Fan Film Friday: Star Trek: Renegades Raises the Bar

Jonathan Lane is a guest writer on the Axanar Blog.

Heads up, Axanar!  Star Trek: Renegades has tossed down the competitive gauntlet and hit new heights of awesome!  (Granted, it’s a friendly competition, as Alec Peters is actually listed as a Consulting Producer in the Renegades credits.  We love them, and they love us.)

But, man!  Star Trek: Renegades rocks some serious antimatter!!!

Last Saturday, I attended back-to-back red-carpet screenings of Renegades at the Crest Theater in West Los Angeles.  The first screening was for fans and donors, and the second was for cast, crew, and VIP guests.  Both times, the audience cheered, applauded, and laughed in all the right places.  And both times, I never felt for a second that I was watching a fan film!  This was cinema, and – more importantly (and despite the cynical predictions to the contrary) – this was definitely, abso-friggin’-lutely Star Trek.  It’s not “explore strange new worlds” Star Trek, but it is “save the galaxy from the bad guys” Star Trek (cowboy diplomacy, if you will).

Renegades got its start in 2006 on the final day of filming for Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, the first full-length fan film to feature multiple Star Trek veteran actors reprising their roles from the various series.  Despite a grueling shooting schedule, uncomfortable filming conditions, and non-stop challenges, producer Sky Conway still found himself saying to his cowriters, Ethan Calk and Jack Treviño, on that last day, “Y’know, this has been so much fun! I challenge you guys to come up with an idea for something that we could make into an ongoing Trek series.”

Almost immediately, Jack Treviño popped out the suggestion: “How about The Dirty Dozen meets Star Trek?”  Sky Conway’s face lit up, and he said, “Sold!”  And so the three writers began fleshing out the idea.  But then they moved onto other projects for a while, and later, the recession dampened film production for a few years.  But finally, in 2012, Star Trek: Renegades was ready to begin filming at Laurel Canyon Stages in Sun Valley, CA.

Tim Russ both directs and reprises his role as an older and wiser Tuvok.

Tim Russ both directs and reprises his role as an older and wiser Tuvok.

The cast of well-known actors is beyond impressive, and includes Star Trek and sci-fi alumni from multiple series, genres, and decades on both the big and small screen.  From Star Trek, Tim Russ both directs (as he did for Of Gods and Men) and reprises his role of Tuvok; Walter Koenig plays Admiral Pavel Chekov; Robert Picardo makes an appearance as Dr. Lewis Zimmerman, the creator of the Emergency Medical Hologram (it was Picardo’s idea to play Zimmerman rather than the EMH); Richard Herd reprises his role of Admiral Paris from Voyager; and Manu Intiraymi comes back as an older Icheb, the Borg youth rescued and released from the Collective by Captain Janeway and her crew.  Also appearing with a Star Trek pedigree (which includes Enterprise AND Axanar), Gary Graham plays a brand new character as far removed from Vulcan Ambassador Soval as you could possibly imagine.

Other cast members with sci-fi/fantasy/horror resumes include lead actress Adrienne Wilkinson, who played Xena’s daughter Livia/Eve on Xena: Warrior Princess; Sean Young, who co-starred with Harrison Ford in the original Blade Runner; Edward Furlong, who got his start playing the young John Connor in Terminator 2; Bruce A. Young, who starred as Captain Simon Banks in the UPN sci-fi police drama The Sentinel; and even Lt. Boomer from the original Battlestar Galactica, Herbert Jefferson, Jr., has a small but important role to play.

Geez, the list just goes on and on and on even beyond the actors I’ve already named, but I don’t want to take this entire article just telling you who’s in this movie!  Suffice it to say that there was not one bad or awkward performance in the entire 100 minutes… and that’s saying something for a ‘fan’ film.  Granted, that’s just my opinion, but when performances suck, I notice.  We all do. These performances not only didn’t suck, many were tours de force… especially Walter Koenig as Chekov. At this point in his career, I expected little more than a brief cameo from him and not much new out of the character beyond what I’d already seen over the past nearly-five decades. Was I ever wrong! Chekov plays a very major role in the plot and gives a performance that, for me at least, makes me want to think of this film as Trek canon.  This is who and how I believe Chekov will be in his twilight years.

Walter Koenig stars with Adrienne Wilkinson as both try to save the galaxy.

Walter Koenig stars with Adrienne Wilkinson as both try to save the galaxy.

Also outstanding is the performance provided by lead actress Adrienne Wilkinson, who plays Captain Lexxa Singh, a rogue criminal with a direct connection to another major Trek character with the same last name (I will say no more!). Sean Young is masterful, as is Manu Intiraymi, each giving so much depth to their characters. Gary Graham literally owns every scene that he’s in. Robert Picardo’s cameo, while brief, is a great deal of fun and seems a perfect use of the character. Even Tim Russ brings back a slightly older Tuvok, who is captivating when he appears on screen. Oh, and a special shout out to Corin Nemec (who starred in Parker Lewis Can’t Lose way back when and, more recently was a regular from the the sixth season onward of Stargate SG-1). Nemec gives his all to the role of Captain Alvarez of the USS Archer, and well, he’s just totally fun to watch. And hey, the Archer itself is a pretty darn cool ship, designed by legendary Star Trek senior illustrator Rick Sternbach along with Scott Nakada (whose name appears eight times in the credits… way to over-achieve, Scott!).

I’d also like to mention two performances by relatively young actresses just getting their start: Crystal Conway and Madison Russ. If those last names sound familiar, they should. These two girls are the daughters of producer Sky Conway and director Tim Russ. Although cinematic nepotism can sometimes come with disastrous results, it was not the case here. Both actresses (and they are absolutely actresses, not just teenagers with daddies in the industry) delivered impressive performances as first-year Starfleet cadets. Their screen time was brief, but at no point did I feel they were superfluous or something just thrown in to give the girls a “break” into the industry.  Crystal and Madison both did excellent jobs, and I hope fans take the time to praise them.

I literally cannot think of anything significant to complain about in this film (well, maybe the new Starfleet uniforms, but they eventually started to grow on me).  Beyond the acting, the pacing is fast and engaging, a combination of strong direction and masterful editing.  Although a small handful of scenes drag for a few moments each, they’re mostly necessary points of plot exposition and/or just good opportunities for us viewers to catch our collective breaths between powerful and suspenseful scenes that keep us emotionally involved and on the edge of our seats.

Tobias Richter was one of six CG artists who worked on the dazzling visual FX of “Renegades.”

Tobias Richter was one of six CG artists who worked on the dazzling visual FX of “Renegades.”

Visually, this film is mind-blowingly stunning. And if there’s a word that can exponentially take “stunning” to the stunningth power, it’s that, too!  Seriously. There are 637 visual special effects in Renegades (a “normal” sci-fi film will have only about 300, and the first Terminator movie, by comparison, had only 60).  These VFX were created by six different individuals, including Axanar’s own miracle worker, Tobias Richter of The Light Works.  I can’t think of enough superlatives to say about the dynamic look of this film!

Of course, looks aren’t everything.  As anyone in Hollywood will tell you, the most critical piece of any film is the sound: audio levels, dialog quality, sound effects, and music. In this, Renegades sounds as good as the best the film industry has to offer.  If/when you watch this on your computer or TV (if you get the DVD or Blu-ray), turn up the volume… really loud. And listen to the music. Most of us never notice the music except when it becomes “important” to a scene. But music can also be subtle, and the score by Justin R. Durban adds just enough of an emotional cushion to each scene to make the entire film a rich and immersive experience.

Keep in mind, nothing works without a decent script, and this one was top-notch. Although a little complex at times, the plot can be followed if you pay attention, and it holds up even better on a second viewing. Unlike some fan films, where the creators aren’t as experienced in screenwriting, Renegades isn’t cluttered with unnecessary scenes and wasted dialogue. That frugality serves to keep the story moving more quickly and also to hold down the cost of the movie (fewer scenes means fewer dollars – Tim Russ cut a lot out of the original script!).

The script also allows the characters to be introduced comfortably, without too much backstory all at once.  In the case of one of the characters, we don’t find out who and what he really is until the very last scene, and the payoff had the audience cheering both times.

Most of all, though, the script allows mysteries to unfold slowly while the action moves quickly, and that’s a winning combination. By the end of the film, while most questions have been answered, those answers have only led to more questions. There’s intrigue afoot, and Renegades leaves the story-line open to further installments (the film is intended to be a pilot for CBS to consider making into a new regular series).  And I’ll be honest with you: I want to see what happens next!

A plethora of familiar aliens enhance the Star Trek experience of this engaging film.

A plethora of familiar aliens enhance the Star Trek experience of this engaging film.

Make-up, costumes, props, lighting, sets… everything comes together so seamlessly that, frankly, I can’t believe that they did all this for just $375,000 (raised from three separate crowd-funding campaigns over two years – see, it isn’t just Axanar using multiple efforts, guys!).  As Sky Conway himself said during the commentary afterwards, “Most Hollywood blockbusters spend more on catering than we did for our entire feature!”

As I watched this dazzling movie, I could easily imagine it costing well into the millions or even tens of millions of dollars over many months of filming. There were 61 actors, 26 different locations, sets that included pristine starship bridges, dingy space vessel interiors, alien worlds, prisons, gleaning Starfleet offices, green-screen composites, and even an outdoor location shoot at Red Rock Canyon State Park in the Mojave Desert. Fight scenes were carefully choreographed (something seldom seen in fan films), camera angles shifted frequently to keep things interesting, and no scene felt hurried or hastily completed. And yet they shot all the scenes in a marathon 13 days with 250 hardworking crew making the impossible look easy. Granted, post-production took another two years, but when you see Renegades, you’ll understand why.

You might have noticed that I haven’t told you what the movie is about.  That’s not an accident, my friends.  Go into this one cold.  Trust me; I did.  Yeah, there’s a threat to the Federation, and only a crew operating outside the boundaries of Starfleet protocols and regulations can save the day.  But that’s obvious enough from the title. Leave the rest unknown until you see it. You’ll thank me later.

Sky Conway, producer and co-writer (the Alec Peters of “Renegades”).

Sky Conway, producer and co-writer (the Alec Peters of “Renegades”).

I’ll end this blog entry the way Sky Conway ended his introduction before the screening…

“Back in 1991, I got to know Gene Roddenberry pretty well when he was home ill… in the last six months of his life. Three days before Gene passed away, he called up Nichelle Nichols and me and asked us to come over to say ‘hello’. Majel met us at the door, and she wheeled in Gene. He had suffered numerous strokes. A long conversation took place between Gene and Nichelle – very sweet- and Nichelle did not know at the time that Gene was saying ‘good-bye’. And then he turned to me, as we were walking out of the house, and said, ‘Keep my dream alive.’

“I promised him; I said I would do that. And so, for me, after all these years, I was able to fulfill that promise tonight… with all the help of everybody in this room, our cast, our crew, and our wonderful donors.  Thank you all.”

Star Trek: Axanar salutes and congratulates our Renegade brothers and sisters, and we wish them all the best in their goal to become a fully-funded CBS Studios series.  Frankly, I’d love to see more of this story!

You can visit the Renegades website here.

Photos from the red carpet premiere in Los Angeles on August 1…

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