Tuesday, June 8, 2010

THE THOLIAN WEB - August 1968 (Star Trek)

With a nod to Margo Channing of ALL ABOUT EVE

Fasten your seat belts - it’s going to be a bumpy flight.

The day after I finished filming IS THERE IN TRUTH NO BEAUTY, I reported to the studio to start prep on THE THOLIAN WEB. I remember very little about this prep period. There were no guest stars, so there were no casting meetings. The entire show would be filmed on the Enterprise sets. The script called for scenes to be filmed on another starship, the Defiant, but since that starship was the same as the Enterprise, there was no need to build additional sets. The already standing Enterprise sets would do double duty. The biggest change facing me was the loss of Jerry Finnerman. He had departed the series, and his camera operator, Al Francis, had been promoted to director of photography. One thing I remember about the week of prep, one of my agents called and told me there was an offer from Gene Coon to direct an episode of a new series he was producing, IT TAKES A THIEF starring Robert Wagner. We had to turn it down. There was a direct conflict; it would require me to report before I had finished filming my current STAR TREK.

If I don’t remember much about the prep week, the same cannot be said about the filming week which began on Monday, August 5th. If we look at the teaser, it will be easier for me to explain the events that occurred that first day.

Our work was scheduled to begin on the Defiant bridge set (which was the Enterprise bridge set). When I reported at 7:30 Monday morning, the set was ready, the crew was assembled, I was prepared, as was the cast. But there were no silver space suits. I was told the four actors had come to the studio the day before (Sunday) for their FIRST fittings. They were, even as we somewhat impatiently waited, having their final fittings. Nothing had been done by the production department to adjust the schedule for this predicament. My friend, Max Hodge, who was on a writing assignment for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, was at the studio and dropped by my set. The two of us went to the set next door to visit the current MISSION in production which was guest starring my friend (from ROUTE 66), Ruth Roman.

Finally one suit was completed, the one for Bill Shatner. So I found some isolated closeups of Captain Kirk, and we filmed those, There weren’t that many, and it meant filming the closeups before we had staged and rehearsed the scenes. Just before noon the four suits were finally completed and we could begin.

The normal method of filming is to schedule by the sets. When you went into a set, all of the scenes in that set would be completed before moving to another set. Those moves took time. Every effort was made to keep such moves to a minimum. But in the case of these scenes on the Defiant, the space suits became the determing factor. Which meant that we were filming in every one of the starship’s sets -- the bridge, engineering, medical lab and sick bay. But we had to film just those scenes in these various sets that involved our space suited men. Later we would have to return to each set to film the other sequences in the script that occurred in them.

The business with McCoy’s hand going through the body and the table was accompished by a locked off camera and filming twice. See setup 27X1 in the script and then on the camera direction page.

As you can see, I originally planned to do it in one setup, panning from the corpse to the desk. The set was different than what I had planned, so I did it in two setups -- first McCoy and the corpse; then McCoy at the table. (The closeup of McCoy’s hand and the back of the dead crewman was filmed later on the insert stage.)

There was an additional wrinkle in the plans. Well actually it was caused by not wanting any wrinkles. The costumes had no zippoers; they had no buttons or snaps. The guys were SEWN into the space suits. That meant when any of them needed to make a visit to the restroom, they had to be unsewn, and when they were ready to return to the set, they had to be resewn into the suit. Zippers are faster!

I don’t feel it is disparaging to point out that Jerry Finnerman was missed. His were very large shoes to fill, both as to his artistic ability and his speed. Al Francis, very new to the post of director of photography and faced with a very difficult show with unexpected complications -- well let me put it kindly and just say -- his feet were smaller.

Now back to the Transporter Room, where Scotty, because of diminished power, can only bring back three at a time.

With the loss of a half day caused by the wardrobe situation, I did not complete the first day’s schedule.

As was the usual practice, scenes in the Enterprise bridge were filmed at the end of the schedule, so my next commitments were to return to the sets I had filmed on the Defiant (sick bay, medical lab, engineering) only now they would be sets on the Enterprise. And there was also a long dialogue scene between Spock and McCoy in Kirk’s quarters.

And now for some of the action!

There was one other scene in the lab between McCoy ad Nurse Chapel. Now on to the engineering set.

And there were other short, what I called bread-and-butter-scenes, usually angles of Scotty talking to the bridge. And finally sick bay.

And one other scene between McCoy and Uhura in sick bay.

By the end of the third day I had completed all of the sequences in the transporter room, sick bay, the medical lab, engineering and all but one of the silver lame suit sequences in the Defiant bridge. What was scheduled and had not been completed were four scenes in the Enterprise bridge -- a total of 7 1/8 pages. I was asked to come to Fred Freiberger’s office at the completion of the day’s shooting. There he informed me I was being removed from the project. I was being replaced by what he called a “fireman”, someone who could come in and just get it in the can. The matter of the loss of time on the first day, which I figure would have given me an additional five pages completed, was not discussed. I had spent the past six weeks on STAR TREK, prepping and shooting IS THERE IN TRUTH NO BEAUTY and THE THOLIAN WEB. I know I must have had some meeting with Freiberger before this, but this is the only interaction with him I remember.

The following day, Thursday, the Hollywood trade prapers, Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter, each carried a news story issued by Douglas Kramer’s office (Kramer was the head of television production for Paramount Studios) detailing my being removed as director of THE THOLIAN WEB on STAR TREK. The article pointed out the studio’s intent to curtail the problem of films not being completed as scheduled. Gene Roddenberry telephoned me. He was outraged, apologetic and sympathetic.

Why, forty-two years later am I writing about this? Am I looking for some kind of vindication? I have no need to. Right after all this occurred I was summoned to Joe Youngerman’s office. Youngerman was the head of the Directors Guild of America. The Guild was very protective of its members, and Joe wanted to hear my side of the story. It was at that time that I stated I did not want screen credit. For me it was simply going to become a nonoccurrence. And that’s the way it was for many years. But studio records, investigative journalists and finally the internet have managed to reconnect me to THE WEB. In fact in their book THE AMERICAN VEIN (to which I have referred in a previous posting) Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi spend more time in their section on me, talking about my direction of THE THOLIAN WEB than on any other film I directed.

Forty-two years later I can also see that this incident was a part of a larger movement. When I first started directing television film in 1961, the scripts I was given were very challenging. On DR. KILDARE, ROUTE 66, NAKED CITY, BREAKING POINT, TWILIGHT ZONE, THE FUGITIVE and TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, the scripts I was given were a challenge, daring me to deliver a final product as good as the producers demanded. But gradually in the mid-sixties, things changed. I found the scripts were getting weaker, and I had to work harder to make up for the deficiencies in order to continue to satisfy the producers’ expectations. Until finally television had become such a lucrative business, the demands on the director were more about speed than quality, and I found myself in a position of wanting to do better than what was requested. Oh, there were still “pockets” where the old times prevailed -- STAR TREK in its first season and a third; THE WALTONS in the seventies. And there were others. But strictly in the minority. You know, as a kid I never wanted to be a fireman. But at the age of eighteen, I knew I wanted to be a director.

It seemed in the aftermath of what had just occurred that a meeting must have been called of all the producers in Hollywood. Don’t hire Senensky! I was suddenly, totally unemployable. This went on for a very long time. But the Phoenix does usually manage to rise again..

The fluttering of those wings -- on the next posting.


  1. Ralph...that is so interesting! That was one of my favorite episodes.. Hearing all the behind the scene details on shows that I waited all week long to watch as a kid is fun. Keep up the blogging. Jason

  2. Proves the almighty dollar wins out over quality. I wonder how come none of the so-called "stars" did not rally behind you.

  3. A small incident which further demonstrates the "speed over quality" philosophy: the same "fireman" who replaced you on this episode, was hired to direct the last episode of Star Trek, Turnabout Intruder. In one scene, he wanted Kirk to exit in a direction which was established as being a wall. Shatner heavily protested, but it was done anyways, and it is in the episode itself!

    Agreed with Jason: despite all this, The Tholian Web is still among those 5 or 6 episodes which stand out in the otherwise weak third season (Is There in Truth No Beauty? is also among them).

  4. Love reading your director notes, Ralph. I'm curious as to why a second director wasn't brought to help as opposed to replacing you. You had clearly produced before and the problems weren't of your own making. Sounds like someone may have wanted to send a message for the directors to follow.