Hey, that’s the Book!…I don’t want any more cracks about The Book.
— Gangster guy in “A Piece of the Action”
In the beginning Star Trek was a lusty and pagan religion of sun gods and virgins sacrificed to the river. But decades later it was as if it had become a cathedral of rigid rules and Worship Words, only to be spoken by a shrinking priesthood of Klingon speakers, who elevated such trifles as Alan Ruck’s five-minute role in “Star Trek: Generations” to the status of holy writ and demanded that all Star Trek obey the book of TV show continuity that they called “canon,” treating bad Enterprise scripts like a copy of Chicago Mobs of the Twenties left on an impressionable planet.
Where did it come from–this sense among Trek fans of “how does this fit in”? That what matters isn’t the story you’re watching, but the rest of the stories, on “Deep Space 9” and “Enterprise” and “Voyager,” and whether they will be disobeyed by this one?
Cataloguing the details of Trek had been a fan fascination since the original show. Fans like Franz Joseph, the draftsman behind the Technical Manual (1975), had followed the urge to write Trek Bibles of their own. But there hadn’t been the strong demand, in those days, that an “official” Star Trek canon be followed in return by the franchise. Not until the 1990s–when Star Trek became a company show. Fans obsessing about canon now don’t realize they’ve been played by the marketing strategies of a huge conglomerate.
We’ll look at how this happened. But first, this is sort of amazing:
“My Wife Got the Whole Planet in the Divorce.”
In 1987, almost two decades after the cancellation of Star Trek, the first episode of The Next Generation aired. Was it an extension of the original story of Kirk and Spock, or a show all its own? Believe it or not, judges have answered the question in California’s court system.
While Deep Space 9 fans were being blown away in the 1990s by the Enemy Mine-esque Jem’Hadar foes, a similarly pitched battle was being waged in the courts. Just as bitter as the clash between Re-Animator‘s Jeffrey Combs and Rene Auberjonois, it was a war for the soul of the galaxy. It was Roddenberry vs. Roddenberry.
In one corner was series creator Gene Roddenberry’s first wife, Eileen. In 1969, the old Shatner show had ended with an episode about a spurned woman hijacking Captain Kirk’s identity, and the Roddenberry marriage had ended with Gene marrying Nurse Chapel actress Majel Barrett, days after the divorce. In the divorce agreement, Eileen had been awarded a 15 percent “profit participation” stake in the original series (which, it turns out, was unprofitable until 1984.)
But now that the show had blossomed into a movie franchise and second TV series, she claimed to be entitled to proceeds from all of the above. Standing in her way was Barrett, the executor of Gene’s estate and voice of the ship’s computer. Eileen argued that the phrase “Star Trek” in the divorce papers should have covered everything, not just the original show (which had so far brought her a remarkable $13.8 million.)
The first judge, Macklin Fleming, came to the interesting conclusion that The Next Generation and DS9 were “continuations,” because they were on TV and took place in the same timeline as the original series, but that the movies and 1973-1974 cartoon series weren’t. They had appeared in other formats and couldn’t have been anticipated at the time of the original divorce agreement, the argument went.
Then a higher court stiffed Eileen, who could only have left wishing she had hired Samuel T. Cogley (above) to handle her appeal. The new decision cited “the uniqueness of Star Trek’s resurgence,” an anomaly “unprecedented” in entertainment history. The new TV properties had come into existence as separate entities not foreseen in the divorce agreement, said the justice.
The fight over Gene’s legacy spoke to the identity crisis that had been taking center stage in the Star Trek world during the last decade of Roddenberry’s life. The question was: with the original Golden Age sci-fi writers of Trek out of the picture, and Gene Roddenberry stripped of control of his own movie series since 1982, but taking a powerful role in the creation of The Next Generation, who was at the creative center of Star Trek?
“Tonight … the 24th Century!”
Before The Next Generation, Star Trek was blissfully free of what fans now call “canon.” It hit movie screens without caring about official answers to questions like: How long after the TV show is this taking place? Why does everything look different between the first and second movies? Why is it you can order another starship to lower its defenses by inputting a zip code?
The same way it took an emo Romulan’s attack from the future to turn Captain Kirk into the guy from Just My Luck, it was Gene Roddenberry’s push to launch his own, utopian recreation of Star Trek, after years of complaining about the militarism in the movies, that led to the rupture from which canon first emerged. Given Roddenberry’s lack of input into most of the movies, his duties as Executive Producer seem to have amounted to accepting money to leave the other producers alone. But with TNG, Gene was finally able to restore Trek to what he wanted.
Here he consciously chose to expand the universe and intertwine events so they made internal sense–in theory, anyway. The old Star Trek had teased us with its refusal to obey space and time as we know it. The Stardates in Kirk’s Captain’s Log were seemingly random numbers, scattering the episodes across the future. Or so it was until TNG’s proclamation that these events had occurred 78 years before the arrival of Captain Picard, and that the Enterprise was now the predecessor to an Enterprise-D, and that an oiled-up Takei running around with a sword was a premonition, from the computer files, of the hijinks in “The Naked Now” (hard to blame Eileen Roddenberry, after watching said episode, for thinking she deserved some cash.)
The divide created by The Next Generation left two camps creating Trek under the Paramount umbrella. One faction was led by Harve Bennett, the steward of the film series. Off the high of IV, the comedy one about the whales, he was prepping The Final Frontier, to be directed by Shatner himself. His rival in the fight for Trek was Roddenberry himself. Meanwhile, Gene’s old TOS cohorts, brought back to write the first season of TNG were, according to biographer Joel Engel, fighting some of Gene’s more challenging proposed ideas, including giant genitalia between the legs of the money-grubbing Ferengi race–an allegory, perhaps, for Hollywood producers he hated.
It’s often forgotten how rocky the transition was for TNG–from a cheesy upstart competing with “Small Wonder” to a hugely successful third-season weekly event. But this was all aided, arguably, by one event: the dismal failure of The Final Frontier.
Word at the time was that Gene hated V, even in its early conception stages. Conventional wisdom has it that the movie’s box office failure is Shatner’s fault, for coming up with its Enterprise-seeks-God plot. That doesn’t really wash, considering how close the story was to ideas Gene had pushed over the years, including his original proposal, “The God Thing,” for what became 1979’s The Motion Picture. (Just like inV, The God Thing finds James T. Kirk meeting God only to discover He is a bunch of bullshit.)
A more likely factor in Roddenberry’s disgust with V was that the new movie doesn’t bother to acknowledge his Next Generation. The new show, in which Roddenberry had invested his utopian hopes, was being shot on some of the same sets. And yet Star Trek V stubbornly behaves as if, instead of handing over the legacy to a new crew, Shatner will be climbing on-screen mountains, and Uhura stripping, for many more movies to come. No wonder Gene pronounced V, and Mr. Spock’s secret half-brother, “apocryphal,” implying the existence of a canon by designating what’s left out of it.
The next film, Nick Meyer’s Undiscovered Country, wasn’t just an obvious attempt to clean up the mess of The Final Frontier, but a bridge to the new property–and the first Star Trek designed to promote another Star Trek. It set up a world in which the hated Klingons could become our friends in a kinder, gentler Starfleet that employed psychologists on the bridge and had signed a peace treaty on the planet Khitomer. Given that the Wrath of Khan‘s brilliant rebooter Meyer always seemed to care more about Sherlock Holmes than Star Trek, it’s hard to imagine that he was the one who thought it was a good idea for the movie to hit the TNG buttons so hard, including a cameo by Michael Dorn as the grandfather of the Klingon crewman Worf…
(Edited to remove a mistaken Usenet reference.)