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This ultimate 'Star Trek' history holds clues for the next show

I wouldn't exactly call myself a Star Trek fan. Star Wars, not surprisingly, is much more my speed. Still, like every geek of a certain age, I watched reruns of what we now call The Original Series (TOS) as a child, back when there was almost no other science fiction to be found on TV.

But I wasn't exactly a discerning critic in those days. I'll never forget the evening that "Spock's Brain," now widely regarded as the worst episode of Star Trek ever, terrified the pants off me at age 7. My tastes have evolved since then; generally speaking, the more recent the Star Trek TV show, the less likely I am to have seen it. 

So no one was more surprised than me when I inhaled The Fifty-Year Mission, a massive oral history of the Trek franchise. It's far from a quick read — the first volume, released earlier this month, runs to 577 pages. (The second, out at the end of August, is an even more punishing 864 pages.) 

Nevertheless, it's a page-turner. There are some great, must-read oral histories: Studs Terkel's The Good War, a brilliant telling of World War II by the people who lived through it, is on. Legs McNeil's oral history of punk, Please Kill Me, is another. 

The Fifty-Year Mission, our Geek Book of the Month for July, is most definitely in their league. It's based on 30 years' worth of interviews by the Trek-obsessed authors, who are wise enough to mostly bow out and let the creators, stars and the people behind the scenes slug it out among themselves.

"The history of Star Trek is like Rashomon," says Star Trek: Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer, referring to the famous Akira Kurosawa movie that shows the same event from four completely different perspectives. He's not wrong.

What emerges is a surprising struggle over the soul of Star Trek. It's a struggle that continues now, with Star Trek Beyond and the upcoming Star Trek Discovery offering very different visions.  

Here's a small sample of what stood out for me in the first volume:

— Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was so offended by the constant feuding of the series' two main stars, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, that he wrote them a letter blasting their out of control egos — and cc'ed the third co-star, DeForest Kelly, in case his ego also spiraled.

— Roddenberry was pretty damn egotistical himself. He was great at coming up with the overarching idea and message, not so much with the execution. Gene L. Coon, a producer who took over for most of Season 2, was much more influential. He shepherded the show's best episodes.

— Roddenberry doesn't come out of this looking particularly good. More than one assistant and young female actress accuse him of sexist and manipulative behavior; he was apparently happy to share sundry details of his sexual exploits with all colleagues. His many conquests included Uhura herself, Nichelle Nichols. 

— When Gene Roddenberry was trying to sell the first Star Trek movie, he came up with a script in which the crew of the Enterprise would literally meet God. It became known as "The God Thing." According to the author who was asked to novelize it, the climactic scene had "Kirk slugging it out on the bridge with Jesus." 

— One of the constant conflicts behind the scenes of Star Trek: How much humor the show, and the movies, would contain. Roddenberry was absolutely against jokes. 

n the terrible first movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which went through dozens of drafts between Roddenberry and other feuding writers, Nimoy said he was literally forbidden to make wry looks or raise his eyebrows.

— The show's best bits came from everywhere; Star Trek, essentially, had many fathers. For example, the whole thing about terraforming planets with the Genesis device, the central plot element of the brilliant second movie, Wrath of Khan? That came entirely from the movie's art director.

— Somebody on the production leaked the fact that Spock dies at the end of Wrath of Khan to the press. There was, understandably, a fan uproar. For years, nobody knew who leaked it. Here, a secretary offers incontrovertible evidence that Gene Roddenberry himself was the source of the leak. His motive? He didn't want Spock to die.

— Eddie Murphy is a huge Trekkie. He was going to be in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, playing a college professor who believes in aliens, and his possible presence is why the movie saw the cast going back in time to 1986.

The first volume does start to drag towards the end, as the Star Trek franchise moves to the mainstream Hollywood big leagues. But on the whole, the oral history format appears to be a miraculously perfect match for this subject. 

After all, the Star Trek TV shows — with their constant Captain's Logs — are pretty much oral histories themselves. 

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