Monday, 13 July 2015

Three Stories, One Vision: Star Trek Anthology

What do a Miranda Class starship, Gary Seven and a freighter have in common?

Before 2015 only the fact they were very different elements of the Star Trek universe. Now though they are part of Star Trek Anthology; a super-ambitious fan project that doesn't just look at one aspect of the franchise but THREE at the same time.

A couple of weeks before they began location filming the second instalment of Challenger, I grabbed a chance to speak with series creator and Chief Executive Producer Jim Bray and Executive Producer Scott J. Smith to discover the real story behind the project.

"It is a little ambitious!" started James, "And let me take you way back. We got into this whole mess after the guys at Starbase Studios picked up the old Exeter bridge set and posted some pictures on-line."

The set itself had been stored in a barn and had become a little neglected. An email chain between Jim and the studio struck up and he offered to help get them started on the road to restore the three-quarter set. It eventually became a full 360 degree piece once work was completed. "It was a splendid job," continued Jim, "There were some stories written, I offered to direct and my wife can act. They suggested that she looked like Colt (from The Cage) and wanted to somehow write her into an episode. That in turn became Starship Ajax but they just couldn't seem to get a head of steam."

Travel costs were also mounting up travelling from the Bray home to Starbase Studios but as luck would have it James was also in touch with Phase II producer James Cawley who suggested that they could use his sets to get Jodi on screen as Colt. So they set to work and after 12 months there was a lot of material but something else clicked.

"We started thinking we could do an anthology," recalled Jim, "kinda Twilight Zone, kinda Outer Limits but in the Star Trek universe with a hint of Galaxy Quest to show we're not taking ourselves too seriously because we love things with a dose of humour. That led to writing these stories."

Initially that provided Challenger and then thoughts moved to consider Gary Seven who had never received a series after the back-door pilot which was Assignment: Earth from The Original Series fell through. The team realised it wouldn't be that difficult to do and could be fairly contemporary which would keep costs at a minimum. However, there still needed to be a third element.

"We cooked up this show which had an element of Firefly in The Original Series era." recalled Jim, "So we have this ship which is run by a computer which has the memory engrams of the mother of the family who crew her. She was killed in an Orion raid and she lives on in the ship. This meant we had a strong female character in each one of these shows."

Indeed, Mother, Colt and a more dynamic, street-wise Roberta Lincoln are at the forefront of their shows. "Gary tries to push her around," explained Jim, "but she pushes back!"

It was soon decided that Challenger would be the starting point and the centre-pin from which everything else would spring. The Anthology team therefore are looking to that vehicle as their first major work. "We'll be looking at what Colt has been through in her career," stated Jim in relation to the commanding officer of the eponymous starship, "How she has ended up there and in the process we're going to upset the balance but I can't say too much!"

Jim has warned us that the twists of the pilot will leave us slack-jawed but being the utter professional I couldn't drag anything more from the show's producer. Valuably, Jim has been allowed to use some of the team from Phase II to make Anthology and is more than aware of just how important it is to get this right not only for himself but for the fan series that is lending a hand.
Phase II Scotty actor Charles Root may well show up and while Jim would have loved for Brian (Kirk) Gross to be involved with the opening and closing of the first adventure, it looks like they may only be voice-overs.

Scott J Smith, executive producer and webmaster extraordinare has known Jim since "back in the day" and a post on Facebook from the series producer about being green-lit for a webseries peaked his interest. He picked up the phone and the pair reconnected but couldn't put it down until he'd accepted a role in the Anthology project.

It's now been 18 months since the original idea was being kicked around for Anthology and they are now shooting location footage for episode two; A Logical Solution and in August will be shooting all the shipboard material for the pilot and that second episode. "By the end of September we will have everything in the can," explained Jim, "and then it's down to our editor, Bill Lutz, to start to put everything together." 

Australia-based veterinarian(!) Henry Gibbens is on CGI duty for Anthology and his VFX reel is on the Anthology website already and well worth a watch. Given basics from Jim, he took the Challenger from a "junky little model" into a space hot-rod. The pilot too is very VFX heavy including a new "creepy creature" alien race which might take a bit of time to get right. Henry will be getting some assistance from Ken Thompson who has been working on another fan show, Starship Saladin. He also turned up in Kitumba don't you know.

Editor Bill Lutz has a big job ahead and with life in there as well, Jim is expecting pilot episode Another Door Opens to land early in 2016 with the second episode soon after. But there are a few other bits that could be tricky to juggle including a three-way crossover in A Logical Solution.  Ken, Joseph Kerezman from Excalibur and Michael King from Valiant show up to lend support to the Challenger when it gets into a sticky situation.

Importantly though, Challenger won't focus solely on the captain. The Logical Solution looks at Carmichael and Sokaal and their relationship closely. There's going to be a LeClair (helmsman) episode too....Future episodes will also show some of the abilities of our characters. Our comms officer Gnee Tomalin is of a race who can absorb and contain static electricity from the atmosphere around them and discharge it in different ways (such as creating forcefields on away missions or a ball of lightning)."

But why would you want to do this? "To show that we can all work together," said Jim, "We're one big family who can do these little crossovers and all of us can play nice! We can stomp out some of those contentions and rivalries."

Michael King has in fact already shot his scenes while shooting some extra material for Valiant's vignette, Legacy. Scott Smith explained that on a conference call they discovered Michael was working at Starbase Studios and convinced him to nip back in front of the camera to capture his lines for Challenger.

Jim would love to land the pilot as a 2015 Christmas present if he could and it all goes to show that plans for the first of the Anthology shows is well in hand. So what about the other two?

For me it seems like a huge undertaking of galactic proportions not attempted anywhere else in the known Star Trek movement. "Scott and I come from theatrical backgrounds," explained Jim, "and we've put on god knows how many shows. Jodi (Captain Colt) and I ran a theatre company for a number of years so we know what we're doing. We know how to put multiple productions together and there's something I learned called "value engineering" which means how to build things on a shoestring.

"We know how to value engineer our sets and so it can be cardboard and duct tape but if you do it right no-one will know. With Mother all we need a bridge and a few corridors."

In fact the living space for Mother is pretty small since the majority of the ship is designed for hauling freight. The "home" section is intended to look very much like a house with windows that show programmable views meaning a lot of it can be shot inside a normal house environment. "With a couple of control panels here and there it'll remind us that we're on a ship," said Jim, "and some green-screen effects to fill in computer screens. There will be little reminders that this is a ship. We can write around it and do it on the cheap and still impress. What it's really about though is telling a good story and that's what we care most about. We have two incredible writers working on Mother; Jessica Burke and Anthony Burdge who have written an amazing script and it gives us the chance to discuss our other big interest which is autism awareness."

The two children on the Mother ship have Asperger's Syndrome and is something we've never seen within the Star Trek universe before. It's a theme that does also run into Challenger where the helmsman's son is said to have severe autism and wants to send him to a Vulcan master to help sort his mind out.

The Anthology series and website is peppered with references and information on autism to help raise awareness and will certainly help you find out more. As Jim noted, this gives the audience something different to look at and consider - which of course was at the core of Star Trek back in the 1960's and one of Gene Roddenberry's motivations when writing the show.

Jim fervently noted that this is a strongly character based series. Yes there will be action to satisfy but all three shows will be about the people. Nor are these perfect people. They all have their fallibilities, their quirks but that's what makes them interesting and more than just cardboard cut-outs filling out sets.

The Gary Seven script has yet to be written and it's planned that not only will it link in to the main hub that is Challenger but also give a chance to include Valiant or Saladin for example. There have been some tweaks before the script starts to come together with two additional secretive characters and a re-think of how his office "works". Jim fully appreciates that Gary Seven has more than a few things in common with a certain TARDIS-flying Gallifreyan and will be giving the occasional nudge and wink to make sure we know they are very much aware of the parallels."

Challenger will remain as the tent-pole and then spoke off into the other shows. If things don't work out as planned then there are other options which they can explore. If the reception for one isn't as good as they might have hoped then they can look elsewhere to fill that gap; "One of our producers Brian Covault has written a standalone story about a mining ship and an entity they encounter." explained  Jim, "It's a really nice story that takes the Prime Directive and flips it on its head. It was so well written in the first draft I'm afraid to touch it!"

Funding for the show has been interesting to say the least so far. The team launched a Kickstarter campaign which didn't go to plan but did teach them a lot about what to do and perhaps more importantly what not to do. "Our next attempt will be to leave a donation button on the website so we can reach out to everyone. If everyone who follows the site dropped $5 or $10 we'd have more than we needed."

The big costs seem to be focused more on Challenger since Mother and the Gary Seven show are intended to be low-budget and using a lot of already available locations. Luckily they are getting the chance to use James Cawley's bridge sets for some shots and will, if necessary, turn to Ken Thompson to create some green-screen magic for other scenes on the ship.

Talking of green-screen, a lot of the shots of the original Exeter episode, The Savage Empire were done using the technique and Jim has nothing but praise for the show which was one of those that inspired him to create Anthology; "Exeter really was the biggest inspiration because those guys really did make something from nothing," said Jim, "They managed to capture that whole feeling of Star Trek with another ship, another crew and we learned very quickly to like these characters. A number of years ago I sat down with one guy and wrote back-stories for all the characters and explained why there was this friction between Harris and Cutty and developed that and why Garrovick the way he was. It was a four or five story arc but then they decided not to do any more!"

Who knows, I suggested that Jim could drop some of the characters into the show so if he does, you heard it here first!

As we've seen earlier, Galaxy Quest (the greatest Star Trek film never made) was also a big influence on the Anthology project; "It was so much fun and we want to bring that tongue in cheek humour and a little nod to the audience. If you watch because there will be little easter eggs and prop items or lines that is pulled from something else and put into a different context here."

It's a theme that they're pushing through all three which might make Mother a distant cousin of Brit sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf. If that kind of thing is your bag, then the character of Gramps will apparently be right up your street. In fact the actor who is taking that role, Pat Evans, has already trodden the Star Trek boards as Doctor Wright in New Voyages' Mind-Sifter. "The character's a jerk!" laughed Jim, "He's a jerk but I love him!"

Jim is looking to push the limits though, finding our what might be at the end of a Jeffries tube, what's in a cargo hold or where does that corridor go. "We can shoot that kind of thing in an empty warehouse but as long as we put those little set dressing reminders in view that we're in a hold we can still do it on the cheap - but it's not about that it's about the characters and the story. That's what's ultimately important."

"We want people to relate to these characters," reinforced Scott, "to identify these characters and want to see what happens next. It's one thing to have a hero but if you have a hero that has faults and its own demons it gets people tuning in to figure how are they living, growing and developing."

"We really want to get into these characters," continued Jim, "For instance Colt has lost a number of people under her command, she has seen death after death after death. What we're going to see is that she is suffering severely from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Doctor Martin lost his wife when she was working on a planet where she contracted a plague and died in his arms. He became a drinker and these demons still haunt him. We have LeClair who is divorced from his wife and whose son has the more severe aspects of autism and is trying to get his kid away from the doctors who don't know what they're doing over to a Vulcan master."

There's lots of planning, pushing and getting the word out for Jim as production steps up. He'll also be directing the first episode as well as being heavily involved (as you would expect) with the location shooting in New England for The Logical Solution which is taking place right about now. Certainly the location work is getting the team very excited and Jim is sure it'll impress audiences and help increase the drama.

"We've got a lot of great talent," added Scott,who will be on hand to offer onset advice to the actors about the performances as well as being involved with the creative direction to make sure that the series has the unique Anthology feel and brand while also keeping firmly in the Star Trek mould; "We'll be making sure it all fits in. I've also been thinking about doing a story. I have some scenes and need to pull them together."

That's much the same way that Jim and co pulled the first episode of Challenger together over a couple of years which also included extensive rewriting and tweaking, "But there's a point where you have to stop, put it away and don't touch it!"

So as you can see there's a lot going on with Anthology in every single piece of its puzzle. Bold, daring...crackers? Potentially, but you just want them to succeed more than anything because it's a step outside that comfort zone and a web-series that's pushing boundaries that haven't even been marked yet. There's a lot to juggle - would they have been wise to "commit" to a single thread with the potential to go beyond that? Yeah, but then the buzz just wouldn't be the same and I don't think that challenge would satisfy Jim let alone anyone else involved.

There's a growing following looking at this team and their production(s) but how far they will get I can't guess right now. The good news is that filming has begun. They're out there on the frontiers finding new worlds and new civilisations through the magic of film right now and having that step being made makes it ever more real and closer to a tangible end product.

Just as we clicked "publish", Jim gave us a quick update on the show's progress; "Our late June shoot went fairly well, though we had some technical issues with equipment, only managed to get a third done of what we'd hoped. Also, our August shoot is being rescheduled due to some scheduling conflicts, BUT we hope to have a nice surprise or two when we do a panel at Trekonderoga in September!"

The team attitude to the production is very professional. Let's get Challenger right before they tackle making Mother and then the Gary Seven script. Having this Big Plan is certainly going to be the key to their future. I'm crossing everything to hope they get there.

Want to find out more about Anthology? Click over to their website right this second...

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