You hear it all the time on DVD commentaries, talk shows, and making-of featurettes—“we were like a family, we were all best friends!” Usually you feel like taking that sort of statement with a big or small grain of salt, but when you hear it from the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you genuinely believe it. This is a group of people who are still friends after seven years of TV and four films; very much in evidence is the collective sense of humor and rowdy playfulness that drove one director in Patrick Stewart’s recollection to get down on his knees, “begging us to do the scene as written.” At one point LeVar Burton asked Stewart if he was going commando (after Marina Sirtis had darted across the stage to expose Stewart’s abs to an admiring fan); at another Stewart told Wil Wheaton, “You were never a young person, Wil. You were always mature, like a ripe cheddar cheese.”
Sir Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, and Wil Wheaton gathered at Wizard World’s Austin Comic-Con in October for the first of a series of ST:TNG 25th anniversary appearances, and they were having as good a time as the enthusiastic audience who had gathered to see them. When asked what their off-set friendships were like, Spiner answered, “We’re all very good friends, have been the whole time, as much now as ever. And so when we come to these things, we’re happy to be here too, not just to meet you, but to see each other.”
Austin Comic-Con, though small—the entire program and map take up both sides of a single sheet of tabloid-sized paper—had plenty going on, including Q&As with comics artist Neal Adams, Walking Dead stars Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker, and Dollhouse star Eliza Dushku. But if the preponderance of various vintages of Starfleet uniforms was any indication, a significant majority of the attendees were there to see the ST:TNG cast.
There were three individual and small-group cast appearances on the schedule, and the big draw was the full-cast all-Q&A panel on Saturday night, with separate admission from the general con ticket. The copy on the Wizard World site had a disconcerting carnival-barker tone: “Boys and Girls, Ladies and Gentlemen, be prepared for the event of a lifetime! On stage for only the second time in History[sic], the cast of TNG live and for your viewing pleasure! Watch them interact, field questions, and supply witty answers to your questions on stage. These are not look a likes[sic] or impersonators, but the real thing!”
This set the scene for some Q&A insanity remarkable even by my generous convention panel standards. One fellow was extremely invested in Stewart’s resemblance to the Kennewick Man and in finding out whether the cast members had ever met random strangers in autograph lines who resembled friends or family. (Spiner, ever ready with a deadpan quip, said, “I always make my family stand in line.”) Another seemingly standard question about Star Trek’s vision of an egalitarian society was driven briefly into the weeds by the questioner’s comment about a “new world order”; when asked by Stewart to define it, he replied, “The people who meet in private and who decide who’s going to be our president.” Before it was all over, Marina Sirtis had thrown a ball of paper at him.
Wil Wheaton gave the question a much better answer than perhaps it deserved—one which encapsulated a theme that recurred frequently in this panel and in all the ST:TNG panels throughout the weekend. “One of the great inspirations of Star Trek from 1966 all the way up to today is that it shows by example what people can do when people set aside their differences and when people work together for some kind of greater good … It is truly remarkable what we are capable of doing when we all work together to do it. That is part of the huge message of Star Trek. Outrageous intelligence-insulting conspiracy theories aside, I believe very strongly that we have it in us to do these things and I hope we continue to do it more.”
Fortunately, not every question brought the crazy to the yard. There was a sweet moment when the cast sang “Happy Birthday” to a young boy named Thomas when he got up to ask his question. The audience always wants personal reminiscences at times like this—did you have disagreements with the writers? What was your first day of shooting like? Did you play any practical jokes?—and the cast was happy to deliver.
McFadden spoke candidly about the disagreement that led to a “she goes or I go” ultimatum from a writer/producer and her departure for series 2 (“but then the next year they fired him and asked me back”). Stewart and Frakes recalled their first scene together in “Encounter at Farpoint”; Stewart had no dialogue, and after the director said “cut,” Frakes turned to his new co-star and broke the ice with, “So, is that what they call British face acting?” And though the cast always had fun on set, they never played practical jokes on one another. “You don’t play practical jokes on people you adore,” said Sirtis, “and we adore each other.”
The highlight of the responses to a question about the actors’ favorite work outside of Star Trek was LeVar Burton’s—he broke into the Reading Rainbow theme song, and the entire cast and audience joined in. Much of the cast has continued with steady acting careers since ST:TNG; Stewart’s career has taken an unexpected late turn toward comedy. Frakes works as a director—“I’m now the third best actor in my own house!”—and McFadden is the artistic director of the Ensemble Theatre of Los Angeles.
When asked whether or not they would endorse a civilian space program, Wheaton answered with an enthusiastic yes, but not everyone was so sanguine. Sirtis admitted that she didn’t approve of government money being spent on the space program rather than social programs, though Burton quickly jumped in to defend the space program’s record of advances in science and technology. Dorn’s own demurral was simpler: “No, no, that shit is dangerous.” Wheaton, who had already claimed Sirtis’s theoretical seat on a hypothetical space flight, claimed Dorn’s as well: “Who wants to go into space? I have two seats!”
An audience member who asked a bemused Dorn if she could name her daughter Jadzia (“Uh. Yeah, sure!”) went on to ask for the cast’s thoughts on how the women and the African-American characters were empowering to viewers. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately,” said Sirtis. “We’re actors. There’s a lot of people in the last year or so who have approached me and said you’ve influenced my life; I became a psychologist because of you; I became a counselor because of you, whatever it is, right? We’re actors. We’re actors. I don’t know about the rest of them but when I got the job, it was just the job. It was a great job, but it was an acting job. My theory of acting is, you learn your lines, you hit your mark, and you try not to run into the furniture. So to have people come up and say you have changed my life, you got me through a horrible childhood, you got me through university, whatever it is, it’s such an honor to us to think we affected you in that way. … So I think it’s one of the things that came with the job that none of us were expecting, that is actually one of the blessings of being on TNG.”
Dorn agreed. “You don’t think about that until way, way, way after you got the job. Years later you kind of get it, and I think you just do the best job you can and let the chips fall where they may, and if somebody gets something from that and if you’re a symbol or whatever someone wants to call you, great. But in the meantime you’re just trying really hard not to get fired.” He told a story about meeting a fan at a “Klingon dinner” in Las Vegas who had been inspired by ST:TNG and by Worf in particular to clean up his life. “Those are the things where we kind of go, this is cool. And you don’t want to take yourself too seriously, but anytime someone does something great from watching you, it always feels good.
At this point in Star Trek history, with no regular show on television and a good three years and counting between J.J. Abrams’s film installments, fans are both hungry for a new series and deeply nostalgic over the glories of the past, of which ST:TNG is certainly considered one of the greats, even if, by the actors’ own admission, the first couple of series were decidedly ropey; in Sirtis’s words, “we stank!” Nevertheless, there was a certain plaintiveness when, during the Q&A, various fans asked if the actors would ever do any kind of Star Trek project together again.
“I think it’s kind of moved on,” said Dorn, to a resounding “No!” from the audience.
“I could see a sitcom in a convalescent home,” McFadden joked.
“I’m sorry, I know you will all really hate this,” Stewart said, “but I agree, I think we’ve moved on. Marina sometimes disagrees with that, but it’s true, I think we have.”
Spiner chimed in with the final word on the subject, which no fan in the room could dispute. “I think, by the way, that one of the ways we are celebrating all those years is by doing this.”
The new Trek reboot, Wheaton pointed out, translated Star Trek “into a language that my kids can speak, made them excited about it.” Which led me to think that just as every Doctor Who fan has “their Doctor,” each generation of Trekkers needs its own Star Trek. And for those of us for whom ST:TNG was our Star Trek, it was a treat to spend some time with actors who feel like old friends, and who were clearly having a blast themselves.
…Oh, and for the record, Sir Patrick Stewart was not going commando, and expressed a preference for briefs over boxers. Now you know.
Karin Kross’s first Trek con was in San Antonio in 1989, where she declared her teenage nerdity in the Q&A by asking Marina Sirtis about her appearance in the Granada TV adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story ”The Six Napoleons.” She lives and writes in Austin, TX and can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.