Wednesday, September 06, 2006


If you conceive of the Many Hands as a series of concentric circles, the innermost circle would be the principal creators: producers GR and Gene Coon, Robert Justman, along with those present in the beginning like Herb Solow and Sam Peeples; then the writers and actors, the artists and composers, the people who literally built Star Trek and kept it running.

The actors had a special place in the co-creation. Most of them in the original series and in TNG had extensive theatre experience. William Shatner’s career began when he was spotted at the Ontario Shakespeare Festival and offered a Hollywood contract. He studied and worked in New York theatre, as did George Takei. Leonard Nimoy had learned his craft in Boston and New York theatre, and studied with Jeff Corey in L.A. before teaching acting himself. James Doohan and Walter Koenig came out of Sandy Meisner’s revered Neighborhood Playhouse program. (Famed actor Joanne Woodward once publicly praised Doohan, an acting instructor at the Neighborhood Playhouse for a time, as the man who taught her everything she knows.) Nichelle Nichols had extensive stage experience in dramatic and musical theatre as well as singing and dancing (her first break in show business was dancing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.)

This helped Star Trek tell its stories, which at times (as William Shatner said) resembled Greek drama. While this was largely the product of small budgets that didn’t allow for a lot of visual effects and action sequences, it was also the kind of story Star Trek wanted to tell.

Actors are a much maligned and misunderstood bunch, even if some are overpaid and a pain. First of all, actors in Hollywood struggle for work, and when they get it they are typecast. Since Star Trek couldn’t afford stars, and since the roles weren’t of the usual types, it took a lot of discernment and luck to find the right actors, who responded with skills their previous work may not have revealed.

For example, Leonard Nimoy, who as Spock became the stone-faced alien exemplar of logic and a paragon of quiet virtue for millions, appeared on an episode of Roddenberry’s previous series, The Lieutenant, playing an ebullient mogul, all back-slapping and big toothy smiles. Many of his earlier parts were of tough guy villains.

DeForest Kelley also had played mostly villains---some of them pretty nasty and despicable--- almost always in westerns. After casting him as a lawyer in a failed pilot, Roddenberry gave him the role that matched his childhood ambition: a doctor.

Shatner’s leading man casting was more standard, as was the later casting of young Walter Koenig as Chekov ---he’d just played a defecting Russian student in the high school series, Mr. Novak.
As a form, the TV drama series is unique. Like movies, it is the product of a complex process of activities that can seem chaotic until they are all assembled in the final product, on film. Then when combined and edited, all the scenery, props, camera angles, special and visual effects and music as well as the performances for the camera become a whole, a story that has not existed in this form before.

In television, however, there is a new movie every week, one episode after another, all year, as the series simultaneously creates, defines and responds to its identity. Like movies, the actor’s performances are shot in pieces, only more quickly, with fewer takes. So given the fragmented nature of the process, and the partial reality of effects and music that are slotted in later, for most of the time the story exists only in the heads of the participants, with guidance from what’s on the page.

The potential for confusion and entropy is compounded by how television production is organized. Producers are the executives generating and overseeing the elements of the stories. Once the script is written and the physical requirements of the story are ready, it is up to the directors, actors and technicians, and then the editors and those who add the postproduction music and effects, to bring the stories to life.

But between the functions of producers and the director, there is an odd gap. Directors in television have nothing like the power they do in feature films. Typically directors don’t even stick around for the editing. Star Trek employed some directors regularly, but at most they did a few shows a season. They had a brief preparation time and then were required to shoot to an exacting schedule that the studio enforced to the minute.

Producers had the power to make the important decisions, but they did so before and after the actual shooting. They were rarely present while the actors worked. But with directors and writers coming and going, some not entirely familiar with the show to begin with, and even producers and staff members changing suddenly, the most permanent members of the Star Trek creative team happened to be the only ones that the audience saw week after week: the actors. (Which actually wouldn’t surprise the people who still believe that actors make up the stories as they go along.)

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