My Favorite Curse
All of my life I have felt alternately cursed and blessed with the drive to answer one question.
How did the stories that I love get made?
This first occurred to me walking out of the Sun Valley Mall Theater in the summer of 1981 and realizing some people, somewhere had gotten together and made my new favorite movie, Raiders of the lost Ark.
Maybe it was being 10 years old watching a fantastic summer movie, or maybe it was the thrill of watching Indiana Jones race around the globe to stop Nazi evil, but that was the first time it ever struck me that a human could spend time making stories other people might like, the way exactly the way a carpenter might grab some wood and tools and build beautiful table.
While it was the first time I realized storytelling could be a profession, Raiders was not the first story that I ever loved. Not by a long shot.
A few years prior to, I remember sulking after one of those boring, awful days kids have at school. When my dad found me he tried to buck up my spirits by telling me the family was going to see a movie that Friday. His selling point was “It’s kind of like Star Trek.”
The movie was the first Star Wars. The reason he invoked Star Trek was because that was the first set of stories he and I shared and the first I ever loved.
Since then I’ve had some measure of success getting my stories out into the world. Sometimes that’s been in journalism, sometimes in video. For the past few years, I’ve been writing the novel that I hope will be the product of all I loved and I’ve learned. More on that in the near future.
Through all those years Star Trek has been a constant presence, like the kind of friend who grows distant and close again every few years when you remember just what you liked about them. It’s both entertained and inspired anew with the pleasure and potential of imaginative stories told well.
While it may never have hit the cultural heights of a Moby Dick, a Great Gatsby or a Godfather, there’s always the chance it could.
Oral History of the Future
That’s why I was overjoyed earlier this summer to find the best book I have ever read on the creation of stories in Hollywood has been published, and it’s about Star Trek.
It’s called The Fifty Year Mission: The First 25 Years, The Complete Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, and is the first of a two volume set by authors Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. The second volume, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams, comes out Tuesday, and I’m counting the minutes.
Gross and Altman have achieved something special. Beyond being a good book about something interesting, they have done something I’ve only witnessed a few times in nonfiction storytelling. Trying to place my love for this book, I’ve come up with this:
Often in my experience, nonfiction storytelling attempts often fall into two categories. In the first an author executes their craft on a smaller subject and almost because of their more modest ambitions they are able to masterfully bring the subject alive in every aspect from beginning to end. Jonathan Krakauer’s Mount Everest book Into Thin Air is my favorite example of this type.
The second happens when a storyteller harbors larger ambitions. While they often produce something worth noticing in the vastness of their attempt, in the chaos of wrestling a sprawling subject into the coherence a book’s few hundred pages or a documentaries few hours, something essential is missed. Moments of brilliance are there, but it’s somehow less than the sum of its parts. Ken Burns’ Baseball series comes to mind.
But there are a very few nonfiction projects where their storytellers have taken on vast subjects and executed every facet of their ambitions on a masterpiece level. For me, Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary and Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America are this kind of achievement. When a talented creator is able to communicate the vast and tiny, the intimate and epic all with the same level of fluid care, the experience is the most special to be found.
For me, what Gross and Altman have achieved with The Fifty-Year Mission rests comfortably alongside what Burns and Edelman have done before them.
When something like Star Trek happens, the ambitions of a few people and the flow of the larger culture meet in unexpected ways to produce something just as much owned by the creators as by the audience. Telling the story of that alchemy is something so difficult I’m still not sure how Gross and Altman were able to pull it off so well.
Of course, they tell the story of Gene Roddenberry, William Shatner, Leonard Nimor and DeForrest Kelly coming together to make the original three seasons of Star Trek in the late 1960s. But almost unique among entertainment journalists, they eschew the set gossip and dramatic-but-low-impact moments most making-of books spend their time focusing on how these hours of TV were created, from the first story ideas on up.
There are juicy anecdotes about producer and cast run-ins, backstage fighting and more, but all in the service of showing how humans working together under great pressure manage to succeed (and fail) at producing something millions have come to love.
It’s in the passages recounting Star Trek’s time in the wilderness, 1969 to the mid-1970s, Gross and Altman’s work fully sings. First, they focus on the unprecedented fan love which first saved the show from cancellation, then resurrected the franchise in the era of Star Wars. Then, in my favorite passages, they reveal how well meaning creators… Roddenberry, the cast, the producers and eventually Day The Earth Stood Still and Sound of Music director Robert Wise among them… produced something so boring, so dramatically inert, so un-Star Trek-like as 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
It’s in those pages all the hidden dynamics of Hollywood are revealed, answering the question film-lovers have asked for a century: How did this awful movie get made?
The clarity Gross and Altman have in these pages, the fluent editing of interview after interview to reveal the whole awful picture, is among the best edited story passages I’ve seen. It’s a beauty.
Here’s where I leave you and simply advise you to pick up The Fifty Year Mission. Better yet, listen to it on Audible. Listening to a story like this being so well told is an experience everyone should have.
To finish up my little celebration of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I’ll be back soon with a few thoughts on why Star Trek is the greatest storytelling engine ever.