It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first couple of seasons of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” are pretty poor. Now, thanks to William Shatner’s breezily divulgent documentary “Chaos On The Bridge” we know have some idea why.
While the on-screen adventures of the crew of the USS Enterprise for the first couple of years were generally lifeless, plodding and lacking in real drama, the exact opposite was occurring behind the scenes. Roddenberry, by now completely captivated by his utopian vision, was fighting against his ailing health and waning influence with the studio while the writers were straightjacketed by his rules forbidding conflict between the characters. With no dramatic outlet, that conflict had to go somewhere!
There are great contributions from a host of behind the scenes names, including John Pike, then President of Paramount Network Television and a fascinatingly manipulative, ballsy and clever guy. One of the key villains of the piece emerges early on in the anecdotes and reminiscences: Gene Rodenberry’s lawyer and – as Gene grew frailer and more side-lined – de facto Emissary. He’s also responsible for the appointment of the late Maurice Hurley to the post of head writer and Executive Producer, despite Hurley’s lack of sci-fi experience and his undisguised disdain for the ‘wacky doodle’ premise of “Star Trek”.
There’s a delight in matching faces to names that are burned into your memory from episode after episode but the documentary sparks to real life once the cast weigh in, especially the wonderful moments between Jonathan Frakes and Shatner and you wish there was more of them.
The documentary’s flaw is that its brief running time (just shy of an hour) means that the politics and power plays are dealt with only superficially and much of the real drama is lost. There’s the sense that the production of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” played out like a weird off camera version of King Lear, with Rodenberry bequeathing his empire to Hurley and Berman’s flattery with Maizlish as the Fool but there’s no time to really delve into the substance of it.
From a technical standpoint, some of the editing is a bit clumsy, especially some of Shatner’s reaction shots, but as writer/ director of the piece, Shatner wisely keeps himself in the background, content to use his access and connections to tease out the stories rather than put himself at the centre of it all. Although it takes us up to the very start of Season 3, the turning point for “The Next Generation”, with the departure of Hurley and the arrival of writers like Michael Piller, Ira Stephen Behr, it leaves us not only wanting to continue but to have had much more time with what’s already been shown. For a fan of “Star Trek” and TV production in general, though, this amuse-bouche of a behind the scenes documentary is as irresistible as it is unsatisfying.