INTERVIEW: Mark Altman and Ed Gross Talk ‘The Fifty-Year Mission’

We spoke with longtime Trek authors Mark Altman and Ed Gross about their ambitious two-volume oral history of the franchise, their hopes for Discovery, and more.

Altman and Gross have authored 8 Star Trek books together over the years, including Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek VoyagesCreating the Next Generation: The Conception and Creation of a Phenomenon, and a personal favoriteTrek Navigator: The Ultimate Guide to the Entire Trek Saga.

Their latest effort, “The Fifty-Year Mission”, is a two-volume set which tells the franchise’s story orally, with the subjects, ranging from Gene Roddenberry to JJ Abrams, speaking for themselves.  Volume One covers the first 25 years, starting with the creation of The Original Series and concluding with the release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  The second volume begins with the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation and concludes with the production of Star Trek Beyond.

We’ll have a review of Volume One in the next couple of days, but I’ll give you the short version now:  As someone who thought he knew everything there was to know about TOS and the movies, I was amazed at who Altman and Gross were able to talk to and the new information they were able to get.  The books have a very high “re-read” factor, much in the tradition of Bjo Trimble’s Star Trek Concordance, David Gerrold’s World Of Star Trek, and Larry Nemecek’s Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion.  They are well worth your time and hard-earned quatloos.  Information about where to order the books can be found at the conclusion of the interview.

TrekMovie: There have been many books written over the years about the history of the franchise, but only a few oral histories. Why did you choose this format?

Mark Altman: The oral history is a format that I really love. When Ed first approached me about doing this book, I said no. It wasn’t until after reading an oral history of MTV that the idea really locked in for me and I suggested we do the book as an oral history and that I think is a big part of the success of the books. It’s like being at a really remarkable dinner party where you’re a fly on the wall listening to all these remarkable people talk about the history of Star Trek. Also, the history of Star Trek is like Rashomon and the oral history format allows each person to articulate their own perceptions of an event without us, as authors, having to concretely come down on one side or the other. You can decide for yourself.

Ed Gross: If we were going to tell the history of Star Trek, the only thing that made sense was to tell it in a way that it had never been told before. And the beauty of this format really does make it feel like we gathered several hundred people in a room and had the longest conversation about Star Trek in history. It provides an immediacy that other formats wouldn’t.

TM:An oral history of a singular event can be difficult to put together.  How big a challenge was it cover something that spans half a century?

Mark: It was a hugely ambitious undertaking. Had Ed and I not been covering the franchise for 30 years, it would have been impossible, particularly in light of how many of the participants have passed away. Obviously, 50 years is a lot of ground to cover given that the book was originally pitched as one volume and expanded to two based on the wonderful material we were able to cull for the project and thanks to the indulgence and support of our wonderful editor at St. Martin’s.

Ed: Between the two books, there are over half a million words about Star Trek, primarily from the mouths of the people who were there over the past 50 years. That serves as a partial answer. The other thing is that in a sense these books are really like eight books put together: the original series, the ’70s, the TOS films, TNG, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise and the JJ Abrams films. By approaching it that way, it forced us to recognize that every incarnation of Star Trek is its own unique entity with a beginning, middle and end. That made it a challenge; but it was a challenge made considerably easier when we quickly realized that the interview subjects were as committed to getting the full story out there as we were.

TM: Were there things you were surprised to learn during your research?

Mark: I was shocked to know that Harve Bennett had been developing a spin off of Khan set on Ceti Alpha V called”Prison Planet” which I had known nothing about. I also found the history of the “Inside Star Trek” record album delightful knowing that Ed Naha, who produced it, was actually the A&R rep on Springsteen’s “Born to Run”, at the time and this was his side-project. What was most rewarding was it wasn’t the marquee value names who offered the most insight, but rather the many people who no one’s ever talked to previously for a book about the franchise’s history.

Ed: This is kind of a callback to the above answer in a way. I knew that each show was its own thing, but it wasn’t until we were doing the interviews and putting it all together that that became really clear to us. The other thing was that period of the 1970s. In volume one we delve into that time in a way that few others have, and it was amazing to see the building blocks that began with the fan-driven letter writing campaign to save the show in season two, continued with them watching reruns in massive numbers, putting together the first convention held in New York January 1972 and all the way through to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek really is the second most famous resurrection story.

TM: Gene Roddenberry was known for generally being soft-spoken.  The book includes excerpts from the infamous “Letter”, a note he wrote to the cast where he very bluntly takes Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley to task for their behavior on the set during the second season.  It shows an entirely different side of The Great Bird and is one of the standout moments of the book.  Were you surprised by the aggressive tone he took?

Mark: I was not. The feud is well known. I was surprised by how poetic the memo was. Uncovering the memo was one of the true triumphs of the book. It really gives you an uncensored look at the frustration and difficult relationship a showrunner has with his cast when they’re not “behaving.” As for Gene, although in interviews and at conventions, he came across as soft-spoken, the first time I ever met him was waiting to interview Robert Lewin in the Hart Building at Paramount and while I was waiting there, Gene Roddenberry suddenly burst in red-faced and screaming about something. What it was about, I have no idea now, but that was the first time I ever met Gene. Anyone who questions Gene’s abilities as a writer needs to read that letter. It’s quite impressive. I was so happy to pay tribute to not only Gene Roddenberry whose contribution to popular culture is unparalleled, but also the great Gene L. Coon, who never lived to take a bow and he deserves all the attention that has been lavished on him. Not just a remarkable writer, but a remarkable man.

Ed: I was doubly surprised, first by the strength of his words, and second by how it was all constructed. Here was the guy who created this show that was struggling to stay on the air, and here are the people bringing it to life that were threatening to tear it apart from within. You can only imagine how frustrated AND furious he must have been to sit down to pen this missive.

TM: Which of the books was harder to put together?

Mark: They were both difficult in their own way. Obviously, with the first book, a lot of the participants had passed away so we forced in some cases to rely on older interviews we had done and, in many cases, people’s memories were more unreliable. It was important for us to spotlight those 10 years between the end of TOS and the release of ST: TMP which are often a footnote in the history of Trek, but too us was a very fertile and fascinating time in the franchise and we go into a great deal of depth about “The God Thing,” “”Planet of the Titans” and”Phase II” among others.  And for book two, the J.J. Films were hard to cover given that not enough time has passed for people to be as candid about them and have a better perspective on them. But it was interesting to hear what people who worked on the series during the Berman years had to say about the Abrams era. But it was very important to us to do justice to Deep Space Nine which usually gets short shrift and may be the best Star Trek series of the bunch. And no one has really dealt with Enterprise in any kind of depth until now so that was an eye-opener. I’m so indebted to everyone for their honesty. Brannon did a remarkable job under very difficult circumstances and had some really talented group of people who really worked hard to make its omething special, but they had so many obstacles to overcome including a network that didn’t understand Star Trek at all.

Ed: I would say book two. Whereas book one was fairly linear – original series to ’70s to movies – volume two was made more complex by the fact that we were covering so many different shows, and interweaving the views of people involved with them. But while it was harder, the end results were genuinely satisfying.

TM: The next 50 years begins in January when Star Trek will make it’s long-awaited return to television with the premiere of Star Trek Discovery.  What are your hopes for the new show?

Mark: I could not be more excited for the new series. The franchise is in wonderful hands with Bryan Fuller who is not only a fan, but a tremendous talent who puts an indelible visual signature on everything he does. I was so delighted to see the homage to the Ralph McQuarrie designs for “Planet of the Titans” in the initial Discovery concept art. I feel Bryan understands the appeal and importance of Star Trek and will absolutely do it justice. To say I’m counting the days is an understatement.

Ed: I’m VERY hopeful about this show. I honestly believe that Bryan Fuller will embrace modern day storytelling while utilizing the tenets of Star Trek to serve as a prism on where we are in society. There are so many issues we’re facing today – not unlike the world the original series was introduced in – that need to be addressed. The other hope I have is that fans will remain open-minded about it until they’ve actually seen an episode. While there’s a lot of believers out there, there are also a lot of people who are dismissive of anything that doesn’t meet their criteria of Trek. Discovery deserves to be judged on its own merits beginning in January.

TM: What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

Mark: We have the new season of “The Librarians” debuting on TNT in November which I’m a co-executive producer on which is really exciting and I’m just starting work on my next book with Ed which will not be about Star Trek, believe it or not. We also recently did a staged reading called “The Voyage Home Live” of Star Trek IV at Mission New York which was remarkable. Mary Stuart Masterson played Captain Kirk, Damian Young as Mr. Spock, John Kim as Sulu, Terry Farrell as Saavik and many more. It was one of the most rewarding creative endeavors of my career. The idea was to do something in the vein of what Jason Reitman did at the Ace Theater with Princess Bride, Boogie Nights and Pulp Fiction and Empire Strikes Back and re-interpet a cinematic classic with a remarkable cast of theater and TV actors.

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I’ll also be presenting several of the Trek films with Roger Lay, Jr. at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles as part of a birthday tribute to Star Trek with some really remarkable special guests.  We’ll also be doing some great seminars at New York Comic Con Presents including our “Inside The Writers Room” panel from San Diego with a group of really talented writers, producers and filmmakers.

And, last but not least, I’m happy to be consulting on the re-launch of Geek Magazine. The website at geekexchange.com debuts September 1st and the magazine returns to newsstands early next year. All I can say, is I like to be busy.

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Mark Altman, now that’s a name that remind me of the 90s. I used to read his columns on Cinescape & Sci-Fi Universe magazines back in the mid to late 90s. In 2014 Altman wrote an excellent article titled ‘How To Turn Star Trek Into The Next Marvel Movie Universe’ about the future of Star Trek franchise, given the current problems with ‘Beyond’ box office performance, perhaps the folks at Paramount & CBS should take a hard look at his suggestions in that article as they map the road ahead for the franchise. Going over the article recently, the foreshadowing in the article are striking: “And even if the studio can find its own Kevin Feige (and, I for one, would love to see Rod Roddenberry involved as a consultant in this process as man who’s protective, but not slavish, to his family legacy), who’d be the showrunners tasked with making the new films and series? It’d be easy to offer up names like Ron Moore and Bryan Fuller, who could both do a remarkable job in the Trek trenches again unencumbered by their previous restraints and putting all they’ve learned in the intervening years to good use. But both are probably more Captain Kirks than Admiral Noguras — they’d want to be making the shows and not just overlording them. And I strongly suggest one or both of these television auteurs should get the helm of a Trek series. Hell, wouldn’t it even be fascinating to see the erudite… Read more »

Ahmed,

Re:the foreshadowing in the article are striking

I’ll say:

“Clearly, Bob Orci will have a prominent role in the new Trek order and as a fan and uber successful screenwriter and TV producer his contributions to the future of Trek are essential. While I would’ve said a few months ago that it’s time to take off the training wheels and let the new series continue without the participation of previous Trek stars, the prospect of Shatner and Nimoy re-uniting for the 50th anniversary is too thrilling a prospect to ignore and I certainly hope that they do a find a way to make it so.

So there you go. This is what should and, quite frankly, needs to happen. Much like the plot of many a great Star Trek episode, the Eminians and the Vendikans, um, I mean Paramount and CBS need to find a way to work together harmoniously. It’s a recipe for success, honoring the past, and insuring the future longevity of a beloved and important franchise for many decades to come. May your way be as pleasant.” — Mark A. Altman

And not just because I agreed with him to some extent, if not as enthusiastically certain, but hopeful that I could have been won over.

I suppose it’s time someone asked the question: Purely on the economics of it, do the Orci directing doubters still think he could have done worse?

@Disinvited,

Yeah, I didn’t say Altman was perfect lol

“Purely on the economics of it, do the Orci directing doubters still think he could have done worse?”

Yes, they could have ended up with another Josh Trank nightmare! You just don’t handle a $185 million movie to someone with ZERO experience in directing. And since he was out of ‘Beyond’ two years ago, the guy didn’t get any new projects as a writer or a first time director.

Ahmed,

Re:don’t handle a $185 million movie

Be fair. That’s what it escalated to after the fact because Paramount changed its mind. There was absolutely no way they were going to give Orci the same deal they gave a J. or a J.J. for that matter. They were looking to shave $20 million off of STID’s cost by relocating to Canada and I think Orci would have considered himself lucky if they gave him $120 million to do his film.

Josh Trank? You mean another bad company reshot edit?

The Orci film would have been perfectly all right. He’d have had Jeff Abrams producing, a good cinematographer behind him to interpret his ideas and deal with the day-to-day practicality of getting those ideas on screen (wasn’t Orci’s film going to be photographed by Claudio Miranda?) Michael Giacchino scoring and Orci already had plenty of experience on the writing side. I’m still wondering whether the next film having the same writers as the Orci film’s script doesn’t mean that material developed for that film won’t be cannibalised.

People are way too obsessed with auteur theory; studio filmmaking is way more collaborative and, in the case of the Orci film, I suspect, aesthetically, the film would have been broadly the same as the Abrams and Lin films.

@Disinvited,

The studio told Pegg that they expect a Star Trek movie to make as much money as The Avengers, so I don’t think that they would have given Orci a smaller budget.

Josh Trank the director of the 2015 ‘Fantastic Four’ movie was a walking talking nightmare. He directed a $12 million budget movie called ‘Chronicle’ that went on and grossed over a $127 million; afterward Fox hired him to direct ‘Fantastic Four’, a movie with $120 million budget. The guy couldn’t handle the stress of making a blockbuster; there were too much drama behind the scenes that caused the studio to step in. He was supposed to direct one of Star Wars stand-alone movies after he was done with FF but a producer on FF advised Lucasfilm to not hire him and he was dropped from that movie.

Not every rookie director will hit the ground running like Ridley Scott or Joss Whedon did with their first major studio movies.

Ahmed,

Re:The studio told Pegg that they expect a Star Trek movie to make as much money as The Avengers

Again, that was after the Paramount exec in charge of STAR TREK’s regime changed.

I suspect it occurred to the new guy that when he realized there wasn’t going to be the expected savings from reusing pre-existing sets as expected, the project’s budget would go over some level that no one at Paramount was prepared to gamble on Orci. Heck, Justin’s movie couldn’t even have saved costs reusing pre-existing CGI as he changed the ship’s design parameters.

It seemed very obvious to me that in initially going with Orci, Paramount was hoping for a movie with at least as close to the same take as STID but higher realized profits through production cost savings, but TERMINATOR:GENISYS failed to stop a downward financial spiral that had begun for them, and personnel and goals changed at the studio.

And you can’t equivalence Orci, with his intimate knowledge of most he’d be working with at Bad Robot and Paramount from his MI:III gig forward, to Trank, when they both would not even be in the same comfort zone in communicating to these normally intimidating types to a neophyte.

@Disinvited,

“Again, that was after the Paramount exec in charge of STAR TREK’s regime changed. ”

I don’t recall any changes in Paramount between hiring Orci, removing him and bringing in Lin and Pegg.

“And you can’t equivalence Orci, with his intimate knowledge of most he’d be working with at Bad Robot and Paramount from his MI:III gig forward, to Trank, when they both would not even be in the same comfort zone in communicating to these normally intimidating types to a neophyte.”

Well clearly something went seriously wrong since the studio intervened; changed the entire team in the middle of the production. Heck, even Lin characterize his hiring as a “rescue mission”. We won’t know for sure until someone published a tell-all book or an article about the production.

Ahmed,

Re:I don’t recall any changes in Paramount

Paramount’s upheaval started with WORLD WAR Z going over budget needing a Lindelof fix which led to Adam Goodman’s eventual ouster and took Marc Evans, K&O’s Paramount hands-off benefactor, off the Trek helming documented succinctly here:

http://deadline.com/2015/04/elizabeth-raposo-paramount-1201410905/

I recently read the 1st Volume and found it to be the Best “Star Trek” book…maybe of All Time and that’s really saying a lot. I’ve been a fan since the early 70’s and thought I had read everything. But this book was a true revelation. I loved how it put heavy emphasis on the 70’s and the years when there were no “Star Trek’s” but the show was truly at its height of popularity in the 70’s. The book does a wonderful job of showing different sides to Gene Roddenberry. At times it doesn’t really paint a pretty picture of him. But one conclusion that I arrived at in reading the book is that Gene Roddenberry, although many of the negative things his peers were saying about him were true, at least Gene Roddenberry LIVED his life. He was a War Hero. He was a Commercial Jet pilot. He was a cop in LA. He was a TV writer and later producer for a good 15-20 years. Gene Roddenberry was a man who did things and got things done. He used his intelligence and his life experiences to help his creative self. I think a lot of his younger peers who grew frustrated with him in the late 70’s and beyond during the Trek Movie era found themselves in a difficult place. He was the Master who had invented so much of the lore of our Trek mythology, but to put together a more commercial/successful piece of business like… Read more »

They comment on the faulty memories of the interviewees in the first book. Marc Cushman handled that problem in his ‘These Are the Voyages” volumes by juxtaposing the long-rehashed stories by the actors with actual documents from that time to bring clarity to what really had happened. The results were often eye-opening! Human memory is fragile and subjective. So to rely soley on the medium of interviews to tell the story of Star Trek is to ground it in poor methodology.

Thompson,

Yeah, but by presenting misinformation supposedly from those actual documents instead of simply reproducing the document contents, Cushman creates even more bad info.

And, worse from a journalistic point of view, he taints the whole process, since it seems the changes he makes in the record are done to fit HIS view of history, which is deliberate revisionism.

Either that or he is so seriously dyslexic that he needs somebody to be reading the same content over his shoulder to confirm that he isn’t screwing up when the tag of MIRROR MIRROR got shot or pulling Commodore Decker lives in one version of DOOMSDAY out of any bit of history that doesn’t involve a James Blish novelization..

Largely I agree (!!) with the main gist of your conclusion, but your whole support for same is completely for the (great) birds.

Cushman’s involvement in the Altman/Gross books is by itself enough to keep me from buying them. There are a couple of ART OF and MAKING OF BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA books coming out, maybe I’ll try those instead.

Didn’t know that Cushman was involved with this. How? Interestingly, several of the Amazon reviews mention numerous proofreading errors. ; )

First thing I heard about content on this book was when they ran an excerpt in SMITHSONIAN that featured Cushman’s remarks. Wiped out a lot of sure sales from startrekblogcheck-type folk right there.

Unfortunately, because of Cushman’s involvement, I will probably be skipping both of these books.
I am glad that I found out before I spent the money.

….I don’t own a piece of the book, but I can honestly tell you Cushman’s involvement is so minimalistic, it would be your loss not to read this wonderful volume I.

I am currently reading Star The Fifty Year Mission: The First 25 Years, an oral history by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross. Fascinating read, Captain. I still have a hard time discerning how much of a contribution Gene Roddenberry made to the collaborative process of producing the original series and cast films. Especially revealing is the memo from Roddenberry to Shatner, Nimoy, and Deforest Kelley taking them to task for their egos and the harm their behavior was causing the original series! Years later, Harold Livingston–the writer of STTMP–blasted Roddenberry for mucking up the movie’s production. Alan Dean Foster and Roddenberry appear to have gotten the short end of the stick on creation of the story, although it was derivative of “The Changeling” and “The Doomsday Machine” from the original show. Roddenberry was notorious for rewriting scripts from the original series on, yet I think the aired version of “City on the Edge of Forever” IS better than Harlan Ellison’s original script. Roddenberry alleged that Ellison’s script had Scotty selling drugs, as he said on-air on The Tomorrow Show hosted by Tom Snyder. That is untrue, but the drug dealing was part of the script, as done by another crewman. To be fair, Ellison’s original script could have been an outstanding filmed episode, as well. And Star Trek introduced the Venus drugs as pushed by Harry Mudd in the episode, “Mudd’s Women” so drug dealing and space prostitution are not that far out! Gene Coon may have created many… Read more »
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