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Star Trek Fan Films Live Long and Prosper

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Star Trek Fan Films Live Long and Prosper

Pop Culture

Star Trek Fan Films Live Long and Prosper

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Now, in a small town in rural Upstate New York, science fiction fans and amateur filmmakers are working to correct what they see as one of the great blunders of television history, NBC's decision to cancel the original Star Trek series. Volunteers have written and filmed three new episodes so far. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, they found some surprising sources of money and support.

BRIAN MANN reporting:

Imagine just for a second that it's 1969.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Announcer: The following program is brought to you in living color on NBC.

MANN: Star Trek is back for its fourth season, and once again the Starship Enterprise is in trouble.

(Soundbite of Star Trek fan film)

Mr. JAMES CAWLEY (Actor): (As Kirk) Lieutenant Scott, status report.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Lieutenant Scott) I estimate it will fire in 23.4 seconds.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As Character) Engineering, all power...

MANN: But the James T. Kirk peering roguishly into the camera on this Trek episode isn't played by William Shatner. This Kirk is played by James Cawley.

Mr. CAWLEY: So welcome to the Enterprise.

MANN: This isn't a parallel universe. This is modern day Port Henry, New York, an hour's drive north of Albany. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, Cawley is working on what looks like a Hollywood set.

Mr. CAWLEY: I'm rewiring and rebuilding. Does it look like the Enterprise?

MANN: Yeah, I mean, it certainly looks like the Enterprise of my childhood, the one that...

Mr. CAWLEY: That's the only one that counts.

MANN: This life-sized replica of the Enterprise bridge sits in what used to be a used car dealership on the outskirts of town. The attention to detail is remarkable, one part studio set, one part shrine.

Mr. CAWLEY: We've matched everything the way it was, so much so that we've found an original 1964 office chair that was the basis of Kirk's chair.

MANN: Kirk sat in a 1964 office chair?

Mr. CAWLEY: Office chair. That black chair that you're looking at right there with the wooden arms was made in 1964 by Madison Furniture in Mississippi.

MANN: Cawley grew up just outside Port Henry. He's a handsome guy with oiled black hair, sideburns and just a little of that 1960's swagger that made the original Kirk iconic.

(Soundbite of Star Trek fan film)

Mr. CAWLEY: (As Kirk) To boldly go where no man has gone before.

(Soundbite of Star Trek theme)

MANN: This project is what's known as a fan film. Cawley and his crew of volunteers won permission from CBS and Paramount, who now own the franchise, to make new episodes for distribution on the Internet. Their goal is to finish that original five-year voyage, derailed not by Klingons, but by network executives. The one caveat is that Cawley's not allowed to make any money from the project, not one dime.

Mr. CAWLEY: My day job as Elvis has paid for 90 percent of this.

MANN: That's right. A man obsessed with playing James Kirk on TV is paying the bills by playing Elvis Presley on stage. It turns out Cawley is one of the top Elvis impersonators in the country.

Mr. CAWLEY: I've had the good fortune of traveling the country for 18 years playing Elvis. I've worked with his backup singers and I've toured with his band members and I've just had a great time.

MANN: So Elvis pays for Kirk.

Mr. CAWLEY: For Kirk, yeah, two '60s' icons, it's bizarre.

MANN: If this sounds like geek heaven, it gets better. The last few years Cawley and his crew have gotten so good at making episodes, that they've started luring Trek icons to Port Henry. Walter Koenig, who played Chekov in the original series, is sitting in the makeup chair.

Mr. WALTER KOENIG (Actor): It's a very romantic nature of this kind of guerilla shooting is that the interest Star Trek is so enduring and so passionate that folks participate very much at their own expense.

MANN: This is Koenig's second trip to Port Henry. He was drawn, he says, by the quality of filmmaking and by new storylines that finally allow his character to step into the spotlight.

Mr. KOENIG: For the first time, we've discovered who Chekov was, that he had an inner life and that he was a character that could evolve. He wasn't simply an expository character saying, you know, warp factor 4.

MANN: With two new episodes now in production, other Trek stars are also turning up. On this afternoon, Tim Russ, who played Tuvok the Vulcan, and Michelle Nichols, the original Lieutenant Uhura, are shooting a scene on the car dealership's display floor, remade into a Klingon jail.

(Soundbite of fan film in production)

Ms. MICHELLE NICHOLS (Actress): (As Lieutenant Uhura) Tuvok, (unintelligible), do you think we made it? (Unintelligible).

Mr. TIM RUSS (Actor): (As Tuvok) (Unintelligible).

MANN: James Cawley says these productions are as good as plenty of the sci-fi series now on cable TV. He says the new episodes have tallied 30 million downloads so far worldwide. They've even been translated into Spanish. Cawley's dream is that the owners of the Trek franchise will buy in someday and agree to let him earn a living playing Kirk full-time.

Mr. CAWLEY: I'm just hoping that, you know, CBS will embrace the fan film movement. They seem to really be doing just that. We'd love for them to license the product, so to speak, and give us a small percentage. I mean, this is found money for them. Even at a dollar a download, that's a lot of money for somebody to say, gee, we don't want it.

MANN: For now, all of the Star Trek episodes made in Port Henry are available online free of charge.

(Soundbite of Star Trek fan film)

Mr. CAWLEY: (As Kirk) Fleet captain, shall we make sure our guest receives the appropriate welcome? Your place or mine?

MANN: For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann on the bridge of the Enterprise in Port Henry, New York.

(Soundbite of Star Trek fan film)

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Mr. Scott) Scott to bridge, I had to ring the dinner bell. All right, (unintelligible), come and get it.

SIMON: And to watch the latest fan-created adventures of Captain Kirk head at warp speed to our Web site, NPR.org. Oh, there's going to be a lot of hits today.

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