MAJEL BARRETT RODDENBERRY GOES TO ANDROMEDA:
Keeping the Roddenberry Legacy Alive
by Michelle Erica Green
Majel Barrett Roddenberry needs no introduction, having appeared on three generations of Star Trek and having produced several other series. Her space adventure Andromeda will be on the air next fall, while Earth: Final Conflict is in its fourth syndicated season.
When she's not overseeing shows left unfinished by her late husband, Gene Roddenberry, she voices the computer on Star Trek Voyager and makes guest appearances on various shows, many of which grew out of the Roddenberry legacy. She cites not only the Trek successors, but The X-Files, Babylon 5 (on which she has guest starred), and the Sci-Fi Channel's lineup, all of which emerged from the passion for televised science fiction generated by Star Trek.
"I think there's always a place for good science fiction, anyplace, so I think it's wonderful that all these shows have happened," says Barrett (credited alternately as Majel Barrett, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, and Majel Roddenberry, but referred to here by her screen name to distinguish her from her husband). Though proud of the Trek legacy, she's more involved these days in producing several newer projects. "Andromeda is very exciting," she reports. "It will be somewhat on the order I think of The Magnificent Seven, and the style of it will be E.R.-style. Everything goes fast, fast, fast, everything moves at all times."
Barrett describes the series as action-adventure about a starship captain who has had one of the biggest, most powerful ships in the universe. "But he's been in a long sleep - a three hundred year sleep. He's a real Rip Van Winkle, because he slipped into a slipstream that held him for 300 years. He comes back to life through this group of mercenaries who get on board and think it's plunder, and they find out, uh-oh, we just woke up the sleeping giant!"
Andromeda is the name of the starship, commanded by Captain Dylan Hunt, who will be played by Kevin Sorbo. The former Hercules star had reportedly wanted more involvement in the production and creative development of his next project. "He's very excited about doing it. He wanted to get out of the loincloth and the long hair and go into a more subdued type of character, but still keep on an action thing. He said, 'I grew up with Star Trek and I've always wanted to do a Gene Roddenberry show, I thought now that he was dead I stood no chance, then here this comes along.' Besides, we'll be filming in Vancouver - it'll put him in the same time zone as home."
The series, continues Barrett, "totally lends itself to excitement. The ship is a very strange ship - it's alive - so one of the most important characters is going to be the character of Andromeda. There will be an actor involved who might look like a hologram; we're not sure exactly how she's going to look but she will definitely be there. That's the way Gene wrote it, and we're finding out that it's an awful lot of fun to work with."
The premise? "It's getting back to the Commonwealth," Barrett explains. "The Commonwealth was a beautiful organization of worlds 300 years ago, when the captain went to sleep. Now that he has woken up, there is no Commonwealth - it's been rent asunder. So his goal is to put the Commonwealth back into good shape again, to make sure that all of the galaxies can have a central point to operate from. We'll be meeting a lot of strange people, a lot of strange animals. We've got some really wild characters!"
Former Deep Space Nine writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe is working on Andromeda now. "It's just so sharp, and Robert is a genius," claims the producer. The series incorporates some ideas from other Roddenberry scripts, primarily Starship, which also has a live ship. "Starship we have sort of filtered out into the area of animation," she explains. "That's going to be done, but not for this October. The stories are now entirely different."
Though Barrett insists that the emphasis will be on character development, she does not want Andromeda to become an arc show. "We've got to be self-contained - we found that out from Earth: Final Conflict. Look at Star Trek, you had an arc there: 'These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.' That was good enough to last us for 35 years! I think Joe [Straczynski] did a beautiful job with Babylon 5, but I could not watch it - I'd say, 'I missed it for a couple of weeks, how am I going to tune in now? What's happened?' Deep Space Nine managed to have an arc, but each piece was sort of by itself, I could have a good time and not worry about what had gone on before. I could never do that with Babylon."
On Earth: Final Conflict, Barrett says she fought the arc that dominated much of the season before last - both the fact of the complicated storyline and the direction in which the stories were headed. "I kept going back and screaming, 'We don't need a f***ing arc!'" she admits. "We've done this story arc for three years, and we feel as far as people are concerned, this is about as far as we're going to go with it. We've shaken up the writing staff. We'll have an all new set of writers, we're going to get a whole new tack on it now. We thought maybe we'd go back and pick up Gene's real intent on the show, and go off in a different direction."
Roddenberry's intention, says his widow, was to hold up a mirror for humanity through the eyes of an alien culture - not "anything which has to do with pull out the gun and go bang. Somehow or other, we had a bunch of misguided writers hanging around who honestly thought, we need some action here - OK, somebody pull out the gun, point it, and shoot. Of course I've been fighting it like mad all along, but I lost the battle. How many ways are there to bring action? I say we can bring it mentally - let's stimulate people's ideas and people's minds. I think that's what we're going to try to do this year."
"My god, if you stand back and look at us, we are some of the most vicious, violent, vitriolic people," notes Barrett. "No, we're not ready to go into space; the first thing we'd think about is killing. We'd get off at some strange planet and steal land from their Indians, too. The idea was supposed to be that aliens come down to Earth, and Da'an is sending a message back as to who we are and how we are. If we pick that up and talk about it, we're going to have an exciting show. We'll have plenty of action."
The fourth season ratings are up over the third season, which gratifies the executive producer, who believes the show could go for six seasons. "Gene had the Taelons wanting to remake our world so that they could find a place where they could live, but they needed more carbon dioxide, so they had to redo part of the planet. Which is entirely possible. It might be fun to go back to something like that. We have the two groups of aliens fighting each other - so that they can procreate, or do they just want to manufacture us? We can continue that, we could have a third group of aliens, but we have to keep it focused. Instead, the series went to Peru and took on some pretty ridiculous fantasy stuff. They were writing about voodoo and the Incas - nothing was believable. It was all based on mythology."
Barrett felt strongly that the series had to be believable to succeed with the fans - something she saw reflected in the letters she received from viewers. "I just kind of pulled away from it because that was the direction they were going, and the audience didn't like it either." She was also disturbed by the presence of a lead character whose biological background seemed implausible to her: "He was made out of three different strands of DNA, in four minutes he's gone from a baby to a full-blown person. Scientifically, that couldn't be. And how can you do a character show with a guy who has no memories? We had just left the realm of possibility."
The producer laments that she isn't a writer - "I wish I were, the bane of my existence, but I'm not, so I try to get the stories to the people who really are the writers. I take what they have and say 'Hey, this would not be believable under these circumstances.' Taking us out of the universe is physically not possible right now. One of the things I thought was so brilliant that the team came up with was having our guys made out of radiation or electricity, because that can travel through space. We can't travel through space; if we ever tried to get out to Pluto, we would be ancient before we got there. So you have to warp something, but you have to leave some kind of believability."
Because she has remained friendly with several NASA scientists and Bob Jastrow, who runs the Mount Wilson observatory, Barrett has a readily available group of scientific consultants. "Being near those kind of people and digging at them, 'Can you tell me what would happen, how that would happen,' they tell me what can be done and what can't be done. We're good friends, we have a lot of fun, we don't sit around and talk science because I don't understand it, but they've been very obliging."
Still, Barrett has done a great deal of the work of realizing her late husband's dreams. "When Gene would work on something, if it didn't get picked up and done right away, he'd put it on a back burner...or in the waste basket," she explains. "I'd go around and pull stuff out. I've got gobs and gobs of ideas, all of which would be very good if they were developed."
The television show V came into existence about six months after Roddenberry initially shelved Earth: Final Conflict, and Barrett doesn't think that was coincidental. "They had read his premise; it came out of 20th [Century Fox], it came out of the same department. Somebody was standing right there and picked it up. They gave it to somebody else and said, change it enough. So V went out, which was actually Earth: Final Conflict, although we didn't have them eating people! We could have sued them, but at the time the head of the studio was a good friend of ours, and Gene was the one who had left, so he decided that he wouldn't do anything about it. But these shows were sitting all around the studios, and if the studios liked the ideas, they went ahead and used them."
Barrett has gotten Roddenberry's series Genesis into preproduction. "Gene actually had written three scripts of that," she reveals. "Genesis has not been sold to anyone yet, but we have it in a new form and it's ready to be taken to cable - the market being what it is, they're not quite as anxious for hour-long television shows anymore of the science fiction genre. I suppose it could be done as shorter miniseries, but what's the use of gearing up if you're just going to die?"
Genesis was originally a series where the main character woke from a long sleep, but since that idea "got folded into Andromeda, one where, again, the guy wakes up from the sleep - we'll have to change that. The captain was caught in a cave-in when an asteroid came by and damn near hit our planet. All of a sudden, there were mountains where there used to be lakes. It was a utopia for awhile, and then wham. 99 percent of the people in the world are killed."
The central group of characters call themselves Pax, and begin to travel the world looking for survivors. "They find out how they're getting along and try to give them hints," explains Barrett. "In the early script, one group has a woman standing in a bunch of people and they're starting to throw rocks at her. Our group says 'Hey, what's this for?' They're told she was practicing witchcraft. What she had been doing was that she was a doctor, she had wandered in and cured this person who was supposedly incurable. So they accused her of being a witch. Our group steps in and says hey, this is not right."
The doctor decides she would rather travel with Pax, and other members join as they travel. "We've got a little person by the name of Echo, a little girl who's maybe three feet tall, a Lilliputian. She's an ornery little devil! Her father is trying to marry her off to a guy she doesn't want to get married to. Our group decides that she's a pain in the ass, she's a cross between a Blood and a Crip, but she just waits until they go and she follows them."
Echo rides a "steed" that helps her keep up - a small dinosaur. "It's all possible on this planet," notes Barrett. "She's a sort of comedic character and she can get into small places that nobody else can, so she can be profitable. And there's another character we patterned after Hawking, he has a chair which he built for himself, a hovercraft type of thing, so he can keep up. You see how much fun this one can be? They're soft stories, but the characters are wonderful. I'm looking forward to when we can get it in front of the public."
Barrett's only concern are fickle network trends which suggest at this moment that hour-long science fiction shows are no longer desirable. "If UPN can get their minds off this damn demographic stuff and make good theater, the demographics will change," she grumbles. "The demographics want to see good theater, I don't care what age they are."
Where No One Has Gone Before
She has little information about the prospective new Star Trek series, relying on rumor as much as almost everyone else in the franchise not directly involved in its production. "I have no idea, I've never had any idea what it's going to be about - no one's ever talked to me about it, I've heard all sorts of things," she says. "Someone asked me last week and I said, oh, I've heard this and that, and Rick Berman called me and said, 'Majel, they take it as gospel when they hear it from you.' So I don't even like to say what I've heard."
Barrett had told Sci-Fi Wire only that she'd heard stories of two proposals having been turned down. Even if the rumors are true, she's not worried. "I always say, there will be another show - whether it's a television show or a movie or what, I don't know, but as long as Paramount can squeeze one thin dime out of that project, I promise you there will be another one. I said that to Rick Berman: 'I don't care what you think even though you're the guy who's going to have to make it. So what if a show was turned down?' They'll just sit down and start all over again. Whatever they do, they're not going to quit."
The actress rarely sees the newer episodes, although she still performs the voice of the computer. "Do you know how long it takes me to do the computer? About five minutes," she laughs. "I don't get to see much of the episodes. After 35 years of doing the same voice and the same thing, I don't really watch the rest of it. If I should happen to catch it on TV, great. But I can't change anything about it, so I never talk about it."
It is very much in Barrett's interest for Paramount to keep producing Star Trek; she receives royalties on the franchise. "I want them to keep on making them just as fast and frequently as they possibly can. I'm not so sure it's best for the franchise - I personally feel that it would be in the franchise's interest to leave it alone for a few years. However, my mercenary self says, go for it! I'm a hundred percent for them to keep putting these on one after another; they can put on four a year as far as I've concerned."
Because she has appeared on all the previous series, Barrett would like to play a character on a Voyager episode, "just to keep the trend going. But I don't think there's much chance of that happening. I'm not going to live the rest of my life saying, gee, I didn't make it on the fourth series."
Her fondest Trek memories are of The Next Generation. "I thought that was the most magic cast ever put together. They really loved each other - they worked together, and they felt they had a common goal. When they came into it, they were coming off of a show that was a legend. I know they had to have the same feelings that we had when we first stood on that starship - you were afraid to put your hand on something for fear that it would throw the whole set into space! It's a very unreal feeling, to be on something like that."
"They kind of made a pact together: they said, we're all for one and one for all, and that's the way they stayed. They helped each other when the lines came up, and even if you didn't have a line to say in a particular scene, you went ahead and stood there anyway so that the other actors could have eye contact with you if they wanted. That's the only time I have ever heard of that in my life. It was a bunch of people who cared for each other, who liked each other, and that came across on the screen."
Barrett and Marina Sirtis became friends when they played mother and daughter on the series. "We would go out for a drink or just on the town to have a good time many times during production. That never went away." When Barrett read an Earth: Final Conflict script with a role for which she thought Sirtis would be right, she suggested to her partner that the actress be offered the role. Though Sirtis' character died in the episode, "With what we do in science fiction today, I'm sure she could come back. I think it might even be more fun to give her another character."
Asked whether she has any preferences among the various rumors floating around for the next Star Trek, Barrett sighs, "I have no preference. I have no ideas. I would love to see a television show because it's where we started - for a movie, I don't even know which cast they would use or if it would be a new cast. Star Trek lends itself to being so wide open, I think anything could be done. Each show has been different...way, way different. I think they could keep on going and keep doing them differently."
No matter what happens with Voyager, Barrett would like to appear on Andromeda. "I'm sure I will. They've already talked to me about it, in a small part, once in awhile, the same as I'll get back into Final Conflict now that it's going in a different direction." She played Dr. Julianne Bellman the first two seasons.
After several years of reading Earth: Final Conflict's fan mail, Barrett also thinks it's time to focus on the aspects of the various shows that interest fans. "Believe me, when anyone with some talent comes along, he can put some creative input into anything that we have. I found out from Star Trek that these people out here are really creative, they have some great imaginations. If they don't expect to be paid for every idea that comes into their heads, I would love to say to everyone, sure - send it on in."