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 service—promises 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.
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.
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.
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.