The Tholian Web

Filmed August 1968

With a nod to Margo Channing of ALL ABOUT EVE:
Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy flight.

The day after I finished filming IS THERE IN TRUTH NO BEAUTY?, I reported to the studio to start prep on THE THOLIAN WEB. I remember very little about this prep period. There were no guest stars, so there were no casting meetings. The entire show would be filmed on the Enterprise sets, so there were no meetings with the art director. The script called for scenes to be filmed on another starship, the Defiant, but since that starship was the same as the Enterprise, there was no need to build additional sets; the already standing Enterprise sets would do double duty. The biggest change facing me was the loss of Jerry Finnerman. He had departed the series, and his camera operator, Al Francis, had been promoted to director of photography. Sometime during the week of prep, one of my agents called to tell me there was an offer from Gene Coon to direct an episode of a new series he was producing, IT TAKES A THIEF starring Robert Wagner. We had to turn it down. There was a direct conflict; it would require me to report before I had finished filming my current STAR TREK.

If I don’t remember much about the prep week, the same cannot be said about the filming week, which began on Monday, August 5th. When I reported at 7:30 that Monday morning, the set (the bridge of the Defiant) was ready, the crew was assembled, I was prepared. But there were no actors. The four of them were in wardrobe, having their final fittings for their silver space-suits. I was told they had been at the studio the day before (Sunday) for their FIRST fittings. As of the end of the day on Friday, since construction of the wardrobe for the first sequence Monday morning had not even begun, a change in the schedule should have been made; but nothing had been done by the production department to adjust for this predicament. My friend, Max Hodge, who was on a writing assignment for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, was at the studio and dropped by my set. Since there was nothing I could do until wardrobe was completed, the two of us went to the set next door to visit the current MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE in production, which was guest starring my friend (from ROUTE 66), Ruth Roman.

Finally Bill Shatner’s suit was completed, so I filmed some isolated closeups of Captain Kirk. There weren’t many, and it meant filming the closeups before we had staged and rehearsed the scenes in which they occurred. Just before noon the other three skin-tight silver space-suits were ready, and we could begin.

(Click on the square to the right of the numbers for FULL SCREEN VIEWING)

The normal method of filming is to schedule by the sets. When you were in a set, all of the scenes in that set would be completed before moving to another set. Since those moves took time, every effort was made to keep such moves to a minimum. But in the case of this production, the space-suits became the determining factor.  We had to film every set on the Defiant in which any of the silver-suited men appeared, which meant we were filming in the Bridge, Engineering, Medical lab and Sick bay. Later we would have to return to each set when it was the Enterprise to film the sequences that occurred there.

There was an additional wrinkle in the day’s work. Well actually it was caused by not wanting any wrinkles. The costumes were skin-tight with no zippers; they would have shown. They had no buttons or snaps. The guys were SEWN into the space-suits. That meant when any of them needed to make a visit to the restroom, they had to be unsewn; when they were ready to return to the set, they had to be resewn into the suits. Zippers are faster!

I don’t feel it is disparaging to point out that Jerry Finnerman was sorely missed. His were very large shoes to fill, both as to his artistic ability and his speed. Al Francis, very new to the post of director of photography and faced with a very difficult show with unexpected complications — well let me put it kindly and just say — his feet were smaller.

With the loss of the half day caused by the wardrobe situation, I did not complete the first day’s schedule.

Because the four silver space-suited men had scenes in the Enterprise Transporter Room, scenes in that set also were placed early in the schedule. For their return it had been established in the script that Scotty, because of diminished power, could only beam back three men at a time.

As was the usual practice, scenes in the Enterprise bridge were filmed at the end of the schedule, so my next commitments were to return to the other sets I had filmed on the Defiant (Sick bay, Medical lab, Engineering) only now they would be sets on the Enterprise. But first there was a long dialogue scene in Kirk’s quarters between Spock and McCoy .

That was a nice long dialogue sequence. With two very accomplished actors in a small set that meant a long page count, a limited number of setups and a reasonably short time required to film it. But not all of the scenes were just actors talking.

Shorter page count but more setups because of the action. The wider angle of the conflict was two stuntmen. There was one other simpler scene in the lab between McCoy and Nurse Chapel. Then a move to Engineering, a much larger set to light.

Again shorter page count but more setups for the action.

Since Kirk was an apparition at this time, I only filmed Scotty’s point of view angle in Engineering where he appeared.  Kirk’s image was filmed later and superimposed on what I had filmed.

There were other short, what I called bread-and-butter-scenes in Engineering, mostly angles of Scotty talking to the bridge. Then a move to Sick bay.

That scene which was less than a page long required six setups.

There was one other scene between McCoy and Uhura in Sick bay.

By the end of the third day I had completed all of the Defiant sequences in the transporter room, sick bay, the medical lab, engineering and all but one of the skin-tight silver suited sequences on the bridge. What was scheduled for those first three days that had not been completed were four scenes on the Enterprise bridge — a total of 7 1/8 pages. I was asked to come to Fred Freiberger’s office at the completion of the day’s shooting. There he informed me I was being removed from the project. I was being replaced by what he called a “fireman”, someone who could come in and just get it in the can. The matter of the loss of time on the first day, which I figured would have given me an additional five pages completed, was not discussed. I had spent the past six weeks on STAR TREK, prepping and shooting IS THERE IN TRUTH NO BEAUTY and THE THOLIAN WEB. I know I must have had some meeting with Freiberger before this, but this is the only interaction with him I remember.

The following day, Thursday, Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter, the Hollywood trade papers, each carried a news story issued by Douglas Kramer’s office (Kramer was the head of television production for Paramount Studios) detailing my being removed as director of THE THOLIAN WEB on STAR TREK. The article pointed out the studio’s intent to curtail the problem of films not being completed as scheduled. Gene Roddenberry telephoned me. He was outraged, apologetic and sympathetic.

Right after all this occurred I was summoned to Joe Youngerman’s office. Youngerman was the head of the Directors Guild of America. The Guild was very protective of its members, and Joe wanted to hear my side of the story. It was at that time that I stated I did not want screen credit. For me it was simply going to become a nonoccurrence. And that’s the way it was for many years. But studio records, investigative journalists and finally the internet have managed to reconnect me to THE THOLIAN WEB. In fact in their book, THE AMERICAN VEIN, Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi spend more time in their section on me, talking about my direction of THE THOLIAN WEB than on any other film I directed.

Why, forty-two years later am I writing about this? Am I looking for some kind of vindication? I have no need to. Because now I can also see that this incident was a part of a larger movement. When I first started directing television film in 1961, the scripts I was given were very challenging. On DR. KILDARE, ROUTE 66, NAKED CITY, BREAKING POINT, TWILIGHT ZONE, THE FUGITIVE and TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, the scripts I directed were a challenge, daring me to deliver a final product as good as the producers demanded. But gradually in the mid-sixties, things changed. I found the scripts were getting weaker, and I had to work harder to make up for the deficiencies in order to continue to satisfy the producers’ expectations. Until finally television had become such a lucrative business, the demands on the director were more about speed than quality, and I found myself in a position of wanting to do better than what was requested. Oh, there were still “pockets” where the old times prevailed — STAR TREK in its first season and a third; THE WALTONS in the seventies. And there were others, but strictly in the minority. You know, as a kid I never wanted to be a fireman; at the age of eighteen, I knew I wanted to be a director.

It seemed in the aftermath of what had just occurred that a meeting must have been called of all the producers in Hollywood. Don’t hire Senensky! I was suddenly, totally unemployable. This went on for a very long time. But the Phoenix does usually manage to rise again.

But before it does, I want to go back to the first reel of this journey in film.

The journey continues…but from the beginning

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12 Responses to The Tholian Web

  1. CECE says:

    RALPH, IM IMPRESSED THAT YOU KNEW WHAT YOU WANTED TO DO AT AGE 18!!!.SEWN INTO THEIR SPACE SUITS! OMG I WOULD NOT HAVE HAD THE PATIENCE FOR THAT…….SHAME ON FRED……WHAT A MEANIE!!! I AM ENJOYING YOUR STORIES RALPH, THANK YOU!

  2. Jonathan Dixon says:

    Well, this is very timely because, just coincidentally, I watched this episode last night. What a sad commentary on what STAR TREK (and television) was becoming by that point. Still, the episode holds up, and I can’t help but think that is because of your work and dedication, Ralph.

    Last night I read some fan comments about the episode from 2007, and one person noted it is odd how the characters interact in this episode … how Spock and Kirk never seem to be making eye contact! I wonder if that was because of the odd way you had to film their interactions, described here … in bits and pieces and before rehearsals and staging.

  3. Kathy Tasich says:

    In my humble opinion, you should not have been fired. It appears other people were being replaced, and you were next on the list. I think Fred was just looking for an excuse. The quality of many TV shows goes downhill after a few seasons because of too much tampering by executives who want to cut corners. It’s great you did not get bitter, and just went on to bigger and better shows. Your other works stands on its creative merits, and that’s what counts the most.

  4. Josh Lee says:

    I’m a life-long fan of Trek. Just discovered this site tonight. I’ll be sure to return and go through it in more detail. Sorry for all you went through on this because of the suits – both the space variety and the Paramount kind! – but I just wanted to tell you, out of all the Trek shows and films, Tholian Web has always been my favorite bar none. Maybe you don’t want to hear that…but it’s true. I’ll be back for more. Take care.

    • Ralph says:

      I must respond to your statement, “Maybe you don’t want to hear that…” I very much like hearing how you feel. As always it is gratifying to know that my efforts are appreciated. My asking that I receive no director’s credit on the show was solely to disassociate myself from the experience, not the film. There are a few films I would prefer not to be associated with; THE THOLIAN WEB is not one of them.

  5. Ben Johnson says:

    Mr. Senesky, I’ve read lots of “behind the scenes” stories and this is the first time I’ve seen yours! (Thanks to Trektoday.com)

    I’ve got to say that from your stories and the stories of others, it’s astounding that anything of quality was created for Star Trek over it’s 3 original seasons.

    With that said, I’ve got to tell you that “The Tholian Web” has always been one of my very favorite Trek episodes. It had just the right level of tension and spookiness for a kid like me!

    I’m glad to know that you had such a strong hand in it’s creation and that after all these years we can now give you your due by thanking you for your fight for quality television!

    Thank You Sir!

  6. Josh Lee says:

    Ralph,
    Thanks for the clarification. I am glad you’re glad to have positive feedback on a personally difficult but creatively rewarding episode. I always thought Trek tried hard to be a little different thematically. And I know from reading Bob Justman’s and Herb Solow’s book (among others) just how creative you all had to be with no budget and enormous time pressures. Without the original series…well, the quality speaks for itself and holds up almost 50 years later. Thanks again.

  7. Christopher Brent says:

    Dear Mr. Senesky

    I second Kathy’s statement. Fred Freiberger was definitely a ‘series-killer’. His work in Space;1999 and The Six Million Dollar Man are proof positive of that.

    If it means anything, I thought The Tholian Web was an excellent episode. Definitely one of the best episodes of the original series. It had plenty of suspense, tension, and emotion. Especially during the bridge scene where Chekov snapped.

    Shame on Fred Freiberger for his interference for mishandling Star Trek’s third season. He should have known better.

  8. Josh Lee says:

    Ok, Mr. Senensky, I have a little bit to say and then I’ll (try to) be still about Star Trek. Return to Tomorrow isn’t represented here and if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. BUT I think there’s a lot to recommend it. Bill, Leonard and De all have good stuff in it, as does Diana. De’s scene with Diana (“I will not peddle flesh!”) gets to the heart of McCoy. Leonard is delightful as Henoch. You really want to boo and hiss him, he’s so good at being bad. And Bill is not only amazing when he gets “possessed” by Sargon but this episode has that great “Risk is our business!” speech that speaks to the entire show and the good that was happening in the 60s. Plus, the great blooper when Bill – I don’t know if he forgot his line for a second or was just being Bill – said in character, “Have no fear…” and then giggles “…Sargon is here.” Trek could be cheesy and if you think about it, there are holes but I have a tendency to forgive. This was my family growing up and I know I’m not alone there. I already talked about The Tholian Web (except I forgot to mention the scene with Kirk’s last orders was perhaps my favorite scene of the whole series) so, once again, thanks for all of your episodes. I am really excited to continue through the rest of your journey. This is a great resource. I may even start writing again. Take care.

  9. Phil says:

    Ralph, I noticed you have new software for your blog today. However, you’ll have to iron out a bug here and there. The fifth video is not available to click, which is a real shame since it has Kirk’s ‘Last Orders’, one of the great Shatner monologues in this series. Yes, I give this episode a big thumbs-up, like most folks.

    Your Youtube interview says the silver space suits had no zippers because someone was concerned that they would be visible. This is beyond insane…the typical TV set in 1968 was a piece of junk. Who looks at zippers? You’d be too busy adjusting the set to minimize ghosts and keep the horizontal and vertical in place. But, if you’re still concerned, just place one of those colorful tubes over the zipper seam to hide it. Somebody was not thinking clearly in the pre-planning. BTW, the Christie’s auction house sold Dr. McCoy’s space suit in 2006 for $144,000.

    I know nothing about your replacement beyond what I can read in IMDB. I do know he directed “The Night of the Diva”, one of the best episodes of ‘The Wild Wild West’ during that series’ troubled 4th season. The front office shouldn’t be calling this man a “fireman”.

  10. mel mcmurtrey says:

    Found your page while reading comments about TOS on imdb.
    I’m in my 50’s so I’ve been a fan since it first aired. Loved your comments on what went into a weekly show as complex at the time as star trek. There were really very few episodes that I did not like, those I did not I found I appreciated them more as an adult. Several of them were yours. I remember my dad making comments about the show when it first aired only to see him watch them intently years later . Coincidentally the Waltons was one of his favorite shows he grew up on a farm in the same era. I was never one to really follow directors or writers of shows but when I do read about them it always puts a new light onto how or why a show goes the way it does. Again thanks for you remembering us the fans.

    ps ; no reply is necessary just wanted to saw thanks

    • Ralph says:

      I’ve had thanks sent to me before, but never before have I had “sawed” thanks. Admire the fact you keep your saw sharp.

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