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.
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.
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.
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.