Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Intensely Human

Gene Roddenberry was the primary person involved in selecting the Star Trek team. His methods were different from what most involved had been used to in the TV industry.

“My way of casting is different,” Roddenberry said in an interview. “Actors come prepared to answer the questions they are typically asked at casting calls. Suddenly, with me, they find themselves discussing topsoil and a whole range of subjects that have nothing to do with being cast. The reason for this questioning is that I am interested in getting a feel for them as people. The way I cast is to try to learn who this actor, this person, really is. I try to find out if they fit in with my idea of the character. The answer to that may come out of anything they say — a reminiscence of their childhood, for example… What I want to know is: who is this soul I am dealing with?”

George Takei recalled enjoying his conversation with Roddenberry but since they hadn’t talked about his acting resume, he assumed he wasn’t being seriously considered for a role. Roddenberry did talk to him about the concept of the series he wanted to make, and Takei realized that he desperately wanted to be part of it.

The process of putting together his production team was much the same. Robert Justman, who began as an assistant director on the first Star Trek pilot, recounts a similar experience. “He asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” and he talked about his vision for Star Trek and the future.

Some people came away from these meetings believing Roddenberry was a genius, and most found him very warm and likeable. There’s little doubt that one of his great abilities---and accomplishments—was in bringing together the Star Trek team. Out of necessity he chose from relative unknowns---the young, the overlooked, those whose talents had been misused, or not used to their full potential. From this pool he brought together people he believed were very talented, but also those he believed would work well together, and who seemed to understand and be in sympathy with his vision. He earned their gratitude for giving them a chance---for some, it was the chance of a lifetime. But to a remarkable degree, he also inspired them.

“It was a marvellous place to work.” said music editor Robert Raff. “We worked long, hard schedules on that show…During some long nights we would pop in on Gene to have a drink with him. He had a living room suite where he stayed, writing in his office. He kept his office open to all of us.”

“I never had a problem,” recalled Al Francis, Star Trek’s director of photography. “I would go in and talk to Gene, and it was a big family. That’s the way I saw it. It was the closest relationship that I ever had while making a picture, from the producers right down to the crafts servicemen.”

“There was a very good team feeling,” said Dorothy Fontana, the script-writing secretary who later became a full time writer. “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a great team spirit on any other show I’ve ever worked on…The whole unity of everybody, from the top to the least important production person, was right there.”

It wasn’t all sweetness and light, but it was intensely human. The atmosphere was created partly by mutual respect and shared creativity. A good idea could come from anywhere, from a story idea to a suggestion for a shot, a single image that could convey an idea in its fullness of emotion and place in the plot, succinctly and memorably. “We were very free creatively,” said veteran director Ralph Senesky. “Everybody worked together.”

If they were to succeed in this enterprise, they almost had to. For together they were creating a universe, out of Styrofoam and baling wire, and imagination. A shiny rock John Black’s children brought home became the Dilithium Crystal that powered a starship. The budget was so tight for the third season that set and prop builders were literally sorting through the garbage for usable items from the more prosperous “Mission Impossible,” series filming next door.

Nevertheless, they transformed television. Roddenberry was creatively obsessed with the look and especially the sound on the series. Everyone was involved. Oscar Katz, a Desilu executive when the original series was being developed, said later that he attributed Star Trek’s success to its attention to detail.

No TV show had even attempted the number and complexity of Star Trek’s special effects, as old-fashioned as they may look now. The unique use of color was groundbreaking, especially since Star Trek was one of the first series to be broadcast in color—and for awhile, the most popular color show on NBC, despite its otherwise low ratings.

No TV show has generated more original music. Star Trek commissioned orchestral scores for each episode, ending the reflexive spooky sounds on weird instruments that had characterized science fiction soundtracks, and making the world safe for John Williams. Except perhaps for some early 60s movie- jazz instrumentation for part of the theme, many of these compositions have not dated and remain effective musically and dramatically.

But even the unique visual style remains striking. Some of it looks goofy, like the very obvious stunt men. But film buffs and TV pros admired the orchestration of camera shots and movements that emphasized clarity: wide establishing shots to allow the viewer’s eye to wander around among the wonders of an increasingly familiar bridge, an environment for their own fantasy lives; followed by medium shots that dramatized interaction, and close-ups for the actions and reactions that revealed character. Elegant close-ups and creative positioning of characters on the bridge in tight two and especially three shots, remain remarkable for their taste, efficiency and drama.

Since so much of Star Trek hadn’t been done before, or had to be done in new ways, creativity was part of most jobs every day. Though Roddenberry is often mentioned by name, all the producers had close and friendly contact with this relatively small group of Star Trek staff and regular contributors.

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