William Shatner Presents: Chaos On The Bridge is a documentary covering the tumultuous early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as told by the writers and producers who worked on it. Written, produced and directed by William Shatner, the 60-minute film has recently been made available worldwide for the first time following a limited release last year, so we took a moment to sit down to talk with the man himself and find out what the story behind it really is.
So, the documentary is essentially the story of how Gene Roddenberry passed the Star Trek torch – or possibly had it wrested from him – during the first few years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The first thing I’d like to ask is how you remember Gene, and whether making this documentary changed your feelings about him?
Yes, it did. I had got to know Gene when I was working for him, but back then he held us all at some distance. You know, there’s a conflict between the two roles of a writer-producer, which is what he was. Writers are usually – and I don’t know if this applies to you – they’re usually solitary people who work at a keyboard or typewriter and manufacture things out of their mind, and it can be a lonely profession. Writers either accept that or get tired of it and quit, but it is a largely solitary venture. Do you agree with that?
I think that’s definitely a fair assessment.
Okay. So the opposite of that is somebody who produces a show. It’s a role that requires a gregarious person, who speaks to people and is political, and can soothe feelings and generate enthusiasm, and it’s the exact opposite of the lonely writer. When you make a writer into a producer, it creates a conflict between two basic personalities, and I think on Star Trek we ran into a Gene Roddenberry who wasn’t comfortable dealing with a lot of people who had a lot of emotions.
Now, when he came about later onto The Next Generation, he had evolved. He was much more the gregarious, political producer, and was able to handle people in an acceptable way. Except then he began to get sick, and his illness made it difficult for him to reach out to people. He was once again in conflict, and it was that conflict which I began to understand when I made the film.
It does seem like The Next Generation had a lot of conflict around its beginnings, not just with Gene and those around him, but at virtually every level of its production. I came away from the documentary wondering whether it’s typical, at least in your experience, for TV shows to be born out of such turmoil?
No, no, not at all. It’s normally the exact opposite, in that every moment you waste is money lost, so everybody in the production is geared up towards getting everything done exactly on time. On the Star Trek I was on, in the third year we weren’t allowed to go over. We had to quit at 6:12 every day. Not 6:11, or 6:13. At 6:12 they pulled the plug, no matter where we were. It’s that level of organisation that you expect in television. So what we saw on The Next Generation – the chaos, the time-wasting, the people in conflict with each other – it just can’t take place. It’s supposed to be eradicated, and the fact that it wasn’t made the situation worthy of study.
And key to understanding the chaos, I think, was getting Maurice Hurley to talk to you. Maurice was clearly a big part of getting TNG to the point where it could survive the pressure of Roddenberry’s vision, but he was in such a difficult position that once he left the show he didn’t speak on the record about Star Trek for over two decades.
That’s exactly right.
So I have to ask: how did you get him involved?
He and I knew one another from when I directed some of his scripts for TV, we worked on a movie and some movie scripts together which unfortunately weren’t made even though he wrote great scripts, so we became really good friends. He and his wife Jeri came to my house frequently to watch football and have fun, we were really good buddies. So when I asked if he’d consent to being interviewed and tell the truth about his time on The Next Generation, he was happy to do it with me. And it’s his presence that essentially made the documentary work.
And with Maurice and some of the other major players, most notably Gene himself, but also Leonard Maizlish, you’ve got three guys about whom there were a lot of conflicting opinions to say the least. How, as a director, did you approach the responsibility of giving them a fair portrayal?
I was very aware of that. You as a writer must know you have to be careful what words you use, and in my case it was the same, only I have the angles, and the edit to work with. The position we took was that we wouldn’t come down on one side or the other. We made sure to give everyone a chance to express themselves, even when there were polar opposite opinions about some individuals being expressed. We were assiduous in trying to give people a fair time of it.
I expect that was easier for some people than others.
As you well know!
So since we’re almost out of time, I wondered if we could just get some thoughts about your relationship to Star Trek. I don’t mean to be indelicate, so I apologise in advance if it comes off that way, but many of your contemporaries are no longer with us. Do you feel, with documentaries like this one and more generally, that you have a responsibility to remain a voice in the conversation?
I understand what you’re saying, but you know, I’ve done a number of documentaries and written several books. I think I’ve clearly delineated my view of Star Trek both in its fiction and in reality, and I don’t know if I have that much more to add about my own experiences, which is part of why I wanted to bring out other people’s. I’ve bequeathed what I can. In the final analysis, it was only a television show. It’s part of everybody’s life. But only a part.
William Shatner, thank you very much.
William Shatner Presents: Chaos On The Bridge is available to rent or buy from Vimeo, iTunes and Amazon now, in the UK and other territories.
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