Mirror, Mirror: Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA on CBS

It’s time for the NBA Finals, and today that means Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But for most of the storied history of the National Basketball Association-and especially in the 1980s, the Finals meant that either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics would be playing for the title, and for most of the decade, they would be doing it against each other. And for the nation, the games were televised not on ABC, but on CBS.

When CBS acquired the rights to broadcast NBA games in the late ’70s, the deal because quickly seen as something of a poison pill: ABC, who had broadcast the league’s games for some time (and who were quite rightfully known for their superb sports coverage) started aggressively counter-programming against CBS’s coverage. This was bad enough, but a number of events also conspired to sap the league’s popularity: a lack of superstars (and then, when the rival American Basketball Association folded into the NBA, the New York Nets were forced to move to New Jersey and give up Julius Erving, the league’s biggest star), a dearth of success for the biggest market teams (the champions from 1977-1979 were the Portland Trailblazers, the Washington Bullets, and the Seattle SuperSonics, in that order), a change in scheduling that caused the Finals to shift from its usual June time frame to the middle of May sweeps, and most fatally to the league’s reputation, violent brawls were all too common in the NBA. The nadir was a now-infamous fight between the Lakers and the Houston Rockets where Lakers forward Kermit Washington punched Rockets forward Rudy Tomjanovich. Tomjanovich was severely injured (his skull was so damaged that he could taste spinal fluid during his five-month recovery), but the damage to the league’s reputation was sealed, and CBS started tape-delaying games, even those of the NBA Finals.

Salvation for CBS and the NBA came in the form of two men who could not be more different: Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The two had faced off to much hype in the 1979 NCAA Tournament Final, and they found themselves on the two most storied teams in the league: Bird with the Celtics, and Johnson with the Lakers. Both players fit their teams like gloves: the Celtics were a hard-working, blue-collar team playing in the decrepit Boston Garden, while the Lakers were flashy and watched by numerous movie stars in the fabulous LA Forum. Magic was a flashy passer running Pat Riley’s vaunted Showtime offense with a perpetual smile on his face, while Bird was a gritty defender capable of shooting the lights out known for his continuous stream of trash talk, which he backed up with cool efficiency. Their teammates fit them just as well. On the Lakers: Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, master of the Skyhook (who famously appeared in the classic comedy Airplane!), bearded, goggles-wearing “Big Game” James Worthy, defensive stopper Michael Cooper, Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes, and popular everyman Kurt Rambis, who was likened to Clark Kent because of his glasses and average ability. On the Celtics: the Chief, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge, perhaps the most unlikely two-sport athlete in history, bruising Sixth Man Kevin McHale, and the perpetually underrated Dennis Johnson.

The contrasts extended even to the teams’ announcers. Johnny Most, the perpetually disheveled, gravel-voiced, and curmudgeonly voice of the Celtics openly rooted for the team on air, while the well-dressed, slick-voiced Chick Hearn was as famous for criticizing players for bad play as he was for never missing a single game. But, much as with the teams themselves, Most and Hearn respected their rivals, even as the fans did not. On CBS, broadcasts had a decided Boston flavor in the ’80s: lead announcer Dick Stockton began his career calling Red Sox games, and his on-air partner was Celtic legend Tommy Heinsohn, who was regularly accused of being a huge homer (which, in retrospect, is rather silly, since Heinsohn calls Celtics games nowadays, and is infinitely more biased than he ever was on CBS).

However, every story needs a villain, and the NBA provided a doozy in the ’80s: the Detroit Pistons. Known as the “Bad Boys”, the Pistons were about the dirtiest team that ever walked onto a basketball court, and they seemed  pretty proud of that fact. The worst offender: Bill Laimbeer, the Pistons’ center, who over the course of the decade got in high profile fights with not only Bird, Parish, and Kareem, but Philadelphia 76ers power forward Charles Barkley. (As an odd contrast, Magic was good friends with Pistons guard Isiah Thomas, with whom he shared friendly kisses at midcourt before Lakers/Pistons games-something that was savaged in the ever-so-homophobic ’80s.) And games against their division rivals, the Chicago Bulls, often devolved into nastiness, especially once Michael Jordan began to emerge as a superstar in his own right.

And this is where I come in: the 1988 NBA Finals. The Pistons, long stymied by the Celtics, finally made it to the Finals, and as expected, it was a knock-down, drag-out affair. The stakes were their highest: there had not been a repeat champion in the NBA since 1969, when the Celtics had beaten the Lakers at the Forum in Game 7. Moreover, the Lakers had lost five NBA Finals Game 7s without a win since moving to LA in 1960, all in devastating fashion: besides 1969, they had lost to the Knicks in 1970 when an injured Willis Reed started the game, completely psyching the team out, and 1962, 1966, and especially 1984 also saw painful losses to the Celtics in the Garden. Detroit built a lead in the first half, but led by James Worthy (who was named Finals MVP after the game), the Lakers built a big 15 point lead in the third quarter…..only to see it evaporate in the fourth quarter. But the Lakers held on, and they exorcised the team’s demons (much to the relief of general manager Jerry West, who had taken part in most of those prior Game 7s, and is infamously superstitious). Good won, evil lost, and I was probably the only Laker fan in New England.

Next time, it’s back to Star Trek proper, where we’ll meet the show’s most prolific composer.

Guardians of Forever: Nichelle Nichols

When the first regular episode of Star Trek neared filming, the Enterprise‘s communications officer was Dave Bailey, a guest character. And also a white male. While it’s not an entirely shocking development (the communications officer(s) had tiny roles in the pilots), there was a big problem that episode director Joseph Sargent recognized immediately: there wasn’t a single African American in the cast. Joe D’Agosta made a suggestion, and Gene agreed instantly.

D’Agosta’s choice? A singer/actress named Nichelle Nichols. After touring with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton as a singer and dancer, Nichols appeared in Porgy and Bess, launching her acting career. In the middle of singing appearances, stage plays, and guest turns on television, Nichols made an appearance on The Lieutenant, in the episode that had gotten that series cancelled: “To Set It Right”. It was this performance that D’Agosta had remembered, as Nichols had not acted well, but had been a consummate professional despite her relative lack of acting experience.

However, what no one was aware of (and it didn’t become widely known until the 1990s) was that Nichelle Nichols had previously had an affair with Gene Roddenberry.

Ignoring for a moment the dual scandals of a Hollywood producer cheating on his wife, and with a woman of color (remember, in the ’60s, such affairs were actually illegal in some states), this was never once discussed publicly until Nichols wrote her autobiography in the ’90s. Furthermore, the affair (which Nichols ended when she saw how much Roddenberry adored Majel Barrett) never affected the casting process. Nichols wasn’t even aware that Gene was involved until she arrived in Hollywood after being diverted from a European nightclub tour. If there was any favoritism, it was Nichols’ salary: $1,000 a day. If she was on set all six scheduled days of a shoot, Nichols stood to make more per episode than William Shatner himself. For 1966, this was even more revolutionary than Nichols playing something other than a maid.

The effect was immediate: Nichols fit in wonderfully with the rest of the cast (even though she was frequently crowded out of episodes outside of opening hailing frequencies), and for black audiences, she was a revelation. Not only was she competent, effective, and respective, but Lieutenant Uhura was drop dead sexy. Part of this was fueled by a different sort of arms race: Nichelle Nichols and Grace Lee Whitney quickly engaged in a bit of one-upmanship over their legs. The odds were stacked in Uhura’s favor, since she was usually seen in a seated position, while Yeoman Rand was almost always on her feet. It wasn’t a hostile competition by any means, but it was never going to be discouraged on a Gene Roddenberry show. But even greater than that was Uhura’s name, which was drawn from an actual person Nichelle Nichols was reading about in the Desilu waiting room, about an African woman named Uhuru, a named which meant “freedom”. With a simple letter change for pronunciation’s sake, Star Trek not only had a black woman on the bridge in a high position, but she had an authentic African name as well. In a country where most African Americans bore the last names of their ancestors’ slave owners, this was another big deal. And it wouldn’t be the last.

Next time, a trip to the ’80s and one of the all-time great sports rivalries.

Assignment: 1966: “Paint It Black”, Pet Sounds, and Blonde on Blonde

It’s May 16th, 1966, and since the last post, things have happened. China, after detonating its third nuclear weapon (and falsely claiming that it was a hydrogen bomb) on the 9th, issues what is now known as the “May 16 Notification”, a blistering indictment of Mao’s perceived enemies from within, including the recently outed party leaders. So, yeah, things in China? Only getting worse. Also decaying is the situation in Rhodesia, as a whopping thirty African countries demanded on the 10th that the UN enforce harsher penalties against the majority white government there. On the 8th, Sportman’s Park in St. louis hosts its final Cardinals game, and Busch Stadium opens on the 12th. Two days later, over 400,000 college students across the country take the draft deferment exam. There were anti-war protests outside a great deal of the test sites. And on the 16th itself, Janet Jackson is born in Gary, Indiana, and Thurman Thomas is born in Houston (his football helmet was not reported missing 😉 ), while Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his first speech on the Vietnam War (unsurprisingly, he’s not a fan).

But the big news is in the music world. The #1 song in the country is “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas and the Papas, which is a stone cold classic. Also in the top 10: “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” by Bob Dylan and “Sloop John B” by The Beach Boys (more on those songs later), as well as Percy Sledge’s iconic “When a Man Loves a Woman”. And for reasons unknown, “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen returns to the charts even though it’s three years old. But The Rolling Stones released “Paint It Black” in the UK as a single (it was released on the 7th in the US) while the 16th sees the release of Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys and Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, and it’s literally one of the biggest weeks in music history (Janet Jackson’s birth being a big part of this claim, but we’ll talk about her some other time).

“Paint It Black” is infamous-and deservedly so-for a number of reasons. First, it was the first song by the group to reach the top of the charts in the US and the UK. Second, it helped to solidify the leadership of the band by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as Brian Jones’ notorious, tragic fall began to accelerate. Third, it was the first hit single to make use of the sitar as rock groups (in this case, Jones) began exploring Indian culture and incorporating instruments from the same. And finally, especially for my generation, “Paint It Black” is an undeniable symbol of the Vietnam War, in no small part because of its use as the theme song for the classic war drama, Tour of Duty. And it’s no wonder: with the exception of The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” (which was amazingly popular with GIs serving in Vietnam), no song of the era encapsulates the bleak hopelessness of the war quite as effectively.

This brings us to Pet Sounds. There’s a lot to unpack here. First off, it marked a major departure for The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson in particular. Gone were the happy-go-lucky songs about surfing and girlfriends, or even the informal atmosphere of Beach Boys’ Party!, which was rather hastily recorded while Pet Sounds went through its lengthy production process. Secondly, it marked a new high for production in a rock ‘n roll record, with layered and elaborate instrumentation to go along with The Beach Boys’ typically strong vocal performances. And lastly, it set a standard that the group would never surpass.

There are a lot of reasons why this happened, but the big one is a major panic attack that Brian Wilson suffered on December 23rd, 1964 on a flight from LA to Houston not long after the group appeared on Shindig! (which, despite being a swiftly-conceived replacement series, became a big hit….until ABC changed its time slot). While Wilson had a shaky relationship with appearing at live shows before this (he was skipping tours prior to his breakdown), this officially ended his time as a touring member of The Beach Boys (he wouldn’t resume touring until well into the ’70s). This freed Wilson to experiment in the studio and by the latter half of 1965, with drugs. At the suggestion of fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine, Wilson started to adapt the Caribbean folk song “Sloop John B”, which was set aside, mostly completed, while Beach Boys’ Party! was produced, and then resumed at the end of 1965 as Pet Sounds started to take shape.

And then there’s the issue of Rubber Soul. The Beatles’ sixth album (or, rather, the bastardized US version, which was the band’s tenth American LP) was released in December of 1965 and instantly became a major inspiration for Pet Sounds. Wilson was amazed that the album lacked any filler tracks, but again, he was listening to the American release, which Capitol had reformatted into a folk-rock album to capitalize on that fad. Two holdover tracks from Help! had been inserted, and three tracks from the UK release (including the classic “Drive My Car”) omitted. So, really, Wilson’s decision to give Pet Sounds a unified, “filler-free” tone was based more on the Machiavellian machinations of both groups’ label than on anything John, Paul, Ringo, and George did.

However, the key catalyst for Pet Sounds was lyricist Tony Asher. Asher, who had previously written commercial jingles, met Wilson and the two hit it off. While Asher has always maintained that he merely interpreted of clarified Wilson’s thoughts, he’s the only other credited songwriter with any real contributions other than “I Know There’s an Answer” (which was written with the band’s road manager, Terry Sachen) and “I’m Waiting for the Day” (which was a two year-old song co-written with Mike Love). (It must be noted that Mike Love was awarded a co-writing credit for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “I Know There’s an Answer” in 1994 along with a number of other Beach Boys songs at the conclusion of one of his many lawsuits against Brian Wilson, but that’s generally considered to be a load of bunk, and Asher testified to that effect.) Married with Wilson’s novel approach to production (he began constructing songs in segments, using state-of-the-art 4- and 8-track tape decks to layer even the vocals, and even using looped, or repeated, segments at times),

The result is a beautiful, introspective album that has great lyrics, impeccable production values, and some incredible vocals, even by the high standards of The Beach Boys. Four songs (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows”, “Sloop John B”, and “Caroline, No”) are stone cold classics. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is hopeful, sweetly romantic, and I’m sort of convinced that it’d make a fairly decent duet. “You Still Believe In Me” is a pretty honest voicing of Brian Wilson’s insecurities, and “That’s Not Me” is a rumination on what kind of man he is. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” is incredibly sad (famously so, in fact), and “Im Waiting for the Day” is a dramatic reaction to the breakup of a friend. “Let Go Away for Awhile”, the album’s first instrumental track and Brian Wilson’s personal favorite, is the happiest of accidents: Capitol didn’t give time for the recording of lyrics, so the song as it is is a charming romantic interlude that Wilson admits was subconsciously inspired by Burt Bacharach’s work. “Sloop John B”, despite being anything but a love song (it is, at its heart, a lament over “the worst trip I’ve ever been on”) sounds upbeat and playful, but it’s about as dire lyrically as any track on the album.

To start side two, “God Only Knows” (which, due to its use of “God” in the song title, made it highly unusual) is simply one of the finest love songs of all time, with some incredible instrumentation (provided, as with the entire album, by the infamous Wrecking Crew). “I Know There’s an Answer” was, internally, even more controversial than “God Only Knows”. Originally “Hang On to Your Ego”, the song has clear references to LSD use, which royally pissed off Mike Love (hence the title change and lyrical adjustments). The final result is a song that, instead of dealing with self-discovery via LSD, is just a more genericized track about self-discovery. “Here Today”, despite sounding cheery, probably the most pessimistic track on the album, as the lyrics are all about admitting that all relationships end in sorrow. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is more honest about its tone, as it’s another track where Wilson gives voice to his insecurities. The title track, however, is a total change of pace. Originally titled “Run James Run”, it was intended to be offered to Eon Productions to serve as the theme to the next James Bond movie (which would end up being the Japan-centered You Only Live Twice) but never sent their way. It sounds like a Bond theme in every way, but not for You Only Live Twice, which would come to be steeped in a Japanese aesthetic. The album ends with “Caroline, No”, and is sad, forlorn, and incredibly beautiful. Inspired both by Tony Asher’s encounter with an ex-girlfriend named Carol and Brian Wilson’s wishes for a return to the simpler days of the band, “Caroline, No” speaks that part of us that longs for something we miss but can never have again.

Upon release, American critics and buyers were cool on the album. Sales were lower than The Beach Boys’ usual standard, and Capitol was confused by the effort, releasing “Caroline, No” as a solo single by Brian Wilson in the months before Pet Sounds‘ release. Worse, they sabotaged the album by releasing a compilation album, Best of The Beach Boys two months later. In the UK, however, Pet Sounds was seen as it is currently in America: a game-changing triumph. The biggest impact would be, ironically, on The Beatles, who would soon begin planning an answer to Pet Sounds after recording their next album, Revolver. We’ll eventually visit both Revolver and that other album later on, but let’s get on to our final topic: Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.

1596 was in many ways Bob Dylan’s year, what with the fuss over him going electric and two classic albums, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan could have easily rested on his laurels after Highway 61 Revisited, which was a triumph on all levels, with direct, powerful lyrics and a driving rock sound, but instead, he upped the ante even further. For one thing, Blonde on Blonde was a double album-a first in rock ‘n roll. But perhaps most crucially, it would be Dylan’s last rock album for nearly a decade.

Blonde on Blonde was not an easy record to record, however. The original sessions in New York from October 1965 to January 1966 were almost completely fruitless, with only “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” making it onto the final album. In retrospect, this frustration is even more astonishing, because Dylan’s backing group, Levon and the Hawks, became-as The Band-one of Dylan’s greatest collaborators (and a highly successful act of their own as well). Dylan’s producer, Bob Johnston, looking for a solution, suggested that production shift to Nashville (where Johnston lived, as was aware of the city’s burgeoning music scene). Dylan’s manager vehemently opposed the move, but history has long since vindicated Johnston for his suggestion (and Dylan for agreeing).

The result is an accomplished, bluesy album that’s matches its high reputation. (Full disclosure: I personally prefer Highway 61 Revisited since it features the title track and one of my favorite songs of all time, “Like a Rolling Stone”. Also, I just prefer the aforementioned driving rock sound of that LP.) It’s also ballsy as Hell: the opening track is the notoriously comedic “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, whose refrain, “Everybody must get stoned!” is probably the most obvious drug reference of the entire era. The song itself has always filled my mind of images of late night parties in New Orleans (Disclaimer: I’ve never set foot in Louisiana, much less New Orleans), and is Bob Dylan at his most playfully sarcastic. And the fourth and final side of the album is one song: the 11 minute long “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, which was written for Dylan’s new wife, Sara. No one in rock had ever filled an entire album side with one song before, and few acts were anywhere near as impassioned in their declarations of love. (Again, the song is 11 and a half minutes long. If that’s not a sign that Dylan was deeply in love, I don’t know what is.)

In between these tracks are some very strong, very bluesy songs, with the peak being “Just Like a Woman”. The song is not without controversy: the lyrics can be easily seen as misogynist, which is muddled because Dylan is a master of sarcasm and put-downs (it’s this biting turn of phrase that draws me to “Like a Rolling Stone”). So, even though his tone is warm, there’s a precedent set for many when the album opens with a gleefully sarcastic track, and even more so when the preceding song, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, is even more biting and on-target in its criticism of a woman. But that aside, the song is just fabulously put together, and is very much the standout track of a great album.

Next time, we inch ever closer to more regular reviews as we’ll take a look the last of our first season Star Trek cast members.

Assignment: 1966: China’s Cultural Revolution

It’s May 7th, 1966, and history is being made, or about to be. Yesterday, South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Cao Kỳ reneged on his promised to hold election is September, instead changing that election into one to choose an assembly that would draft a constitution. Under this (frankly bullshit) plan, a legislature would then be elected upon completion of the constitution, and then the legislature would then appoint the new civilian government. The end result: the current South Vietnamese government would stay in place for “at least” a year. But we’re not here to talk about Vietnam: it’s all China, and that’s because Chairman Mao Zedong issued the “May Seventh Directive”, one of the many planks in what is now known as the Cultural Revolution.

Some words about the Cultural Revolution first before we discuss the Directive: the Cultural Revolution was one of the most vile periods of the 20th Century. That’s the TL;DR version, but let’s step into the weeds here, because HOLY FUCKING SHIT, you guys. After Mao’s Great Leap Forward (which was intended to industrialize China) ended with the notorious Great Chinese Famine, moderates rose to power and started to marginalize Zedong. His response was to declare that these moderates were threatening to return capitalism to China, and to begin a series of brutal purges that basically crippled an entire generation.

Part of the problem is that Mao went more than a little batshit crazy as the moderates reversed much of the Great Leap Forward’s policies. And then the Chinese Communist Party denounced the Soviet Union, because of Mao’s distrust of Nikita Khrushchev, which effectively ended all goodwill between the two largest Communist countries on the planet. (Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964 also added to Mao’s fears of being removed from power, which only increased his growing madness.) In 1965, the Five Man Group was established, and the purges started ever so slowly, until the Group itself was purged because they, too, pissed off Mao (for not finding the play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office to be anti-Mao in nature).

Seriously, I am not making this up.

(Side note: the Cultural Revolution Group, with replaced the Five Man Group, would also end up dissolved, and some of its members purged. Seriously.)

This brings us to the May Seventh Directive. Among other things, the Directive declared, and I quote (thank you, Wikipedia), “the phenomenon of bourgeois intellectuals reigning over our schools can no longer be allowed to continue”. So, basically, Mao and his loyalists declared the education system to be corrupt, and that these anti-Communist elements needed to be purged. And while there was certainly an anti-intellectual bent in play here, let’s remember the pre-text: Mao was trying to reassert his control over Chinese government and society here. In fact, I’d argue that most anti-intellectual movements are about people in power trying to consolidate power over regular people. (I’m looking right at you, Republicans.) This Directive is the core of the Cultural Revolution: crushing dissent and criminalizing thoughts other than that which Mao Zedong considered acceptable (something which ultimately seems as futile as Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football). From this Directive sprang forced labor camps, imprisonment, torture, and all sorts of similarly vile stuff (like, for instance, the mass destruction and defacement of Chinese landmarks). And while, yes, the post-Mao regime has moved past this ugly chapter in Chinese history (including a massive show trial for Mao’s Gang of Four), it’s not spoiling further posts to say that China is still a horrendously oppressive country that uses these tactics to take care of dissenters. The only difference is that later regimes weren’t led by a delusional, possibly insane man like Mao Zedong.

Next time, it’s a much more pleasant look back on 1966, as we discuss two of the greatest albums ever released.

Guardians of Forever: Jerry Finnerman

Star Trek was stupidly lucky to have William E. Snyder and Ernest Haller shoot the two pilots. And Gene Roddenberry, in needing someone to specifically mimic Haller’s style following “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, shot for the stars: Harry Stradling, Jr., the son of legendary director of photography Harry Stradling, Sr., and the DP for GunsmokeGunsmoke, being a major, long-running hit series, was not the type of job that any sane person would turn down for an untested, special-effects laden series. But still, Roddenberry had Bob Justman call Stradling repeatedly, until his father stopped by at Desilu to communicate that the younger Stradling would absolutely not be working on Star Trek…..and to recommend someone for the job.

Jerry Finnerman was Harry Stradling, Sr.’s godson, as well as being the son of Perry Finnerman, a veteran cinematographer who had died of a heart attack while filming James Garner’s final episode of Maverick in 1960. Jerry had been a part of his father’s crew that day, and Stradling the elder had helped him out immensely by adding the mourning young man to his crew for such films as My Fair Lady (for which Stradling had won an Oscar). The recommendation of a multiple Oscar winner held a lot of sway, as did that of James Goldstone, who was still providing some advice to the new show. And with Justman swayed, Finnerman met with Justman, Roddenberry, and Herb Solow, and he was offered the job.

For one episode.

It was a huge opportunity for someone with no experience as DP, but there was a problem: if fired, Finnerman would be sidelined for half a year under union rules, and he was itching to be a part of the crew for Stradling’s next project: Funny Girl. Finnerman took the job.

It’s no secret now that it was Star Trek who was fortunate for the opportunity, and not the reverse. Stradling was absolutely right to recommend his godson, and Finnerman’s impact was so great that Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s original DP, Edward R. Brown, was specifically instructed by Roddenberry to mimic Finnerman’s style. I could list all the things he brought to the show, but that’s what the episode posts are for. Suffice to say, we’ll be talking about Jerry Finnerman. A lot. And it’s going to include a ton of praise.

Next time, we get a second chance to discuss China’s Cultural Revolution.

Guardians of Forever: John D.F. Black

Today, television shows have massive writing staffs, and they typically “break” (read: plot) episodes together, with specific episodes assigned to specific writers. And everyone except the most junior writer on staff is credited as a producer of some sort. But in the ’60s, this was far from the case, and in fact, Star Trek started off with one staff writer: Gene Roddenberry. Granted, Bob Justman was actually a pretty good judge of story, but his primary task was that of attending to the actual nuts and bolts of making a TV show. So, another writer was needed.

The choice for the show’s second associate producer was John D.F. Black. He first got the writing bug when he was a child in Pittsburgh, when his neighbor, Bob Gerstrich, a writer for the radio show The Fat Man (a follow-up to the massively popular series, The Thin Man) paid him $5 for ten storylines, which was a huge sum for a fourth grader at the time. And Black’s authorial name was the result of his Catholic upbringing: while going through Confirmation, he chose his second middle name, so that John Donald Black became John Donald Francis Black. (Later in life, Black would joke that the D.F. stood for “Damn Fool”.) His next step was writing for The Carnegie Library System’s radio show, The Sponsor Show while in high school (a job Black got because of his credits on The Fat Man). He was quickly able to rise to the position of producer on the program, starting his career in earnest.

After a stint in the Army, Black moved to LA, and scored a job writing a movie called The Unearthly. Released as part of a double-bill with Beginning of the End, the film was a financial success despite both pictures being legendarily terrible (both would be selected for mockery on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the ’90s). But Hollywood values hits well above quality, so Black was soon writing for television. He gained wide attention in 1962 with an episode of Combat!, “Survival”, which, while it didn’t earn Black an Emmy nomination, it did earn one for series star Vic Morrow. Black eventually did earn an award for his work, in 1966, for an episode of Mr. Novak, and that’s how he met Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry invited Black, his parents, actor Jim Goodwin (a friend of Black’s), Mary Stilwell (who would eventually marry Black), and legendary science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who had also won an award at the same event held by the Writer’s Guild (and whom will get his own post next year).

That evening, Black and Ellison scored script assignments for Star Trek, and that seemed to be the extent of it. That is, until a couple of days later, when the offer to serve as Associate Producer and Executive Story Consultant came in. As Roddenberry told Black, he needed someone to work with the writers because of all the people he’d alienated by rewriting them on The Lieutenant. This way, Roddenberry wouldn’t have to rewrite as much because Black would be able to give the writers the instruction they needed. This was a huge promise: while writers were protected to a great extent by the Writer’s Guild, they were rewritten without any sort of consent. Worse, if the person doing the revision work changed enough and was given credit, the writer saw their royalty checks halved-or more. (While it’s true that modern staff writers are rewritten to varying degrees by the showrunner, the collaborative nature of the the story breaking process means that such changes are accepted with full consent of an episode’s assigned writer.)

The truth of the situation, however, would be something much, much different.

Next time, we’ll introduce the man most responsible for how Star Trek looked.

Priority One Alert: Prince 1958-2016

Thursday’s post was supposed to be about China’s Cultural revolution, which would have tied into the inevitable post on the Tiananmen Square Massacre. But, instead of writing that post, I’ve been reflecting on the big cultural news of the day: the death of Prince.

It’s been no secret that 2016 has been an awful, awful year for famous people dying, especially in entertainment. It seems like everyone has mourned the death of a beloved entertainer, with David Bowie, Sir George Martin, and Garry Shandling being the most widely known and loved. And now, we’ve lost Prince.

I can’t even begin to adequately describe just how huge Prince was in the ’80s. The only people even close to him in the music world were Madonna and Michael Jackson (who, let’s face it, was the most famous and liked person on the planet in those days). Be it solo, or with The Revolution and later The New Power Generation, Prince kept making great music. It oozed sex in a way no one had before (or since), with Prince himself re-writing the book on what it meant to be masculine just as Bowie did in the ’70s. He made some of the best dance songs of the era (it’s 2016 and “1999” is still a party staple) and was an incredible musician, especially on the guitar. And he was a fairly decent actor, too, and (as Chappelle’s Show infamously chronicled) a bit of a baller.

Oh, and he had a thing for the color purple.

Moreover, in a decade teeming with talent female artists, Prince did his best to promote female acts, as well as various minority acts in general (his greatest collaborators being R&B superproducers and songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis). The “Minneapolis sound” Prince fostered was the sound of the ’80s, and is still a major influence in dance and techno. And, perhaps more significantly, he was politically active, with his most recent cause being in support of Black Lives Matter, and specifically the death of Freddie Gray. Prince was also the canary in the mine surrounding the major record labels: his widely-mocked name change to a symbol was in direct protest of Warner Bros. (On the other side of the ledger, Prince was rather notorious for his copyright challenges to YouTube videos.)

Prince left a huge legacy. And, as with most deceased artists, that’s simply not going away. But losing someone like him, at the age of 57, is difficult to imagine. But honestly, as someone who was there for Prince’s biggest years, the idea of never having had him is even more unthinkable.

Next week, it’s back to talking about Star Trek, and one of the show’s more important, yet less-discussed, producers.

Assignment: 1966: Bombings, Flag Burning, And Elections: Updates From The Vietnam War

It’s the week of April 8th-14th, 1966, and quite a bit is going on. Let’s list them, shall we?

On Friday the 8th:

  • Leonid Brezhnev, having served as First Secretary of the Communist Party since 1964, is unanimously voted party leader, and his post renamed General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Additionally, the Presidium was renamed the Politburo, and the membership whittled down to 11 members from 12.
  • Time publishes its notorious “Is God Dead?” issue, just in time for Good Friday.
  • Fatah causes its first death in Israel when a farmer stepped on a land mine. (We’ll discuss this a bit more in June.)
  • Mississippi’s poll tax is outlawed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, officially putting an end to the practice in the US.
  • Robin Wright is born in Dallas.

On the 9th:

  • The UN Security Council votes unanimously, 10-0 (with five abstentions, including France and the Soviet Union), to allow the UK to use military force to uphold an embargo on Southern Rhodesia. (This is one of those instances where I defer to The TARDIS Eruditorum, since Philip Sandifer covered the Rhodesia mess far better than I ever could.)

On the 10th:

  • In China, the Central Committee of the Communist Party passed an order that effectively outlawed all literature and art created since the People’s Republic had been formed. As such, every writer and artist in the country immediately became a criminal. (This tale did not end well. At. ALL.)
  • New Jersey creates the very first Public Defender’s Office in the US.
  • The march to Sacramento by the striking Delano grape workers discussed here concludes, with César Chávez announcing that a favorable contract had been reached with Schenley Industries.

On the 11th:

  • Emmett Ashford becomes the first African-American umpire in Major League Baseball, serving as the third base umpire at D.C. Stadium as the Washington Nationals hosted the Cleveland Indians in the season opener.
  • Sandoz Pharmaceuticals discontinues all further sales of LSD in America, effectively making purchase of the drug illegal.

On the 12th:

  • Jan Berry of Jan & Dean was severely injured when his Corvette crashed into a parked truck, ironically close to the notorious “Dead Man’s Curve” on Sunset Boulevard that was the inspiration for Jan & Dean’s hit song (which had nearly claimed the life of Mel Blanc in 1961). Berry, who had pushed hard for the song’s tragic finish, would be permanently paralyzed, but defied odds by being able to walk and sing again.

And, lastly, on the 13th:

  • President Johnson the Uniform Time Act, standardizing the start and finish of Daylight Savings Time (for the states that observe it, obviously).

But, as with most weeks at this point in history, the Vietnam War looms in the background. Or, this week, the foreground, because some key moments happened. On the 11th, U.S. News and World Report became the first American newsmagazine to declare the war a stalemate. What makes this particularly amazing is that U.S. News and World Report was and is a conservative publication, and then, as now, most hawks are conservative. Then, the next day, bombing strikes on the infamous “Hồ Chí Minh trail” supply chain used by the North Vietnamese stepped up, with B-52 bombers being used for the first time. They targeted the Mụ Giạ Pass with 585 tons of explosives with the intent of causing a landslide, only for reconnaissance the next day to reveal that the road had been successfully repaired, and that supply trucks were already crossing the trail without trouble. The same day, President Johnson informed President de Gaulle of France that the US would not comply with the ultimatum to pull out of Vietnam by April Fool’s Day of 1967, and the first recorded instance of flag burning by Americans in protest of the war took place in a theater in New York as part of an antiwar skit titled LBJ. Finally, on Thursday the 14th, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu finally relented and signed a decree declaring that a free and fair election would be held in South Vietnam by September 15th.

The common thread here is that the war effort was escalating precipitously while antiwar sentiment was becoming more mainstream, but also much more militant and angry. Looking back, it’s obvious why those sentiments were so vehement: if the North Vietnamese were so determined and able to repair the damage from a massive bombing strike in a day, then the war truly was a lost cause. But with the hawks being fully energized as well (as evidenced by the popularity of “The Ballad of the Green Berets”, of which I’ve already said my peace), things like flag burning simply meant that the fight over ending the unjust, foolish Vietnam War was about to get uglier and more divisive. For conservatives, burning the US flag is one of those things that you can be assured will send them into a frenzy, to this very day. In the ’90s, there was even a push for an Amendment to the Constitution proposed (which crashed and burned) just to stop this one form of protest. But, frankly, protestors of the era didn’t care, and it was but the first of many self-destructive acts that generation undertook (which flowered in my lifetime with the election of Ronald Reagan and the selling out of the working class).

And Văn Thiệu’s promise? What a joke. He ended up President of South Vietnam until the bitter end, and then escaped the country with US help, and he lived in exile in America until his death. And like so many of our anti-communist allies, he was a brutal dictator who only increased the inevitability of the US’s loss in Vietnam. So, yes, his gesture was a pathetic joke, just like the entire war and a great deal of the anti-war movement.

Next time, we’ll take a look at one of the most horrific and brutal chapters in modern Chinese history.

Guardians of Forever: Stan Robertson

In the world of film and television, there are lots of people who go uncredited for their work, for a variety of reasons. And while many of these are scandalous in nature (the long list of writers and directors who have been fired, quit, and/or used a pseudonym, for instance) or simply a matter of logistics (all those film extras who never receive credit) or in order to keep a secret (basically used only for cameo, and especially surprise cameo, appearances), there’s a much more mundane reason in TV: they probably work for the network that aired the show and not the show itself. These include the network censors, marketing people, and the show’s Production Manager.

A Production Manager is the person a network hires for the simple task of making sure that the show is actually being made, and that it’s the show the network bought, and not a porno or something utterly bizarre like dogs playing poker for an hour. It’s actually a rather important position, and a toxic relationship between a show’s creator and the production manager can turn out to be disastrous. Knowing all of this, and being given some amount of say in the selection process, Gene Roddenberry met with and approved Stan Robertson as his NBC-appointed production manager.

On its face, Robertson seemed like the perfect person for Roddenberry to work with. Besides being one of the first minorities in an executive position at any of the three networks, Robertson was well-read, driven, and extremely intelligent. And his life story is at least as interesting as anyone else associated with the original Star Trek. That’s because Stan Robertson was born partially blind, and had over a dozen surgeries to try and correct it by the time he was 20. Despite the difficulty, Robertson enjoyed reading and writing immensely and took a post with The Los Angeles Sentinel (at the time the largest African-American newspaper in the region) after graduating from LA City College in 1949. This led to a job at Ebony as an associate editor, though by 1954 he went back to school (this time to USC) to study telecommunications. In 1957, Robertson went to NBC, and despite being a college graduate two times over, he had to work his way up from being a lowly page, eventually landing in the music clearance department before becoming a production manager right as Star Trek was approved to become a series.

If you’re at all familiar with Gene Roddenberry or Star Trek, you know that he spent most of his later years complaining about the network “suits” who interfered with his show, and outside of a couple of incidents with Jean Messerschmidt at Broadcast Standards and Practices, Gene was almost always speaking about Stan Robertson. There’s a valid argument that this is due to Gene’s rather notorious ego and his rich antiestablishment tendencies, but it’s not going to be quite that simple, or as simple as Gene tried to make it out to be.

Next time, it’s time for a peek back into the ugliness of the Vietnam War.

Guardians of Forever: DeForest Kelley

“I’m a doctor, not an escalator!”-Dr. McCoy in “Friday’s Child”

Regardless of the impression this blog or anything else gives, casting for TV shows and movies is hard. With few exceptions (Tom Selleck and Sean Young’s audition for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in Back to the Future, and Riff Regan as Willow in the infamously bad unaired Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot among them), audiences just don’t get to see the casting process. So, really, it’s no shocker if people think that great casting is the easiest movie magic of all. (It’s why I’ve linked to the Buffy pilot, in fact, because with all due respect to Riff Regan, the show isn’t still ongoing in comics and I’m probably not the last of the Willow/Xander shippers on Earth if she had not been replaced by Alyson Hannigan.)

However, Star Trek fans got probably the best public look into the difficulties of casting with the role of the Enterprise‘s chief medical officer. At this point in the blog, there have been two pilots shot, and two different doctors, with a third in the cards for the series proper. John Hoyt’s Dr. Boyce was too old and crusty while Paul Fix’s Dr. Piper was too mild for what Roddenberry envisioned: a sounding board for the captain who would be unafraid to challenge him while still being someone that viewers could like and trust. The irony, though, is that Gene Roddenberry had already suggested and fought for the right man for the role while making both pilots, only to be swayed by each episode’s director.

DeForrest Kelley was born on January 20th, 1920 in Atlanta as the son of a Baptist minister, and got his first taste of show business by singing in the church choir. Following a trip to California to visit his uncle, Kelley was determined to break into show business, acting on the stage and studying film at the Long Beach Cinema Club. By 1941, he had auditioned (and lost) a role in This Gun for Hire and met Carolyn Dowling while acting in a production of Skylark when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Kelley enlisted with the Army Air Corps, eventually was transferred to the First Motion Picture Unit, meeting and becoming friends with George Reeves as they appeared together in numerous short films and Armed Forces radio broadcasts. It was one of these appearances, Time to Kill, that inspired Bill Meiklejohn at Paramount (who had passed him over for the role in This Gun for Hire) to offer Kelley a seven year contract, just as the war was ending and he requested his discharge after marrying Carolyn.

The contract was a great deal at first, but by the end of the decade the studios were re-thinking their way of doing business and Kelley was a free agent. By then, however, television was in full swing, and eventually DeForest Kelley became known for playing villains, with a role as Ike Clanton in an episode of CBS’ historical “news” program You Are There leading to two big movie roles: Tension at Table Rock and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (the latter as Morgan Earp thanks to a conflict with the former film). This led to more and more guest roles on TV, and eventually a pilot named 333 Montgomery Street as a fictionalized version of lawyer Jake Ehrlich, the inspiration for iconic TV lawyer Perry Mason. The pilot was unsuccessful, but it marked the first time Kelley worked with Gene Roddenberry. And while Roddenberry was unable to convince pretty much anyone that famed screen villain DeForest Kelley could be the Enterprise‘s doctor, he was able to get him cast as a coroner in his Police Story pilot. NBC saw that pilot, and while they didn’t pick up the series, they were convinced once and for all that Kelley was right for the role of Dr. McCoy.

Next time, it’s time to discuss one of the primary candidates for the role of “the villain” of Star Trek Debriefed.