Book review–The strange tell-all tales of The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years

Review by C.J. Bunce

Many products oversell themselves with some flavor of marketing puffery, they claim to be better than they ultimately are, or give consumers only the best content in the previews.  That’s not the case with Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross’s second chapter in their two-volume chronicle The Fifty-Year Mission, The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J.J. Abrams, The Complete Uncensored Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek (I’ll shorten that hefty title to The Next 25 Years for this review).  With the first volume–The First 25 Years–coming in at 577 pages, it probably evens out that this second volume is a lengthy 864 pages considering all it needed to cover (everything from Next Generation onward).  Key words to note in that long title are unauthorized, meaning CBS and Paramount didn’t publish this (like the These Are the Voyages trilogy of books from Marc Cushman), complete meaning once you’re finished there is no possible way there is anything left to say about the production of the Star Trek TV shows and films, uncensored meaning Hollywood creators you may have idolized when beginning the book show a side of their personalities that remove the magic, awe, and spark you felt about them.  And oral as in stories passed down via the oral tradition, because The Next 25 Years features stories being told by hundreds of players (and a few non-players) via a loose outline broken down within topics Star Trek: The Next Generation, followed by the TNG movies, followed by Deep Space Nine, then Voyager, then Enterprise, stop-start show ideas, and then a too-brief section on the J.J. Abrams’ produced movies.

As for the “oral,” The Next 25 Years feels only a bit like what a historian may document as an oral history in that it consists nearly entirely of quotes from those who made these productions with only the barest of context added to try to keep the reader (and contributors) on-topic.  The Next 25 Years was published in 2016, so it includes contributions from those alive at the time the book was written, but also shuffles in comments of those creators who died long before, as if they were speaking along with the living contributors.  Neither is this a work of journalism or scholarly creation, because absent citation references–as Cushman used quite well as an integral part of his trilogy–it’s difficult for anyone to use the book as a reliable reference.  “When did Gene Roddenberry say this?”  “When did David Gerrold say that?”  Even more confusing, it’s obvious that the compilers of these quoted statements showed certain statements to others and allowed them to comment and respond.  When was this allowed, and when wasn’t it allowed?  Readers just don’t know, because the compilers of these statements don’t provide context.  Was Rick Berman given an opportunity to rebut this disparaging comment?  Did Michael Piller, who passed away in 2005, get the opportunity to ever respond to such statements?  Did he even know these people thought these things about him?  Timing matters so much in communication and memory, yet it’s missing here.  Around 2006 I read Piller’s unpublished (later on-demand released) manuscript about the making of Star Trek: Insurrection–it doesn’t make those associated with the production look very good, which is likely why publication of that book was originally cancelled by the studio.  The Next 25 Years will provide a similar vibe for franchise fans reflecting the memories (good or bad) of Star Trek’s execs, writers, and actors.

Those who have read every magazine and book on Star Trek over the years already know most of the gossip found here from a 30,000 foot view.  The Next 25 Years is a “tell-all” book.  What may be different is you get the details from multiple sources and in more detail than a passing fan would probably care to read.  It’s one thing to read a tell-all article in a magazine, and quite another to read all the tell-all tales of a subject of this massive scope over 864 pages.  But don’t walk away–there are some good nuggets along the journey.  Like some detail on the several attempts to make spin-off series that failed after Enterprise, F. Murray Abraham’s view of making Star Trek: Insurrection, Kate Mulgrew’s approach to Captain Janeway, and how Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Brannon Braga, and others cyclically stepped into Gene Roddenberry’s shoes initially with new ideas, but ultimately came back to his approach.  So diehards will want to read it simply for their niche fandom area of the franchise.  Actor/director Jonathan Frakes, for example, never appears in the book as anything but professional, positive, and contemplative about the past.  Gene Roddenberry’s son Rod is similarly diplomatic despite all of the negative statements lobbed against his family members.  Others reveal their flawed humanity for all to see, the colloquial “airing the dirty laundry” comes to mind.  Just keep in mind that other saying: “Don’t believe everything you read.”

The book may also illustrate that those key people interviewed think Hollywood is the only industry that struggles with peers having uncontrollable egos, office politics, budgets, fear of job loss, creative obstacles, people in the workplace with uncertain motivations, roadblocks, people with influence and bad ideas, uncertain outcomes, not knowing what each new workday will bring, and endless tears and triumphs.  Every rant, bad apple, and misfire in this book is what most people encounter in any job or career.  Maybe one of the only differences between The Next 25 Years and any other business is the TV and movie business is about making people happy, and because of the positive nature of this fictional universe one might think the optimistic future portrayed in front of the screen might somehow reflect how it was behind the screen.  Sorry, but no.  Altman and Gross remove any shade of doubt that the business behind these shows was no different than the daily grind everywhere else.

The result is you may find yourself slogging through all 864 pages waiting to learn how the magic happened, but what you really learn is the magic that fans already know did happen happened, but it happened despite intransigent studio execs and writers fumbling seemingly non-stop.  Somehow it (usually) came together to give viewers something they have loved for 50 years.  The tricks behind the magic are never really revealed.  One of the best components for fans of the effects behind Star Trek is what is absent: except for a few positive comments by Doug Drexler, the visually creative folks on the side of production stayed away, those like Rick Sternbach, John Eaves, Michael Okuda, and Michael Westmore.  So their images remain unmarred.

Until Marc Cushman takes on the later Star Trek series and movies as he’s done with Star Trek: The Original Series in his These Are the Voyages books, or until CBS or Paramount put out their own definitive or more scholarly account, The Next 25 Years is indeed, the complete, uncensored, unauthorized, oral account of the production of these shows.  If you’re new to Star Trek or haven’t read what came before, you’ll get caught up on a little of what you wanted to know and much of what you didn’t

The Next 25 Years is available at Amazon here.  The first volume of the series, devoted to the original series character productions, The First 25 Years, is available here, both from MacMillan Publishers.

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