Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Although we’d exchanged emails when I was doing my Times story, I hadn’t met Jonathan Frakes until the Blue Room on Saturday—as he was eating his salad. Salad days with the Rikers! Having told one tale I’ll tell another—he’s also read this blog, and commented that it showed “loyalty to the vision” of Star Trek. (I also told Marina that I’d stolen a photo from her web site for this one. I've now stolen it again. She looks fabulous in person, by the way, even without the Borg eyepiece.)

But I had only a moment to ask Jonathan about the episode he directed for the Masters of Science Fiction series for ABC, an anthology of classic sci-fi tales (his was a Harlan Ellison story), produced by the creators of the successful Masters of Horror on Showtime. There wasn’t time to ask about his student days at Penn State (I grew up in western Pennsylvania, spent some time on the main campus later, and some of my friends and half my relatives went there.)

Marina and Jonathan went directly from the Blue Room to the Sky Church stage—though their pairing seems natural, I’m not sure they’d appeared as a duo before. I also don’t know how this practice of pairing up actors for convention appearances began, but it’s very effective and a lot of fun. Actors are sensitive to the moment, by nature and certainly by training or both, and playing off each other with the further participation of the audience enlivens these events. The actors also put their personalities and even their relationships (as actors, their characters, and as people in real life) into action. It all adds to the entertainment while giving the audience a sense that they’ve seen something of them beyond a Q and A. It’s not just about Star Trek—it’s a little bit of Star Trek, of the personalities behind the characters they play.

Each pairing I’ve seen was a little different. At the Scotty convention, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy created a crackling electrical force with their banter that was Kirk and Spock at the same time as it was Shatner and Nimoy, now best friends. At times it was conspiratorial, at times mock-adversarial, as when Shatner jumped on Nimoy’s admission that he thought planets and moons were the same thing. Sirtis and Frakes had a different energy and camaraderie, teasing at times but easy and affectionate, as befits the couple that still propose a sitcom about “the Rikers in space: their wacky uncle Data, and their little dog, Worf.”

As seems to be the convention trend, they got into some rowdy and somewhat raunchy repartee with the audience (one male fan thanked Marina/Troi for getting him through his adolescence; she replied that it was a huge compliment). Though eventually Marina had to warn one fan, “Don’t be funnier than us.” They answered questions, including some they posed to each other that were asked at other venues. They repeated the stories about how rowdy the Next Gen set was, how one director refused to return because of it. “And that was the first season,” Marina said. “Before we got really out of control,” Jonathan added.

Jonathan, who played both William T. Riker and his brother, Thomas on the series, wondered why Marina had told him that she thought Thomas “was cuter.” He also wondered how Riker was so good at poker when he played with somebody who could see through the cards (Geordi), somebody who could count the cards (Data), somebody who could read everybody’s feelings (Troi), and “Worf, who could kick your ass.” Several questions seemed to come from former TNG crew members. At one point, Jonathan introduced a fan he’d met—a woman who had served on the real Enterprise, the aircraft carrier. She got a round of applause.

Amidst the sassy one-liners and the dish on other Trek shows, Marina interjected a heartfelt tribute to Jonathan as a director—most directors, she said, were either good with the technical aspects or with the actors. In her experience, only Frakes was good at both. He in turn advised how he dealt with prima donna actors and with actors whose great reputation preceeds them: “You treat them as you do any other actors. You make sure to tell them when they’re wonderful, you make sure to give them a note when you feel they need a note—nobody, no matter how fabulous and experienced and talented they are—we’re all children, we still need to be told that we’re wanted.”

One on-set story they told I hadn’t heard was about the famous drunk Troi scene in the feature, First Contact, with Marina, James Cromwell (as Zephram Cochrane) and Jonathan, who was also directing. Jonathan said that his wife (actor Genie Francis) told him he acts best when he’s tired because he is more relaxed. That scene, he said, was shot at the end of the day when they were all exhausted, and they got it in three takes. That surprised and bemused look on Riker’s face when Troi pokes him in the chest was genuine—Marina hadn’t done it in rehearsal, and Jonathan was surprised, as actor and director as well as the character.

They both thought the Next Generation series had ended too soon (just as Shatner and Nimoy thought the original crew had more movies in them than six), and they would put on the space suits again, anytime. Marina—who commented onstage she’s had a run lately of playing Middle Eastern women-- wanted to know why she hadn’t been invited to act in “Of Gods and Men.” She said it lightly on stage, and not so lightly later. It’s a testament to the power of the Star Trek universe that actors want to continue to be part of it, even without the paycheck.

There were several more pairings in Seattle, including two I caught: John Billingsley and Gary Graham from Enterprise, and Tim Russ and Garret Wang from Voyager. Oddly, both of these pairs divulged who in their respective casts farted the most. John and Gary seemed to be getting better acquainted while on stage—both discovered they’d had the same small Shakespeare part, with one line: “What ho! Sail!” They offered several different readings of it.

I’d met John Billingsley on the Enterprise set, though he was in full makeup as Phlox at the time, and when I met him in the Blue Room I failed to remember the episode, although I did recall that he’d written about it in his blog. (It was “Cold Station 12”) The scene I saw him shoot, though I was too far away to hear what he and Scott Bacula were saying, turned out to have some of my favorite lines of the whole series.

But things happened fast in the Blue Room and I couldn’t quite explain any of that before someone else joined the group, and John attempted to introduce all of us to the newcomer. When he came around to me, he said tentatively, “John?” “Bill,” I said, opting for dull honesty rather than changing my name on the spot. “I knew it had something to do with my name,” he said, meaning the Bill in Billingsley. Seattle was a homecoming for Bill—sorry, I mean John; he acted there and started a couple of theatre groups that still flourish.

Gary Graham, who looks considerably younger than Soval, his character in Enterprise, said on stage that he’d taken his key for the character from one of Archer’s lines in his first scene: that he was a Vulcan who had spent too much time on Earth, and so he was not in full control of his emotions. Graham was very modest about his own accomplishments in the series, but he spontaneously expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to be part of Star Trek and all that it represents.

Garrett Wang and Tim Russ had an easy camaraderie on stage as well. Garrett also participated in a panel on “Society and Star Trek,” with George Takei, who had been a role model for him. Garrett said that growing up in Memphis he had experienced racism every single day—much of it from non-Caucasians. His ancestry is Chinese, and he’d done what George had done as a young actor of Japanese ancestry: searched for good, non-stereotypical roles. It reminded me of George saying he had turned down a role as a Japanese houseboy and because of it, had to take a job as an actual waiter. But they both found those non-stereotyped roles in Star Trek.

Always in his black trench coat, Tim Russ was the brooding (but friendly) Renaissance man of the convention. He opened his Sky Church appearance by singing a song he’d written ( some listeners near me thought he sounded like Peter Gabriel); he held his own talking about physics and future shock on a panel of scientists and writers; he answered questions and did a hilarious Tuvok-on-the-Voyager-bridge impression with Garrett Wang, and possibly above all, he showed part of a film he directed that very well may turn a lot of heads in Hollywood and beyond.

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