Chronicling Star Trek: Fotonovels Live!

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Few TV series have been more fully chronicled in print than Star Trek. Beginning in the mid-1960s with the legendary behind-the-scenes tome “The Making of Star Trek,” hundreds of books have been published to document the creation of every incarnation of Star Trek.

Here, in an unpublished excerpt from our Star Trek Roundtable cover story from Geek magazine (issue 01:05), our panel of Treksperts discuss their feelings about first discovering some of these classic volumes, including the legendary Star Trek Fotonovel series which, during the Dark Ages before the dawn of home video, ingeniously used production stills in comic book form to illustrate various episodes.

ROD RODDENBERRY (son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry): “The Making of Star Trek” was actually a great book, and that’s where I learned a great deal about how my father and the other people on the production staff would contact JPL and Cal Tech. And I think one story that’s in there is about the creation of the phaser, where my father sort of said, “We need a weapon.” The response was, “Well, right now we’re working on lasers.” My father said, “So what’s the next step?” And it was the “phasing laser,” and that’s where the “phaser” came from. So the believability was a very important part. In fact, in the [show] Bible, the writing document for the original series, there’s a whole paragraph on believability, where my father talks about how important it is to make things believable.

BRANNON BRAGA (Executive producer, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager & Enterprise): That may be the most groundbreaking behind-the-scenes book ever written.

DAVID A. GOODMAN (writer/producer Futurama, Star Trek: Enterprise, American Dad and author of “Star Trek: Federation – The First 150 Years”): I became a TV writer because of that book because I didn’t even know the job existed. Like you’re watching television and you don’t stop to think about the fact somebody wrote every word that’s coming out of Hawkeye Pierce’s mouth, and it’s not just Kirk, it’s like somebody sitting down and writing, and that book opened my mind. Oh my god, this is a job… I can do this as a job.

MARK A. ALTMAN (writer/producer of Free Enterprise, author of “Captains Logs: The Complete Trek Voyages”): That book is really remarkable, because it was not until years later that you got books like Carl Gotttlieb’s “The Jaws Log” or even “Hitchcock/Truffaut.”

RODDENBERRY: Whitfield was on the set or whatever his real name was…

SCOTT MANTZ (chief film critic, Access Hollywood): Steven Edward Poe.

ALTMAN: And, of course, you had Franz Joseph’s seminal “Technical Manual” and the “Star Trek Blueeprints,” where you learned their was a bowling alley on the Enterprise which is just incredible in their specificity and the packaging as well. And then David Gerrold did a really interesting book about the making of “The Trouble of Tribbles,” which was an entire book just about writing that one episode, which also re-printed the script.

MANTZ: I got that book at the same time I got Fotonovel Number Nine, which is…

BRAGA: Oh, remember the Fotonovels?!?

ALTMAN: We could do a whole discussion just on Fotonovels. Now, this may be before your time, Rod, but before VHS, you had to wait for re-runs or you went into a movie theater with a cassette recorder and taped the movie or you got these Fotonovels which were basically stills from the show with word balloons.

MANTZ: “A Piece of the Action” was number eight. “Devil in the Dark” was nine. One was “City.” Two was “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Three was “Trouble With Tribbles.” Four was “A Taste of Armageddon.” Five was “Metamorphosis.” Six was…

GOODMAN: How many are there?

MANTZ: There are only 12. Number 11 was “The Deadly Years.” And 12 was “Amok Time.”

ALTMAN: I don’t know if that’s impressive or pathetic that you know that. [laughter]. The Fotonovel is an interesting phenomenon. It was the bridge between sort of a certain era and the dawn of VHS.

GOODMAN: But it also spoke to what I think separated Star Trek fans from other TV fans which is that we really wanted to watch those things over and over and there was a way in which, too, that I think there was something, again, about what Rod’s dad created and the writers he worked with. They created this — they didn’t fill in all the blanks. You wanted to know all the details that weren’t even in the shows. You would always re-watch the episodes, looking for more details, and trying to fill in the blanks of this world they created, and I think that’s what led to people wearing costumes and really just participating. It’s similar to Sherlock Holmes fans, who do the same thing, I think. Michael Chabon wrote a great essay about this and that popular fiction does this thing where it creates this world, and it doesn’t fill in the blanks, and that means that the fans want to. And that creates websites and that creates fanzines, like when we were kids, self-published stories. We wanted to participate. And there was some way in which Star Trek really I think was the first television series really to do that.

ALTMAN: It’s also interesting that things now work on such a meta level, because shows are being created by fans who are fans, whereas Gene Rodenberry came out of the military, worked on Have Gun, Will Travel and created The Lieutenant, which recently came out on DVD, which is an interesting show. Now you have a generation, like Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams and Brannon, who are fans and now creating stuff for another generation to be fans of.

RODDENBERRY: Isn’t it similar, though? My father read “John Carter of Mars” and a number of those classic sci-fi novels and was a fan of those. I don’t think that kind of fandom didn’t exist back when he was young,

GOODMAN: It was just harder for people to find each other. Television creates a community, and now the internet, creates this way that people can interact moment to moment about the interest that they share. Back then, you were buying a fanzine or buying a pulp magazine, you’re at home, alone, reading it. There’s no way to connect to anybody else and find out, I’m not alone. I share this interest with other people. And the information age changed that.

RODDENBERRY: I think Star Trek, in a way, appealed to people who felt different and people who felt really sort of excluded from the normal everyday society. Wasn’t it the college students who first led to Trek getting popular?

MANTZ: In its first run, the first station that started airing it, nightly, in syndication, was actually in Philadelphia. And it was in 1969. And within a few years, other affiliates throughout the country started airing it five nights a week. When it was on, its first run, it was on once a week, on NBC, and the popular myth is that it did horrible in the ratings and it was a failure and every year they had to fight to keep it on. But the target demo was there. They were the ones who wrote in at the end of the second season to keep it on.

ALTMAN: It’s funny, because if it was on now, with those demographics, it would be considered a much bigger success.

MANTZ: It was huge! But they didn’t have the kind of ratings system that looked at demos like they do now. I mean that show would never have gone off the air if they knew what we knew.

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