Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
As a little present to myself to kick off the holidays earlier this month, I went to the theater to see the digitally remastered high def version of the classic Star Trek episode “The Menagerie,” on the big screen, complete with brand new computer graphics and special effects. It didn’t matter that I’ve seen the episode a hundred times or that I was essentially subjecting myself to a marketing stunt to promote sales of DVD box sets of the remastered Original Series; a thrill shot through me as the lights fell and Alexander Courage’s iconic theme welled up. The 35-minute drive to the theater and the $12.50 I plunked down for the ticket were well worth it, and not just because I love Star Trek. It’s because this screening ultimately represented Paramount’s willingness to start respecting Star Trek fans again, and a realization that the best way to do so is by respecting and embracing the source material that garnered those fans in the first place.
Seems Paramount has finally caught on to something that has been obvious to the rest of us all along: that the best way to reinvigorate Star Trek as a franchise is to get back to the basics. You might be tempted to say that this is too little, too late, what with the lingering odor of a decade’s worth of crap shows like Voyager and Enterprise. But the new CGI effects featured in the remastered episodes go a long way toward clearing the air. And the Berman/Braga black cloud may have ultimately had a lasting positive effect, because it forced fans to find their own silver linings.
What do you do when you don’t get the Trek you want? Why, you produce it yourself, of course.
And so goes the open for the Internet series Star Trek New Voyages, the brainchild of lifelong Trek fan and professional Elvis impersonator James Cawley, whose voice it is you hear doing Kirk’s familiar monologue. Star Trek New Voyages boldly goes where NBC and Desilu should have kept going back in the sixties, creating all new episodes set in the fourth year of the Enterprise’s original five year mission, available for download and viewing on your computer.
All right, I can hear the collective moans of disappointment and snorts of incredulity. You expect us to get excited over an Internet series? And normally I’d be the first one to agree. While well-intended, most Star Trek fan productions are unwatchable. But Star Trek New Voyages has risen so far above the rabble that it now sets the bar for Internet-produced shows, fan-based or otherwise. Just this week it took first place in the Best Sci-Fi Webisode category of the 2007 TV Guide Online Video Awards, beating out such “professional” productions as the Sci-Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica and the USA Network program The 4400. So Cawley and his all-volunteer crew are obviously doing something right in their upstate New York production facility.
So what makes Star Trek New Voyages such a stand-out? At first glance, it’s the production values. Cawley has flawlessly recreated the sets and costumes of the Original Series, down to the smallest details. He has even gone so far as to secure what costumes and props still exist from the aborted series Star Trek Phase II with plans to introduce them gradually as New Voyages goes on. And as the show has evolved, so has the CGI, to the point now where it approaches anything you might have seen on Enterprise, or the current remastering of the Original Series. That in itself goes a long way to capturing the feel of classic Trek, but in the end, it’s all just window dressing.
As with any film production, the project will stand or fall based on the caliber of writing and acting. And Star Trek New Voyages has had a bumpy start in that respect; its first produced episode, entitled “Come What May” was pretty lousy, and is no longer even available for download on the website.
But New Voyages pushed forward with its next episode, “In Harm’s Way,” which was vastly superior, even if a bit overly fannish, with a plot that spans from Pike’s Enterprise to the post-Generations resurrected Kirk featured in the Star Trek novels penned by William Shatner. It’s a kitchen-sink type of story that includes alternate timelines, the planet-killer from the “Doomsday Machine,” the Guardian on the Edge of Forever and copious time travel. And the fledgling performances of Cawley and crew are buoyed by guest shots from established actors who appeared in the Original Series, including Malachi Throne and William Windom, who reprised his role as Commodore Matthew Decker. I’m sure I’m not the only fan who took great pleasure in these myriad ties to the established Trek universe, but when all is said and done, “In Harm’s Way” is an episode written mainly for Trekkers, which ultimately limits its appeal.
But this apparently didn’t matter because by this point New Voyages had built up enough steam to be noticed by professional contributors to the Star Trek franchise, and the next episode put it over the top, with a story by veteran Trek writer D.C. Fontana and starring Walter Koenig reprising his role as Pavel Chekov for the first time since the seventh Star Trek feature film. No matter that the story was a bit self-indulgent and obviously exists outside of the established Trek continuity. With such big guns willing to lend their talents to New Voyages, the genie was out of the bottle.
Cawley capitalized on this momentum with another casting coup, getting George Takei to once again play Sulu, and Grace Lee Whitney to play Janice Rand in an episode entitled “World Enough and Time.” The response to this episode was so overwhelming that it crashed the New Voyages server for more than a week and gave the series some glimmerings of mainstream recognition—hence the TV Guide award. It probably also didn’t hurt that the premiere coincided with the resurgence in George Takei’s career thanks to his work on The Howard Stern Show and the NBC hit series Heroes.
But all the hype aside, was the episode any good? Yes, I’m happy to report. Cawley’s take on Kirk is more nuanced and polished than ever, and while there’s still some room for improvement, he holds his own with Takei. The same can be said for the other actors filling the roles of the original cast, with the exception of the guy playing Scotty and, to a lesser extent, Dr. McCoy, who didn’t have quite as big a part in this one.
But whether or not you agree with my assessment may have less to do with the acting and more to do with your tolerance for new actors taking up the mantle of such iconic characters. It took me a while to acclimate. I had to watch each episode of New Voyages a few times just to absorb the cast changes and flawless sets. Once those were no longer distractions, I was better able to judge the series based on its own merits. It behooves my fellow diehard Trekkers to do the same, because like it or not, the future of Star Trek is in reimaginings of the Original Series—whether through feature films like the one slated for next Christmas, or further web-based efforts.
New Voyages is plugging along with its next episode, “Blood and Fire,” a two-parter written and directed by David Gerrold of “Trouble with Tribbles” fame and guest starring Denise Crosby, who will be playing an Original Series-era ancestor of Tasha Yar.
And New Voyages is no longer the only game in town when it comes to getting big name guest stars. Another web-based project entitled Star Trek: Of Gods and Men features such Trek luminaries as Walter Koenig again playing Chekov, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, Alan Ruck reprising his role as Enterprise B Captain John Harriman, Tim Russ once again playing Tuvok, Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand, and other recognizable Star Trek actors like Garret Wang, Chase Masterson, Cirroc Lofton, J.G. Hertzler, Ethan Phillips and Gary Graham. Star Trek: Of Gods and Men is set to premiere on December 22. Check it out at startrekofgodsandmen.com. And check out the New Voyages episodes at startreknewvoyages.com.
When the original Star Trek was canceled, it lived on through fan fiction, the popularity of which eventually spurred Pocket Books to create a Star Trek novel program that has since become the template for all TV Tie-in novel series; when Star Trek: The Next Generation came along, fan devotion made it the cornerstone of first-run syndication success that ushered in the explosion of off-network original programming that characterized 1990s Science Fiction television. And so Star Trek boldly goes yet again, this time into cyberspace, bringing its inherent transformative powers into another new frontier. There’s no telling how it may redefine the web, as it has every other medium. But one thing is sure: it will go forward secure in the hands of its devoted fans.