Freiberger’s Last Word

July 28, 2017

Star Trek references turn up everywhere you look now, but here’s an unexpected one from 1972 – the same year as the first major fan convention, and well before Star Trek had completed its evolution from flop TV show into pop culture juggernaut.

“And Then There Was One” is a late fifth-season Ironside that starts out with a topical premise: an interracially-owned business is bombed and the chief suspects are a black separatist group (represented on-screen in a typically smart, restrained performance by Percy Rodrigues).  The script, by Fred Freiberger, is better than average for the series at this point in its long run.  But this being Ironside, and 1972, the political hot potato is quickly dropped.  The episode makes a regrettable turn into the most overused seventies TV cliche of all: yes, the old who’s-killing-all-the-surviving-members-of-the-squad-from-Vietnam (or Korea or World War II) mystery.  We last see Rodrigues in a throwaway scene, a phone call in which his revolutionary leader character and Chief Ironside agree that they may have some common ground.  It’s corny – in terms of nuance and commitment, Ironside’s politics were just this side of The Mod Squad – but you can read it as a sort of wistful, fourth-wall breaking acknowledgment that the show’s makers couldn’t tell the story they really wanted to.

Ironside1

Once Ironside’s team start investigating the Vietnam vets, they interrogate one who seems like a promising suspect because he had been heard threatening to frag their CO back in country.  The GI, Gregg Hewitt (a typically Southern-fried Bo Hopkins), laughs off their questions, claiming he hated the officer but his threat was just talk.  The dialogue in this scene is subtler than you’d expect for Ironside.  Hewitt suggests some alternative theories of the crime, both racially motivated: maybe it was a Vietnamese refugee out for revenge, or perhaps the white business owner murdered his partner.  “I never did believe in that buddy-buddy stuff between oil and water,” he says.  Noticing Ironside’s African American aide Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) glaring at him, Hewitt taunts him: “You don’t like my theories?”

“No more than I like rat poison,” Mark Sanger snarls.

Hewitt’s reply to that is so fanciful that it’s almost a non sequitir.  “It’s diversity in its infinite variety that makes life interesting in this, uh, star system,” he says.  “I’m not sure what that means, but I heard it on a science fiction program.”

Ironside2

“Diversity in its infinite variety”: That’s a pretty close paraphrase of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” the philosophy that Star Trek attributed to Mr. Spock’s people, the Vulcans, a race of aliens who were portrayed as more enlightened and cerebral than us humans.  Although it’s been incorporated into various iterations of Trek over the years – it’s a useful distillation of the sixties hippie philosophy that fueled the show’s initial underground appeal – the concept was first introduced in the third-season episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”  And of course Freiberger, the writer of the Ironside segment, had been the producer of Star Trek during the third season, so what might otherwise be seen as a throwaway reference to a recently cancelled show has to be understood as a meaningful in-joke.

Although the IDIC slogan was compatible with Star Trek’s liberal ethos, it was controversial behind the scenes because of the context in which it was first used.  Gene Roddenberry, having for the most part checked out creatively during the third season, shoehorned the IDIC concept rather shamelessly into the script of “Is There in Truth” in order to hawk some cheap medallions through the Trek merchandising company he had created as a side business.  William Shatner and especially Leonard Nimoy objected to the product placement strongly enough to shut down production for a confrontation with Roddenberry, who did a rewrite (although the IDIC medal stayed in the episode).  Freiberger himself managed to stay out of the IDIC flare-up; overseeing a lame-duck show on a drastically reduced budget, he had bigger problems to solve.

spock-idic

Years later, Fred Freiberger compared producing Star Trek unfavorably to the time in World War II when he “parachuted out of a burning B-17 over Germany to land in the midst of eighty million Nazis.”  Part of his resentment was because, as the Star Trek cult blossomed, fans lionized Roddenberry and thought of Freiberger, if at all, as the man who killed the show.  Yet there’s ample evidence to suggest that Freiberger’s year on Star Trek was a miserable experience in and of itself, even before fandom weighed in.  Inside Star Trek, by Herbert Solow and Robert H. Justman (respectively a studio executive and an associate producer on the original Star Trek), catalogs various indignities to which Freiberger was subjected as a consequence of Roddenberry’s indifference and the stars’ egos.  At one point Shatner and Nimoy, competing for prominence on screen, asked Freiberger for a ruling on who was the star of the series.  Freiberger deferred to Roddenberry, who equivocated before finally naming Shatner and making a quick exit, leaving Freiberger holding the bag with a furious Nimoy.

In the Ironside episode, the context in which Freiberger nods to Star Trek couldn’t be any less flattering.  He drops Roddenberry’s idealistic “infinite diversity” slogan into the mouth of a sly bigot who invokes it, mockingly, in a rejection of racial harmony.  Was Freiberger just winking innocently at an old job, or was he deliberately referencing an incident that recalled Roddenberry at his most cynical and unprofessional as a belated fuck-you?

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6 Responses to “Freiberger’s Last Word”

  1. Susan Clark Says:

    Appreciate you highlighting an episode of Ironside. That series doesn’t sometime get the respect it deserves, since the 50th anniversary of the series is this year. September 14th, 2017 is the date of the first episode.

  2. Ray Palm Says:

    I stumbled upon this blog and have enjoyed your writing. My only “complaint” is that you don’t write that often.

    I never associated Fred Freiberger with quality after his involvement with Star Trek and Space:1999. Now I see that he was brought in with each show to fix major problems.. I came across this regarding Space: 1999 – http://catacombs.space1999.net/press/starlog/wrefpff.html

    So it looks like he was due credit more so than blame.

  3. Brian Says:

    I remember Fred Freiberger best as executive story editor on
    “Slattery’s People” and “The Senator”. Both shows were extremely well written.

  4. Brian Says:

    Freiberger was also executive story editor on the lawyer show “Kaz”, which also had good writing.

  5. elliotjames2 Says:

    With all due respect to Fred Freiberger, and understanding the problems with bloated egos and a disinterested creator, a hostile network and budget cuts, the last year of Star Trek had the worst scripts, dialogue and plots, a pale shadow of the first season. There was one breakthrough moment, the kiss between Shatner and Nichols which was not Roddenberry’s idea. A producer with unlimited funds, the best actors and the best technical team, using the same scripts, would still create bad episodes. I didn’t see all of the episodes of Space:1999 because of spotty syndication back then and I don’t want to buy the DVDs just to see them.


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