The following is an interview with multi-talented writer/producer/director/composer Marc Cushman (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Desperately Seeking Paul McCartney, In the Eyes of a Killer) on his bestselling and award-winning book series, These Are the Voyages: TOS. These Are the Voyages, which will consist of three books in total, details a comprehensive history of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Series, including memos between Roddenberry, his staff, the network and the studio, production schedules, and more. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon chats with Cushman about his inspiration for taking on the project, his initial attraction to all-things Star Trek, his long history within various aspects of the entertainment medium, and when to expect These Are the Voyages Book 3.
This interview was conducted on July 14, 2014.
Barbra Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: First and foremost, congratulations on the success of your incredible work on These Are the Voyages: TOS! What inspired you to take on this mammoth undertaking, which details the history of one of the most amazing sci-fi shows in television history?
Marc Cushman: Some might call it inspiration, others would call it madness, only because of the amount of time put into this project. But, this is the way I’m wired. When I become interested in something, I have to know everything about it. Like any good subject, the more you dig, the more you discover, the more interesting it gets, and the making of the first Star Trek series, as I learned through my research, is a remarkable story. I wanted to know all they went through, and, as you see in these books, they went through a hell of a lot. It boggles the mind. And, in seeing how talented they all were, and hard working, I found myself wondering why some episodes weren’t as good as others. I wanted to know what they – the writers and directors and actors – thought of these episodes. So, when I first met Gene Roddenberry in the 1980s, I asked him if he would be supportive of me writing about the making of every episode, and let me dig through all those tens of thousands of memos he and Bob Justman had saved. He said okay. And, he bought “Sarek” from me for Next Generation, too. It was a good day. I had read The Making of Star Trek, by Stephen Whitfield, when it came out in 1968 while the series was still in production. It covered the making of the pilots well, but didn’t really get into the writing and producing of all the other episodes. And, that’s what I wanted, to read The Making of Star Trek multiplied by 78. But, I wanted it to show all the points of view, not just Roddenberry’s, but also that of Gene Coon, Bob Justman, Dorothy Fontana, Matt Jefferies, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Stan Robertson at the network, and all down the line. I wanted to know what the guest stars thought, and the guest writers and directors, and the technicians, and get the truth behind the ratings, and see the budgets for every episode, and the shooting schedules, and the fan letters, and pull it all together and somehow have it read like a biography of a TV series. I’d never seen a book like that, and figured no one else was going to write it, so I would have to be the one. I procrastinated for a while, and many, many books came out on Star Trek over the last 30 years, but nothing like what I wanted to read. So, it came down to how much was I willing to do and spend to read this book. It turned out I was willing to do and spend quite a lot. And, that’s why I say it may be more a case of madness over inspiration. Anyway, I’m told they work.
BD: As a 30-year veteran of writing for TV and film, did you find that writing about television provided a more in-depth or varied perspective on the medium?
MC: I am naturally interested in what goes into writing for television, and making television. TV is such a powerful medium, and Star Trek is an example of using that power properly. It is funny, but the theme of many Star Trek episodes is about how absolute power corrupts absolutely. But, in my opinion, the writers of the first Star Trek did not abuse their power – perhaps because they didn’t know they had it. They had no idea the show was going to become what it has. One of them said it well during an interview I conducted, telling me, ‘If we had known how many times these episodes would rerun, we probably would never have finished a single one.’ What got them to finish 79 episodes was the TV grind – the need to deliver a new episode every week, ready or not. You don’t have time to even think about how 20,000,000 people will be watching. You just point yourself toward the finish line and use every ounce of knowledge and energy you have to get across that line, and then turn around and do it again 28 more times that season. My background in TV allowed me to understand this and gave me a leg up in explaining it to the reader. And having a background as a screen writer allowed me to bring something else into this project, which has to do with being in the moment. When writing for the screen, we’re not writing about something that happened way back when, but something that is happening right now in front of you. I used this approach in these books. They take you back to 1964 and keep you in that time period, day by day, until 1969. You are in the room watching Roddenberry and his staff give out the script assignments and then rewrite every script as it comes in, dealing with budget concerns and the network censors, and all else that influences how the scripts will be developed. And then, you are on the sidelines watching the episodes being filmed, all that goes right and all that goes wrong. The future hasn’t happened yet. We’re there, watching yesterday happen, getting caught up in the problems and the joys of the moment. When we watch a good movie or TV show, we forget that we’re watching fiction, or an reenactment of fact, but, instead, we get swallowed up by it and experience the ups and downs right along with the people we are watching. I wanted these books to read that way. Yes, we all know Star Trek lasted three seasons, and that NBC’s attempts to cancel it at the end of the first year, and then at the end of the second, and then in the middle of the third, didn’t work. But, my job is to get your mind off what you know about the future and get you to just experience what is happening around you as you are reading. You are there, writing letters to NBC begging for them to renew Star Trek, and you are there, marching on NBC in Burbank and New York, and you are there in front of your TV set when, during the closing credits of “The Omega Glory,” as an NBC announcer comes on and says that Star Trek will continue and to please stop writing letters. You’re there in the Star Trek offices trying to get another script into shooting shape, and then on Desilu Stages 9 and 10, trying to get another episode done, and wondering if you’ll be back next year or out of work. It’s one hell of a roller coaster ride.
BD: Given the care and thoughtfulness that you provide to Star Trek in your writing, once can only assume your own love for the property. When did your fascination with all-things Star Trek begin?
MC: I was twelve when I first watched Star Trek, in 1967 during the summer repeats of Season One. “The Devil in the Dark” was the first episode I saw, and I was hooked. I’d been watching Lost in Space and enjoying it. Hey, I was a kid. And, I loved Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, but those were both anthology series. This, other than Lost in Space, was the first time I’d gone on an adventure with people into outer space. And, this one felt real. More than that, I found myself thinking about each story after it would end. I was too young to understand about theme, but those morality plays were having a major impact on me. And, having an impact on my family, and my friends, and my teachers. Star Trek was the show everyone was talking about. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Ruff, would start to assign our homework and hear a groan from the class, and say, “I know, it’s Star Trek night, no homework.” And, everyone would cheer. And, this was before I’d even seen the show. I asked one of my friends, “What’s a Star Trek?” He started telling me about it, but, instead of just describing the plot, he was telling me about the theme of last week’s episode. Those episodes are still impressive today, but imagine seeing them in 1967? Or 1966 for those who found the show before I did. Watch an episode of Lost in Space, and you’ll see the profound difference between the two types of storytelling. And, that isn’t saying Lost in Space isn’t entertaining. But, it didn’t teach me anything. Star Trek did. And, Star Trek still does.
BD: Before These Are the Voyages began, did you find yourself drawn to The Original Series more than the others, or do they each possess something distinct and unique?
MC: Absolutely. And, I was briefly involved with Next Generation and went in for pitch meetings at Voyager and Enterprise. So, I was watching them all. Coming from that background, I’ll tell you that the first series is the best. I say that as a fan, but I also say it as a writer. Good writing is all about good conflicts, and the first Star Trek had them. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy loved one another. They would have died for one another. But, they didn’t always agree, or even get along. There was substantial conflict between them. And, that adds the spark to a dramatic scene, or even a comedy scene. It’s the profound differences between the characters, and how those differences can cause friction, that makes the scenes interesting. Watch “The Corbomite Maneuver” and the friction on the bridge as they are all waiting to die. Kirk snaps at Spock and McCoy snaps at Kirk, and Kirk snaps back at McCoy, and Baily has a breakdown. That’s drama!
BD: In recent years, Star Trek: The Next Generation has been restored and released on Blu-ray for new and established audiences to enjoy. Do you feel that your book series likewise appeals to readers who are both longtime Star Trek fans and those new to The Original Series?
MC: I think reading these books will make you want to watch the episodes. And, if you watch the episodes, now knowing what went into making them, and what Roddenberry and his staff were wanting to say with them, and experiencing all the blood, sweat, and tears, and the thought and care, then you will be hooked. Sue Osborn was the editor on this book series. Now, Sue knew Star Trek. She’d seen it when she was young and she liked it. But, she wasn’t a fan. And, that is why I chose her to edit the books. I wanted someone with a fresh eye to tell me if the material would be interesting to people who had never even seen the show. I told her to cut anything that didn’t hold up to those standards. And, she cut a few things, but not that much, which is why these books are so big. What happened was, instead of crossing things out, she would say, “It was really interesting reading about this particular episode. Can you show it to me?” And, we ended up watching most of the series together, because she had to see it after reading about what it took to make it.
BD: The first two volumes of These Are the Voyages have already been released. Is the third and final volume already in the works, and do you have an estimated release date in mind?
MC: Book 3, which covers Season Three of TOS, is already done. Sue Osborn is reading it now and making her notes. I’ll address those notes in the next month or so, then send it off to be proofed, and to have the pictures added in, and then we are off to print. We expect it will be available right around November 1, with review copies going out sooner. I think it is the best of the three, because the challenges were greater for them during the third season. Each year got harder. The budgets got cut, the time slots were worse, the pressure from the studio and the network was worse, the threat of cancellation was greater, and people were getting tired. The third season had some excellent episodes, but, overall, it wasn’t as good as the first two seasons. It couldn’t have been. You’ll understand why when you read about it, and read the memos being written between the staff and the network. In fact, when you see the behind the scenes struggles, I expect you’ll agree that it is amazing that Season Three turned out as good as it is. The reason it did is because those talented people cared so much, and worked so hard, even when they felt beaten up and knew that NBC was going to kill the show. It’s a heartbreaking story, but, to borrow a line from Mr. Spock, it’s a fascinating one.
BD: You have also previously released I Spy: A History Of The Groundbreaking Television Series, demonstrating your reverence and great ability for writing biographies. Do you have an interest in creating biographies for other Star Trek properties?
MC: Time and money will determine if I do books about the other Star Trek series. I just spent six years writing three 600-plus-page books on the first Star Trek, and nearly two years before that doing the one on I Spy. To do books the way I do, to research them to that degree and labor over them like that, takes a long time. I already have my next five books started and about 50% researched, so, whichever one I do next, will probably show up sooner. Will it be a Star Trek book? Again, time and money will determine that. In other words, everyone, buy these books. You do that, and I’ll write more.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are working that you are able to share with our readers?
MC: I love classic TV and would love to do more in that genre, provided the market is there. I Spy was important for me to do, because that was the first series to cast a white actor and a black actor together, on equal status. And, Bill Cosby was the first black to win an Emmy, and he won three in a row as Best Lead in a Drama, for that show. And, it was the first to shoot around the world. What they went through was amazing. Next to Star Trek, it was probably the most difficult show ever made for TV. And, like Star Trek, it changed the face of TV, and that, in turn, changed the face of the world. Now, there aren’t too many shows that have done that, but there are a few others I could write about, including newer ones, like Breaking Bad. That one sure broke the mold. I’m a pop music junkie, too, and have thousands of pages of research on a handful of the greatest successes from the 1960s onward. My manager will be shopping for a book deal and I have compiled a list of subjects I’m ready to jump into – with much of the research already in place. I know which one I would do first if given the choice, but prefer not to announce a project if there is a chance it will never see the light of day. But, if a publisher wants me to cover one of the other Star Treks, and is willing to pay my bills for a couple years while I do it, then count me in.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell our readers who want to learn more about These Are the Voyages?
MC: Go to www.thesearethevoyagesbooks.com. There are excerpts from Books 1 and 2 there, photos, reviews, celebrity endorsements, and various links. The publisher has a These Are the Voyages Facebook page, too, which is always posting interesting things about Star Trek, and about these books. Or come see me at Comic-Con at the Geek magazine booth, or in Vegas for the July/August Star Trek convention. I’ll be on some panels and be doing book signings. Best thing is to just read the books. And, watch the episodes as you read the books. You think you know Star Trek? You probably don’t. But now, you can.
*Above photo (right) of Marc Cushman accepting his 2014 Saturn Award is courtesy of Albert L. Ortega.