Title: Star Trek Movie Memories
Author: William Shatner and Chris Kreski
Date: 2/20/07


I'm not sure which of Shatner's Memories books I liked better--they both have his distinctive, casual, almost wry tone,  but this one seems to go a lot more into the background and production of the films, to things that Shatner himself didn't actually witness or participate in (except on Star Trek V, of course, which he directed). I remember being surprised when I reread the first book how much more backstory stuff it was, as opposed to being anecdotes from the set, Shatner's own literal memories. And this book seemed to have even more of the backstory and even less of the personal anecdotes. I still laughed out loud at the practical joke Shatner plays on DeForest Kelley during the filming of Star Trek VI, though, when he keeps taking the muffins from the toaster so that nothing pops up.

I have to say that I haven't read a lot of books about the making of specific movies that went into as much detail as this one, or had the freedom to be so honest/critical, so I don't know if the constant dramas and struggles every Star Trek film had to go through are normal in Hollywood or something unusual. Production troubles I understand--the desert is an uncomfortable place to work, it rains when you need sun, a crew person gets misplaced, a special effect turns out to be not so special. But the craziness involved when you're just trying to get the film greenlit, just trying to get it written! It would give anybody a nervous breakdown (and often did). I won't go through the whole timeline here--I couldn't remember it all anyway--but the stories that are told of backstabbing, deliberate miscommunication, power struggles... It's disheartening, yet also kind of exciting. To take just one outrageous example: The writing credits on Star Trek VI mention five different names, including Leonard Nimoy, the two guys who mainly wrote the script, and... two guys who shoehorned their way in after Writers' Guild arbitration, without having produced a single original idea of their own, to hear the story told here. They were pushed on the project by a Paramount executive who had a general contract with them and wanted it to look like they were earning their money--but the only thing they were doing was writing down every single idea discussed in their meetings with Nimoy and the real scriptwriters, without adding anything new or making any progress. But, this meant that they had dated notes from their desks containing the beginnings of a lot of the ideas that ended up in the movie. No one goes so far as to say they "stole" the ideas in this way, but all that paperwork--useless at the time for actual scripts--made it look later like they'd contributed a lot more than they really did, enough to get their names on the movie. And that wasn't even anything personal, that was just some people being crafty when the opportunity presented itself.

Leonard Nimoy certainly has a way of alienating (no pun intended) the people he's supposed to be sharing power with, it seems. Shatner calls him a very good friend and speaks highly of him, and he contributed a lot of material to the book; but there are at least three big-time players Nimoy manages to tick off to the point of shouting, crying, and quitting, not to mention all the executives higher up who didn't exactly keep him on the Christmas card list. The way it comes off here is that Nimoy is a man of strong opinions, strong vision, passion for his work--and for getting his fair share of the credit, and for maintaining his dignity and integrity. Obviously, in a world where you can basically play stenographer and get your name on a movie if you push for it, such an unyielding nature is not going to go over well. Not that I'm saying some things weren't perfectly well his own fault; it seemed like a lot of the time he had a fundamental difference of opinion with someone over something, and he couldn't make them see his POV and couldn't bring himself to give in to theirs. Like the story of Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek bloopers--apparently in the '70's Roddenberry was going around with some kind of traveling lecture about Star Trek, the highlight of which was a blooper reel from the series. He was doing this because he was broke and needed the money short-term, and because he was trying to drum up public interest in the show to clamor for its return as another TV show or even a movie, which would be a long-term source of income for him as a lot of his other projects hadn't panned out. And of course people loved seeing the bloopers. Nimoy, however, being of a more serious mindset, thoroughly hated the idea of these things being shown in public, when at the time they had just been compiled as a holiday party treat for the cast and crew, never to be seen again after that. Nimoy really felt like these outtakes, being shown as they were without the participants' knowledge or permission, could actually hinder an actor's performance on the set. If they felt like every move or line they did on film was fair game to be laughed at and mocked by the public at large, it would make the actors much less likely to be creative, to try new things for fear of failing and creating another scene for the blooper reel. And Roddenberry, it seemed, simply couldn't understand that feeling, no matter how many letters Nimoy wrote him about it--Roddenberry seemed to think Nimoy was just mad he wasn't getting a cut of the money and offered to send him a copy of the blooper reel so he could do his own showings. I have to admit Nimoy comes off as a little self-serious on this issue; but I think the difference is, blooper reels are all over DVD extras and YouTube and TV specials now, but in the '60's and '70's it wasn't common, wasn't expected for outsiders to see them. It's just a matter of how things were set up from the beginning, and back then these things weren't shown like that. And obviously they didn't have a lot of legal protection covering that kind of thing either back then. (I recently heard a TV actor mention that the latest blooper reels had been sent to the cast "for approval"--so nowadays you can presumably strike down a scene if you think it makes you look too stupid or something like that.) So these two guys basically had an unbridgeable philosophical divide.

I don't think this was what caused the final break between Nimoy and Roddenberry, though, because Roddenberry was fairly involved with the first movie later on. But they had always clashed over things, usually when Nimoy felt Roddenberry was using the show or the characters for some kind of personal gain that cheapened the artistic integrity of the whole work. Then there were two other men that Nimoy at first worked well with, then began to clash with--Harve Bennett, who produced almost all of the movies but the first one (I think), and Nick Meyer, who directed Star Trek II and wrote IV and VI. The impression I got, from the different people telling their sides of the story, was that if Nimoy somehow came to feel you'd betrayed him--gone behind his back or something, lied to him, etc.--that was it, the trust was broken, no matter how long or how well you'd worked together in the past. And once the trust was broken, it wasn't really going to be repaired, especially not when the other person also had a strong, proud personality. Fortunately, as he grew older, Nimoy seemed to recognize this about himself and could at least laugh about it, even if he had no intention of changing it--"What fun to get angry. I handled it badly but I'm too old and too rich!" Which I thought was pretty funny.

The way Gene Roddenberry was treated by the studio was really kind of shameful, even if he did somewhat bring it on himself (and ultimately profited from the studio's activities anyway). Basically it made me think of someone's old, embarrassing great-aunt, who's nominally the matriarch of the family but whom no one really listens to, even though they might pretend to. After the first movie, which Roddenberry was heavily involved with, turned out to be so dull (although I think it did well enough at the box office), he was kind of "kicked upstairs" by the studio, taken out of any position of real power. Every draft of every script went to Roddenberry at the same time it went to the studio, but Roddernberry's notes and memos were frequently just tossed upon receipt, with no attention paid to them. Of course, the ideas in the notes and memos were becoming increasingly far-fetched and unrealistic, and not in line with what other key players felt Star Trek was about. Roddenberry would try to make the 23rd century a utopia, with no violence, no prejudice, no anger... no drama, nothing to have a plot about. And of course violence and prejudice and anger had been in the original show. Plus he had this bizarre idea that he pushed for every single movie after the first, where the Enterprise goes back to the 1960's to try and stop Kennedy's assassination. Which of course they can't do, because that would change history, so we kind of know how it has to end. And, he wasn't making any friends with the executives and creatives who were really charge, with his guerilla efforts to sabotage and criticize the films that were getting made. For example, he was almost certainly the person who leaked the news of Spock's death in Star Trek II to the public, when this was supposed to be a closely-guarded secret plot point. Roddenberry didn't like this plot, so he led the public to deluge the studio with "Don't kill Spock!" letters. You can imagine how thrilled the writers and producers and directors were about this, because they hadn't dreamed it up as a gimmick (although it does seem to have been originally conceived as the lure to get Nimoy in the movie), they weren't going to do it cheaply or flippantly, they were trying hard to make it moving and meaningful. Ironically, Roddenberry spillings this news probably made the film better, because in response the makers decided to have Spock "die" in the first scene, then reveal this as just a cadet simulation. With everyone lulled into a false sense of security, the (more) real death at the end would be all the more shocking. Of course at first he was really going to stay dead, but the combination of a pleasant shoot and somber test audience reaction made everyone involved change their minds. But anyway, by the end Roddenberry was kind of this pathetic, desperate, terribly insecure figure, who ranted and raved and wielded what scant power he had over the public and the press, because he had none with the people who actually made the movies. A lot of people ended up not liking him, I think because he seemed to automatically see anyone who was working on a movie as an "enemy" if they questioned anything he wanted to do.

So what happened with Shatner's directorial masterpiece, Star Trek V, you ask? Well, Shatner maintains it was mostly done in by budget cuts. Most of the original Star Trek movies were done on ridiculously small budgets, even considering the absurdly inflated budgets of films these days, and Shatner's Lawrence of Arabia-style epic gradually gave way under the nose of the bean-counters, turning his desert hordes into just a handful and his special effects-filled explosive finale into a reused blob of light chasing Kirk. His more experienced producer points out that first-time directors often want to "reinvent the wheel," biting off far more than they can chew--so even if the budget had been there, he still might've tried to rein in Shatner's epic ambitions. And I have to say, when I listed what I thought was wrong with Star Trek V (see my review here), I never included "cheesy special effects" or "sets look empty." Mostly I felt the dialogue was rushed and there were some ludicrous plot points. Shatner also blamed his own compromises for allowing certain aspects of his original idea to get lost--the alien at the center of the galaxy was really supposed to be the actual Devil, posing as God... um, how did you propose mere mortals were going to "beat" him, then? Join hands and sing "Kum Ba Yah"? Also, same problem with looking for God--it's kind of silly to say the Devil literally has his own planet, especially one he needs a starship to leave. Shatner also wanted Spock and McCoy to temporarily side with Sybok against Kirk, giving dramatic tension between the three of them for a large part of the movie. And, the idea of Spock "betraying" Kirk by refusing to fire on Sybok came first, later followed by the "brother" rationale, which he at first worried was too soap opera-y (I think he was right to worry). Maybe if the special effects had been truly spectacular, it would have distracted from the limpness of much of the dialogue and indeed given allegedly exciting scenes more oomph, but that's not necessarily making the movie better. The producer does make a good point about the movie's relatively lackluster box office performance, which is that it came out amid a sea of other potential blockbusters and thus spent less time in the theaters, and that by this point The Next Generation had come on TV and been doing well, so that Trekkers weren't being starved for once.

One last thing. The book includes the filming of Generations and Shatner's angst over Kirk's death scene, which was probably the most narcissistic part of the book. But then again, for a memoir this book has been much less narcissistic that normal, much more about other people and events, so why not spend a few pages talking entertainingly about the last moments of his filmed Star Trek career? I thought it was rather well-done, really, especially the part where he reminds us that Kirk is not some two-dimensional hero figure from an old TV show to him; when he thinks of Kirk he thinks of all the experiences he, William Shatner, had while playing him, over the course of twenty-five years, and all that Kirk and Star Trek have meant to him personally and professionally. So I thought that was good, to point out to us non-actors that his reluctance didn't have to do with vanity or shallowness or just some drama queen need for attention--it was the end of a long series of emotions and experiences, and he thought long and hard about how to make it worthy of what it had meant to him. I haven't watched Generations in a while so I can't tell you if I think he pulled it off, but hopefully I will at least appreciate it more next time I watch it.

There's a lot more I could say about the book--I forgot the hilarious opening story where Shatner, mid-TV-show run, is the guest of honor at a NASA engineer party kicking off one year to the walk on the moon, meeting Neil Armstrong and touring the spacecraft that will be used, and signing a model Enterprise the engineers have built... which breaks when they take it back, leaving the astronauts silently praying their construction skills are a little more advanced on the real thing. But at any rate, I found this book to be quite enjoyable, although somewhat exhausting when the tangled threads of production dramas are laid out so thoroughly. Definitely a good read for someone contemplating a life behind the camera.

Star Trek Movie Memories at Amazon.com


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