To Boldly Go

by Samuel Annis

04/16/2014

It’s a steel-colored December day, and I’m driving down OKC’s May Avenue, past dirty snow and abandoned cantinas, looking for a roofing company. Actually, I’m looking for a non-profit Star Trek fan-film studio, but the man I contacted, Richard Wells, tells me that the studio’s address is “jacked up,” and suggests I drive to the roofers and call him from there.

Outside, the temperature is 30 degrees. A snowstorm swept through only a few days ago, and the city seems stunned. To say that Oklahoma doesn’t thrive in winter is a vast understatement, and I pass only a few other cars wading through the gasoline-colored slush covering the road.

The fact that studio opened at all today surprises me.

It would be a lie to say I’m not already stereotyping the people I expect to meet there. The way Starbase Studios operates allows anyone with a script and a camera to come shoot his show/film/documentary/Star Trek-themed wedding photos on the set for free, and therefore I suspect that the crowd will be composed of hardcore Roddenberry fans playing out their more beloved Trek fantasies.

I see the roofing company, and so I call Richard. He tells me to turn left down a certain street, and then to turn into the first lot on the right.

“I’ll come out and meet you,” he says.

What I take to be the first lot on the right is a parking area for an unremarkable and boring building that could hold anything from doctors to 3-D printers. I take a couple laps around the parking lot before it becomes clear that Richard is not here, but I do see a man in a down jacket standing on the other side of a hedge. I leave the asphalt and pull into an unplowed driveway. It leads to an abandoned-looking building and an open bay door, the narrowest I’ve ever seen. The man in the down jacket stands there, flagging me in.

Against the bitter whiteness of the snow, the space behind the open door looks like a hole in the world, black and empty.

The car fits with only inches to spare, and the door closes behind me. This space is dark, and I can barely make out the dim shapes of several cars, some steel poles holding a roof high above my head, and the reflection of low-watt bulbs in a puddle. I open the door and am met with a damp, earthy smell.

The man with the down jacket is standing near my door, hands in his pockets, tiredness obscuring the smile he gives me.

“Richard?” I ask.

“That’s me,” he says. “Welcome to Starbase.”

***

Once upon a time, a group of devoted Star Trek fans in Austin, Texas, decided they wanted to add to the Star Trek world by filming their own show. They built a few sets—a hallway, a bridge—and begin to film their show: Starship Exeter. Near the end of 2000, Exeter released one episode, and began work on a second, but it was never completed. In 2010, Oklahoma-native John Hughes (not to be confused with the writer/director of The Breakfast Club) purchased the badly damaged and fragmented version of the Exeter set and took it to an airplane hangar at El Reno Regional airport. Realizing he basically now owned a massive and incomplete Lego kit, Hughes posted an ad on Craigslist looking for people willing to volunteer their time to help him rebuild it. Among the volunteers were the two current managers of the studio: Scott Johnson and Richard Wells. Between Wells, Johnson, Hughes, and many other volunteers (the majority of whom still remain involved with the studio’s productions), the pile of com-panels and Red Alert signs began resembling an actual bridge.

The volunteers decided the bridge should move to a more central location, so it was bisected, loaded back into a truck, and taken to its current OKC location.

As the work neared completion, Hughes handed the reigns over to Richard and Scott and began working on Starship Ajax,[1] his own show.

Under the eyes of the two new managers, Starbase Studios blinked into existence, and only two months into her working life, three projects have been filmed. The first was a fan show (created by Starbase volunteers from OKC) called Starship Valiant, the second was a documentary (sort of) from Lexington, Kentucky, called Hanlet: Episode 4 & ½: Attack of the Phantom Special, and the third is Yorktown: A Time to Heal, the production I’m here to observe.

We’re making our way down a two-block-long corridor, wide as a three-lane highway. The smell of soil makes me feel like we’re underground. Richard tells me shooting was supposed to begin the day before, but the snowstorm stranded half of the group in airports as they made their way down from Canada. Richard tells me they’re in the process of shooting stills, trying to get back on schedule.

“How long are they going to work today?” I ask.

“11:00, maybe midnight. Maybe later.”

“When did you get here?”

“I’ve been here since yesterday,” he says. “I slept here.”

The ceiling looms over our head, and thick, tubular lights drizzle a pale green sheen over antique and collectable cars parked on either side.

He walks this path constantly and so none of this is unusual to him. For me, the incongruous collection of ‘20s gangster-
mobiles and ‘60s hot-rods strike a peculiar tone. The past is retained here, stored for some unknown future date, but it is a past of no particular era, like generations of toys forgotten in a chest. When I ask, Richard tells me they rent the place from a guy who manages estate sales.

We walk forward one block and a few decades and the room brightens around clusters of ‘90s and ‘00s vans and SUVs.

Half a block later, the ceiling rises by 15 or so feet, and we are in a room similar to Kane’s Xanadu storehouse: wall-to-wall antique bureaus, concrete statues, bird cages, desks, dressers, tables, a gigantic pair of plaster wings, bedframes, pinball machines, end tables, nightstands, and cardboard boxes full of items ever decreasing in size.

Three-quarters of the way through the room, a long plywood wall rises towards the warehouse ceiling. Beyond the wall, a series of blue tarps stretch like a Bedouin’s tent, glowing with a cold brilliance from a hidden source of illumination.

More tarps form a curtain in the wall. Richard lifts a corner and I walk into a small room made entirely out of tarps.[2] A propane-fueled patio heater takes up a good quarter of the room, and some vacant folding chairs cluster around it.

This is one of only two heated spaces in the studio.

We pass through the tarp room and emerge into the space sectioned off by the plywood walls. Before me is what looks like a spaceship made entirely out of untreated lumber, computers, colored plastic squares, and electrical wires.

And that is exactly what it is.

A section of the bridge wall swings open, and a man wearing a yellow unitard trots out before he vanishes behind a door across the room from us.

Richard tells me that the Yorktown group is in the middle of taking stills, so he can’t take me on the bridge quite yet. Instead, he shows me the outside. The most notable components of the construction are the computers—mostly Dells, with monitors and keyboards attached to them—littering the wooden sides like cyber barnacles.

“There are maybe 57 of them,” says Richard. “One went down last night due to the storm and I was up until four in the morning replacing it with a spare.” That explains why he looks tired.

A scruffy-looking man in glasses and a hoodie comes toward us. He’s moving quickly and he starts talking in fast sentences. Does Richard know where the electrical tape is? Richard scans the piles of tools, extra lights, cables, and bags of Doritos cluttering every flat surface and says that he does not.

“Scott Johnson,” Richard says by way of introduction. Scott tells me to wipe my feet on several different mats before walking onto the bridge, hands me a business card[3] with his name on it, and takes off.

Richard and Scott met years before John Hughes posted his ad on Craigslist, while both employed in the concert production industry. After they both became unable to work (Richard due to a mild case of narcolepsy, and Scott after a lighting truss collapsed on his shoulder), Richard saw Hughes’ ad for volunteers and called Scott.

Both joined immediately, but for different reasons. Scott calls it “literally a dream come true.” His enthusiasm for Star Trek shows in his semi-constant presence on the bridge. Richard, who admits to never having been a dedicated fan of the original show, badly wanted to do something other than sit around the house. Now that the bridge is mostly built, his participation plays out in the surprisingly gentle way that he takes care of the actors and crew.[4]

Although neither of them ever defined it as such, they clearly developed a degree of friendship over time that enables them to work well together and with a mutual trust that manifests itself in the way they stay out of one another’s hair.

We’ve made it halfway around the bridge when someone from inside shouts that they need the Red Alert lights turned on. Scott appears and asks me to pass him a hammer lying behind me on a shelf.

“For the lights?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I’ve been looking for it.”

Then he shows me the Red Alert switch, which is, in fact, a light switch. He tells me when they’re filming, they way they get the Red Alert to flash is by having someone stand here and toggle the switch back and forth.

“As long as you can keep time and count to two,” he says, “you can have this job.”

The three of us stand in silence for a moment. We can hear someone on the bridge arranging people into futuristic tableaus. Richard tells me we’re right outside the turbo lift.

“We can probably climb in there without disturbing the actors,” he says, then opens a small door, and I follow him into the lift.

The floor is covered with miniature-golf-course grass, and the walls are painted gunmetal gray. With both of us in there, the room feels very small.

Rich starts to say something, but then the sliding doors in front of us open and we’re on the bridge. A group of men in Starfleet uniforms is staring at us.

***

“Can we walk around?” I ask Richard. “Are they finished taking photographs?” I want badly to sit in the chairs, to push the buttons, and to look at the various blinking and pulsing screens pretending to communicate something. I know this feeling. I remember it from being a child and finding an old computer or telephone in a junkyard. These objects always became temporary props in my imaginary games, and I would pretend to relay secret codes and type complex algorithms with a ferocity that surely alarmed my parents even though they never said anything about it.

This bridge, though, surpasses anything I ever dreamed up.

For one thing, there are no imaginary spaces. Imaginary spaces are spaces that can’t be filled with the appropriate object to make the scene complete, so the object is mentally placed there. (When I used to play “Cowboys,” for instance, imaginary spaces were the saloon, the dirt covered street, the horse I rode, and basically everything except for maybe my cowboy hat.) Here, everything is where it should be: red and gold buttons, black chairs shaped like shoehorns, red banisters, switches, and, good lord, the scores of screens with swirling and blinking graphics going on them. It is a precise reconstruction of a starship bridge.

There’s also this bizarre effect that they’ve achieved with their lighting that makes reality look different. I don’t know if it results from the red, blue, and yellow color scheme, or if the construction lights reflect off the tarps in a profoundly Trekkian fashion, but I very much feel as though I’m in a different time, both in the past and the future.

John Carroll, the director of the scenes being shot, calls for a break before the actual filming begins, giving Richard and I free rein of the ship. Richard sits in one of the chairs and I stand, feeling overwhelmed. The only things shattering the illusion of the ‘60s vision of the 2300s are the huge stage lights and the ceiling made of tarps.

Richard is talking to me about the buttons on the ship.

“Each one,” he says, “we made by hand.” I look around me at the thousands of buttons and try to understand the tedium that job entailed.

He adds that they used ice-cube trays as molds to get the perfect square shape.

“What about the round buttons?” I ask.

“Those are marbles. Well, they’re supposed to be marbles, but nobody makes the right size anymore so I wound up having to make them by hand too.”

It’s easy to think our culture is not brimming with respect for a person who dresses up in costume, puts on fake hair, and changes the shape of his/her nose to resemble somebody they are not, but that is not true.

While we’re here, John Carroll and the producer/force behind Yorktown, John Atkins, come back on board, and begin talking about camera angles and lighting. They’re both young men, probably in their mid 30s. Carroll wears a large winter coat, but Atkins is dressed only in his red Starfleet uniform, which looks thin and unable to retain body heat. During a pause in their conversation I go over to talk with them.

“Why,” I ask, “are you here? I get that it’s to finish this film, but why are you making it in the first place? It can’t make any money,[5] and it’s not going to propel your careers forward.”

Atkins and Carroll don’t really need to think about the answer.

“For fun,” Atkins says. “And a chance to finish something that began two decades ago.”

“Were you fans of the original show?”

“I wasn’t even alive when it was airing,” Carroll says. “I’ve seen it, obviously, and I think it’s great, but I’m not obsessed. This set though is amazing. By far one of the coolest experiences.”

Carroll checks his watch and decides that the break is over. Because of the storm, the crew is far behind schedule and Carroll wants to see what they can do to get back on. Storming off the bridge, he opens the door to the green room where several actors are putting on costumes.

“Everyone on set,” he says, “I want to start filming now.”

Someone in the room complains of a wardrobe malfunction.

“Duct tape it,” shouts Carroll as the door slams behind him.

Richard and I leave the set, letting Atkins and Carroll finish setting up whatever it is they need to set up. Unlike most of the people at the studio, Richard doesn’t seem interested in being a part of the films themselves. He doesn’t even seem particularly intrigued by what happens on the bridge once the doors are closed, as though it’s none of his business. When I first arrived, I asked if I could take his picture. He said yes, but seemed confused as to why I would want to, as though his role is so inconsequential that even a photograph stretches it out of proportion.

When most of the actors and studio personnel are warming up in the green room, I find Richard sitting in the tarp room by himself with his arms folded over his lap and thinking, perhaps, of the transporter room he’d like to build in the spring. Nevertheless, he always happens to be close by whenever anyone needed something, and I sense a distinctly dad-like aura around him, like he’s allowing his children the freedom to play their games but always nearby if they need his help.

As the green room empties, Richard tells me I can warm up in there if I want. Yes, I realize, I’m extraordinarily cold. In my fascination with the bridge, I forgot that the warehouse and the bridge are, at best, a few degrees above freezing. Watching the men and women in their thin cotton unitards take their place on the starship bridge, I wonder how they’re going to keep from shivering through the entire film.

In the green room, a man named Brian is looking through a pile of empty Pizza Hut boxes for a leftover slice. On the floor beside the boxes are two crates: one of them full of plastic phasers and scanners, the other full of fake noses and ears.

I spend a large chunk of the day in this room, warming up between short excursions into the area surrounding the bridge where several bags of chips have been left on a table for snacking.

***

Because not everyone at the studio needs to be on the set at all times, there are moments when the green room becomes full of people jockeying for position next to the electric heater. Some talk happens, but the walls to the room are thin sheets of plywood, and any noise louder than whisper will be picked up by the microphones outside. It’s weird, but the situations where talking is prohibited are the moments where I think people find they have the most to say. Like any taboo, imposed silence exists only to be broken, and I feel like I’m participating in a slumber party, trying not to wake up any parents.

I’m thinking about looking to see if Brian missed a slice of pizza when the ground starts to shake. It feels like a train going by at a close distance. There are maybe five other people in the room including Richard and Scott, and their general calm (a look at the ceiling—unmoved facial expressions) leads me to believe that this is no more than a really, really stiff gust of wind.

“That was an earthquake,” says Richard.

“Wait, really?” I am incredulous and extremely surprised.

“4.5,” says Scott, looking into his phone. “Just north of Jones.”

I don’t know where Jones is, but obviously not far enough away. I look up and it strikes me for the first time how the ceiling 30 feet above us is really just a series of deadly glass panels. I wonder if we’ll evacuate. Then I wonder if anyone cares. From the bridge, I can hear some jokes about being attacked by Klingons.

“I hope my house is still on the blocks,” says Richard, and that is the last anyone says about it.

I step outside the green room and listen to the work being done on the bridge. I turn up the collar on my overcoat and think about those poor people in their cotton onesies who are doing this strictly for enjoyment.

Endemic Star Trek dialogue drifts through the walls:

“I’m detecting a small shuttlecraft approaching.”

“Visual, please.”

“It’s federation approved.”

They do take after five-second take of things like this, and am riveted to the plodding repetition.

Richard comes out of the green room.

“You may be able to find a crack somewhere in the wall to see into the studio,” he says, and then vanishes into the tarp room.

I walk around outside of the studio, looking for this elusive crack, trying to make as little noise as possible, and I almost fall into an enormous tub of candy left over from Halloween. Eventually, I find a vertical seam where a door hasn’t been shut tightly enough, but all I can see is the top of one man’s head and the ear of another.

They’ve moved on from the dialogue to a quick scene that shows the effects on the bridge when something blows up somewhere else on the ship: All the actors need to lurch simultaneously in the right direction, and afterwards, the captain needs to say, “What the hell was that?”

Carroll films the lurching maybe three times, and then they get to work on the “What the hell was that?” The actor playing the captain tries out many different sorts of inflections, ranging from “What the hell was that?” to “What the HELL was that!?” Throughout all of this, the bridge is full of people who never say a thing, the extras, so
to speak, who are there purely to maintain visual accuracy, like the colorful buttons. Given the fact that these people traveled all the way from Austin or Canada, their willingness to do virtually nothing for hours at a time is bewildering to me.

Later, when all the Yorktown crew except Atkins and Carroll are in the green room, I ask them about this. Their answers, all of them, sound remarkably familiar:

For fun.

I realize now that I don’t understand what this means. For me, the idea of “fun” is elusive. Obviously I can tell you when I am having fun or when I’m not having fun, but the idea of “just for fun” doesn’t much enter my mental space anymore. Everything I enjoy, everything, that is, I call “fun,” also serves the double purpose of being edifying or self-improving in some way. The rule applies to my full range of activities: from reading to sex, “just for fun” is never just for fun.

One of the actors tries to get back on the bridge after using the bathroom,[6] and Scott rushes out from the tarp room, presumably to make sure they’ve wiped their feet, but also to help them with the door itself, which sticks. Its obvious how much he’s in love with this place. This love may manifest itself differently from Richard’s, might come across as more manic and hovering, but so does the love of most mothers I know.

There is one moment when both Scott and Richard are in the neutral space between the tent room and the green room. They stop and briefly discuss various upcoming things on the Starbase calendar. The moment is touching and oddly beautiful, like seeing the parents of a young family hug. The moment ends when Scott decides he really wants to see what’s happening on the set, and scrambles up a nearby ladder while Richard and I watch from below.

“You won’t see anything from up there,” says Richard, meaning that the tarps hanging over the bridge will obscure the view, but Scott possesses in abundance the curiosity that Richard lacks. When I ask Richard about his vision for the studio, he tells me that he sees it moving into an outreach role, trying to reach more than just fan-filmmakers.

“I want interactive classes offered, and videos that can play on the bridge view-screen. Maybe a ‘What is Sci-Fi’ class or an educational YouTube series for kids.”

The endgame for Richard is not to enter the world of Star Trek, but to enhance the world he lives in now.

A plane flies overhead and interrupts the shoot. Caught up in the world of the studio, I almost forgot that a reality exists outside of the warehouse. There are planes, and rocket ships, and people going to and returning from their jobs, their families, their lives. Some of them never take a break from that shuttling, and most of them probably look at places like Starbase as childish delusions, a waste of time.

It’s easy to think our culture is not brimming with respect for a person who dresses up in costumes, puts on fake hair, and changes the shape of his/her nose to resemble somebody they are not, but that is not true. Ours is absolutely a culture that rewards these things. Why else would we idolize our movie stars? Why else would plastic surgery be an industry? Anyone attempting to deride or mock people wearing Vulcan ears or blue antennae should first consider their own hair-color treatments, Botox injections, liposuction sessions, protein shakes, tanning beds, tanning spray, facelifts, breast implants, bikini waxes, and juice diets. There is one crucial difference: the people at Starbase know they are playing.

I spend the next few hours in the green room, talking to the various crew members who’ve momentarily decided that, yes, it is cold as hell out there. The range of backgrounds and careers represented destroys the unfortunate impression I had of people who dress up like TV show characters. Among those present are electrical contractors, professional makeup artists, robot builders, software designers, and one woman who recently finished her master’s degree in fashion. They are bright people, in many different senses of the word, and I feel a sense of warmth—not least because I am sitting closest to the space heater—from being with them. For a moment, I can almost imagine myself a part of their family.

Some bellowing outside the green room indicates that Carroll is ready to film again. The actors leave and I am left alone for a few moments. I figure that I’ve seen all that I can, and I go to find Richard. He is sitting alone in the tarp room, slouched contentedly in a folding chair. I tell him that I’m all set, and he stands, stretches, and leads the way out of the tarp room, back through the stacks of unsold furniture, and into the corridor with the cars. I can see my own car parked at the furthermost point of the warehouse.

I ask if he plans on going home early today, and he tells me that, no, he’ll stay until the shooting is finished. He says he should be here in case anything else goes wrong, but that sounds like an excuse. He’s here because he can’t imagine being anywhere else. It’s clear in the gentle way he leans against the frame of the ship or in the careful way he stands back and looks at everyone rushing around in red unitards and rubber Vulcan ears: This is his home, and everyone else is a guest. He was here before they arrived, and he’ll be here long after they’re gone.

Richard and I shake hands, and as I climb into my car he opens up the bay door behind me. When I reverse into the winter evening, I see that it is snowing. I put the car in park and watch Richard close the door, his body vanishing piece by piece, until just his shoes are left, and then nothing.


Footnotes: 

1. As of writing, Ajax has yet to film, according to their Facebook page, due to “set issues.”

2. The studio uses tarps in a manner that can only be termed “comprehensive.”

3. I received several business cards during that visit, which made me feel both oddly important and embarrassed that I didn’t have cards of my own.

4. Later in my visit one of the actresses needs a computer to email potential employers and Richard gives her his laptop, endures the barrage of complaints she tosses at him regarding its age and inadequacy, and helps her send the emails.

5. Due to the rigid nature of copyrights, any Star Trek-themed show, prop, costume, or idea not designed by the studio that owns the Star Trek license can’t be used to make anybody any money.

6. And by “bathroom” I mean the alley next to the warehouse or the Sonic across the street.


Originally published in This Land Vol. 5, Issue 6, March 15, 2014.