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INTERVIEW: Denise & Michael Okuda offer keys to ‘The Roddenberry Vault’

Did Gene Roddenberry know what he was doing when he carefully salvaged every scrap of Star Trek footage that fell to the cutting room floor? Fifty years later, folks like me are still sitting in their living rooms, excitedly discussing various nuances of actors’ performances, the social impact of this decades-old television show and frothing at the mouth whenever the very possibility of never-seen-before footage or new dialogue is mentioned. Which is the case with The Roddenberry Vault and the fact that I got to have one of those very conversations with the people who very carefully researched and assembled the material that Gene had preserved, namely Michael and Denise Okuda.

denise and michael okuda
Michael and Denise Okuda speaking at WonderCon 2013. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Okudas are essential figures in Star Trek history. After all, you can’t really call yourself a fan unless you own a copy of Mike Okuda’s Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Technical Manual (co-authored with Rick Sternbach) or the recent two-volume The Star Trek Encyclopedia (co-authored with Denise). Their production involvement with Star Trek spans thirty years of their work on the various television incarnations and the cinematic offerings up to Star Trek: Nemesis.

Nine years ago, Rod Roddenberry offered these loyal acolytes of Trek the chance to go through his father’s collection to properly document and archive the extra footage from the episodes of the original series. The result was a collection of finds that would not only add to the enjoyment of watching classic TOS episodes but also add extra appreciation for their creation.

Of course, the Okudas didn’t stop there. With commentary from Star Trek experts like Mark A. Altman, film critic Scott Mantz and producer Roger Lay, Jr., Mike and Denise Okuda also provided interviews with original production staff that not only added additional appreciation but also new context in which to view these episodes.

The chance to work on the Vault came out of their history of working with prolific figures in Star Trek’s iconic history. People like Rod Roddenberry, son of the creator of Star Trek, asked the Okudas to visit a warehouse nine years ago where they were overwhelmed in discovering “rows and rows” of preserved raw footage – literally scraps of film that his father had rescued from the cutting room floor.

“It was what we call our ‘Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark’ moment!” Mike excitedly said in my recent interview with him.

Denise laughed and nodded enthusiastically. “There were cans with original episode titles on the outside. We opened up the cans and there were various sizes of rolls of film. Then he took us into another room and found that there was film that had already been transferred already. We realized what it was right away.”

Mike echoed this sentiment. “You have to realize that as Star Trek fans for most of our lives we watched that show over and over again; we had it memorized. But we always wondered, was there any more footage?”

This was a question that had always been on the back of the Okudas’ minds – much like it has been for any true Star Trek fan. In fact, to throw in a reference that every Trekkie would understand, a good comparison would be V’ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture asking: is this all there is?

roddenberry vault

But the answer to this question came from the son of Star Trek’s creator himself, with the reveal of all of this extra footage that had been alluded to by sources like the James Blish novel adaptations of the original series or stills from episodes like ‘Operation: Annihilate’ or ‘Elaan of Troyius’.

Mike recalled that one of the eye-opening moments for him was reviewing materials from the episode ‘Devil in the Dark’ and he saw a new angle. In his head he was sure he had seen this, remembering the scene he had read in the James Blish novel but it was Denise who recognized it for what it was: brand new footage never seen by Trek fans before.

“We knew that those scenes had to be filmed”, Denise noted. “But we had no clue where they were. This was a magical journey. We worked on this off and on for nine years. It took three years to catalogue the material alone. But this last year was the most intense, doing interviews, finding folks to interview, and crafting the documentaries with Roger Lay, jr – a brilliant filmmaker and he did documentaries for Star Trek: The Next Generation blue ray editions – value-added material. We did that this year and it was pretty hairy!”

Despite the discovery of all this treasure, the fact that Rod Roddenberry chose them to be the archivists to rescue and re-format all of this material was also a significant moment.

Rod Roddenberry shows Michael and Denise Okuda archived footage.

Denise agreed with this. “We were extremely honoured… we know Rod – we’ve known Rod for many, many years and he knows how much we love Trek and his Dad’s work. But we were very gratified that he would think to call us to take on this tremendous work. He mentions in the documentary that there had to stuff in all these cans, but he sure was not the one to take the time to go through all of it!”

Laughing, Michael added, “Throughout all this, though, Rod swore us to secrecy. For most of the past number of years, we couldn’t say anything! We couldn’t say anything to our friends, our family…”

“That was hard,” Denise put in.

“So if anyone asked us a question, at a convention, or wherever, and we knew the answer – we couldn’t say anything because that would reveal that we had information from an unknown source!”

I asked Denise and Michael about just where this project ranked in comparison to the other projects they’ve worked on in the past. After all, this couple have seen all sorts of incarnations of Trek and have had the chance to work on so many different aspects of this memorable show.

“Both Denise and I have worked on so many variations of Trek and we’re proud of the work we’ve done, but we grew up with the original Trek. Kirk, Spock, and the original Enterprise – that was special to us; it’s magical to us. To be able to see a new moment, a new line or snippet is like going back into those shows and uncovering more magic.”

“If you think about it,” Denise continued, “we’ve watched the original series over and over again, for entertainment, but also for our various projects; we’ve had to dissect them and to hear new dialogue that has never been heard before? You just can’t compare that to anything else we’ve ever worked on.”

There’s a “fly-on-the-wall” feeling that the Okudas experienced when bringing this material to light. After all, both of these talented creators have worked television production before and they know what it’s like to be on set. But the production work has changed over the 50 years. To them, it’s not only a professional, passion-project appeal to work on this endeavour but also a historical one. To be a time-travelling television producer/fan imaginably satisfies so many parts of their lives that regular fans, such as myself, can only dare to dream of.

To imagine being behind that camera, observing Leonard Nimoy actually working out how to best portray Spock in a given moment is an experience that needs to be shared. Of course, this is the entire purpose of the Vault. After all, how else would this moment of intimacy be related? It’s an awe-inspiring undertaking that has to be watched.

Mark A. Altman, noted ‘Trekspert’, Star Trek journalist and author of the insider’s guide to Trek, The 50 Year Mission (see my review of that book), is one of the commentators on this project. His commentary, along with Roger Lay and film critic Scott Mantz is one of the shining features of this disk collection.  The episode ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ is widely noted to be the finest original episode ever. To hear their collective commentary, along with extra footage and new dialogue is just one of the many enjoyable features this undertaking delivers.

There are several moments that were deleted and trimmed from this episode simply for time, but Michael related their importance to me.

“These are lovely, lovely moments between Kirk and Edith Keeler that are so powerful and that speak to the love shared between these two characters that nails the theme of the episode – eternity – forever. It just gives you goosebumps.”

In terms of working with the contributors, Denise was quick to point out the value of working with the interviews. For example, 92 year old director Ralph Senensky was a highlight of this project. Among the many original episodes Senensky directed, he was responsible for ‘This Side of Paradise’, ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘The Tholian Web’.

“Ralph was amazing. At 92, you would expect memory to fade, but he was as sharp as a tack and he was a delight. We sat down twice with Dorothy Fontana (scriptwriter and former personal assistant to Gene Roddenberry), who is a friend of ours. We got to interview Elenor Donahue, who played Nancy Hedford from ‘Metamorphosis’. But the biggest surprise had to come from the interview that Roger did with Bill Shatner.”

William Shatner’s interview in this project was extremely heartfelt. I related my perception to Denise, which she confirmed.

“Mike and I have worked with Mr. Shatner on feature films before and we’ve known him off and on for years. And the interview that he gave us for The Roddenberry Vault was the most giving, and honest…”

“And insightful,” Mike interjected.

“…And insightful that we’ve ever heard,” Denise agreed. “People like Scott Mantz and Mark Altman who heard portions of the interview in the editing said the same thing. It was extraordinary.”

William Shatner is one of the many people who were interviewed for ‘The Roddenberry Vault’. (via TrekNews.net)

Mike added another interview to recollect.

“I think the interview with Don Marshall, who played Boma in ‘The Galileo Seven’ was one of my favourite interviews. It was a brief one. He talked a little about his role in Star Trek, but he talked more about his relationship with Gene Roddenberry. Prior to Star Trek, he also had a relationship with Roddenberry on another show – The Lieutenant and he had such love and respect for Gene that it really came out in this interview.”

It was an especially poignant interview as that was Marshall’s last, as he passed away not too long after that interview was done.

To characterize the work that the Okudas have done with The Roddenberry Vault, it can only be described as a labour of love.

“We did this for people like, you, John,” Denise shared, referring to yours truly. “It was work – fun work, but it was work, nonetheless. It was tiring, tedious – lines of spreadsheet data – it took hours and hours.”

“It was an extraordinary amount of work,” Mike added. “When you think of the work done by the series producer, Roger Lay, he had a real vision of how this was going to look and he delivered hours and hours of editing. But he has a real love for film production and science fiction and knew what aspect that hasn’t been shown before.”

“We believed in this so much. We wanted to share this with our friends and family,” Denise said.

Mike gave a lot of credit to CBS.

“They knew that we wanted to something special for Star Trek’s 50th and they had a lot of faith that we would deliver something special. Folks like John van Citters and Ken Ross at CBS and Rod [Roddenberry] and Trevor Roth at Roddenberry Entertainment; they all supported this from the very beginning.”

Still, when it comes down to it, the whole idea of providing enough context for all of this to be viewed in is the result of the work that Mike, Denise and Roger managed to envision. The working relationship amongst them stems from that sense of fan appreciation; that love of classic science fiction and the pedigree of outstanding and authoritative Trek projects that the Okudas have managed to produce in the past.

“We like to think that this is CBS’s gift and we were just thrilled that we were chosen to participate in it,” Denise concluded.

In order to truly give a project the full care it deserves, particularly with an iconic property like Star Trek, attention to detail is needed, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject that is being presented. But there also has to be respect. To my mind, there is no other team with such experience and accomplishments that could have pulled this project off like Denise and Michael Okuda did. When CBS and Roddenberry Entertainment believed in the project, it could also be a case of simply believing in the Okudas.

The Roddenberry Vault is a testament to the enduring nature of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Its quality is representative of this franchise’s appeal to the fans, which is a staggering fifty year draw. It is incumbent upon CBS and Roddenberry Entertainment as the guardians of this legacy to present any aspect of it in the most respectful and proficient way possible by choosing the right people for the job. Denise and Michael Okuda are an integral part of this stewardship and their work has been nothing but respectful and of superior quality.

If you haven’t taken the chance to see some of their work, and you consider yourself a Star Trek fan, then you need to see The Roddenberry Vault and get a sense of this labour of love.

roddenberry vault

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About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.

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