You probably already knew this, if you're a Star Trek fan. But it's really true. YouTube is just bursting with original Star Trek content lately, from damn near spot-on recreations of the Original Series to continuations of the TNG/DS9/Voyager era. This is the golden age of Star Trek web productions.
It's actually kind of dangerous: Sometimes late at night, recently, I'll find myself scanning through clips of the Original Series on YouTube or Hulu. And then I'll start watching an episode of Star Trek: Phase II or Star Trek Continues, and then the next thing I know it's two hours later and I have to get up and work in the morning. What's amazing is the level of quality in the sets and VFX in these shows — and how devoted everybody is to getting it as right as they can.
Back when Doctor Who was off television from 1989 to 2005, with only one TV movie to tide us over, the audio-only Big Finish productions helped keep the love of the Doctor alive, and gently expand the limits of Who storytelling. I can't help wondering if we're seeing something similar with these fan productions — and if one day we'll look back in the middle of a new era of Star Trek on television, and say that these shows helped make it happen. That's certainly the goal, in at least one of these cases.
There have been unofficial productions and fan films forever, but the first instance of a Star Trek webseries really hitting the zeitgeist — and blowing us away with its production values — was Star Trek: New Voyages, starring James Cawley. They started making these a dozen years ago, and about 10 years ago a kind of rubicon was crossed when they went from filming their own original scripts to adapting unused scripts by original writers like D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold. And in "To Serve All My Days," Chekov is subjected to rapid aging, and the elderly Chekov is actually played by original actor Walter Koenig:
When the makers of New Voyages decided, in 2008, to change gears and make a version of the scrapped Star Trek series Phase II, it seemed only fitting. They were already making their own reasonably faithful continuation of Star Trek, and now they were semi-officially making the continuation that Gene Roddenberry had planned 30 years earlier.
By the time this recent episode "Mind Sifter," had come out, the show had recast all the roles and was now alternating between Phase II and New Voyages episodes. "Mind Sifter" is one of the episodes I got sucked into watching late at night recently, and it holds up pretty well. It's probably a bit darker than would have been allowed in the 1960s, but the heightened sense of drama feels very 1960s, in its own way. And the vision of a damaged Captain Kirk, trapped in a 1960s insane asylum, is actually pretty stark:
And then about 10 years ago, there was an explosion of webseries, most of them with pretty decent to good production values. This 2006 New York Times article gives a pretty good rundown. A series called Hidden Frontier managed to complete a ton of episodes — all of which are still online, and which explore same-sex relationships in Starfleet. The episodes are all easy to find on Youtube. Also on Youtube: Starship Farragut, which tells the story of a sister ship of the Enterprise in the TOS era. And another show about a sister ship, Starship Exeter, has one episode on Youtube now.
So yeah, there were a lot of fan productions in the works 10 years ago — but I'm not sure that all of them were on Youtube until more recently. All of the videos of these older shows seem to have been uploaded in the past four or five years, making them easier to access than before.
Then there was the 2008 production Of Gods and Men, whose cast included a ton of Trek actors and classic SF actors in general, including:
Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols (Uhura and Chekov of the original series) and Alan Ruck (Captain John Harriman of the 7th Trek feature film, Star Trek Generations) along with Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand of the original series). Joining them are Garrett Wang (Star Trek: Voyager) and Ethan Phillips (Star Trek: Voyager as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation); Cirroc Lofton, Chase Masterson and JG Hertzler (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Gary Graham and Crystal Allen (Star Trek: Enterprise), Herb Jefferson (Battlestar Galactica) plus Tim Russ (reprising his role as Tuvok from Star Trek: Voyager), who also directs the film.
I have to confess, I've never watched Of Gods and Men all the way through, but the bits of it that I've watched look completely insane, and sort of like the ultimate expression of Star Trek's boundless sense of possibility. The plot involves alternate evil timelines, and a villain from early on in the Original Series, and different eras colliding, and a whole lotta crazy going on.
The whole thing is now on YouTube:
We've written a lot about Star Trek Continues, which benefits from high production values, and acting by well known figures like Grant Imahara (as Sulu) and James Doohan's son Chris (as Scotty). Not surprisingly, the same high production values as New Voyages/Phase II are in full effect, and the performances are really strong.
The cast of Star Trek Continues dare to recreate a scene that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy acted out, line for line, from the end of "Mirror Mirror," and manage not to seem too much like a copy. And then they go ahead and show what happened to the Mirror Universe after our Kirk vanished:
This is another one of the episodes that I got sucked into watching late at night. These things are basically total crack.
At their best, these webseries are a great celebration of our shared love of Star Trek, and a perfect tribute to the original shows and movies from decades past. At times, they have glimmers of the intensity and charisma of the classic shows, even if there's no replacing William Shatner or the others. (And paradoxically, at times the VFX and other production values are almost too good in some of these.)
But the other reason why I'm saying now is probably the golden age of Star Trek webseries is because of a couple of upcoming productions, that have a lot of people excited.
Star Trek: Renegades comes from the same people who created Gods and Men, but with a much darker tone. And also, what appear to be somewhat more polished production values. They've been crowdfunding and doing other fundraising efforts, and their last update said that they had completed all but 20 VFX shots, and were hoping to present the final film to CBS by the end of March.
It is ten years after Voyager's return from the Delta Quadrant, and the Federation is in a crisis. The Federation's main suppliers of dilithium crystals are disappearing. Space and time have folded around several planets, effectively isolating them from any contact with outside worlds. And this phenomenon is not natural – someone or something is causing this to happen. This necessitates drastic measures; some of which are outside the Federation's normal jurisdiction. For this, Admiral Pavel Chekov, head of Starfleet Intelligence, turns to Commander Tuvok, Voyager's former security officer and current head of the newly reorganized Section 31. Tuvok must put together a new covert, renegade crew – mostly outcasts and rogues – even criminals. This new crew is tasked with finding out what is causing the folding of time and space, and stopping it – at all costs. But will they be able to put aside their differences and stop trying to kill one another in time to accomplish their mission?
And here's a featurette released last spring, which gives some flavor:
And then there's Star Trek: Axanar, a new fan film which aims to tell the story of the Four Years' War between the Federation and the Klingons, which was referenced in the Original Series episode "Whom Gods Destroy." A short film called "Prelude to Axanar" was released last summer at Comic-Con, featuring actors "Richard Hatch, Tony Todd, Kate Vernon, JG Hertzler and Gary Graham." Makeup and hair were done by Oscar winner Kevin Haney along with a Star Trek veteran, Brad Look. And the VFX were done by Tobias Richter of The Light Works, with sound by Oscar-winner Frank Serafine. Check it out here:
As the makers of the project put it, "Axanar is the independent production that proves a feature-quality Star Trek film can be made on a very modest budget." Can't wait to see the whole movie!
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