Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

The Star Trek Experience: Stanley Jaffe was right

Jerry Stratton, April 9, 2012

Restored Neon Signs Fremont Street Las Vegas

The old neon signs at Fremont Street are the best reason to go. (Photography: Pete Angritt; Signs originally built by Young Electric Sign Co. (YESCO), CC-BY-SA 3.0)

There’s a great story making the rounds about what could have been an amazing attraction in Las Vegas. The basic story is that, in 1992, Vegas was looking for a plan to revitalize the Vegas downtown area so that it could compete with the Vegas strip. Two plans floated to the top: one of them an innovative, epic experience, the other a sort of mini-strip leveraging what was already working on the real strip.

Everyone loved the innovative, epic experience and it was the sure-fire winner… until a far-away bureaucrat whose permission was necessary to move forward said “no”. So everyone settled for the more boring, time-tested project instead.

The two projects were a life-sized Starship Enterprise from Star Trek vs. the Fremont Street Experience. The far-away bureaucrat was Stanley Jaffe. Asked to approve the licensing on the Paramount end for the Star Trek franchise, Jaffe said something like:

“You know, this is a major project. You’re going to put a full-scale ENTERPRISE up in the heart of Las Vegas. And on one hand that sounds exciting. But on another hand, it might not be a great idea for us—for Paramount.”

Everyone in the room was stunned, most of all, me, because I could see where this was going.

“In the movie business, when we produce a big movie and it’s a flop—we take some bad press for a few weeks or a few months, but then it goes away. The next movie comes out and everyone forgets. But THIS—this is different. If this doesn’t work—if this is not a success—it’s there, forever…”

I remember thinking to myself “oh my god, this guy does NOT get it…”

And he said “I don’t want to be the guy that approved this and then it’s a flop and sitting out there in Vegas forever.”

Gary Goddard tells the story from the side of the designer of the Enterprise project.1

This really shouldn’t have been a surprise, however. The kind of person who would approve a life-sized Starship Enterprise license is not the kind of person who would do well in studio administration. Studios are well-known for extreme caution. Even in 1992, movie studios had to navigate a thicket of confusing regulations and vague laws. In the case of movies, one source of vague and confusing law is copyright.

What if, halfway through the building, there was a huge fight over the rights to Star Trek from, say, Majel Roddenberry’s heirs? A fight over inheritance of rights is not exactly an unknown occurrence in Hollywood, but it could have put the entire project in jeopardy.

And in 1992 the EPA was well-known for canceling at least one high-profile project2. What kind of new concerns would EPA bureaucrats have over this unique project?

And with any innovative project, there are unexpected regulatory hurdles. Were the city and the private backers going to stick with the project if it ran over deadline and over budget due to unforeseen obstacles?3

These are the kinds of things that jump out to successful bureaucrats in a government-entangled industry. The kind of executive successful in such an industry is not one that takes chances on cool, innovative projects. Jaffe may very well have been right to say no.

In response to Zeno’s motorcar: Automobiles are awesome machines. But sometimes it seems as though they’re stuck twenty years in the past.

  1. And I’m not convinced that it went down the way he thinks it did. I’ve seen this sort of story before: enthusiastic presenter, functionaries who don’t want to make a decision one way or the other end up leading them on, and eventually someone in charge is brought in to say “no”. The functionaries apologize and follow the decision-maker out of the room; the presenters are left to pick up the pieces, wondering where they went wrong.

  2. It may even have been an unexpected cancellation. In 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency canceled Colorado’s very ambitious Two Forks Dam project. A 1988 article in the Los Angeles Times, running through a list of hurdles, mentions two federal agencies whose permission was needed— the U.S. Forest Service and the Corps of Engineers—but no mention of the EPA.

    The cancellation echoes today’s debate over domestic oil production, where we keep hearing that there’s no point to increasing oil production today because it will take ten years to have any effect, and now that it’s ten years later and the projects have all been vetoed, well, there’s no point because it will still take ten years to have any effect, since the projects were never started.

    After the EPA cancellation,

    Monte Pascoe, a Denver Water Board commissioner, told The Post the decision was “unbelievably shortsighted.”

    “You’re saying squeeze more out of the existing system and get right up to a drought before you recognize the problem.”

    Denver was in fact squeezed by an extended drought about a decade later and may be going through one now.

  3. Jaffe could, for example, have asked them how the various Moulin Rouge revitalization projects were coming.