“Thank God for Star Trek”: The Next Generation

Photo by Bill Watters
Photo by Bill Watters

On Saturday afternoon, the Hilton Grand Salon ballroom was home to one of the most dynamic and entertaining panels this year as the stars of Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG) literally took command of the room. Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner launched the hour with an “improve” that had to bring back memories of the fun they used to have during production. The very large crowd was filing in and rather than wait for the house to fill and moderator Garrett Wang’s introduction, the guests simply came out and began chatting with the crowd. Following Frakes’ lead, the panelists actually took off, went into the crowd, and began “high fiving” and greeting those already seated. Wang eventually brought them back to the stage but the banter continued. Spiner encouraged the crowd in his best Patrick Stewart impersonation, and Sirtis issued directives. Frakes took matters into his own hands and threw an ice chip, striking Michael Dorn. In other words, “it was on!”

When the session officially began (if such was even possible), one of the first members asked about Paramount’s plans post Star Trek: Discovery. No one really knew, but Frakes addressed the Discovery issue head on, pointing out that Discovery was going to be fabulous! Moreover, he added that Discovery had been received with the same kind and levels of trepidation that ST:TNG had seen, and that turned out just fine.

When asked about the impact of the show and whether he realized its significance, Spiner admitted that he didn’t but was glad that the character was there “for you.” A little later in the hour he pointed out that the notion of the program’s legacy and meaning is a bonus for them. Their goal was to entertain. The fact that the show had an impact beyond that is “gravy for us.” McFadden pointed out that she came to understand the impact of the show only with the passage of time. She didn’t start out thinking of or seeing her character as a role model. She finds the number of people who are now professionals in medicine and the sciences thanks to the show, and her character in particular, both inspiring and humbling.

A musician then asked Frakes about his trombone playing. This was an element written in the story after he spoke with the writers.  When they asked him what he liked to do, he responded that he played trombone, just not well.  Frakes declared “I know how to hold it.”  The “sweet” music you hear in the series when Frakes was “playing” actually came from a talented jazz musician named Bill Watrous.

Spiner took on a question about costumes by telling a tale about “Fist Full of Datas.” Production was outdoors in extreme heat. There were stunt men wearing the same costumes as Spiner because of the multiple camera angles and shoots. The wardrobe master, a cowboy, came to Spiner and said that he’d messed up and was afraid of being fired. The issue was that a stunt man had already worn the only costume for that scene and it was soaked. Spiner donned the costume and shot the scene. The next day a shoebox arrived containing a vintage Colt 44 pistol in a left handed holster. The wardrobe master’s letter commended Spiner. He had “cowboyed up” and the pistol, supposedly the Pat Garrett murder weapon, was a gift.

Questioning then turned to pranks, and Dorn pointed out that more than pranks, things just happened on set that brought production to a stop with laughter. He recounted the tale of a scene in which Worf and Data entered a bar in search of Ensign Ro. They were to go in and ask, “Have you seen Ensign Ro?” She was, however, in plain sight of all. This was enough to send them off to such a degree that Spiner and Dorn couldn’t get through the scene. In fact, they began to do the scene over and over in different accents, driving the director, none other than Sir Patrick Stewart, to exasperation. Dorn claims Stewart has yet to forgive them.

The panel then turned to favorite episodes. Answers ranged from “The Offspring” and “Best of Both Worlds I & II” to “Data’s Day” and “Drumhead.” McFadden found “Host” really interesting. It grappled with issues of gender, written by a gay author, and asks, “What is love?” Dorn felt the last 5 minutes of “The Offsping” to be among the best ever produced. He described it as “heartrending, beautifully written and acted.” He also appreciated the power of “Drumhead,” with fabulous acting by Stewart and Jean Simmons. Dorn reminded the crowd that both these episodes were directed by none other than Jonathan Frakes. Sirtis also loves a good courtroom drama, and “Measure of theNman,” in which Data was put on trial, was the perfect Star Trek episode. “It said something, it meant something, and was a bit controversial.”

Another interesting moment came when a fan asked the panel when they realized they had a hit show. For Spiner, the moment came when Whoopi Goldberg joined the cast. Here was a major movie star who was so interested in the program that she came to the producers asking to be on the show. It was a singular moment in the program’s arc.

Dorn reflected on his experience moving from ST:TNG to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He left a show in which the cast shared laughter and fun to one that was “very serious.” The show, to him, seemed to reflect the seriousness of Avery Brooks. Crew even gave direction almost at a whisper. His Deep Space Nine colleagues were great people and actors but the environment was certainly different. Dorn admitted to took about six months for them to loosen up.

As the hour wound down a fan wanted to know if the panel members were science fiction fans. Dorn was a “yes,” Sirtis a “no,” McFadden and Spiner a little bit. Frakes spoke for all in the room when he declared: “I am now…. Thank God for Star Trek.”

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