With Further Ado #182: Oral History of Star Trek & Catching Up with Ed Gross

When teaching a class one day last semester, I had to use Spotify on my laptop which is then projected onto the big classroom screen.  A student noticed that one podcast I listen to is Inglorious Treksperts.  It’s a fun show that’s a deep dive into the nuts and bolts of the original Star Trek series.  Not really about the trivia of Star Trek mythology, but rather insights into how things really got made. For example, where else can you hear stories from the casting director of Desilu?

My student surprised me by explaining he listened to it too!

I guess there’s an interest in the early days of Pop Culture. In fact, I just enjoyed both Being the Ricardos on Amazon Prime and TCM’s The Plot Thickens podcast focusing on the life story of Lucille Ball. And I’m not really a big I Love Lucy fan, either.

I’m so glad I finally read The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman.

It’s an incredible book with dialog from all the key players who were there, as they recount and ruminate on how things happened. Sometimes they are even contradictory and a bit contentious. I caught up with co-author Ed Gross and he had so many insights to share!

Ed Catto: I’m fascinated by your “oral history” format, and it feels so natural and authentic. I’d even venture to say that it’s the perfect format for presenting differences of opinion. How would you describe Oral History, and can you comment on the pros and cons of this format?

Ed Gross: The way Mark Altman and I have frequently described the oral history format is that it’s like gathering a couple of hundred of your closest friends and having an in-depth conversation about something.

The truth of the matter is that I’d barely been aware of the format prior to our writing The Fifty-Year Mission, which we started in 2015. Mark brought the idea up to me and suggested that I read Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live from New York and Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ I Want My MTV, which I did. Well, I instantly fell in love with the format. For starters, I found them so damn readable; you could pick them up any time you wanted and effortlessly start where you left off or bounce around and still have a satisfying reading experience.

For myself, I found that — as we’ve shifted from one book to another —as disorganized as I am in so many parts of my life, somehow this my brain can handle. Doing an oral history, I discovered, is like putting a puzzle together. You spread out dozens of transcripts from the different people you’ve spoken to, go through them one by one, quote by quote, and start organizing them, initially as categories to serve as “home base” for quotes on a particular subject. Then you start intercutting them with different people talking about the same subject and before you know it, an oral history is coming to life.

Among the pros of this format is the ability of being able to present the views and the memories of the people you speak to, and if their recollections don’t jive with somebody else’s, as the author you don’t have to sit down and point out the historical accuracy of what’s being said. That is not the type of book this is. The authors absolutely take a back seat to the story being told and let the speakers have at it. It’s our job to share their story and experience through their words, not ours.

I want to say that I really do love the process of creating these oral histories. The fact that I’ve been involved with nine of them so far — several are on the way — with more in the early stages, should say just how much I enjoy it.

If I can point to any cons about doing them, it’s the perception that some people have — and it’s happened with each one — that these books consist of “a bunch of random quotes thrown together.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I think you’d be amazed at the amount of time and effort it takes to tell a coherent production history of a project, while capturing the personalities of those involved. Consider the fact that between the two volumes making up our Star Trek oral history, The Fifty-Year Mission, there are 500,000 words. Most of the single books vary between 200,000 and 300,000 words. Believe me, there is nothing random about them.

EC: I’m especially interest in the fate of Star Trek in the 70s and the “almost” TV series, Phase II. What are your big insights into that period?

EG: The 1970s section of volume one of The Fifty-Year Mission is probably one of my favorites out of all of the books we’ve done. I’ve always been fascinated by that period in Trek history, from the show rising out of the ashes of cancellation to the growth of the fandom, those early conventions, and then all of those developments and false starts of the show coming back. I was obsessed. Gene Roddenberry gives an interview to Crawdaddy talking about some idea for a prequel to the show featuring the original cast, I had to devour every word. Starlog covers the aborted movie that Philip Kaufman was going to direct? I’m there. Word comes out about Phase II, well, I needed to learn all that was learnable. And needless to say, when Star Trek: The Motion Picture was happening, I nearly lost my mind.

When I first started writing professionally, I really threw myself into Phase II. I contacted all the writers and producers, and was sent a crate filled with scripts and memos. In the end, back in the mid-1980s I was probably the first person to cover that series in depth, which I’m very proud of.

So, when it came to the ‘70s section of Fifty-Year Mission, it was a great opportunity to not only flesh out all that Phase II stuff, but to delve into all of the other footnotes in Trek history from that period. We spoke to the people who started the conventions and wrote the early fanzines; grabbed some time with the guy who had the bright idea to syndicate reruns of the show to air against local newscasts, which independent stations around the country started doing. Ed Naha told us about the experience of recording the record album Inside Star Trek, that helped to continue fueling enthusiasm. We got the story from Mego about those classic action figures.

It was just an incredible 10-year-period where one thing fed into another, and it all culminated with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture — without which, we wouldn’t have everything that came in its aftermath. The only modern comparison I can think of is that whole “Release the Snyder Cut” movement, but even with the dedication of those fans, there weren’t nearly as many moving parts as there had been in the 1970s, inadvertently connecting to each other the way that they did.

EC: Were there any big surprises for you? Was there anything that you had to leave on the cutting room floor?

EG: I think all the books bring with them their own distinct surprises, but the stuff for me that is eye-opening is when we tackle something that hasn’t really gotten a lot of attention in the past or in any sort of depth. Bringing those things to light is thrilling. In Fifty-Year Mission it was, as discussed, the 1970s; for our book on Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel, Slayers & Vampires, as odd as it sounds, it was a section looking at a producer brought on mid-stream who departed and had not previously spoken about it, but at the very last minute we got him to. With the Battlestar Galactica tome, So Say We All, we spoke to virtually everyone and covered both versions of the show in tremendous depth, yet the exciting thing for us was looking at the terrible spin-off series Galactica 1980, which had previously just been ignored.

For the book on the history of James Bond, Nobody Does It Better, it was, of all things, the look at the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale. We really had the opportunity to provide some insight into what went on with that crazy production, and Mark got to speak to Woody Allen about it as well. Then, most recently, in Secrets of the Force, the Star Wars oral history, we took a deep dive into The Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978, and spoke to so many people involved with that.

It’s all been a thrill and I’m looking forward to writing more oral histories. Hmm. I wonder if there will one day be a market for writing an oral history on writing all of these oral histories?

Probably not.

EC: Thanks so very much, Ed!

You can find Ed Gross’s books on Amazon here.