Chaos on the Bridge (Review)

Chaos on the Bridge is must-see TV for any Star Trek fan – or even people who are just interested in Star Trek as a cultural phenomenon. It’s a 2014 documentary by (as in "produced and hosted by") William Shatner about the office politics behind Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s first two seasons. This was the time when the show was in really choppy waters – future uncertain, no guarantee it would even stay on the air, let alone be accepted by fans as a worthy successor to the Original Series. It’s hard for us today, living in the world where Next Generation the the definitive Star Trek series, to remember that it was ever on probation at any level. It’s all the more remarkable when you realize how much was working against it being successful at all.

That said, there’s something a little disappointing about Chaos on the Bridge. It tells its story well, and Shatner somehow manages to avoid making himself the center of attention (he’s maybe too absent – his perspective on some of this would be interesting). But at various points I had the impression that there were more intersting stories they could’ve been telling but were either downplaying or only hinting at.

The first of these is that apparently Patrick Stewart – more or less the only actor they interview1 – was the disciplinarian on set. All the other actors and actresses goofed off a lot, including sing-a-longs and dancing (!!!) – and Stewart insisted they take it seriously and STFU and GBTW. That not only confirms an assumption eveyone had long made – that Stewart’s clearly superior acting skills and sense of gravitas essentially carried the show on his shoulders through the first two years – but ups the ante on it. Stewart realized, where a lot of the others didn’t, that there was an opportunity here, but only if they seized it. That’s a story I would be interested in hearing more about.

The other is the story of how Roddenberry remade himself, slowly and deliberately, in the 1970s, and how that both saved and hindered Star Trek. This story is actually told in the film, but it takes a back seat to the main attraction, which is how everyone hated Roddenberry’s evil lawyer. The lawyer – Leonard Maizlish – does sound like a generally horrible person, and it’s hillarious hearing David Gerrold admit he once seriously considered pushing him out of an open window. The problem with it all is that you kind of get the impression they’re dangling this in front of you as something shiny and distracting to keep from wading into the political minefield that comes with any harsh criticism of Roddenberry.

Given how, um, fanatical some Star Trek fans can be (and I should know, I had a definite fanatic phase in 7th grade too), this may be the right way to handle this material. Some subjects are either not worth the fallout, or so emotionally charged that it’s essentially impossible to get an objective look at them, and Roddenberry’s legacy is probably an example of one.

The story they’re tiptoing around, though, is positively fascinating, and it basically goes like this. Roddenberry was a mediocre writer who got in to TV when it was still a growth industry and distinguished himself both because he did have some ideas that counted for new at the time, and because he was able to write very rapidly compared with other television writers. This bought him enough credibility in the industry to get to pitch his own show, and that show was only ahead of its time by about three years. This was Star Trek. During its first year, ratings were low and budgets were … not high, exactly, but too high to justify those ratings, and so there was already talk of cancellation before the second season. Letter-writing campaigns saved the show twice, but by the third year CBS had changed its timeslot, slashed its budget and handed it over to a … controversial showrunner, and so by the end of three years the whole thing was out of gas. No one expected to hear from Star Trek again. But then a funny thing happened in syndication: it sold like hotcakes. Not only that, but however much they kept upping the charge for it, affiliates kept paying. Fan conventions spread like wildfire, and the rest is legend.

Roddenberry and Shatner were both basically bankrupted by the experience of the show – with Shatner, at one point in the 70s, even living in his truck. But popularity just kept growing, and by the end of the decade, a rebooted Star Trek series was considered a hot enough property to consider for the cornerstone of the launch of a fourth television network. But before that happened, Roddenberry was frantically selling pilots to a gaggle of science fiction shows, not one of which was remotely successful. I’m not sure how many of these actually even got filmed; not a one got picked up. The only thing that was going remotely right for Roddenberry were his appearances at these newfangled Star Trek conventions, where he got paid to speak, treated like a visionary, and was able to sell off memorabilia to keep the lights in his house on.

You see where this is going. Basically kind man with an outsized sense of his own importance has one lucky break. This causes a lot of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, he’s failed at basically everything. On the other hand, he believes he’s someone important, and there is that one rather stellar success on his resume that he can cite in evidence. Which version is right? Well, neither, obviously. The truth is he’s an average guy with a few lucky breaks who actually did contribute something very important to American culture, though his part in that contribution is not as big as he likes to think. A healthy appreciation of that could’ve left him satisfied with his life. But he wanted to see himself as a visionary on par with Heinlein or Asimov, and all the office turbulence associated with the early years of Next Generation is sketched here as his quixotic quest to sustain a reputation he had managed to sell to a lot of people, but hadn’t really earned.

Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t really tackle it head on. They tell that story, but they story about Maizlish is allowed to run interferrence for Roddenberry, essentially. And that’s a shame, because the Roddenberry story has a sympathetic villain, and those are always much more interesting.

But there’s another reason I want the Roddenberry story told more directly, and that’s because I want someone to tackle its cliches head on. One cliche in particular that annoys me about Roddenberry is that his outright ban on any conflict between the characters is supposed to have drained any tension from the stories, left the writers with their hands tied and unable to write anything interesting. I’m skeptical of that on a number of levels. I’m skeptical of the whole narrative – heaped out in scoops in this documentary – that Next Generation got good once moving Roddenberry aside allowed them to tell human-interest stories with conflicts. I don’t doubt the timing, and I don’t doubt the direct causal link between pushing Roddenberry out and the show gaining in quality – rather, what I doubt is (a) that the quality gain was really a quantum leap, (b) that Next Generation ever really did human conflict and (c) that it would’ve been impossible to make the show Roddenberry wanted.

In fact, I think Next Generation‘s supposed success is an ironic tragedy of it own. Yes, it’s true, you can’t argue with ratings, and Next Generation clearly gave the public what it wanted, and I agree that justifies it. But I also think, like Roddenberry himself, Next Generation is a bit too drunk on its own importance. It’s not nearly as good as its writers think it is, certainly not in the ways they think it is. Next Generation‘s character development was actually pretty shoddy. What the writers of that show think are "interpersonal conflicts" are usually just straight out of psych 101 textbooks – the kinds of conflicts that can be solved by an hour in your guidance counsellor’s office, or even a trip to the bar to talk it through with your drinking buddies. Sure, they did conflict, but in such a hackneyed way I’m not sure what the point was. It isn’t those hackneyed afterschool special plots that people tuned in to see week after week. They were tuning in to see what Roddenberry thought they were: a particular fantasy about a utopian future. I conjecture that the overall improvement in quality explains the post-season 2 ratings bump, not the change in format.

The truth is, you can write stories about utopia, and you can do character development without interpersonal conflict (at least, without the kind of petty interpersonal conflict Roddenberry claimed would be gone by the 24th century), and we know this because Space: 1999 did it in its first season, and countless science fiction novels have done it. The reason anyone thinks Next Generation makes the contrary case is also a serendipitous contellation of happenstance. Roddenberry’s general failure with Star Trek the Motion Picture didn’t prove, as legend would have it, that you can’t write about utopia – it proved that HE can’t write about utopia. Which shouldn’t be too surprising, because he’s really not that great of a writer. This is the guy who not only gave us The Omega Glory in the first place, but who actually considered it for the pilot of the show he was trying to sell. Roddenberry was a mediocrity with one or two good ideas. It happens. But ideas are not responsible for the people who hold them, and it’s not any fictional utopian future’s fault that the most famous chamption of of the idea was a second-rate hack.

The thing is, the formula for doing character development in a utopian scifi future without petty interpersonal conflicts is dead simple, the problem is that it’s (a) a mirror image of how Star Trek: The Next Generation typically functions2 and (b) out of the range of the writers they had on staff anyway. That formula is: put the characters in an impossible situation they’re not prepared to deal with and let the situation show them their souls. It’s a simple formula with a difficult execution. We can’t really hold any writer responsible for being good at that – every writer has his own strengths and weaknesses, and not everyone can write every kind of story. But we shouldn’t make the inverse mistake either: just because your particular staff is incapable of pulling off the particular kind of writing your show needs, it doesn’t follow that no one can pull that off.

Next Generation was an ambitious concept handed to a group of medicorities who weren’t up to the task. For two years, there was another, even greater mediocrity on set who insisted they try anyway, but was a worse fit for the job than they were, and so didn’t even give them the breathing room to learn on the job. The story of Next Generation taking off isn’t so much a story of them finding their stride as a story of the scabs they brought on to replace them and satisfy Roddenberry’s vanity settling back into comfortable cliches that TV viewers like. It’s a typical tale of mistaking commercial success for artistic integrity. Make that mistake, and you’ll follow Ron Moore down to his personal little hack writer hell where a "story" is just making up a guest star who is implausibly obtuse about something the rest of us find obvious and letting that person "discover," through boring conversation, that obvious thing that everyone already knows. It works as a script-generation machine, but it’s wrtiers’ McDonalds.

Next Generation could’ve been something truly great, and it was Roddenberry’s vision that gave it that foundation. We just needed a world where someone could’ve had Roddenberry write a script bible and then die two years earlier than he did.

I think this documentary gets it half right. I like that it makes clear that the original writing staff was possibly just barely talented enough to carry the show Roddenberry wanted, he just didn’t give them the breathing room to learn how. I like the way they slyly suggest that maybe Maurice Hurley, Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and Ron Moore aren’t really so much saviors as men who happened to still be on deck when the rescue ships arrived. The problem for me is that it’s ultimately a study in not really taking sides. It buries the Roddenberry story under a cover story about an evil lawyer, and it buries the writers’ story under the cover of how successful the show ultimately became. It presents information, but doesn’t really ask any questions. That’s a shame.

The definitive utopian science fiction series remains unwritten. This documentary wants you to think that it’s fundamentally unwriteable, and that Next Generation only got good by realizing and accepting that. I don’t think the facts presented support that conclusion, though. It’s writeable, it just wasn’t writeable by Gene Roddenberry or Maurice Hurley. It sure as hell wasn’t writable by Ron Moore. Hopefully someday someone will try again.

  1. Jonathan Frakes has, I believe, two segments in the whole thing. You barely recognize him at first. Interestingly, I don’t remember Shatner in frame with either of them. One of the annoying things about the whole production is how obviously edited it is, such that you’re not always sure Shatner is in the same room with the person he’s ostensibly interviewing. In the case of Stewart, it might as well be another interviewer altogether; we never see Shatner ask him a question at all.

  2. Next Generation usually teases the impossible situation and then sucks us back into the kind of interpersonal conflict that can happen anywhere, solving the impossible situation by technobabble fiat by the end of the hour, and focusing on the human interest story instead. Doing it right would’ve meant doing something like the opposite of that: throw everyone into the impossible situation, let them react to it, even though they can’t handle it, allow an incomplete resolution of it by the end of the hours, and let character development fall out of their reactions.

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