If you’re a true Star Trek fan, you should watch “Mind-Sifter,” the latest episode released from Star Trek: New Voyages.
(NOTE: Two weeks after this blog was posted, New Voyages released another episode, “The Holiest Thing,” but this entry is about its predecessor, “Mind-Sifter,” which was released in December of 2014.)
You shouldn’t watch “Mind-Sifter” simply because it’s a well-constructed, well-acted, and well-produced story. And you shouldn’t watch it simply because it feels like good Star Trek.
No, you should watch it to honor the memory of an amazing woman who almost single-handedly helped to define, grow, and nurture Star Trek fandom while it was still in its infancy. I dare say that we all wouldn’t be here today celebrating Star Trek as passionately as we do if it weren’t for Shirley S. Maiewski, also known as “Grandma Trek.”
Before you could just Google “Star Trek” or *Like* the latest Trek news article on Facebook, decades before the Internet as we know it even existed, Star Trek fans were like islands isolated from each other and from the rare and meager resources available to enhance our Trekkie/Trekker experience. If you wanted to know where to find fanzines, conventions, clubs, or even just a list of what Star Trek books were available, you could have a hard time finding anything!
Shirley Maiewski changed all that… and she did it without email, without an online database or fancy spreadsheet, and without texting or tweeting or blogging. She did it all with paper, stamps, a typewriter, and her telephone. She was the driving force behind the Star Trek Welcommittee, a group of non-profit volunteers who produced newsletters and booklets that listed fan and fan organizations’ contact information, new fanzine and convention information, upcoming novel releases… essentially a “yellow pages” of Star Trek. New fans attending their first convention might see Shirley or another Welcommittee volunteer at a table handing out “A Piece of the Action” (their newsletter) and suddenly have a way of contacting other Trek fans that they never even knew existed!
Jump ahead to 1976. Star Trek had been in reruns for seven years, and fans had essentially memorized all 79 episodes by now. The animated series had run its course for two seasons, but fans were clamoring for something — anything! — that would add to the universe of Star Trek. Even the majority of novels released thus far (written by James Blish) were only adaptations of already-aired rerun episodes of Star Trek, not so much adding to the Trek universe as repeating it. Two exceptions were the novels “Spock Must Die!” and “Spock, Messiah”… and truth to tell, they both kinda sucked.
But then something unexpected happened. Bantam Books released an anthology paperback titled Star Trek: New Voyages, filled with eight original short stories and one poem all written by fans (interestingly enough, all of them female… even the two editors, Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath). Most of these stories had previously been published in fanzines and were actually quite good! And the best of bunch by far (as most readers agreed) was “Mind-Sifter,” written by Shirley S. Maieski.
“Mind-Sifter” was a riveting story opening with Captain Kirk waking up in a mental institution with no memory of who he is, where he is, or even when he is. Meanwhile, after an exhaustive search for their missing captain, the USS Enterprise is ordered by Starfleet to return to its assigned mission with Spock promoted to acting captain. Spock’s command style creates friction between him and the crew, especially McCoy, but Spock cannot bring himself to believe what everyone else has accepted: that James T. Kirk is dead. But how in all of space (and time) will Spock ever be able to find his captain and friend?
Despite the positive reception and popularity of her short story, Shirley Maieski was intensely frustrated and furious over the publication of “Mind-Sifter” because the publishers had changed her work without consulting her. Although authors frequently get asked to edit their work by publishers (for length, grammar, spelling, clarity, or some marketing goal), such changes are typically made by the author herself at the request of the publisher. The story was still quite good, but it had been shortened, changed around, and it wasn’t the same story she’d written and submitted to them. Their response to Shirley when she complained to them was essentially, “Trust us, we know what we’re doing, and you’re just a fan.”
This frustrating experience soured Shirley on the entire endeavor, and she never wrote a Trek story again, which, judging by the quality of even the edited and abridged “Mind-Sifter,” was a loss to Star Trek fans forever.
Fast-forward 13 years later, and Shirley, still running the Star Trek Welcommittee, was sitting at a convention table when a young James Cawley walked up to her. He was excited to meet the famous “Grandma Trek.” Years earlier as a boy, he’d read and greatly enjoyed her short story, and he was shocked to discover what Bantam had done to the original manuscript… especially after Shirley gave him a copy of the unedited version to read. James told Shirley of his plans to one day create new voyages of the USS Enterprise himself, filmed with recreated sets and a team of production people and actors bringing life to the final years of Kirk’s 5-year mission. Shirley asked if James might want to use her original manuscript as the basis of one of his episodes, and he said he would be honored to finally present her story to fans the way it was intended.
Shirley enthusiastically let James keep the copy of her original manuscript, hoping he would realize his dream and, in so doing, fulfill a dream of hers, as well. The two of them continued communicating off and on over the ensuing years, even after the Welcomittee officially shut down in 1997.
Fast-forward again to 2004, and James Cawley had just uploaded the pilot episode of his Star Trek: New Voyages to the Internet. He dazzled fans with $150,000 sets, props, and costumes that looked nearly identical to those used in the 1960s Star Trek.
The pilot episode wasn’t Shirley’s story, as James wanted to wait until his new endeavor was properly established and staffed with all the right sets, crew, and cast members before tackling something as near and dear to him as “Mind-Sifter.”
“We had one chance to get it right,” James told me in a recent interview, “and I didn’t want to do it unless I felt 100% certain it wouldn’t turn out like $#!%. The story had been so special to me as a boy that I wanted it to be as good as possible as an episode, and I knew early on that we weren’t ready to do ‘Mind-Sifter’ yet.”
Sadly, Shirley Maiewski passed away a few short months later in April of 2004, never seeing her story told on screen. James found out, as many fans did, through the grapevine and felt recommitted to getting New Voyages to a place where “Mind-Sifter” could be produced the way it always deserved to be.
Over the next few years, New Voyages continued improving and evolving – convincing actual veteran TOS actors like Walter Koenig and George Takei to reprise their iconic roles; bringing on writers like D.C. Fontana, David Gerrold, and others who had actually written for the various Trek series on TV, even changing the name of the series to Star Trek: Phase II because they were filming scripts that were initially intended for Gene Roddenberry’s sequel series from the late 1970s that never got produced (Paramount made Star Trek: The Motion Picture instead).
Several years passed before James felt that New Voyages/Phase II was finally ready for “Mind-Sifter.” But even then, things weren’t quite right. An early script adaptation of the story was written by Shirley’s friend (and Phase II production crew member) Patty Wright, and it was partially filmed. But James Cawley’s schedule in his main line of work (performing as Elvis Presley) kept him from being available to film his scenes until it became problematic for continuity reasons. Also, says James, “I didn’t think I could do justice to playing Kirk in that state of mind. It’s Kirk, but it isn’t Kirk. He’s mentally altered, and I felt that a stronger actor was needed to do the character justice.”
Enter: Brian Gross, a professional actor with nearly two decades of screen experience in both TV and film. Brian stepped into the role of Kirk, taking over from James Cawley, who would now focus more on behind-the-scenes responsibilities for Phase II. Brian’s first episode would be “Mind-Sifter,” and he was perfect for playing the angst-ridden, time-displaced James T. Kirk. The entire episode would need to be reshot from scratch, but before shooting, Rick Chambers did a teleplay rewrite to improve the pacing of the episode and bring it more in line with both Shirley’s original manuscript and the published version of the story that so many fans were familiar with. They were finally ready to do the story properly.
“Mind-Sifter” premiered online December 1, 2014… the ninth full-length episode of what was now called Star Trek: Phase II. But as a nod to the original book publication that contained the short story, the opening credits were returned to the classic Star Trek: New Voyages logo, and the series has once again been re-branded with its original name.
I think Shirley would have been quite pleased with how the episode turned out, a fine tribute to the Grandmother of Trek.
You can see the final product here, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.