"The Tressaurian Intersection"
Teleplay by Dennis Russell Bailey
Story by Jimm Johnson & Josh Johnson and Dennis Russell Bailey and Maurice Molyneaux*
Directed by Scott Cummins
It's been 10 years since we got our first tasty morsels of the Johnson brothers' fan film saga Starship Exeter
. Their sequel was received with great clamor and praise --well deserved-- then fell prey to the worst foe: Not Klingons or Tholians, but impatient, indignant Star Trek
fans, thirsty for more and at a time when Star Trek
as we knew it was whimpering, on its last legs (and which ultimately died a miserable death in 2005).
Some of these fans were unable to grasp the reasons why or how such a delay - seemingly endlessly extended and thus extending
the misery of said "fans" before it finally turned into outright hostility and negativity. "It'll never be done,"
said some of you. Even the "big" names in the fan film community chimed in, with contributors Dennis Russell Bailey
and Maurice Molyneaux
constantly and patiently, it should be noted, reiterating with as much information as they could, what the hold-up was.
And yet still the negativity continued. I won't point any fingers, but you all know who you are. You might ask yourself why I'm recounting this snapshot of the long winding road Starship Exeter
has traveled to get where it is today, a few days after finally releasing -in it's glorious entirety- the complete, edited and final cut of "The Tressaurian Intersection." I'll get to that in at the end of this review. Let's get the nitty-gritty stuff done first.
Shock of shocks, I'm gonna talk about attribution. If you note above, there's an asterisk next to the title mentions at the head of this review. You might be asking why that ampersand and the two "ands" are in bold and underlined. It's to point out that these choices were made for a very specific reason -- likely, as both Dennis and Maurice are well aware -- the ampersand signifies that the Johnson brothers worked on their story together as a writing team, whereas the "and" indicates that though Dennis and Maurice worked on the stories themselves as well, they did so separately from the initial writing the Johnson brothers did, and likely separately from each other as well.
They all receive the "Story By" credit for this piece of work, while Dennis alone gets the "Teleplay By" title, as he was the one who wrote the final shooting script used by the entire production. As it seems Starship Exeter
was attempting to mimic the production of a weekly television series, this all works properly. The script here is not titled as a "Screenplay" as it would be in a feature film, nor is there a "Written By" credit (which would be appropriate, if only one person had done the story and script writing.)
For the first time, I can honestly say that I am fairly certain the credits have been done right here. Presented in the correct order, properly attributing each job to the person who performed them. In other words, there's no petty, passive-aggressive vendettas playing out in the chyrons. The drama is on screen, where it should be.
This might seem like an extremely "inside baseball" kind of nitpicky thing to point out, but just about every last fan film on the web has gotten their titles wrong. Certainly, it's nothing to crucify anyone over but it's worth pointing out when someone gets it right. More importantly, getting such a simple thing like this right makes incredible strides toward the pros taking your production seriously.
The acting is about on par for what we got in "The Savage Empire." Jimm Johnson is appropriately gruff as Captain Garrovick, Josh Johnson is endearingly intellectual and slightly weird as B'Fusulek, Michael Buford slips right back into the role of Cutty, easily one of the best (if not the highlight) of the series as Exeter's caffeine-deprived but ever-loyal security chief, and Holly Guess is dazzling as Jo Harris, the first officer and ship's scientist, regularly holding her own against the ship of boys and pushing for the inexperienced Vandi Richards (Elizabeth Wheat) to have her chance to study under Garrovick's wing.
I recall the excitement at Richards' inclusion hack in 2004. Fans were of course enamored of her immediately, but I also recall Dennis mentioning off-hand to me that year that the intention was always to kill her off. Firstly, I'm pleased to report, Dennis, that I've managed to keep that secret for 10 long years! Secondly, having finally seen the episode in its entirety, I must apologize for my own inner doubts about that story choice. Seeing her inexperience played against Garrovick's battle-worn and embittered outlook and how her sacrifice ultimately helps Garrovick resolve his own anguish and issues was not only a brilliant callback to "The Cage" but especially just well played. Wheat's performance here is touching and admirable. It says a lot about the actor's performance, the script that actor has to work with, and the direction that actor is given for a guest character to elicit such a response from the audience, and in this case I believe everyone hit it out of the park.
It's almost impossible not to compare this episode to Phase II
's recent offering, "Kitumba" for several reasons. To spare you all, I'll only focus on the two that really matter (to me, anyway.)
The obvious element would be the use of the shuttlecraft as a diversion. Both episodes use an empty shuttlecraft to distract their predatory enemies in order for our heroes to escape their current predicament. When I wrote about this gimmick in my review of "Kitumba" several months ago, I pointed out how it strained the credibility and science of the situation, as it seemed to me that a tiny, non-warp-capable craft would be unable to generate an explosion not only equivalent to that of a starship dozens of times larger but also an explosion that could fool the Klingons on their own turf. Even the visual of the explosion itself was presented as if it happened in real-time and as if we were seeing it with our own eyes (and not, say, via a Klingon viewscreen.)
Here, in "The Tressaurian Intersection," clever editing leads us to believe Cutty is piloting the shuttle. What's his mission? Is he on a suicide run? What can he possibly do with just
a shuttle in this "weirdspace" ? Even when it becomes quite apparent that the shuttle is empty, on autopilot and in fact "rigged," the camera lingers through the cabin until it stops at the Tressaurian beacon. Aha! I see what you did there!
The (apparently elusive) difference between what Phase II
tried (and, in my not so humble opinion, failed) to do versus what Starship Exeter
successfuly employed here is in creating the tension on screen. The anticipation. The emotion between me as a viewer and what was being presented to me in the story. Clever editing can achieve that. Proper editing can achieve it spectacularly. But it also speaks to my second point and illustrates this second point as well:
Part of the reason this gimmick didn't work in "Kitumba" is because unlike in "Kitumba," the writers and story aren't trying to throw everything in the kitchen sink into the episode. Time and again it seems when Phase II
releases a new episode, I find myself rolling my eyes over and over again at how many "dots" are being connected in the Star Trek
universe, as if it's some sort of brilliant form of storytelling. Oh look, it's Tasha Yar's grandmother! Or playing figurative "Twister" with Klingon politics and government leadership so it will all align nicely with the TNG
era. This kind of thing is something that Phase II
in particular seems to revel in and has shown no sign of stopping. Which is fine, if that's their bread and butter. But it's also tiresome. It's lazy storytelling. And it shrinks the expansive Star Trek
universe we have all grown to love. Perhaps it's because of the time when "The Tressaurian Intersection" was written and produced, before James Cawley's team began farming out episodes left and right, or the old days of fan films when there were really only a half dozen of them being made, but I found it endlessly refreshing that not only was this adventure not another group of fans trying to "be" Kirk and Spock (there's probably something worth studying alone, there, psychologically), not trying to further the adventures of the Enterprise, but also simply that with the exception of the inclusion of the Tholians, every single bit of this episode is entirely stand-alone, entirely separate and entirely new to the Star Trek
universe. There's no distant relative of Picard showing up to cause trouble. There's no one-off appearance of Q or a confrontation with the Borg. And, mercifully, there are no hamfisted references -- oblique or direct-- toward the offical productions. The Exeter crew lives in that universe, yes, but they live in their own lives too. They have their own missions to complete and aren't spending their days gossiping about Kirk and company.
I mean come on! All these years later, I don't think I've ever been as thrilled watching one of these shows as I was when Richards beamed the Tressaurian out in to space as Exeter sped away to safety, just in the nick of time. How many times have we seen that before? I'll tell you: NONE. Those slow zooms on everyone as the ship gets away -- ratcheting up the tension again -- was masterful. Is it pulpy? Absolutely. But you know what -- the original Star Trek
was pulpy too. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Watching this all play before me, after the gluttonous deluge of self-referential, crossover-heavy fan films of the past few years was an entire and all-encompassing delight. I had always hoped the Exeter
team would finish this tale and I knew deep down they'd find a way to do so. I dared not hope that it would be the best fan film I'd ever have seen but that's exactly what it has turned out to be: Exactly what a fan film should be. Better stated, I would submit that it is the apex of what a great fan film can be and also what it should be. Is it art? I don't know if any of us are qualified to determine that definitely. But it is entertaining. It does keep you on the edge of your seat. And it does finish nicely. "The Tressaurian Intersection" reminds us what filmmaking can be once we stop concerning ourselves with pew pew space battles and perfect uniforms and flashy celebrity stunt casting and instead focus on the story and on the visual storytelling process. I can watch the Dodgers play baseball just about anytime I want but I'd rather play a game myself with my friends. Why? For the love of the game. You can say then that other productions "got it right" till your green in the face. But for my money, for my time, for my interest - Starship Exeter
has them all beat.
EDITING, POST-PRODUCTION, SOUND
Merciful Zeus -- someone finally got sound right! Words almost can't describe what a pleasure it is to watch one of these things without straining to hear what people are saying, without throwing my hands up in the air at the amateur dismissal of how important sound can be, or just the genuine pleasure of not beind distracted by uneven sound editing throughout the entire episode. The visual effects are a bit dated but considering the constraints on the production team they are quite impressive and strike me as being something we might just see done in the '60s.This shot alone --
-- had me enthralled after the teaser was released. Holy shit, they went there! we said. What could have done this? And why? Well we finally found out and it was well worth the wait, all the way to the end of the show, where we still got stunning imagery:
While we're on the subject of editing, I'd like to point out a brilliant moment where the production team not only demonstrated they understood but also proved the value of "the line" in filmmaking. Jo Harris has beamed aboard the remains of the Kongo, examining the Tholian prototype. Circling around the device, she then starts on the right side of our screens, scanning the device...
...and as she scans, she makes her way around the device, toward screen left.
We never see Harris (or anyone, in this scene) go beyond that 180 degree line. We don't see the camera go there either, to shoot the opposite direction (toward us, the viewers.) It's an incredibly simple thing that must be adhered to if you want to maintain your narrative and visual cohesion in filmmaking.
The other day, George Takei re-tweeted a video (produced by two brothers as well) of Harry Potter getting into a brawl with a Luke Skywalker. Wands and lightsabers, wizard fire and force-lighting... the whole nine yards. It's quite impressive, and you can watch it here:
Take note however that at about 2:04 in the video, they blatantly ignore the 180 degree line:
Harry Potter uses his wizard's fire, aiming from screen left to the right, at Luke Skywalker.
Luke, in turn, uses force-lightning, also aiming from screen left to the right, at Harry Potter.
The next shot in the sequence returns to Harry being on the left, but Luke is now on the right. Visually, it makes no sense.
Harry, after the blowback on screen left:
Luke, also on screen left, picking up his lightsaber...
...walking toward Harry, who is now on screen right...
And --spoiler alert-- running through "the Boy Who Lived."
It's this kind of inarticulate juxtaposition that can take one out of the viewing experience. The Exeter team got it right. Most fan films don't. Be one of the fan films that DOES get it right!
MIS EN SCENE
I'm not going to be that guy who defines this for you. You all know how to use Google. The point I will make however is that the starship Exeter is brilliantly portrayed in this episode. The office is lived in. The conference room has data disks everywhere -- this is a crisis
and nobody has time to file away computer disks. It's raining on Corinth IV, and appropriately the landing party gets wet. It's little touches like this that bring the ship to life.
Framing and composition was especially striking throughout; the DP on the production clearly knew what they were doing (vis a vis the 180 line), not relying solely on over the shoulder back-and-forths relentlessly, framing the shots of lone characters skillfully and I would even say iconically:
I'd follow this guy into the gates of hell. Note how the framing of Garrovick's face, the lighting on him and behind him, and his gaze toward just off screen depict every range of feeling in the scene -- rage, grief, the desire for revenge. A skillful director who knows how to use light and frame his/her shots can work wonders for you. Clearly Scott Cummins is one of those directors.
Here, we even have shots where multiple characters appear, at varying depths of field, further establishing the three-dimensional plane which we are seeing and giving this "world" more realism:
There is even a lovely bit of narrative symmetry that bookends the episode, recreating a famous shot (a conceptual painting of the would-be bridge of the aborted, official "Star Trek: Phase II" television series that became Star Trek: The Motion Picture
in 1979) of the bridge at the beginning of the show and then repeating it later, during the mad dash through that "weirdspace" :
One of the final shots of the film, this one stood out as especially impressive as it highlighted, I thought, Garrovick's quiet loneliness as a starship commander, his private anguish over Richards' death, and the emotional and professional distance he must maintain from each member of his crew to be a good leader. Shooting the scene from a jib from high above not only shows off the stark (but impressive) set used but isolates Garrovick, even in this place where he is ultimately in his element (and wearing his usual command gold tunic). Beautiful:
Finally, the thing I think I enjoyed the most were the subtle, not-quite-perfect-but-just-close-enough callbacks to TOS.
You may have missed them; you might have spotted them right away. But they're definitely there, and they speak to a larger concern and point that "The Tressaurian Intersection" demonstrates effectively. This isn't the Enterprise. It's not Star Trek
, literally. It's not Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and because it isn't those things, the production team divorced themselves from the comparisons, the criticisms, the nerd-rage, and the endless debates. It gave Jimm and Josh Johnson the freedom to create their own little pocket universe in the Star Trek
world to play in, to create in, and to entertain us in.
I'll wrap this up by finishing what I started to say at the beginning. Recounting the long and arduous road it has been for this production to at last see the light of day as a completed film highlights the tenacity, the good nature, and the craftsmanship that went into creating it. I'm pleased I was able to contribute in a small, peripheral (though, ultimately minor) way to this film but the end result has been simply magnificent.
Too often it seems, when a new fan film is launched, if it ever sees the light of day, it winds up just being an expensive vanity project for whoever is playing the captain. Sometimes those fan films can turn out to be marvelous in their execution and sometimes they don't. We likely will not see this crew in action again as we have seen them here. Real life is cruel that way, and while I would eagerly welcome more adventures with Captain Garrovick and his gallant crew, perhaps it's for the best that this is it. I don't know. I hear buzz from my friends in the fan film community all the time about how there is such infighting, drama and panic over minor things. Starship Exeter
harks back to a time when none of that existed, at least not as we know it now.
I think, for me, the rest of the fan film community has just become so overwhelmingly joyless and there's a distinct sense of joy I detect while watching Exeter
-- it's not about YouTube views, it's not about Rod Roddenberry endorsing one group over another, or landing Takei or Koenig for an episode. It's just about having fun and making a good movie.
For all the philosophy, for all the allegory, for all the progress the original Star Trek
came to be about and came to engender for so many of us, first and formost it was there to entertain. And "The Tressaurian Intersection" is absolutely entertaining, in ways some fan films these last few years have consistently proven they just don't know how to do. To have faced such adversity and to have persevered in the face of it after a decade of nerd-rage and whining is impressive enough. To have done this so eloquently and with such style and grace is amazing.
has captured what fan films should be about. This is Star Trek
. Not the show specifically, but what the show was about. Starship Exeter
is more than just a labor of love - it's the culmination of why we make fan films.
So, in short - word to the nerds: it can be done. It has been done. And the best part is, it can be done again.
Congratulations to the cast and crew for such a wonderful and entertaining tale, particularly the Johnson brothers, without whom we would not be here discussing these fine adventures.
As well, an extra special gratitude and thanks to our own Dennis Bailey and Maurice Molyneaux. I don't know how you guys did it but somehow you managed to put up with all the complaints, the whining, the doubts, and the fans with little faith who couldn't resist poking fun and taking those cheap shots at you guys. It can't have been easy, these last 10 years, nearly being driven away from this site by all the negativity from the shortsightedness of impatient and immature fans, but your moment to smile and celebrate is finally here and it is a moment well deserved. A grand slam if ever there was one and to which I say a hearty and genuine "Bravo!" The haters will always be out there, but you've proven that the impossible can be possible as long as you have faith.
As J. Michael Straczynski is so fond of saying, "Faith manages."
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