Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise Book Review

Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise is a new, non-fiction Star Trek book that is meant both for die-hard and casual fans of the original Star Trek series created in the 1960s. Despite the title, the book isn’t set up in a question and answer format, and the book has answers to some questions that have probably only occurred to a small number of people. This book is meant to be a distillation of information published elsewhere, but even at 413 pages, don’t expect technical details like an explanation of star dates or warp drive. There is an obligatory episode guide, but thankfully, the plot synopses are kept short. From my fan perspective, its pages do contain some interesting information that I wasn’t aware of.

The author, Mark Clark, is a Star Trek fan, but he is also a film historian, who has taught on the subject, as well as being a former newspaper film critic. Thus one would hope that the book could provide insights beyond all of the information that can probably be found by scouring the Internet. Unfortunately, don’t expect any revelatory information that a Star Trek insider might have.

Whenever a book is published about The Beatles, there is the inevitable, rhetorical question that some reviewers ask: “Do we really need another book on The Beatles?” The same can be asked for a subject like Star Trek that too arose during the 1960s and has had a similar cultural impact. Both the subtitle of Star Trek FAQ – Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise and the introduction by the author acknowledge that there have been many books published about Star Trek. Even the foreword by David Gerrold, writer of the tribble episode, mentions the abundance (which is appropriate, considering tribbles are known for their reproductive ability).

I’ve been collecting Star Trek books, both fact and fiction, ever since I bought Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry’s The Making of Star Trek in its thirteenth printing in 1974. I have all the cast biographies including The Longest Trek – My Tour of the Galaxy by Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Janice Rand with the beehive hairdo in early first season episodes. (And if you believed the official reason why she was let go from the show so that Captain Kirk could play the space field, then you will be shocked by Whitney’s claim that Star Trek FAQ repeats between its covers.) I even have Inside Trek – My Secret Life with Star Trek Creator Gene Roddenberry written by Susan Sackett, who served as Roddenberry’s Executive Assistant – and secret lover! I’m still waiting for a Paramount cleaning technician (i.e., janitor) to release a book on his Star Trek memories. Coincidentally, both the Whitney biography and Sackett tell-all are in this book’s bibliography. Of the sixty or so books mentioned in the bibliography, I have all but five!

Star Trek FAQ is a nice succinct title, but as the back cover blurb describes, the book attempts to provide more than just answers to frequently asked questions with obscure and not-so-public details like Spock’s alcoholism (or I should say Leonard Nimoy’s alcoholism – when I get drunk, I tend to get quiet and introspective, so I wonder if alcohol enabled Nimoy to maintain Spock’s stoic facade?). Lest I give the impression that this book resorts to sensationalism, it takes the high ground in not delving into sensitive, irrelevant issues like whether or not William Shatner is follicly challenged, or George Takei’s sexual preference.

Although numbered entries are divided into sections that are loosely chronologically ordered, this book does not have to be read linearly. The entry titles that intrigued me included “Permission to Come Aboard: Unforgettable Guest Stars,” “Brief Lives: Untold Tales of Star Trek’s ‘Redshirts’,” “Captain’s Log: Evidence That William Shatner Was Really Quite Good,” and “Keep On Trekkin’: Famous and Influential Fans.” And a whole section entitled “Prime Directives: Social Commentary and Recurring Themes” appealed to my academic sensibilities.

There are a fair number of black-and-white photos in the book. Most of the photos are from the author’s collection, and the majority of them I have not seen before. In the entries where people are discussed, it would have been nice if the author was able to show photos of the people, especially for the behind-the-scenes and unsung heroes of Star Trek. I must admit that in the entry discussing the actors who portrayed the “redshirts,” I had trouble picturing them in my mind. Note that this is one of the more obscure entries in the book, but one that most fans would appreciate.

Embarrassingly, I never knew that Star Trek had been Emmy nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series in 1967 and 1968. One 1969 nomination not mentioned in the book, but mentioned on Wikipedia, is for Outstanding Guest Appearance for Frank Gorshin’s portrayal as Commissioner Bele, the half-white, half-black (or was it half-black, half-white?) alien. (Maybe I shouldn’t believe Wikipedia?)

William Shatner’s tinnitus is traced to an episode called “The Apple” in which an explosive charge used as a physical effect actually knocked a redshirt actor unconscious. Shatner’s proximity to the explosion apparently did damage to his hearing. I thought the episode “Arena” with its use of explosive charges was the cause, but I suppose the damage might have been cumulative.

When Gene Roddenberry died, one of his daughters challenged the will and subsequently lost a fortune, because of a clause in the will that was included to punish any beneficiary who challenged the will. Apparently, Roddenberry knew that humanity’s abandonment of greed would have to wait for the future.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is listed as one of the influential and famous fans. I had read elsewhere that his wife is a fan of Shatner and Star Trek. She supposedly sat her daughter and husband down to watch the whole series during a summer after the release of the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. I guess if nothing else, this would qualify Harper as a fan.

If I haven’t listed enough examples to pique your curiosity about other revelations, I’ll leave you with one more question answered in the book: “Who came up with the term ‘Trekkie’?” (I won’t give up the answer here.)

Regarding mistakes, there is only one quibble I have regarding the factual content of the book. In the entry “Treknological Marvels: Miracle Gadgets of the Twenty-Third Century,” the replicator is mentioned. I don’t believe replicators are revealed until the time of the The Next Generation. There are occasional typos, especially with names of people both fictional and real, so I wouldn’t use this book as a definitive reference source. For example, Khan is spelled Kahn [sic] in a photo caption. Sometimes a character name would be spelled correctly in one entry and spelled incorrectly in another. (I have a complete list of typos if anyone cares to know.) At least there are no unintentional Dr. Spock references or Chekhov typos.

A question that the author raises and doesn’t answer in regards to a supposed goof in the plot of the episode “City on the Edge of Forever” is why the crew on the planet doesn’t disappear along with the Enterprise in orbit. For those not familiar with this classic episode, Dr. McCoy had jumped through the Guardian of Forever and gone back in time, altering events so that Starfleet had never been formed. I thought it was common knowledge among Trekkies that the crew’s proximity to the Guardian’s time ripples protected them from the effects of the past changing. (Perhaps I got this explanation from one of the subsequent sequel novels that used the Guardian as a plot device.)

One of the condemnations repeated by the author concerns Star Trek’s sexist attitude. I find this amusing, because Star Trek had a female story editor, Dorothy C. Fontana, for half of its seventy-nine episode run. She wrote ten episodes and did uncredited polishes on twenty-six. And at least two other episodes were credited to women. But I suppose the men in charge had the final word.

The Star Trek books I have read all seem to be written by fans, even the academic tomes that cover the complete spectrum of the Dewey Decimal System. So I often wonder if Star Trek really deserves all the accolades heaped on it. And I wonder if fans have exaggerated the importance of the show. So as a film historian, can the author provide an objective take especially since this book is unauthorized? I’m afraid not. I was hoping that he might provide fresh insight in the section on why Star Trek grew in popularity after cancellation. Throughout, he doesn’t really provide any new perspective, and seems to parrot the accolades that I’ve read elsewhere. He is effusive at times in commenting about acting skills, so I doubt his impartiality. At least he manages to stay away from staid academic prose, and he keeps the writing readable. (I wonder if he’s any relation to former Pocket Book’s Star Trek editor Margaret Clark?) Of course, maybe Star Trek is simply awesome.

Hate is toxic. This, the author reminds us, was a key message of Star Trek. Not only hate of people, but hate in all its forms. So it’s somewhat ironic that many of Star Trek’s fans have not taken this message to heart as evidenced by the vitriol contributed by many supposed Star Trek fans on the Internet. To be honest, I am as guilty as any of you. Maybe I like Star Trek because I need to believe that humanity will overcome its foibles. Alas, I too repeat what has been said many times before about Star Trek’s appeal.

There is an FAQ series of books dealing with musical artists and television shows, so the FAQ imprint is something like the For Dummies series. (And if you were wondering if we needed another book on The Beatles, there is a Fab Four FAQ and a Fab Four FAQ 2.0.) There will also be another FAQ book dealing with Star Trek: The Next Generation to be released in 2013 appropriately titled Star Trek FAQ 2.0: Everything Left to Know About the Feature Films, The Next Generation, and Beyond.

The subtitle, Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise, implies that this book contains the final words about the 1960’s Star Trek. It’s a bold claim to make in order to sell copies of this book, but I don’t really think this book deserves its subtitle. People who were involved with the original show are still around. (I’m sure that a photo of William Shatner without a toupee and in his Kirk uniform will surface someday to finally settle the toupee issue.) For now, I think a better subtitle might have been Everything You Want to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise. — Reed

  • SnuggleBob

    “So I often wonder if Star Trek really deserves all the accolades heaped on it. And I wonder if fans have exaggerated the importance of the show. ” good question, could be asked about alot of cult tvshows/films.

  • projectgenesis

    Well-written, Reed. I hope this is you dipping your toes in the pool of Treknobable once again!

  • Thx, projectgenesis! I wasn’t sure if Sean would post this as a Treknobabble or not. Truth be told, I was sent a review copy of this book so I felt obligated to write a review.

    With shooting of a new Trek movie well underway, I considered reviving Treknobabble, but I don’t really derive must satisfaction from writing non-fiction.

  • Have you written any fiction, Reed? Your own Star Trek episode, perhaps?

  • @MovieReviewerMan I haven’t finished any stories since grade school English classes. I can’t come up with interesting plots. I think I can write interesting characters, but I can’t come up with satisfying situations to put them in. I think part of my problem is that I haven’t lived an interesting life.

    As for writing Star Trek stories, I find it difficult to write dialog for the characters. I can’t find their voices. And again, I can’t think of interesting situations to put them in. I thought about writing a sequel to the V’ger movie to imagine what happened to V’ger after “merging” with humanity. (It’s easy for me to empathize with an omnipotent being. :-))

  • Liney

    Reed – you might be interested to know that William Shatner is the guest host on “Have I got news for you” tonight. It’s a topical panel show where they poke fun at the week’s news, and each week they have a guest host. It will be on the BBC iPlayer from tomorrow, but not sure you can watch that in Canada (if not I’m sure you’ll be able to download it if you’re interested)?

  • Thx, Liney! Last night, Shatner guest starred on the season premiere of a cop show called “Rookie Blue.” I can’t keep up with all his projects.

  • For the record, I am NOT related to Margaret Clark (or Roy Clark or George Rogers Clark or Clark Gable). Many thanks for your meticulous critique!

  • Thx for answering my question and reading my review, Mr. Clark.

    People familiar with me know that I can be a harsh critic. I’m glad you didn’t take any offense from anything I wrote even though I realize there is a high probability that my opinions are not shared by the majority. I do appreciate the effort in getting a book about Star Trek published. I look forward to your future publishing endeavors.

  • I’ve written tons of reviews, and received my fair share in return. Your critique was open-minded, insightful and instructive. It has also inspired me to write a blog entry. I’ll post a link once it’s finished. Thanks again!