From Buffy to Star Trek — How To Write An Oral History of A Beloved TV Show

We talked to Ed Gross and Mark Altman about their oral histories of Buffy/Angel and Star Trek.

As television ages as a medium, the need to record its history becomes more important… and more difficult.

No one understands this better than Ed Gross and Mark Altman, two TV journalists, fans, and creators who now have two TV oral history books under their belts: Slayers & Vampires and The Fifty-Year Mission. Den of Geek was lucky enough to talk to Gross and Altman last month at New York Comic Con. Here’s what they shared about the process.

The power of the oral history format…

“The whole oral history format is something that we love,” said Altman, who first encountered the format upon reading I Want My MTV and Live From New, oral histories of the game-changing network and Saturday Night Live, respectively. Not only is the format fun, filled with great anecdotes, said Altman, but it allows people to tell their own version of the story.

“I thought it was a fantastic format to tell these stories, particularly because, with Star Trek, there’s so much disagreement about certain things,” continued Altman. “This way you can give everyone a chance to say their perspectives … You get their perspective, rather than us saying, ‘This is the way it happened.’ Because nobody really knows.”

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Collecting stories…

Of course, gathering the many stories needed for an oral history and crafting them into a cohesive narrative takes an immense amount of work, time, and access. How do Gross and Altman even decide who they want to talk to from the vast number of people involved in the production of a TV show?

“It always starts with nearly everybody,” said Altman. “Anyone who’s had an opinion about the show. Every executive who worked on the show. The gaffer at craft services. And slowly gets whittled down based on availability, interest, and who’s gettable.”

It helps that both Altman and Gross have built up connections over the course of their decades-long careers as both TV reporters and, in Altman’s case, an executive producer within the TV industry.

“We really tell the story in a way I don’t think anyone [else] could,” said Altman of The Fifty-Year Mission. “The access that we had, and again, the fact that even in The Original Series, when Ed started as a journalist at Starlog, he talked to so many people who are gone now, who are just passed away. And we were able to go back to those original … And then I was on the set of Next Generation…”

When the time came for Altman and Gross to embark on writing an oral history of Buffy and Angel for the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Altman was a co-executive producer on The Librarians. Altman set up an interview for Gross with Christian Kane, a series regular on The Librarians and Lindsey McDonald on Angel. He also snagged an interview with Felicia Day while she was guest-starring on the show, and Sean Astin while he was directing an episode.

Melding the past and the present…

As you may have already gathered, not all of the interviews in Gross and Altman’s books are from the period when they were writing the books. Many of them come from interviews conducted during the airing of the shows, when either Gross or Altman interviewed the cast and creators for a contemporary article. (Altman affectionately calls Gross’ basement the TARDIS because it is filled with microcassettes and tapes from old interviews.) 

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This is how Joss Whedon’s voice comes into the Slayers & Vampires book. He “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for the book, said Gross, adding for context that the book was being written around the same time Whedon was being courted to take over direction on Justice League.

However, Gross has hours worth of interviews with Whedon, who Gross first started talking to in the 90s when he was working for Cinescape magazine and Whedon was a little-known screenwriter working on the Alienfranchise.

“They announced that Alien: Resurrection was being written by this guy named Joss Whedon,” recounted Gross. “I had never the name ‘Joss,’ let alone Joss Whedon. But I figured, ‘All right. How many ‘Joss Whedons’ can there be in the phone book?'”

Gross found Whedon’s number publicly listed, gave him a call, and introduced himself. The two spent 90 minutes to two hours talking about Alien, Whedon’s background, Whedon’s script-doctoring, and Whedon’s unmade Suspension script. Gross and Whedon’s conversations continued through the announcement of the Buffy TV show and beyond.

“Admittedly, as Buffy got more popular, they became shorter conversations,” said Gross. “But he had them anytime. His number wasn’t listed anymore, but I could still get him. And at the end of the whole Buffy/Angel thing, I thanked him for always making himself available to me. And his words to me were, ‘Ed, you were saying my stuff was important before anybody else was. And I’ll never forget that.’ He never did… until The Avengers.”

Gross and Altman pulled on Gross’ 20 hours worth of interviews with Whedon over the years. 

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“We were able to delve into that material,” said Altman, “so Joss is a huge voice in the book, even though technically, he didn’t give a new interview for the book.” 

Altman and Gross made sure to make it clear in both books that the interviews drawn upon were both new and, in some cases, decades old.

“With the Star Trek book,” said Altman, “there were Paramount people that we had interviewed that we didn’t re-interview, either because they were dead or because when we interviewed them, they didn’t work on Star Trek again, so there’s no reason to go back to them because we [had already] interviewed them.”

Crafting a cohesive narrative…

So you’ve compiled all of your interviews for your oral history, now what? How do you craft all of those different anecdotes into a cohesive story?

“I always say it’s like being at the world’s greatest dinner party with 500 people talking, and telling a narrative,” said Altman. The two-part Fifty-Year Mission clocked in at half a million words, with hundreds of interviews. That’s the hell of a dinner party.

“Somewhere in that half a million words, these quotes have to come together and tell [a story],” explained Gross. It’s not hard to see why, after finished two tomes of Star Trek‘s oral history, it took Gross a bit of time to convince Altman to begin the process all over again with the Buffy/Angel retrospective.

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“We had a lot less time to write it than we did the Star Trek book,” recounts Altman. “Fortunately, Ed had covered Buffy for many years, and had a lot of material—a lot of it that he’d never used. Then, we scrambled to talk to as many people as we could, and we’re amazed that the book came out so well.”

In speaking about the decision to not only cover Buffy, which was celebrating its 20th anniversary, but the Angel spin-off it spawned, Gross said it was always part of the book concept.

“We were insistent that, if we’re going to do Buffy, we’re going to do Angel,” said Gross, “and give it the same kind of in-depth exploration. Angel had never really gotten that kind of treatment.”

“We call it the Deep Space Nine of the Buffy franchise,” said Altman, putting it in Star Trek terms. “It’s show that, arguably, is better than the show that spawned it, but has a small but passionate following. [Similar to] the way Next Generation totally overshadowed Deep Space, Buffy totally overshadows Angel, but there’s stuff which is better.”

Favorite interviews…

Do Gross and Altman have favorite interviews conducted for the books?

“In season four [of Angel], there was an executive producer hired named David Simkins,” said Gross. “David was only briefly involved, and he did not have a good experience, and got let go. So, for me, it was exciting. David turned me down, and kept turning me down, and turning me down, turning me down. And I wrote him back and I said, ‘David, I know you don’t want to be interviewed, but I’ve got everybody else talking about you and your involvement with the show. Isn’t it due diligence that I get you in there?”

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Gross and Altman had a similar experience when writing The Fifty-Year Missionwhen it came to interviewing Kate Mulgrew, who had a notoriously bad relationship with co-star Jeri Ryan.

“When we talk about Voyager,” said Gross, “we had Jeri Ryan talking about how Kate Mulgrew basically made her life a living hell on that show. Then, right before the book went to press, I sat down with Kate Mulgrew, and I brought it up and she took full responsibility for the things she did.”

The Voyager section is one of Altman’s favorite parts of the Fifty-Year Mission story, he said, and it was one that Gross took the lead on. “He’s like fucking Barbara Walters,” said Altman of his writing partner’s interviewing ability and his knack for getting people to open up about difficult subjects.

Gross and Altman said they had a lot of respect for the way Mulgrew owned up to mistakes she had made in the past, and used the example to talk about their own philosophy when writing these oral histories. 

“The books are honest, but not gossipy,” said Altman. “We want to be honest and tell the real [story] uncensored … We want to explore the show. Not the personalities.”

Gross and Altman also singled out the interviews they conducted with James Marsters and Charisma Carpenter as two of their favorites from the Slayers & Vampires experience.

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“Those guys were so illuminating in so many ways,” said Gross. “They spent the time [to talk to us], and it was like, as you would talk to them, it was just like, ‘Oh, my God.'”

Carpenter opened up about her anxiety issues during one of her interview sessions with Gross and Altman, something that later made her hesitant to continue the interview process as the actress felt as if she had shared too much. Gross and Altman reassured the actress that they would handle the subject with sensitivity and respect, and it led to an important aspect of the finished Slayers & Vampires book…

“Just today we were doing the signing here,” said Altman. “This girl comes up. She’d just read the book, and she said, ‘I really related to Charisma, because she talks about her problem with anxiety,’ and she said, ‘I have the same problem, and it made me feel better about myself having read that Charisma has these problems.'”

Another standout interview for Altman and Gross when writing The Fifty-Year Mission came in Gross’ conversations with Jonathan Frakes, which came about when Frakes was directing an episode of The Librarians.

“I was doing Librarians with Frakes … and Ed calls me about the book. I’m sitting there with Frakes, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s Ed calling.’ So, Frakes takes my phone, he goes, ‘What do you want, Ed?'”

Gross wanted to properly interview Frakes for The Fifty-Year Mission, and he convinced Frakes to call him during his half-hour drive to work every morning that week.

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“And we did it for the whole week. Then, Friday, we finished and he said, ‘You know, Ed, I’m going to miss these calls.’ Then, on Monday, he called me just to say hi.”

Channeling geekish enthusiasm into something more…

It’s fitting, if not particularly surprising, that the origin of the partnership between Gross and Altman sprang from this same kind of geekish enthusiasm the authors call upon to write these important pieces of television history.

“He was writing for Starlog, and I was writing for Cinefantastique [in the 90s],” said Altman of the origin of his friendship with Gross. “Which was sort of like the Hatfields and the McCoys … We started talking. We hit it off, and we became friendly.”

Twenty years later, they would be working on The Fifty-Year Mission and Slayers & Vampires together.

“Ed and I really had the chance to work really closely together again, and that was super fun,” said Altman. “We would call each other after we did a really great interview, we’d say, ‘Oh, my God, you’ll never believe what so-and-so said,’ and we would trade Star Trek quotes.”

Gross and Altman obviously had a lot of fun writing The Fifty-Year Mission and Slayers & Vampires, but the oral histories also represent an immense amount of work in the form of arranging and conducting interviews, drawing upon decades of their own interview material, and organizing it all into coherent narratives—they’re also a huge boon to the field of television history.

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“I’m really so proud of those books,” said Altman, “because our goal was to write the greatest book about Star Trek [alongside The Making of Star Trek by Stephen Whitfield, the book that inspired Gross and Altman]. Because it was important to us. And I feel like we did.”

Slayers & Vampires, The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years, and The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years are all now available to purchase. They make great holiday gifts—both for yourself and your nerdy friends and family.