Jonathan Lane is a guest writer on the Axanar blog.
Y’know what I find really cool about writing these blogs? History. I’m not talking about the history of Starfleet or the Federation; I’m talking about the history of Star Trek fan films themselves.
Although Star Trek fan films date back to the early days when TOS was still airing in first run on NBC, the real history of modern Star Trek fan films began in 2000. And while a decade and a half might not seem like that long compared the history of Europe or China or the Milky Way galaxy, it’s still long enough for a lot of fascinating stuff to have happened. After all, the modern age of Star Trek fan films has now lasted about a third of the length of time as Star Trek itself!
And that brings us to today’s entry, Star Trek: Of Gods and Men. A key turning point in the fascinating history of Star Trek fan films, the production and release of this ambitious fan film helped to blaze a trail for many future independent endeavors such as Axanar. Granted, STOGAM (even the abbreviation is long!) did not accomplish this paradigm shift all on its own. Other series like Star Trek: New Voyages also played a key roll in getting Trek fan films from there to here. But to understand the true significance of the change that STOGAM helped to bring about, we should compare where we are to where we were.
Nowadays, a professional-level Trek fan production is fairly common. It’s not unusual to see a hoard of Hollywood industry people populating both the cast and production crew on many efforts. Star Trek veteran actors routinely reprise their former iconic roles or play new characters within the Star Trek universe. Guest stars who appeared in only a handful of Trek episodes might suddenly find themselves with a nice, juicy part or at least a cameo appearance in a fan film. And heck, it doesn’t even have to be Star Trek veterans. Various fan films have featured famous faces from other sci-fi franchises like Gil Gerard and Erin Gray from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Sean Young from Blade Runner, Lou Ferrigno from The Incredible Hulk TV series, and even Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee! And of course, Richard Hatch and Kate Vernon from Battlestar Galactica are part of the Axanar cast.
And it’s not just in front of the camera. Veteran Trek and sci-fi writers, costumers, VFX people, designers, line producers, and even directors have gotten involved in Star Trek “fan” films… so much so that Alec Peters doesn’t even believe in calling Axanar a “fan film” and considers it an “independent Star Trek production.” In a few cases industry professionals have actually reached out to these fan producers (rather than vice-versa) and asked to work on their films.
That’s now. But it wasn’t always such. By the time the “modern age of Star Trek fan films” (I really need to trademark that phrase!) began in 2000, those early projects were pretty much fans-only. Hidden Frontier, Starship Exeter, and a few others would never have dreamed they could use professionals from the entertainment industry! Fan films were just that: fan films. And because of that, people watching these finished projects didn’t really have high expectations.
(I should mention an important side note here because there was one early exception. Back in 1985, an ambitious fan film called Yorktown: A Time To Heal included in its cast George Takei, reprising his role of Sulu in a time period between the end of the original 5-year mission and the first Star Trek motion picture. A bunch of footage was shot with George, but two years later, the project was abandoned. Three decades later, Yorktown is finally being finished—with the help of Starbase Studios—but that’s a subject for a future blog.)
Then in 2004, a new fan series called Star Trek: New Voyages dipped their toes where no fan film (other than Yorktown) had gone before. In their pilot episode, “Come What May,” New Voyages featured cameo appearances by two actors who had minor but recurring roles in the original Star Trek series: John “Lt. Kyle” Winston and Eddie “Lt. Lesley” Paskey. Neither actor reprised their original character, although Eddie Paskey played the father of Lt. Lesley, Admiral Lesley. But suddenly the seal had been broken for the first time in nearly 20 years. An actual Star Trek actor appeared in a fan film!
A few months later, New Voyages pushed the envelope open just a teensy bit more when they cast three Star Trek veteran guest stars – Barbra Luna, Malachi Throne, and William Windom. But this time, the latter two actually reprised their original characters: Throne as the voice of Commodore Jose Mendez (as well as playing a Klingon) and Windom as a time-displaced Commodore Matt Decker. Luna, who had played Lt. Marlena Moreau in “Mirror, Mirror,” instead played the wife of Decker rather than reprising her role.
So Trek actors could now play the same character decades later… how cool was that? By this point, New Voyages was also using Doug Drexler, who worked on the Voyager and Enterprise visual effects for Paramount, to create their own CGI effects. And a couple of other Star Trek production people were also working behind the scenes on New Voyages, a few of them moonlighting while Enterprise was still on the air!
Jaws really dropped, however, when New Voyages announced its third episode, “To Serve All My Days.” This time, the envelope wasn’t simply pushed; it was ripped wide open as Walter Koenig himself agreed to appear as an older Chekov in a direct sequel to the TOS episode “The Deadly Years.” And it wouldn’t just be a quick cameo but a major role in the episode. (Actress Mary Linda Rapelye, who played Chekov’s space hippie ex-girlfriend in “The Way To Eden,” also appeared in this New Voyages episode.) But not only that, the episode was actually written by legendary Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana (who has written for TOS, TAS, TNG, and DS9). Sure, the majority of the cast and crew were still just fan amateurs, but getting one of the main TOS series regulars to reprise his iconic role and having a script written by one of the top Star Trek writers of all time… it seemed the bar had just been raised into the stratosphere!
And that brings us to Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, which raised the bar clean out of the solar system. This is not to diminish the achievements of the New Voyages team. They blazed the trail and earned their glory, and they continue to dazzle and impress fans to this very day.
But before I get into the specifics of why and how STOGAM was made, take a quick look at their featured cast of veteran Star Trek and sci-fi actors…
- Walter Koenig (reprising his role of Pavel Chekov)
- Nichelle Nichols (reprising her role of Nyota Uhura)
- Alan Ruck (reprising his role as Captain John Harriman from Star Trek Generations)
- Garrett Wang (who played Ensign Harry Kim on Voyager)
- J.G. Hertzler (who played General Martok on Deep Space Nine)
- Tim Russ (reprising his role as Tuvok… kinda)
- Gary Graham (known for his starring role on Alien Nation and also as Vulcan Ambassador Soval from Star Trek: Enterprise)
- Chase Masterson (who played Leeta on Deep Space Nine)
- Crystal Allen (who played D’Nesh in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Bound)
- Ethan Phillips (who played Neelix on Voyager)
- Cirroc Lofton (who played Jake Sisko on Deep Space Nine)
- Lawrence Montaigne (reprising a version of his Vulcan character Stonn from the TOS episode “Amok Time”)
- Grace Lee Whitney (reprising her role of Janice Rand)
- Herbert Jefferson, Jr. (who played Lt. Boomer on the original Battlestar Galactica)
- Arlene Martel (who played Spock’s wife T’Pring in the TOS episode “Amok Time”)
- Jack Donner (who played Roman Sub-Commander Tal in the TOS episode “The Enterprise Incident” and later played a Vulcan priest on Enterprise)
- Tania Lemani (who played the Argelian dancer Kara in the TOS episode “Wolf in the Fold”)
- Celeste Yarnall (who played Yeoman Martha Landon in the TOS episode “The Apple”)
Okay, let me catch my breath…that list took me about 10 minutes to type!
But it wasn’t just the actors. The script was written by two screenwriters from Deep Space Nine, Jack Treviño and Ethan H. Calk. Also, the director of photography, Douglas Knapp, had worked on Voyager. And to top it all off, this 90-minute “fan” film was directed by none other than Tuvok himself, Tim Russ. How did something like this come about, you might ask?
The man behind STOGAM, Sky Douglas Conway, was a close friend of Gene Roddenberry in his later years and also a promoter who ran Planet Xpo, which hosted a number of Trek conventions and special sci-fi events. Back in 2003, Conway had released a short film called Roddenberry on Patrol, directed by Tim “Tuvok” Russ and featuring cameos from ten different Trek stars and guest stars from the various series (including Russ himself). The project was more of a parody and tribute to Gene Roddenberry, looking humorously at Gene’s time as a motorcycle cop in Los Angeles in the 1960s and his “inspirations” for various concepts in what would later become Star Trek.
As 2006 rolled around, Conway realized that Enterprise had just been canceled the previous year, and when the 40th anniversary of Star Trek arrived in September, there would be no new Star Trek on TV or in theaters for the first time in nearly 20 years! Conway didn’t want to let the 40th anniversary pass without doing something special, and so he decided to unite as many Trek actors as he could convince to do a special fan film celebrating all things Star Trek.
Remember that, as a promoter, Conway personally knew many Trek actors, and they were generally quite enthusiastic about the idea. Initially, Conway wanted the story to focus on the “second tier” regulars from TOS: Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov. And while the latter two signed up quickly, George Takei had prior commitments and regretfully was not available to appear in the project. Instead, Conway tapped Alan Ruck, who played Captain John Harriman of the Enterprise-B in the seventh Trek film, to play the third leading role.
When Conway approached Tim Russ to be in the film, he agreed only if he could also direct it (remember that Russ had previously directed Roddenberry on Patrol). Sold! Russ worked with Conway and writers Treviño and Calk on Conway’s initial story idea to clean up the plot and timeline, as well as editing down material that didn’t need to be shot.
The story takes place 40 years after Kirk’s original 5-year mission (40th anniversary, get it?) and 12 years after Kirk’s “death” in ST Generations. Captain Harriman has grown from an insecure rookie to a confident and capable starship commander, and Chekov and Uhura are both captains themselves, visiting a “museum ship” recreation of their original Enterprise NCC-1701. Spock and McCoy are on Romulus negotiating a treaty (explaining their absence), and Scotty is missing, as this takes place after his incident on the USS Jenolan. (So that explains the absence of the “big four.”)
But something happens (I won’t spoil it) that thrusts the three lead characters into an alternate reality. It’s not the mirror universe but more of an “It’s a Not-So-Wonderful Life” alpha quadrant where James T. Kirk was never born… and this tense reality is fraught with danger, intrigue, and quite a bit of action.
The majority of the 90-minute movie was filmed in less than two weeks during the summer of 2006 at Retro Studios in Port Henry, New York, home of James Cawley’s amazing New Voyages sets of the TOS Enterprise. Apparently, it was a stiflingly hot and humid two weeks, and shooting couldn’t even begin until 6:00 p.m. each evening due to the excessive heat in the studio. Additional filming was done in Los Angeles, including at the famous Vasquez Rocks State Park. Total cost of the production was reportedly $150,000 with a good chunk going to pay the Screen Actors Guild members Internet-scale for their time. Most of the rest of the team worked for free or close to free.
Initially the plan was to film during the summer months and then release the final film by the end of the year, still in time to celebrate the 40th anniversary. But alas, like so many other fan film endeavors, post-production took much longer than expected, mostly due to the challenges of sound editing and waiting for CGI effects As the team was completing the finished film, Conway and Russ were also trying to convince CBS to let them distribute STOGAM for a fee, either per download or by selling a DVD. CBS didn’t go for the idea, and STOGAM was ultimately provided to fans for free via the Internet, split into three half-hour segments… the first two ending with cliffhangers, of course. Part 1 was released in December of 2007, part 2 three months later, and part 3 on June 15, 2008.
Fan reaction to the film was mixed. However, I just re-watched STOGAM for the first time in a few years, and I actually think the movie holds up rather well. All of the actors, especially the three leads, put in amazingly strong performances. Walter Koenig in particular provided a tour de force portrayal of an emotionally tortured Chekov, and Nichelle Nichols added a depth to the character of Uhura that had never been seen before. Alan Ruck, J.G. Hertzler, Chase Masterson, and Garrett Wang threw everything they had into their roles, and it shows anytime they are on the screen. Likewise, the directing was very strong, with a different camera technique employed for scenes in the alternate reality that makes the film extremely dynamic to watch.
Perhaps too much was squeezed into the script, and the big space battle at the end was a little too busy (and wound up being more confusing than exciting. But I can overlook these weaknesses because the basic idea was always to celebrate all things Star Trek TOS (or as much as could be fit into 90 minutes). And in the end, STOGAM achieved a professional look and feel that raised the bar for fan films… and it deserves to be watched (or re-watched) for that very reason.
Star Trek: Of Gods and Men ushered in a new level of production quality that was followed by equally ambitious fan efforts from teams like New Voyages, Star Trek Continues, Prelude to Axanar, and Sky Conway’s next project: Star Trek: Renegades (released earlier this year).
And speaking of Renegades, for anyone who is interested, they have a new Kickstarter going on right now trying to raise money for their 2-part second and third episodes, which will mark Walter Koenig’s final appearances as Pavel Chekov. As I write this blog (about a week before you read it), they’ve raised $120,000 in just three days, and their current Kickstarter extends through December 2. (You’re allowed to donate to more than one fan film, by the way. I’m a Renegades donor myself.)
If you take a look at their cast and crew list, you’ll see that the “age of professional-level independent Star Trek film production” is most certainly in high gear… and we fans are being treated to some really awesome Star Trek!