A documentary about the behind-the-scenes quarrels during the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), directed and written by William Shatner? That should be an intriguing concept enough for every self-respecting (yeah, save your jokes) Star Trek– fan out there, I guess. Does the result deliver on that sensational premise? For the most part, it does.
Before delving into this, one should be aware that this documentary sticks pretty close to the title: It’s all about the backstage fighting between the creator Gene Roddenberry, the various producers and writers and of course the lead actors during the (not so perfect) first two seasons. If you are looking for an examination of the whole story development process and such, you chose the wrong doc, because Chaos… brushes those aspects only fleetingly.
It is also not a work that necessarily strives for objectivity, but solely relies on the anecdotes of the interviewees (interviewed by the Shat himself), yet without making the mistake to present them as facts. Like in the recent The Death of “Superman Lives” (which is a tad superior), the appeal actually stems from listening to the different versions of the story and guessing which parts are closest to the truth. Maybe it could be best described as an “oral history”.
If you are a fan, you might already know some of the stories, but of course it’s more fun to hear them directly from the horse’s mouth, for example when producer Maurice Hurley describes Gene Roddenberry’s infamous, not very storytelling-friendly vision of a conflict-free future (ironic in the context of the real-world troubles on set) with the flowery expression “whackadoodle”.
Another amusing moment occurs when the former president of Paramount John Pike (who says that he does “not understand a bit…” of the plot of Episode #1, Encounter at Farpoint “..to this day”) tells how he was not convinced by Gene Roddenberry’s choice of casting Patrick Stewart, as in his eyes the captain just could not be a bald guy, to which the Star Trek guru answered with “Hair does not mean anything in the 23rd century”. Funnily enough, William Shatner, widely known as toupet wearer, has to spontaneously laugh at that remark.
Roddenberry must have been a quite controversial character, as he is alternately referred to with deep respect or posthumous boss-bashing. The tough situation for the writers who had to work with Roddenberry is summed up in an old photo from the toilet of the writer’s room, whose wall is adorned with a framed list of the over 30 (!) different writers that were fired during the first season alone, serving as a warning for the new ones.
A big plus of the doc is that all interviewees seem to be in a good mood and are ready for gossip and confessions. Apart from the producers and writers -among them Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga- Shatner also interviews some of the actors, with a focus on Patrick Stewart, who apparently took his role really seriously, but also John DeLancie, Denise Crosby and Gates Mc Fadden. There are also a few short contributions Jonathan Frakes and Diana Muldaur, but Will Wheaton, Michael Dorn. LeVar Burton and Marina Sirtis are only present via snippets from the archive material.
“Hair does not mean anything in the 23rd century”
One thing that annoyed me a little though was the presentation, as it is yet another documentary that hops on the fad of filling every crevice with obnoxious and overdone animations. I think the content is strong enough to stand on its own so that we don’t need a bombardment of almost seasickness- inducing animated sequences to keep us entertained.
Not much of a better idea are the undercooked decision to alternate between a “Poker”- and a “Wild West”- theme, the former owed to a recurring sequence in TNG and the latter to the franchise’s roots as “Space Western”, and the inclusion of an annoying hillbilly banjo score.
Clocking in at one hour, Chaos on the Bridge is a short and sweet affair and despite the few aforementioned flaws quite enjoyable. It is not a milestone in the history of Star Trek docs, but a neat sidenote. Be warned: While casual and hardcore Trek aficionados alike will surely get a kick out of the behind-the-scenes gossip, non-fans might be disappointed or even bored.
Chaos on the Bridge is here and there a tad too broad and quite gossipy- yet it’s also always entertaining and sometimes touchingly, if almost uncomfortably honest.
In the end it’s exactly the kind of doc you would expect from “The Shat”, whose personality undeniably shines through in the end product.
Chaos on the Bridge is available as VOD (rent or buy) on vimeo.
And now, a tribute to “the Captain”: