot-button topic of organ transplantation, for example, albeit one laced with humor. In the end, the humor got cut and the serious stuff became unintentionally funny.)
Reading this book, you can actually see the stories get worse, and everybody who was excited about them become more and more depressed, as they go through rewrites and network notes. (See above for the sad story of "And the Children Shall Lead.")
It's also fascinating to read about the development of "The Enterprise Incident," in which writer Dorothy Fontana had a huge falling out with the new production team. Freiberger had dropped Spock's father, Sarek, from the script, and changed the Romulan commander to a woman. And it was Freiberger and Arthur Singer who decided to add Spock romancing the Romulan, although Singer wrote it as a scene where Spock says "I adore you," before "raining kisses on every square inch above her shoulder."
Fontana fired back an incensed memo, saying "We have established Vulcans do not nuzzle, kiss, hug, or display any other form of human affection... The Commander had jolly well be suspicious if Spock starts slobbering all over her." Nimoy, also, wrote directly to Gene Roddenberry complaining about Spock's "oversexed" behavior.
Also, "The Enterprise Incident" script lost several scenes that explained just why people were able to beam from the Enterprise to the Romulan ship and back, when their shields were supposed to be up.
Which is the other interesting thing that comes through in this book: Nimoy was zealous about the integrity of Spock, and frequently butted heads with the new producers over how the character was portrayed. But as James Doohan put it, William Shatner put himself out there to make the show better and shoot down some of the sillier ideas in general: "Leonard was more interested in [protecting] the character of Spock. I think Bill was more interested in the series."
In the end, the only person who really believed, in his heart, that Star Trek would get a fourth season was James Doohan. He couldn't accept that such a smart, well done show would be pulled off the air.