DENISE CROSBY'S TREKKIES:
The Deep Impact of Tasha Yar
by Michelle Erica Green
Although she was on the show for less than one season, plus a couple of later guest appearances, Denise Crosby seems destined to be linked with Star Trek...much to her delight. Her recent production Trekkies is a documentary about fans. And who better to produce and narrate such a film than someone who has been in and around Star Trek, as both an insider and a prodigal daughter of sorts?
"To make a documentary about the Star Trek fan phenomenon had been an idea of mine for a long time," Crosby said recently from her home in southern California, where she is working on distribution deals while awaiting the birth of her first child. "I have great warmth for the fans - more so than for the actual production of the show."
She first discussed the idea of a documentary with director Roger Nygard in 1991. The two teamed with producer Keith Border, who was developing an idea for a feature film based on Star Trek fans. Border's company Neo Pictures financed Trekkies, which has been screened several times in California by the producers, who are currently working on wide distribution.
"As soon as I started to go to conventions, I thought, now this is really an interesting thing going on," Crosby recalled. "Being a great fan of documentaries, I wondered, How big is this? How far does this go? Who are these people? And it reaches this diverse group, this wide range of demographics, the people are really intelligent...but why this show? What is it saying?" The fascinated reactions of her friends and the ongoing cultural interest in both Star Trek as a series and Trek fans in particular made her think that a film about the phenomenon would be a terrific project.
Crosby became gradually aware of the widespread impact of Star Trek outside its own fandom - people teaching courses and writing theses as part of an academic curriculum, people like Whitewater juror Barbara Adams who wear uniforms to make a statement about their ideals and values. When she hooked up with Border, who was initially interested in making a fictional film about fandom, he and Nygard realized that having Crosby and her connections involved would open documentary opportunities which normally wouldn't be easy to access.
It wasn't only her access to insiders, however, that made Crosby valuable to the other filmmakers, none of whom had experience making a full-length documentary. "People were willing to talk to me in a way that they weren't necessarily willing to talk to journalists and news media," the actress admitted. "You know, the whole 'Get a life' [routine] kind of wounded a lot of people - they were sort of reeling from that." The fact that Crosby had been a Trek outsider as well as insider made fans prone to trust her.
What was the real story behind her surprise departure during the first season - the only time a regular Trek castmember has been irrevocably and permanently killed off? "There was no hostility whatsoever," she stressed. "The hardest part of leaving was walking away from this very tight-knit family; I truly loved being there and hanging out with those guys." But on the show itself, she was "bored to tears." Fifteen-hour shoots on the bridge where she had a few technical lines to repeat left her feeling "brain dead" as a performer.
The decision to leave stemmed purely from creative urges: "The final conversation I had with Gene [Roddenberry] was basically him telling me that the series was going to be about Captain Picard, First Officer Riker, and Brent [Spiner, who played Lieutenant Data]. That's really what this show was going to be about, and the guests, the aliens of the week, and everyone else would sort of fill in the gaps, just like the original. I felt I would be institutionalized after six years, so I had to bolt - there was nothing for me to do."
Though she played the strongest female character a Trek series had yet seen, Crosby pointed out that, good as the intentions might have been in deciding to have a female security officer, "I think they would have been very happy for me to wear really tight outfits and heels and stick my tits out - believe me, they suggested it, those very words were actually used." She noted that the franchise has not escaped this mentality yet, given the catsuits worn by Nana Visitor on Deep Space Nine and Jeri Ryan on Voyager.
"I wasn't looking to be this tougher-than-nails bull terrier, but what is interesting to me in life is people's darker sides, their vulneribilities, and their insecurities. I'm not interested in this kind of [ideal] person because life isn't that way. I was constantly looking for a way around that; for people who have read between the lines, Tasha was far from this ideal Starfleet officer. Her insides were incredibly fragile and wounded. But I could see where [the series] was going, and I had to finally made a decision - would this be enough? And it finally wasn't. That's the why I left the show.
As with most popular Trek characters, however, Tasha didn't stay dead. The Emmy-nominated "Yesterday's Enterprise" brought her back. "I was blown away when I received that script," she exclaimed. "I finally got to have a show that I had been hungry for all along, and so it's so filled with irony that I had to die and leave the show to get that! That brought me back, and spawned Sela," Tasha Yar's half-Romulan daughter, also played by Crosby. The new exposure on the air gained her more convention invitations, which in turn allowed her to become aware of some of the more marginal groups in fandom, like the fan writers and artists.
"I had been privy to a slash group going on, and I was fascinated by it," she said. "I was asking, 'Let me read stuff - god, how does this come about, who is writing this? Why are they writing this?'" Her co-producers were concerned about discussing Trek erotica and "slash" - fan fiction involving same-sex couples who are not involved on the series, such as Kirk and Spock - but Crosby was adamant that a documentary about fandom had to include slash fans.
"I fought very hard to get that in there - people were saying, wait a minute, this is a PG-rated film and we don't want to offend anyone or go to far," she reported. "I said, no no no, you can do it in a way where we're not getting graphic, but you have to cover this. Slash is an offshoot, this is how all the tributaries run off one TV show." Her film includes an interview with Nova D, who writes the infamous "Mistress Janeway" stories on the internet, and some elaborate fan art.
A lesser controversy erupted over the film's title: Trekkies or Trekkers? "Trekkies" is the more widely recognized term - in fact, it's in the Oxford English Dictionary, the only fan signifier in the entire massive edition. But some fans reject the term, which has often been used to refer to the costume-wearing, convention-attending fans, as opposed to the academic researchers or simply serious viewers who shy away from the cult of Trek.
"There's still a group which does not accept anything made after 1969 as legitimate Star Trek, Crosby pointed out. "Listen, there are people who didn't know that Paul McCartney sang with a group before Wings, anyway. There's a group which will accept TNG but not DS9, because Roddenberry was not involved with the latter. I know it really becomes fractured at that point, and you can just keep going...we had 90 minutes to cover a lot of ground." She noted that it was impossible to represent every manifestation of Trek fan in one documentary, and added that she would like to do a sequel about European and Japanese fans.
"After spending twelve years connected to this, the people I have met have been meaningful and dear," said Crosby, adding that it was "very critical for us as filmmakers" to make an accurate film which would not offend, criticize, or harm its subjects. Crosby added that her contact with fans has made her more sympathetic to viewers than to the makers of the show. "In general, Star Trek fans are civic-minded, socially-conscious, intelligent people, and [they] have been incredibly loyal. The fans make the show. What I find really offensive is when the producers or the other actors have a kind of disregard, and won't sign autographs at conventions. Who the hell ever heard of Jonathan Frakes before Star Trek?"
Crosby's film has won accolades from fans and professionals alike. "Trekkies is a hilarious and insightful look at the eccentric side of Star Trek fandom," said Eric Stillwell, one of the writers of "Yesterday's Enterprise," who is now Trek writer/producer Michael Piller's assistant.
The actress and producer doesn't precisely identify with fans, having grown up in Los Angeles in a show business family. Her mother worked at Paramount, her grandfather was a huge name in the business. "I loved rock and roll when I was growing up. I would go to tons of concerts. But I never hung around and waited for a glimpse of somebody," she said.
Still, many of her friends are fans. In fact, her appearance on Lois and Clark stemmed from having worked with a writer "who was the kind of guy who has a cardboard cutout of Kirk in his basement," and was thrilled to have Tasha Yar on his show. Her recent role in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown stemmed from having met the director in at a comic book convention, where he asked for her autograph. "Quentin had a little Tasha Yar action figure up on his mantle next to his John Travolta Saturday Night Fever doll...now Quentin you don't associate with this kind of stuff at all, yet he is a hard core fan!" she laughed.
A veteran of much genre work, including Stephen King's Pet Sematery which really scared her when she was reading the script, Crosby has no regrets about having left The Next Generation when she did - but she admits that it's hard to find a great women's role. "Even the great actresses are fighting for the same one part," she noted. "It's tough. Look at what we're seeing as we come to the awards ceremonies coming up - I don't think it's particularly an interesting field for women this year. I'm hard-pressed even to name the actresses I can seriously count as giving a great female performance - they're not getting any scripts."
Crosby's upcoming film Deep Impact was produced by the company of science fiction legend Steven Spielberg, and distributed by Trek's studio, Paramount. It stars Tea Leoni, Vanessa Redgrave, Morgan Freeman, Robert Duvall, and Elijah Wood, who is romancing the daughter of Crosby's character when he discovers a comet on a collision course for Earth. Deep Impact was one of several films Crosby did last year in an effort to "shore up these next couple of months so I can really cruise" after her baby is born.
"Looks on ultrasound like I'm having a lamb," joked the actress, who declined to find out the sex of the child. "After all those Star Treks, I just hope it's human!"
Crosby on Deep Impact
Denise Crosby won't say whether her character lives or dies in Deep Impact, but it sounds like the odds are against her. The actress plays the mother of Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski), the young girl who is the romantic interest and astronomy club partner of Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood).
Sarah is one of the lucky people chosen to be saved in an underground ark when a comet threatens the human race with extinction. Because they know permanent separation may be imminent, Leo decides he wants to marry Sarah in the little time they have left, even though they're both teenagers. Mrs. Hotchner and her daughter must overcome the normal stresses of adolescence with the added burden of knowing that their entire world is about to end.
Crosby compares the themes of Deep Impact to those of this year's blockbuster Titanic. "It's a very human drama set against this tragic event. The comet is discovered by Elijah Wood, who is madly in love with my daughter. Our families are very good friends, we live just a couple of doors down from each other in the suburbs of Washington, D.C."
It was clear from the outset that not all the characters would survive in the end, which Crosby said she was happy to see. "Some of the people the audience cares about don't make it," she admitted. "They don't do it so that everyone lives, and goes sailing off into the sunset." Instead, "it's pretty heroic" as people choose whether to accept their places in the ark or whether to give them up to others so that they can remain with loved ones at the end of the world.
Director Mimi Leder had not been involved with science fiction previously, and Crosby revealed that Leder had never seen her on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where she played Lieutenant Tasha Yar. "I don't think Mimi even knows that there are still Star Trek series on the air," the actress laughed. But hiring familiar genre faces wasn't one of Leder's goals, either. "Mimi didn't want to do what they call a whistle-and-horn movie, with a lot of effects and loud explosions. She really wanted to get into these people's lives and see how this is affecting them."
Crosby believes the movie will appeal to a broad audience - both genre fans and those who are interested primarily in the human drama. "Paramount is very high on the film," she reported, adding that Spielberg and Katzenberg had seen it and were impressed with the visuals.
Since her own next project is the baby she's due to have this summer, the family ties as well as the science fiction made the former Trek star feel connected to this project. The recent producer of Trekkies, a documentary about fans, Crosby hopes that Deep Impact catches the attention of some of the same people she's been celebrating.