The revival of Star Trek in the late 1980s ultimately proved so popular that it’s strange to think it was almost sunk by infighting and internal politics between those who most desperately wanted to see it succeed. And yet, that’s what happened. You don’t have to be a particularly keen fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation to notice that the earliest two seasons are ropey and inconsistent. In many ways, it’s surprising that they got made at all.
This is the stance taken by William Shatner’s latest Star Trek documentary, entitled Chaos On The Bridge, which examines the tumultuous early years of TNG and the circumstances surrounding its creation. It’s been more than 25 years since Star Trek: The Next Generation went into production, and while we’ve had parts of the story told in interviews and memoirs, it’s rare to see it delivered first hand by the people who were there.
Throughout the documentary, Shatner is able to use his unique position within Star Trek’s inner circle to speak to those who witnessed the turmoil first-hand and get the real story – at least as they see it. At times it makes uncomfortable viewing, especially if you buy into some of the mythologies around Star Trek and its creator, Gene Roddenberry. However, the emphasis rarely falls on blame and grudges – in fact, the overall tone is one of amazement and surprise that despite it all, they produced something people loved. Perhaps a few decades’ distance will give you that perspective.
Key to understanding the turmoil of the era are the contributions of Maurice Hurley, who has sadly since passed away between the making and general release of this documentary. Speaking on the record for almost the first time in 20 years, Hurley – a showrunner during those early years – provides a fascinating perspective that this documentary has been key in getting on the record. Whatever you think you know about Star Trek: TNG’s origins, you don’t know the full story until you’ve heard his.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the documentary is the comparative lack of Shatner himself. While he narrates and occasionally hosts from in-camera, his contributions to the narrative itself are minimal. This might be expected – after all, he wasn’t there when TNG was being made – but as someone who knew many of these people and has similar experiences of his own, it feels like a missed opportunity to hear from him. Then again, as he suggested in his interview with us, it’s not as if there’s any shortage of material from him around on the subject.
Certainly, it’s not as though the film lacks voices. It’s packed with recognisable names, and even has its own cartoon villain in the shape of Leonard Maizlish. It seems no coincidence that the film intersperses the interviews with short, animated reconstructions of major events. It’s not a documentary that tries to unpick the emotional nuance surrounding its subjects. Rather, it simply wants us to feel what they feel so that we can understand them.
If there’s anything wrong with the documentary, it’s simply that there isn’t enough material in it – and that’s a surprise given how many people show up in here, some of whom are rarely seen talking about their time on the show. This creates a comprehensive feeling, but it also leaves the impression that huge chunks of interesting material had to go in order to keep the focus on specific events. When the period is so demonstrably fascinating, it’s hard not to get the sense that more would be better, especially since many of the interviewees were clearly in a candid mood.
Ultimately it’s a strong hour of behind-the-scenes information that any TNG fan will find interesting. It certainly benefits from being made outside the overly-sanitised environment of DVD extras, which is the place we’re next most likely to find this type of interview. It’s not unfair to say this documentary isn’t going to be Shatner’s greatest contribution to Trek lore – but in making it, he has, at the absolute minimum, helped foster a better understanding of this difficult time for the franchise and the people behind it. And that’s more than enough to justify its existence.
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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