Michael and Denise Okuda are the Star Trek power couple, integral to the last few decades of keeping Gene Roddenberry’s vision at the forefront of popular culture. From their work on the production side – Michael started on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as the graphic designer making all those fancy screens work, while Denise also started on Voyage Home as a P.A. and went on to help with graphics and effects from Deep Space Nine onwards – the two have also written several books including the expansive Star Trek Encyclopedia.
Their latest project is helping shepherd the Blu-ray release of Star Trek: The Original Series – The Roddenberry Vault edition. It’s a remarkable project spanning many years, involving the introduction of clips, culls, and other ephemera thought lost for nearly five decades. With the help of Gene’s son Rod, the Okudas present the material along with key beloved episodes, adding a capper to what is already deeply ingrained for fans of the show. Along with documentaries about the footage, the set is a unique set of appendices sure to please any Trekkie worth their uniform.
Dork Shelf spoke with the Okudas about this remarkable project, their continued love for their work and just what tidbits do they hold onto.
Just when we thought that we had seen all of the juicy toys from the Star Trek universe you guys managed to uncover new some stuff! When did you first learn about all of these outtakes and how did you help shepherd the project along?
Denise Okuda: We learned about it nine years ago. We were contacted by Rod Roddenberry to come down to a warehouse. We signed non-disclosures, we couldn’t tell anyone what we were going to see, and walked into the building seeing rows and rows of film cans. It was the Holy Grail, the missing Star Trek footage that Gene Roddenberry had swept up from the cutting room floor and Rod had saved all of these years.
We then had the opportunity to go through hours and hours of footage, catalogue it, find a vehicle to show the footage and that’s the culmination and what you have now in the Roddenberry Vault [Blu-ray].
What was it like the first moment that you saw some of that footage? You’re obviously so well versed in the legacy series, to actually see something slightly sideways from the regular narrative must have been quite a shock.
Michael Okuda: Indeed it was! We’ve lived with those episodes so many years and seen them so many times. [It was a thrill] just to hear a different inflection or a different angle, a new line of dialogue, a new piece of information or of exposition, or even better, a snippet of a deleted scene, a bit of action that we’ve never seen before. Sometimes, there were moments that were in the scripts or in the novels or other things that were published, but we had never seen. For example, there was an alternate ending to the episode “Operation Annihilate” where Captain Kirk’s young nephew comes on the bridge [played by] Jim Well. That scene was filmed, and we’ve seen pictures of it, but we’ve never seen it. Well, we found that footage! To see that moment was really fun.
On a personal basis was there one particular scene like that that you were really hoping to actually uncover?
DO: Oh, there’s quite a few of them. We had, in the episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”, we were able to uncover some missed dialogue between Kirk and Edith. We talked to Dorothy Fontana, story editor of Star Trek, and she said that it was cut for time, but it is so sweet and it’s so magical, of the scene where Edith falls down the stairs and Kirk catches her. At that moment she may have died, and they talk about their love and it lasting forever and it still gives us chills when we see it.
MO: It’s a powerful thematic moment, a powerful character moment, a terrible pity that it was cut for time because it’s so important to these two people and their relationship.
So, a controversial question – Do you now consider these deleted scenes canon?
DO: [Pause] We hate that word. We came up with a book called the Star Trek Encyclopedia and the whole methodology was that what was aired is “canon” in quotes, you know? Let’s just call [the deleted scenes] frosting on top of the cake, magic that was lost supposedly forever and we get to see it. We weren’t supposed to see this stuff. It was supposed to end up in the trash can, for cryin’ out loud! Here it is, 50 years later, and we really hope a lot of people are able to see this footage.
I think it’s fair to say that Star Trek really, at its heart, helped popularize the whole notion of fandom overthink. So on the one hand, this opens up that canonical can of worms, on the other hand, if you’re a fan, you’re just going to love the fact that you get pieces of these things that you adore, forget the Talmudic implications! As you say, it’s icing on the cake.
DO: Yeah. I think you’re right.
MO: Absolutely. We really didn’t go into the question of are we expanding the universe. What we’re doing is we’re trying to expand the Star Trek experience. We just see another moment in that episode. One of the episodes in the set is “This Side of Paradise”. There’s a climactic encounter between Spock and Leila. It’s where we learn that the two were very much in love. We have seen in terms of the dialogue, it’s very similar, but the performances are dramatically different.
DO: It’s softer, and so it’s another take, the actors tried a different way of saying the words. It didn’t make it to the final take of the episode, but it’s very sweet, it’s much softer.
Were there specific pieces you guys found that were too far removed from the end product and simply thought, no, this shouldn’t be included? This is something that was never meant to be seen and should be kept in the vault?
MO: There was nothing that we said shouldn’t be seen, but there were pieces that we understood why it was cut. There was a fascinating scene from the episode The “Corbonite Maneuver” where the script was trying, I think very, for good reason, to show Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a better tomorrow, of a more inclusive world where we are colourblind. They did it by an exchange of dialogue between Kirk and Sulu where Sulu said “when I was a kid, I used to watch those old Fu Manchu movies and I used to try to make the stereotypical oriental eyes.” If you look at that through a present day prism that’s really kind of embarrassing and hokey so it was probably a good idea that they cut it. But when you look at it from the prism of 1966 and say, you know, these guys were trying to do something special. They were trying to show a better world. And that’s one of the reasons we love Star Trek.
DO: But we did include that scene in the Roddenberry vault, so you can see it!
MO: …And you can judge for yourself.
This is being released on physical media. I’m wondering, do you guys actually still consume home stuff on physical media? Is physical media still important to you and do you collect such things?
MO: Yes, and yes.
You still enjoy having the talisman at home, as it were.
MO: Yes, we enjoy that. We watch a lot of streaming media as well. We like both.
What do you guys have on your own Dork Shelf? I mean you have access to this enormous Star Trek universe, but what, if anything, do you guys collect? Do you have a bunch of stuff that might surprise us?
MO: We have surprisingly little Star Trek stuff, but we do have a few bits.
DO: There’s also a difference when you work on a television series, as much as we love it, it’s different. We didn’t work on the original series and that’s our favourite, and we actually have some original things that were given to us by people who worked on the show. We didn’t buy them, they were actually physically given to us, so we treasure those. But we actually have very little Star Trek memorabilia.
MO: For years and years I always wanted an original series phaser prop and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those things, but they’re absurdly expensive and there’s a lot of fake stuff there, so I finally reasoned that I’m never going to be able to afford something like that, and I just can’t. And then, about 10 years ago our friends at CBS Digital on the remastered version of the Original Series and one day, we all borrowed a bunch of Star Trek uniforms and went up on a blue screen just so we’d have some new figures to drop in to some new matte paintings.
So, when we were doing that I found a toy phaser from the artist’s shop and I strapped it to my belt, and I wore it when I was walking through those scenes and now that phaser is sitting on my shelf. It is an actual phaser that’s been in an actual episode of Star Trek, so I got my thing for my Dork Shelf!
You’ve talked about Roddenberry’s vision for a better world, things have gotten a little bit complicated this year in terms of that front, it seems like we’re moving a little bit backwards instead of forwards. Does that means the narrative for Star Trek is in some ways even more important than ever and as these stories continue to be told, if the requirement to inspire new generations is even more at the forefront of what’s going on?
MO: I think you’re exactly right about that. It’s important to remember that back in the 1960s, we think of it as this fun time, but people were genuinely scared in the 60s. They were scared that Vietnam was going to lead to WWIII, they were scared that the Cold War would lead to nuclear Armageddon. We were, as a nation, genuinely afraid. Star Trek was a beacon of hope that said if we’re smart, if we’re ethical, if we use our brains, we can have a better tomorrow. We can tour the stars and we can have a better world. I think that message is as powerful today and as important today as it was back then.
It’s said that the closer you look at some things sometimes, in some ways it’s easier to love and in some ways it’s harder to love. You guys have looked at Star Trek more closely than almost anybody there’s ever been, and I’m wondering how that love is sustained. What does this show and all that it represents continues to mean to you personally?
DO: When dealing with the Roddenberry Vault our love for Star Trek has deepened in ways that we didn’t think possible.
We love Star Trek, we love what Star Trek means, and we think of it as a family. We really need to be together, all of us, treat each other with kindness, with hope and optimism for the future, and we need it today, right now, more than ever.
MO: Denise and I have worked on a lot of Star Treks with most of the production companies, but we did not work on the original series, so looking at this material – not just at what the actors did, but the set design, the visual effects, the costumes, at the lighting – you got a better feeling of the extraordinary artistry these people put in, particularly under such tight conditions, short schedules and minuscule budgets. To be able to create a vision of a world of tomorrow that applies to today it’s an enormous amount of respect for what Gene Roddenberry and all of the people did.
We came away in awe of what these people did to create the original Star Trek.