Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Countdown to 40: The Many Hands Theory of Star Trek

by William S. Kowinski

It is August 1966, and lost in the universe on Gene Roddenberry’s desk is a desperate memo from Bob Justman, one of Star Trek’s two associate producers. “It is important that you compose, without delay, our Standard Opening Narration for Bill Shatner to record.”

It was one of the last elements still to be finished before the first episode hit the airwaves. They had the music. When no respectable composer was interested in scoring this upstart series for a tiny, ill-equipped studio paying very little money, a musical arranger for a movie studio was hired to compose the Star Trek pilot music and, incidentally, it’s opening theme. Roddenberry worked with Alexander Courage, who adapted a Hebredean tune from the outer islands of Scotland. His opening fanfare would recur in every episode.

Then recently he and Justman had just dealt with a looming crisis concerning the visuals for this opening sequence. Namely, that after a special effects company had been promising these images for months, there weren’t any.

When he couldn’t wait any longer, Gene grabbed Justman and they stormed into the small company’s screening room and demanded to see all the shots of the starship Enterprise in action completed so far. They needed 20 just for the opening sequence.

They saw six. And those weren’t very good.

When the lights came up, they witnessed another shocking sight. The man who was in charge of creating these shots was sitting next to them, crying. “You’ll never make your air date!” he screamed, as he jumped up and ran out of the building. Like Roddenberry, Justman and everybody else connected with Trek, he had been working day and night. But the studio hadn’t allowed him the budget to hire the people he needed to complete this difficult work, which in 1966 had never even been attempted for television before.

Robert Justman was stunned, but Roddenberry just became very calm and quiet. After they sent the hysterical effects supervisor home (he wound up taking a long vacation), Roddenberry took Justman into an editing room with film of all the shots of the Enterprise they could find. There had been some created for the pilot episode that only studio executives had seen, in addition to the few new ones and fragments of others still incomplete. After several hours of splicing, assembling and refining, Justman was amazed: Roddenberry had pieced together an exciting opening sequence, right there on the Movieola machine.

Now Roddenberry had to put words to the music and the images. They would be important words. Star Trek was unlike anything audiences had seen before in prime time. Many viewers—and many television executives—thought science fiction was crazy, that space ships and aliens were kids’ stuff and would be laughed off the screen. How could you tell people what Star Trek was really all about, in under fifteen seconds?

Roddenberry’s roughed out a draft. “This is the story of the United Space Ship Enterprise,” the first began, “assigned a five year patrol of our galaxy.” But it sounded as stilted as the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. It even had the phrase “regulate commerce.” But it did contain the words, “explores strange new worlds and civilizations.”

John D. F. Black, Star Trek’s other associate producer, read it. “Think the narration needs more drama,” he suggested in his memo, and then added “an example of what I mean.” His draft began: “Space…the final frontier…endless, silent, waiting.” He then incorporate elements of Gene’s draft, adding, “to seek out and contact all alien life.” And he included the title of Sam Peeple’s script for the second pilot story, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” “…to travel the vast galaxy where no man has gone before…a STAR TREK.”

Robert Justman tried a draft. His began, “This is the story of the Starship Enterprise” and went on to define its mission. He put together Roddenberry’s “to explore strange new worlds” with “where no man has gone before.” Then he sent all the drafts back to Roddenberry with a memo begging him to write the final script.

Gene started scribbling on Justman’s draft, then let a week go by. Justman was frantic---they were going on the air in a month, there was no more time. Roddenberry hurriedly did another draft---the final draft, since Justman grabbed it and ran across the street to the dubbing stage. He called Bill Shatner to rush over from the sound stage where he was filming Star Trek’s ninth episode. Shatner, in uniform as Captain Kirk, read through the narration a few times and recorded a take.

Justman liked his delivery but there seemed to be something missing. He asked the sound mixer to add a touch of reverberation, and Shatner declaimed it again. It was the final take. It had to be: they couldn’t afford to hold up the day’s shooting.

It is August 10, 1966. On September 8, those images and music would be seen and heard across the country, and these words:

“Space…the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five year mission: to explore strange new worlds…to seek out new life and new civilizations…to boldly go where no man has gone before!.”

It would become one of the best known poems of the twentieth century.

Gene Roddenberry started it all, but Star Trek was created by many hands, not just for that first night, but for the next several decades.

In fact, GR’s greatest talent may have been as a catalyst, a synthesizer, as well as the guide. All drama is collaborative; most television is derivative, and science fiction is a kind of folk art that builds on what came before. But the Many Hands Theory of Star Trek is important also for its application to the future. We won’t get there without working together.

Star Trek’s history is replete with bruised egos and bad behavior. But creativity is often that way, especially when it is combined with business, like the big business of Hollywood. So it is even more of an achievement, and seems even more to have been fated in the stars, that Star Trek was able to model a better future, and bring America along with it.

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