Sunday, November 14, 2004

Though the specific places seen on the Enterprise are much as you see them, they aren't configured in any real way. I can't remember the order of them, but the Enterprise sick bay might be right next to a bridge set used for a Klingon vessel. Donna moved us through at a good clip, but we paused at the Enterprise bridge. Most of it was covered with plastic, but they unveiled the new captain's chair. I was urged to try it out---a standard perk for guests, I gather---and who could resist sitting in the captain's chair of any Enterprise?

The bridge is the contemporary gray-and-silver you see on the screen, and I asked Manny about the difficulty of making it believable, yet not too much more sophisticated than the bridge of Kirk's Enterprise which is supposed to come later. He said that actually they were slowly moving the design in the direction of Kirk's Enterprise, at least in some of the shapes. He allowed that they probably wouldn't go so far as 60s mini-skirts and beehive hairdos. He then started riffing on how he could actually do that for an episode.

"We haven't done a comedy episode yet," he said. Everyone started riffing on the idea that this Enterprise gets thrown back to the 1960s. I suggested they could all come down with a disease that compelled them to desire beehive hair. "A virus," Manny said. "That might work." I was going to say something about "The Naked Time/Now," but didn't want to completely give myself away yet. Unfortunately it was only later that I came up with the dialogue:

Archer: A virus that makes everybody think it's the 1960s? How it that possible?

Phlox: Simple, Captain. It's a retro virus.

But soon Donna had us moving, and eventually we not only saw the standing cave set, we got lost in it. It's trickier than it looks, especially with cables on the floor. Some of the larger areas were being tinted red for Vulcan scenes.

The largest set appeared to be the engine room, and since people are often climbing and fighting and falling all over this set, it is particularly sturdy.

Donna was a great guide and we saw quite a lot before it was time to return to near our starting point, where shooting was underway. It was a relatively simple scene, a conversation between Archer and Phlox in the Enterprise mess, for "Cold Station 12," the middle episode of the Soong/Brent Spiner arc.

We were lined up against the back wall to watch. Our perspective was the camera's for most of the scene, and we could also watch on two real-time high definition tape monitors. The director (Mike Vejar) was seated in front of one of them. Even though we were close enough to see every movement, we couldn't hear the dialogue.

Edited into the show, this scene consists of a long two-shot( as Archer moves around, getting a cup of coffee, starting to leave, then coming over to the table and sitting down opposite Phlox) but also a couple of other two-shot perspectives (one from over Phlox's shoulders), a brief close-up of Archer and several of Phlox, including a couple of reaction shots. What we saw, standing there, was Scott Bakula walking exactly the same little circuit a few times, mumbling to Billingsley, in between joking and talking to people who briefly swarmed on the set, as the camera was moved.

Manny told me what the scene was about: that the two were discussing the Eugenics War, and genetic engineering, which might have saved Archer's father from a dread Alzheimers-like disease. (This took on more meaning a few nights later, at that tribute dinner, which was a benefit for the Alzheimer's Foundation. Among his current afflictions, James Doohan had started showing signs of Alzheimer's. )

Manny said he'd written the scene to give more complexity to the issue of genetic engineering, with obvious implications for the present. (Again, at the tribute dinner, several speakers---including Wil Wheaton---talked about the need for stem cell research.) Manny said he'd just written the scene, and was still amazed by the experience of writing something one day and seeing it being done the next. (The credited writer for this episode is Michael Bryant.) I asked him if he needed to trim anything to get the scene in, but he said the episode had been running a little short.

It was only when I saw this scene on television and finally heard the dialogue that I realized it not only served to give the issue of genetic manipulation the complexity it deserved, and the treatment of more than one side of a moral question that is a Star Trek tradition, but it also contained a few lines that summarized a more general observation that Gene Roddenberry would certainly have approved. Referring to the Eugenics War that he'd read about, Phlox described it as at time when "human intelligence and human instinct were out of synch." Later in the conversation, Archer observes that while the Eugenics War led earth to ban genetic engineering, Denobula had used it successfully for centuries. "Denobula perfected genetic engineering a long time ago," he said, "but you never came close to destroying yourselves."

"Perhaps we were simply fortunate," Phlox suggested.

"Or maybe your instincts had caught up with your intellect," Archer said.

Satisfied that the scene was working, Manny told us he had to get back to his office. Back out in the blinding sunshine, he talked a little more about all the opportunities the Enterprise series has, in being the prequel to a rich universe of established Star Trek history. Like all the technology-how did it come about? What about the transporter, for instance? Someone had to have invented it, what was the story behind that? He wanted to do a story featuring the inventor of the transporter. (Which sounds a lot like what evolved into the first story in January, called "Daedalus." )

In his interview with me as well as with others, Manny Coto called himself a Star Trek fan. That was a major part of his appeal to fans and their hope that Enterprise would not only continue past its fourth season, but would fulfill its promise as a Star Trek series.

Now, as we rode back to drop Manny and Donna off at their offices, I saw the opportunity to test how much of a fan he was. David was getting more confident behind the wheel of that overgrown golf cart, which is not to say he was perfect. But he was enjoying zipping around in it. So I injected a comment that could reasonably pass as the kind of banter we were all engaging in. I was in the front seat next to David, while Manny and Donna were in the seat behind us. '"I've never understood the human predilection for piloting vehicles at unsafe velocities," I said. It wasn't exact, but it was close enough---Data says something like that in Nemesis, when he is seated beside Picard who is driving his own overgrown golf cart across a desert planet.

An "ah-hah," came immediately from behind me. "You're a fan," Manny said. I doubt if David or Donna knew what he was talking about, but I did. I had to reveal myself, to test him.

After a quick lunch with David at Paramount---the very room where William Shatner and Patrick Stewart met---I finally met John Wentworth back at the Dietrich building. He gave me a breakdown of selected TV drama series that had all lost audience last year, mostly to the so-called reality shows. "Smallville" was at the top of the list, followed by "West Wing." "Law and Order: SVU" had lost almost the same percentage of audience as "Enterprise." It had been a bad year for drama shows all around, not just Enterprise.

Eventually I would write a story that quoted several people---most of them Star Trek veterans---saying that the Star Trek franchise was in trouble creatively as well with audiences. But I had confirmed my instinct that Manny Coto was bringing strong new possibilities to Enterprise, something more than the usual smoke and hope at the start of a new season. So that was part of the story, too.

I wrote the story as a journalist, even as temporarily the New York Times. But before my press credentials and visitor's pass expired, and my rental car became a pumpkin again, I chatted with John Wentworth about Star Trek past and present. After some conversation and some questions that indicated I knew a bit more about Star Trek than the average journalist, he smiled. "I knew you were a fan," he said.

But I'm a fan of something else that made this little jaunt especially enjoyable: I'm a fan of the process. I've written about actors and directors, film and TV and theatre, but I've also written for actors, film and theatre. I even acted and directed a little in college. I enjoy actors and what they do, and directors, and I enjoy hanging out with the other people who do the work that brings these shows to life. Even the occasional producer. I enjoyed talking about writing problems and delights with Manny Coto, even briefly. I just like being there on the set. As easy as it is to make fun of the excesses of "show business," I essentially admire what they all do. I love the process.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a very cool blog entry on the visit to the Enterprise set!

Very cool!

- Brandon