I love Star Trek memoirs. There, I’ve said it. I burn out quickly on watching the actual series, or any but the best of the movies. The acting seems wooden, the writing preachy, and the characters staid. But I will stay up late flipping pages to find out if George Takei and William Shatner ever worked it out.
I have a problem, I know.
But something about Trek turns these bland actors into heart-on-the-sleeve raconteurs, and occasionally into charismatic preachers. They tell tales that have obviously grown in the telling—like the oft-repeated story of how Gene Roddenberry got his agent. Working as an LAPD officer at the time, he stalked into a well-known Hollywood watering hole in full police gear, shouted the agent’s name, and slapped him with an envelope containing Roddenberry’s spec script. “I suggest,” Roddenberry growled through his cop mustache, “you read this.” As legend has it, upon discovering the script within, the agent muttered, “I’ll kill this son of a bitch, but he deserves to be read.”
At least three of the actors relate William Shatner’s famous theft of Leonard Nimoy’s bicycle. According to different accounts, Shatner hung it from the rafters, cut through the heavy-duty lock, and put the bike under the protection of a pack of Dobermans. He asserts in Star Trek Memories (1991) that he still has the thing.
Then they openly confess poignant and painful moments. Nichelle Nichols, in her Beyond Uhura (Berkeley, 1995) recounts the story of her affair with Roddenberry, years before Trek. Roddenberry was married at the time, but sleeping with both Nichols and his soon-to-be second wife Majel Barrett on the side. Without warning, he took Nichols to Barrett’s house one day for a very awkward meeting. By his admission, “I wanted the two women I love to meet, and to know how much I love them both.”
Surprise surprise—Nichols dumped him.
Shatner makes the ironic observation in Memories that the optimistic Roddenberry, who believed firmly in the power of the human spirit to overcome all problems, was never really able to overcome his own philandering, which continued with other women after he married Barrett and broke up with Nichols.
Since this is Star Trek, I’m not going to berate myself for using a cliché: You can’t make this stuff up.
George Takei’s childhood in a Japanese internment camp makes for the most gripping introduction to any of the books, and actually gave me the first hint that some of this stuff might have a deeper meaning. The first camp the Takeis were sent to was a relatively peaceful place in the Arkansas forest. At what they thought was the end—of their stay there, Takei’s parents were forced to take a “loyalty survey” one question of which basically required them to deny any connection to their Japanese heritage. Once they marked a “no,” they were shipped to a much harsher camp in the California desert, full of militant prisoners whose threats to the authorities kept the family in constant danger—then, at the end of it all, the Takeis were nearly deported, just saved by a brave lawyer who fought for them and other Japanese-Americans who had refused to disown their heritage.
All the memoirs, even Nimoy’s, relate the story of Nichelle Nichols’ encounter with Martin Luther King. Uhura had been reduced to a bit part by the time she met with Dr. King, and was tired of playing a human placeholder whose entire job was to say “Hailing frequencies open, Captain.” King was less convinced, and told Nichols so. As far as he was concerned, every black man or woman who saw Uhura on the bridge saw a living monument of racial harmony, speaking lines be damned.
Despite the importance of that meeting, Uhura would remain a bit part for the rest of Trek’s life. Shatner’s Star Trek Memories makes the downplaying of Uhura out to be an act of racism by the network, but Nichols and Takei are quite willing to place the blame on the scene-stealing Shatner, who was convinced that if anything useful was to be said on the show, the brave captain would say it.
You can’t help but wince a little when, at the end of Memories, Shatner reveals how some members of the cast took the opportunity during their interviews to savage him for his selfish behavior on-set. There are no anecdotes in the book from James Doohan (Scotty) whom Shatner admits wouldn’t even meet with him.
Nobody comments on it, but there’s a nice ironic twist there; Roddenberry believed that his enlightened Starfleet officers represented a humanity that had grown beyond petty interpersonal conflict. Apparently it never seeped into the actors.
Then there’s just the downright weird stuff these guys will admit to. Leonard Nimoy tells us in I Am Spock that when he is alone he talks to Spock. For a guy who directed an Oscar winner (The Good Mother) and gave the best performances of the Trek crew, his made-up conversations read a bit like bad Trek fanfic:
NIMOY: Spock, I hope you realize that I don’t harbor any feelings of jealousy or competition toward you. After all, I am you. And you’re me.
SPOCK: I beg your pardon?
NIMOY: You sprang from who I am. From parts of my own personality.
SPOCK: (stiffly) I fail to see any obvious connection, You, after all, are an emotional human.
In his section on Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan, he calls out for Spock and doesn’t get an answer. “Spock… I’m sorry…”
I never really got, even when I watched it devotedly, how Star Trek inspired the kind of madness it did. I see it now. Scripture makes for boring entertainment. But conversion stories, or stories of religious angst, are good material.
Anyone raised in a religious community can recognize the signs. Those who embrace the vision of the show are empowered. For Takei, Trek is the inspiration for his work in local politics with group interests for Japanese-American, Mexican-American and, though he doesn’t detail it in this pre-coming-out autobiography, the gay community. Nichols fueled her experience on the show into recruiting for NASA, heading a massive drive in the 70s to bring more women and minorities to the fold of astronauts and make Roddenberry’s vision come true.
And those who don’t embrace the vision are still unable to escape it. Shatner and Nimoy joke about the cheesy stories and cheap sets, but Trek possesses them still on deeper levels: Nimoy had to write this second autobiography to reconcile with his demons that he ran from in his ealier work I Am Not Spock. Shatner, just by trying to write about Trek, is forced to confront the consequences of his own selfishness.
Lots of people make religion out of their entertainment—think of a Shakespeare or Lord of the Rings devotee—but once you read the tales of Roddenberry’s devotion to his vision of a peaceful future, at the point of constant fights with the studios, you can’t help but think that the Great Bird of the Galaxy was never going for entertainment. That dictate about interpersonal conflict, put in place on The Next Generation, represented the best of Roddenberry’s vision at the same time it embalmed the franchise. He knew what he was doing when he killed entertainment for principle.
And Roddenberry found his prophets, in reluctant Nimoy, queenly Nichols, everyman Takei and Shatner, his Simon Peter figure, whose selfishness gets in the way of achieving the vision but who must lead the disciples nonetheless.
I feel like an academic religion professor who finds the whole thing “fascinating”—meaning that I might never understand it, but I will never be able to look away.