Last week I wrote about the pervasive influence that Star Trek has had on my life and career. With the twenty-fourth James Bond film Spectre debuting last weekend, this week I’m writing about how the James Bond films impacted me. While this creative franchise didn’t have quite the same degree of influence on me that Star Trek and Lord of the Rings did, it still was one of the three primary pop culture influences on my childhood.
Because the Bond films are not child-friendly films, their impact on me was indirect during my early childhood in that they influenced many of the shows I did watch. James Bond creator Ian Fleming himself helped develop the show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which followed the adventures of an American and Russian secret agent, played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, who worked for a secret international counter espionage and law and enforcement agency. I Spy, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, used exotic international locations to emulate the James Bond films. An especially favorite show of mine was the spy spoof Get Smart, starring Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, who was a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. One recurring gag on the show was that telephones are concealed in over objects a necktie, comb, watch, a clock, and most frequently, Max’s shoe phone, which he has to take off to answer calls from his superior.
Spy adventures and secret agent gear comprised a lot of my make-believe play. I bought and studied books about how to make codes and ciphers, such as using lemon juice as “invisible ink” to send secret messages. I played with all sorts of secret agent toys such as radios and cameras that turned into “guns”; the Johnny Seven gun that had seven different weapons including a grenade launcher and anti-tank rocket; and the Secret Sam attaché case that featured not only a gun with silencer but also had a secret button on that fired a bullet out one side of the briefcase. With me playing with all those guns, you might think that I was a blood-thirsty little tyke, what actually fascinated me was the ingenuity of how they were designed, and there ability to transform from one thing to another — much like kids that grew up after me enjoyed Transformer toys.
My favorite spy toy was a die-cast model of the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger. Like the film car, this toy from Corgi featured retractable front-mounted machine guns, bullet-proof rear screen, revolving number plates, tire shredders, and best of all, a working ejector seat that would send the occupant flying out of the roof. Now, I had never actually seen a James Bond film at this point, but I have a vivid memory of my Dad calling me over to the television showing a scene of Q showing off the Aston Martin’s features to Bond.
I didn’t actually see my first Bond film until I was 11-years-old, when my Dad took my brothers and I to see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at the local movie theater. I didn’t know George Lazenby from Sean Connery at this point, so the opening scene where Lazenby’s Bond loses a fight and breaks the fourth wall by saying to the camera, “This never happened to the other fellow” was lost on me. I immediately loved the film for its clever gadgets, exotic locales, exciting action sequences, and supervillians with hidden lairs and elaborate plans for world domination. However, at that age, the sex (and sexism) was a bit over my head.
I caught up on all of previous Bond films that ABC would regularly broadcast on television, and although he wasn’t my first Bond, Connery became my favorite because of his suave and debonair approach to the character (which I later learned was due to director Terrence Young coaching the scruffy Connery in the ways of being dapper, witty, and cultured). Connery’s Bond was also as ruthless as he was charming, for he could just as easily slide a knife into a female adversary as he could make love to her to gain her loyalty.
During my teenage years, my best friend, Andrew Weber, and I would ride our bicycles together to the movie theater to catch the latest Bond film. By this time, Roger Moore had taken over the role after Connery’s departure. Although all Bond films are ridiculous to some degree, I did not like Moore’s approach to the character, which Connery said differed from his in that “I would leave the scene laughing, while Roger would enter the scene laughing”. I wanted my Bond to be a bit more serious when saving the world.
I found the grittiness I was wanted by reading the original Ian Fleming novels, in which the literary Bond was not as handsome or unflappable as the film versions. I was put off by some of the racial insensitive of the books, but we were reading Huckleberry Finn at the same time in high school, so I took Fleming’s use of the “N-” word as a sign of another, less enlighten time. Ian Fleming saw himself as part of an elite class, and he undoubtedly saw everyone who was not a member of British upper society as beneath him.
My reading then turned to American spy stories. Watergate was happening at the time, and so I read a (very mediocre) spy novel written by Watergate conspirator and ex-CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. When I was older, I started reading Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller books, most of which centered around CIA intelligence officer Jack Ryan. Although I greatly enjoyed the technically details of his espionage and military science storylines set during and after the Cold War, I eventually grew tired of Clancy’s heavy-handed conservative views in which all the right-leaning characters were pure and good and the left-leaning characters were flawed or evil.
I preferred my fiction to be more thought-provoking, and our of all the spy-themed movies, books, and television shows that most captured my interests was The Prisoner, a 17-episode British television eerie first broadcast in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s but rebroadcast on PBS while I was attending college a decade later. The series follows a British former secret agent who is abducted and held prisoner in a mysterious coastal village resort where his captors try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job. Although the show was outwardly a spy thriller, what appealed to me was its surreal settings and 1960s countercultural themes about maintaining one’s individuality despite society’s pressure to conform.
I was so enthralled with the show that when I joined Edu-Ware Services as a game designer/programmer after graduating college, I convinced my boss to let me develop a game based on the show. Over a six-week period I designed the game as I was programming it, devising situations based not just based on the show’s themes and spy genre tropes, but also incorporating famous experiments, like the Milgram experiment, that I learned about in a college psychology class.
Because we didn’t acquire a license to The Prisoner, my game was only loosely based on the show but incorporated its themes about the loss of individuality in a technological, controlling society. The player’s role is that of an intelligence agent who has resigned from his job for reasons known only to himself, and who has been abducted to an isolated island community that seems designed to be his own personal prison. The island’s authorities use coercion, disorientation, deception, and frustration to learn why the player has resigned, and every character, location, and apparent escape route seem to be part of a grand scheme to trick the player into revealing a code number representing the prisoner’s reason for resigning.
The game turned out to be my greatest personal creative achievement. I programmed a text parser so that the player could communicate in English with his captors, which one game reviewer described as “the best example of artificial intelligence seen in or outside of any game.” One of my more nefarious attempts to get the player to reveal the reasons why he resigned was a simulated game crash which includes the error message “Syntax error in line ###”, where the line number is the player’s resignation code. I also had game occasionally break the fourth wall by acknowledging that a game is being played and the player has chosen to imprison himself by agreeing willingly to play the game.
The game was both a financial and critical success, sufficiently so that I wrote a color graphics sequel called Prisoner 2 that was equally well-received. Unfortunately, that was the last opportunity I had to developed a spy-themed video game.
Still, my interest in the spy genre never waned, and Bond somehow always impacted my life, in addition to me watching the films through the Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig years. During one trip to Las Vegas, I volunteered to go up on stage during a performance of Pat Collins, “The Hip Hypnotist”. She “hypnotized” me into believing I was James Bond, and so I pulled out an imaginary “gun”, leapt off the stage, grabbed an cocktail waitress by the arm, and escorted her off to safety.
I had another Bond encounter when I was working at Cyberdreams, producing the game Dark Seed II with H.R. Giger. Because I had my hands full designing another game, I brought on a freelance designer to work on the Giger game, and the person I hired was Raymond Benson, who had designed a number of text and graphic adventure games for Origin Systems, MicroProse, and Mindscape, including games based on the James Bond films A View To A Kill and Goldfinger. Raymond was also the author of the non-fiction book The James Bond Bedside Companion, which is an indispensable resource for Bond fans.
In 1996, when official James Bond novelist John Gardner resigned from writing Bond books. Glidrose Publications hired Raymond to replace him. Raymond wound up writing six James Bond novels, three novelizations, and three short stories (he was the first writer after creator Ian Fleming to write a Bond short story). I, of course, read all of Raymond’s Bond works and am lucky enough to have several autographed copies of his novels, which occupy a treasured space in my library.
Knowing of my mutual love for Bond, Raymond invited me to a James Bond convention in Los Angeles where he was appearing as a speaker and performer (in addition to being a phenomenal writer, Raymond is also a terrific pianist). After attending Raymond’s session, I saw my “first” Bond, George Lazenby, in person, along with Richard Kiel (“Jaws” from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) and Bruce Glover (“Mr. Wint” in Diamonds Are Forever). Raymond has since gone on to writing his own very successful mystery novels, and I try to see him whenever he is in town for a book signing or business meeting.
As for my own spy adventures, although I never had an opportunity to work on any spy-themed videogames since The Prisoner and Prisoner 2, I did some work on a spy-themed live action game last year. Two entrepreneurs interested in staring up an Escape Room franchise hired me to design some scenarios for them, including a spy-themed scenario in which players find clues hidden in secret compartments and use them to break codes and solve other puzzles that will ultimately let escape from a locked room. It was great fun to work on, although the project never advanced past the design phase.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to work on an actual James Bond game, but I never expected Sean Connery to return to the role in Never Say Never Again or Eon Productions to hire a blonde-haired actor like Daniel Craig to play Bond, so maybe some day I’ll have an opportunity to virtually join Her Majesty’s Secret Service as an agent creating works rather than as a spy viewing them.
With all the excitement surrounding by the release of the Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens move trailer the other week as well as the announcement today that CBS would be launching a new Star Trek television series in 2017, someone asked me, “Which has had a bigger impact on you: Star Wars or Star Trek?” Although I am as excited as everyone else is to see the new George Lucas-less Star Wars films, this is not a difficult question for me to answer: of the two, Star Trek has been a far bigger influence on my life, not just as a source of entertainment but also in my career as a videogame producer.
It began on September 8, 1966 — at 8:20pm, to be precise. I was eight years old, watching television, when I suddenly remembered that a really neat show I read about in TV Guide was on. I switched the channel over to NBC, and I was immediately became hooked for life. The show was, of course, Star Trek. Originally pitched by creator Gene Roddenberry to the network as a “Wagon Train to the stars,” Star Trek chronicled the adventures of the starship USS Enterprise and its crew on its five-year mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
I had always been a science fiction fan, but this show was different. Initially, I think it was the futuristic technology that attracted me: phaser weapons that could stun or dematerialized, depending on the setting; voice-actuated computers that could hold the entirety of humanity’s knowledge in its memory banks; transporters that could teleport people from space to a planet’s surface; and warp drive that transcended the speed of light and could propel starships to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. I drew my version of the starship controls and pasted them on a TV table so that I could co-pilot the Starship Enterprise along with the bridge crew each week.
I continued to watch Star Trek throughout my childhood, thanks to the show’s success in syndication after its initial three-year run, as well as to a short-lived animated version that ran on Saturday mornings. The characters on the show became like virtual friends to me because, like all good television shows, it was based upon a “family”: Captain James T. Kirk, the brash but supremely capable commander the Starship Enterprise, advised by his logical, alien First Officer, Mr. Spock, and the impassioned Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. The show impressed upon me with the value of diversity and how even two people from different planets could be “brothers.”
Even the supporting cast consisted of diverse and appealing characters: Asian hobby-loving helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu; Russian navigator Ensign Pavel Chekov, whose heavy accent sometimes provided comic relief; African communications office Lt. Nyota Uhura, blessed with competency in multiple languages as well as a lovely singing voice; and especially, the ever-reliable Scottish chief engineer, Lt. Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. I put together my own collection of futuristic “engineering tools” and would go play in the laundry room to pretending that I was Scotty making repairs to the ships’ engines.
I became a card-carrying (literally) Star Trek fan, or “Trekkie,” joining the official fan club. I collected Star Trek “technical manuals” and glued together model kits of phasers, tricorders, communicators, and the U.S.S. Enterprise herself. I attended Star Trek conventions, even convincing my mom to take me to one in San Francisco. And I read novelizations of all the live action and animated episodes.
I learned to appreciate that the stories themselves were more sophisticated than most other television fare. Star Trek was notable for hiring leading contemporary science fiction writers such as Robert Bloch, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison to write its scripts. The show often utilized the setting of a starship visiting alien civilizations to comment on social issues of the 1960s United States, including sexism, racism, nationalism, and global war. These ideas inspired me to create my own Star Trek works. I filmed a Super8 live-action Star Trek movie for which I created the phaser and transporter effects by drawing them with colored marking pens frame by frame directly on the film. I also wrote a short story about a conspiracy within Starfleet.
My first opportunity to have my Star Trek inspired work to actually get published came in 1976, when Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s executive assistant, Susan Sackett, launched a monthly fan magazine called the Star Trektennial Newsletter in honor of the show’s tenth anniversary, and of course I was a subscriber. One month she held a cartoon contest, and I submitted so many entries I not only won the contest, she made the fanzine’s cartoonist throughout the rest of its run.
That was also the year that I also enrolled in college, but I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be an artist, a writer, or a filmmaker, so I listed my major as “Undecided” until I figured out a career path for myself. In my sophomore year I enrolled in an Introduction to Computer Science course mainly to fulfill my general education requirements and partly because I enjoyed some of the Star Trek episodes featuring computers. One day as I was waiting in the Computer Lab to use the shared printer to print out my homework, I started typing out a Star Trek game. It then struck me that a computer was just as valid a medium for telling as story as was a typewriter, an easel, or a camera. I got so excited by the idea of interactive storytelling that I immediately went over to the Administration Office and changed my major to Computer Science.
The following year, my COBOL (a business programming language) instructor noticed that I was using the campus mainframe for printing out pictures of the Starship Enterprise using punch cards. I expected him to reprimanded me, but instead he offered me a job as a clerk in his computer store, Rainbow Computing, that he owned along with a couple of the other professors. While I was working in the store, one of the other customers, Sherwin Steffin, told me that he ran a small software publishing company and asked me to write some games for him. And so that was my start in the game industry.
The very first game I made for Edu-Ware was about space exploration, although it was not a Star Trek game. It an expansion scenario to a text-based science fiction role-playing game called Space, created by Steffin’s business partner, Steve Pederson. The game consisted of two scenarios: Shaman, in which the player’s goal was to convert interplanetary colonists to your religion; and Psychodelia, in which players could take various drugs to enhance their mental skills, but at a risk to their physical ones. After I graduated from college, I joined the company full-time as a game designer and programmer, and one of my long-term projects was to redesign Space as a trilogy of graphics-based role-playing games, the first of which, Empire I: World Builders, won Electronic Games magazine’s aware for “Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Computer Game” of 1983. It was a nice feather in my cap, but it wasn’t Trek.
I did have a brush with Star Trek during my time at Edu-Ware when Bjo Trimble walked into our Canoga Park offices. Bjo, along with her husband John, is considered to be one of the most influential fans of her generation. The Trimbles were behind the successful “Save Star Trek” campaign, generally credited with allowing the series to run for a third season rather than being canceled after two. They also ran the campaign to have the first of NASA’s space shuttles named Enterprise. Bjo had come to our company to ask about educational software for children with disabilities, but I, of course, spent time talking Trek with her.
My next brush with Star Trek came several years later when I was looking for work, as people in the game industry so often are. I was on the Paramount Studios lot to interview for a position as a liaison to companies making interactive products based on Paramount properties. Star Trek: The Next Generation was filming on the lot at the time. After the interview concluded, I asked for directions to the Star Trek production offices. I had hoped to tell Susan Sackett my story about how Star Trek inspired my career in the industry, since she had written a book titled Letters to Star Trek about similar experiences, but unfortunately, it was late on a Friday afternoon, and Susan was too busy trying to wrap things up to leave for the weekend to deal with an unexpected visitor (she did send me a nice note afterwards, apologizing for not having time to talk). While I was there, I was able to peek down the hallway and see The Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, talking on the telephone in his office.
By the way, Star Trek: The Next Generation was just as much as an influence on me as The Original Series was. Even my wife, Charlotte, who is not normally a science fiction fan, watched episodes of the show with me every week. We’d watch it together when our baby son Ben was in the hospital being treated with chemotherapy, and it was one of the things that got us through a terrible ordeal. I’m happy to report that Ben (standing next to Spock in this picture taken of our family at Star Trek: The Experience) is now a grown man and studying biology at my alma mater, Cal State Northridge.
I had yet another brush with Star Trek in 1994. While I was in San Francisco attending the annual Game Developers Conference and sat in on a session where author Harlan Ellison and game designer David Sears were discussing how they were adapting Harlan’s classic short story I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream into a video game. I have to admit that I was very jealous. No only was that my favorite short story, but Harlan had written my favorite Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever.” I should be the one working with him!
As fate would have it, I wound up producing the project. A few months after GDC, the company publishing the game, Cyberdreams, contacted me about working for them as a producer. What made this opportunity even more exciting of me was that David Sears had left the project and the company needed someone to work with Harlan in finishing the design of the game. Did someone say “dream job”?
Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy. Harlan had a reputation for being difficult, and I knew that going in. I had seen him talk on panels on science fiction conventions, and I knew that he enjoyed being an iconoclast — someone who attacks what others hold sacred, but I enjoyed that about him too. He infamously appeared with the rest of The Original Series cast on an episode of Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show about Star Trek‘s enduring appeal, and Harlan spent the entire time ripping into the show and it’s fandom. (At a Star Trek convention I once asked James Doohan, who played Scotty, what he thought about what Harlan said on that show, and Doohan replied, “I wanted to punch him in the nose.”)
And, man, did Harlan live up to his reputation in person! As soon as I arrived at his house, he began hurling insults at me (the worse was “you think like a television producer.”). I remained calm and composed, and when I showed him our work on the game so far, the rain of barbs subsided. Slowly I gained his trust that I was handling his story well, and we learned to work together very well. He would read some of the dialog that I wrote for the game and tell me that it was “shit”, but that would just get me to try harder to emulate his writing style. I would also read his dialog and tell him when I thought he could do better, and he’d trudge back to his office and come back with scenes that worked better for the game.
When it came time to cast voice-over actors to record the game’s dialog, I immediately thought of John DeLancie, who played the omnipotent and annoying entity named “Q” on many Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, for playing the role of the story’s antagonist, the insane supercomputer, AM. One of my former co-workers knew John DeLancie’s phone number, and so I spoke to the actor about playing the part, but when I told Harlan, he was firm: he didn’t want any Star Trek actors in the game. So, I told him, “All right. Then I want YOU to play the role. You’d be perfect at playing an insane computer.” And I was right, he was.
The finished game wound up winning just about every game industry award there was. However, what was most meaningful to me was this “Letter To The Editor” Harlan wrote to Computer Gaming World when the game won its Best Adventure Game of the Year award:
“David Sears and I worked very hard on I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. And we both get our accolades in your presentation. But someone else who had as much, or more, to do with bringing this project to fruition… is David Mullich. He was the project manager and designer after David Sears moved on. He worked endlessly, and with what Balzac called ‘clean hands and composure’ to produce a property that would not shame either of us. It simply would not have won your award had not David Mullich mounted the barricades.”
All well and good, but my dream of making a Star Trek game did not come until six years later when Activision hired me to produce a Trek-themed real-time strategy game that Mad Doc Software was developing for them. The game, tentatively called Starfleet Admiral, was to be a real-time strategy space combat game involving ships across all the Star Trek movies and television shows. We developed a first-playable prototype of the game, but although the vice president of our division said that it was the best prototype he had seen in his ten years at Activision, the game got cancelled due to a falling out with the developer over another project they were developing with us.
Well, that wasn’t the only reason. My immediate manager was losing faith in the drawing power of the Star Trek license and thought that Star Trek Admiral relied too much on Trek history as its appeal, and I was given the directive to make a Star Trek game that wasn’t about Star Trek. So, my assistant producer, Dan Hagerty, devised an alien race and spaceships that would be the focus of our new game, which we developed with a Hungarian developer called Digital Reality who had developed a 3D engine that impressed up when we met with them at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. We made several trips to Budapest, where we had a great time working with Digital Reality and its CEO, Gabor Fehrer, proved to be a delightful host.
Everything was going well on the project, and then suddenly, everything having to do with Star Trek imploded. First, Star Trek: Enterprise came out on television, and it bombed in the ratings. Then, Star Trek: Nemesis came out in the movie theater, and it bombed at the box office. We had actually been invited to an advance screening of the film on the Paramount Studios lot, but when our Paramount liaison, Harry Lang, asked us what we thought of the film as we came out of the theater, all we could do was smile and mumble something noncommittal. However, back at Activision headquarters, the executives determined that Paramount was no longer supporting the Star Trek franchise with quality product, cancelled all of the Star Trek games it had in development, and I was sent to work on other projects. I never had a chance to work on a Star Trek game again.
Actually, it was my brother Jon who had the most success with Star Trek. Jon has long been involved in community theater, and although I never considered him to be a Trek fan growing up, he had the brilliant idea of rewriting the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore as a Star Trek musical adventure. Jon’s production of the U.S.S. Pinafore: An Out Space Operetta debuted at the Crown City Theater to rave reviews, and it caught the attention of former Starlog Magazine editor Kerry O’Quinn and his close friend Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on the original series. Jon (second from right in the photo) convinced them, along with fan favorite episode The Trouble With Tribbles author David Gerrold, to do a panel after one of his performances. Unfortunately, I had a prior commitment that night, and I missed this chance to meet these three people who I so admired.
Yet Star Trek continued to work its serendipitous influence on me, and a couple of months later, the former editor of Softalk Magazine, Margot Comstock, who had supported my work since my early days in the game industry, contacted me out of the blue and suggested that I should meet a friend of hers — Kerry O’Quinn, the Starlog Magazine founder who was part of the Star Trek panel at Jon’s musical. I was a huge fan of Starlog when growing up, which covered Star Trek, Star Wars, and everything else in the realm of science fiction, and so I jumped at the chance to meet him. We met for dinner at Kitchen24 in Hollywood, and for a couple of hours entertained me with stories about Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, author Arthur C. Clarke, and so many of my other idols.
Kerry was kind enough to invite me to his birthday party a short time later, and he spent the evening discussing his career with Starlog and other ventures. What made the evening especially memorable that his close friend Nichelle Nichols was there. Throughout my childhood and teen years, I considered her to be the most beautiful woman in television, and I have to say that, at 77-years-young, she was just as lovely as ever.
Star Trek continues to be a presence in my life. For the past couple of years at my teaching position at The Los Angeles Film School, I’ve dressed as Captain Kirk for Halloween, my goatee notwistanding. Famed Doom co-creator John Romero did the embellishment to this photo of me. Last year, I took a quick picture of me for Facebook, but there were dark circles under my eyes. I did a real quick and dirty job in Photoshop of fixing them before posting it, but John surprised me by stepping in and doing the job right.
Last week, after dressing as Kirk for the school costume contest, I got into the elevator and another instructor asked me if I was a Star Trek fan. When I answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!”, he then introduced me to another passenger in the elevator: actress Gianna Simone, who played a member of the Enterprise bridge crew in the film Star Trek Into Darkness. It seems that no matter what I do, or where I go, the incredible universe that Gene Roddenberry created nearly 50 years ago continues to affect my life in the most amazing and unexpected ways.