The Basics - Part 3
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Eta Theta Iota Kappa Gamma Beta Alpha Delta Epsilon Zeta

Creating a Communicator (continued)... The Hero Treatment

This category is last because it pertains to only two:  Alpha and Beta.  For close-up shots, it's usual for a production to have some props made with extra-fine detail.  In a sci fi show today, that might mean blinking LEDs or a servo-driven whirly-gig.  However, back in 1966, things were a bit more primitive.  In those two comms, Wah created motion in the moiré field by rotating an Edmumd Scientific #4 pattern beneath a transparent #4 stationary above it.  He accomplished this rotation via the only way available to him then - a stopwatch.

And with the wonderful discovery of Alpha, we now know exactly how Wah made it all work.

Star Trek TOS original "Alpha" hero communicator prop stopwatch -

Hero Parts

Simply, the second-hand axle of a 1-15/16" diameter 30-second stopwatch (front crystal and back cover plate removed) was fastened to a radial moiré pattern printed on cardstock.  To control the watch, a 7/32" diameter brass tube was attached to the start-stop-rewind knob via a length of rubber hose.  That brass tube extended beyond the bottom shell through a hole cut in its front edge just under the midplate.  The tube needed to be long enough to let a fingertip push it in to start (pulling out is not needed, since a second push stops and the third push [needlessly] resets it).  Since there is, however, not enough exposed shaft to grab and rewind, the tube also functioned as a guide for an inserted flat-head screwdriver to catch a tiny brass peg soldered inside the tube at the front opening.  The entire stopwatch/rod assembly was then hot-glued into place to the upper shell.

Myth:  Both heroes used 30-second stopwatches.  Truth:  Yes, they did.  Of course the one in Alpha has been confirmed visually, but what about in Beta, especially when the only clip of its motion ("The Day of the Dove") is so very short? The most assured way is through knowing a 30-second mechanical stopwatch moves (ratchets) 10 times per second, whereas a 60-second stopwatch ratchets at 5 per second.  Since a DVD displays 24 frames per second, the moiré pattern would move or change every 2 to 3 frames if driven by a 30-second, but only every 5 DVD frames if driven by a 60-second.  In both heroes, we clearly observe in screencaps the pattern change every 2 to 3 frames, indicating with absolute certainty a 30-second stopwatch.

How the top and bottom moiré layers got cut and installed makes a big difference in how they appeared in operation.  First, the farther apart the patterns' centers are, the more and thinner will be the "spider" arcs, plus they'll grow/shrink at a slower pace.  The closer the centers, the fewer, wider and faster the arcs whip around.  Also when the bottom spinning layer is off-center against a top transparent layer that is centered, the "spider" arcs grow and shrink plus the whole pattern rotates in tandem with the stopwatch.  This is what we see in Alpha.  If, however, those two things are swapped - where the bottom layer is centered and it's the top that is off-center - the arcs will grow and shrink but the whole pattern pretty much stays in the same orientation.  This is closer to how Beta was built. 

    0 Seconds 7.5 Seconds 15 Seconds 22.5 Seconds  

Myth:  The heroes had lights under the jewels.  Truth:  Though not a common misconception, it has been raised before.  No, none of the comms had any lights inside.  A battery and switch would have been impossible to fit in the heroes with the space requirements of the stopwatch, and also render dismal results given the brightness of an old-fashion wheat grain bulb vs. studio lights.  Any flash of light or color seen from a jewel is just that - a momentary reflection or refraction from a mirror-backed rhinestone facet.  Curiously, though, there is evidence to suggest Wah considered lighting the middle red jewel in Zeta, given some of the odd features there, but he did not carry that through.

All told, we see an open hero up close exactly seven times, and in only three is the moving moiré pattern visible. They are shown here in their order of filming:

Dagger of the Mind Friday's Child Patterns of Force Omega Glory Elaan of Troyius For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky Day of the Dove
(1-Dagger of the Mind, 2-Friday's Child, 3-Patterns of Force, 4-The Omega Glory, 5-Elaan of Troyius, 6-For the World is Hollow...Sky, 7-Day of the Dove)

And speaking of communicators in motion, that segues nicely into...


Screencaps of Star Trek TOS communicator props in action

For the next three years, the comm props were constantly flipped open, thrown, dropped, and generally abused; surely off-camera as well as on.  Of the eight dummies, half of them; Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Kappa, got the bulk of all screen appearances.  We can only guess that maybe those communicators' antennas flipped opened the easiest, and thus were preferred by the principal actors.  Jim Rugg maintained them as best he could (according to John Dwyer, Property Master Irving Feinberg had no taste for the show's unique nature and items), gluing back twisted-off knobs, putting back in stop pins and reafixing damaged antennas:

Myth: A few extra communicators were made by the Desilu prop department during the show's production.  The studio made some tricorders and phasers later, so why not comms?  Truth:  No evidence even remotely suggests additional comm props were made.  After all, none extra were needed.  More than enough of Wah's ten made it to all the way through to the end of the show, and with their ridiculously tight budget, it's hard to imagine anything being done that absolutely didn't need to be.  Also, the studio's prop staff did not know about Kydex plastic, Aurora wheel hubs, Edmund moiré patterns, Swarovski rhinestones or transistor radio grills, as witnessed in their tricorder copies, so any comms they made would stand out in screencaps like a sore thumb.  So until never-before-seen concrete evidence can be produced from who-knows-what credible source, it is our demonstrable, inarguable position that only ten hard-shell communicator props, all made by Wah in the spring of 1966, were used in the filming of TOS Star Trek.

Postscript:  From Garbage to Gold

The story of the communicator after the series ended in 1969 is one of first disrespect and later redemption.  On page 415 of Inside Star Trek - The Real Story by Herb Solow and Bob Justman wrote, "Props and set dressings were stored in the old RKO construction mill on the 'Desilu side' of Paramount.  Months later, unknown individuals broke into the 'mill' and illegally removed many of the props, including hundreds of furry tribbles, as well as set dressings.  The mill door was left open and people came from all over the studio to scavenge what remained."  This account tells us these things got scattered to the four winds, but not before likely baking under the hot California sun for a while.  The sign of heat distortion today in Alpha's bottom shell is strong evidence of this poor storage.

By the time all was said and done, John Dwyer and Jim Rugg ended up with a couple boxes of prop each (Mr. Dwyer informed us his were retrieved from the studio dumpster).  Irving Feinberg dropped off an unknown quantity of stuff at the rental company Ellis Mercantile.  Two other boxes filled with phasers and Klingon items humbly served as a "door stop" in the office of Paramount Back Lot Manager Russ Brown until Henry Renshaw, a company financial representative, took them home.  Gene Roddenberry left with a few props that over time got handed over to various people.  No doubt other items took still-unknown routes off the studio grounds too.  Some of these objects were used as children's toys and got destroyed, and those that survived quickly sank into obscurity.

Star Trek was nearly relaunched in the late 1970s as a TV series called Phase II, and had reached a point in pre-production where some sets and props were already built, including a reported ten (a familiar number) communicators roughly based on Wah Chang's originals.  We offer a page on this proto-prop.  Work on the series was discontinued after the success of Star Wars revealed to Paramount the greater gains to be made by turning their sci fi property into a motion picture, with the ensuing new generations of Trek props.

A large part of the post-show prop saga involved various hand-built replicas, as hobbyists started to fill the void left in their playful hearts with works of their own.  This basement-based business was eventually shut down in the late 1990s by Paramount legal department as the company started instead to officially license the mass production of replicas.  It's around this time, after countless conventions, spin-off series and movies, that a few of the original props started to resurface, spawning new interest and renewed study - culminating with among other things this website.  Today, those props that receive offical provenance now auction off for really big bucks.

It is not known with any certainty how many communicator props are still around today, and how many have disappeared forever into history's waste bin.  We hope to find out.  We hope for the best.

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