Guardians of Forever: Star Trek’s Stand-Ins

The most unappreciated faces we see on television are those of the extras and stand-ins. And for most shows, this is because they are utterly disposable-presuming you even get a good look at them. Part of this is because stand-ins are just that: they “stand in” for the cast when lighting and makeup are tested and put into place. But for a show like Star Trek where much of the show takes place in one location and in a setting that has a mostly static cast of characters while requiring everyone to be wearing expensive, custom-made clothing, those extras and stand-ins suddenly become a bit less disposable, and are instead utterly indispensable parts of the production.

For Star Trek, the most prominent and recognizable of these performers were all men: Eddie Paskey, William Blackburn, Frank da Vinci, and Roger Holloway. With the exception of “The Cage”, “The Cloud Minders” (technically-stock footage of Blackburn is used), and “All Our Yesterdays”, at least one of the four appears onscreen. So, even if you don’t recognize their names, you’ve seen their faces many times over on Star Trek (at least as much any one of the regular cast members, in fact). So, let’s discuss these men a bit, shall we:

First, and most prominent among the four is Eddie Paskey, who played Lt. Leslie (a character named by William Shatner in an ad-lib using the first name of his daughter) while also serving as William Shatner’s stand-in and serving as James Doohan’s hand double (so as to cover up Doohan’s missing finger; the most familiar footage being the close-up of Scotty’s hands as they operate the transporter, which was used in numerous episodes as stock footage). But the real reasons why Paskey is so well-known are twofold: in addition to being the only “generic” redshirt to die and then seemingly return from the dead, he was spotlighted in making-of publications as far back as the original, 1981 version of Allan Asherman’s Star Trek Compendium. Another reason why he’s so recognizable is that Leslie typically sits at the bridge engineering station on the right side of the turbolift door, which, since Paskey was well-liked by the camera and lighting crews, was typically lit so as to increase his visibility.

While not quite as recognized by fandom for years, William Blackburn, known as “Billy” on-set, has become almost as well known in fan circles as Eddie Paskey thanks to the release of several minutes of home movie footage he shot while working on Star Trek. In honesty, however, it’s surprising that Blackburn didn’t become well known sooner, since he was the most prolific of the stand-ins, appearing not only as DeForest Kelley’s stand-in and as Lieutenant Hadley, the most frequently appearing of the non-Chekov navigators, but as a unending parade of background aliens, the infamous White Rabbit from “Shore Leave”, and as one of the three men who played the Gorn in “Arena”. And whenever a dubbed-in character (such as Trelane’s parents in “The Squire of Gothos”) appeared, it was Blackburn’s voice that the actors heard on-set. However, his main character, Lieutenant Hadley, never spoke, so it’s easy to see why Blackburn was overlooked for so long.

Frank da Vinci, while nowhere near as prolific as Billy Blackburn at appearing as background aliens, managed to have not one, but two regularly occurring background roles: Lieutenant Brent, a medical technician and occasional navigator, and Vinci, a security guard and transporter chief. Since he was Leonard Nimoy’s stand-in, Lieutenant Brent was a far more common sight, usually appearing the the same science division blue shirt as Spock. However, despite his role on Star Trek and as Anthony Perkins’ stand-in in Psycho (it’s his shadow that is seen in the infamous shower scene), da Vinci is most known for having owned and operated, with his partner George B. Ellsworth, two gay night clubs in the LA area. Their contributions were such that Pepperdine (a conservative Christian University) established a scholarship for LGBT students in his and Ellsworth’s names after da Vinci’s death in 2013.

Lastly, Roger Holloway represents a bit of a mystery, as his two seasons on Star Trek represent his only known appearances in film and television. What we do know is that he joined in the second season as James Doohan’s stand-in (as part of a number of acknowledgements of Scotty’s increasing prominence on the series) and for the male guest stars before eventually becoming William Shatner’s stand-in in Season 3. However, he was most regularly seen as a security guard and member of Scotty’s engineering team as Mr. Lemli (the name, another Shatner ad-lib, is a combination of the names of William Shatner’s three daughters, Leslie, Melanie, and Lisabeth, and is a term he has used for certain personal ventures over the years). And due to an ad-lib by James Doohan, Lemli shared the same first name as his actor.

Next week (and hopefully back on schedule), we’ll be taking a brief return to the ’80s for our last “1984” post, and a little bit of Halloween in December.

Mirror, Mirror: V

Not shockingly, there was a big post-Star Wars hangover in the ’80s, and even though I never saw the trilogy in theatres, I certainly felt the effects of the hangover (because hey, look at the blog you’re reading). But we need to address one thing about the hangover in its own post is the search for the “next Star Wars“. By 1983, Star Wars had become such huge business that something needed to fill that gap after Return of the Jedi rans its course (because, try as it may, Star Wars simply could not succeed without the promise of a new movie). However, this was a trap, because no one thing “replaced” Star Wars in the public consciousness, and it was impossible to expect that anything ever could. But boy did people ever try.

Kenner, having exploded in market share with Star Wars toys, managed some success with Care Bears, Super Powers, and MASK, but was bought by Tonka in 1987 (which was in turn purchased by Hasbro in 1991). We’ll talk about a couple of big post-Star Wars movie franchises eventually, but none truly supplanted Star Wars for any sustained period of time, and television, which largely missed out on the craze (due to most of its cash-in attempts being embarrassingly terrible) lumbered on haphazardly, as was the case at the time.

However, for a brief moment, it looked like NBC and Warner Bros. might have cracked the code with a miniseries called V. Created by Kenneth Johnson, who had made a name for himself in the ’70s for his work on The Incredible HulkThe Six Million Dollar Man, and The Bionic Woman (the latter of which he created), the miniseries started as a modernized adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ classic anti-fascist novel It Can’t Happen Here. However, when NBC rejected the initial draft as “too cerebral”, Johnson took a page from Gene Roddenberry and slathered the concept in science fiction tropes, turning the fascists into invading aliens while keeping most of the symbolism more or less intact. NBC bit, and the miniseries was produced for a fairly lavish $13 million (or slightly over $31 million in today’s dollars).

The resulting production, while certainly self-aware of its status as a “next Star Wars” (the aliens, called The Visitors, are greeted by a high school marching band playing the Star Wars theme), is a chilling allegory that makes its comparison to 1930s Germany crystal clear with direct references to the Nazis. And it was a smashing success, despite airing only a few weeks before Jedi hit theatres. The problem is, everything that could go wrong did.

While NBC immediately commissioned a sequel miniseries and retained Kenneth Johnson’s services, the finished product has little of Johnson’s influence. This is because he left the project over disputes with NBC about the story. NBC wanted a definite conclusion; Johnson wanted an ambiguous ending involving a second alien race (responding to the distress signal/sequel hook at the end of the first miniseries) that may be just as bad-or worse-than the now-defeated Visitors. In the end, V: The Final Battle is satisfying, but a little too pat in its denouement.

However, NBC wanted more after the second V miniseries was another big success in May of 1984, and boy did they get more. But it wasn’t any good. Produced without any involvement from Kenneth Johnson (but retaining just about every character and actor who had survived the two miniseries), the V series is a hot mess. Besides starting from the unenviable position of continuing from something with the subtitle “The Final Battle“, the entire affair was just a series of embarrassing mistakes.

Firstly, despite having a then-unheard of budget of $1 million per episode, there was simply no way that a weekly series could replicate the high quality special effects of the two miniseries. But even with that caveat, the production team wasn’t even trying. One of the most distinctive things about V had been the oddly metallic-sounding voices of the visitors, and that was completely missing in the weekly series (even though it had been used as a plot point in the two miniseries). Worse, stock footage was rampant with the model effects, but it was taken to “they just didn’t care” levels, with shots appearing in consecutive episodes with no revisions whatsoever.

Next, and most catastrophically, the writing was just plain bad. Diana, who was an iconic villain in the two miniseries, in particular suffers, with bad writing that diminishes the character in the worst way. If not for Jane Badler’s mastery of the role, it would have been a complete catastrophe. Worse yet, NBC rejected the third produced episode because of the violence, and cable reruns and the DVD boxset had some continuity hiccups because of it.

Lastly, a dozen episodes in, the series undergoes a messy attempt to re-tool, and it did no good at all. An already sloppy and aimless series simply loses a number of characters, and then, after 19 episodes, it’s over. Of course, with that being less than a full season even today, it’s obvious that NBC put the show out of its misery. And while Kenneth Johnson wrote a novel sequelizing the original miniseries (with the intent to film it with much of the original cast) in 2008, Warner Bros. went with a remake that lasted two seasons through 2011. But, as with the franchise as a whole, V in recent years has been about squandering a great premise because of a lot of greed.

Sort of like The Visitors, actually.

Next week (well, this week, and probably on Friday, since hey, Thanksgiving), we’re going to discuss some of Star Trek‘s least appreciated performers.

Assignment: 1965: The Northeast Blackout of 1965

It’s November 9th, 1965, and amazingly history is interesting again. The top single in the country is “Get Off My Cloud” by The Rolling Stones, which broke up a full month of “Yesterday” by The Beatles at #1. Bob Dylan and Herb Alpert are also in the Top Ten, but like with the Stones, it’s not for a truly significant hit or anything. In non-music news, the Pillsbury Doughboy debuts on the 6th, a Sunday, as does Days of Our Lives on NBC the next day, while the death penalty is made illegal in the UK with The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965. However, the reason why we’re here back in 1965 for the first time in forever is the Northeast Blackout of 1965.

Besides being massive (the blackout affected eight states and parts of Ontario, Canada), the blackout is worth discussing because it’s a cultural microcosm, particularly for New York City. This is in part because, despite most of the city not having power from 5:27 PM on the 9th until as late as 7 AM the next day, crime was as low as it has ever been in New York. Perhaps it was because of the full moon that kept the city mostly lit, or that it was in November (unlike the 2003 blackout and the notorious 1977 blackout, which took place in the summer), but whatever the reason, things went astonishingly smoothly, and pop culture references to the event (including a Doris Day movie of all things) are just as light in nature. Even the two urban legends surrounding the blackout (that it was caused by UFOs, and that birth rates spiked nine months later as a result of the loss of power) are benign and almost quaint.

From the perspective of someone growing up in the ’80s, this is, to be blunt, utterly bizarre. Besides the ’60s status as a decade of massive turmoil (and with the Watts riots in the recent past, we are already well into that turmoil), New York had a well-earned reputation as a smelly, overcrowded, rotting, racist, corrupt, drug-infested hellhole filled with chronically unpleasant people.

And that was just for games at Yankee Stadium.

Granted, much of that poor rep was fostered by Republicans of the time (this is yet another tease for the inevitable Ronald Reagan post), but seriously, New York City was not the nicest place in the US at the time. A key plank in the argument that New York was a hellhole, though, was the city blackout of 1977. While New York had been peaceful during the ’65 blackout, this one was marked by heavy looting and violence. Compounding the rioting were the effects of the economy of the ’70s, which hit New York especially hard (reaching its full infamy with the New York Daily News‘ “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline in 1975), a massive heatwave, and the panic over the Son of Sam murders. Combined with the crack epidemic (which will be but one part of the massive discussion on the War on Drugs), the New York of my childhood was nothing like this happy-go-lucky New York of November 1965.

Next week, we’re going to cover that bit of TV that the new Star Trek show bumped from the schedule.

Priority One Alert: The New Star Trek Show

So, you might have heard the news this week about a new Star Trek TV show, set to premiere in 2017. And while I should be thrilled (“new Star Trek” is very much on the Big List of Things That Will Make Garrett Happy), I have concerns.

Deep, Naughty Concerns (filled with Deep, Naughty Evil).

The primary problem is the person whom CBS (who controls the TV half of the Star Trek franchise following the Viacom split) has named executive producer: Alex Kurtzman. Yes, the guy that co-wrote the two J.J. Abrams-helmed movies, as well as the first two godawful live-action Transformers movies. While it is true that he and his writing partner Roberto Orci have been associated with three TV shows I enjoyed quite a bit (namely, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Alias, the last of which actually began its decline after they stopped writing for it), I’m pretty much not a fan. And when it comes to the two Star Trek movies that bear Kurtzman’s name, I gave the first a huge pass primarily on the strength of the great cast but have completely avoided the second since I sussed out (correctly) very early on that Benedict Cumberbatch would be playing a strangely lily-white Khan Noonien Singh, and that the plot would mimic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in many ways.

Of course, being too much like a previous Star Trek movie, while certainly not a great thing, isn’t enough to write off the career of a pair of writers. However, Roberto Orci’s blatant and notorious belief in conspiracy theories (including the 9/11 “Truther” movement) is, especially since the plot of Star Trek Into Darkness is swimming in that philosophy. And while that’s Orci’s failing (as is his absolutely wretched tone online when his writing ability is challenged), Kurtzman certainly did little to regulate Orci’s crazy beliefs in their scripts together. Additionally, based on the copies of their scripts that have leaked online, Kurtzman and Orci have beyond wretched spelling and grammar skills (in the age of spellcheck!). And while Orci has been banished almost entirely because of his spats with fans, Kurtzman doesn’t deserve a free pass for not being the half of the writing partner that behaved like a member of 4chan when some criticized their work.

Secondly, is the issue of continuity. Star Trek prides itself on how well it honors continuity, but that’s kind of a problem. The last word on the “real” Star Trek universe is Star Trek: Nemesis, a wretched film that also had serious implications in regards to the Romulan Empire (which, it must be noted, is the least developed of the major Star Trek “villainous” races). So, unless you skip forward in time a la Star Trek: The Next Generation, you’re already dealing with an onerous amount of fanwanky continuity for what is the first Star Trek in a decade. And if there’s anything the franchise doesn’t need, it’s a ton of fanwanky continuity. That business is so out of control with Star Trek that the “remastered” versions of the original show and TNG made wholesale changes to effects and even computer displays to adhere to canon. (Worse yet is the idea that fans are asking for the head continuity wank, Michael Okuda, to resume his duties advising on matters of continuity in addition to designing computer displays.)

All of that points towards CBS wanting to leave behind the “old” universe in favor of either the universe of the new movies, or something entirely new. The former leads directly into my concerns about nihilism in Star Trek. The latter means that a couple of things are happening: the new show will take place on the Enterprise, quite possibly with another recast original series crew. Besides being intensely redundant, recasting Kirk, Spock, and the rest again would not only be a slap in the face of the new movie cast, but to the good people of the Star Trek: New Voyages/Phase II and Star Trek Continues fan series, who have been soldiering on with shoestring budgets and no expectation of profits for some time now (and with casts that include some bonafide pros). So, ultimately, it’s going to be something new, but the worry is most certainly connected to whether it will be good.

Lastly, however, is how CBS is distributing the show. After airing the pilot on CBS proper, the new Star Trek will move to CBS’s online streaming service. Now, putting a show on a streaming service is not a bad thing AT ALL. Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus are becoming wonderful alternatives to the networks. But to throw it up on CBS’s own service, which is new and has absolutely zero exclusive content to speak of. So, this smacks of a move to kickstart an unnecessary streaming service that has ads on it even after the $6 a month bill (something that even Hulu is moving past), at a time where there are far better deals in the streaming world (the three big services cost $29.23 a month combined, and that includes not only a ton of content, but the other benefits of Amazon Prime, as well). It’s just not worth it, and seeing as how CBS has taken a huge step forward in attracting genre audiences by airing Supergirl (which has been lots of fun so far), shunting Star Trek to a streaming service seems like a slap in the face.

Now, I could be proven wrong, and like with The Great Willow Sexuality Rant, I’d really like to be proven wrong. But right now, I’m at my most skeptical about a new Star Trek TV show since Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired in 1987. I’d like to think that I’m smarter than I was when I was 9.

Next week, some actual, honest-to-God 1965 history (seriously, 1965, you’ve been boring since the summer ended).


 

Now, for a little aside for some serious begging. Let me be frank: my financial situation blows chunks. And it’s not getting any better, because I can’t even get an interview, much less a job. It’s gotten so dire that unless something changes, this site is simply going to disappear at the end of May when the hosting is up for renewal. And I’ll be drowning in red ink long before then. And for those of you paying attention, I’ll actually be in the middle of episode reviews and regular, real Star Trek discussion (and not overloading on memories of being an ’80s kid). So, if you can, and if you enjoy what I’m doing, think about following the Patreon link at the top of the page (the Amazon Wish List links are fine, too, but that obviously won’t help the immediate problem of needing money).