Starship Enterprise: It almost didn't fly

November 15, 1993|By Lynn Van Matre | Lynn Van Matre,Chicago Tribune

Poor William Shatner, aka Capt. James Tiberius Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. Nothing would have made him happier, the actor notes in the epilogue of "Star Trek Memories," than to be able to end his reminiscences about the beloved TV series "with the simple phrase 'And the cast, crew and creatives of "Star Trek" lived happily ever after.' "

But as Mr. Shatner discovered in catching up with his old colleagues, not only had some of them not lived happily ever after, but they also hadn't been terribly joyful while they were doing the show -- thanks in good measure to him.

Nichelle Nichols, who played crew mate Uhura, complained about Mr. Shatner's self-involvement and his dismaying tendency to deem her character's lines of dialogue unnecessary. Walter Koenig (who played Ensign Chekov) voiced similar sentiments. Jimmy Doohan (Scotty) refused to meet with Mr. Shatner, claiming that he "won't want to hear the negatives."

Well, live and learn. At least now Mr. Shatner knows why some of his former cast mates had been "rather cool" to him at "Star Trek" conventions. Of course, he never meant to hurt anyone, he writes now, seemingly chastened, though he admits he may have been "ignorant" of his fellow actors' need for screen time, not to mention their feelings.

But the other actors will have to write their own books. These are Mr. Shatner's "Star Trek" memories, and fans of the series will find anecdotes here on a variety of Enterprise issues: Leonard Nimoy's tribulations with Mr. Spock's pointy Vulcan ears; the flap engendered by a proposed kiss (reportedly the small screen's first interracial smooch) between Kirk and Uhura; and the challenge of coming up with special effects on the cheap, which involved scrounging through TV studio trash bins in search of other shows' castoff props.

Despite the show's popularity today, the series got off to a shaky start. It was the brainchild of Los Angeles policeman-turned-writer/producer Gene Roddenberry, who conceived the futuristic saga as set aboard a starship called the USS Yorktown, with a captain named Robert April and a reddish, half-Martian, fork-tailed crew member called Mr. Spock. The first "Star Trek" pilot show was deemed "too cerebral" by NBC.

The network liked the second pilot better. The show made its network debut in September 1966, to mediocre ratings and bad reviews, with Mr. Shatner singled out for his "wooden" acting. Saved from cancellation after both the first and second seasons by orchestrated write-in campaigns, the series made it through a third before getting the ax in 1969.

Ironically, according to Majel Barrett, Roddenberry's widow, NBC's research department had discovered that while the show's ratings were so-so, its demographics were highly desirable; the 18-to-40 set, today so coveted by advertisers, loved the series. But the TV industry didn't consider that important in 1969. Besides, NBC had already scuttled "Star Trek" by the time the research department reported its findings.

Time, of course, would prove that NBC had made a major mistake. Three months after being canceled, "Star Trek" rocketed to new heights of popularity in syndication. There the series would, as the Vulcans say, live long and prosper -- eventually becoming a pop culture phenomenon that spawned two more TV series and a half-dozen "Star Trek" films (so far).

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Star Trek Memories"

Author: William Shatner with Chris Kreski

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 306 pages, $22

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