Interview: Brian Volk-Weiss On How ‘The Center Seat’ Is A Different Kind Of Star Trek Docuseries

On Friday the new documentary series The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek debuts on the History Channel, celebrating the 55th anniversary of the franchise. TrekMovie spoke with producer/director Brian Volk-Weiss about what to expect from the new show and how it will be different than his 50th anniversary History Channel Trek documentary.

How did it happen that only five years after you did a Star Trek documentary for the History Channel you are doing a whole docuseries on Star Trek for them?

Apparently, in our society, every five years is a big deal. But it seems like the 55th in many ways has been treated in a bigger way than the 50th, maybe because there’s so much new Trek coming out. But, basically that 50th-anniversary show did really well and in the meantime, we have had success with shows like The Toys That Made Us and The Movies That Made Us [for Netflix], and we had two other shows for History last year, so in just talking to them, it was like, ‘If it worked last time, why don’t we do it even bigger and better?’ And luckily for us, they agreed.

The last few years have seen a resurgence of Star Trek documentaries, what is it about The Center Seat that distinguishes it?   

Starting with the one we did for the 50th, we only had two hours–and less when you factor in commercials–to tell the story of 50 years of history. This time we have the luxury of making 10 episodes. Plus with five more years of making these other docs, we had a lot more trust that we knew what we were doing and so we got a longer leash to kind of do what we wanted to do, which was nice.

And as compared to other docs–all of which are good to great–but they tend to be one-offs about a specific subject, be it Gene Roddenberry, or Voyager, but again we are doing 10 episodes. And each episode could be a movie–and this is kind of the secret to our sauce–about something very specific. So, for example, we don’t have to short-change The Animated Series, we have an entire episode dedicated to it. I think this is the deepest dive ever into Star Trek history for a documentary. And because of all of the resources from all the other shows we do, we kind of know how to do these things quickly which improves the quality because we can focus on other things.

Brian Volk-Weiss

I was surprised that the press release mentioned the documentary will even delve into Phase II. So is there an episode dedicated to Star Trek projects that never were, like Planet of the Gods?

We don’t get into Planet of the Gods, but basically, the third episode of the series is about Phase II and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Who do you consider the audience for this show? General History Channel watchers, or fans who know at least a bit about Star Trek and, for example, already heard the MLK story?

I’m really glad you asked that. As I said before, this is the show we always wanted to make, so this was made by a Trekkie for a Trekkie. So, to your point about the MLK story, no. This time we dove very deeply into the topics that I’ve always wanted to dive into but haven’t been able to before. So you know John and Mary Jo Tenuto; they teach a class on Star Trek. They are doing the official aftershow podcast, and after they saw the first episode they told me they didn’t see a single mistake, which is not easy to do with this topic. And they said they learned new stuff. If these two people who have been teaching Star Trek for 25 years are learning new things, I feel pretty good. You will, too.

For example, in episode one–which is solely focused on The Original Series– we spend a lot of time on Lucille Ball’s role. If Gene Roddenberry is the father of Star Trek, then Lucille is absolutely the mother. I have this saying I have kept with me since hearing it in high school: “Creativity is negligent without implementation.” And I feel that Gene was the creative, absolutely. But Lucille basically made it happen, twice. So that was a big thing I really wanted to do with this series, which is hopefully you watch more episodes, you’ll see is an overarching theme throughout all 10 episodes.

Gene was a complicated guy. Would you say this is a documentary that is about Star Trek, warts and all?

Yeah, it is absolutely warts and all, but again, with huge reverence for everything connected to Star Trek. I never want to make the audience uncomfortable. So were there some not-the-greatest stories we heard that we did not put into the doc? Yes. I’m a big believer in not punching down. Anytime you’re talking about somebody who’s passed away, that can’t talk back, you have to be so careful to tell the story, but also not be punching down. So, I feel like we gave a very honest portrayal of Gene Roddenberry, as well as some other people. But I also feel that we didn’t believe belabor the point. No Trekkie wants to sit there for 10 hours hearing about only warts. We tried to balance it so it was truthful with the warts, but also a lot of fun.

Having seen the first episode, it’s quite different than your 50th-anniversary doc. The style, humor, and editing actually felt a lot like your Netflix shows. This kind of feels like “The Star Trek That Made Us.”

You said it, I didn’t, but I am glad you noticed it. Yes, our signature style is absolutely in the forefront.

One difference is this is narrated by Gates McFadden, who also does a podcast with you guys, can you talk about how this collaboration came to be?

It’s funny, life is always about coincidences. One of my best and oldest friends in the world is Ian Roumain who is a producer on this series and I’ve worked with Ian for a long time. Before Ian became a producer he was a talent agent and one of his clients was Gates McFadden. So when we launched our podcast division I asked Ian to introduce me to Gates to see if she wanted to do a podcast. And after The Center Seat was greenlit I thought it would be cool to have a producer who was there working on Trek, to watch our rough cuts. She knows these people. She was on the set.

When I asked her she said she would love to be part of it, but originally it was just as a producer and the contract did not include voiceover. Besides giving feedback, there was no additional obligation on her part, but I’ve never worked with anyone who’s more true, honest, and hardworking. We would not have Brent Spiner, we would not have Rick Berman, we would not have Denise Crosby, we would not have Kate Mulgrew… she got all of those people. And I’ll be honest with you, a lot of these people who have been talking about Star Trek for 20, 30, 50 years maybe are not excited to talk about Star Trek every single day. So Gates convincing them to do these interviews was a game-changer for the series, to put it mildly.

But as a producer and a director of shows like this, my least favorite thing to do is picking the voiceover. I hate it. It is a grueling process. You never make everybody happy. We started testing all these people and were getting tapes and tapes and tapes. And then one day I was listening to a rough cut of one of Gates’ podcast episodes, and it hit me. She’s got a great voice. Why wouldn’t we ask her to do it? I literally called her up right then and there and asked her and she said yes, and that was it.

Gates McFadden in The Center Seat

So you just rattled off a lot of names, and there’s a lot of names in the press release. Were there some you just weren’t able to land?  

It’s just the nature of this beast that you never get everyone you want. We really wanted Shatner, but we couldn’t get him. We came close to getting a couple of others, but COVID was a variable, schedules were a variable, like for Patrick Stewart.

In cases where you don’t have new interviews, you are using archive interviews to fill in the gaps?

Correct. Even if people are familiar with an interview, we try very hard to use parts to find new information from existing interviews. So we did a bunch of that. We definitely found some stuff that I believe has never been seen before.

How do you break it up so it isn’t just all talking head interviews?

We really try and use a lot of B-roll that is entertaining. Maybe 80 percent with some degree of humor, and 20 percent trying to tug at the heartstrings a little bit. And we really try and use the editing as a narrative device. We try to use a sense of movement, humor, and multiple arcs being told simultaneously, to act as a character

Did you get lucky and get stuff never seen before in people’s basements, actors’ home movies, and that sort of thing?

We definitely did. Like we had an interview with Ike Eisenmann, Scottie’s nephew in Star Trek II, and wait until you see what he gave us like. And that’s just one example. We also got documentation I can’t even believe still exists. It never ceases to amaze me. Why didn’t you throw that out? Stuff like that. We got some really good relics, some great paperwork.

You say the term “paperwork.” That sounds like a very boring term. But there’s a lot of emotion behind certain memos. You can see a memo that was put out at 8:52 in the morning on a Wednesday in 1989. And you can see what they’re doing on Lower Decks or Discovery is directly connected to that memo. Like there’s a lot of emotion in paperwork.

Did you have to deal with the SD/HD situation with some shows not being available in HD?

We had to deal with the SD/HD situation, to put it mildly. I am the last person on Earth who can answer that question with accuracy. But luckily our company has a staggeringly talented post-production department. I literally refer to them as our engine room and I call the woman who runs it the miracle worker. They do their magic and somehow it works.

You named your company The Nacelle Company, you are very much a Trek fan, but did you learn a lot about Star Trek while making the documentary?

Yes, tons. Every interview I learned tons, even with people I’d interviewed before. Because this time I knew them a bit better. Like when I interviewed Doug Drexler for Toys That Made Us the day I met him was the day we did the interview. This time I knew him much better, and we had more time. We actually interviewed Doug maybe three separate times. Because what happens is, as you’re doing interviews, you learn more things. And then with people you already interviewed, you want to have them respond to the new information you learn. And Doug was wonderful in agreeing to come back.

Doug Drexler is interviewed on The Center Seat

So how much do you cover in the 10 episodes?

Up through the end of Star Trek: Enterprise, and Rick Berman turning out the lights.

What about the last decade and a half?

Our intention is for The Center Seat to be a living series. We absolutely want to cover The Next Generation movies, the J.J. Abrams trilogy, and we will of course cover the latest generation of Star Trek shows. We have already started that work, like we have already interviewed F. Murray Abraham for Insurrection. We are in production now on more episodes. Our goal is to not stop at ten [episodes], and we won’t stop at ten.

Premieres this Friday

The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek will debut on November 5 at 10 pm (ET/PT) on the History Channel. The first four episodes will air on the History Channel each Friday at 10 pm, with the six additional episodes also available on History Vault, the network’s subscription video service. You can subscribe directly to History Vault, or add it as an Amazon Channel. In both cases, there is a one-week free trial.

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The 50th anniversary was such a letdown compared to the 25th or even the 30th .. the biggest disappointment being Beyond itself (especially after being teased with Shatner coming back) its like everyone was too busy obsessing over Star Wars lol

So true, I really really hate how the 50th played out. Maybe cuz it was in the middle of a then worst-ever year politics wise in the US and UK, people distracted by so much, but also Paramount just not doing anything to get us hype for it…like many other occasions, a missed opportunity for the franchise

“Then worst-year politics.” Baby, I fear you ain’t seen nothing yet. :-(

Nothing can be worse than 2016-2020.

You are irresponsibly nuts if you think that. This is not to say that those years weren’t complete flaming garbage, because they were. But if you think it can’t get significantly worse, you better wake up.

My post was meant to express an opinion on a specific topic. Not to be taken literally…

Fair enough, but does this seem like the right cultural climate to not say what you actually mean?

Pipe down, Comment Cop.

🤦‍♂️

True, but here is not the place to say what I actually mean, about what I was actually saying…

Um…. Look around right now….. I’ve never seen things this bad in my life.

Seeing America becoming what it has for the last 5 years has been sobering. Never thought I would see it.

Exactly.

That was a bad period, definitely, but it’s going to get a LOT worse. The GOP has swallowed the cultist Kool-Aid and has embraced idiocy like QAnon–and they’re going to take back Congress and the White House. Then this country is going to end up in dire straits. Trump, Taylor-Green, Boebert and all the other racist, uneducated, monosyllablic morons in the GOP right now are garbage, and that’s what they’re making this country. They are the exact opposite of the future Star Trek had predicted, and we’re not going to survive it. All empires eventually fall and are replaced, and thanks to the Trumpie imbeciles who are embracing fascism, we’re going to be the next ones to do so.

I agree, except I’m not as pessimistic as you. But yes those you mention and the qualifiers you use to describe them are spot-on! I just can’t bring myself to believe that the American people would go so far… Trump did light (and fan) the flame that ignited all this nonsensical worship of ignorance and stupidity, but the GOP has only themselves to blame for following this idiot’s lead. How they’re still afraid of him I can’t understand. Do they really think he’s going to get them re-elected? They should put on their big pants (or dresses!) and take out the trash.

After January 6, I’m worried that they won’t need to be reelected. The people who tried to overthrow the government faced no real consequences, and the Republicans who certified the election were attacked by Trump. So if Trump runs again in 24, loses, and claims to have won, what motivation would any Republicans have to do the right thing and certify the election for the actual winner?

It’s sickening someone who tried to overthrow the government and create a coup is not sitting in a jail cell somewhere, much less can actually run again. Just completely bonkers. Again never happened before in American history until now. Trump is a sick and disgusting human being.

Agreed.

One of the many bad things about Trump is that he encouraged crass behavior, lowered standards of behavior.

Exactly right on all of these points.

Well, 1861-65 was an order of magnitude (or three) worse.

True, let’s hope January 6 doesn’t beget another 1861-1865.

There’s definately a possibility that S**tshow 2.0 is on the horizon. Just pick a year, 22 or 24.

I pick 2020. The good news is that there have been some recent events to suggest that common sense may yet make a comeback…

Common sense? S**tshow 1.5 was peddling JFK Jr’s return from the dead a few days ago, how’d that work out? If you’re going to gaslight people, it’s worth your time to know your target audience.

Phil, I’m always willing to engage in civilized conversation. But that post of gibberish made zero sense whatsoever.

LOL I saw that on TV. It was so bizarre. These Qanon weirdos believed JFK Jr was coming back from the dead and become Trump’s running mate?? WTF? I never heard anything about this until I saw it on the news.

How does stuff like this even become created? And the bigger question, why are these people so gullible to believe it? This proves why something like January 6th happens in the first place. A lot of Trump supporters are just bizarre and loony.

I don’t know where you get your news but any “news” organization that reports something as blatantly insane as that and treats it as reality ought to have everything they report be questioned. Such a story really undermines the entire organization’s credibility.

Unfortunately Trumpers may say otherwise, a very obnoxious demographic.

A good year, full of hope, sadly squandered.

The 50th anniversary was such a huge dropped ball. It may as well have not even existed.

Agreed. It was absolutely disgraceful.

Beyond was a fantastic movie on pretty much every level.

YES! They could have saved the money on flipping the saucer section though.

I wouldn’t go nearly that far. I liked it, but it was the third Trek in a row featuring a villain out for revenge because, well, not much of a reason really. It also wasted a popular international guest star in a largely invisible role (under 10 pounds of latex and voice-impairing fangs). And where all that money spent on it went, I don’t know.

I’d say Ru’afo and Shinzon are also vengeful, though Ru’afo’s motivation is blessedly contained to just decimating one planet he can get his youth back with. But Shinzon has another boring, “Blow up Earth for reasons” plot which doesn’t really raise the stakes or level of excitement.

I think what did both Beyond and the Kelvin movies in was the same boring villain motivation movie after movie after movie. I think it was fine doing it with Nero. But AFTER that, then yeah they should’ve went on to other things. Sadly Trek movies seem to sadly have to have a villain of some kind since 11 of the 13 films had one. But they could’ve still had different motives too.

Krall is an interesting villain but he his motives were all over the place. What does him crash landing on a planet for a century has to do with his uneasiness with the Federation playing nice with others?? Why does he want to destroy it? What exactly will that do other than giving all the horrible people he fought against a chance to take over the territory once he did take it down? I don’t get it at all. Hell I’m still trying to figure out why is his name even Krall??

The BETTER story would’ve been what they did with the episode ‘The Wounded’ from TNG when Captain Maxwell was targeting Cardassian bases because he suspected they were secretly re-arming themselves. That’s an amazing premise and with a very clear motive and even a sympathetic character because you understood why Maxwell was doing what he did even if you were completely against it . Krall should’ve been someone like that. Who went rogue in the same manner and attacked the Romulans or Klingons because he didn’t trust them for some reason. And used that McGuffin to destroy them with it and not the Federation.

Or they could’ve gone the complete opposite direction and he was an actual alien who hated the Federation because their actions inadvertently destroyed his planet or society somehow and been an interesting story about imperialism; which I think a lot of us thought was the type of movie we were getting.

Instead we got what we got.

I also never understood why he sat around on that planet for a hundred years. To get that alien gizmo? Why? He had all those little attack ships that took out a Federation Starship, he could have just destroyed Starbase Yorktown the old-fashioned way.

Nothing about Krall (agreed about the name) made any sense. I’ve always chalked up the movies failings to Pegg & Co. having to rush after they got the green light when Paramount killed the Orci movie. Pegg got the Kirk/Enterprise side of the movie down very well, but Krall… yikes.

And the process that kept him alive and physically different was not explained well at all. We saw an element of it but that just wasn’t enough for the audience to figure out what the hell was going on.

And yeah…. With those bees he really didn’t need that alien gizmo at all. It felt like Krall was worked out after it was decided what they wanted to do with our main characters. The movie was mainly about them. Krall was there to move the story along when he needed to and for there to be an exciting final act. Beyond that, Krall was pretty worthless.

The motivation for the antagonist were monumentally weak and made little sense. But the film was mostly about our main characters anyway.

well. the last 10 minutes were anyway

Have to disagree with this though.

It was very dull fast and furious style movie, no substance and the dialogue was quite poor at times.

I’m actually super interested in this after this interview, especially the TAS episode. Not a fan of having to subscribe to stream the rest though, eff that. Also, love your interviews TM, although as a transcriptionist I would be happy to give your text a grammar check for readability as a free service. A lot of commas could be periods, vice versa. I know that might sound patronizing but it’s something I’m passionate about!

This is perhaps irrelevant, but aren’t you British albatrosity? Maybe Brit english differs in punctuation… I’m Canadian so my English is the actual best in the world so I can say this, even though I’m French-Canadian… I’m joking of course

LOL.

I still remember moving down to the US for grad school and nearly starting a housemate meltdown the first month when I ruthlessly deleted and added punctuation to a housemate’s draft paper. I had been asked to proofread it!

When I said that these would have been errors on my Canadian university entrance language placement test, they pulled out an American book on style.

I just suggested that they had best seek proofreading from another American.

Well, I am from America so I must say that our English is… well, maybe that isn’t the best example. Let’s just say that American English is good enough :)

The word you’re looking for is mangled.

I’m actually a full blooded American, sadly!

Wow as usual, great interview TM!

And man, I didn’t even know the History channel ever did a 50th anniversary documentary on Star Trek! I have to hunt that down now. :) But god, the 50th anniversary overall was such a joke, especially when compared to this year.

And yep, no Kelvin movies lol. I remember saying in the last article about this doc that it looks like the Kelvin movies are being left out, and it’s just been confirmed. I’m not bothered about the new shows because they are all pretty new but the Kelvin movies all came out years ago now. But as he said hopefully it will be a continuation and they can cover all the newish Star Trek later. Just funny how those movies continue to feel like the red headed step child in the franchise these days.

But the doc in general sounds really good. Ten hours is incredible so I expect a lot of in-depth interviews and footage. They are devoting an entire hour to TAS alone! Never thought I would hear that lol. I’m so happy to hear Gates McFadden doing the narration. Very excited to watch!

Its even more odd that they’re leaving out the TNG movies for now. Generations came out almost 30 years ago. Even Nemesis is nineteen years old.

That is odd too. But I guess they are really making more episodes since F. Murray Abraham is in the last shot of the trailer and of course he was in Insurrection as the interview stated. Why they couldn’t include it when you already have a ten hour documentary and basically most of the players, at least for the TNG movies already there is strange; but as long as they get to them eventually. They must have a lot of content if they couldn’t include any of the TNG or Kelvin movies this go around.

The movie franchise always struggled to find its footing. Building in a break at the end of the TOS films was as good of place as any to hit pause.

But not on History Channel in Canada. That I PAY for. Its like all these channels BEG US on their knees to Torrent everything.

A VPN would cure that.

This sounds like it’s quite an in depth thing. I’ve seen a ton of these so if they please me they’ve done a good job.

I’m just happy its on the History Channel. Very easy to see. I’ve got the thing set to record in the DVR already. Looking forward to it.

I assume the first four episodes will also be on History Vault. Can anyone confirm that? It’d be ridiculous for them not to be, but…well, it wouldn’t surprise me much.

Wait, so 6 out of 10 episodes will be behind a pay wall?

Seems that way. I’m not happy.

There are a lot of things behind paywalls I’m not happy about. I just decided to skip many of them. But in this case, I’m very happy it’s on a more traditional channel I already get. My DVR is cued up ready to go at 7pm tonight. Looking forward to that first hour.

I’ll just watch the first four on History Channel, and then get the week-long free trial when episode ten comes out.

Exactly. Enough of this nickel-and diming from all these streaming channels. If something isn’t on one of the ones I already pay for, I’m getting the content for free one way or another.

I’d need to finagle a way to do the same for a second season, though. I’m not begrudging paying a few bucks for a month of a service, but I’m a long time fan – I’ve been doing this sort of thing since 1995 when I had to put some of my allowance towards a cable bill we had almost entirely just so I could get UPN. Nearly 30 years on and it’s getting to be a bit much!

The first episode was a major letdown. No mention of Jimmy Doohan. No mention of Grace Lee Whitney. Factual errors throughout. I may not continue beyond episode one.

I appreciate they are interviewing new people, but the editing style and camera work is pretty annoying.