A Vision of the Future
Though you wouldn't know it from the author's name, this book on the making of Voyager was penned by the writer of the classic The Making of Star Trek, who was then using the name Stephen E. Whitfield. Stephen Edward Poe has ample credentials to describe the making of Voyager - he knew Gene Roddenberry and had access to the original series production staff, he's a screenwriter and producer so he knows the television industry, he has inside access to the current managers of the Trek franchise. Unfortunately some of the very things which make him a qualified chronicler also make him a biased one - he states at the outset that he intends to be positive, to ignore any dirt and gloss over the rough spots. This is a very pretty picture of the cast and crew, which does a lot of lip service to the strength of the Trek franchise.
What's ironic, therefore, is how depressing I found this book. I knew that Voyager was always a commercial product which stemmed from the desire to create a Paramount television network rather than from a desire to further the ideology and goals of Star Trek, but this nuts-and-bolts look at how it was created left me nostalgic for Poe's earlier book, and the earlier Trek incarnation he chronicled so effectively. There's not one person interviewed in A Vision of the Future who has the passion and spirit of Roddenberry. The producers come across as hard-working, well-meaning hacks caught between the network and the fans, with no real "vision of the future" at all. On the first page, executive producer Rick Berman says that he "learned Gene's vision directly from Gene," and adds, "It wasn't my vision of the future...it was like learning a foreign language." That explains why Star Trek has had such a strange, dark accent since Roddenberry's death.
Poe's analysis of the Trek phenomenon is more cynical than it was in The Making of Star Trek: he still credits the series' success to the optimistic view of humankind, but spends a lot of pages explaining how the shows are marketed and distinguishing among categories of fans - the hardcore ones who have kept the franchise afloat, the casual viewers who make up the bulk of the ratings numbers. That won't be news to Trekkers; what's more enlightening is the explanation of exactly who has power over whom. Rick Berman may be the current Great Bird, but two Paramount executives - Kerry McCluggage and Tom Mazza - oversaw and approved every decision he made about Voyager, from the use of the Prime Directive in the pilot to the casting of the captain. It's a portrait of compromise by hardened professionals who never seem to catch fire about the ideas and visions they put on our television screens.
Maybe all television shows are like that, though I don't think it's true particularly of science fiction. Neither The X Files's Chris Carter nor Babylon 5's J. Michael Straczynski talk obsessively about franchise approval and commercial tie-ins. This book seems to be about the decline of the franchise; in an ongoing effort to make money and launch a television network, the talents behind Star Trek, particularly the people from The Next Generation, were spread so thin that little remained of the reasons their show was a success. It's odd that this book has Paramount's sanctioning because although it doesn't dish the dirt on Genevieve Bujold's departure from the role of Janeway or say anything about Kes's being dumped from the series, it reveals all sorts of warts that casual viewers might not have noticed were there.
Poe's analysis of Voyager's appeal makes copious notes on its wonderful set design - what he does not even have to say is that it may have wonderful sets, but Classic Trek's appeal was always in spite of its cheesy furnishings. While Poe clearly respects Berman's business acumen, he seems to see Michael Piller as the real heir to Roddenberry's ideology. There's a lot more detail about Piller's specific contributions - in one instance Piller is described as giving a note to writer Ken Biller about Roddenberry's goals which make a big impact on the young writer. Poe clearly has little sympathy for actors, however: he suggests that the TNG cast's outrageous salary demands and high level of burnout were responsible for the cancellation of the well-loved series, and says repeatedly that clauses needed to be written into the current actors' contracts to avoid a similar case of escalating costs.
Surprisingly, this book contributes little to the popular myth about the exit of Bujold and the hiring of Mulgrew...except for the indication that none of the high-ups really wanted the current captain. Poe explains that any actress admired by two of the producers was kept on a list of potential candidates; later, he says that Berman liked Mulgrew's initial reading, so it's a pretty good bet that neither Piller nor Taylor shared his sentiments, since Mulgrew was not brought back until Bujold had decided that the unsubtle style of Trek acting was not for her. Mulgrew was not Berman's first choice either, however. He repeatedly brought in actress Susan Gibney, who had appeared on TNG and DS9, both on videotape in costume as Janeway and in person to the network, but each time he was overruled by the Paramount executives who felt she was too young for the role. Mulgrew's casting was a last-minute compromise, though everyone breathed a sigh of relief when she wasn't an unmitigated disaster...well, except for her hair, which necessitated expensive reshoots with a wig (ironically, to get rid of the hairstyle which Janeway currently wears in the fourth season).
The fact that Berman managed to cast a woman at all despite the network's reservations seems extraordinary, since McCluggage wanted "a babe" to placate what Poe characterizes as the core audience - males 25-45. The bickering producers sound a lot like Janeway and crew in the briefing room on the show: one of them says, "Suggestions, gentlemen?" and the rest throw out ideas until someone comes up with something that nobody else can immediately shoot down. McCluggage, who comes across as the smartest of the lot despite his own sexist assumptions about what makes a good captain, prophetically worried that a show about trying to get home would be depressing and stagnant. Piller saw the show as more of a metaphor for fin-de-siecle America, where problems which appear insurmountable must be worked around to move forward. (Piller and Taylor are often referred to as "Michael" and "Jeri," while Berman is Berman.)
It was news to me that Voyager employed a Native American expert to help construct Chakotay - a character who still doesn't have a tribal background - and that Taylor's assistant consulted with a parapsychologist to help determine Kes' supernatural abilities. Most interesting was the revelation that the Maquis were created with the new series in mind back when they first appeared during DS9's third season. The backstory is extensive and Poe's accounting of it is exhaustive. With all this homework, one wonders why there wasn't a stronger series at the outset.
It may have been a problem with too many cooks...or with trying to please too many segments of the audience, rather than focusing on telling a good story. The book offers a lengthy account of how burned out the crew was from working on TNG, Generations, DS9, and Voyager all at once, and details all the plot and character points which Voyager had going against it. The dates get muddled - Robert Beltran goes in to audition on August 31, then gets the part "two days later" on September 1. Plus there are some factual errors, such as Bujold twice being called an Academy Award winner (she was nominated, but never won) and Mulgrew being described as "the oldest of eight girls" (she's actually the second of eight children, four of whom were boys). Maybe these are nitpicks, but in a book which is supposed to be the official version of the truth, they're troubling.
Because of the contradictions, I don't know how seriously to take some of the stories about the filming itself. In this book, Jennifer Lien fled a costuming session, but on the E! special filmed right before the series premiered, she appeared genuinely bemused by a question about how she felt about her costumes and said she'd never thought about the matter. Since Lien is described in the book as incompetent at dealing with the press, one is inclined to believe her sincere word-of-mouth. While there's a nice story about Robbie McNeill almost giving up the part of Tom Paris to salvage a play he was doing, it differs from McNeill's own account of lobbying to be allowed to audition for a part which was based on a character he himself created, which then caused the producers not to want to repeat themselves in the casting department.
I really lost it when Poe described Seven of Nine - whose abrupt hiring gets a late chapter, though Kes's concurrent departure is not explained - as a feminist heroine. The main character on Voyager is a woman - how does the addition of a network-concocted ratings babe in a catsuit constitute progress for women at all, especially when she talks back to the female captain whose legitimate authority is being eroded? There's a lot glossed over. While this book is well worth owning for Voyager aficionados - it has a great many photos of the sets and designs, plus the entire production history and credits - I doubt it will make converts out of any non-viewers. And Classic Trek fans may find themselves feeling that this new series isn't in any way a legitimate heir to the legacy.
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Trek Book Reviews