The Props of TOS
Posted by TrekCoreNews, 25 December 2009 · 273,240 views
Published: August 20, 2011IntroductionIf you're reading this, you're likely one of them too – a Trek fan bitten by that special hard-core bug. Some enjoy donning the occasional Star Fleet uniform, or building meticulous scale models of the ships. Others have learned to speak Klingon. And still for more, the spirit of Star Trek is best embodied by the fun gadgets wielded by the characters. In particular, the immense, portable power first seen in the The Original Series "Landing Set" trio of the communicator, phaser, and tricorder seized many a young imagination. Years later, this passion for these objects has fueled a keen desire by many to build or buy replicas of their favorites props, or for a lucky few, even to own the actual originals used on the set from 1966 to 1969.
Given the high energies - and high stakes - involved, debate has raged for decades within the hobby over the exact details of these props. What exactly did they look like? How were they made? And, what happened to them after the show ended? Mysteries endured, and, yes, even forgeries flourished in the uncertainty. Fortunately, due to three factors: the pooling of data made possible by the Internet, the new availability of DVD and HD screen caps (thanks TrekCore), and the detailed study of a few tucked-away surviving authentic props, the veil shrouding these items has, in some places, lifted.We hope to eventually cover here, for the TrekCore audience, all three items from the classic Landing Set; examining them not as 23rd Century devices but as iconic artifacts from a 1960s TV production. Let's start with possibly the most beloved, and certainly the best studied, of the bunch: the flip-open communicator.PART 1: THE COMMUNICATOR
In the spring of 1966, Gene Rodenberry asked Wah Ming Chang (left), a 49 year-old gifted independent special effects artist, to make some props for his new TV series that had been given the green light after an unprecedented two pilots. Wah had previously provided some of the creature effects for the first pilot and was the ideal artist to improve upon the initial large clunky transparent communicators that were used early on. This new prop was a unique and durable assemblage of plastic, metal and assorted odds and ends that presaged the flip cell phone by nearly three decades. He slapped them together quickly, perhaps in only a few days, as his invoice was dated around the first day they were needed on the set (in the beam-over scene at the end of the The Corbomite Maneuver). A few elements were off-the-shelf "found" components, but the majority of the communicator; the shell, antenna and moiré ring, was completely hand-crafted from scratch.
According to the records Wah himself kept, he was paid for providing to Desilu a total of ten new black-bodied communicators; two "heroes" with a stop watch-driven spinning effect intended for close-ups, and eight static "dummies" for normal work-a-day filming and rugged action. It should be noted that the terms "hero" and "dummy" props are standard in film making.
A brief explanation of the basic parts:
- Kydex Shells – at the time a new plastic, it is semi-gloss black with a light pitted "haircell" texture.
- Aluminum Midplate – 1/16 sheet aluminum.
- Control Panel – a very thin aluminum, some actually cut a bit too long to sit flat on the shell.
- Control Knobs – Aurora "Vibrator" and "Thunderjet" slot car wheel hubs.
- Mic Grill – a piece of the speaker grill from a Coronet-Windsor transistor radio.
- Jewels – Swarovski rhinestones atop the same Aurora slot car wheel hubs, but inverted.
- Moiré Pattern – cut from the Edmund Scientific "The Science of Moiré Patterns" book and kit.
- Bezel Ring – a short, machined length of 1-1/4" aluminum pipe.
- Velcro – also at the time a relatively new material, glued on the back.
A fun fact – some of you old-time grade schoolers might vaguely recognize the general shape of the communicator body… Wah sliced up and reassembled the corners of a "Sterling" Pencil Box, a common lunchbox accessory in the 1960s. He then cast the downsized rough assembly in plaster, which could endure the heat from the Kydex sheets being vacuformed over it. This all was verified recently by members of the TrekPropZone forum. Here is such a pencil box, still intact:
For the two heroes, Wah installed a mechanical stopwatch to slowly rotate a pattern of radiating lines beneath another similar layer, creating a moving "spider" moiré (pronounced "Mwah-RAY") effect of expanding and shrinking arcs. To rewind the watch without taking off the prop's back shell every time, he had a brass shaft protrude through the shell just a bit that could be turned with a screwdriver. Because the axis of the stopwatch and the shaft are at different angles, a rubber hose, acting like a universal joint, cleverly connected the two.
The show's property master Irving Feinberg seems to have grabbed from his box just enough props for that single day's shooting. That normally meant just one communicator got used again and again by all the actors in numerous scenes. Thus episodes commonly feature only one or two models, which rotate around from episode to episode at random. Who on Earth would ever notice, right?Fortunately for us, Wah made each of his comminicators completely unique, as if trying to imbue them with individual personalities. They all had a different moiré pattern, different jewels, then beyond that, varying bits of solder on the antenna, Velcro lengths, knob placement and dozens of other little "tells." Four decades later, those differences came in handy when trying to indentify and differentiate them.Throughout the years, a few of the better-known models acquired from hobbyists nicknames, such as the "Spock Hero," the "TMOST," the "Dwyer," etc. But knowing there were a full ten that needed IDs, we at the HeroComm research project opted to standardize on a Greek alphabet nomenclature. So, here they are:
1969 to TodayOnce the show was cancelled in early 1969, the props and set dressings were stored, according to Herb Solow's and Bob Justman's book "Inside Star Trek - The Real Story," in a studio shed (likely out in the sweltering California sun), which at some point was broken into and left open to be further scavenged. Regardless, some of the props eventually ended up with show staff Jim Rugg and John Dwyer, a few were kept and later given away by Gene Roddenberry, a bunch made it to the shelves of Hollywood prop rental shop Ellis Mercantile, and still others in their boxes were used as door stops, played with by children, destroyed, and tossed. Only in the late 1990s, as the generation who grew up on the show finally ascended into affluence, did these items begin to acquire exceptional monetary value as the rarest-of-rare collectables.At this current time, we publically know the whereabouts of four Wah comminicators. They have overall endured the decades extremely well, with only some oxidative yellowing of the glues and the Kydex showing a few spots of oh-so-slight deformation, probably from their being stored in that hot studio shed. Well-known prop builder Greg Jein owns EPSILON and ZETA. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen purchased DELTA in a 2001 Profiles in History auction for $37,500. That one, now at the SciFi Museum in Seattle, is the only one currently viewable to the public. Lastly, the most famous of the ten, the ALPHA hero, came to our attention as the private owner was hoping someone could tell him if it was genuine. Exhaustive research by our group has since unequivocally proven it is. A fifth was reported lost long ago by John Dwyer's then-young son. This leaves five more communicators still unaccounted for. We have high hopes these survive, well-preserved by their protective owners. Our investigation and outreach continues.Details of All Ten Communicator PropsBelow is a brief summary on each one, highlighting their moiré pattern and jewel colors, as well as showing off a few of their best angles...
Current Status: Private collection, anonymous owner.The most salivated-over and replicated comm, due to its gorgeous star turns in "Friday's Child" and "Patterns of Force," it was rediscovered in 2006 and has since been fully documented inside and out, wonderfully allowing us to precisely know Wah's ingenious technique for spinning that moiré pattern.
Current Status: Unknown.Familiar mostly through its only close-up in "Day of the Dove," this lesser-known of the two heroes differs more from its famous sister than most people realize – with a modified "spider" moiré configuration mounted lower in the control well and an antenna that opens only around 45 degrees past vertical (less than any other comm).
Current Status: Unknown.Famous from its picture in Stephen Whitfield's book "The Making of Star Trek," this prop was used aplenty, in episodes and publicity stills. It is unique in that the antenna is long enough to close down outside of the control well instead of inside it. The red center jewel was glued on crooked.
Current Status: Collection of Paul Allen, viewable at the Seattle Sci Fi Museum.This comm was also used all over the place. When it fell to the ground in "This Side of Paradise," its antenna bounced open from a rubber band wrapped around the wire near the hinge wheels. It is easy to ID in screen caps from its thick moiré bezel ring and its empty screw holes on the bottom.
Current Status: Private collection of Greg Jein.Control knobs placed far apart and a large tarnish blotch on the antenna makes this often-used comm easy to find in screen caps. It had those traits removed during a refurbishment by the now-current owner. It is the only one of the four surviving comm whose antenna still flips open with ease as we're used to seeing on the show.
Current Status: Private collection of Greg Jein.Its antenna hinge is impinged on the axle, which may be why we only see this comm twice in three years; disassembled in "Patterns of Force" and sitting motionless on a table in "Spock's Brain." The current owner took it apart again, which has allowed for the wonderful, detailed examination of all the individual parts.
Current Status: Unknown.This seemingly fine prop got almost no camera time - so no good inside close-ups exist. What we do know is its antenna has flattened sides and some distinct mild tarnish blotches. Inside, the moiré pattern might be a logarithmic spiral in a bezel ring mounted very low in the well. The outer jewel colors are pretty much a total guess.
Current Status: Unknown.While it is the only comm without a red center jewel, most of the inside features are not well known for lack of advantageous close-ups. It has the boxy-ist bends on the antenna's four sides and a very low-positioned moiré ring. Screen caps hint at a possible two-layer moiré pattern, marred by a generous smear of excess glue.
Current Status: Unknown.Seen often early in the series, it seemed to have later been relegated to the bottom of the box. It is the only one of three comms whose antenna, which got badly kinked in the middle right off, swings all the way to the back that also had no screws. This combined with an off-angled cut along its Velcro's rear edge are the ways to ID it from just about any angle.
Current Status: Unknown.This comm got the best close-up of any dummy, in "The Omega Glory." It was seen lots throughout, eventually also getting its antenna kinked inward in the center. It has the easiest-to-spot-from-a-distance moiré pattern, plus a very large antenna solder mark and Velcro glue stains. The center jewel is a ruby cabochon from a wrist watch crown, like those Wah later used on his two tricorders.PostscriptAs was hinted earlier, a good number of forgeries also were disseminated during the 1980s and 90, back when nobody really knew what an authentic comm prop was suppose to look like. The most prominent name in this illicit business was Mark (or Marc) English, known (both he and his forgeries) as ME. As best as anyone can tell, he acted as a distributor for several "craftsmen." So deep is the permeation of MEs that some have been illustrated in "real" prop books and websites, shown in Smithsonian exhibits, and even sold through prominent auction houses. Fortunately, all MEs and other fakes carry distinct features that allow them to be instantly identified. They no longer pose a serious threat to the integrity of the prop-collecting field. In addition, the exact type of Kydex plastic, Velcro, glues and perforated brass used by Wah are all decades out of production - with remaining stocks long depleted - making it absolutely impossible to now create a replica communicator good enough to fool a well-trained expert.Lastly, on an introspective note… much of what we all do in studying props is interpret evidence, and not everyone agrees with all of HeroComm's interpretations. One well-known prop builder curiously believes the rediscovered ALPHA is a fake, although he has never bothered to say why, yet alone try to rebut our conclusive finding. And a collector prominent on the web is quite convinced his obvious ME forgery is the actual KAPPA. Still, in fairness, the HeroComm project does not formally authenticate vintage props. Typically the only time that happens is when they're up for high-profile auction, and there are now well-established industry protocols in place for that. The last time an actual TOS communicator was sold that way was ten years ago. Thus we here remain open to the updating of any of our information should the data indicate so.About the Authorswww.HeroComm.com is a free and open library of all knowledge that can be gathered on The Original Series Star Trek classic communicator prop. Our primary goals are to 1) honor its creator Wah Ming Chang by assisting hobbyists in building faithfully accurate replica props (recognizing that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery), and 2) to aid in locating, authenticating, and preserving those actual communicators he built. Our associates and collaborators have gathered as a non-competitive, anonymous partnership to advance these common goals for the benefit of everyone. If you think you may have something to contribute, we would heartily welcome your assistance. We can be reached through our website.