Port Henry, New York, is pretty much the middle of nowhere, but for two weeks each year it becomes the center of the universe. Or at least the center of the Star Trek fan films universe.
To reach it, you pull off the highway and drive past the defunct Frontier Town theme park. That’s rather fitting when bound for a gathering of those determined to explore the final frontier.
This is also one of those towns with more storefronts boarded up than open for business. One former car dealership garage on the main drag is now home to Retro Film Studios. No one would guess that inside it sits an absolutely perfect re-creation of the bridge of the USS Enterprise from the original Star Trek, used to shoot the ongoing fan-created — and unauthorized — Web series Star Trek: Phase II.
Formerly known as Star Trek: New Voyages, the Phase II series began in 2004 as a way to continue the “five-year mission” of the Enterprise begun in the three seasons of the 1960s Trek. It’s Kirk, Spock, McCoy and all the original characters portrayed as if the year were 1966 and the stages were at the old Desilu Productions in Hollywood. In a sense they’re removing some of the finality of the final frontier.
The determination to keep boldly going drove Phase II producer and star James Cawley to found Retro Film Studios and create his elaborate homage show. “We’re trying to be the ‘what if’ scenario,” he explains. “What if the show hadn’t been cancelled? Or what if [Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry had got his second shot [with his planned Trek sequel series] in 1977?”
In fact, Cawley’s Phase II has made episodes based on scripts from the unproduced 1977 relaunch of Star Trek, also called Phase II, including the scripts “The Child” and “Kitumba.”
“When I first started, my goal was just that I want to dress up and play my hero, Captain Kirk, with my friends,” says Cawley. And for the past 10 years, he has done exactly that. In addition to portraying Kirk, he executive produces, builds sets, handles production design and keeps his finger in almost every other aspect of making the series.
At Retro Film Studios, there’s definitely a feel of friends reuniting, goofing around and having fun. Anyone not currently busy on the set hangs out in a combination lunch room/production office adorned with posters from past episodes. It’s part film set, part fantasy camp for trekkers. “We’re all doing a show in the barn,” says co-executive producer Greg Schnitzer.
Except the barn is a former garage. Walk through the facility’s large bay door and suddenly you’re in a science lab aboard the Enterprise, where Spock is popping data cartridges into the computer. Played by actor Brandon Stacy, this Spock looks a bit more Zachary Quinto than Leonard Nimoy, but Stacy has actually had a few more Vulcan adventures than Quinto. He’s played Spock in seven Phase II episodes. And the series’ attention to re-creating every 1960s-era detail perfectly extends past Spock’s uniform and John-Chambers-quality pointy ears to his skin hue.
“Spock’s makeup was very unique because they invented a color for Leonard Nimoy,” explains Schnitzer. “The makeup artist on the show, Fred Phillips, went to a manufacturer and said, “Can you make this?” They said, ‘Ok, we’ll make a big batch and call it Leonard Nimoy 1 [LN-1].’ Well, they [The Research Council of Make-up Artists] still make it. And that’s what we use.”
Behind Spock paces a beautiful blonde science officer. Without hearing a word of the script you know she’ll be a love interest for Kirk. And sure enough, actress Jacy King is playing Dr. Carol Marcus. “I love science fiction, so for me, it’s fun to be able to do anything like this,” says King, who just arrived from L.A. for 10 days of shooting.
After the Phase II cast and crew knock out another take for episode director Daren Dochterman in the science lab, lights are repositioned as production advisor David Gerrold moves in from the wings to chat with King. Any true Trek fan will know that Gerrold wrote the classic TOS episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He has also written and directed episodes for Phase II, including the two-parter “Blood and Fire,” which was originally conceived for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Another script made as a Phase II episode, “The Protracted Man,” was among the first stories he pitched TOS writer-producer Gene L. Coon decades earlier. Today, Gerrold serves as an advisor on set, but it has been announced he’s joining the production team as a showrunner.
This science lab, like all of the Phase II sets, is impressive and completely faithful, but the crown jewel is, of course, the bridge. It’s not in use for today’s filming but Charles Root, who is an engineer in real life and appropriately plays the role of Enterprise engineer Montgomery Scott, fires up the lights and offers a tour. “Whenever we bring original series actors on the sets, it just blows them away,” says Root. “For them, it’s like stepping back in time 50 years. Nichelle Nichols, her first reaction was just, ‘Oh, my god! It’s the exact same set.’”
The starboard half of the bridge’s computer displays were done with the same method and technology used in the 1960s: semi-transparent colored overlays with blinking Christmas lights behind them. But on the port side of the bridge, Root and his team have updated the displays using computer monitors to play looped video animations. Their plan is to eventually bring the starboard side up to the newer technology as well.
Root has played Scotty in every Phase II episode except the pilot. “We were groundbreaking in the fact that we said, you know what, other people can play the roles of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock,” he says. “These are iconic characters, like Batman or James Bond. Then J.J. Abrams came along and said, ‘We can put Chris Pine in as Kirk and it’ll be accepted.’ Well, I think we broke the ice for that.”
In fact, Cawley recently re-cast the lead in his own productions. After starring in 12 Phase II episodes, he turned in his Captain’s uniform and the role of Kirk is now played by Brian Gross. “He’s not playing William Shatner, and we don’t want him to,” says Cawley, who asked Gross to “just play Kirk, but to do it with a ’60s feel to it.” Fanboys may recognize Gross as a voice in the Star Wars: The Old Republic video game, or may have seen him in an episode of Buffy or in George Lucas’ Red Tails.
Back in the science lab, the sound guy calls to hold the action. A large truck is rumbling past. This happens often enough to become a running joke with the Phase II crew. A grip points out that being located 20 feet from the main road was ideal for a car dealer and not so much for a production studio.
Wedged in a corner just to the left of a sewing machine for the wardrobe department is visual effects supervisor Tobias Richter, fresh in from Germany. Luckily, he doesn’t need much workspace since his Maya 3D workstation is just a laptop. “It’s more fun just to be on set and take part in how it’s done,” Richter says, perhaps reflecting on the somewhat detached existence of all postproduction experts. “While here, I try to make all the basic animations and talk to the director to see if what I’m doing will edit in properly. So I’m doing so-called animatics. And when I go back home, I’ll flesh them out.” Despite the low-budget appearances and makeshift workspace of Phase II, Richter’s effects work is first-class. His CG models of the Enterprise have also been used by CBS/Paramount in the Blu-ray re-issue of TNG.
By offering the style and charm of the 1960s with the technology and skills of more recent Trek productions, Cawley’s crew has embraced an opportunity to pursue their take on Star Trek by continuing Gene Roddenberry’s proposed original five-year mission. “Being on the sets and getting to play in James’ sandbox is a lot of fun,” says episode director Dochterman. “It’s a time warp where we can relive memories from our youth and create new ones. It’s Field of Dreams for original Trek fans.”
“People are really passionate about what their jobs are as well as about the entire production,” says line producer Rob Mauro. “The caliber of our projects is so high because they have that passion.”
Almost all of those people are working on Phase II for free, but that doesn’t mean there are zero costs. Co-exec producer Schnitzer estimates, “If I had to put a figure on any one episode, it would probably be about $60,000.”
If you keep tabs on the fan film world, you know Trek isn’t the only franchise that Cawley’s Retro Film Studios has tackled. He also started to make new episodes of Buck Rogers, this time as an officially licensed project. Gil Gerard and Erin Gray even appeared, playing the parents of this new Buck. But Cawley says his deal for the Web rights fell apart after Frank Miller became interested in doing a Buck Rogers feature film.
Still in the works are the unauthorized, continuing adventures of Jim West and Arty Gordon from the 1960s series Wild Wild West. “We’re shooting it. We shot most of the first one. We’ve got some pick-ups to do on it. I expected to have it done some time before the first of the year,” says Cawley.
The Phase II crew finally wraps out the science lab set and begins a company move — but only about 12 feet away to the sickbay. But first the new set must be re-assembled, as sections of wall used in the science lab are taken down and repurposed.
Cawley hopes to move his Retro operation to a larger space soon, one that will allow all his sets to stay up at the same time and add the one missing major Trek location: Engineering. What else is on his wish list? “Shatner,” he says. “It would be a thrill to get him to do even a 60-second cameo. It would be the highlight of a lifetime.”
But even if that dream doesn’t come true, Cawley’s already chalked up quite a few experiences many trekkers would endure a painful Klingon sonchi ceremony to have. “I count myself lucky. I got to appear on screen with three of my childhood heroes: Walter Koenig, George Takei and Nichelle Nichols. It doesn’t get better than that.”