Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry once boasted that he knew Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and that if he’d wanted, he could have started his own religion too.
With the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, and the boom of related TV shows and films that followed, Trek arguably became a religion of sorts, though who deserves the credit for its success remains in question.
William Shatner’s Chaos on the Bridge examines the first crucial seasons of TNG, and the question of who’s responsible for the success of the new show, and argues without concession that it was not Gene Roddenberry. Shatner gained access to an impressive number of Trek alumni from the original series to the latter shows, and while some like Patrick Stewart and Gates McFadden speak warmly of Roddenberry, nearly all the creative personnel who had any day-to-day interaction with the so-called Great Bird of the Galaxy speak of a man in ill health and declining faculties. Original series writer David Gerrold, a longtime friend of Roddenberry, reveals that the Trek creator had suffered a series of ministrokes. Writer DC Fontanna recalls Roddenberry bumping into walls during staff meetings. Roddenberry’s assistant Richard Arnold speaks of Roddenberry’s longtime drug and alcohol use, and how the creator struggled with sobriety in the last years of his life. More shocking, Arnold also confesses that while Roddenberry fought to keep his name associated with his one successful television show in a career of flops, he had no particular interest in Star Trek or creating a new show beyond the financial incentive. Roddenberry’s agreeing to create TNG happened more by accident than anything else.
Enter Roddenberry’s obnoxious lawyer, Leonard Maizlish, a shady character by all accounts who snooped through offices, broke into the computers of staff and illegally gave script notes over objections of the Writer’s Guild. Paramount Studio head John Pike recalls hoping Mazlish would drop dead in front of him, while David Gerrold fantasized about pushing Mazlish out a window. Though Maizlish would eventually get banned from the Paramount lot, the effect of his presence is felt throughout Chaos on the Bridge as a sort of gremlin saboteur, making creative decisions in Roddenberry’s name. Instead of Star Trek, the series could have been called The Shit Show both for the behind-the-scenes chaos, and the uneven quality of the show’s early seasons.
As Roddenberry’s involvement lessened, Chaos on the Bridge begins to focus on the backstage bickering during the first two seasons of The Next Generation including the notorious exits of Gates McFadden and Denise Crosby, the short order hiring and firing of Diana Muldar, and the endless rotation of writers coming and going through the series offices. The chaos only begins to subside–rather morbidly–after Roddenberry’s death and the departure of his chosen producer Maurice Hurley. As the show became more character based, it’s already considerable popularity skyrocketed, becoming one of the most acclaimed television shows in history.
The most perplexing quality of Chaos on the Bridge is it’s length: at 56 minutes, it feels far too short, especially given the remarkable cast of talking heads Shatner assembled. Some, like Muldar and Jeffery Katzenberg, show up so briefly their presence almost feels like a tease. The film could have been easily 30-40 minutes longer and, I suspect, Shatner had the footage to assemble a longer cut. Perhaps the anecdotes told by his interviewees were actually too cutting to add to the movie.
Shatner reconstructs the turbulent years of Star Trek: The Next Generation through interviews and witty animation, depicting the characters either too embarrassed or too dead to speak for themselves. The film is a must for Star Trek fans, or those interested in the inner workings of television as it is. While it could have been more in depth, and I suspect, more salacious, it certainly satisfies and entertains.