Making Sense of the ‘Chaos on the Bridge’ of Gene Roddenberry’s USS Enterprise

If you’re a longtime fan of Star Trek, and you’ve ever wondered why the first two seasons of The Next Generation were so cringe-worthy to be nearly unwatchable, and then noticed that somehow the show’s writing got miraculously better in its third season (moving in the exact opposite direction of the original Star Trek’s collapse), a 2014 documentary recently added to Netflix tells all.

William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge, is both hosted and executive produced by Shatner, who seems strangely reserved throughout -- if anybody would have some juicy inside stories to tell about Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, it should be the series’ original star, who’s long had a love-hate relationship with the show, right? Instead, Shatner interviews many of those responsible for Star Trek’s return to television in 1987 to explore how everything that could go wrong did in the series’ early days, with the exception of the show’s casting, not least of which, its star, Patrick Stewart.

Whom Rodenberry was initially loathe to cast, until his arm was (metaphorically) twisted by co-producer Robert Justman, who discovered Stewart teaching an acting class in Los Angeles. Justman himself, along with other veterans of the original series, including writers Dorothy Fontana and David Gerrold didn’t last the first season of TNG, driven out the production by Roddenberry’s obsessed personal attorney, Leonard Maizlish, whom Rodenberry installed in an office on the Paramount lot, for fear that he would be screwed over by the studio once again.

As Chaos on the Bridge explores, frequently using ironic animation and music that combined, evoke Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” spaghetti westerns, Roddenberry himself had led a remarkably bifurcated existence after the original Star Trek was cancelled. In Hollywood, Roddenberry’s post-Trek productions were considered failures by the studios; none of his 1970s TV series pilots were picked up for production. And yet he was treated as a near God by a growing legion of Trekkies, who hung on his every word at ever-larger Star Trek conventions in the 1970s as the original series was in constant syndicated reruns throughout America.

Consequently, Roddenberry saw himself not as a writer of cop shows and westerns who stumbled into producing an action-oriented science fiction series inspired by Forbidden Planet to get his stories past network TV censors, but as a science fiction genius on par with men like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. The original series’ writers guide carried a warning to those TV veterans submitting scripts to the show who were unfamiliar with the rules of science fiction: “Beware getting too wrapped up in The Wonder Of It All. The quality of an sf tale is usually inversely proportional to the pretensions a writer brings to it.” Unfortunately, Roddenberry himself would entirely forget this rule, first in producing the behemoth 2001: A Space Odyssey-influenced Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and its deadly dull pacing, and lack of action for its charismatic stars’ first return to the big screen, and then in creating what TNG co-producer Maurice Hurley repeatedly referred to as the “wacky doodle” rules that crippled TNG’s first two seasons. It’s no coincidence that both the Star Trek movies and Star Trek: The Next Generation suddenly became watchable once Paramount moved Roddenberry out of a direct role as day-to-day producer.

By far, the worst of the rules that Rodenberry imposed was his insistence that at some point after the original series and its colorful banter between Kirk, McCoy and Scotty having to deal with a green-blooded alien science officer who was so obsessed with logic he seemed to have a warp drive nacelle permanently embedded in his fundament, mankind in the future would transcend its bickering and interpersonal squabbles. It’s a nice sentiment -- but it certainly makes for lousy TV episodes, which is why the sequels set in the same time period at TNG feature a rival gang sharing the spacecraft to generate some semblance of conflict -- the Bajorians of Deep Space Nine and the Maquis of Voyager.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The idea that Star Trek: The Next Generation itself would spawn sequels must have seemed like a ludicrous notion during the show’s disastrous early years. To understand just how chaotic they were, don’t miss Chaos on the Bridge.