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 Voyages, Creating the Next Generation: The Conception and Creation of a Phenomenon, and a personal favorite, Trek 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.
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.