Deborah Warner:
Mistress Janeway Makes a Space Pirate Pilot

by Michelle Erica Green

People who saw Denise Crosby's film Trekkies, a documentary about Star Trek fans, may remember a woman with a wicked glint in her eye being interviewed by Crosby about erotic fan fiction. Deborah Warner, a.k.a. Nova D, is a legend among Trek fans and some of the Voyager staff for writing "The Secret Logs of Mistress Janeway," a spoof of the show which gives Star Trek one thing it traditionally lacks - hot sex. But Warner is also a television writer who decided to give science fiction another thing Star Trek traditionally lacks - pirates.

Warner's show The Privateers, in production for syndication in the fall of 2000, centers on a group of space pirates who travel among Babylon 5-esque space stations and Mos Eisley-type spaceports, engaged in the sort of commerce which keeps many legal governments secure because people know they can get what they need from less acceptable sources. The producers have already released a preview trailer which has received good reviews from fans at conventions, starring Xena's Karl Urban and Classic Trek's Walter Koenig.

Pirates of Trek

Warner traces The Privateers' origins to the original Star Trek, which she watched in reruns while in graduate school, working on an M.A. in creative writing. "'Mirror, Mirror' was on, and at the point where Kirk calls Spock a pirate, I said, 'Where the hell are the pirates in Star Trek? It makes no sense, we see no crime.'" So Warner and a partner wrote a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation featuring Dravyk, Roxxi, Dogen, and Parrot, pirates who were dealing with the Ferengi.

The script was rejected after two rounds in the Trek production offices, but it got Warner an agent. That agent began working for the original Sci-Fi Channel in Florida, and suggested that she develop her Next Gen script into an independent series. When Warner and her husband moved to Los Angeles, "it was the spec script we always included in every meeting we had, and it was the thing people were interested in so it kept coming back to life, like a B movie monster."

The story centers on Aran Dravyk, pirate captain of the Privateer Rapier. The only son of the rulers of Danoor, his family was murdered in a scheme engineered by archenemy Lord Rizlu, who runs his own criminal empire from his protected position as an ambassador, rather like Senator Palpatine in The Phantom Menace. Loyal bodyguard Dogen forced Dravyk to confront his heritage, and the captain has been torn ever since between his life as a pirate and his legacy as a planetary ruler. Kayla, the daughter of the Allegiance's president, is in love with Dravyk, but his heart remains at present with the pirate captain Bereva Zohn Gree, with whom he forged a brethren of pirates. She was believed dead, but war has broken out and alliances are shifting everywhere.

Warner's husband Jon Cunningham, an artist and writer, worked in "this very cool toy store in Santa Monica," where he became friendly with special effects and technical experts who had worked on such productions as Star Trek Voyager and Space Above and Beyond. Warner herself had made the acquaintance of such people as Bob Chapin, whose company Manic Effects had worked on The Matrix, and Ron Moore, the former executive producer of Deep Space Nine, through her widely circulated fan fiction, which includes Sentinel stories as well as Star Trek. Many of these people had read the script for The Privateers and encouraged Warner to produce it herself.

"A lot of the connections came because of Trekkies, which I was in because of the Logs - so many people that I knew either had seen the movie or had worked on the movie," laughs Warner, who indeed decided to try to produce the series after seeing Bowfinger. "We've been through so many ups and downs. It was going to start, it wasn't going to start, and all these people were still attached to us but working on regular TV shows and doing movies. Jonathan Zimmerman, the one man who's a voice of reason with me and Jon, a very seasoned 40-year veteran of film and television, was out of town when we started shooting the trailer. He's still shaking his head."

The 25-minute trailer for The Privateers was directed by David Duncan, who had done special effects for Space Above and Beyond. It has a cast ranging from seasoned industry veterans to relatives of the crew who looked like space pirates. Warner discovered lead Karl Urban when a friend who had appeared on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys "badgered me into watching the first Caesar episode. I thought, well, he's cute. Then one day the show was on when I was cleaning, and I saw Cupid. It took me like half the episode to realize it was the same person. And I thought, now I'm interested!"

Caesar and Chekov

Warner got in touch with Urban's manager. The actor sent a taped audition of several of the scenes in the pilot script, "and we liked what we saw, so we offered it to him." Then the funding fell through, but Warner kept in touch with the actor, and two years later when he came to the Xena convention in Santa Monica, the two met.

"He just loved the character and wanted to work with us, even though we're this independent group of loons," she laughs. "He and his manager have been very patient with us. He agreed to do the trailer for scale and a very small per diem, and we worked him like a dog. Most of the days were over 12 hours long, and he was in the thick of things always because he was in virtually every scene. He really was good - he was smart, he made a lot of suggestions which we used. It was a great experience working with him."

The casting of Walter Koenig as Admiral Roka was "a huge surprise" to Warner and Cunningham. "We had someone in mind to play the character, Rick Overton, who is one of the comedians who appears at the end of Trekkies [fans may know him as well from such films as Groundhog Day and Earth Girls Are Easy]. But he has a series in development in Canada, there was a conflict in his schedule."

So the production crew put out a casting call, "and we got a slew of really great actors applying for the various parts for the older men. Walter was among them. We were like, 'Yeah, like we're going to be able to afford him!'" Still, they had the casting director call his agent, chagrined at having to offer the lowest scale that SAG allows. "We got a call back saying he was willing to do it, and I just didn't believe them. But we negotiated what he would get in the pilot because he wanted to do the recurring part."

"He's another one who was ever so patient with us," Warner continues. "We kept that poor man waiting for something like six hours before his scenes, because we were doing a fight scene that day and they were choreographing it on location. Walter was eating apple crumb cake, and chatting with these people who were going berserk in their heads about him just being there! He and Karl joked a lot, and he was really nice to us."

Though Roka appears to die in the trailer when Dravyk and his men raid a space station, the admiral lives in the pilot episode. "He does a smarmy thing to one of his men, saying, 'I'm going to get help,' and he leaves. He's allied with the big villain in the series."

A troupe called Have Sword Will Travel created the pirates and guards, since the company needed trained swordsmen and stuntmen. Captain Kreel's knockout first officer, Skyia, has worked as a personal trainer " and also helped build the sets. Her friend Robin Wood is an artist in fantasy and science fiction - she recruited her to help paint walls, and we made her a pirate! If you walked on that set, you were working."

A Life in Slash

Warner, a Temple University graduate, has held a variety of eclectic jobs - she worked as Fabio's personal assistant, "though he thinks I'm this very quiet person," and in Borders Books in Santa Monica, where she recalls waiting on Patrick Stewart "where I had to pretend to be a professional."

One of the bonuses of having written The Privateers was meeting her husband. "A mutual friend of ours had taken the script to friends of his who were designers. Jon happened to see the ships they were designing and asked what it was about. He basically barged into the project and into my life, and just wouldn't leave! It's been really fortunate because we work so well together - he's more visual than I am, so it meshes really well."

Warner is unable to discuss yet who might be syndicating the show in the fall, but says that she has the show's bible and six completed scripts, plus a full outline for the rest of the first season. "We need writers," she says. "We're going to put a call out for a staff because I cannot be J. Michael Straczynski. It's not a serial, but it is an ongoing story. The story will advance with each episode in some fashion, but hopefully they'll all stand independently of each other. There will be some arcs where a character will come in for awhile and go away."

Does that mean character death? "Oh yes. We're going to have real jeopardy, we're going to have characters die that you may be attached to. And there will be ramifications of things that will be reverberating. I get tired of, at the end of the show, everything always is as it was. I want real consequences to things. I'm unsatisfied with the reset button. I think audiences are mature enough to deal with such things. Everything doesn't have to turn out well at the end of each episode."

"I'm really nervous about all this convention stuff," Warner confesses, though she is a veteran of many guest appearances, and did a demonstration at Toronto Trek of Klingon mating rituals in which Battlestar Galactica's Richard Hatch played her victim, err, mate. "It's really different with a crew, where you don't know what they're going to say!" she moans.

But don't think the fan girl is gone now that she's an executive producer. Warner admits that she still writes Mistress Janeway stories on occasion, and plans to go to MediaWest Con this year, "just because I've never been and I'm tired of people having zines and t-shirts that I've never seen, like that button with the Sentinel guys kissing." An unabashed slash fan, Warner wrote a Privateers scene with Richard Burgi and Garett Maggart in mind, but the actors had other commitments when shooting began.

Now that the shoe's on the other foot, she has begun to understand why television writers dislike fan fiction. "I just know they're going to slash Dogen!" she moans. The show's official web site contains the hilarious character note, "Just to make it official, Dogen is not homosexual," but that's unlikely to stop fans, and Warner of all people should know it. But as long as they're watching, she doesn't really mind.

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