What a Long, Strange TREK It's Been
Stepping onto the Paramount Pictures lot on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood is like stepping into a scene from Sunset Boulevard: The scene where Nancy Olson tells William Holden about how she was born and raised in show business, but only as a bit player in the corporate offices, not as a creative talent.Then and now, the lot is made up of white stucco buildings with metallic outdoor staircases and pedestrian walkways between them. The whole place is decorated with palms, palmettos and some rather more common trees, except for the way their foliage is trimmed to look like carpet rolls mounted on bark-covered lollipop sticks. If you look at the trees closely, you can see how the landscapers have mutilated their leaves and branches to create row after row of kitchy symmetry.Inside the white buildings are offices like the ones where Olson dared Holden to stop writing junk and instead write that beautiful "little" screenplay about a dedicated school teacher. But junk paid better, so Holden returned to his work as a rewrite hack and gigolo to a faded silent film actress who lived in a decaying Hollywood mansion with her ex-husband-turned-butler and a dead monkey.It was strange being in this place. It was familiar, like a deja vu, but of course I'd never been there, I'd only seen it in Sunset Boulevard. It almost didn't seem right to sit for 90 minutes in a theater on the lot watching Beavis & Butthead Do America. I felt like I should walk about and look for ghosts, dead or alive.But there was work to be done, culture to be watched, questions to be asked. The next night I returned to the Paramount lot to see Star Trek: First Contact, and the morning after that, at the Four Seasons Hotel on the edge of Beverly Hills -- just a few blocks from where the neighborhood goes sour -- I spent 15 or 20 minutes each with the people who starred in the new Trek movie.Here's some of what they told me -- and some of what they didn't.After eight movies and more than 400 hour-long episodes spread out over four TV series, the Star Trek universe turned 30 on Sept. 8 with a lot less fanfare than you'd expect. There were no celebrations, just a series of TV Guide covers and guest appearances by two original cast members on an episode of Star Trek: Voyager.In the 1960s, the original series imagined a 23rd Century of hope and peace among the galaxy's many life forms. The Starship Enterprise was itself a mini-United Nations warping through space: Its captain was an American, its first mate a Vulcan, its crew members Russian and Japanese and African. This was all groundbreaking for television at the time. Young African-Americans took inspiration from Nichelle Nichols in the role of Uhura, whose name is Swahili for "freedom," and whose character led them to believe the world might actually look like that some day.A generation later they're still waiting, some more patiently than others.LeVar Burton read a lot of science fiction as a child. But in all those books by Heinlein or Asimov or Clarke -- the popular sci-fi literary philosophers of the past half century -- none of their heroes ever looked like him."I grew up in an age where there we were no black people on TV," says the 39-year-old actor, who plays the Enterprise's chief engineer, Geordi LaForge. "Star Trek was the first representation of the future where I felt represented. Watching Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek was big time."Burton is passionate about Star Trek. He discusses it with an almost reverent enthusiasm, and he may be the series' biggest cheerleader among the seven regular cast members. If you point out that the new movie, Star Trek: First Contact, violates the Prime Directive of non-intervention, he puts his finger to his mouth and makes a playful, "Shhhh." He takes the work very seriously, and he says there's magic when he and his colleagues make a movie together.So, too, does Alfre Woodard, who's new to the Star Trek universe. In First Contact, she plays a 21st Century woman who's first frightened and then enriched by her encounter with the time-traveling, 24th Century Enterprise crew.But back in her own time, she's not so happy with the way things are."I've been talking this out in the press for the past 12 years," says Woodard, who finds that black actors, like herself, still have to struggle to be offered good roles. "I don't even like to talk about it any more. No, things have not changed. They probably never will change. That doesn't mean we don't keep trying to push the barriers, to make our screen reflective of the culture and the everyday melting pot that it is."She makes her plea with vehemence, but she pauses now and then, wondering if it's worth the time to talk about it any more. She stops in mid-sentence, then says aloud, slowly and painfully, "Oh, God, don't do this," as if telling herself to stop saying things that hurt so much. She concludes: "I'm not hopeful, no. I think I'm being realistic."In the meantime, Woodard makes the best of her roles, which have been juicy if not always high-profile. She calls herself "more of an action hero-type person in real life," and she offers a firm handshake to prove it. She giggles at the little plastic action figure of her character in First Contact, and she's pleased that it doesn't really look like her.Stories like these are part of the actors' lives. They're also part of the Star Trek philosophy, which often raises issues of life on Earth. Even the South African-born Alice Krige, who plays the wicked Borg Queen in First Contact, seems compelled to bring up the subject of race in the context of a Star Trek chat. "It was wonderful," says Krige, who is white, and who recently visited her homeland, "to be in a line with South Africans and not be ashamed to lift my head."Just before he got the part of the farmer in Babe, James Cromwell considered retiring from show business rather than kicking around in character parts for another 30 years. But Babe and an Oscar nomination convinced him that he still had a few years left in the business.In First Contact, he plays Zefram Cochran, a legendary character in Star Trek lore. He's the guy who, in 2061, first traveled at warp speed, which allowed Earth people to meet alien life forms. Cochran is a greedy cynical post-World War III 21st Century party animal; Cromwell is a self-proclaimed ex-hippie who lives in the 20th Century, at least chronologically.So maybe it's an acid flashback, or maybe this guy wants to meet aliens so badly that he's willing to try anything. But this week, Cromwell will be in the desert trying to use ESP to contact ET.The Mayans and Egyptians think the world will end early in the next millennium. Not Cromwell."It actually could be a birth," he says, and the intellectual roller-coaster ride begins, "the next evolution out of our monkey bodies, where consciousness leaves the monkey body, and either goes into a virtual space of imagination, or stays in the monkey and achieves a state of communion with the overmind, the overmind being that consciousness that animates the entire universe. We live in a very linear, causal, either-or culture. This is real" -- he knocks on the table -- "But we all know this is not real. This is only language, only agreement. There's actually nothing there but empty space, a flux of energy. We're stuck in this separate other, this ego, this I am my monkey body. So to get out of our bodies means history is over. We can go to the end of time, answer all the questions."What he'll do in the desert is use meditation, half a million candlepower of lights, and sound recordings from the crop circles to create a telepathic link with any alien who can pick up his signal. That would be a close encounter of the fifth kind -- one made through an exchange of thoughts. He wants to do this because he won't believe stories of aliens landing on earth unless he makes contact himself. He doubts alien abduction stories because he doesn't believe aliens would come all this way just to torture people. He believes they would want to explore our compassion and humanity."Can you imagine," he asks, "a civilization able to travel in the zero point out of space and time, but whose people don't know what the experience of 'to love' is? If they're out there, they're saying, 'Let's get to know [Earthlings] and their wonderful consciousness before they bring us all their drek.'"By the way, Cromwell had never seen an episode of Star Trek before joining the cast of First Contact. Now that's hard to believe.On this Sunday morning in Los Angeles, the rest of the Star Trek regulars have more terrestrial things in mind, like their movie and their careers. Most of them come in casual dress attire: jackets, cotton shirts, blouses, turtlenecks, trousers. Michael Dorn, who plays the Klingon Worf, wears blue jeans and a baseball cap. Only the show's two former lovers Jonathan Frakes (as Riker) and Marina Sirtis (as Troi) dress for sex appeal: She in a low-cut top that reveals lots of deep tanned cleavage, he in a sport shirt that exposes a hunk of his hirsute chest.Frakes, who also directed the movie, is spirited about First Contact. It's important for him to know whether people laughed at the humor, and he confesses that he'd like to act in a television sit-com. He's a bit of a rogue when he talks about his work as a director, but his wide smile and affecting cockiness soften the hubris.His counterpart is Patrick Stewart, the steely Captain of the Enterprise who spent 27 years acting on the British stage before coming to America to do Star Trek. Stewart has only been unemployed for three weeks in his career, a remarkable run for any actor. Yet he admits that his stage work in London often took place in small theaters in front of "fairly refined and elite audiences." He's now able to mount a play or a one-man show and draw lots of people who want to see Picard in person.For Stewart, playing Picard is a gift, the chance to develop an intriguing character over decades and learn something every time. In First Contact he had to fire a Thompson submachine gun, which gave him a new understanding of 1930s gangster movies. "The sense of violence felt so dangerous," he recalls. "The recoil is tremendous. The moment we finished a shot I could not wait to get it out of my hands."Dorn, the stolid Klingon, turns out to be the gadfly of the group. He's not afraid to criticize Hollywood and some aspects of the Trek experience. He didn't much like the last movie, Star Trek Generations, and he says the show's producers ignore actors when they say a particular alien costume is uncomfortable. He even recalled his days in 1970s television, on the TV series CHiPS, when studios and networks would clandestinely put money in their budgets to buy drugs."I've always had a big mouth with my opinions," says Dorn, "and I've learned how to temper them with some logic and some thought." Then he adds: "People respect me. They may not hire me, they may not want to work with me, but it's a big business, and there's a lot of people out there."Tell that to Brent Spiner, whose Star Trek character, the android Data, is probably the show's most popular. The other regulars say they'll gladly be back for the next movie, which producer Rick Berman says is already being discussed. But Spiner won't commit to appearing in it, and the more he talks, the more he hedges.So will he be in the next Trek adventure? "Uh, I don't know," he says, drawing out his answer. "These things don't...we don't even know if there's going to be another one. If there is, maybe I'll do one, maybe two more, tops. Maybe none. Who knows?"Because his character is an android, he can't age. So Spiner, who is 47 but looks much younger, says he'll quit playing Data rather than compromise the character.Only the future will tell the whole story, and the future hasn't been written yet, although Berman says he and his team are working on it. In the meantime, the actors will go their own ways until Paramount commissions a big-screen Chapter Three for its profitable TV and cinema franchise.When the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation ended production two years ago, Sirtis went into mourning. She no longer saw the people she loved to work with, and she couldn't get onto the Paramount lot because she didn't have a job there any more. She felt like she'd been erased, and she was scared to enter the job market again. But the wounds have healed now and the actors have moved on, reuniting bi-annually to make Star Trek feature films. "It's really a fun interlude in our lives every two years," says Sirtis. "But it's not the focus of our lives any more."