MAJEL BARRETT RODDENBERRY'S
STARSHIP TO ANDROMEDA
by Michelle Erica Green
Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the first lady of science fiction, needs no introduction. After playing Nurse Chapel and Lwaxana Troi on Star Trek and producing Earth: Final Conflict, she committed herself to bringing her late husband's Andromeda to television. Her newest project is Gene Roddenberry's Starship, and although the fate of that series has been thrown into turmoil with the layoffs at Stan Lee Media in the weeks since this interview, she remains determined to bring it to Gene's fans.
What do you think of Andromeda now that you've seen it?
I think it's spectacular. I thought it was spectacular from the very beginning. It's so creative. You can go so much further with it and you can use your imagination so much better. I find that out of that comes the truth and honesty that we look for all the time in all of Gene's projects -- and in some of the stuff, we didn't get it. Of all the unlikely places to find it after all these years, I'm finding a lot of it right here. So I couldn't be happier. And Kevin is an angel to work with, an absolute angel.
How much time have you spent with the cast?
I've only been up there once, so I haven't had a real chance to get to know the other guys yet. But they're all sweet. They're all very anxious about what they're doing and they're all very proud of what they're doing. It's very nice. It's a different feeling, to go onto a set and hear a bunch of people take pride in their show and talk about how excited they are to be there that day, and how they look forward to going to work. That doesn't happen in many shows.
Had you met Robert Hewitt Wolfe when he was working on Deep Space Nine?
I didn't know him. He was given an open book for Andromeda, and I had absolutely no contact with him while it was going on. We just let him go and create something. There's no input that I could give because this is a completely different field from where Gene had been. He just listened to the crystals of what Gene knew, though he knows those upside down, then gave it his own twist on it. I think it turned out extremely well.
Is it darker than you were expecting? It's darker than any of the Star Trek shows, even Deep Space Nine, which I know some Star Trek fans criticized for being so dark.
It's much darker, but he's trying very hard to keep it on a positive note, and on an optimistic note. That's the one thing Gene had that was so distinguishing -- optimism. You knew that there was going to be a tomorrow, and tomorrow was going to have a better, kind, and more gentle world. It wasn't doom and gloom, 'We've got to be careful because tomorrow the Bomb is going to drop.' That's one of those things so many shows are guilty of. Maybe they're never told that optimism is the best policy when you're dealing with a TV audience. Gene somehow found that out, I think just by watching humanity, because he came in with it. It isn't anything that he learned by doing television.
Has anything on the show surprised you, that you wouldn't have foreseen from Gene's notes?
Seeing as this is fantasy, I accept everything. While there's a basis in reality for this, and I've got to raise a few eyebrows every so often, it's not and I wouldn't want them to limit themselves that way. We weren't sure what to make of Andromeda, the character of Andromeda. It's hard to make a machine that's alive, and she's supposed to be such a great big machine, a smart machine, but she's not invincible. There are a lot of things that as we went on and thought about the character traits, we said, 'Oh, well, if she can't be hurt during this, then she can't be hurt.' Then she is invincible, and that's the one thing you never want in any kind of a character. So there was a lot of finagling.
There have been a lot of costume changes, and there are going to be a lot more. Holy mackerel! I almost fainted when I first saw them, between that and the makeup. Nobody looks that bad -- and if they do, we shoot 'em from behind while they're talking. All of those things are so difficult to work with the first time out. We needed some space and we needed some experimentation, and unfortunately we're getting it all, but we're getting it on the air.
There's ways around all this stuff. To me, really, they were never in a militaristic situation. Dylan woke up 300 years in the future, and the others were all rapscallions; I can't imagine them all being in one uniform. There were a lot of discussions, and I don't know whether that has held true or whether other minds have prevailed. Why would they use uniforms? They're not in a military situation. We'd already used them on Star Trek, anyway. The costumes are quite an investment, and have got to disappear, but that's happening slowly but surely.
In every single note, I quote Gene -- I don't even do my own quotes. I send memos that are quotes from Gene so they can't avoid them. He said, 'Establish your characters. If you have your characters, the rest of it will fall into place.' And he was right. The nice thing about Andromeda is, the captain of the ship who has been asleep for three hundred years is awakened, and he has this whole group of roughshod people that he has basically almost forced to man his ship. But the nice thing about it is, they like each other. Well, most of them like each other -- you wouldn't want to turn your back on some of them.
When you watch the show, do you take notes, or are you primarily watching as a spectator at this point?
I've been watching more for entertainment value. I'm not really commenting. I haven't been in on it on a day-by-day basis, so I really don't have much to say. I'm watching it as it goes along, just about the way the audience is seeing it. I get some e-mail from fans, but I have been so sick with the flu that I haven't had time to respond, and there's not a whole bunch on Andromeda because my computer has been down for a while.
The feedback seems to be positive. We are pleased for the most part -- we're over three in the ratings, which is excellent. Now it's a matter of easing on into it and seeing how many people we pick up and how many we keep, and, praise god, we don't lose anybody. We're committed to two years, and they almost committed to four. So we have great hopes for anything in the future, two years or more.
What about Earth: Final Conflict? Is this likely to be the last season?
We are hoping, though at this point we're not sure of anything, but if the numbers stay where they are when the ratings game starts, we could be picking up a fifth year. Or we could be saying no, that's enough. I'm much happier with it now, because it's a much looser show. I did not particularly care for the direction it went right from the beginning, but there wasn't anything I could do to change it then. I think there's been a lot more freedom afforded it. There's another feeling to it this past year, I think it kind of shows there's a comfort and casualness that was not there before, a little peace and tranquility.
I think the actors have settled into their roles extremely well, and they have pull now. I love the new cast members; I think Jane in particular is remarkable. The writers keep on saying they're going to bring me back, but I've got to get a whole lot more well than I have been. This flu thing has gotten me every time I turn around. I'm going through a bad period in my life as far as my physical health is concerned, nothing serious, just little things that usually don't bother me. My system must be run down or I wouldn't be reacting that way. Build it back up and we'll start all over again.
Has being sick interfered with visiting the sets or doing conventions?
I get called for Trek conventions even more so now, but I haven't been going to any of those while I've been trying to get these shows going. Actually, I've got another one, Starship, the animated show, which is time-consuming too. Fortunately that stays down here, and it's kind of nice because it's just a bunch of people drawing pictures. The promotion and the traveling will be coming, and that's going to be a lot more extensive than I had in mind. My first stop is going to be Japan! At least I didn't have to do that on Andromeda. A lot of our money for Starship is coming from Japan, so we'll be over there, and we'll be doing a lot of international traveling, because this will be made internationally. John Semper is my partner in it, he did the story. You've got three guys, Stan Lee, Peter Paul, and John Semper, and each one serves a different function. They're wonderful. They're great to work with. We'll see what happens.
The plot of Starship originally had some similarities with Andromeda, didn't it?
The same similarity as with Star Trek! We stole parts of Starship deliberately for Andromeda. We stole names, we stole titles. They were all Gene's, so it didn't matter. We'll be doing that probably until my deathbed. If something works with a particular story, let's use it here, and save this other element for another place.
There is no story to tell you yet, not on Starship. I could go into what we had before, but it's not going to be the same, it's not even going to be similar as a matter of fact. The original idea was about a bunch of scientists, but that was when they were people -- they're no longer people! We always end up with a captain and a crew, there will be in this case. But remember this: we only have one or two humanoids in it. We've got a bug for a lead! I really can't tell you a Starship plot summary because that particular part of it is changing daily. The last time I went to a meeting, Stan said, this is not really going to work with what we have in mind for over here, so the story hasn't been turned in yet.
Are bugs easier to deal with in animation than the Than on Andromeda?
Oh god yes! I was going to say, can I bring some of them over to Andromeda? [Laughing] I have never seen Farscape, and I must, because I hear they do it very well. When I started to hear about it, I kind of wanted to stay away from it -- I didn't want to compare anything. So I got to watch Andromeda pure, probably the only one in our group who did. But I've heard marvelous things about Farscape.
We figure that as we go into it, depending on the money we have and depending on what the commitment is, we'll find out whether it is a half-hour or an hour show, and find out whether it's daytime or nighttime. It could end up as either. All options are open, including turning it into what Gene intended, which is live action. They're really very excited about it.
Will it be more action-oriented, since animation makes the budget less of a concern?
Well, when you use the word 'action,' you've got to take into account that our United States government says 'Ah-ah' on the violence, and I am actually delighted because we were getting to the point where they were blowing up people in midair. Watching them being torn into shreds. I saw some storyboard drawings and I put a big X through the page and sent it back and said 'No, never. You can only go so far.'
I don't consider tearing bodies apart, or somebody rounds a corner and you get a fist in the mouth...is that action? It's not drama! I cannot accept it. When they do that, I get bored. There's so much of it that I'll get up and leave a movie theater. And then I'll write a note to the production company -- it doesn't do any good, but maybe if they keep getting enough of them. Unfortunately, it has to come from the right demographic, 18-24, and that's what we're looking for, too.
What are your ambitions for these shows, for your own legacy as well as Gene's?
If we can comment on something that's occuring in life right now, as Gene did -- I think Robert Hewitt Wolfe stands the best chance of getting there, and John Semper understood Gene perfectly -- but I would say, I want to work on a message, but make it subliminal. If you take a look at today's front page, you're going to find enough stories with a moral to last the whole first episode, or even the first year. If our writers really aren't smart enough to find these things or to create them or to fix them, we've got the wrong guys. They're screening writers a whole lot better and they know more what to look for. It's been a lesson and it's been wonderful, and I think what we've ended up with on Earth particularly has been such a turnabout and has been so beautiful, I enjoy watching it.
I want to get these shows on the way, and then lie down and not wake up for two days. Right now, mostly, I want to get well. If I can get totally well and feeling chipper again and go out and play golf, that's what my goal is.
Are you at all worried about what effect a writers' and actors' strike could have on production of the shows?
There's not a doubt in my mind that we'll keep on going even if there is a strike. Everyone has done the same things I have had to, now, as a producer. We've stockpiled scripts, and on our shows we've put an extra staff writer in, so before the deadline we're turning out an awful lot more scripts than we would normally have. We've called a halt to production sooner because we'll be finished with our quota. We'll just have a longer vacation. Everything is sort of built in.
Do you want to appear on Voyager before it goes off the air, to keep the Number One/Christine Chapel/Lwaxana Troi track record going? How about Series V?
I'm still doing the voice of the computer on Voyager. But I know there is no chance of appearing. Two years ago, I would have loved to work on a campaign to get me on the show, because I was thinking, after thirty-some years, why not? But then as it started to settle in -- the older you get, the wiser you get -- I started to say, not on your life.
I know absolutely nothing about the next Star Trek series. I don't think there are many people over at Paramount who do either. I haven't heard anything, not even that the main office has said, here's the money, go ahead. Those days are over.