FUTURE `TREK' FROM VALLEY PORTAL, SPACE ODYSSEY TRAVELS ONTO THE WEB.
Although there are no TV shows currently on the air and a new movie is at least a couple of years off, the ``Star Trek'' universe keeps expanding.
The latest incarnation of the four-decade-old franchise is a Trekkie-created Internet-only series, which logs upward of 40 million hits per episode. Boldly going where no fans have gone before, ``Star Trek: The New Voyages'' programs are written, acted, produced, bankrolled and beamed onto the Web (newvoyages.com) for free, simply for the fun of it.
Webisodes, which cost around $70,000 each to produce, follow the continued adventures of James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock and the crew from the point the original series left off in 1969, beginning in the fourth year of the Starship Enterprise's ``five-year mission.''
Because of its high production values, initial ``Star Trek'' cast members George Takei, Walter Koenig and Grace Lee Whitney, plus various bit players from the original NBC series, all have donned their Starfleet uniforms once again.
``This is the future,'' says Takei, best-known for his role of Sulu, during a break in shooting the Webisode ``World Enough and Time,'' set to premiere in March, in which his character is transported to an alien planet, ages 30 years and fathers a daughter. ``Making these new shows is a pure hobby, a work of sacrifice for everybody.
``There's this misconception that `Star Trek' fans are green-bodied creatures with antennae coming out of their heads. No! They are people like (Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist) Paul Allen and Sen. Patrick Leahy, whose passion is `Star Trek' and their dream is to be Capt. Kirk on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.''
The CBS-sanctioned labor of love has produced three 50-minute episodes since 2003, with a fourth (``To Serve All My Days'') set to premiere Thanksgiving Day. It's just the latest offshoot of the ``Star Trek'' brand, which has spawned six television series (one animated), 10 feature films (with an 11th being planned for 2008 with ``Lost's'' J.J. Abrams producing, writing and possibly directing), dozens of computer and video games, hundreds of novels, countless fan conventions, parodies, museum displays, multimillion-dollar memorabilia auctions, documentary films and a themed attraction in Las Vegas.
The King ... of space
``This is a dream come true,'' says ``New Voyages'' executive producer James Cawley, 40, an unusually successful professional Elvis impersonator who plays Capt. Kirk in the series and also partially bankrolls it. ``I discovered the show as a kid, and it stayed with me all these years. I wanted to be part of `Star Trek' my whole life.''
Forget the building; Elvis has left the planet.
Cawley explained that CBS (and previously Paramount Pictures), which owns the rights to ``Star Trek,'' allows the distribution of fan-created material as long as no attempt is made to profit from it. The network's tolerance illustrates the intense pressure from within the industry to find a model for the integration of movies, TV shows and music with computers.
``In the '50s, TV was the new medium where you could have everyone in the country watching,'' said writer-producer Marc Zicree, who co-wrote ``World Enough and Time'' (which he also directed and executive produced) with Emmy-winning writer Michael Reaves. ``It had this Wild West quality. Today, with the Internet, all bets are off again. It's a level playing field. Someone can put something up on the Web and draw more viewers than a network show.''
Zicree and Reaves come to ``New Voyages'' with a great deal of affection and experience for the subject: Both wrote for the TV series ``Star Trek: The Next Generation'' and ``Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'' in the '80s and '90s.
During a few days of shooting on high-definition video at Chatsworth's Gigapix Studios (whose president is former ``Simpsons'' executive producer David Pritchard), Takei, Whitney and about 75 other costumed actors, crew and technicians bustled around full-scale mock-ups of the Excelsior bridge and Sulu's personal quarters.
Red-hot Vulcan alert
Meanwhile, just outside camera range, a Vulcan bared her soul. Her physical characteristics -- arched eyebrows; pointed ears; pale, slightly greenish skin; and tightly cropped, glossy hair -- made for a perfect Maxim cover shot -- if Vulcan males read men's magazines.
``I had a huge crush on Mr. Spock growing up,'' confides the earnest extraterrestrial, who in reality is actress-singer Natasha Soudek. ``I always thought he was the sexiest man alive. I felt cheated that I wasn't born one of his species.''
The strikingly made-up Soudek was finally getting her wish, playing a Vulcan lieutenant in the ``World Enough and Time'' Webisode.
Also among those donating time and effort to ``Star Trek: The New Voyages'' is Gigapix producer Don Baldaramos, co-producer of the Sulu Webisode that debuts in March, who put in almost two months of unpaid labor to see it through.
``The script is so good,'' Baldaramos said. ``Sulu used to be a bit player in the original series, but here he has the lead. We get to see his character and personality, plus he shows a paternal side.''
Also on board is Eugene Roddenberry Jr., son of late ``Star Trek'' creator Gene Roddenberry, who serves as consulting producer. (William Shatner, the original Capt. Kirk, as well as Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, have declined to participate.)
``I worked with more Oscar and Emmy winners on this production than I ever did on any show for a studio or network,'' writer Zicree said.
The work is paying off, not only in the millions of Web hits, but on an emotional level for longtime ``Star Trek'' fans who download the Webisodes for repeated viewings.
Fans sign on
``The plots are fun and the shows have a fresh, new look,'' said West Hills resident Sharon K. Collins, a lifelong Trekkie in her 40s who volunteered to help with painting and set construction when she heard ``New Voyages'' would shoot for a few days in Chatsworth. ``It's especially cool how the characters react when there's some sort of disaster looming. And the guy that plays Capt. Kirk is very cute.''
But what gives ``Star Trek'' such seemingly endless appeal for multiple generations of fans, with more on the way?
Zicree know best: ``It's an optimistic look at the future. It reassures us that al-Qaida isn't going to kill us, that we're going to get beyond this. Plus, there are so many parallels to what's happening today that even the earliest episodes are still relevant.
``People want to know there's going to be a better tomorrow.''
Fred Shuster, (818) 713-3676
(1 -- cover -- color) A new enterprise
`Star Trek' franchise journeys into the future in Webisode form
Illustration by Shane Michael Kidder/Daily News
(2) Takei, center, and director/co-writer Marc Zicree -- who penned televised ``Star Trek'' episodes in the '80s and '90s -- check some high-definition footage they just shot.
(3) George Takei prepares to shoot a scene as Capt. Sulu for an upcoming episode of the Internet ``Star Trek'' series ``New Voyages,'' being shot at Gigapix Studios in Chatsworth. Many members of the original 1960s ``Trek'' cast have signed on to the project.
Evan Yee, Staff Photographer
(4) Because space wouldn't look the same with a layer of dust, Nick Roberts spruces up the set of the U.S.S. Excelsior's bridge where ``New Voyages'' is filmed in Chatsworth.
(5) - Natasha Soudek