Star Trek fans have long dreamed of joining the ranks of Starfleet, crafting uniforms and suiting up to play the part. Some go the extra mile, creating fan-films to memorialize their star turn. But few take it to the same level as James Cawley, creator of 14 episodes so exquisitely-formed they evoke the 1960s as perfectly as they do the future.
Since 2004, Cawley's Star Trek Phase II has stood out as an unofficial continuation of the original five year mission of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy—as promised in the original series, but ultimately abandoned in favor of shooting the official film series. Although the Phase II episodes are done on a low budget, Cawley quite likely owns the largest collection of Star Trek costumes, props, make-up and sets (yes, sets, plural) of anyone outside of Paramount Studios. His skill, and an impressive gathering of fellow fan volunteers, achieves surprisingly high levels of faithfulness.
Ten years into his own mission, Cawley and his team began a new phase of Phase II. This summer, they packed up their old crowded studio in a converted auto mechanic's shop in and moved to a 13,000 square foot space in Ticonderoga, NY. The move allowed them to build more of the sets seen in Star Trek: The Original Series, such as the medical lab, engineering, the captain's quarters, the transporter room, and even the curved hallway. Their previous studio allowed for only the bridge to remain as a permanent set. Other locations had to be built and dismantled as needed.
"By the time we're done, we will have the biggest, most elaborate, most accurate-without-question sets on the planet," says Cawley. "It gives us every set that was back at Desilu."
The show, available at startreknewvoyages.com was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form in 2008.
Star Brian Gross, who plays Captain James T.Kirk, tells of shooting his first episode and literally waiting for the paint to dry on a set before they could shoot the next scene. Touring the new Phase II studio, however, it seems that while many things have changed for the better, the paint situation might not be one of them.
Cawley is shouting that a coat of primer in Kirk's quarters is done wrong and will set back the schedule. Across the room, another painter turns a studio wall into a giant green screen, behind the Guardian of Forever. In the TOS episode "City on the Edge of Forever", the same Guardian allowed Kirk and crew to travel back in time to the 1930s. Here, it's an appropriate set-piece for a studio built to allow actors to return to a show from the 1960s. Like all the sets, it's impressive but unfinished. The bridge lacks its signature control panels and monitors. It's two days before they'll shoot.
Mark Edward Lewis directs Phase II for the first time, having served as post-production supervisor on two previous episodes.
"In the old sets, they were shoe-horned," Lewis says. "There really wasn't any way to pull a wall out and get a camera back. Now every wall flies. That means you can pull a wall out and get the camera, pulling it back, shooting on long lenses or whatever we need. Which is very television, very Hollywood, and very important."
To say that Phase II gets the look of TOS right is an understatement. Phase II nails details that only obsessed fans would know or care about.
"We literally have the director of photography, Jeff Barklage, who worked with the man who used to light Star Trek the original series. Knows all the tricks. The lighting, the glows, the filters, the lens. He's even using lenses that were used on the show," says Lewis.
Actor Brandon Stacy sits in make-up, getting transformed into Spock. The exact chicken soup-colored foundation, custom made for TOS, is used. It's still named LN-1: Leonard Nimoy One. Stacy says it normally takes 1-2 hours in the make-up chair to complete his look. Nearby the costume crew discusses which hats are available for Spock. They are meant to cover his pointed ears so he can pass as human and also save the make-up artist an hour of work. The fedora they try isn't sitting right. The tips of his ears show. A production assistant is sent to a store, to buy a knit cap.
An assistant hovers behind Cawley, waiting for a rare moment of downtime to wish him a happy birthday. But a birthday isn't something Cawley has much time for today. Cawley may no longer be portraying Kirk himself, but he's still constantly busy on the set.
Although his episodes have yet to debut online, Brian Gross took over the lead role of Kirk from Cawley three years ago, when Cawley saw Gross in the creature film "Gila". Paraphrasing Ernie Hudson in Ghostbusters, Gross says of the offer: "Someone asks you if you want to play Captain Kirk; you just say yes!"
"We have a lot of really good experienced people. But we (also) have people that aren't in the business that just come help out. … Here we put in ridiculous hours just because we love the product we're making," says Gross.
Jeff Bond, a journalist who often covers sci-fi, was recently cast as the new Bones McCoy: "It's something I probably dreamed about everyday since I was ten," he says, on his first day working with Phase II.
James Cawley brings over three variants of McCoy's blue science officer shirts. Bond's grin goes wide as he tries them on for the first time. Cawley points out that two are reproductions using more modern materials, but the one Bond puts on is the authentic original fabric. Several people in the boys-locker-room-turned-wardrobe department move in to touch the fabric. Everyone wants to connect with the history of TOS.
"He (DeForrest Kelly) is such an incredible presence in the show," he says. "Just to be able to do anything with his character is just like the most exciting thing I can possibly think of."
On the day I toured the set, the cast and crew had a later call time, the result of wrapping at 3am the night before. They shoot a scene at a local high school, standing in for a 1950s insane asylum. The episode is based on the 1975 Star Trek short story "The Mind-Sifter," by Shirley Maiewski.
The new studio isn't the only recent upgrade for Phase II. Last year TOS alumnus David Gerrold, writer of "The Trouble with Tribbles", came on as show runner.
"His responsibility is sort of the ultimate editor of any scripts that come through," says Rick Chambers, screenwriter of the last three Phase II episodes. "David brings a considerable amount of experience not only in Star Trek, but as a television writer, as a science fiction writer. I think that kind of input can only lift Phase II higher than where it is already."
The next two episodes will be written by TOS veterans D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold. Gerrold's script, "A Fuzzy Thing Happened", sees the Enterprise journeying to the Tribble home world, bringing back the troublesome furballs he created 46 years ago. Fontana's episode has McCoy's daughter, Joanna, onscreen for the first time. Cawley says it's a story Fontana tried to do in the third season of TOS, but didn't get into production. The anticipation seems too much to bear.
A badly-kept secret on the set today is that there will be a cake, later, to celebrate Cawley's birthday. But when he blows out the candles, it's hard to imagine what he could wish for; after all, his dreams have already come true.