Upstate fans produce new episodes of 'Star Trek' for Web
The transporter room of the starship Enterprise was off-line.
None of the characters from television’s famous “Star Trek” series were going anywhere — not in 100-degree heat.
“We could have people fainting, it’s that hot,” said Patty Wright, who was more concerned with life support in Port Henry than in the fictional confines of deep space.
Last month, Wright and about 40 other “Star Trek” fans assembled in an old wood-paneled auto dealership near Lake Champlain to shoot a new episode for “Star Trek Phase II,” a fan-produced series that is shown free on the Internet. Actors playing Captain James T. Kirk, science officer Mr. Spock and the cranky old doctor, Leonard “Bones” McCoy, were all back in uniform for the 11th episode of the project.
The Port Henry-based series has received positive reviews from “Star Trek” followers who have appreciated the earnest efforts of amateur and professional actors and meticulous attention to detail. The main set, the 33-foot diametrical Enterprise command bridge, is just about identical to the set used by Desilu Productions and “Trek” stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy during the late 1960s.
Faithful re-creations of the ship’s sick bay, briefing room and crew quarters have also made it to computer screens. The visual effects are professional level. And the familiar space uniforms look like they could have been swiped from the NBC costume department.
“Phase II” doesn’t have the network connection. But it does have James Cawley, a Ticonderoga resident who founded the project in 2003 and has portrayed space icon Kirk.
Cawley, who also works as an Elvis Presley impersonator, has always loved the original “Star Trek.” He landed a job as a costumer on the show’s 1980s and ’90s sequel, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and made friends who have helped his “Phase II” look as realistic as it does.
Premiere in 2004
The first episode premiered in 2004. Six others have followed. Three others have been shot, but remain in post-production. Available episodes have been downloaded more than 90 million times, according to “Phase II” statistics.
Crew men and women inside Cawley’s Retro Film Studio last month worked with lights and dolly tracks, power tools, scripts, cameras and props. Many had taken vacation from their jobs to work on the two-week shoot.
The latest work is “Bread and Savagery,” a sequel to the original show’s “Bread and Circuses” episode. In that one, Kirk and his pals were forced to fight gladiatorial games on a planet where society had been inspired by the Roman Empire. For the new episode, actor Brian Gross has stepped into Kirk’s boots. Cawley remains senior executive producer.
“This is ‘Field of Dreams’ for ‘Star Trek’ fans” said Cawley, 45, taking a break in the studio’s makeup room. “I am constantly amazed — every year it has done nothing but get bigger and bigger. It started out as my private little hobby, it was a joke. I loved ‘Star Trek,’ and I wanted to play Captain Kirk and dress up, that kind of thing. We decided we would film it.”
The first incarnation was called “New Voyages,” and basically continued the first crew’s original five-year mission. There was no financial squawking from Paramount-CBS, which owns the licenses to “Star Trek.” As long as nobody was making any money from the fan-made productions, the corporations allowed indulgences by Cawley and his friends.
“We put it on the Internet, and it just exploded,” Cawley said. “It was really pretty poor, the first time we did it, but I guess compared to some of the other stuff that had been tried, it wasn’t. We decided to push the envelope. If we were going to do it again, let’s do it better. And that’s become the modus operandi — every time we do one, what can we do to take it to the next step, what can we do to make it more like the real show? Now it’s this annual pilgrimage. They fly from Germany, Australia, England, they come from all 50 states. It’s taken on a life of its own.”
Mark Strock of Waterford and Jeff Mailhotte of Albany are two members of the “Phase II” crew who don’t have to make a long trip to board the Enterprise.
Away from humdrum
“I meet lots of great people,” said Strock, 41, a mail handler at the general mail station on New Karner Road in Albany. “It gets me away from the post office for a while, gets me away from the humdrum of regular life to come up and be part of something that you know other people enjoy.”
Strock works as security chief when “Phase II” is shooting. A man of generous proportion, he does not think he will ever appear as a “Star Trek” character. “I would love to be on screen,” he said, “but clearly I do not have the Starfleet physique.”
Mailhotte, 46, who manages a Valvoline Instant Oil Change garage in Clifton Park, is head of construction. He works summers in Port Henry because he likes both “Star Trek” and working with hammers and saws.
“Seeing the final product that goes out on the Internet, and it looks like a professional product, and seeing the sets that I’ve built, it’s just really cool,” Mailhotte said.
He’s been with “Phase II” since the beginning. Unlike Strock, Mailhotte has put down his tools and put on an Enterprise uniform. “I’m one of the ‘red shirts’ that doesn’t die,’ ” he said, aware that crew members who wore red in the 1960s series often were knocked off before the final credits.
He insists he is not a rabid fan.
“I’m not a Trekkie,” he said. “A lot of these guys will start talking trivia and I get lost. I watched the show as a kid, I still watch the show . . . but I’m involved because I enjoy building stuff. We could be filming anything, and Retro Film does film other stuff, and I’m involved in those projects as well.”
“Phase II” has attracted more than just fans. Actors such as George Takei, Walter Koenig and Grace Lee Whitney, who had supporting roles in the original “Star Trek,” have traveled to Port Henry to once again play their best-known characters. D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold, who wrote screenplays for Shatner’s crew, have also written for the “Star Trek” of the north.
On that hot June day, many crew members wore “Star Trek”-inspired T-shirts and caps. Everyone takes the show seriously. Shooting a late afternoon scene, two cameramen, sound men, scene “clapper” and other crew waited for director Mark Burchett to say “action.” The word was given, and actors began their routines. But only for a few seconds.
“Cut!” Burchett said. “We’ve got boom shadow.” A shadow from the boom microphone was visible in the shot.
Andrew Grieb, 51, a retired security policeman for the U.S. Air Force, saw some of the early “Phase II” work and wanted in. Now he travels to New York from his home in Denver, Colo., for the annual space party.
As senior line producer, Grieb puts together crew and equipment lists and works out logistics for location scenes. This time around, he’s getting into costume. “I’ll be one of the Roman centurions,” he said. “I get to revert back to my military days.”
Grieb said he and other star people are occasionally razzed by some locals — mostly teenagers — who will offer anti-Trek barbs as crew members take a break outside the studio. “It doesn’t bother us,” he said.
Patty Wright of Westfield, Mass., associate producer who’s also in charge of wardrobe, disagrees. She said dozens of “Phase II” volunteers spend money in Port Henry and Ticonderoga for several weeks, pumping cash into what can be a slow economy. The money, she believes, should also buy a little respect.
Some Ticonderoga residents are glad “Star Trek” has beamed into their quadrant of New York state.
Laura Muniz said the crew will occasionally fill up her restaurant, George’s Italian-American. She has called the crew members during the early evening and reminded them they haven’t taken a break for dinner. “There are a lot of different characters. They just want to have fun and enjoy what they’re doing,” she said. “Some of them just live the role. It’s their whole life.”
Brian Holloway was in full makeup. He was dressed in black and midnight blue as a Romulan, one of the dark-haired, sharp-eared adversaries on Shatner’s “Star Trek.”
Holloway, 48, an actor who lives in Charlotte, N.C., and teaches theater arts to middle school children, said the Web shows inspire his students. “It’s the idea that ‘I can do it, you can do it,’ ” he said. “That starts conversations faster than anything else.”
He keeps coming back to Port Henry because he likes to act. He said Cawley is another reason. “It’s the dynamic nature of James,” he said. “He’s said it before — he might have started ‘Star Trek,’ the project, but this is our ‘Star Trek.’ He couldn’t do it without us, and we wouldn’t do it without him.”
Cawley’s path is nostalgic. And people are supposed to see a little bit of Shatner in his interpretation of Kirk.
“I try to be me, but I felt when I talked and how I moved, I had to be like him,” Cawley said. “I have one rule, if I read the script and there’s a particular line that jumps out at me as, ‘Oh, I have to say it exactly like William Shatner,’ I’ll do it. Sometimes, the fans will jump on me for being too much like Shatner, then you have a whole other faction that just thinks that’s cool. You can’t please them all.”
“Phase II” looks for donations to keep the Enterprise on the move. Costs like props, costumes, electricity and even trash removal add up. The production company also looks for new crew members, people who want to participate in a film shoot.
“This is ‘Star Trek’ summer camp,” Cawley said. “It’s a place for ‘Star Trek’ fans to come and talk about all things ‘Star Trek,’ and more importantly, it gives them a chance to experience what it was like to work on the show.”
Cawley, who will appear as Elvis at The Great Escape and Splashwater Kingdom’s hotel over the summer, knows that “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry was once known to fans as the “great bird of the galaxy.”
He’s not sure what that makes him.
“Maybe the crazy bird,” he said, laughing. “The loon of Champlain.”