Set Phasers To Stun: 50 Years Of Star Trek by Marcus Berkmann (book review)

In many respects, Marcus Berkmann’s book, ‘Set Phasers To Stun: 50 Years Of Star Trek’, is a candid look at ‘Star Trek’s half-century and he admits that it can also be difficult to say anything new, even from a British perspective, on the subject. However, along the way, he also quotes from various Trek books so if you have missed any, they might give an inkling as to which you might want to pick up. His bibliography at the back of the book is relatively short and even includes a few I’ve reviewed here recently.


One thing he misses in his introduction as to the appeal of ‘Star Trek’ from the start is that there was nothing quite like it from the USA before as a series and we were all lumbered with black and white television sets at the time in the UK at the time. Logistically, if Gene Roddenberry hadn’t created ‘Star Trek’, someone else would have come up with a similar concept sooner or later.

Some of it is purely reminders. Like Roddenberry never writing a book on the subject but clearly wanted to be seen as the creator of all things Trek. Reading a bit more in depth here, that isn’t rare for American showrunners of that period. He certainly put off a lot of the scriptwriters with his re-writes rather than asking them to do it. Having read the series bible, I doubt if any of them would get things wrong the second time around.

Although I don’t own a mobile phone, I would have thought it would be relatively easy for Berkmann to locate the Enterprise communicator noise for his.

Something that Berkmann does very well is point out who was responsible for what and a lot of the lore, if you didn’t know, came from Gene Coon and Dorothy Fontana. Something I didn’t know was that it was the rise of colour TV sets in the USA that also furthered ‘Star Trek’s popularity although I am a little confused because it had been going there already since at least 1964, he says thinking of ‘Stingray’, made in colour for the US market. If anything, it was we in the UK who were far behind them.

Don’t expect all the episodes to be covered in this book and I was surprised by some that he left out. He does cover all the titles that come from quotes from other sources. I’m not so sure as to whether ‘Star Trek’ wouldn’t have remained popular had it not had three seasons to go into syndication. After all, when you consider how many single season US shows are now available on DVD, I suspect it wouldn’t have been totally lost.

The examination of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ is even pickier with his choice of episodes, mind you there are a lot of them, and how things changed between the first and second season. Oddly, although noted for the first that Picard would stay on the Enterprise while Riker did all the running around on the planet, Berkmann neglects to say that changed with the second season. When you consider how much Berkmann plays up to Patrick Stewart’s performances you would have thought that would have been mentioned.

Something that comes out is how much of a line-counter Shatner was but you would have thought that Dorothy Fontana, knowing this, wouldn’t have told the other actors what they planned knowing that it could easily be taken off of them. With Patrick Stewart, there is more of the British philosophy that giving lines to other members of the cast or at least not taking them off of them, the less they had to learn themselves so all benefit.

Less is said about the next three series in comparison although, if he had, I do wonder how much bigger this would have made the book. My own criticism of ‘Deep Space 9’ was often how slow and turgid it was and invariably putting the clock back at the end of many stories and yet Berkmann sees the opposite. When you compare it to ‘Babylon 5’, which was also seen as its major competitor at the time and was done to emulate it, B5 won hands down on a smaller budget.

Berkmann’s comments on the Abrams films reflects my own, especially towards the second film. Saying that, he does neglect to mention that these films are set in a pocket universe away from the original’s reality so both could co-exist and not a rewriting of the existing reality that he cites. It’ll be interesting to see where the new TV series is placed in comparison to either. In the long term with multiple re-makes, there are going to be a lot of pocket universes.

Although I think there’s a lot of critical analysis in this book to make you think, I do have to wonder who the target audience is. No doubt it would be seen as a scattershot for all ages although I suspect the more modern generation might benefit whereas us oldies saw it all when it first came out.

GF Willmetts

March 2016

(pub: Little Brown. 312 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 13.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4087-0683-1)

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