William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge
Review by David Paul Hellings
Written, Directed and Narrated by the man himself, “William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge” is an illuminating examination of the problems and power struggles behind seasons one to three of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.
With new interviews from cast and behind the scenes players, it reveals the politics of bringing a show to the air and the ego-driven wars between executives and showrunners, with the writers and actors caught in the middle.
If you’ve ever read William Shatner’s excellent and revealing books “Star Trek Memories” and “Star Trek Movie Memories”, you’ll know of the many problems that faced the classic “Star Trek” series and the film franchise that followed. “Chaos on the Bridge” shows that all of those years later, very little had changed.
It is a tale of poker playing and power games as “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, by now facing addiction issues, failing health, older age, and years in the wilderness, is called back to help create a new “Star Trek” series with all new characters. Roddenberry, by now a Humanist who believed that mankind was evolving into a better self and that the future would be positive, found himself at odds with Paramount executives with little or no interest in his opinions or ideas.
Fans were also against the idea, demanding to know where Kirk, Spock and McCoy were? The idea that their beloved characters were to be replaced was pure heresy to Trekkers across the globe. The situation wasn’t helped (and often sabotaged) by Roddenberry’s reliance on his Machiavellian lawyer.
Paramount balked at the cost and seeming lack of public interest and the show idea was shopped around, but no other studio was interested in backing such a seemingly risky move. Paramount finally agreed a syndication deal selling it territory by territory, channel by channel. The odds were against “Star Trek: The Next Generation” right from the start. Could it be born, or would it be killed at birth?
Trekkers may balk at the representation of Roddenberry, but it’s an honest representation of a man who finally rediscovered the power he once held and didn’t always use it wisely. The world had changed since the classic series and so had television. He rejected the idea of a two- hour pilot, finally agreeing under pressure. He alienated writers who rightly saw that Roddenberry’s humanist take of a future without conflict equated to no drama, and therefore completely undermined the basis of storytelling. It was all about power and control.
“William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge” looks at a whole range of fascinating issues, by way of engaging interviews and recollections, such as the auditioning for the new Captain of the Enterprise; hirings and firings; set behaviour; the low budget conditions that saw cast members stealing food from the cast of “Cheers” that was filming on the same lot and much more.
Chaos was the word: scripts were jettisoned by Roddenberry only a few days before they were due to be shot. A Season One that saw an unprecedented 30 writers come and go did not bode well for the show’s future, with nobody behind the scenes seemingly believing that there would be a Season Two, especially when it found itself hit by the lengthy Writer’s Guild strike. But a second season did arrive, with problems all of its own, including a creatively unfulfilled Patrick Stewart.
Not until Season Three and the change of direction brought about by Roddenberry’s ill health and departure did the show change from being plot to character driven, resulting in the much loved series it became. A new generation had finally taken control.
“William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge” is a must see for fans of all of the series of “Star Trek”. The documentary is deeply amusing, touching, sad, unbelievable in its absurdity regarding the politics and power of television production, but always revealing.
This review originally appeared on SFFWorld: