A recent article on CNN.com reminded me that the Web holds a bounty of fan films based on the various Star Trek properties. This wasn't necessarily news to me: I'd once tried watching an episode of New Voyages, which aims to continue the five-year mission of the original Enterprise, but couldn't get past the recasting of the original stars. William Shatner's portrayal of James T. Kirk was too engrained in my mind for me to accept anyone else in the role; even in science fiction, suspension of disbelief has its limits.
But to see on CNN that this series won TV Guide's 2007 Online Video Award for Best Sci-Fi Webisodes, chosen over Battlestar Galactica, suggested I should look again. I'd thought the only way to watch New Voyages episodes was via streaming video, which I generally eschew — but poking around their Web site revealed a slightly preferable BitTorrent option. The episode I selected for our reintroduction was "World Enough and Time", written and directed by Marc Scott Zicree (author of "Far Beyond the Stars", possibly my favorite DS9 episode).
Again, I was assaulted by the casting of anyone but Shatner and Nimoy as Kirk and Spock, but this time I persevered. I'm glad I did, as even if the actors didn't nail the parts, I can't blame the writing, which comes across strongly. The sets are on par with the original series (which, despite being 40 years later, is pretty good for a fan film — authentic, too), and the sound effects and CGI are fluidly incorporated.
But the star of the show is none other than George Takei, playing the role of an older Sulu. Rather than looking out-of-place, this temporal anomaly is written into the story in flawless Trek fashion, in the spirit of "Time's Orphan". For this actor to have taken time away from Heroes to so accurately reprise this role for a free Web series speaks volumes of the integrity of both Mr. Takei and New Voyages. Yet newcomer Christina Moses almost steals the show, capturing the awe and innocence of a first-time space traveller with earnest mannerisms and subtle body language. As hard as the recast TOS icons worked, their best role was to frame these two actors' characters and performances. Altogether, the cast and story made every minute of the one-hour episode worth watching.
Looking through the episode list, it appears New Voyages' other offerings are equally star-studded. Story authors include David Gerrold (author of "The Trouble with Tribbles") and Dorothy Fontana (author of "Encounter at Farpoint", "The Enterprise Incident", and more), while among the actors are Walter Koenig as Pavel Chekhov and J.G. Hertzler as Harry Mudd.
The CNN article neglected to make a timely mention of a similar project: Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, which finally debuted today. This feature-length production can hardly be called a "fan film" when you consider its weighty cast: Walter Koenig (Pavel Chekhov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand), Lawrence Montaigne (Stonn from "Amok Time"), Gary Graham (Ambassador Soval), Alan Ruck (Captain John Harriman), Tim Russ (Tuvok), Ethan Phillips (Neelix), Garrett Wang (Harry Kim), J.G. Hertzler (General Martok), Cirroc Lofton (Jake Sisko), and Chase Masterson (Leeta) — as well as some alumni you won't recognize: Crystal Allen (an Enterprise Orion slave girl), William Wellman (a DS9 Bajoran officer), and Daamen Krall (a voice actor for the Star Trek: Starfleet Academy video game). Even "World Enough and Time"'s Kirk and Spock make appearances in other roles.
This dark, "Yesterday's Enterprise"-style mashup is every Trekkie's dream, though I worried it would've suffered from lengthy delays: the film was originally to be released back in April, and even now, only the first third, weighing in at 26 minutes, is available in low-quality streaming video. (Watch for a higher quality version once opening weekend demand dies down.) But what I've seen so far has me eager for more. These experienced actors are so comfortable in the Trek universe that watching them find new ways to play in it is a win-win for both sides of the camera.
The varying yet surprising quality of these "webisodes" has me looking at J.J. Abrams' pending TOS reboot in a new light. Both "World Enough and Time" and Of Gods and Men have demonstrated that a tight script and a talented cast can deliver an excellent story, regardless of the characters or the setting. But when that promise is exemplified best by Star Trek alumni, as is the case with the above two films, the concept of recasting the characters we know and love becomes a questionable proposition at best. I'm a bit more cautious now about the Christmas 2008 release — but I now know that, thanks to talented fans and actors, I have a wealth of new adventures to tide me over in the meantime.