Benjamin Svetkey
May 06, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”Get that bloody camera out of my face!” Patrick Stewart blares at an Entertainment Tonight crew that has come to tape a segment on the command bridge of the starship Enterprise. Stewart is in the midst of filming the very last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation-the series signs off after seven seasons, with a two-hour finale the week of May 23-and the most beloved TV baldy since Telly Savalas is clearly in need of a stress pill.

In space, it turns out, sometimes people can hear you scream.

Of course, some backstage strain is inevitable whenever a hit series comes to the end of its run. But on the Next Generation set in late March, you could practically cut the tension with a phaser beam. One reason for the edginess is that the show isn’t really ending at all-it’s metamorphosing immediately into a movie franchise. Just four days after Stewart wraps the TV finale, he and his costars will move down the Paramount lot to Stage 7, where they’ll try to make their cathode-ray characters fly on the big screen. This first Next Generation feature film, titled Star Trek: Generations and costarring classic Trekker William Shatner, will arrive in theaters this Thanksgiving.

Another cause for crankiness: Nobody here seems to have a clue why the show is being canceled. ”I haven’t been given any reason that holds water,” says Jonathan Frakes, who plays swashbuckling Commander William Riker. ”Maybe (Paramount) thought they couldn’t do the movie and the TV show at the same time-although I don’t know why the movie had to be made this year. Some of us kept hoping there would be an eleventh-hour reprieve, that Paramount would realize how much money the show has made for them and change their minds.”

Paramount’s decision to cancel the series is rather odd. Next Generation has been a warp-propelled profit machine from the start-and is still the highest-rated syndicated drama in the history of television, with 15 to 20 million viewers a week. It has spawned two spin-offs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (now in its second season) and Star Trek: Voyager (which will debut in January 1995 as the flagship series of Paramount’s planned fifth network). This year, Trek productions have taken over almost a third of Paramount’s 30 soundstages, making the shows the biggest deal here since Cecil B. DeMille himself churned out pictures on the lot. Cancel Next Generation now? At the height of its success? Most illogical.

”All I can tell you is that the decision to end Next Generation after a seven-season run was made at least two years and two Paramount regimes ago,” says Rick Berman, an executive producer for the show since its October 1987 premiere. ”This plan has been around a long time, since before the studio asked us to do Voyager. You’d have to ask Paramount why they did it.”

Paramount’s answer: ”It’s always tough to cancel a series that’s doing as well as Next Generation,” says Joel Berman (no relation to Rick), the studio’s executive vice president of domestic television. ”But the bottom line is that a successful feature-film franchise can be more profitable than a TV series. We thought it was time to launch Next Generation as a movie franchise, and we didn’t think we could do the television series at the same time. Why would people go to movie theaters to see Next Generation if new episodes were available on TV every week? The movie wouldn’t be as special.”

Not everyone is broken up over Next Generation‘s cancellation. In fact, some cast members seem positively blase about it. “Right now I’m in plain old denial,” says Brent Spiner, who plays Lieut. Commander Data, the android science officer who isn’t programmed to experience emotion. “I have absolutely no feelings about it whatsoever. I’m serious. To me, it’s just another season- ender, like all the others.”

As with the previous season-enders, the plot of this final episode is being kept top secret. Only a few enticing details have been leaked to outsiders: The story will involve Stewart’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard quantum-leaping through three time periods-his present (around the year 2370); his past (he’ll pop back to the show’s 1987 premiere episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” where that cosmic wisenheimer Q, played by John de Lancie, is still holding humanity on trial for its crimes against itself); and his future, in which we get to see what happens to his shipmates 25 years down the line (Geordi La Forge becomes a best-selling novelist, Worf is named governor of a lowly Klingon outpost, and Data inherits the mathematics chair held by both Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University).

“It’s a bookend to the whole series,” de Lancie says. “It’s really a wonderfully poignant conclusion. It should be an amazing thing to see.” It’s certainly been an amazing thing to film, requiring three weeks of nearly round-the-clock production. “It’s been crazy here these past few weeks,” says Gates McFadden, who plays Beverly Crusher, the Enterprise‘s doctor and token single mom (she ends up commanding her own medical ship in the future). “Last Friday I was on the set for literally 23 hours. These have been inhuman hours. People are just exhausted.”

And it’s not only the work that has been tough. “Psychologically, I think everyone is trying to detach themselves from the show and each other,” says Marina Sirtis, sounding like her character, Counselor Deanna Troi, the Enterprise‘s touchy-feely onboard therapist (apparently, her future is too grim to reveal). “People are subconsciously being pissy on the set so that it won’t hurt so much when the show is finally over.”

“We’re a family in crisis,” adds LeVar Burton, who plays La Forge, the blind engineer. “This is the end of seven years of shared experience. You can’t end something like this without pushing people’s buttons. It’s going to bring up strong emotions, and everybody is going to handle it differently.” One of those emotions, no doubt, is fear. Right about now a lot of these actors must be contemplating the less-than-stellar non-Federation careers of James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, and most of the rest of the original Trek TV cast (who, according to a slew of new tell-all bios, weathered a few family crises of their own). Will any of the Next Generation crew ever again play a role that doesn’t require a space suit? “I think we’ll all be dealing with that problem for the rest of our lives,” says Frakes. “I’m just glad I’ve become a director. I’m hoping that will keep me from falling prey to it. But I’d be naive to pretend that wasn’t a possibility.”

Actually, there is some reason for hope. McFadden has already been signed for a 20th-century part in Mystery Dance, a comedy-drama pilot for ABC. And Spiner has reportedly negotiated an antitypecasting clause in his new contract with Paramount: He’ll do the big-screen Generations only if the studio casts him in a nonandroid role in another film. Looks like Data’s positronic brain is good for more than computing dekyon fields and space-time continuums.

It’s midnight on Stage 18, where Patrick Stewart is filming his final scene as a TV spaceman. Several days have passed since his blowup on the bridge, and he seems to have loosened up considerably. Between takes he chats warmly with the crew, sips tea in his director’s chair, and leisurely peruses a newspaper.

There have been rumors that Stewart is the reason that Next Generation is going off the air-that he had grown bored of the role and wanted to leave. (“Totally untrue,” says Rick Berman.) There have been rumors that Stewart has been less than cooperative in some aspects of filming this last episode, supposedly refusing to loop segments on weekends. (“Totally untrue,” Berman insists.) There have been rumors that other cast members are getting fed up with Stewart’s supposed prima donna-ism on the set. (“Totally, totally untrue,” Berman says.)

“This last episode is very complex and demanding,” the producer says. “That’s why Stewart’s been less patient with outside stuff. He’s been working 14-hour days in three different wardrobes and three different makeups. He’s in every damn shot. He’s totally fried.”

Stewart himself offers his own burnt-out take on the end of the series. “For me, the timing is perfect,” he says in a phone interview (on-set, in- person interviews with him are strictly verboten). “I had been increasingly feeling that I’d given the best of my work on the series. The last two years especially have found me feeling an intense restlessness. I needed to go on to something else.

“This is the toughest job I’ve ever done,” he continues, “except maybe when I worked on a building site unloading cement blocks-that was marginally more difficult. And the last three months have been especially tough, culminating with this epic two-hour special. There were moments when I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish the episode, I was so tired. And yes, it did lead to some outbursts like the one (with Entertainment Tonight), for which I apologized personally to everyone concerned. It was turning into a three-ring circus with press on the set every day.”

But tonight on the soundstage, as he puts the finishing touches on the space age of his television career, Stewart looks downright mellow. When the scene is finally finished and the camera clicks off for good at about 12:30 a.m., he stands on a scaffold above the bleary-eyed production crew and delivers a surprise farewell address.

“I’ve been cleaning out my trailer, and I found a piece of paper,” he tells the crowd in his inimitable “Make it so” brogue. “It’s a quote that I read at (the late Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s) memorial, and it suddenly seemed really appropriate.

“‘To walk, we have to lean forward,'” he reads from the writings of British psychotherapist Robin Skynner, “‘lose our balance, and begin to fall. We let go constantly of the previous stability, falling all the time, trusting that we will find a succession of new stabilities with each step. Our experience of the past, and of those dear to us, is not lost at all, but remains richly within us.'”

A bit cryptic, perhaps, but-if Shatner et al. are any indication-Stewart surely knows he’ll probably be stuck walking together with his Next Generation colleagues for a long time to come.

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