I'm a great fan of the original Star Trek show and at least one of the films (The Wrath of Khan, of course). Kirk, Spock and McCoy may not have been complex characters, but they were authentically mythic--Kirk was a smug trickster Ulysses, McCoy a crabby Sancho Panza sidekick, Spock a sort of befuddled techno-Siddhartha--and the actors who played them (and their shipmates) gave them an edgy humor.
Though I've liked The Next Generation well enough, its characters, while attractive, are bland paragons beside the originals, and the show's humor is labored, while the general atmosphere is one of P.C. virtuousness. Consequently, watching The Next Generation never has been a habit with me, and I have never studied the cast up close.
All this is about to change.
I'm about to get so close a look at most of the latest Trek cast that it would make a Trek fan drool. I'm in L.A. on a Paramount press junket for the film Star Trek: First Contact, and I've just been rousted from a peaceful sleep to partake in an American show-biz press ritual: the table-hop press conference--wherein, by prearrangement with publicists, entertainment writers collect around a table leaving one seat open. As the game begins, the empty seat gets filled, in turn, by the movie stars who appear in the picture being promoted. I'm the last writer to find an empty seat. And the other empty seat, the one next to mine, is the one set aside for the stars.
The first of them, Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi), is brought in and plopped down about a foot away from me. The lovely brunette Brit's dress is astoundingly slinky for before 9 a.m., and I find that I don't listen to a word she says. But when I play the tape back later, I realize that she hasn't said anything very different from most of her fellow Trek regulars: The show was great to work on, everyone gets along. "I'd only been in this country for six months when I got Star Trek; these people were my family," she says. Making the movie was fun, goes their refrain, but all of them would like to work on other, non-Star Trek, non-sci-fi projects.
Several of the cast members mildly wisecrack at the expense of Jonathan Frakes, the director of First Contact as well as one of the stars, and seemingly the picked-on company nerd. The other journalists roar with delight at such jocularity. When it's Frakes' turn, he's touchingly gleeful about his soon-to-be-delivered baby. Michael "Worf" Dorn tells funny stories about his experiences as a musician before he became an actor, but what I'm transfixed by is the grayish, eczemalike cast of this handsome man's skin--the result, perhaps, of wearing a Klingon face pretty regularly for a decade or so?
Under all of the interviews is a faint whiff of . . . well, not insincerity, but of forced jollity. At the edges of the actors' platitudes, one can hear a touch of sheepish irritation at how most of their careers have become entangled with the virtuous, lucrative, bindingly stodgy iconography of Star Trek. There's also a bit of simple fatigue, a sense that they've given the same answers 20 times already and must give them 20 more before they rest. Later that morning, in the elevator, I'll hear Brent "Data" Spiner muttering with producer Rick Berman about the need to establish a set answer for why Whoopi Goldberg wasn't in the film.
Patrick Stewart is brought in, followed by a Paramount flunky who gives him a cup of coffee and a fruit plate. Perhaps because of his star status, he seems the most relaxed and pleasant of the regs, and he becomes animated when I ask what classical leads he'd like to play, or when a journalist from Pittsburgh asks him about a recent singing gig he'd had in that city. But the Trek enthusiasts among the interviewers are uncomfortable with such lines of questioning--they are off the Great Subject.
I wolf down what's left of Patrick Stewart's breakfast when he leaves. It's time for the three guest stars: Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell and Alice Krige. Cromwell tells us about working on Babe, and about playing Charles Keating in the upcoming The People vs. Larry Flynt. Woodard is smashingly dressed, and with her delicate features and short-cropped hair dyed Shirley Temple yellow, she looks more like some wondrous sci-fi creature than any of the regulars.
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She's a funny, vigorous interview. At one point, I ask her if she doesn't think she's in the opposite situation from most major actresses in this country: She's done little apart from first-rate roles in prestige films; and now Star Trek is a chance for her to do a fluffier, popcorn movie. The Trek enthusiasts across the table--who are getting a little bored, now that Patrick Stewart has left--bridle at that assessment of Star Trek, and so does Woodard. She's a fan. Whoops.
But my ultimate indignity is at the hands of LeVar Burton. He spends a good chunk of the interview bubbling excitedly about the Tyson-Holyfield fight, which he had seen the night before. In the way of demonstrating how Holyfield trapped Tyson against the ropes, he uses me as his Tyson, shoving me off my chair with his shoulder. I allow Burton to do this because, after all, he's Geordi, he's the host of Reading Rainbow, he's Kunta Kinte, for Heaven's sake.
After he leaves, I say, "What kind of wussy does that make me? LeVar Burton just pushed me around."
"Yeah, we're all gonna use it in our stories," the guy from Pittsburgh says. "Mr. Reading Rainbow kicked your ass.