Inside ''Star Trek: The Next Generation'' -- A report from the bridge of the starship ''Enterprise''
There’s nobody home on the Enterprise. Not Captain Picard. Not the android with the yellow eyes. Not the Klingon with the party-size forehead. The entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation has gone for the weekend, and the legendary starship is dark, silent, and deserted.
Well, not completely deserted: One figure is still lingering on the command bridge, sitting in the captain’s chair, sipping a diet soda. This lone, intrepid Trekkie has been on the show’s Hollywood set for more than a week, watching the cast and crew film their 119th episode (”The First Duty,” scheduled to air starting March 30). Hanging around the series’ three humongous soundstages — numbers 8, 9, and 16 on the Paramount lot — offers a view of the 24th century that viewers never see on television. For instance, those nifty pneumatic sliding doors on the Enterprise? Turns out they’re opened and closed by two sweaty guys in T-shirts crouching out of camera range. And that awesome transporter chamber that beams people’s atoms around the galaxy? Up ) close, it looks like a cheesy Plexiglas disco stage. It couldn’t molecularize a fly.
Of course, the main thing people notice about Next Generation — whether on the set or off — is that the show is hotter than a supernova. Now in its fifth season, it’s the highest-rated hour-long drama on syndicated TV, with more than 20 million viewers every week. Among males ages 18 to 49 — the classic Trekkie demographic — it’s the No. 1 show on the air, period. The series is so popular, in fact, that some stations are running it twice a week (while video stores are stocking episodes from the first three seasons). And next year the show will even spawn a syndicated spin-off, called Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
All this adds to what is already one of the most amazing pop phenomena in entertainment history. In the 25 years since the original Star Trek (or ”classic Trek,” as fans call it) was first broadcast on NBC, the show has hatched an entire Trekking industry. There have been six feature films (earning a total of more than $400 million), hundreds of Trek books (from erotic novels to technical manuals describing the Enterprise down to the last rivet), dozens of annual Trek conventions, lunch boxes, comic books, posters, and action figures. Put it all together and you’ve got a cult franchise so obscenely profitable it could make the greediest Ferengi space merchant blush.
Launched by Star Trek‘s late creator, Gene Roddenberry (who died in October of a heart attack), the new series follows the same basic formula as the previous television and film Treks, only this time the action is set 80 years further into the future, around 2360. The Enterprise is bigger and faster, the once-evil Klingon empire has joined forces with the benevolent Federation, and female aliens don’t run around in tinfoil bikinis anymore, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same old galaxy.
The episode being filmed on this late-January day is fairly typical of the series: There are a lot of icky-looking alien extras, neat special effects, and of course, the obligatory moral at the end of the show. But there’s also some surprisingly decent acting (something new for a Trek series) and excruciating attention to detail (always a Trekkie fetish).
On the following pages, some scenes from a week in the life of The Next Generation. Here’s what makes the future really fly.
Baldly Going Where No Man Has Gone Before
”I am not a conventional hero,” Patrick Stewart announces. ”I am not the archetypal leading man. This is mainly for one reason.” He offers his scalp for inspection. ”As you may have noticed, I have no hair.”
True enough: Stewart’s head is as smooth and shiny as a Horta’s egg. He’s also not the tallest guy in the world, and he’s a bit on the skinny side. Still, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the Enterprise‘s imposing commander, the 52-year-old Stewart has become one of television’s most improbable sex symbols.
Unlike certain other starship commanders, he is not your typical phaser- happy space cowboy. Where William Shatner’s Captain Kirk was a swaggering interstellar playboy, Stewart plays Picard as an introspective intellectual who believes that all life-forms should be treated equally. He’s a starman with a mission, preaching political correctness in outer space.
”Sometimes I feel like Picard is part social worker, part ambassador without portfolio,” Stewart says. ”But I do believe in the character — and in the Star Trek philosophy. I believe in the essential goodness of the human spirit. I believe in having respect for that which you don’t understand.”
Stewart is sipping tea in the living room of his cozy three-story house in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles. There are framed posters from World War I on his walls (”My grandfather was an ambulance driver in the war”), a copy of William Goldman’s beauty pageant-film festival expose, Hype and Glory, on the coffee table, and a brand-new forest green Jaguar convertible in the garage. Outside, the swimming pool is looking a tad leafy.
”I grew up in Mirfield, England, in a house that had one room downstairs and one room upstairs,” he says. ”My brother and I shared a double bed in my parents’ bedroom.” After teaching himself how to talk like a proper British gentleman, he landed a job with London’s prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. Then there was a string of classy BBC miniseries (I, Claudius; Smiley’s People; and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and some minor roles in Hollywood features (Excalibur, Dune). And in December, Stewart fulfilled a lifelong ambition by appearing on Broadway in a one-man show based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. ”On opening night,” he says, ”I was standing alone in the wings and I nearly threw up. I actually thought the very first thing I was going to do on Broadway was vomit.” The critics raved.
Sitting in his living room, sipping more tea, Stewart continues his discourse on baldness. ”Did you know that in the general public consciousness, lack of hair is synonymous with failure? It’s like having no teeth. If you haven’t kept your hair, people think you’ve failed in some area in your life. It’s true.”
Maybe so, but not in this case. Somehow, a hairy Picard would be hard to take.
Star Trek, 90210
”Some people were glad when I left the show,” says Wil Wheaton, 19, who in this episode reprises his role as teen space cadet Wesley Crusher, the youngest officer ever to serve on the Enterprise. Wheaton left Next Generation in 1990 to resume his movie career (he starred in 1986’s Stand By Me), but every so often his character returns from Earth (where he’s studying at Starfleet Academy) for a guest spot.
”There was an anti-Wesley movement among a handful of fanatical Trekkies,” Wheaton says, sulking. ”They hated Wesley. They couldn’t stand the idea of a teenager on the bridge. I’d go to Star Trek conventions and people would say, ‘I wish you’d die.’ I went to one convention in Los Angeles, and there was even a panel discussion called ‘Solving the Wesley Problem.’ I couldn’t believe it — a whole panel?”
Fanatical Trekkies? That’s not exactly news. The show’s followers have long been known for extreme devotion. Next Generation receives about 1,000 pieces of mail and 1,500 phone calls a month, including hundreds of script suggestions, marriage proposals to cast members, and corrections when the series flubs a technical detail. When a photon torpedo was mistakenly blasted out of the ship’s phasers — only portal on one recent episode, the show got 25 calls and dozens of letters.
As for ”The Wesley Problem”: Some hard-core Trekkers object to the character’s goody two-shoes image and his propensity for saving the galaxy. This new episode may help change that image-Wesley gets mixed up in a scandal at the academy — but Wheaton still bristles at the criticism. ”This is the last time I’m going to talk about it,” he snaps. ”I’ve been making excuses for saving the universe since I was 14. The truth is, Wesley Crusher has single-handedly saved the Enterprise exactly 1.4 times. That’s all. Like any Starfleet officer, he’s contributed to solving problems. But because he’s a kid, people think his opinion is somehow less valuable.”
Talk Techie to Me
Gates McFadden, 38, is pacing the set of sick bay, rehearsing her lines as Dr. Beverly Crusher, the Enterprise‘s chief medical officer (and Wesley’s single mom). ”’I’ve picked up minuscule distortions in the surrounding visual receptors,”’ she whispers to herself. ”’Visual receptors’?” She checks her script. ”’I’ve picked up minuscule distortions in the surrounding Dekyon Field.”’ She closes the script. ”I hate technobabble. There ought be an Emmy for this stuff.”
Where there’s Trek, there’s Trekspeak, that cryptoscientific space chatter that adds a dash of high-tech ambience to the scripts. Amazingly, every word is supposed to mean something — even if what it means hasn’t been invented yet. There’s even a special Trek writers’ manual (titled Yes, But Which Button Do I Push to Fire the Phasers?) to ensure that the show’s scribes know the difference between a photon torpedo (”an energy weapon in which a small quantity of matter and antimatter are bound together in a magnetic bottle”) and dilithium crystals (which ”control the powerful matter/antimatter reaction which permits our ship to travel faster than light”). ”Star Trek has always prided itself on scientific accuracy and internal consistency,” the manual boasts.
”Dekyon Field,” McFadden whispers to herself. ”Dekyon Field. Dekyon Field. I have no idea what that means.”
The official Trek definition: ”a completely imaginary particle that travels through time and across subspace.” Uh, right.
Don’t Lift a Finger
This season Corbin Bernsen (L.A. Law), Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers), Kelsey Grammer (ditto), and Matt Frewer (Doctor, Doctor) have all appeared on Next Generation (disguised as aliens), and next season there are plans for visits by Robin Williams, John Goodman, and Elliott Gould. The show is the chic series for cameos. For this episode, the guest star is no stranger to outer space: He’s Ray Walston, who played the curmudgeonly extraterrestrial Uncle Martin on CBS’ comedy series My Favorite Martian from 1963 to 1966.
”Star Trek started the year My Favorite Martian went off the air,” Walston recalls. ”I was always jealous of it. I thought the Martian show should have been more like Star Trek, with the same seriousness about space travel. We relied too much on barnyard talent: chimpanzees and cats and dogs and elephants — all that crap. Star Trek was a much better show.”
Walston is playing Boothby, the Academy’s grumpy old grounds keeper, and his appearance on the set is causing quite a stir. ”Everybody does the same thing when they meet me,” he says, frowning. ”They all make antenna signs over their heads. Or ask me to do the thing with the finger.” He wiggles a finger as if levitating a nearby chair, part of his shtick on Martian. ”It used to bother me, but I’m getting used to it.”
Aliens Are People Too
Six young humanoids — a female from Planet Bajora, two males from Vulcan, two male Earthlings, and a female of undetermined species (”They told me what I was, but I forgot,” she says) — are lounging on the steps outside soundstage 9, discussing makeup and prosthetic devices. ”You don’t even notice you have them on,” says one Vulcan about his pointy ears. ”Unless you try to listen to a Walkman or use the telephone,” adds the other. ”I don’t mind the makeup so much,” says the Bajoran, tugging at her skintight Starfleet uniform, ”but these costumes are murder.”
Despite the complaints, the makeup and costumes are a definite improvement over the original Trek — and they’re a lot more expensive. Next Generation reportedly spends $500,000 per episode to create the most lavish effects and costumes ever made for TV.
The man in charge of turning the actors into aliens is 54-year-old makeup artist Michael Westmore. ”We give them a protuberance on the forehead or we change their nose or lips,” he says. ”We usually don’t do the nine eyes and seven arms and earlobes down to the floor sort of thing. We’re more subtle.”
Alien makeovers can take as little as an hour (for a basic Vulcan ear job) and as long as four (for a full-fledged Klingon). The results look spookily real, despite the occasional slipups. ”We had one alien — I don’t even like to talk about it,” Westmore recalls, shuddering. ”It was a female. We had six fleshy tendrils coming out of her face. When we saw her on film, though, she didn’t look right. So we cut off the tendrils. But then she didn’t look like an alien anymore — she looked like a human who had had an accident — and we didn’t have any time to fix her.” The solution: ”The writers added a line in the script. They said that the villain beat her up — that’s why she looked so bad.”
Ol’ Yellow Eyes
Brent Spiner has been swathed in gold paint for six hours and he’s still waiting for the go-ahead to deliver his one line of dialogue for the day (”We should arrive at Earth in 10 hours, 16 minutes, sir”). ”I’ve never actually tested how long this makeup lasts,” he says, puffing impatiently on a Marlboro in his trailer. ”But I have a theory that when all humanity is dead, when the world is in ashes, the only things left will be roaches and this gold paint.”
Spiner, 43, plays Data, the emotionless, yellow-eyed android who dreams of one day becoming a human being. Of all the ship’s senior officers — including Michael Dorn’s security chief Worf, LeVar Burton’s blind engineer Geordi LaForge, Marina Sirtis’ empathic psychologist Deanna Troi, and Jonathan Frakes’ first officer Will Riker — Data is by far the most important. Like a tin-plated version of Mr. Spock, the pointy-eared Vulcan made famous by Leonard Nimoy, he functions as the show’s barometer of humanity. Through his eyes, we see mankind at its best and worst.
”Data is a machine that wants to be a man,” Spiner explains. ”Which is exactly the opposite of Spock, who was always trying to avoid emotion, who actually wanted to be a machine.” Data and Spock met during a Next Generation episode last November (Vulcans apparently do live long and prosper — Spock was supposed to be 130 years old in the show), and more than 25 million fans tuned in, making it the most-watched Trek episode since the premiere.
”You want to know what I love about Star Trek?” Spiner offers. ”You want to know why the show is so popular?” He lights another cigarette. ”We had an episode in which Mick Fleetwood (of Fleetwood Mac) did a guest spot wearing the head of a fish. He looked like a giant perch, a giant gefilte fish. But there were no comments in the script about what an ugly creature he was. It’s not in the show’s vocabulary to comment negatively on ethnicity. And it’s not just black or white or Hispanic — it’s Romulan and Klingon and snake people and dog people. It’s that message of tolerance that makes Next Generation such a great show.”
Well, in part, perhaps. But there is a whole galaxy of explanations for why people respond to Next Generation. The thrills and chills of space travel, the vivid depictions of brave new alien worlds and civilizations, the sheer drama of blasting into the unknown — these are also powerful reasons to tune in.
Not to mention minuscule distortions in the surrounding Dekyon Field.
Actor: Wil Wheaton
Turn-Ons: Computers. Being on the bridge. Warp-field experiments.
Turnoffs: Adults who don’t take him seriously.
Best Episode: ”Final Mission.” Wesley doesn’t save the universe (for a change) — he just rescues an injured Picard from a desert moon.
Chief Medical Officer
Actress: Gates McFadden
Turn-Ons: Captain Picard. Gelatinous lifeforms from Planet Trillian (she once had an affair with one).
Turnoffs: Surly teenagers. Aliens who are mean to her son.
Best Episode: ”Remember Me.” Wesley’s latest warp-field experiment goes haywire, propelling Mom into her own private universe.
Starfleet Academy Gardener
Actor: Ray Walston
Turn-Ons: Primroses. Ferns. Azaleas.
Turnoffs: Cadets who stomp all over his flower beds.
Best Episode: ”The First Duty.” Although Picard has mentioned him in other episodes, this is his first appearance.
Actor: Michael Dorn
Species: Klingon (but was raised on Earth by human parents of Slavic extraction-no kidding)
Turnoffs: Dishonoring your species. Cowardice. Humans (except those on the Enterprise).
Best Episode: ”Redemption.” Worf’s home world explodes into civil unrest and he must decide whether to join in or sit this one out.
Data Lieutenant Commander
Actor: Brent Spiner
Turn-Ons Emotion. Sherlock Holmes. Lieutenant Yar (he had an affair with her — he’s an anatomically correct android).
Turnoffs: Being turned off — literally. People who call him a machine. His evil twin android, Lore.
Best Episode: ”The Offspring.” Data builds a robot daughter but switches her off when she malfunctions.
Deanna Troi Ship’s Empathic Psychologist Actress: Marina Sirtis
Species: Half-human, half-Betazoid
Turn-Ons Chocolate. Capt. Picard’s legs.
Turnoffs: People (and other species) whose emotions she can’t read. Evil Ferengi space merchants who kidnap her.
Best Episode: ”The Loss.” When she loses her empathic powers, Ms. Buttinsky is forced to mind her own business for a change.
Captain Actor: Patrick Stewart
Species: Human (though his heart is synthetic — he lost the real one after getting stabbed).
Turn-Ons Earl Grey tea. Old detective stories. Beverly Crusher.
Turnoffs: Romulans. Children on the bridge.
Best Episode: ”The Best of Both Worlds.” Picard is brainwashed by aliens called Borgs and is forced to attack Federation ships.