I’m what you’d call a fringe Star Trek fan. I was definitely late to the party with regard to the original television series and its subsequent spinoffs. I have, however, seen every Trek film (The Wrath of Khan is still my fave) and have become fascinated with the behind-the-scenes stuff. I was engrossed in William Shatner’s The Captains documentary, where he chatted with Chris Pine, Avery Brooks, Scott Bakula, Kate Mulgrew and Sir Patrick Stewart about how their roles defined their acting careers.
So it was with excitement that I checked out a screener for Monday’s HBO Canada debut of William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge, a Canadian original documentary from Ballinran Entertainment in which the former Capt. James T. Kirk explores the inner workings of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first (and some may say most successful) spinoff that ran for seven seasons and made Stewart and his co-stars household names.
I think Shatner is at his best in a project like this, drolly voicing over the opening frames that explain how a cult hit sci-fi series spinoff was re-imagined by legendary creator Gene Roddenberry with a major studio behind it and seemed destined for success … until bickering, feuds, distrust and confusion almost derailed the whole darn thing.
It’s a kick to see Shatner strutting around Paramount Studios’ cavernous Stage 8 where the Enterprise bridge once sat, painting the picture of Roddenberry as a man in failing health who was clinging to hold onto his beloved creation. Roddenberry is depicted as an enigma, a man who was–depending on who you talked to–a visionary, stubborn, supportive, deceitful and decent. After years of failed television pilots and relegated to being a consultant on the various Trek feature films, he ended up in the captain’s chair of a new series. It wasn’t smooth sailing, as former Paramount executives recount Roddenberry’s lawyer and the Trek creator’s own health as major hurdles to jump on the way to getting cameras rolling on The Next Generation.
Those revelations, along with interviews with such cast members as Denise Crosby, Jonathan Frakes, Stewart and John de Lancie, paint an incredible picture. The cast weren’t sure they should even be doing an updated Trek series, much less whether or not it would be a hit with die-hard fans who were upset it didn’t focus on Kirk, McCoy and Spock. The briskly-paced one-hour doc covers every facet of the process that followed–from failed network pitches to a ludicrous suggestion that TNG be a miniseries–until the final product hit the air.
I don’t want to give everything away, but the stories that fascinated me the most in Chaos on the Bridge involve the casting of the follically-challenged Stewart (he was not anyone’s first choice as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard), the off-screen shenanigans amongst the American cast, the power struggle in the writers’ room and the positive impact Michael Piller had on the show when he arrived in Season 3.
Whether you’re a Star Trek fan or not, Chaos on the Bridge is a fascinating peek into the struggles that occurred on what’s become an iconic sci-fi television show.
William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge airs Monday, Aug. 25, at 9 p.m. ET/MT on HBO Canada.