Thursday, 23 April 2015

Return of the Exeter

Updated and reworked with additional information from Exeter Trek

Back in the "dark" days when all we had was new Enterprise, a fan series came about that would energise fans and help inspire those who became the semi-pro Star Trek film-makers of today.

The show was called Starship Exeter and between 2002 and 2014 the universe of The Original Series and NCC-1706 lived on via the wonder of the internet. I say live on because, shockingly, there were only ever two episodes made in that 12 year period. The first, Savage Empire, was released in 2002 with its breakthrough coming in January of the following year due to coverage via SlashDot which crashed the hosting servers.

The sequel, The Tressaurian Intersection was filmed in 2004 with segments being released over a number of years with the full episode only being available in 2014; ten years later.

But why are we bothered about this show now? Surely everyone out there has reviewed it to death and it's "old news" as far as us writers and fans are concerned - seen it, done it, move on.

Not so. 

It seems someone out there wants to keep the Exeter name alive with... Exeter Trek.

If you've not seen it, Exeter Trek is designed as a prequel of sorts to The Original Series on the apparent secret prototype starship, the USS Exeter. Erm...At this point I shuddered as 50 years of canon was seemingly chucked out of a very tall building but I pray you refrain from that social media onslaught and read on.

I have supported fan projects a lot through Some Kind of Star Trek but with this I was initially disappointed before a minute of the trailer had run. Not because fans have come together to create a new Star Trek film but because they could have chosen another name and kept the canon. That said, it also provided a great chance to discuss the classic fan show, something one of my readers did ask about a while back and also to get in touch with the Exeter Trek team to understand more about their vision.

So it's time to set out the stall here. Starship Exeter's two episodes broke the fan film into the mass market and their legacy should really be respected. This new show could have chosen any name which could have helped circumnavigate that tricky prototype scenario they've cornered themselves with but no, instead they chose this one.

Let's step back and look at the legacy of those two episodes produced a decade ago. The Savage Empire might not be up to the levels of magnificence now being aired by the latest Star Trek Continues episodes but for its time it was mind-blowing, jaw-dropping; add your own clich√© as applicable. Standing it next to the early Phase II (then called New Voyages) it's an equal in quality but their later offerings are much better which does hurt these stories a little. Remember - it has been 10 years since this was made and at the time, "cutting edge" would easily have applied.

The Savage Empire takes place for the most part on the Andorian homeworld on and below the surface. That fact in itself makes this an odd fan series with a lot of location work and, even more significantly, no full bridge set which is betrayed only by the fact that all the bridge shots are blue-screened and focus on just one portion of the command deck. Being a Star Trek show without much action aboard ship is very brave, removing the need to build some expensive sets but the budget could have stretched to a decent monster as perhaps the most hokey bit is the plastic alien Captain Garrovick and co fend off before heading below the Andorian surface. 

The minuscule budget does show through with some ill-fitting uniforms and questionable makeup for the rebellious Andorians and their Klingon associate but don't let that dissuade you from enjoying this snapshot of how fan-films started out. The cast itself is fairly small with The Savage Empire focusing mainly on Garrovick (understatedly portrayed by James Culhane), security chief Paul Cutty (Michael Buford) and Andorian comms officer B'fuselek (Joshua Caleb). The second installment take more time to also develop the character of first officer Commander Jo Harris (Holly Guess) who is confined to the bridge in episode one.

But before you start ripping the first installment to bits, remember that this was a more "primitive" time and this show effectively helped kickstart (all puns intended) the fan film explosion and thus the race to improve quality in what was being brought to the screen. The acting is perhaps more miss than hit but the soul of the show is there, the key elements of a starship, a planet in peril, aliens, phasers and a fist fight are all in droves. The scenario is very much A, B, C yet it feels exciting, refreshing and nothing if not experimental, testing the waters of what would be a continually developing medium. No doubt Gene would have been proud to know that the vision had been kept alive however it's The Tressaurian Intersection which makes the original Exeter's disappearance so disheartening.

With only a fraction of the location filming we saw in The Savage Empire, this second episode took a staggering NINE years to come to fruition with segments being finished and released sporadically until the final act was posted early in 2014. In the space of time from the opening of their first story to the closing titles of the second, there was such a radical jump in technology and opportunities. Not only is the video a lot clearer, the audio crisper, but the acting is a quantum leap from where they were in 2003. Add into that the CGI work here and Exeter had so much to offer yet never got the chance.  Just for that shot of the Kongo saucer section I could watch Exeter again and again.

The Tressaurians themselves are reminiscent of the rubbery (and much loved) Gorn from Arena but you're not really that bothered since the story itself is a big step up from its predecessor. I watched them in the wrong order so the step back was a fairly large shock considering the professionalism of The Tressaurian Intersection.

In contrast to The Savage Empire it's also set purely onboard the USS Exeter and this time with use of the bridge and a much more professional edge. This episode is a substantial step up from The Savage Empire in just about every sense, the acting, the story, the writing - and that's why seeing the name Exeter being used by another fan series just felt wrong. We get not only action inside the ship but no rogue plastic aliens instead we have the Tholians and a much tighter script which gives the cast some breathing room. This, sadly limited, production is one of the foundations for everything that's come since - would we have Continues or Axanar pushing the levels of expectation with each new release if it wasn't for the standards that the Exeter production team established?

I'd say "No" and I think a lot of fan-film fans would agree. In some respects, keeping the Exeter name alive is a great way to make sure this key segment of Star Trek fan history is remembered. Rumours do abound that the abandoned third episode, The Atlantis Invaders is being adapted as an audio adventure but for now, the only way that USS Exeter will arrive onscreen will be at the hands of producer John Sims who is also starring in the production as Captain Ellison J Moorey.

Based in the Pike era (and featuring Pike era titles), Exeter Trek has been searching for funds on GoFundMe but, as we'll see, that's just a small piece of the bigger plan. It's ambitious, Trek-retro and doesn't just follow either Continues or Phase II. Explained John, "Despite the small amount of money we have raised from GoFundMe, I have received private contributions in excess of $5,000. Not to mention my own payouts that exceed $10,000! Plus, we have set up a barter system for the post production as well as other aspects concerning the show. Basically, we have had the money and just needed some fandom help to push us over the edge to cover what we needed to bring a quality, action packed adventure-ala-1965!"

Getting very excited by this - maybe, because any vision of Star Trek and any opportunity to see something a little different even more so. The Pike-era setting is a curve-ball, a unique angle, but the level and quality of production is continuously being improved and redrawn and that's even true here with Exeter Trek that is barely recognisable from where it started.

It's also important to note that Exeter Trek has no link whatsoever with the Starship Exeter show and are more than aware that there's been use of that name before; "I and others are huge fans of what Jimm and Josh have done as well as their talents." said John,  "The reason we chose to use Exeter as our ship is simple and not because of Starship Exeter

I am the president (Captain) of the local chapter of Starfleet International. (John is here, far right) Plus, each chapter gets to choose a ship name and class of vessel. Seeing my family is from England and Scotland, I chose Exeter. She's been a main stay vessel in Her Majesties Navy since World War II and I thought it fitting. Also, being in the Pike era, we can explore a lot territory that is only mentioned on occasion in The Original Series."

The way that I discovered Exeter Trek was through falling onto the original trailer but times have changed since those couple of minutes were embedded online; "That promo video was made two years ago," recalled John, " and is very different to what we have filmed recently. Not to mention, major castings changes and a whole new direction I decided to take after we made that. We will have a new promo coming soon....."

And how has this all come about then, who has John got involved to make such a difference since those early days?

"Most of the production staff are folks that are good friends of mine. We, as a team, are the ones who helped out every Saturday to build the sets for Farragut. With Mike Bednar (big thanks for the support), Greg Greene and Royal Weaver leading the teams, we built the sets over a four year period. These folks have also come aboard to help with Exeter to help me see my vision of the future-past. They have also worked as Director, assistant director, sound engineers, lighting gaffers, etc,. These great folks have been on set for all the Farragut episodes filmed in Georgia as well as the early Star Trek Continues offerings. Plus, the all -new series Dreadnought Dominion (need to find out about this!!! - Clive) is another that some of my team worked on." said John.

"Our production team is simply put,..The Best! They care about making Star Trek that will entertain. Also, our acting talent, despite being local in nature (stage work, TV, commercials and theme park entertainers) have really brought out some great performances that will have a very organic feel. I personally have invested 1000's of man hours between writing the story/script, creating the characters, designing the costumes and constructing a number of them with the help of Lisa Colon. Props with help from Douglas Glenn and my main man with the set pieces...Mike McGee. Talent second to none."

And to back those statements up - not that he needed to after such in depth info on what's been happening - John kindly provided us with some great new promo shots including some of those Pike-era props including the phaser, communicator and console mini-monitors plus some shots from on-set filming. John, I was very honoured to receive them!

John has very clearly been super busy since I originally put this article together last year and through various events we've missed each other but finally I got a few words from the man behind the project; "On the weekend of January 4, we converged on the Farragut Films sets in Kingsland Georgia to shoot our interior scenes."

And remember that, unusually, this is pre-Kirk? Well - "We back-dated the sets some what to appear like those from the Captain Pike era (comparisons at the bottom of the article!). We spent two days there getting some rather good footage for our pilot. Very longs days, but we as a team, completed what we needed and then some."

In April this year the Exeter Trek team headed out to their location shoot and an abandoned cement facility to finish off the exterior scenes. Following that the story goes into post production for editing, effects, sound and the rest. "We also plan on filming a 30 second advertisement for a fictitious product that would seem right for 1965." added John, indicating that they'll be looking to recreate the effect of watching a whole hour of 60's TV, break and all. Add in the potential for some mini-sodes to keep us hooked..."Not to mention that we are in negotiations for a building space to build and house our own sets. But that's a story for another day I suppose!" he revealed.

The "original" Starship Exeter was a landmark, if a little rough around the edges - so maybe this new take is the perfect sequel if somewhat distorting the timelines we might have come to know and love. Now this unconnected production is making a bold step backwards if you will, exploring a time rarely seen in fan productions if only due to a lot of standing sets being from the Kirk-era.

Maybe we've now come to a turning point where there are two levels of fan production? On the one hand we have those which truly are done on a microscopic budget with little more than love and a prayer while on the other there are those vying to be the next big thing that every Star Trek fan wants to see and hold dear. Exeter Trek seems to fall more comfortably in the latter even though it is using one of the highest quality standing bridge sets in the US. However, although we might not appear to be highly confident now, in another two or three years who is to say that this won't be as big and as popular as Star Trek Continues?

John and the team are placing a unique spin on the fan series by placing it in the Pike-era which will make it stand out in the landscape of fan films which have traditionally walked the Kirk line. I am especially intrigued as to how they will have "de-aged" the sets to take them back to the look and feel of The Cage. I certainly look forward to hearing more from Exeter Trek as they develop their work.

Are you a fan of Starship Exeter and lament it's short appearance in fandom? What would you want from another Exeter installment if it was to happen? Does Exeter Trek raise an eyebrow? Drop us a line below!

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Images from Exeter Trek courtesy of John Sim


  1. Replies
    1. Never finished as far as I'm aware. It went the same way as a lot of those mid 2010 fan projects - including several I covered on here.