On the set of ''The Next Generation'' -- We find out what the new ''Star Trek'' series is all about

”Don’t sit in the captain’s chair,” a production assistant warns me as I step onto the bridge of the starship Enterprise. ”That’s the worst thing you can do. Only the captain is allowed to sit in the captain’s chair.”

I keep waiting for her to say ”joke,” but it turns out she couldn’t be more serious — and not just about the seating arrangements. There are all sorts of nutty rules here on the Hollywood set of Star Trek: The Next Generation: Don’t refer to the original Star Trek as the old Star Trek (the world old is considered insulting — who knows why). Don’t talk to any guest aliens without permission (they aren’t ”spokemen” for the show). Don’t drink soda in the transporter room (you might accidentally molecularize someone into a can of Fresca). There’s a lot to be said for the life in the 24th century, but it sure could stand some lightening up.

Of course, Next Generation can afford a few on-set idiosyncrasies. Now entering its fifth season, it’s the single most popular hour-long syndicated drama on TV; among males ages 18-49, the classic Trekkie demographic, it’s the most popular hour-long drama on TV. The series is so hot, in fact, that several local TV stations have preempted network programs to make room for it during prime time.

Like the old — sorry, I mean the original — Star Trek, this show is produced by Paramount TV, with Trek creator Gene Roddenberry once again the executive producer. It follows pretty much the same formula as the first series, only this time the setting is some 80 years further into the future, around 2360 A.D. The good ship, Enterprise is still in business, still warping around the galaxy exploring tacky new worlds.

There are differences between the two series, however. The original Trek‘s special effects were notoriously cheap and cheesy; the new Trek reportedly spends $500,000 a week to create the most sophisticated effects ever used in a TV series. There’s also a new cast: British actor Patrick Stewart plays Captain Picard, a more introspective skipper that William Shatner’s swashbuckling Kirk. Filing the Spock slot is Brent Spiner’s Data, a pale android who wants to feel human emotion. There’s also Gates McFadden as the ship’s doctor, Michael Dorn as the woolly-faced Klingon security officer, LeVar Burton as the ship’s blind engineer (whose funky space-age shades allow him to see), and, occasionally, Whoopi Goldberg as the ship’s bartender (yes, bartender).

When I visit the set in late August, the cast is taking a break from filming ”Silicon Avatar,” an episode about a creature buzzing around the cosmos sucking the life-force from defenseless planets. In one corner of the soundstage, an extra is unzipping himself from a gigantic rubber alien costume that looks like a huge dried apricot with arms. In another corner, a group of Star Fleet officers is nibbling on jelly doughnuts and gossiping about a hot rumor — that Shatner will take a break from shooting Rescue 911 to do a guest spot as a geriatric Captain Kirk.

”I have a great idea for a script,” Spiner jokes as a makeup artist touches up his robot-white complexion. ”We could call it ‘The Phantom of the Enterprise.’ One of the crew members disappears and we find her in the bowels of the ship, where this ancient, mangled creature is holding her captive, It turns out to be Kirk, who’s gone mad. He’s been hiding out in the Enterprise all these years. He just can’t let go.”

The rumor turns out to be false — Shatner isn’t interested — but lots of other big stars are, including Leonard Nimoy, who’s lately been busy directing (Three Men and a Baby, The Good Mother) but will Trek again in November. In fact, Next Generation seems to be the ”in” show for guest spots these days. Mick Fleetwood, Corbin Bernsen, and Bebe Neuwirth have already appeared (disguised as aliens) and there’s talk that Rosanna Arquette, Sean Young, Robin Williams, Elliot Gould, and John Goodman may beam aboard as guests during the 1991-’93 season.

”It just seemed like the right time to do it,” say Nimoy, who hasn’t appeared in TV as Spock since the original series. ”With the 25th anniversary and the final Star Trek film coming out — there’s this sense of closure. I started the Spock character on TV, so it seemed like a good idea to finally bring him back to TV. Just to bring things full circle.” The Spock episode is due to run a month before the release of the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It will undoubtedly be one of the best-watched episodes in either series’ history, prompting even more cross-pollination between the shows and films.

Which raises some interesting questions. Will there ever be a Next Generation feature film? Will Next Generation inspire any sequels of its own — maybe Star Trek: The Lost Generation? And how long does Vulcans live, anyway?

Star Trek (TV Show - 1973)
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