When I was a little kid, playing Star Trek on the playground (I always ended up being Spock), I had no idea that less than a decade later it would become a fundamental part of the tapestry of my life.
Forty-eight years ago this week, Star Trek premiered on television. Something that happened six years before I was born would end up changing my life forever, and that’s a very strange thing to think about, especially when you know how hard it is for anything to get made in television, especially something good.
As I’ve written in my books, my long relationship with Star Trek has been complicated, and not always awesome, but I wouldn’t trade anything for it, because I love my life, and the people in it.
To celebrate Star Trek’s birthday, I’d like to share a story I wrote about when I had to say goodbye to Next Generation for the last time. It’s in my book The Happiest Days of Our Lives (audiobook link), if you’re interested in owning it. It’s called The Big Goodbye.
the big goodbye
When we were teenagers, my friend Terry said to me, “You’re a pretty big geek, and you’re part of the biggest geek phenom- enon in history…but you hardly ever talk about it. How come?” It was true. I didn’t talk about it very much. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, or didn’t think it was cool, but when I was with my friends, the last thing I wanted to do was talk about work. That reluctance persisted until I wrote “The Saga of Spongebob Vegaspants—or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Star Trek” in late 2001 for my book Dancing Barefoot. That story and this one bookend a time in my life that was so significant to me, I—well, I’ll just let you read this, and I think you’ll understand why.
Last week, I went to Paramount to film some host wraps for a Star Trek: TNG DVD documentary, and I discovered that the old cliché is true: You can’t go home again, especially when your home has been torn down and replaced with sets for a Farrelly Brothers movie.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been to Paramount since Wesley Crusher turned into a magic ball of light and floated out into the galaxy to fight crime and save amusement parks from evil developers with The Traveler. In Just A Geek, I wrote:
I found myself at the Melrose Avenue guard shack, half an hour early for my 8:30 a.m. call time.
“ID, please,” the guard said.
I pulled my driver’s license out of my wallet and gave it to him.
“And where are you going today…” he looked at my license, “Wil?”
“I’m working on Star Trek,” I said.
“Enterprise or Nemesis?”
The Next Generation, I thought.
“Nemesis,” I said. “I play Wesley Crusher.”
He looked up at me. “Oh my god. You are Wesley Crusher!
You look so…”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s been a long time.”
“Do you know where to park?”
“Yeah. But I don’t know where our dressing rooms are.” But I do! I do know where our dressing rooms are! They’re
trailers on the street in front of stages 8 and 9. Mine is filled with Warhammer 40K figures and GURPS books. It’s right next to Brent’s trailer. It’s 1989, and I’m back. I’m back home.
When I worked on Nemesis several years ago, returning to Paramount to put on the uniform and immerse myself—if only for a day—in Wesley Crusher’s goofy grin and wide- eyed excitement (I wrote at the time that I couldn’t tell where Wesley ended and I began), it was an emotional experience. I felt genuine regret for not appreciating Star Trek more when I was on the series every day, which morphed into a general regret that when I was a teenager, I acted like…a teenager. Some of Just A Geek is about this, and the catharsis that came from writing it is a large reason why I was able to accept and embrace my small role in the Star Trek universe.
I went to Paramount last week to go onto our old stages and walk a camera crew through the Guardian of Forever into 1987. I didn’t expect to be particularly emotional. I was wrong.
I live in a different part of town now, and while it’s faster to go through Silverlake and across Beverly, I wanted to put myself in a place where I’d be most receptive to emotional sense memories, so I added twenty minutes to my drive and went down the 2, up the 5, across Los Feliz and down Western before cutting across Sunset to Van Ness. I took this route every single day, once I got my driver’s license (and a license plate frame on my Prelude, the one that was just a little better than Patrick’s, that said “My other car is the Enterprise”— awesome), and at one time could probably do it with my eyes closed. I told my iPod to shuffle my ’80s Alternative playlist, and after an hour of Boingo, Depeche Mode, OMD, Squeeze, and The Smiths, I was, as they say, really feeling it when I pulled up to the guard gate on Melrose.
I turned down Only a Lad and rolled down my window. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Wil Wheaton, and I’m going to Stage 24 for the Star Trek documentary.”
The guard, who was probably in elementary school when I was piloting the Enterprise, nodded.
“May I see your ID, sir?”
Though I’m “sir” to a lot of people these days, it was bizarre to hear it in a place where I was used to being “The Kid” or “The Boy.” I pulled it out of my wallet and handed it to him.
“Okay, you’re all set, Mr. Wheaton,” he said. “Just pull up to the valet there. I’m sure you know your way around here?”
I smiled. “Yeah, I do.”
He handed me back my ID and leaned down toward me. “We’re not supposed to do this, but I’m a big fan,” he said,
conspiratorially. With anyone who really was a big deal in Hollywood, he was probably risking his job.
“Really?” I said. “You seem a little young for TNG.”
He grinned. “Not Star Trek, your blog.”
This took me completely by surprise. I have been so busy
with other writing projects that I haven’t been able to give my blog the attention I want. I’ve frequently considered putting it on hiatus for a few months.
“That,” I said, “is totally awesome. Thank you.”
He smiled and then looked over his shoulder at the other guards. He turned back to me, nodded tersely, and waved me onto the lot.
I traded my car for an orange ticket with some numbers on it and headed toward stage 24. A few minutes later, I walked past the Hart building, where TNG’s writers and our fearless leader Gene Roddenberry lived while I was on the series. I stopped for a minute and looked at what had been Gene’s first- story office window. I was hit by a machine-gun montage of all the times when I walked past that window and he called me in for a visit. I looked at the empty spot on the sidewalk where Gene’s golf cart used to be—the same one that I frequently got into trouble for racing around the backlot. I felt the first of many tugs at my heart.
Oh boy. This is going to be one of those days, I thought, as I pulled myself back into the present and walked to stage 24 to meet the crew.
“Glad you could make it, Wil,” the producer said, as my eyes adjusted from the brilliance of the day to the darkness of the empty stage.
“Me too,” I said.
I looked around for a moment. Something about this place was incredibly familiar.
“Hey, you know what I just realized? I shot Family Ties here right before I started Star Trek.”
“Yeah, I was cast as Tina Yothers’ boyfriend. I only did one episode before I booked TNG, but the word on the street at the time was that Gary David Goldberg was going to write me in as a recurring character before I went into outer space,” I said. “And, uh, the future.”
The stage was completely empty, except for a couple of work lights and the bleachers where audiences once sat. This stage, once filled with laughter and the energy of filming “live, before a studio audience,” was now little more than an empty room. My whole life, I’ve been in love with the magic that goes into creating the suspended disbelief of movies and television, but it wasn’t until I stood in that empty stage that I fully appreciated the effort that went into transforming 12,000 square feet of soundstage into the Keatons’ lives for eight years.
“So I thought we’d head over toward stage 9,” the producer said to me, “and we’ll shoot our host wraps in there.”
“Wait.” I said. “You mean we get to walk into stage 9?” 105
“Don’t get too excited,” he said. “There’s nothing left from Trek in there.”
Though I knew that there was no way they’d preserve our sets for twenty years, and though I knew that someone else would eventually move into our stages, just as we’d moved into the original series’ stages, I still felt a little sad.
“Nothing at all?” I asked. It was a stupid question. Of course there wouldn’t be anything there. But like a kid who just learned that Darth Vader was just a guy in a suit, or that KITT didn’t really talk, I had to ask again, just to be sure I hadn’t somehow misunderstood the cold hard reality.
“They’re building sets for some reshoots on a Farrelly Brothers movie,” he said, “so we’ll just shoot outside.” I was struck by how blasé he was, which shouldn’t have sur- prised me. How could I expect anyone else in the world to have the same emotional attachment to those stages as I did?
“Well…okay,” I said.
The crew got the camera and sound equipment together and loaded it on a cart that looked heavy and awkward.
“Do you know a fast—and preferably easy—way to get over there from here?” the camera man asked me.
I didn’t fight the smile. “Yeah. I do.”
We headed out of the stage and back past the Hart building. “See that window?” I said. “That used to be Gene’s office.” “Mmmm,” came the reply.
Nobody is going to care about these things like you do, I thought. Just keep it to yourself.
I looked at the window just a little bit longer. I recalled watching Shatner’s infamous “Get a Life” sketch on 3⁄4-inch video tape in Gene’s office with some of my friends who worked there during the second season.
A few Trekkie VIPs were there on a tour, and they watched it with us. (In the pre-Internet days, it was not very easy to watch that sketch on demand.) At one point in the sketch, Shatner says, “That was the evil Captain Kirk from episode 37, ‘The Enemy Within’…” and all of the Trekkies derisively snorted, in unison, “YOU MEAN EPISODE FOUR!” I looked at my friend, who very subtly shook his head. These were Big Deal Trekkies; pointing out that they’d just brought the sketch into the real world would have created some problems.
Back in the present, I laughed out loud, and a couple of the crew looked at me. “Memories,” I said.
I led them across the lot, on a route that would appear circuitous to anyone who didn’t work there for the better part of four years. On the way to the stage, I passed the same familiar and significant landmarks from my youth that I wrote about in Just A Geek:
That’s where I met Eddie Murphy when I was sixteen… Hey! I crashed a golf cart there when I was fifteen…There’s the mail room…There’s stage six, where the bridge set started out…I almost got up the courage to kiss that girl at the Christmas party on that stage in…there’s the stage where Shatner told me, “I’d never let a kid come onto my bridge.”
The next line in Just A Geek is, “…this street feels exactly the way it did when I worked here…here’s where my trailer used to be…”
Though I stood in that same place, it didn’t feel the same at all. Different trailers were there, filled with different actors working on different shows, but that wasn’t why I just couldn’t deny that twenty years had passed since I started working here. Maybe it was the knowledge that Star Trek is really gone for good, at least the way I knew it. Maybe it was the pain in my hip…or the responsibility on my shoulders. Maybe it was the fact that I have two sons who are older, and more mature, than I was when I started working on the series. Most likely, it was a combination of all those things.
I walked a bit farther, to the entrance to stages 8 and 9. In the hallway between them, where our security guard stopped tourists and Trekkies from coming onto the sets, where our bulletin board for callsheets, shooting schedules, and my brief foray into editorial cartoons used to be, there was now some sort of big, loud…something, with a fan and a bunch of pipes running out of it. As much as that behemoth should have prepared me, I was just gutted when I opened the stage 9 door. Instead of seeing the back of a turbolift and a corridor leading to the transporter room and engineering, I saw a bunch of sets under construction: sets that were quite clearly houses and other rooms squarely from the 21st—not the 24th—century.
Wow, I thought. It’s all…gone.
I stood in that open doorway for a long time and stared, working hard to replace the reality inside the stage with the memories inside my head.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Are you ready?” the producer asked.
“Uh, yeah.” I reluctantly let the door close.
“It’s too loud here to shoot, so we’re set up behind the stage,” he said.
I followed him down the street, past where my school room—what was effectively my entire high school experience—used to be. There was a production golf cart for Everyone Hates Chris there now. I lingered briefly, fighting the urge to take one more golf-cart joyride.
Moments later, we were set up in the alley behind the stage, just outside a giant open door. I looked inside. Where Sickbay used to be, there was a set that looked like a child’s room. Where the holodeck once stood (and where all the shuttlecraft interiors were shot), there was a large drop cloth and a several cans of paint. Where Picard used to command the battle bridge—one of my all-time favorite sets—there was a tropical backdrop.
I sighed and blinked back some tears.
“Everything okay?” the producer asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m just overwhelmed by a sadness right now that I can’t really explain.”
“I understand,” he said. “This happens whenever we work with someone from Next Generation. I don’t know what it was about you guys, but every single one of you loved each other and remembers working on the show very fondly.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said, around a lump in my throat. “But I’m not surprised. I…I really miss those guys.”
For the next few hours, we filmed host wraps. I told sto- ries about my time on Star Trek to anyone who would listen, and a few who wouldn’t.
In front of stage 16, I recalled an encounter with Lawrence Tierney (best known as Joe in Reservoir Dogs), who played holodeck tough guy Cyrus Redblock.
“Hey,” he said to me one afternoon between scenes. “Do you play football?”
I was 15 and weighed 95 pounds…if I was soaking wet and carrying a ten-pound weight.
“Uh, no,” I said.
He leaned into me, menacingly.
“Why the hell not? What are you, some kind of sissy faggot?”
I panicked, certain that he was going to beat the shit out of me because I was more comfortable throwing 3d6 than a pigskin.
“I’m not strong enough to play football!” I said.
“Well, maybe you wouldn’t be so weak if you played foot- ball!” he growled.
An assistant director arrived just in time to call us to the set and save me from certain death.
“Everyone has their own story about Planet Hell,” the producer said, pulling me back to 2007, “but yours is the first one that includes a fear of death unrelated to atmospheric smoke.”
“Boy, we sure like to complain about that smoke. Did you know it was mineral oil-based?” I said.
“After all the cast interviews I’ve done over the years, I know everything in the world there is to know about that smoke,” he said dryly.
Now it was my turn to laugh.
When the day was over, we headed back to stage 24, where they were set up to interview Ron Moore.
“How’s it going?” I said to him when he walked into the stage.
“It’s weird,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve been here in years.”
He looked around and his voice softened. “Did you know there aren’t any writers left in the Hart building? Brannon is moving out, and he was the last one. It’s just a bunch of accountants right now.”
“That’s poetic,” I said.
He looked away for a moment and furrowed his brow. “It’s just…I look around here and—”
“I know.” I said. “I totally grok.”
We talked for a few more minutes, until they were ready for his interview.
“I will kick myself later if I don’t tell you how much I continue to love Battlestar,” I said before I left. I didn’t get up the nerve to add, “And I’d really love to work on it if you have anything for me, because it’s just about the best sci-fi on television, ever.” Later on, I kicked myself, and delivered one more to Jenny and the wimp.
“It’s always good to see you,” he said.
“Thanks, man. You too.”
I shook hands with everyone and said goodbye. When
I got out of the stage and walked past the Hart building, I stopped and looked at Gene’s old office window one last time. Though I’d said goodbye to Gene at his funeral in 1991, I said goodbye to him again—and to so many other things.
On my way back to the valet, I walked past the commissary, where I ate grilled mustard chicken with curly fries a few times a week during much of the series. I remembered a day during the third season, when I didn’t have a lot of cash on hand and no credit card, so my server got severely under- tipped. I planned to make it up to him the next day, but when I walked in, he silenced the entire commissary by running toward me from the back, screaming at me for stiffing him the day before. It was the first and last time in my life I wanted someone to be fired for the way they treated me.
Strangely, I still feel bad that I unintentionally stiffed the guy. Funny how those things stay with you and come back when you least expect them to.
Just past the commissary, where there used to be a company store that sold T-shirts and satin jackets celebrating the wearer’s affinity for Cheers, there was now a smaller company store that included a Coffee Bean. I stepped into the same room where I used to pick up really cheesy TNG t-shirts and insanely cool tiny communicator pins for my friends and family, and I bought myself an iced green tea.
I made my way back to the valet, where I traded an orange ticket with numbers on it for my car. While I waited for it to arrive, I struggled to put the nostalgia and associated sadness of the day into perspective. I didn’t mourn the loss of my sets as much as I mourned the time in my life those sets represented: a time when my biggest responsibility was knowing my lines and getting to the set on time, not coming up with college tuition for the next four years. A time when KROQ played music that was relevant to me, and I knew all the DJs. A time when my biggest problem in the world was getting out of costume and makeup early enough to make it to the Forum for a Kings game. A time when my life was simpler and easier, when I had the luxury of taking for granted that I would always have everything I wanted and my opportunities were as numerous as the little mirrored stars on the black velvet starfield that hung behind Ten Forward on stage 9…stars that are, most likely, cut up into hundreds of little bits to be doled out at auction for the next decade.
But, complicated as it is, I really like my life. I have a beautiful wife and two children who, though they don’t carry my DNA, are clearly mine in every way that matters. I’m not going to be buying a boat any time soon, but I have been able to touch lives as a writer in ways that I never could have when I wore a spacesuit, just reading the words that other people thought I should say.
The valet brought my car around, and I gave him a couple bucks from my front pocket.
“Thank you, sir,” he said.
Goddamn, it’s weird to be “sir.”
I got in my car and headed toward a red light on Van Ness, where a big decision loomed: Turn left and drive back over Los Feliz, the way I always used to drive? Or make a right and head down across Beverly?
Luckily, this was an easy one. I hit my blinker and began my voyage home.