There’s nobody home on the Enterprise. Not Captain Picard. Not the android with the yellow eyes. Not the Klingon with the party-size forehead. The entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation has gone for the weekend, and the legendary starship is dark, silent, and deserted.
Well, not completely deserted: One figure is still lingering on the command bridge, sitting in the captain’s chair, sipping a diet soda. This lone, intrepid Trekkie has been on the show’s Hollywood set for more than a week, watching the cast and crew film their 119th episode (”The First Duty,” scheduled to air starting March 30). Hanging around the series’ three humongous soundstages — numbers 8, 9, and 16 on the Paramount lot — offers a view of the 24th century that viewers never see on television. For instance, those nifty pneumatic sliding doors on the Enterprise? Turns out they’re opened and closed by two sweaty guys in T-shirts crouching out of camera range. And that awesome transporter chamber that beams people’s atoms around the galaxy? Up ) close, it looks like a cheesy Plexiglas disco stage. It couldn’t molecularize a fly.
Of course, the main thing people notice about Next Generation — whether on the set or off — is that the show is hotter than a supernova. Now in its fifth season, it’s the highest-rated hour-long drama on syndicated TV, with more than 20 million viewers every week. Among males ages 18 to 49 — the classic Trekkie demographic — it’s the No. 1 show on the air, period. The series is so popular, in fact, that some stations are running it twice a week (while video stores are stocking episodes from the first three seasons). And next year the show will even spawn a syndicated spin-off, called Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
All this adds to what is already one of the most amazing pop phenomena in entertainment history. In the 25 years since the original Star Trek (or ”classic Trek,” as fans call it) was first broadcast on NBC, the show has hatched an entire Trekking industry. There have been six feature films (earning a total of more than $400 million), hundreds of Trek books (from erotic novels to technical manuals describing the Enterprise down to the last rivet), dozens of annual Trek conventions, lunch boxes, comic books, posters, and action figures. Put it all together and you’ve got a cult franchise so obscenely profitable it could make the greediest Ferengi space merchant blush.
Launched by Star Trek’s late creator, Gene Roddenberry (who died in October of a heart attack), the new series follows the same basic formula as the previous television and film Treks, only this time the action is set 80 years further into the future, around 2360. The Enterprise is bigger and faster, the once-evil Klingon empire has joined forces with the benevolent Federation, and female aliens don’t run around in tinfoil bikinis anymore, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same old galaxy.
The episode being filmed on this late-January day is fairly typical of the series: There are a lot of icky-looking alien extras, neat special effects, and of course, the obligatory moral at the end of the show. But there’s also some surprisingly decent acting (something new for a Trek series) and excruciating attention to detail (always a Trekkie fetish).
On the following pages, some scenes from a week in the life of The Next Generation. Here’s what makes the future really fly.
Baldly Going Where No Man Has Gone Before
”I am not a conventional hero,” Patrick Stewart announces. ”I am not the archetypal leading man. This is mainly for one reason.” He offers his scalp for inspection. ”As you may have noticed, I have no hair.”
True enough: Stewart’s head is as smooth and shiny as a Horta’s egg. He’s also not the tallest guy in the world, and he’s a bit on the skinny side. Still, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the Enterprise’s imposing commander, the 52-year-old Stewart has become one of television’s most improbable sex symbols.
Unlike certain other starship commanders, he is not your typical phaser- happy space cowboy. Where William Shatner’s Captain Kirk was a swaggering interstellar playboy, Stewart plays Picard as an introspective intellectual who believes that all life-forms should be treated equally. He’s a starman with a mission, preaching political correctness in outer space.
”Sometimes I feel like Picard is part social worker, part ambassador without portfolio,” Stewart says. ”But I do believe in the character — and in the Star Trek philosophy. I believe in the essential goodness of the human spirit. I believe in having respect for that which you don’t understand.”
Stewart is sipping tea in the living room of his cozy three-story house in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles. There are framed posters from World War I on his walls (”My grandfather was an ambulance driver in the war”), a copy of William Goldman’s beauty pageant-film festival expose, Hype and Glory, on the coffee table, and a brand-new forest green Jaguar convertible in the garage. Outside, the swimming pool is looking a tad leafy.
”I grew up in Mirfield, England, in a house that had one room downstairs and one room upstairs,” he says. ”My brother and I shared a double bed in my parents’ bedroom.” After teaching himself how to talk like a proper British gentleman, he landed a job with London’s prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. Then there was a string of classy BBC miniseries (I, Claudius; Smiley’s People; and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and some minor roles in Hollywood features (Excalibur, Dune). And in December, Stewart fulfilled a lifelong ambition by appearing on Broadway in a one-man show based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. ”On opening night,” he says, ”I was standing alone in the wings and I nearly threw up. I actually thought the very first thing I was going to do on Broadway was vomit.” The critics raved.
Sitting in his living room, sipping more tea, Stewart continues his discourse on baldness. ”Did you know that in the general public consciousness, lack of hair is synonymous with failure? It’s like having no teeth. If you haven’t kept your hair, people think you’ve failed in some area in your life. It’s true.”
Maybe so, but not in this case. Somehow, a hairy Picard would be hard to take.