My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As most Trekkies likely know, there was as much, if not more so, drama behind the scenes than ever made it to screen. The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years recounts all of the various conflicts that went into creating this franchise from the people who witnessed it all first-hand.
On the one hand, thanks to plenty of hindsight and having grown up in a world permeated by the existence of Star Trek in some form or another, it seems downright foolish that there was ever any reticence in bringing Star Trek to screens both big and small. On the other hand, given all of the infighting between studios, producers, creators, and actors, it's almost miraculous the TV incarnation ever got made, let alone moved onto theatrical productions.
The Fifty-Year Mission presents an unvarnished view of the creation of the initial episodic series back in the 1960s, which ran for three seasons before being cancelled, and its leap to the silver screen a decade later. Through decades' worth of interviews, we get a sense of the people involved through their own words, as well as reflections from others. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry is, of course, a large part of this narrative's initial focus, and although he may have been the Great Bird of the Galaxy he was also his own worst enemy. We see here a man of extraordinary progressive vision, a vision that has infused and shaped Star Trek over the course of now fifty years, but also a man whose hubris and ego often got in the way of his own creative efforts, as well as those around him. His rewriting of scripts was often to the detriment of those stories, and he made more than a few enemies, including well-known science fiction author Harlan Ellison, whose interview segments do nothing to dispell his status as sci-fi's biggest curmudgeon.
As with any long-running franchise with so many people involved and so many moving parts, there is going to be a fair share of ups and downs. The Fifty Year Mission does not shy away from tackling both the good and the bad, and there is an appreciable level of candor from the parties involved as they air their frustrations and their successes.
Twenty-five years is also a long period of time to cover, and this audiobook's runtime of nearly 23 1/2 hours represents the creation of Star Trek as a television series, and its redevelopment as a theatrical franchise, culminating with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the final voyage for the entire original crew of the Starships Enterprise. Production-wise, this is a fairly basic affair and while it is solidly done, I wouldn't have minded a few extra bells and whistles to curb some of the narration's dryness. A handful of narrators tackle the readings of the various interview sources collected here, and I can't help but think it a shame that we never get to hear any of the original recordings these interviews originated from. I suppose such an undertaking would have been too prohibitive, but for a book curated to celebrate the fifty-year milestone of such a beloved franchise it seems a few extra steps could have been taken to make this a more special and engaging listen.
Keep in mind, too, that title is dubbed an "oral history," for very good reason. The story of Star Trek is told entirely through first-person accounts, with snippets of interviews, thoughts, and recollections from the various creatives involved pieced together to create context and a narrative framework. The book's authors, Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, should be credited for piecing all this together, but their footprint as story-tellers here is very small, and they provide very little input to the proceedings aside from a foreword from each (along with Seth McFarlane), taking a backseat to the curation of the Star Trek legacy itself. I might also add that, once past the forewords, listeners can skip the multiple chapters devoted solely to dramatis personae, which involves more than an hour's worth of one narrator dryly listing the names and credentials of those interviewed in subsequent chapters, information which gets repeated numerous times throughout the course of the book's oral history.
Since this is only the first half of Star Trek's fifty-year history, the audiobook finishes with a To Be Continued note, but for fans of The Original Series their part of the story is sufficiently self-contained. For hardcore Trekkies, there are still 25 more years to cover, and plenty more Star Trek to explore in the subsequent volume, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J.J. Abrams.
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