Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"The Soul of a New Machine"--Part III

Blog #10 by Jeff Greenwald
Author of Future Perfect:
How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth

Taken from the chapter
"The Soul of a New Machine"

Sound Stage 29 is a whale-gray building, big as a city block, with giant Helvetica numbers tattooed on its side. A short flight of steps leads to an industrial strength door, and into the vast hangar where the Enterprise 1701-E is under construction.

A Galaxy-class starship may require two decades to build, but this one’s got to be finished in a week. Power drills and buzz saws shriek through the haze; a worker in overalls carries a stack of phaser rifles toward the prop room.

Braga and Moore lead me through an opening in a high plywood wall, and we emerge onto the Main Bridge. The place is a mess. Plastic sheets cover the consoles, and noodles of snipped electrical insulation litter the floor. Despite its rough edges, the set radiates a mythical panache.

“Here’s the Observation lounge,” indicates Moore, pointing to an adjoining room containing a long, glossy table. He nods back to the rectangular hole we climbed in through. “That’ll be the main viewer....”

There’s a creaking sound, and the floor rumbles alarmingly. I’m ready to bolt—but it ain’t no earthquake. Herman Zimmerman, First Contact’s solidly-built production designer, eases up through a trap door and wipes his hands on his overalls.

“You see us in a bit of a disarray here,” he grimaces. “We had all the chairs in place, and the consoles in place, but now we’re diggin’ holes in the floor to put all the electric to ‘em. So it’s kinda messy.”

Braga tilts his head. “I think the crushed Pepsi can over there in the Replicator is a nice touch.”

Zimmerman laughs. “We always try to keep the product placement in.”

We follow him off the Bridge and into the Captain’s ‘Ready Room,’ where a haunted Picard will receive orders from Starfleet during the film’s opening scene. “We’ll have his bed over here,” Zimmerman says, gesturing with flattened palms, “and two chairs over there. There’ll be an aquarium in this corner, and a model of the Enterprise over there....”

Braga ducks through an adjacent door, and gestures me in. “Here’s the bathroom. Hey, there’s a mirror in here! It feels real!” He spies the toilet, and calls to Zimmerman with mock exasperation. “Herman... people don’t poop in the 24th century. This is not consistent with Gene’s Vision....”

“Yeah, well, it’s just a little touch of realism for Patrick.”

The PD’s beeper chirps, and he hurries away. Ron, Brannon and I wander into the maze of Enterprise corridors, and pause at the entrance to the Transporter room. It’s impossible to resist; I fiddle with the controls and hop onto the biofilter foot pads, trying to fax myself into Uma Thurman’s shower. As I wait, futilely, to dematerialize, Braga points out an interesting fact: the “phase transition coils”—i.e., the opaque glass circles above my head—were the actual transporter foot pads used on the very first Enterprise.

We continue our stroll in silence. The carpet is plush, and the sets look terrific; it would be a pleasure to spend a tour of duty on this vessel. The feeling is so compelling that I experience a dizzy moment of temporal disorientation. I get an unsettling feeling that Zimmerman, Okuda and Sternbach are actually creating the future; that if there ever is a real-life Enterprise, it’s going to look exactly like this.

Braga stops short, and stares down the long, curving corridor. “Look how great that is. Just that sweep.” He’s whispering. “Every direction you look, you’re on a starship. You are actually on a starship.”

Ahead lies Engineering, its illuminated Warp Core activated and pulsing. Blue deuterium flows from above, red antimatter seethes from below, and the two meet in an opaque central chamber that sloshes and churns like a vintage Maytag. These sets are finished; with their seamless control panels, communicator panels and glowing schematics, they look absolutely real.

The poignancy of the illusion isn’t lost on me. “It almost makes you feel,” I muse, “like we’ve still got a real space program.”

Moore nods ruefully. “Both the space program and Star Trek were ending just as I was becoming aware of life. Technically speaking, I was born in the last year of the baby boom: 1964. So I’ve got all these memories of the 60s, but I wasn’t really there for any of it. Yet I became fascinated by the music, the Kennedys; by all that stuff. I still am.”

“I find it shocking that the space program has dissipated,” Braga erupts. “A lot of people don’t realize that everything from Velcro to computers—from the most inane technologies to the most important—came out of it. Things developed for the astronauts found their way into the mainstream, opening new technologies and industries....” He fumes silently, picking at a Starfleet sticker on the wall.

Now Moore gets into it. He tells me about his childhood fascination with the moonshots—he was five when the Eagle landed—and his memories of the motorized rover. He would have been an astronaut himself, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough. Instead, he read about rockets, built plastic models of the lunar lander, and collected those books you paste picture-stamps into. Moore’s not an emotional guy, but Apollo 13 moved him deeply. During the movie’s Saturn V launch sequence, he found himself in tears.

“There was a sense of, ‘God, the space program used to be so great!’ It was just this amazing adventure.” Moore sighs, and shrugs with ennui. “But it got boring, somehow. The missions got less sexy. There’s not the sense that we’re pushing the frontier back like we were.”

“Unfortunately,” says Braga, “the problems here on Earth are so horrible and complex that people have turned their eyes away from the stars. They’re looking down, instead of up. Meanwhile, Star Trek represents that adventure—and we all need adventure in our lives.”


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