Sunday, August 2, 2015

Strange New World Just Ahead, or: How to Make a Vulcan Feel at Home (Part 4 of 15)

4. Gene and Gene

Gene Roddenberry's and Gene L. Coon's names appear together in the writing credits on just one Star Trek episode, from the second season titled "Bread and Circuses." In it, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy land on a Roman Empire-like planet but with 20th century technology (and, as we find out in a surprise ending, a 20th century New Testament.) Though their Starfleet weapons are far superior, the Prime Directive rule about not interfering with a planet's internal development (a rule nonchalantly disobeyed in just about every other episode) means the trio inevitably end up fighting in televised gladiatorial games. There's apparently a loophole in the Directive that allows Scotty, back at the Enterprise, to shut off the planet's electricity, and in the confusion, Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam back to safety. Now, when I say it was written by both Roddenberry and Coon, I don't know that the two were in the same room banging it out on the same typewriter. Some sources say the two split up scenes, others say they worked on entirely different drafts. In fact, there does seem to be two different narratives going on here, one a sobering drama about the oppressiveness of totalitarianism, the other a funny satire of television. I betting Coon was responsible for the latter, including the line "You bring this network's ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you!" as well as having Spock give a gladiator the Vulcan nerve pinch to prerecorded boos. This was the last Trek Coon produced, though an episode he co-wrote was shown later that season.

Why did Coon leave Star Trek? Some say it was the disagreements he had with Roddenberry during the writing of "Breads and Circuses" Others say he saw the show slipping in quality thanks to a reduced budget and tighter shooting schedule--Paramount had bought the show's previous owner, Desilu--and wanted out. He was also having health problems and going through a divorce, both of which necessitated a bigger paycheck, which he got when Universal Pictures asked him to helm the Robert Wagner series It Takes a Thief. I've never seen that show. If anyone reading this has, let me know in the comments section what you thought of it. While  producing it, Coon mentored a young writer by the name of Glen A. Larson, who went on to create his own outer space drama, the original Battlestar Galactica, which aired in the late '70s.

Even before Coon left, and despite what I have to believe was his best efforts to do otherwise, a Good vs Evil, i.e. Human vs Alien mentality had seeped back into the show. That's not to say that the second season, whether produced by Coon or his replacement, John Meredyth Lucas (who also wrote the episodes "The Changeling", about a rogue computer that wipes Uhura's mind clean, and "Patterns of Force", about a visit to a Nazi planet) wasn't tremendously entertaining. It was just a tad more reactionary, as if Dr. McCoy was now running the show. A giant amoeba? ("The Immunity Syndrome") Fascinating! Now blow it to bits and show previews for next week's episode. And whereas in the first season advanced beings were shown as being benevolent if somewhat preachy ("Arena" "An Errand of Mercy"), the highly evolved brains in the "The Gamesters of Triskelion" were inveterate gamblers who could have used a good preaching to themselves. How'd all this happen? Bread and circuses. Not the episode but real life. NBC, and the various sponsors eager to push consumer products upon the citizenry via 30-second commercials, demanded an action-adventure show, and with tight schedules and tighter budgets, that action-adventure easily became violence, violence from and violence toward any new worlds, new life, and new civilizations that the  Enterprise happened to come across. At least there was an elegiac wistfulness to the demise of aliens in both "Who Mourn for Adonais" ("They [Greek gods who were actually aliens] gave us so much .... In a way, they began the Golden Age. Would it have hurt us, I wonder, just to have gathered a few laurel leaves?") and "Return to Tomorrow" (two doomed aliens: "Oblivion together does not frighten me, beloved. Promise we'll be together" "I promise, beloved.") Now go out and buy Geritol!

Decades later, shows that Paramount slapped the Star Trek label on, such as The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, as well as Warner Brothers' non-Star Trek series Babylon 5, had relatively more freedom to do stories that were about aliens without necessarily being against aliens. With his episodes "The Devil in the Dark" and "Metamorphoses", Gene L. Coon helped pave the way.

Whatever their differences on "Bread and Circuses" Coon and Roddenberry did work together again, on the script for The Questor Tapes. Airing in 1974 as a made-for-television movie, it was in fact a pilot for a prospective new series starring Robert Foxworth as an android groping to understand humanity (a prototype for The Next Generation's Data, perhaps?), helped by his understanding human sidekick played by Mike Farrell (a few years before he got the MASH gig.) I've seen this TV movie exactly twice, as a sixth grader when it originally aired, then decades later when it popped up on some cable channel. I remember immensely enjoying it the first time, and if during the second viewing I realized it wasn't exactly Shakespeare, I liked it well enough to wish it had actually become a series. In fact, 13 episodes were ordered, but NBC scheduled it for Fridays at 10 p.m., which angered Roddenberry, as it was the same barely-watched time slot that Star Trek had been sentenced to in its final year. Roddenberry also disliked that both NBC and Universal wanted to eliminate the character played by Farrell, and so the producer himself pulled the plug on the series. As for Coon, the chain-smoker died of lung cancer several months before the pilot aired. A novelization of the made-for-TV movie by D.C. Fontana was dedicated to his memory.

Gene L. Coon 1924-1973
Gene Roddenberry 1921-1991

Strange pair, those two. So far in this series I've painted Coon as the liberal and Roddenberry as the conservative, but that's just from looking at specific episodes. When I look elsewhere, Roddenberry's views become more vague, as if he wasn't sure of them himself. I haven't discussed "Assignment: Earth", story by Roddenberry, because I don't regard it as a true Star Trek episode despite the presence of Kirk and Spock. At least it didn't start out as a true Star Trek episode but a stand-alone pilot film starring Robert Lansing as an outer space visitor sent to save 1968 Earth from its own destructive ways, and a young Terry Garr as his confused but conscientious secretary. "I know this world needs help. That's why some of my generation are kind of crazy and rebels, you know? We wonder if we're gonna be alive when we're thirty," Garr's character says. This anti-arms race episode aired only three weeks after the arguably anticommunist "The Omega Glory" and shows Roddenberry had very mixed feelings about the Cold War, and perhaps was looking for some outside guidance. Outside our very solar system it would seem. His further pilots/made-for-movies from the '70s (The Questor Tapes, Planet Earth, Genesis) reveal a growing mistrust of the military-industrial complex. Domestically, and before Star Trek, an episode of The Lieutenant featured the future Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, as the wife of a serviceman who, along with her husband, is the subject of harassment from a racist Dennis Hopper. Not wanting any controversy, NBC refused to air the episode, titled "To Set It Right", and reportedly this bit of censorship is what led Roddenberry into the more metaphorical realm of science fiction. And I've already talked about the utopian vision he tried to impose on The Next Generation.  So maybe Roddenberry was a liberal after all, but this liberalism was buried beneath so many piles of 1950s LAPD training manuals and judicial code books that he needed a Gene L. Coon to help dig it out. Star Trek belongs to both of them.

Next: Warp Driving on Empty


  1. I only watched little bits of It Takes A Thief because I find Robert Wagner unbearably self-amused. The only redeemable aspect of the show was Fred Astaire, playing his father.

    The two Rods can be thought of as two aspects of one man. They can be likened to aspects of our characters as we author our own lives. The themes and plot twists on Star Trek remind me how much of life and personalities are schizophrenic. I think this is why so many people are drawn to Spock. He seems most consistent - something we can cling to - or on (no pun intended) as we navigate so much moral change and corruption.

  2. Spock would show an amazing knack for consistency in a certain 1984 movie, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. Thanks for another well thought-out comment, Kass.

    P.S. Puns are welcome here, intentional or not.

  3. Gosh, I don't know what to say.
    I enjoyed Star Trek when I had a chance to watch it. Working and going to school took up most of my time. I only watch it for entertainment and much of the hidden meaning when right over my head.
    Kass comment is terrific and one that your great series (so far) deserves.
    Can't wait for the next installment.

    cheers, parsnip

    1. I went to school, too, Parsnip. Ever hear of Cal Trek?


In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.