Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies (Part One)

The book recently published by Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies might well have been titled The Making of Star Trek, but that title was already taken, by none other than Gene Roddenberry, who published the book as part of his campaign to promote and protect the series in the 1960s. Instead, they called their book, Star Trek and American Television.

As far as I can tell, no other academic has had the degree of access to the “above the line” and “below the line” workers who helped to create Star Trek as these two did. And, as a result, we have never before had such a rich account of its production process and of the ways that Star Trek fits within larger trends within the television industry. They do not set out to demystify Roddenberry’s original book, precisely, but the effect is to shift the focus away from the notion of Roddenberry’s authorship onto the collaborative process by which television is produced. Roddenberry certainly has a central role here, as will be clear from the frequency with which his name surfaces in the following interview, but they also direct attention onto the many collaborators who helped to shape that original “vision” and onto the many who have carried forward Star Trek‘s legacy to the current day.

Anyone who knows me knows how central Star Trek has been to my life on so many levels. I have myself written two books in which Star Trek plays a key role. But in recent years, I have declined many invitations to say or write more about Star Trek because I was skeptical that there was much more that could be said.

Pearson and Davies proved me wrong: there are new insights and new historical details on every page of this book. Star Trek and American Television is the kind of book that could only be written now — now that we have some historical perspective on the ways that this iconic series fit within the evolution of television as a medium, looking forward in some ways to developments in terms of ideas about franchising, world-building, and audiences, that are only being fully realized today.

As an interviewer, I am bit rude to these authors (both old friends), pushing them to speak about topics that are just on the margins of the book, getting them to revisit the decisions they made about what to include or develop in depth. My bet is that as a reader, you will appreciate some of the insights I got them to scoop up off the cutting room floor here. But at the end of the day, I agree with most of their editorial decisions. This book works because they focus on Star Trek as a television series, not as a cult phenomenon, not as a fandom, not as a transmedia franchise. Dealing with Star Trek as a television series encourages us to look upon it in a new way and at the same time, to use its history to shed light on the possibilities of television as a medium.

This five part interview will constitute my last posts for this blog in 2014. I need some time to refresh myself, to get more interview questions out to authors, to focus on finishing up some of my own writing projects. But, I think you will agree that this exchange ends the year on a highpoint.

I’ve known Pearson for most of my academic career. Our overlapping interests has led to us working together in many ways through the years. And I have a great appreciation for what she has contributed to our understanding of popular heroes (including The Batman and Sherlock Holmes) and cult media. Through her, I’ve also gotten to know her co-author, Davies, who has produced a great deal of important work on children’s television and the notion of quality as it relates to popular media. So, I am delighted to share with you their reflections here on “the Making of Star Trek” and so much more.

Many readers may be skeptical –as I was initially — that the world needs another book on the Star Trek franchise. So, let’s tackle that right away. What are people going to learn from this book that they do not already know?

As we explain in the introduction and opening chapters, of all the myriad books that have been published on Star Trek, we believe that none of them has effectively dealt with its core status as ‘a television show’ (William Shatner’s description of it, to us, in our interview with him.) On p. 9 of our book, we discuss the Star Trek entry in Oxford Bibliographies by Dan Bernardi and Michael Green, which lists the following categories of academic literature on the subject of Star Trek: ‘reference works and bibliographies; anthologies; fandom; popular culture; critical race studies; gender studies; sexuality studies; religion; technoculture; and nationalism and geopolitics’. It doesn’t list television studies.

In this book we are writing as television scholars, not fan scholars, nor sci-fi scholars, nor national geopolitics scholars, and we are admirers of the television show but we’re not – (and we’re really sorry about this word, I don’t know how it happened, after all our careful proof reading) – ‘Trekkies’ in the sense of being the kinds of fans who attend conventions, write fanfic and the like.

So, as our research proceeded, our question became: why didn’t anyone write about Star Trek as television because the programme is a really terrific case for examining the history of American television.

The project started life as core material for a teaching module on ‘Television, Culture and Society’ on the undergraduate course TV, Film and Journalism at Cardiff University. Because we were both keen on the show, and wanted to teach about it, we decided to adapt the TV, culture & society module to enable us to use Star Trek as a case study about television: the course included lectures on television production; TV history; TV economics; American /British contrasts; aesthetic and narrative aspects; TV audiences. The book went through various incarnations since we began the project in 1999, losing some cherished aspects of our original module on the way (including a big chunk about audiences – not just fans, but audiences, Nielsen data etc.) But we never lost sight of the fact that we wanted to talk about Star Trek as television, and that was our selling point to UC Press back in 2000.

The other unique aspect of it, we believe, is the interview material. We were lucky to be helped by Patrick Stewart to gain access to so many Paramount workers, from executive producers to make-up artists to actors to set builders to writers to craft workers, during our visit to Hollywood in 2002, funded by a grant from the British Academy. We think that the insights these interviewees gave us don’t appear to the same extent in other literature on Star Trek, partly because our research questions focused very specifically on televisual aspects. In particular, because we talked to people who were working together as we met them (on the TV Enterprise and the film Nemesis at the same time), there were constant references to, and plentiful evidence of, their interdependence as a working team. Collaboration and co-operation emerged as key components of how a TV production is put together, which was one of the main questions we were pursuing.

We were privileged to meet these people at work, and it was as industrial workers (very hardworking workers) that they came across, not as showbiz luminaries. This was one of the most illuminating and paradoxical revelations of the Star Trek phenomenon as we observed it. It has been such a valuable financial property within a huge global, capitalistic corporation but what we saw was its socialistic way of working.

One of our most revealing interviewees on this aspect was construction co-ordinator, Tom Arp, head of his Local trade union, who’d been working on the show for 14 years, and told us ‘the people on this show pretty much work together as a family’. (All the Star Trek workers we spoke to were unionized). In one of our discarded passages, we wrote about how interdependence and collaboration, rather than conflict and individual heroism, are essential narrative tropes, particularly in the female-dominated Voyager (see e.g. the episode, ‘One’). If the whole team doesn’t pull together, the ship is doomed – the experiences of the working production team often seemed to be reflected in these kinds of ‘socialistic’ storylines, which we suggest, is one of the enduring aspects of the Roddenberry Utopian ‘vision’ (see more comment about the ‘vision’ below). Interdependence between different levels of above and below the line workers is discussed more fully in our chapter on ‘The Craft Workshop Mode of Production.’

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).