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INTERVIEW: Producer of New History Channel Documentary Talks “50 Years Of Star Trek”

This Sunday at 8:00 p.m. ET (7:00 p.m CT), The History Channel is premiering a brand new documentary called 50 Years of Star Trek, which will include the last ever interview conducted with Leonard Nimoy. Since there have already been countless documentaries already made about the franchise, we got on a call with executive producer Brian Volk-Weiss to get the inside scoop on what makes this one different.

The first thing he told us is that he and director Ian Roumain, who’ve worked together many times before, are both huge Star Trek fans. They were working together on another project in 2012 when they realized that they were a few short years away from Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, and wanted to do something about it.  They didn’t let it bother them that they weren’t actually professional documentary makers; they let their love of Trek—and their access to cameras, edit bays, and various friends in the business who could connect them with the right people—lead the way.

The pair sat down with Leonard Nimoy for what would be his final interview, and before the camera started rolling, Nimoy took a few minutes to finish up something he was doing on his iPhone. When he was done, he put it down and said to Volk-Weiss, “I remember when these were props.”

“That was,” Volk-Weiss said, “to be honest with you, as a fellow Trekkie, probably one of the greatest moments in my entire life.”

This is why you can trust that the he and Roumain love their subject matter the same way we do. Their challenge in making a documentary like this was to do it in a way that would appeal to longtime, hardcore fans who’ve already seen all the other docs and read all the books, but keep people who were fairly new to the franchise interested at the same time. He told stories so well that we’re going to let him speak for himself on the topics we covered.

ON WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS DOCUMENTARY VS. OTHERS
“I ain’t never seen a documentary with Sarah Silverman in it,” said Volk-Weiss. “Off the top of my head, I don’t know if I’ve seen one with Christopher Lloyd in it. That being said, I sure as hell have not seen one that had both of ‘em.

“There’s been a lot of Star Trek documentaries, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen ‘em all, maybe I haven’t, and some of them I saw a decade ago, but basically, from the beginning, we were backing into the 50th anniversary. That’s what makes this doc different. From day one it was designed to be about the 50 year anniversary of Star Trek.

“Because Ian and I were fans, and because we had seen so many documentaries, and because we had read so many books, every interview we pushed everybody really hard to say stuff they had never said before.

“Like when we were with Leonard Nimoy, we only had about 90 minutes with him, he said a lot of things, God bless him, that we’ve seen in every documentary in a billion interviews, but every now and then, he’d say a little thing I knew at least to my own knowledge had not been said before. And then we would follow up on that aggressively, and try and get him to talk more.

“So one of the things he said that I didn’t know, for example, was that he was offered to direct Generations. I didn’t know that. And he turned it down. Jeri Ryan saying that she was offered a role in Nemesis, they were going to write out one of the regulars to put her in. I never heard that before.

“Ike Eisenmann said a lot of stuff that was way worse [than what made the final version], that we for a variety of reasons took out, but because we know what had been said, we worked hard to get stuff that had never been discussed.”

ON WHAT EISNENMANN SAID THAT WAS CUT
“He told a really really bad story.  I’m not even trying to be diplomatic… he didn’t say who was involved, but he told a pretty wacky story about Kirstie Alley having a rough day, and he had to uh, go into her trailer and help.

“Don’t forget, Kirstie Alley got to L.A. about six weeks before she was on set. Ike was in sort of a similar position. So they really bonded on how new they were, so she had a rough day with a cast member, he did not say who, so he was in her trailer consoling her during a rough patch. That was probably one of the more interesting things we left out.”

ON WHAT HE WISHED THEY COULD HAVE DONE
“If it were up to me, we would’ve done a 3-hour documentary, and the first hour of this one would’ve been all about Lucille Ball.  We didn’t have enough time for it, but other than Gene Roddenberry, nobody deserves credit the way Lucille Ball does. I don’t think people understand what Lucille Ball did. And not just for Star Trek, but also for TV history. She literally invented the re-run. If there’s any regret I have about the doc, is that we were not able to dedicate a lot more time to her.”

ON MAKING A DOC FOR FANS AND NON-FANS ALIKE
“We walked a very fine line with the movie. Because my wife is not a Trekkie, to put it mildly, she loves to make fun of me that there are bad guys called Cardassians. There’s probably nothing in life she finds funnier than that.  So we were walking this real fine line, as was History [Channel] with all of their notes, which were great, which was: Is this movie for me? Or is this movie for my wife? Or is this movie for somebody in between the two of us?

“There was stuff we took out that would’ve been great for you and me, but my wife would’ve been like, ‘Who cares?’ One of our assistant editors, I asked her, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your Star Trek interest?’ She said she was a zero. And she’s been working on the movie, putting the whole thing together, and she said she found it absolutely fascinating. Hopefully we hit both sides of the equation.”

FAVORITE MOMENTS
“One of my favorite moments? When Bobak Ferdowski, NASA’s ‘Mohawk Guy’, said Insurrection is his favorite Star Trek movie. That is quite possibly the strangest most bizarre and insane thing ever said in the history of Star Trek I wanted to literally cut to a card that said WTF with a question mark, and then cut back, but luckily that was vetoed by Ian and many other people.

“We interviewed D.C. Fontana. I just have to say, out of all the people that I met, she is one that I was almost tongue-tied around. I’ve literally been reading about her since I was ten years old. I met William Shatner two years ago on something else. And I was completely normal and fine to talk to him. But for some reason, it was just super crazy meeting her.  Some would argue her DNA was as relevant as Roddenberry’s.”

ABOUT THE PHOTOS USED
“Essentially, it was similar to what I was saying about how we were always aggressively trying to get new answers to questions. We know the pictures that have been out there. Ian and I, we’ve been fans for 30 years, we would go through a hundred thousand million pictures, and all of ‘em we had seen, until we would come to one that we hadn’t, and that’s the one we would pick.

“The movie was made by fans, so we knew to discard what had been done. Whereas if we were just hired to make the movie, you would take the prettiest picture, or the most relevant picture.”

Gene Roddenberry

ABOUT THE STEPHEN E. WHITFIELD BOOK ‘THE MAKING OF STAR TREK’
“The only reason I’m not a lawyer or a dentist living in Queens is because of that book and one other book about the making of Star Wars. I probably read it when I was 11 or 12, and that book is what allowed me to understand the business of show business. And I found the business of it very exciting.

“And by the way, I’m a TV producer; there is stuff in that book that is absolutely going on today. I would say 45% of that book is still relevant today.  I have a copy of every single edition of that book.”

ANY FINAL WORDS YOU WANT TO SAY TO FANS?
“Some of the press has been coming about the doc, and of course, I’ve been reading the comments section. A lot of the comments are saying ‘Why would I watch this documentary, it’s all been out there before?’ And I just want everybody to know that yes, of course there will be stuff in there you’ve heard before. But I would say at least 45-55% of the movie is brand new information and for any Star Trek fan, even if it’s – the Shatner doc about the making of the first season of Next Generation? – I knew 85% of that information, but the 15% of that doc that I didn’t know Yaphet Kotto was up for Picard. So that nugget alone was worth watching that documentary.

“So I just want the fans to know there’s a lot of new information in this documentary and they should give it a chance. We were very aware of this issue, and I really think we worked very hard to make sure that if you’re the biggest Trekkie that ever lived, you’ll enjoy this doc and you’ll learn new stuff.”

There’s more, but check it out for yourself. The doc premieres this Sunday on The History Channel. Check out a clip below:

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It is so, so bittersweet to see Mr. Nimoy and hear that wonderful voice. Does anyone know when this was fimed? I’ve read comments from his son to the effect that his decline was sudden. On Piers Morgan, for example, I had the impression Nimoy could live in relative comfort for a few more years.

One of the things I respect most about Nimoy is that he virtually always sought to make intellectually honest art out of any piece of work before him. He was able to make you believe the make-believe without sinking into self-referential parody.

Looking forward to this documentary.

Even after all this time, it still seems unfair that illness has removed that wonderful voice from the world. Some of the Star Trek cast were great actors but not necessarily great people; everything I’ve heard about Mr. Nimoy says that he was not just a great actor and also a great human being. We were so very blessed to have him.

I, too look forward to this documentary. Made a reminder in my calendar to watch it. surprised there’s only two comments so far. Still missing LN.

Looks good. Definitely gonna have to see this one.

Eisenman had been in L.A. for the better part of a decade by the time he did TWOK (right before ST2 there was THE FORMULA with George C Scott and back in 76, there was the series THE FANTASTIC JOURNEY (an el-cheapo that instead of building a new zap gun prop, just used the same TV remote control we had at home, the Zenith Space Command 600.) So if he bonded with Alley, it wasn’t over being new in town.

The Jeri Ryan thing semi-confirms what I often thought, because it wouldn’t have made sense for her character to deliver Picard his orders, and yet everybody knew she had been approached to appear in NEM way before the Janeway cameo was added.

Kinda wish I had history channel.

I don’t get the History channel — I don’t have cable at all — and I’m wondering how I can watch this (legally). Can I buy a single show from History, the way one can from iTunes? Will discs of it be sold? I’d love to see the whole thing, but especially Mr. Nimoy’s last interview and the interview with Dorothy Fontana.

I know they have an app, and they often put shows on their site — maybe it’ll be one you don’t have to log in for.

Kenny Baker has passed away.. another big name this year.. very sad. I’m still young but it makes one think about ones mortality for sure.

I don’t know if its just me or what but if you’re making a 50th Anniversary of something, do you necessarily have to worry about time constraints? You’ve got 50 years! So if you’ wanted that 1 hour about Lucille Ball and that information is interesting and relevant and can sustain viewer interest, then the whole documentary should have been something longer and more of a series, maybe? Otherwise, people involved in Trek will be dead and gone. The principals aren’t getting any younger. Or, do that extended edition when it comes to the DVD release.

I was wondering the same thing. If these guys want to spend time on making it, documentaries are fairly cheap, and wish (not having seen it yet of course) this has been a 2-3 nights of 2 hour parts. You could have done 2-3 hours on TOS, 1-2 hours on the TOS movies, and 2-3 hours on what has happened since.

The Nimoy Generations thing I had heard before. Likewise, pretty much had heard the Ryan thing, but not that it would have removed a regular. That seems strange, especially since Stewart and Spiner had a lot of control with that movie… who would they approve would be cut? Maybe Worf – which his inclusion was always a little rocky in the TNG stuff. Given that Spiner got Wil Wheaton IN the movie, it just seems strange that Spiner & Stewart (and Logan) would be ok with cutting one of the primary cast.

Nimoy’s hair looks like shatners toupee in the original trek complete with the “swoosh” of hair at the forehead.

I’m on History channel, but it seems the don’t show it in Canada. Not fair

Does anyone know when reruns of this will be aired

why No William Shatner on the documentary?

My question exactly. It felt very incomplete without him.

He’s going to be part of For the Love of Spock, and I am hoping that will be a bit better.

I think my favorite person to hear from these days is Walter Koenig. This was insightful last night, and when he was on Raw Nerve, it was also very good.

These guys could have done an hour on Lucille Ball? They barely touched on her as it was.

Would love to see a 4 night event based on These Are The Voyages and the Making of Star Trek.

They wouldn’t pay him what he wanted.

Was actually let down by that. The Nimoy bits were good as were some of the other interviews but overall that just pretty meh. I’m a Trekkie so I watched it all the way through but I’ve seen better bts features on some of the series and movie blurays

I would have rather seen a 50th anniversary celebration and comprehensive look at the original series, it’s rocky creation with an unprecendted 2 pilot episodes, behind-the-scenes unsung heros…like Gene Coon and the like, it’s constant struggle to fight cancelation, staying alive with the help of fans and ultimately, it’s refusal to die….then end with it’s affect on pop culture and real science (as this documentary did very well). Instead we looked at 50 years OF Star Trek, the original series and orignal cast getting about 20 minutes coverage in the first hour. A well done documentary, just not the historical special I wanted to commemorate and document the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the original series.

I watched 10 minutes. It sucked.

Watch the Netflix show on how the series was born. Much better than this was.

The History Channel is not what it once was. Now it’s reality show garbage.

I agree, the History Channel is very much a throwaway channel now, but I thought the documentary was pretty decent. Lots of insight from people we haven’t heard from in a while, although Shatner missing left a big hole in it.
I enjoyed it, though. Certainly better than nothing.

I really enjoyed the show. Couple things I missed….

Actual Star Trek music (why it wasn’t in there is baffling to me)
The ending was cut short? …. Riker speaking them boom, it’s over.

I didn’t know how much Lucile Ball really meant to trek. Wow, if it weren’t for her, we just might not have it.

I think they could have easily made it 3 hours, maybe spoke to more of the actors from all the shows a little more. No Shatner at all?

Silverman? Really?

Like I saw, I enjoyed it and probably will buy it for my collection, but I REALLY missed trek music.

Trying to find the author who talked during the special. I cannot find it. I remember seeing it. One of the people who talked about the show

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