Storytelling and the greatest Star Trek book ever written

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A fantastic piece of Star Trek fan art by Alex26101 over at Deviant Art. It can be found here: http://alex26101.deviantart.com/art/Enterprise-NCC-1701-569775047

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.

The FPJ Scale of Actor Charisma. That’s Freddie Prinze Jr. to you and me.

Sometimes an idea strikes you and you’re compelled to take it too far.

On the July 27 edition of Dorking Out, my friend and co-host Sonia Mansfield and I were trying to figure out what it was about Charlie Hunnam we just couldn’t care about. He didn’t do anything for us as an actor.

What was that about? We all have those actors, but it’s hard to talk about them because they’re just… there.

So after talking it over with our friend of the show Peter Brown, Associate Editor of Assignment X, we created the Freddie Prinze Jr. Scale for Actor Charisma.

The rest has been explained in this overly thought through scientific diagram.

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Movies are dead (no, not really), and I feel fine (actually, I do).

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Movies as an art form, for me, are second to none.

With their peerless ability to combine all other human arts, movies remain for me the best lens through which to watch the human parade.

In a good movie, there’s the storytelling sweep of the novel right beside the crackling dialogue and witnessed human emotion performed in great theater. There’s the wordless gusts and fireworks from music’s every genre together with the visual artistry of every kind of photography, painting, sculpture and now computers can create. There are the delighting illusions of even the magician’s arts to create images that don’t even really exist. There is the possibility of going anywhere, seeing anything, meeting every kind of human and witnessing all of it almost as though we were there ourselves.

Laughing, crying, hoping, fearing, excitement and triumph are all there in the best movies. All in about two hours, usually.

The very long, not very good summer

So it surprises me, as more than a few writers I respect (here, here, here, here and here)  wring their hands over the year in movies thus far and proclaim something important is dying in movies. The sentiments don’t surprise me, but the realization I agree with them and I am perfectly content.

This weekend seems to be the culmination of the fever with the arrival of SUICIDE SQUAD. For a certain kind of genre lover, this movie was seen as a bright spot on a blotted summer calendar, with the strange political storm of GHOSTBUSTERS and the limp arrivals of JASON BOURNE, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE and X-MEN APOCALYPSE and ten more already behind us.

But SQUAD was met by a cold bath of reviews from a critical press which in May lavished praise on Marvel Studios 13th comic book movie, CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR and DEADPOOL in February. So much for comic book fatigue. The comic book trend is like every other one before it: good movies get love, bad movies get ignored. But I digress.

The rough ‘movies in crisis’ argument goes something like this: Over the last decade, culminating in the 2016 movie season, there’s been a terrible evolution in the way studios are giving audiences bigger and brasher movies, more sequels, more remakes, more spectacle, with less thought, less human meaning, and less adult thought.

Gone are the middle range dramas, the DEAD POETS SOCIETY type films, the RAIN MANs, the BOOGIE NIGHTS and the AMERICAN BEAUTIES. Gone are unexpected delights and surprising comedies, like SAY ANYTHING, FORREST GUMP, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, HEATHERS and a hundred others from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

I’ve heard the arguments, and I find them quiet compelling. They’re probably right. But I come here to say, so what.

Movies are dead, Long live movies.

So what because we haven’t lost great adult stories, complex dramas and quirky, small-audience comedies. We’re enjoying more of them than ever on TV, where they should live.

Almost as if to anticipate my thoughts (they must be in the zeitgeist) in my podcast feed today I hear maybe the most succinct lament on 2016 movies from Chris Ryan, co-host of THE WATCH.  What’s more, he seems to see the same silver lining I do.

Something new under the sun

Yes, yes, I remember. I came up in a time where 10 or 20 SPOTLIGHT-style movies would come out every fall.

Now they don’t. Things change, and in this way entertainment and popular storytelling has changed for the better. Modern TV can do what a lot of older ‘grown up’ movies once hand to accomplish, and better. What’s more, today’s big screen movies are better targeted for what movies do uniquely well.

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TV has always been a more personal, intimate medium. Spectacle has always been best spread across the biggest screen a building can handle. The age of theaters spooling out MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (look it up, lol) has past, and that’s GOOD.

We are living in the golden age of grown-up entertainment at the same time CAPTAIN AMERICA and DEADPOOL are setting up shop in the same theaters where RAGING BULL and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS once played.

Now, we have the 8 to 10 episode HBO or Netflix season. This is the ideal size and length for surprising, challenging adult fare, and with that many episodes to economize a big investment, the HBOs and Netflixes of the world can spend $100 million on 10 hours where once adults had to suffice with a two hour, $10 million art-house flick. Now we get deeper dives into complex subject matters, and we get higher production values than adult feature films of 10 years ago.

Let’s run through a few though experiments.

Where once clouds of Oscar chatter swirled around courtroom dramas like THE VERDICT, JAGGED EDGE and PRIMAL FEAR, we now have FX to thank for THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON and HBO to thank for THE NIGHT OF. We once had SERPICO as an examination of police brutality and corruption. Now we have seven seasons of THE SHIELD and every delicate shade of nuance in THE WIRE.

Let’s look at historical dramas. There was a time, when GHANDI walked the earth beside BRAVEHEART, when history based entertainments could meld prestige presentations with human storytelling glory.

But let me ask you this: Wouldn’t you rather have Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN as a 10-hour HBO series, one you could binge watch after tearing through Paul Giamatti’s excellently prickly performance as JOHN ADAMS?

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Or let me cast light on our glorious bounty in another way, my nerd friends.

Would you prefer the 1990s route for a project like GAME OF THRONES? Back then, any ambitious producer would be doing their best to make it into a big screen movie, a two-hour sword and sorcery epic, directed by Renny Harlin or John McTiernan.

And what would have happened? Ninety-percent of the best parts would be cut out due to studio notes and the ending would be changed because sad endings don’t test well. It probably would have flamed out, and would now be sitting in some dark corner of NETFLIX beside Val Kilmer in THE SAINT and Emilio Estevez and Mick Jagger in FREEJACK.

I think, like me, you would prefer HBO’s current achievement where each book in George R. R. Martin’s epic is turned into its own season, and we can enjoy his world spread out over seven kingdoms and eight seasons?

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The Coen Brothers offer up my favorite example of how things have changed. Their crime drama, FARGO, was one of the best movies of the 1990s. But on TV, in the right hands, their delightful tone and arched eye for the absurdity of violence and ambition has grown into two seasons of FARGO, based in their unique world, that stand as some of the best drama made in the last 20 years.

Would you rather have a movie like THE USUAL SUSPECTS, or five seasons of BREAKING BAD? The MILLER’S CROSSINGs have given way to the BOARDWALK EMPIREs.

For me, on balance, that’s a much more satisfying world.

And let’s take a look at these big screen comic book movies of now compared to the ‘better’ times of years gone by. What’s better, on any level (acting, story, presentation, tone, anything)… Tim Burton’s BATMAN or CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR? What movie examines the nature of fighting and violence? What movie is more fun to watch?

For every also-ran like X-MEN: APOCALYPSE or blimp-wreck like THE FANTASTIC FOUR we usually get three good Marvel movies, and a few DEADPOOL like surprises in the mix.

Put succinctly, movies are doing better what they do, fill a big screen with something big, and TV is doing what does better, bringing people close together over a long stretch of time so we can know them, and see them, in ways even the best movies can match, but rarely beat.

If given the SOPHIE’S CHOICE between THE GODFATHER and BREAKING BAD… well, don’t make me choose.

And with the way things have sorted out with movies and TV developing as they have, I don’t have to.