Chaos On The Bridge: a Star Trek:TNG documentary review

Chaos On The Bridge is a documentary currently available streaming on Netflix as I’m typing this. Written, directed and narrated by William Shatner, the original Captain Kirk, this hour-long documentary is about the turbulent first years of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Documentaries don’t fill much of my viewing time in my on-going pursuit of entertainment, but this one is different. It was recommended to me by Matt Mira and Andrew Secunda on their excellent podcast Star Trek: The Next Conversation. The subject matter was also a plus, as was the fact that the man conducting interviews and doing much of the narration was William Shatner. I love his voice.

Shatner, who had nothing at all to do with the original Star Trek‘s successor—at least until that one movie in which he died and passed the mantle on to Patrick Stewart—seems to be experiencing a bit of Schadenfreude as he discusses the turmoil of TNG’s beginnings. Around the time that Next Gen was beginning, it was widely known that both Shatner and Leonard Nimoy weren’t in favor of a television show about a new Enterprise with a new crew. By the way, I wasn’t in favor of it either. In fact, I personally boycotted the first three seasons and missed the opportunity to buy some of the original Galoob toys that came out, even though I worked in a store that sold them. Shatner, Nimoy and I all eventually came around when we realized that the new show was good for the Trek universe overall. And the show eventually became watchable.

Having just recently re-watched the first season of TNG, I don’t mind telling you that it was difficult to sit through. After seeing this documentary, I’m not surprised. In fact, it’s more surprising that the series stayed on the air at all.

There’s a lot about Gene Roddenberry in this, of course. Between the time of the original series and the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Roddenberry hadn’t had much success in Hollywood. None of his subsequent projects managed to make more than a ripple in the entertainment world. Even the animated series, featuring the voices of most of the original actors, only managed to last a season-and-a-half. According to the documentary, he and his wife Majel were primarily making money by hitting the convention circuit and selling photos and memoribilia. The motion picture turned things around somewhat for Roddenberry, but he was kept on mostly for the value of his name alone.

Since Paramount owned the rights to the Star Trek franchise, they were going to create a new series even without Roddenberry, although they wanted him on board to give the project more legitimacy. Roddenberry agreed to join the new venture for a lot of money and creative control. He was not in good health, even then, and was known to drink heavily and use recreational drugs, including cocaine. He had always been a larger-than-life character, a blustery Texan who seemed to relish clashing with the network suits. But, his antics seemed to be dooming Next Gen from the outset, and few people, it seems, expected it to last more than a season.

During the first three seasons, TNG went through many writers—some sources say at least 24 writers—about triple the attrition rate of most shows. Roddenberry was firm on his dictim prohibiting conflict between the crewmembers of the Enterprise, even though that was often a staple of the original series. Several writers mentioned that this made it difficult to create dramatic tension in the stories. A devout humanist, Roddenberry also forbade talk about religion on the show, even though his own work heavily featured beings with godlike powers.

He is credited with the wraparound plot of the pilot episode that featured one such godlike being, Q, played by John de Lancie. Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana, a verteran Trek writer, had written the mystery portion of the pilot episode, centered around Farpoint station. When forced to create a 2-hour pilot, Roddenberry added the Q segments. According to several people in the documentary, Gene tried to steal writing credit away from Fontana for the entire episode. Fontana seemed to downplay this, but did admit that the matter had to go to arbitration with the Writer’s Guild and both eventually ended up sharing credit.

In spite of his reputation as a visionary, Roddenberry could not originally see a bald Englishman as his new Captain Kirk. Other actors in the running for Jean-Luc Picard included Mitch Ryan (who would later memorably play Will Riker’s father), Roy Thinnes, and Yaphet Kotto. Roddenberry eventually changed his mind about Patrick Stewart, after having the Englishman do one audition while wearing a toupee. He said they would ditch the hairpiece, and that hair doesn’t mean anything in the 25th Century anyway.

The behind-the-scenes drama wasn’t limited to production strife or the revolving door in the writer’s room. Roddenberry’s lawyer, Leonard Maizlish, began acting as a buffer for the Great Bird of the Galaxy as Gene continued to suffer a series of mini-strokes and was in ever-declining health. He began to give notes to writers on their scripts, and is reported to have snooped through people’s offices and desks. It seems that the lawyer was universally hated. Writer David Gerrold admitted that he had considered pushing him out a window on at least one occasion.

During this same time people were getting fired left and right, Roddenberry was using his lawyer to be the bad guy so he could continue to be the good guy, and people like writer Maurice Hurley were hired and immediately promoted over the heads of veterans such as D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold. Hurley had a background in cop shows and drama, and, even in his interviews, seemed to have little respect for Gene’s ideas about Star Trek. He called the ideas “wacky doodle.” Hurley also began to clash with Roddenberry, even though he saw himself as being the protector of Roddenberry’s vision for the show. Other staffers mentioned that there was an excess of office politics and power grabs during this time, and it was a very difficult environment to work in. Roddenberry continued to throw production into turmoil with last-minute script changes and other shenanigans up until the time he and Majel left suddenly for Tahiti, leaving Hurley and Rick Berman in charge.

The actors were also unhappy during this time. It was a low-budget show and they certainly were made to feel like unwanted stepchildren. Denise Crosby says she was reduced to stealing food from the Cheers set. Jonathan Frakes’s trailer didn’t have air conditioning and Sir Patrick’s didn’t have a bathroom. The horror.

Denise Crosby’s departure during the middle of the first season was offered as one example of the trouble behind-the-scenes of the show. I thought that was a good move for the series, myself.

Hurley, who seems more than a little wacky-doodle himself, was not kept on after the first season. He spins this as a mutually beneficial decision, but it sounds like he was fired. In spite of the fact that he added to the turmoil of the show, I have to give Hurley credit for inventing the Borg before he left.

A writer’s strike at the end of season one threatened to end the series once and for all. It began production again very late the next year. In the interim, Gates McFadden, who played Dr. Beverly Crusher, was replaced with a new doctor played by Diana Muldaur. Muldaur has a few unkind things to say about the series in the documentary. She never really gelled with the cast, and she wasn’t sorry to leave after only one season. I am currently watching the second season of TNG. I appreciate her performance as Dr. Pulaski much more this time around, but I was also glad to have McFadden back as Crusher in the third season. McFadden says she was temporarily ousted because she came from a live theater background where speaking your mind was expected, which isn’t apparently true on television shows.

According to some of the other actors, notably Jonathan Frakes, Patrick Stewart—not yet a “Sir” in those days—took things a lot more seriously than the American actors did. This apparent stuffiness informed his interpretation of Picard as well, I think. And favorably. Picard always seems more businesslike and formal than everyone else in the room, and maybe that’s because Stewart was as well. There is an anecdote that Stewart tells about himself in which he walked off the set because Good Morning America was doing a segment in which their weatherman was dressed in “his” uniform, something that Stewart viewed as unconscionable.

Michael Piller came on board the series after Hurley’s departure. Writer Ronald D. Moore—who went on to create the Battlestar Galactica reboot—credits Piller with re-focusing the writer’s room, making the stories more about the characters than the hardware. As Gene Roddenberry’s health phased him out of day-to-day operations, Rick Berman replaced him. Together, Berman and Piller helped correct the course of the franchise, eventually leading to other spinoffs which were also successful.

Gene Roddenberry passing away in October 1991 was a sad day for Trek fans, of course, but the removal of his involvement in the franchise was a positive thing ultimately. I know it’s become popular to bash franchise creators such as Roddenberry or George Lucas, but the facts are pretty clear. The less involvement Roddenberry had in the Star Trek universe, the more successful it grew. This documentary doesn’t explicitly state this. That’s all me. But, I believe it to be true.

If you’re interested in television production in general, or in Star Trek: TNG in particular, I think you would enjoy this documentary as I did.

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