Book Review: The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman

When the original series of Star Trek first appeared on network television in 1966, I was thirteen years old. I had already been exposed to science fiction on television in the form of Lost in Space a year earlier. I loved that show. It fed my burgeoning appetite for fantasy when I was a child, but it had nothing like the effect that Star Trek had during my teen years. In the beginning, I watched Star Trek – and everything else – in black and white. We didn’t have a color TV. My family didn’t get one, in fact, until after I had moved out for good. Be that as it may, I rarely missed an episode of Star Trek, and when it came out in syndication, I watched those episodes over and over and over again. There was something singular, something special about it. When I determined to become a writer and attended Clarion West science fiction writing workshop in 1973, Star Trek loomed even greater in importance. For the first time, in my classmates, I met people who appreciated it as much as I did. Additionally, the man who had written my favorite episode of all time, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Harlan Ellison, was one of my teachers.

Before someone gave me this new book on the beginnings of Star Trek, I had read a few books about the show. First was The Making of Star Trek, which its creator and producer, Gene Roddenberry, helped to write. Later I read a less complementary biography of Roddenberry.

And now this book.

It’s in an unusual format. It consists of numerous interviews with almost everyone who has ever had anything to do with the show that are edited together to form a coherent story. I can think of all sorts of reasons why this sort of style might not work – and even in this book it causes a lot of repetition – but for the most part it succeeds.

The book starts with the very first genesis of the series in the mind of its creator and follows it through the first three seasons of the original series and the six movies that came after. A sequel, which I haven’t read yet, continues the story from the inception of The Next Generation all the way up to J.J. Abrams’s films. Oddly enough, I was talking with my oldest son on Skype about this book and recommending he read it, and he said he was already reading it. There was a bit of confusion until we both realized that he was reading the sequel and I was reading the first book. Yes, we’re both Star Trek fans.

What can I say about the book? It’s not fair to attempt to summarize it, as the story is too convoluted; it has too many twists and turns and fascinating asides. If you like Star Trek – or if you’re interested in the complications of television production – read the book. Otherwise, you might not find it to your liking. As for myself, I already knew about a lot of the squabbles that accompanied the making of the series, but I had not heard many of the details. I find it an interesting and absorbing book, and I am sure that in time I will seek out and read the sequel. It offers fascinating insight not only into the Star Trek series, but also into how writers and producers and directors and actors work together – or perhaps more often at least attempt to work together. It gives you a crazy close-up look at network decision making, which no doubt continues to this day, even though the means of television production and viewing have changed so radically.

Interestingly enough, I had just finished re-watching the entire three seasons of the original series on Netflix from first show to last shortly before beginning this book. One thing that it helped me see is why there is such a difference in quality between the first season and a half and the rest of its run. It’s a miracle that the show survived as long as it did, and an even greater miracle that it ever became the unprecedented cultural phenomenon that it is now.

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