Review: ‘The Center Seat’ Debut Episode About TOS Reveals A Fun Docuseries That Takes Star Trek Seriously

The History Channel is following up their 2016 50 Years of Star Trek documentary with a whole new docuseries debuting tonight. The 10-part The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek—spread between The History Channel and the History Vault streaming servicepromises to take the deepest dive yet into the franchise.

The Trek That Made Us

Even though it is made by the same team behind the 2016 documentary, right from the start you can tell this new docuseries is coming at the franchise with an entirely different take, although one familiar to fans of some other docuseries. With a quick overview of Star Trek history, a playful narrated introduction by TNG veteran Gates McFadden, and a series of rapid-fire cuts of various Trek celebs laughing, you immediately can see that The Center Seat is going to have some fun while it tries to scale the enormity of this 55-year-old franchise. This time The Nacelle Company is approaching Star Trek with the same whimsical-yet-meticulous style of their popular Netflix docuseries The Toys That Made Us and The Movies That Made Us.

This playful approach complements the impressive level of detail for a show described by director Brian Volk-Weiss as “by a Trekkie for a Trekkie.” The debut episode focuses entirely on Star Trek: The Original Series, but having a full episode to explore the series allows them to spend significant time on some fascinating backstory on both Gene Roddenberry’s history before creating the show, and Lucille Ball’s history that leads her to the position of backing the show through two pilots to eventually get on the air.

Spending a significant portion of episode one exploring the importance of Gene’s life experience, especially the influence of his previous show The Lieutenant, and Lucy’s rise to power owning Desilu is an example of the kind of story behind the story that should differentiate this take on a franchise. And even fans steeped in all of this history should be entertained by the well-paced and clever editing that weaves together a narrative using new and archived interview clips, old footage, unearthed documents, and bits from the Star Trek shows themselves.

Actor Walter Koenig in The Center Seat

The history of The Original Series itself is told via segments focusing on key moments in time, with a big emphasis on the two pilots. The Center Seat deftly intermingles stories about Roddenberry’s battles with network execs, Lucy’s financial acumen, and highlights from life on the set. McFadden’s skillful narration ties together accounts from a series of new interviews, including the likes of Talosian and Salt Creature actress Sandra Lee Gimpel, Chekov actor Walter Koenig, casting director Joe D’Agosta, and writer David Gerrold. Mixed in are moments from archived interviews of Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and others. There are also insights from a number of experts including Larry Nemecek, John and Mary Jo Tenuto, and others.

The Center Seat does not avoid delving into controversial issues and conflicts. A good example of this was the significant segment on the development of the classic episode “The City on the Edge Of Forever,” including tales of writer Harlan Ellison being locked in a room to do rewrites by producer Gene Coon, only to escape to the set to take pictures with the cast. The series heaps praise on Harlan’s talent but pulls no punches on his idiosyncrasies including those that had Desilu executive Herb Solow debating which utensil to kill Ellison with at a WGA awards dinner after the writer celebrated his win for a script he didn’t even want his name on. It’s these kinds of little details that transport you back and make the history of Star Trek feel real.

Even though they have a whole episode just on The Original Series you are still left wanting more, as coverage for the second and third seasons breezes by too quickly, with a handful of fun and informative anecdotes and stories, all leading to the show’s eventual cancellation and rebirth through syndicated reruns in the 1970s. But still, to show how they left few stones unturned, The Center Seat brings in a programming exec from a local TV station just to talk about how she would run Star Trek every day and people couldn’t get enough of it. We also get some great ’70s footage, including early convention appearances with the cast.

TOS director Ralph Senesky in The Center Seat

With just the first episode, along with the track record of Nacelle Company’s other documentaries, The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek is easy to recommend for Star Trek fans. Even for those that think they have heard it all before and read everything about Star Trek, there will probably still be something new to learn, and it is simply a fun way to see the story of our beloved franchise come alive.

Debuts Tonight!

The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek debuts on Friday, 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 only 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.

Currently, there is no information on how fans in Canada and internationally can watch The Center Seat, but we are trying to track that information down, so stay tuned for an update.

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Find more news and analysis on Star Trek documentaries at TrekMovie.com.

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I’m delighted this got made. There’s a lot of literature and documentary material out there, but still so much more that could be explored. Especially with TOS, it’s important to get it recorded for posterity!

Already have my DVR set! Can’t wait!

Thanks for the useful review!

I don’t have cable TV — so I don’t get the History Channel — and I was wondering if there was another way to watch this and if it was worth doing. You answered both questions beautifully.

Wait for the series to finish. History Vault will give you a free trial to binge the eps

…exactly how I’m watching it.

My TV says episode 6 is tonight. So does what I see online. What’s up with that?

Guide data is often inaccurate. Also there’s only two major TV listings providers in the US (Tribune and Rovi), so you probably looked at a listings site that uses the same listings source.

Notice History’s own website says it’s episode 1 and aired today 11/5:
https://play.history.com/shows/the-center-seat-55-years-of-star-trek#episodes

They could also be using an internal code the network used, ie, this could have been the sixth episode produced, but the first episode aired.

This is the doc I have been looking forward to…not the Voyager fan-funded vanity project.

Isn’t the Voyager one done by the same people who did the DS9 one? The DS9 one was pretty good! I have been watching more Voyager lately, never near the top of my favorites, I am appreciating it more now.

I did like this. It did include a couple of bits I was previously unaware of. But that was mainly details of the Desilu situation. Otherwise very little new added. But, I really like these kind of docs so that didn’t bother me.

The one hour, or 42 minute or so running time just didn’t feel like enough to devote to TOS. I feel like that show was so significant that 40+ minutes just isn’t enough. The pace did feel very rushed. And I think the time frame was part of it.

But very little has been done on TAS so I’m hoping to get some new stuff next week.

Reading the article I just got the bad news at the end. Only 4 episodes will air on THC? That truly sucks. I may not be seeing the final 6 then.

Several additional episodes are already up on the history vault app, including eps on tng, ds9, and voyager. I just got the free trial, but was disappointed that the history channel episodes weren’t there.

I’ll see them. When they are all available on History Vault at the same time, I’ll sign up for the one week and cancel. I have too many services already.

Same here.

Wow. It moved way too fast. Skipping across TOS like Discovery does mushroom space.
While overall, I thought it was good content – I don’t like the style of commentary where they go from speaker to speaker, sometimes mid sentence – very distracting and erratic.

Given that we know now that this will be an ongoing series, I wish that they had taken 3-4 episodes to move through pre-production and then the 3 seasons of TOS.

Agreed. Obviously I’ve not seen how they partition the next 52 years, but pre-pro and The Cage would have been plenty of material to fascinate and tease us for a second episode that was completely about production of TOS.

The fact that they never even mentioned James Doohan is nuts. Also, now that I think of it, then never mentioned Grace Whitney either. How can someone do a retrospective about TOS and never mention Scotty or Rand??

They condensed too much information and left some big gaps in the timeline. The second pilot was hardly mentioned, they went from Dr. Boyce to Dr. McCoy without even mentioning that yet another actor played the doctor in WNMHGB, nothing on James Doohan, nothing on Grace Lee Whitney, the third season was barely touched on, the fact that Fred Frieberger was the producer of that third season was never noted.

Moderately entertaining overall but the breezy tone isn’t my favorite approach (though I get that it may be favored by a wider audience) and given that they have around 10 hours at their disposal I was hoping for something a bit more comprehensive.

Including TAS as a separate entry, there are 10 Star Trek shows. Plus 13 movies. The docuseries has 10 episodes. That alone tells you that they can’t spend more than one episode on each show if they want to cover it all.
Going into more detail would require a much longer series simply due to the vast amount of Trek that exists.

Complete agree, it seemed like it was edited to appeal to 13 year olds with little attention span.

Considering I at least appreciated they had new interviews with people, I hope they have a place to offer watching the longer, unedited interviews.

Really enjoyed it! Gates McFadden did a great job narrating. I actually learned a few things which almost seem shocking at this point lol. Can’t wait to see TAS next week since I watched that show for the first time this year.

So is the first episode actually going to be on History Vault? I signed up for it via Amazon and see no evidence of it. If they are only going to have the final six, that’s going to be a bummer.

Still not there. This is how a free seven-day trial results in a speedy, pre-payment cancellation.

So from what we understand History is splitting these up between their linear network and the Vault. So at least for now the linear channel episodes won’t be in the History Vault. It’s a bit annoying I know.

Sure is! I canceled my subscription already. I’ll hope for a Blu-ray release.

Thanks for the info, Matt!

This is absolutely ludicrous! Why don’t they just make us split the atom and be done with it. I’ve never worked this hard to watch anything (aside from dirty movies on Cinemax when I was a kid)

Any idea how I can watch this in the UK? The History Vault doesn’t seem to be available here.

I liked it, but it had a few problems…

  • A little too long on Lucille Ball, she was important of course but I don’t agree she needed about 25% of episode 1 devoted to her role. They seem to have spent as much time on Lucy as they did on Gene Roddenberry, and that doesn’t seem right.
  • Some of those on-screen names seemed to appear for about half a second and were gone. “Wait! Who was that? Marc Cushman?”
  • Way too rushed through TOS itself. Nice long segment on City on the Edge of Forever and some good stuff on Plato’s Stepchildren and Trouble with Tribbles but the rest of TOS got short shrift. They really didn’t give a new audience any hint as to why Star Trek was so popular, just that it was.

Yeah–15 minutes about Lucille Ball, but not even a mention of Jimmy Doohan. Insane.

Also, they perpetuated the myth that “Plato’s Stepchildren” was TV’s first interracial kiss, which it wasn’t.

The “script that Ellison didn’t even want his name on” wasn’t the one that won the WGA award, which was his original draft. It was the much-rewritten (and notably inferior, though still wonderful) shooting script. Trekmovie ought to get these things right, even if the documentary didn’t.

This is a fan website. You’re not paying to be here and can leave any time you want. Complaining about what others are giving you for free is beyond ridiculous.

Stop being a jerk Lorna.

I’m defending the website from someone attacking it. I’m clearly not being a jerk. Grow up.

Measured criticism is not an ‘attack,’ and you needn’t flatter yourself that this website requires your efforts to defend it.

What the heck is wrong with you two?

I might ask the same of you. All I did was point out that a Trek website had failed to correct a factual error in an article which detailed a Trek documentary’s factual errors. You chose to go ballistic, asserting — in my opinion, very questionably — that because the site is free to its readers that it is somehow exempt from standards of editorial judgement or accuracy. Well, I disagree, and if their prior behavior is any indication, I strongly suspect the mods would disagree, too.

I was referring specifically to the line “Trekmovie ought to get these things right,” which implies they somehow owe you something. And I stand by my comment.

LOL. No, if I was “implying” anything at all it was that mods owed it to *themselves* to be accurate in their reporting, the same standard that applies to any piece of journalism whether the content is free to the public or not. Incidentally, it doesn’t appear that you’re at all shy about voicing your own disappointment with “The Center Seat” documentary, in spite of the fact that the History Channel often comes bundled for free with a basic cable subscription — so if you were watching it on cable, odds are you aren’t paying anything extra for it. Hypocrisy, much?

Like all people, I have to pay for cable, and in my area the History Channel is a subscription-based station. In fact, it’s subscription-based in most areas, despite what you’re saying, befitting its status as a pay television network. Since it’s not free, there’s no parallel here and thus no hypocrisy. Plus, the channel has a long history of bad journalism. I recommend looking up Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, and you’ll see what I mean. TrekMovie, on the other hand, provides solid journalism without charging for it. In any case, I concede your point about journalism and am dropping this. It’s not worth arguing about and I have no quarrel with you.

They don’t like the rude trolling that you often practice here.

I never troll here, so that’s a non sequitur. I have been a long-time commenter at TrekMovie, and I take an active part in many discussions, not only as a lifelong fan of the entire franchise, but also as someone who works in the industry. Meanwhile, you don’t speak for anyone but yourself, and they’re more than capable of telling me how they feel, so there was really no reason for you to post that reply. In this thread, you are the troll.

Also, my original comment that sparked this was the following: “This is a fan website. You’re not paying to be here and can leave any time you want. Complaining about what others are giving you for free is beyond ridiculous.” By no definition would that be considered trolling. it’s factually accurate and it’s supportive of TrekMovie, not against it. What’s more, I am far from the only person ever to post that here. People commonly complain about what should and shouldn’t be posted in articles, and others commonly remind them the website is free to visit, and that no one is forcing anyone else to read it. You might want to look up the definition of “troll.” It doesn’t apply.

You have been a rude and snarky troll to me previously, as you are now. Please stop.

Oh, please. I was just correcting the historical record (that being the subject of the article), while stating my opinion that a Trek-centric site should hopefully get these things right, particularly when it comes to a bit of franchise lore that’s so well-known. I didn’t exactly accuse the mods of mass murder, but would it have been better if I’d noted, “Oh, well, you get what you pay for?”

Just Another Salt Vampire: I *like* rude and snarky trolls; they’re fun! Grow a thicker skin.

Lucille Ball’s history that leads her to the position of backing the show through two pilots to eventually get on the air”

Lucille Ball was Sybok’s mother-in-law.

Wow, he’s a lot older than Lucie Arnaz!

16 year age difference, but they have been married since 1980 so apparently it’s not a problem.

Any reason why ‘The Center Seat’ didn’t bother to mention exactly why Jeff Hunter didn’t come back for the second pilot? If I remember correctly, wasn’t it his wife who pushed Jeff not to do a tv series and instead continue as a movie star? Something along the lines of that. It’s interesting that they didn’t share that.

That’s pretty much it, more or less. Ms. Hunter hated the finished pilot (and she wasn’t alone in that — so did John Hoyt, who called it a “dog”). Apparently she made the decisions when it came to his career, and she considered television to be beneath him.

They also suggested DeForest Kelley was the second doctor, but they forgot Dr. Piper in Where No Man Has Gone Before but that’s pretty much understandable.

And weren’t Lloyd Bridges and Jack Lord higher on Roddenberry’s wish list than Shatner?

Jeffrey Hunter had a very sad end of his life. He died on May 27, 1969, a week before the last episode of TOS premiered (June 3, 1969).

That was very enjoyable. Well done to the Nacelle Company. I’m looking forward to the TAS episode.

(excellent narration by Gates seals the deal)

Would love to see this (and Prodigy as well, have to wait until Paramount+ launches here) but the History Vault isn’t available in the U.K.

They never even mentioned James Doohan, and they got a lot of facts wrong. So disappointing.

I’m a fairly savvy Tv/cable/streaming consumer. After this wonderful review I went in search of an on demand location for the episode. Not on the History Roku App. My iPhone history app would not connect to my cable provider. Nothing on the vault app. No reply from customer service.
This confusing distribution situation is unacceptable for such a marvelous production to be so severely hampered by.

They seem to have geared this toward the cable channel first and foremost, which is a losing strategy in today’s market. Very disappointing for those of us without cable who wanted to watch this.

This documentary was difficult to find and the episode numbering system sloppy. There were several things I never heard before and I don’t know if they are true such as:
= William Shatner was the first choice to play the captain…
= Lucy spent $85,000 of her own money to film the first pilot…
Are these things accurate?

For more factual info on Lucy’s involvment with the franchise see this link

https://www.facttrek.com/blog/lucy

Thank you. It seems this Center Seat “documentary” played a little loose with the facts just to impress the audience. Still, I respect that Lucy was a powerful force making Trek for us all.

Found out about it too late from a friend in the States and missed the first episode. Didn’t even hear a whisper here. THEN was extremely disappointed to find it’s not available in Canada. Can’t figure out why not. It’s not like we’re from Grise Fiord, Nunivet. Why would they do that? 😒

I was browsing my TV box to make sure I record ST:D for next week premiere. Imagine my surprise when I see The Center Seat listed at 10pm Eastern on CTV SciFi Channel right after Discovery premier. Fellow Canadians please double check your TV schedule. I don’t know if that is the premiere or 2nd episode as I can’t find any announcements whatsoever….

It sounds promising… except for the “Movies that made us style” :-( I find that series basically unwatchable even for films I love to know more about like ALIENS. Toys that made us was okay, but in Movies that made us the interviewees barely get 5 words in before there’s some slapstick sound effect, cutting away, animations whizzing about and goofy voiceover. It’s like it’s made for incredibly short attention spans. I hope Trek fans are treated like viewers with intelligence for this series.

Looks like The Center Seat will premiere in Canada on CTV SciFi and Crave Sept 18 10pmET.
see BellMedia Nov Crave listing.

https://www.bellmedia.ca/the-lede/press/november-2021-crave-streaming-overview/