Sunday, November 14, 2004

A Visit to the Enterprise set

While I was in Los Angeles on assignment to the New York Times, to cover the Planet Xpo "Beam Me Up Scotty One Last Time" convention for a story on Star Trek's future, I visited the set of the only ongoing project in Star Trek's present: the Enterprise series.

After a morning on the phone trying to straighten out my Internet access, I arrived at Paramount lot later than I'd expected, in early afternoon. It was a bright day in late August, a bit cooler than usual for this time of year I was told, but pleasantly warm for a resident of a far northern California coastal climate. I drove through the Melrose gate, got my guest pass, and after the trunk of my rental car was inspected I found a parking space in a guest lot, which happened to be next to the Roddenberry building.

My destination was the Dietrich building, where I was to meet David Sperber, public relations for Enterprise, and John Wentworth, head of Paramount marketing and a Star Trek veteran.

For several weeks as I started this story, I had trouble getting Paramount to respond to my requests for information and interviews, and a couple of interviews I scheduled without them were cancelled (Garfield Reeves-Stevens even called me to tell me that he couldn't call me until I cleared it through Paramount.) But when John Wentworth got involved, everything went much more smoothly, and I talked to everyone I requested in the time I had remaining.

John and I had spoken a few times on the phone, and he set up several interviews. In the course of one early conversation, I mentioned that had just taken another look at a tape of the Star Trek 30th special and had seen his name in the credits, which seemed to startle him. He was with Rick Berman when I interviewed Berman by phone. When I asked Berman whether there were plans for anything relating to Star Trek's 40th anniversary ("Oh, God," was his response), John told Berman that I'd spotted his name at the end of the 30th anniversary show.
"John Wentworth was actually working on promotion in the very first year of the first series back in 1966," Berman said in his usual authoritative tone. "That is not so true," I heard Wentworth say in the background. "I don't think he was born," Berman added.

But Wentworth was in a meeting when I arrived, so David Sperber called over to the Enterprise office to see if we could go on the set. It turned out that David was new to the job, and this would also be his first visit to the set. He said we'd be meeting Donna Rooney of the Enterprise staff, who would show us around, and that Manny Coto would be joining us as well.

I'd interviewed Coto on the phone a few days earlier. I'd read his interview with TrekWeb and noted the hopeful response online to his vision of Enterprise as a true prequel series, and his enthusiasm for Star Trek in general. Since by journalistic tradition you can't quote someone from another source, I had to get him to say essentially the same thing to me, which he did. It was a short interview because Enterprise was going to be just a small part of my article, so meeting him would be a bonus.

Maybe this is where I should inject a personal note. I approached this story as a professional, with objectivity to maintain and a mandate from my editor to fulfill. My demeanor kept everyone guessing. They probably knew what I've come to know: that the world is sharply divided between Star Trek fans and people who don't get it, who have little more than contempt for Star Trek, if not all of science fiction, etc. I think the fact that I am ethical, and that I'm not interested in scoring points at anyone's expense, yet I take my professional responsibilities seriously, came through in my first contacts and interviews. But they didn't yet know that I'm a Star Trek fan.

But I also wasn't just another journalist when I visited Paramount: I was the New York Times, one of the more powerful newspapers in America. I'm freelance but I've worked for the Times before, and I knew what this meant. Usually I got more access to higher level people than I did working for other newspapers and magazines. So while I was doing this story, and especially on this day at Paramount (and later at the convention), I was treated well. Not only did I get access, information and my questions answered, but everyone was friendly, and all my jokes were funny and my insights profound.

Some of this was a little different than in other situations, so I began to see what it meant that the people who work on Star Trek are loyal to each other, even a kind of family. I did get the feeling of being accepted, and of people being interested in me personally. I attribute some of this to my intelligence and charm, and of course my modesty. But I never forgot that I was there because I was the New York Times. In other words, I was Cinderella, and midnight would come when the story was published, and my luminous New York Times halo vaporized and I became the raggedy man back in the street looking for work.

So I don't know if Manny Coto was coming along only because I was the New York Times or also because something in our interview piqued his curiosity. It didn't really matter. I was interested in meeting him, both for the story and for my own curiosity.

David Sperber commandeered one of those golf cart vehicles used on the Paramount lot and we headed for the Enterprise offices. He wasn't real experienced at this task either, and we took a circuitous route with some blind alleys and odd looks from Paramount security. But when we stopped at our destination, there standing on the corner were two men and a woman. One of the men was LeVar Burton.

Strictly speaking, this Paramount visit was more for background than an essential part of my story. But it always pays to go look at things. And ironically, this visit would provide the only hard news in my article. Minutes before, LeVar Burton had just agreed to direct the third and concluding episode in the mini-arc that featured his Next Gen colleague, Brent Spiner. So I was the first to report this.

I had interviewed Burton already. I requested an interview through his publicity agent, and one afternoon I heard the phone ring. My partner Margaret (who teaches drama at Humboldt State University) answered it and told me, "It's for you. I don't know who it is, but he has a great voice." It was LeVar Burton calling from Martha's Vineyard where he was on vacation.

Now I introduced myself in person. He remembered that I was going to the Scotty convention and said he wasn't going to be there after all. He'd been announced as a guest at the celebrity dinner honoring James Doohan. Burton's wife was having minor surgery that day. "Tell Jimmy I can't make it," he said, or ordered, or requested. I knew already that because of James Doohan's precarious health, access would be strictly limited, and I wasn't even going to attempt to get an interview. But I said I'd get the message to him, and I did (through Jimmy's son, Chris Doohan.)

I met Manny Coto and Donna Rooney, and after LeVar Burton left, the four of us set off in the cart. (There are seats in front, in back, and a jump seat area behind that.) Coto began riffing on the way over, with an irreverent sense of humor not so apparent in his interview mode.

We stopped near a small door in a large building, with several trailers semi-permanently parked nearby. The second half of the day's shooting was about to start. We walked out of the bright sunshine into a series of narrow dim corridors that surrounded some of the standing Enterprise sets. In a slightly larger area there were a series of food wagons, adding some faint florescent shimmer to the dimness, and standing near one of them was a Denobulan. Manny introduced me to John Billingsley, who was in full makeup and costume. I hadn't yet seen "Out of Time" so I couldn't compliment his terrific performance in that movie, or ask him if working with Denzel Washington was as much fun as it looked like it might be.

While the next scene was set up, Donna led us down one of the Enterprise corridors to see more sets. We paused at a doorway, where Manny discussed possible locations for the upcoming Vulcan arc with someone. I examined the set, which looked sturdy and real (except for the 21st century person sitting on the floor of an Enterprise corridor reading a book.) Most of the movie sets I've visited have been on location, and for television I'm more used to the plywood and paint flimsiness of news and talk show sets. Even the Tonight Show set is much less impressive than it appears on TV. So I was a bit surprised at how substantial the standing sets of the ship are. I understood a little better how it would become possible to feel you were coming to work on the Enterprise every day.

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