Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Trekdom Review: James Van Hise's The Unauthorized History of Trek

Trekdom Review: James Van Hise's 1995 The Unauthorized History of Trek.

James Van Hise has written many books on the history of film, television, and comics. He has also edited a collection of prose called Midnight Graffiti , which contains previously unpublished stories by Stephen King and Harlan Ellison, among others. Throughout his career as a writer, he continuously comes back to a favorite topic: Star Trek.

His 1995 The Unauthorized History of Trek makes a nice companion to his other Trek works, which have focused on the movies or exclusively on 24th century Trek. This book, in contrast, takes readers through many of the behind-the-scenes festivities, from the making of "The Cage" to the last seasons of The Next Generation. With its detailed breakdown of each season, together with synopses of memorable episodes, the text is useful as a reference guide for writers and Star Trek fans.

The book is strongest when covering the TOS years, which is understandable considering that we have many more sources, especially memoirs, that differ greatly from "authorized" Paramount publications. Nevertheless, many times, the author glosses over controversies, feuds, and myths. When Van Hise moves on to discuss TNG, his narrative almost entirely matches "authorized" histories that glorify Gene Roddenberry without delving into the darker aspects of his personality. Indeed, a fan that is well-versed in "what really happened" will be disappointed by the expectation that Van Hise's book is unique or provocative. One may get the impression that Paramount simply refused to let him use "Star Trek" in the title, which, by definition, made it "unauthorized."

Considering that the book was originally published in 1991, these weaknesses are of course understandable. Many of the details of Roddenberry's life did not become public until after his death. And, the mid-1990s witnessed a slew of published memoirs, especially Justman and Solow's Inside Star Trek, an indispensable source for historians of Trek. Clearly, the author revised the 1995 text by incorporating some brief discussions of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Yet, it is obvious that he ignored newer publications, especially Joel Engel's 1994 Gene Roddenberry: The Man and the Myth behind Star Trek.

Van Hise can also be faulted for an ominous lack of critical analysis. Many subjects are briefly celebrated without a hint of critique, such as Star Trek's use of a racially-integrated cast. These sections will be frustrating for any fan who does not automatically swallow Roddenberry or Paramount propaganda. Overall, the tone is entirely "gushing," for lack of a better term.

Also, readers looking for analyses of Star Trek within the broader context of Vietnam and the Cold War will be sorely disappointed, as will fans looking for an objective discussion about gender, race, or other issues.

Last but not least, the book contains many factual errors, such as stating that Roddenberry was a science-fiction aficionado from childhood onwards, that he was head writer for Have Gun, Will Travel, and that Leonard Nimoy had no personal objections to returning as Spock for The Motion Picture.

Despite these flaws, the book makes good use of original sources, especially newspapers and magazine articles. Although the lack of citations could make those documents unusable for some writers, the primary sources are a must read, especially for those of us born after 1969.

*reviewed by Jared B.

*To purchase Van Hise's Unauthorized History of Trek at, click here.