This past September 8 marked the 55th anniversary of the premiere for creator Gene Roddenberry’s "Star Trek," a “Wagon Train To the Stars” series that Lucille Ball’s production company took a huge gamble on to spawn a multi-billion dollar franchise spanning the entire pop culture sphere.
Starting tonight (Nov. 5), The History Channel celebrates that sci-fi legacy with "The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek," a new 10-part docu-series directed by Brian Volk-Weiss ("The Movies That Made Us," "The Toys That Made Us").
Narrated and executive-produced by Gates McFadden, who portrayed Dr. Beverly Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," each episode reveals a specific chapter in the half-century history of "Star Trek," from the genesis of "The Original Series" to a constellation of spinoffs and sequels seen in theaters and on television. (If you're wondering how you can watch any "Star Trek" series, check out our Star Trek streaming guide to see where to catch the sci-fi franchise online.)
"The Center Seat" also spotlights fresh interviews with "Star Trek" alumni like Nichelle Nichols, Brent Spiner, Kirstie Alley, Walter Koenig, Kate Mulgrew, Denise Crosby, Wil Wheaton, John De Lancie, Nicholas Meyer, Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, Nana Visitor, Robert Picardo, Ethan Phillips, Diana Muldaur, Nicole de Boer, Roxann Dawson, Robert Beltran, Tim Russ, John Billingsley, John Dykstra, D.C. Fontana, Rick Berman and F. Murray Abraham.
The initial four episodes of "The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek" debut on the History Channel weekly starting Friday, Nov. 5 at 10pm ET/PT, with six additional episodes available on "History Vault," the network's subscription video service.
Space.com spoke with series creator/director Brian Volk-Weiss to learn more about this tremendous "Star Trek" undertaking, who he was most excited to interview, his childhood memories of "Star Trek," and why actress Kirstie Alley wore a bathrobe in "The Wrath of Khan."
Space.com: What made you turn your attention to “Star Trek” and how did you approach this ambitious docuseries?
Brian Volk-Weiss: Well, structurally we had a lot of advantages that other docs haven't had because we were making ten episodes simultaneously. So we knew even before we paid for a box of paperclips that we could dedicate an hour to the original series, an hour to the animated series, an hour to "Star Trek: Enterprise." That was a real luxury, and to the best of my knowledge, I’m not aware of anybody else having that with another "Star Trek" doc.
The inspiration was Ken Burns. I remember being a kid hearing that there was like twenty hours coming out about Gettysburg? How could you possibly do twenty hours? Then I finished it and wished it was 40 hours on Gettysburg. So that was the mentality we really tried to bring to it. We have the luxury of doing the deepest dive ever, documentary-wise, into "Star Trek." That’s what we set out to do and we’ll find out soon if we accomplished it or not.
Space.com: Growing up, what were your earliest memories of "Star Trek?"
Volk-Weiss: I have two memories that are my first of "Star Trek." My first is being on a ski lift with my mom in Massachusetts and her explaining the show to me. She was talking about the original series and telling me how television works. That’s how young I was. And the other memory, I don’t think I was ever more traumatized in a movie than watching the Ceti eel go in and out of Chekov’s ear ["Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"].
Space.com: Dropping down the research rabbit hole on "The Center Seat," what were some surprising facts you discovered?
Volk-Weiss: Well, we learned a lot! I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ve seen "The Wrath of Khan" three or four hundred times. So I'm interviewing Kirstie Alley and she was going on about coming to Hollywood to be Vivian Leigh. But she learned that Vulcans were the furthest you could be from Vivian Leigh. It was her first job in show business and she couldn't turn it down and she used her charm to make the character more like Leigh.
But there's no character less than her than Saavik and I was a bit confused. So she says, "Brian, did you ever notice the first time you see Saavik her hair is in a bun, no makeup whatsoever and the last time you see her, her hair is down and she's wearing mascara, she's got eyelashes, and lipstick on?" I told her I've never noticed that. She said, "have you ever seen a scene in any other 'Star Trek' movie or TV show where there's a character in a bathrobe in an elevator?" She explained that she was really young and pretty and she was toes-to-neck covered up with no makeup. Every day she tried to push hair and makeup and director Nicolas Meyer to let her look like herself. That's my crazy piece of trivia that I learned.
Space.com: Who were you looking forward to interviewing most for this project, and who did you really want but couldn't get?
Volk-Weiss: Patrick Stewart is the person we wanted most but didn't get. A close second place was Avery Brooks [Captain Sisko]. But I knew before we started that he's famous for not doing interviews about "Star Trek," so my expectations were managed. The interview I was most looking forward to, because his writing changed my life, was Nicolas Meyer.
Space.com: What do you feel is the most underrated "Star Trek" movie or series?
Volk-Weiss: I'd have to say it's a tie between "Star Trek III: The Search For Spock" and "Star Trek: VI: The Undiscovered Country." I think "Star Trek III" is a fantastic movie. It has humor, stakes, pathos, it has emotion and great dialogue. The stealing of the Enterprise?! One of the greatest moments in all of "Star Trek." David getting killed? The Enterprise being destroyed? A lot of very important things happen in "Star Trek III," but it has the bad luck of coming after what I consider the best "Star Trek" movie ever made, and the bad luck of coming before the most fun and successful of the original series’ movie era.
And then "Star Trek VI" is a great story, a relevant story even today. You got to finally see Sulu become a captain. You got to see Captain Kirk in action one last time. Both movies are wonderful and I don’t think they get the love they deserve.
Space.com: Are you pleased with the direction of the newer "Star Trek: Discovery" series and animated shows, and if handed the keys to the franchise where would you take it?
Volk-Weiss: Here's my positive answer. I'm very pleased with "Star Trek: Lower Decks," and I'll leave it at that.
If I were put in charge, I would have all the shows be about exploration and have them be more about what I call the "Riddle of the Week," and less about building mythologies. To me, "The Original Series," "The Next Generation," and "Deep Space Nine" worked because these were brilliant casts. The actors they hired and the writing are all A-Plus. And that was half the battle.
The other half is the "Riddle of the Week." There would be a problem at minute six and they would have it resolved by minute 46. To me that’s what "Star Trek" is. A great cast with great writing. These are people you’d want to have dinner with but they’re solving mysteries.
Space.com: The series finale of "Star Trek: Enterprise" was polarizing at best. What were your reactions to that strange and unsettling last episode?
Volk-Weiss: To this day, it is without a doubt the best "Star Trek" pilot, which doesn't say a lot. I feel like "Enterprise" is the opposite of every other "Star Trek" series. "The Next Generation" took about two years to find itself. "Deep Space Nine," I would argue, took three years to find itself. "Voyager," if somebody thinks it found itself, I’d say maybe year three or four. "Enterprise's" first season, I think it's the best season in "Star Trek" history and most of season two is pretty good too. But them getting into the 9-11 stuff in the future with a laser beam across Florida, when all we want to see is first contact with the Romulans and the foundation of the Federation? The plotline between the humans and the Vulcans in season one was brilliant.
I'd already tapped out of it by the time the finale ran so I didn't see it before I'd heard from people for years about how offensive and bad it was. By the time I did watch it I thought, "yeah, this sucks as bad as everyone says it does." It was really peculiar. Rick Berman was trying to wrap up his tenure and it really was about him, not so much about "Enterprise."
Space.com: What are you most pleased with after completing "The Center Seat" and what do you hope fans take away from it?
Volk-Weiss: I don’t make these shows for myself. I made this for the "Star Trek" community, and if the community loves the show then I'll be very happy. If they don’t love it I'll be sad. So I'm not going to say I’m pleased with anything until a month after it premieres and I hear what everybody else thinks. If they’re happy, I'll be pleased. If they’re not, I'll try to do better next time.
And Gates McFadden, who narrates the show, took it upon herself to book the hell out of it. We don't have Brent Spiner or Kate Mulgrew without her. I waited until the last minute to pick the narrator. Luckily, Gates said yes and I think her voice-over makes the show. I was very blessed.
The first four episodes of "The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek" will premiere on the History Channel each week starting Friday, Nov. 5 at 10pm ET/PT, with six additional episodes available on "History Vault," the network's subscription video service, which is available for $4.99 a month.