Tuesday, September 17, 2013

George Takes On Shat

I saw George Takei's autobiography To The Stars in the library so I checked it out. I've read a lot about the making of Star Trek, including books by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, but I thought it would be fun to see the view from a lower-ranked actor.  It came out in the mid-90s, so Takei has plenty of perspective on the show, but the memory of the movies were still fresh.

Of course, it's not all Star Trek.  There's a lot about growing up Japanese in America--including life in an internment camp--and plenty about Takei's political activities, but that's not why I read the book, and that's not why anyone published it.  The subtitle gives it away: The Autobiography Of George Takei, Star Trek's Mr. Sulu.  And Takei spends more time on the ST than any other subject.

He was an actor doing parts here and there, so getting a series was a big deal.  Getting what he saw as a quality show was even better (though he predicted to James Doohan that it would be gone soon because TV doesn't go for quality). Then, after it was canceled, seeing it rise again and become one of the most popular and successful franchises of all time was amazing.  But it was more than just about an acting job.  Takei saw himself as an actor, certainly, but also a representive of Asians, who were usually shown as devious figures, menials, or buffoons.  Sulu was a noble, intelligent crew member and Takei was proud of the part.

He kept pushing, hoping Sulu would be given more to do, but it wasn't easy since he wasn't one of the leads.  Still, he occasionally had good moments and even big scenes.  Gene Roddenberry and some of the writers tried to help him out, but when shooting on John Wayne's The Green Berets went long, Takei missed the first few weeks of Star Trek's season two and saw some great Sulu stuff go to the new character Pavel Chekov.

When the movie series started almost a decade after the show was canceled, Takei once again fought for his character--and his salary when he thought they were taking him for granted.  Unfortunately, one of his big scenes in Star Trek IV, where he meets a six-year-old on the street of San Francisco who turns out to be his great-great-grandfather, was cut when the child actor got too pouty and didn't want to perform.  Takei's main concern during the movie years seems to have been getting Sulu promoted so he could command his own ship.  After all, if he was so good at what he did, he wouldn't stay at the same job for years and years.  The idea was considered for several movies, and finally on Star Trek VI his wish was granted. It may have shown him advancing, and made him and those he represented proud, but others have wondered why he'd ever want to leave the bridge of the Enterprise where all the action is.

The most enjoyable part of the book--and what has made it somewhat notorious--is his hatred of William Shatner. Takei admired him as an actor but there was nothing else about him he seems to have approved of.  Takei has kind words and plenty of stories to tell about the rest of the cast, whom he clearly loved, but every fifteen pages or so he goes off on another tirade about Captain Kirk.

From the moment Shatner walked on the set when they were shooting the pilot, he was the center of attention, joking around, talking loudly, giggling, making it clear he was the star.  This might have been okay if it weren't for what Takei claims was his insecurity, and lack of feelings.  Everything had to be about Shatner. (Takei claims he's not alone in this feeling, and recounts rants against Shatner from actors like James Doohan.) Often an early draft of a script would give a good moment or line to one of the supporting characters.  Then through some process, initiated by Shatner according to Takei, the line would either disappear or become Captain Kirk's.  When they were making the movies, and there was plenty of time to compose each shot, there would be hushed conferences with Shatner and the director and suddenly new angles were chosen that favored the Captain.  In Star Trek II, there was a scene where Kirk was to tell Sulu he'd been promoted to captain, but Shatner played it so indifferently, as if it were a minor annoyance that Kirk could hardly be bothered with, that the scene was cut and Sulu's promotion had to wait for another day.

Takei's displeasure goes further. He claims Shatner would miss big events that the rest of the cast would attend if it weren't about him.  And he wouldn't contribute money for gifts and such that the rest of the cast paid for.  He was unpleasant on the set to guests.  Takei even has a story about a fire burning down the New York backlot set while they were shooting at Paramount, and publicists rushing Shatner to the scene with a hose so they could pretend he took charge of putting out the fire.  Really, if there's any reason to read this book, it's for the poetic passages of ire that attack the Shat.

I can understand why Takei takes it that way, though Shatner is only acting like a lot of other stars, going back to well before TV or even movies. (And make no mistake, Shatner was a star with a future in the mid-60s, while the rest of the cast had far lesser places in show biz--that's not an excuse for being shallow or petty, but it is a reason that these actors should understand how lucky they are.) Stars tend to be quite jealous of their fame.  It can go so far as to be self-defeating--making the show smaller to make themselves seem bigger--but as far as they're concerned, everyone else wants to steal the show from them, so it's their job to protect themselves.  In a way the joke was on Shatner, since he may have been the protagonist of Star Trek, but Leonard Nimoy stole the show.

Shatner, made aware of the impression others had, has since written about this divide, and even tried to address it.  But what's most fascinating is, as far as I can tell from Takei, he probably wasn't even aware of what he was doing.  And it worked, in its own way.  Takei wrote an autobiography and what I remember best about it is the image of the man who played Captain Kirk.


Anonymous Denver Guy said...

The joke is also on Shattner because his character is dead - and Leonard Nimoy still gets to put on the ears all these years later. In fact, we'll see if the new Start Treks find a way to allow spot appearances by any of the rest of the original cast (an interesting story night even be 3the revised Captain Kirk learning more aboutthe alternate time line terminated in the first reboot movie, and having to decide whether or not to restore the timeline where he and presumably Spock had a more normal childhood).

7:50 AM, September 17, 2013  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I think Takei's summary of Doohan's views is quite trustworthy. By the 1990s, Doohan wasn't speaking to Shatner at all. (And of course, the Shatner-controlled Star Trek V, Scotty stupidly bangs his head on an Enterprise bulkhead and is absent for much of the movie after that.)

Nichelle Nichols also publicly said disparaging things about Shatner from time to time, but it seems that the feeling on her part wasn't as intense.

I think that Doohan's anger is perhaps even more justified that Takei's. If you ask the average non-Trekkie to name Star Trek characters, they probably won't name Sulu, but they certainly will name Scotty... whereas Shatner has publicly said "the show is about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy". Of course he goes on to say that Spock and McCoy personify the voice of reason and the voice of emotion in Kirk's head... so it all comes back to Kirk after all.

I think it's fascinating to rewatch the series in production order. In the first half of season one, all the actors get a lot of screen time, and insofar as a "top three" are identifiable, it would clearly be Kirk, Spock, and Rand. In the second half of season one, the show is clearly about Kirk and Spock. Then in season two, the show begins to focus on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, with only occasional scripts focusing on someone else, usually because the script needed an additional lead (e.g., "Wolf in the Fold") rather than because the writers wanted to develop a specific person's character.

10:40 AM, September 17, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Takei was unhappy that the characters weren't taken seriously enough in Star Trek V, and blames Shatner.

I believe Nichelle Nichols was the first of the crew to tell Shatner, years later, that they didn't like him. It was apparently news to the Captain.

The question is did the show start to focus on Kirk, Spock and McCoy because Roddenberry and the writers realized that was what it was about, or because Shatner had made it clear that everything had to center on him.

1:32 PM, September 17, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Star Trek didn't focus on Kirk, we wouldn't be having this conversation because no one would remember the show. Spock only works as a foil to Mr. Bigshot. The Captian was the straw that stirred the seltzer and made it come out your nose.

Maybe I'm wrong but I. don't know. I. Just. Don't. Know.

2:59 PM, September 17, 2013  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Anon, you're right. When you got down to it, Scotty was one-dimensional. They tried in one episode to give Scotty a love interest, and that is one of the more painful episodes to watch. And the woman promptly disappeared from the series, even though they didn't kill her at the end.

Chekov was a walking punch-line. Uhura was just an uninteresting character in her own right. Nurse Chapel's affection for Spock made her a little interesting, but as an actress she brought as much emotion to the CVhapel role as she did to the computer voice role (I'm not trying to be mean, she played both roles well for how they were written.

I wonder if crewman O'Reilly was ever intended for greater things? He was the Irish counterpart to Scotty's Scottsman. Two episodes I remember circled around him. He was a massive overacter, but that didn't hurt Shattner. Maybe they decided there wasn't room for two such overcharged persona.

I think Takei is right, more could have been made more of Sulu, but large ensemble casts were just not done in the 60s, that's hardly Shattner's fault.

8:22 AM, September 18, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

According to Takei, it is Shatner's fault. He believes Roddenberry was trying to give others more to do but Shatner made sure it was all about him.

I don't know if ensemble casts were not done then, but they were rare. Still, right across the way at Desilu you had a true ensemble show shooting at the same time as Star trek--Mission: Impossible. That was the show Star Trek wished it could be. No one would have guessed what was going to happen.

We can see in Star Trek: The Next Generation what it looks like when the producers try to create an ensemble cast full of rounded characters on a starship. I'd say the results are mixed. I find most of the characters on that show boring, but I don't know if I'd like it any better if they concentrated on fewer characters.

12:35 PM, September 18, 2013  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Reilly is a good example of a well-developed junior officer. He appeared only in the first half of season one, along with Yeoman Rand. During that era there were entire scenes set in the mess room with only junior officers. Uhura even sang once or twice.

I agree that Scotty is basically one-dimensional, as are all the lower players. But presumably if the writers had been told to develop their characters as the show progressed, the actors might have been able to do more than that.

4:30 PM, September 18, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

By chance last week I saw last the episode of The New Generation featuring Scotty. It wasn't that good, but I don't know if that's because it's hard to build an episode around Scotty or The Next Generation in general bores me.

This episodes included the horrible idea that Scotty--as he advises La Forge to do--would regularly overstate how hard something is for engineering to do so when he does it he comes across like a miracle worker. If Kirk knew Scotty was doing anything like that he'd drop him off on the nearest planet, habitable or not.

7:00 PM, September 18, 2013  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

The Scotty episode was absolutely a play for old Star Trek fans. I like it a lot, but mostly for the nostalgia. I do think it draws the distinction between TNG - where the Federation is a mature organization, and the Original series, where the Federation is only a few decades old. And ENterprise (which I liked a lot more than most critics) is a picture of Humans in space before the Federation.

I hope some day there is a Star Trek set 150 years after the "Next Genereation era, to explore what a settled galaxy looks like (probably with a lot of time travel).

8:13 AM, September 20, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I don't like time travel as a regular feature of Star Trek since it's a cheap device that makes everything meaningless--nothing is ever finished and, in fact, why do anything since you, or someone else, can undo it whenever you feel like it.

ST:TNG was always glad to refer back to the original series any time it could, both for ratings and proof it was good enough. But I don't think the Federation was that new in the original series. I believe by then the Federation had been around about a century and warp drive had been around about two centuries.

The difference is the original series featured virile 1960s liberalism where we went around teaching everyone lessons (and occasionally taking our lumps), whereas the Next Generation featured 1980s liberalism where we humbly went around learning important things from other cultures.

Scotty may have been a relatively weak character in the original Star Trek, but in the Next Generation, you could see he liked a little swashbuckling, whereas La Forge just wants to get his job done and is almost scandalized when Scotty tells him to take it easy.

10:05 AM, September 20, 2013  

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