Rick Berman Looks Back at 18 Years of Trek - Part 1
After only Gene Roddenberry, no name is more associated with the behind-the-scenes inner workings of Star Trek than Rick Berman. From 1987 to 2005, for a full 18 years, Berman served the Star Trek universe and, for most of it, he ran the show. He assumed the reins of The Next Generation as Roddenberry, in ill health, pulled back a few years before his death in 1991. And, of course, Berman went on to co-create, executive produce -- and occasionally write -- Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, Nemesis and Star Trek: The Experience.
Berman ran a remarkably steady ship, with many members of the Trek team – be they writer-producers, FX pros, makeup artists, actors, etc. – contributing for a decade or more, and he scored massive artistic and commercial successes, all the while keeping Star Trek relevant across the span of three decades. But no one in a seat of power sits there without detractors. Some Trek fans believe that Berman overstayed his welcome, waiting too long to let other writer-producers make their respective marks on the franchise and, in the process, killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Ever since Enterprise signed off in 2005, Berman has maintained a low profile and granted precious few interviews. However, StarTrek.com recently caught up with Berman by telephone and engaged him in a detailed, franchise-traversing hour-long conversation that we’ll break into thirds. Part one is down below, and be on the lookout tomorrow for part two and Thursday for part three.
Most people assume that you left the Paramount lot the day after the Enterprise finale aired, but you were actually there for a year and a half. How strange was it to arrive at your office and not have Trek shows to work on anymore?
Berman: I had the same offices. I had the same staff. And I was developing other projects. It was much less stressful, obviously, and it was a healthy transitional period for me personally because I was in that same office and around many of the same people, and I was immediately busy trying to develop a number of projects, none of which ended up getting on the air.
What have you been up to since that year and a half?
Berman: I have been writing. I’m working on something that I hope will eventually resemble a memoir about my 18 years at Star Trek. I have been involved with two non-profit-type projects. One is working with my wife, who teaches non-fiction writing to incarcerated boys at a specific school in Los Angeles. That’s been very fulfilling and very interesting, and she and I also sponsor the program. And we have also gotten involved with an old friend who runs an organization called The Denan Project, which began by building a hospital in Ethiopia. It started out as a one-room hut. This fellow Dick Young is a documentary filmmaker who I used to work with and he developed a foundation, basically, to start a hospital in a very remote area of Ethiopia where there was absolutely no medical care. And it went from a single room with a nurse practitioner to, 10 years later, a hospital with 38 people on fulltime staff. Tens of thousands of people have been treated free of charge. So it’s an amazing organization. I was involved tangentially for a while and then decided to get more involved.
We are now working on a new hospital in the mountains above Cusco, Peru, up at about 13,400 feet altitude. We were down at this hospital in August when it officially opened and it is already starting to see patients, many of whom have to walk three or four days to get to the medical facility. If anyone wants to learn more, there is a web site, which is www.thedenanproject.com. Anyway, that’s been remarkably fulfilling. We are working on going back down in a couple of months and there are always new things that need to be done. An ambulance needs to be purchased and there’s a walking bridge that needs to go across a gorge that will shorten the walk for some people trying to get to the hospital by two days.
Are you planning to get back into writing and producing any time soon? Or is that on the backburner for a while longer?
Berman: I’d say it’s on the backburner for now. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling. I’ve been working with my wife on the teaching side and am involved with The Denan Project. I’ve been working on the memoir. So I’m not really dying to jump back into the fray.
We have tons of ground to cover and, even breaking this into three parts, we can’t get to everything. So let’s touch on a few points about each show and movie. For the sake of those who are more aware of your name than what you actually did, or those who’ve only just discovered Trek, take us to when you first came on to TNG, what were you hired to do and how the job evolved from there.
Berman: A lot of the things I’ve read about myself – laughter included there – are really not true. One of those things is that I was a studio suit. In a way that’s true and in more ways it could not be farther from the truth. I had been a writer and producer for 15 years of my life. I’d produced a children’s series in New York that was called The Big Blue Marble, and I won an Emmy for that. I produced a series for HBO called What on Earth. When I came to L.A., I ended up getting a job at Warner Bros. I was there for less than six months before getting a job at Paramount, where I was involved with the development of current programming. It was totally out of my sphere of experience, but I had a baby at that point and it was a job I took. Less than a year into that, I was asked to oversee this new Star Trek project that Gene Roddenberry, who was on the lot, was going to produce. In one of our first meetings (between Roddenberry and Berman) there was some eye contact and some humor involved, and Gene seemed to take a liking to me. The next day I got a call and he asked me to have lunch with him. I had lunch with him and we had a lot of interesting things in common.
One of the things you did NOT have in common was Star Trek…
Berman: I made it very clear to Gene that I had not watched The Original Series. I had seen one of the movies. I’d probably seen a few episodes of The Original Series at some point, in my pre-college or college period. But it was nothing I was serious about watching at the time. A day or two later I got a call from Gene’s confidante and attorney, Leonard Maizlish, who said that Gene wanted to go to the studio and ask for me to be released from my vice-president-ship so that I could come work with him on this new series. I think his reasons were two-fold. First of all, I was young compared to the other people who were involved with the project at the time, because Gene was dealing with Bob Justman and Eddie Milkis and Dorothy Fontana, people who’d worked with him on the original series. I was a good 20 years younger than this group.
More importantly, Gene was very specific about the fact that my not knowing much about Star Trek was something he was very attracted to. He wanted somebody involved in the production of the show who did not grow up with Star Trek and wasn’t enamored by it over the previous two decades like most of the people who were involved with show. We’re talking about before the (TNG pilot) script was written. So that was how I began. I think I was co-executive producer along with Bob Justman, and I was asked by Gene to be involved with the creative elements of the show, where Bob was more involved with the production and budgetary ends of the show.
Let’s dig into some complicated ground. Roddenberry got sick, became less involved and eventually passed away. What were your thoughts, as the torch was handed on, about following his vision versus doing what needed to be done to make the show work versus any urge you might’ve had to put your own imprint on TNG?
Berman: It was never a sense to me of a torch being passed. That all sounds great in retrospect, but things are never quite as clear-cut as that. As the first few years of TNG went on, Bob Justman left the show and Maurice Hurley and I were involved. And then Maurice left and a fellow named Michael Wagner was hired. He lasted a very short time, and then Michael Piller came on. Gene was comfortable with me taking care of the day-to-day supervision of this program that he’d been involved with for about two years at that point, and he stepped back. He’d come to the office every day. He did a lot of correspondence with people. He and I would talk a lot. He’d read some scripts. But his involvement got smaller and smaller as the months went on. Then he got ill and his involvement got quite a bit less. By the time he passed away, I was, I guess you could say, running TNG along with Michael Piller. And I’d been asked by Brandon Tartikoff, at the time, to develop a new show. This was something that I discussed with Gene, who felt very positive about it. But he was quite ill at the time and wasn’t really interested in getting involved with what it was or what it was going to be about. I would like to think that he had faith in both myself and Michael, who I asked to work with me on what became Deep Space Nine.
So, by the time Gene died, there was no sense of “Oh my God, this great responsibility has been put on my shoulders.” I was doing the job I’d been doing for a couple of years and Gene had become, in a sense, a producer emeritus of the organization. I had absolutely no thoughts about putting my own imprint on Star Trek. My interest was to continue to try to do the best work that I could and to hire the best people that I could and to continue on with what Gene set out to do with TNG. It was my hope that the direction we went in with DS9 – and onward with the other shows -- was something he would have thought was the right direction to go. I don’t see myself, nor have I ever seen myself, as a visionary who wanted to put his ideas onto the show. I wanted to be as truthful as I could to Gene’s vision, and that was something I was more than comfortable with.
For years and years, you had a bust of Roddenberry – with a blindfold covering his eyes --on your desk at Paramount. Where is that bust right now and is the blindfold still on it?
Berman: I am looking at it as we speak. It’s in my (home) office and the same blindfold is on. I think the man who made the bust made two of them. He gave one to me and one to Gene. One day I was in a meeting with the writers and somebody – I forget who it was – took a little piece of cloth, like a ribbon that was wrapped around something, and put it over Gene’s eyes, like “God forbid he hear what’s going on in this room.” It was a joke, but it has been knotted around his eyes ever since.
Tomorrow, in part two of our exclusive interview with Rick Berman, the former Star Trek executive producer recounts the challenges of creating Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. And, yes, he discusses that infamous Enterprise series finale.