Having been in somewhat of a post-Discovery funk I have been casting round for inspiration, polling the good folks in the Trek Talk forum for ideas about what to cover next during Discovery’s hiatus. In these discussions there was a lot of love shown for the much maligned Enterprise. Personally I always liked Enterprise, the casting is excellent, it did lose its way around series three but finished in a strong place. So there was only one thing for it, I dusted off the old Netflix and re-watched the two part pilot Broken Bow.
The pilot is a strong episode, it is action packed and the crew are immediately charming. Watching it I struggled to think what issues people could have had with it. As the episode wore on I remembered that at the time of its first run I took issue with the whole temporal war plot and the Xindi story arc was laboured and sometimes over violent. I will be interested to see if I have the same issues now if I re-watch all of the episodes. Maybe the series was just too close in tone to Voyager, which had only recently ended. The music and sound effects are right out of any episode of Trek from the last thirty years. Perhaps people had just seen this before and were looking for something different.
I know some people have argued that it didn’t work as a prequel because it looked too shiny, but as those in the forum will know I give this argument short shrift in relation to Discovery and I give it the same dismissal with Enterprise. I want to see a Trek that uses all the modern technology available to make a great looking universe. In TOS they used polystyrene rocks because they couldn’t afford anything else or didn’t have the technology. From the off I really liked Trip and his relationship with Captain Archer, there are definite shades of the McCoy/Kirk relationship and in the T’Pol and Trip interplay we get a nod to the McCoy/Spock dynamic, with added sexual tension. Reed, Phlox and Hoshi are all instantly likeable as well. The episode does a great job in establishing a tight knit group with determined leadership. Even the underdeveloped Mayweather is OK (casual 90’s sexism aside).
The episode has explosions and great effects, although it does have a touch of the soft focus tinge that most 90’s shows had. The Suliban are creepy and the scene in the sickbay where they cut the power and crawl along the ceiling still gives me the willies. One component of ENT that I always loved were the quiet moments of reflection in Archer’s room and the fact that they had a chef who made them actual food and they take the time to have a good old fashioned sit down meal. We get the notorious rubbing each other in lotion shower scene that was random then and remains hard to figure out now, lets face it they just wanted to show T’Pol in her space panties didn’t they. At least they’ve stopped doing that in Trek now.
Like all good pilots Broken Bow sets up the dramatic foundations that will be explored throughout its entire run. The need for the humans to prove themselves both to the Vulcans and to themselves, exploring the differences between cultures, and the threat of the other. Archer pleads for a chance to get the Enterprise out of space dock and out from under Vulcan scrutiny. The premise that the Vulcans are like overbearing parents unwilling to take the training wheels off remains an intriguing one, leaving lots of room for tensions. The burgeoning crew have to transport an injured Klingon back to Qo’nos but as you might suspect everything is not plain sailing.
I am looking forward to re-watching the rest of Enterprise and I urge you to join me. To celebrate my renewal of vows to Enterprise I decided to check in with a man who knows his Trek, from introducing Romulans to Next Gen, almost directing First Contact, working on the Orville and directing the Enterprise pilot, James L Conway is a part of Trek history and he certainly knows his way around a TV set. Discovering Trek caught up with James and together looked back at Broken Bow and chatted about his career.
It must have been a big honour to direct the first episode in a new Trek show when you took the helm of Enterprise episode Broken Bow. Did you feel any extra pressure or responsibility?
Directing the pilot for a TV series is a huge responsibility. You set the look for the new series, work with the new cast to help them define their characters and have to do this under a microscope because the Executive Producers, Studio and Network have so much riding on the new show. In the case of Enterprise my job was made a bit easier because I knew Rick Berman and Brannon Braga so well, I had a crew I’d work with many times before and a DP (Director of Photography), Marvin Rush, who I loved. We had a great cast, a fantastic script and a wonderful time was had by all. It was a two hour pilot, so our shooting schedule was long, 32 days. As long as some films. And the long schedule and large budget enabled me to craft a pilot that looked and felt like a film.
I recently re-watched Broken Bow and I was struck by how cinematic it felt. It seemed to have a bigger cast than previous Treks. Was that your impression on set? Was there a bigger budget for outside shoots, extras and CGI etc?
Our goal was to make the pilot cinematic. We had a number of large set pieces; the chase and explosion in the opening, the battle during the snow storm on the planet surface to name just two. The cast may have been large because of the scope of the pilot, but the number of regulars was about the same. But the large budget let us not have to skimp on location work, art direction or visual effects. My biggest thrill came once the pilot was finished. We had a cast and crew screening at Paramount large theater. Seeing the pilot on the big screen with surround sound was awesome!
Can you take me through a typical Trek shoot schedule? How long does it take to get one episode in the can?
A typical schedule is 15 days. 7 days of prep and 8 days of shooting. So, including weekends, it takes about 3 weeks. Prep is intense. Everything is pre-planned; new sets, props, visual and special effects, wardrobe, shooting schedule, extras, casting for guest stars,etc. The director also spends time with the writer and Executive Producers discussing the script so that the director can accurately capture the show runner’s vision. Once shooting begins, if the prep has been done properly, everything usually goes very well. There are always a few unpleasant surprises (props that don’t work, stunts that take longer to shoot than planned) but you adjust and keep shooting.
In almost the first scene of Broken Bow there is a massive explosion. It looked great and I found it hard to recall such an overtly action scene in previous Trek entries. It looked like a real explosion!? Are these scenes challenging and do you only get one chance to shoot it because of budgets?
The guest director’s job is to shoot the Show Runner’s vision of the show. The script is all-important. Our job is to visualize the script in keeping with the intent of the show. Many shows are now serial, meaning storylines go on for many episodes. So actions that characters take are often a season long arc. The guest director must read all the scripts before starting work on the show so he knows what’s happening with all the characters and story-lines. As to directing style, some shows have very strict guidelines; Mad Men, for example always was a very simple style with little camera movement and an old fashioned feel. Rick has no rules on Star Trek, encouraging directors to stretch and experiment, as long as the use of the camera didn’t subvert the telling of the story.
As for the explosion, you are right it was very much a real explosion. The blast was so big you could see and feel the pressure wave an instant before the actual explosion. I do believe it was the biggest real explosion of the Trek series. We build that Silo with the express purpose of blowing it up. It was huge, thirty or forty feet if I remember. And the entire cast and crew was gathered to watch it blow!
In a Mirror Darkly (one of my favourite Enterprise episodes) was your second mirror episode following DS9’s A Shattered Mirror. How do you approach Mirror universe episodes, are there any special instructions you give to the actors?
Mirror Universe episodes were fun. The actors loved them because they got to act completely different than in a usual episode. Usually they became evil, conniving, back-stabbing, over-sexed characters — who wouldn’t want to play that? But I always reminded them, don’t overplay it and keep it real.
Why do you think Trek has endured for so long?
Trek survives because it’s about hope. The hope for a better world. The hope for a bright future. Memorable characters and great story lines help, too.
You’ve worked on TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise. Do you fancy an episode of Discovery and what do you think of the new show?
I’d love to direct Discovery. The sets are incredible, the visual effects first class and I adore the camera work. The fact that they have 8 million dollars an episode helps (almost three times a Trek episode in previous series). I like the new series. It is far different than the previous Star Trek shows, but it kept me interested and they were a lot of really unexpected twists and turns.
What’s your favourite Trek series and character?
My favorite Trek character was Q. John De Lancie was brilliant. My favorite series was Deep Space 9.
What was your experience of working on The Orville? There were a fair few Trek alumni involved.. Brannon Braga and Jonathan Frakes…
The Orville was a blast to do. Seth is a great guy and so talented. It was great to work with Brannon again and my old friend Marvin Rush was the DP. Not too many other crew members had been on Trek; but I saw Robbie McNeal (Tom Paris in Voyager) and Jonathan Frakes while I was there — both were also directing an episode.
What do you most enjoy about working in the science fiction genre?
I like science fiction because you never quite know what’s going to happen. I like creating new worlds. And I like to direct shows with a lot of style, and for the most part, sci fi shows let you play a lot more with the camera.
What words of advice do you have for aspiring directors and film makers?
Watch and read everything you can about how and why the film makers made every decision. Learn what makes a story work. A scene work. What makes a performance believable. Then start making films with your friends. Short silly films. Like Spielberg did. Like I did. Like a lot of successful directors have done. Write, Shoot, Edit. Repeat.
Thanks James for taking the time to speak with me.
If you have any thoughts on the interview or the Enterprise pilot then join me in Trek Talk where men are men and woman are woman and Suliban are Suliban… well you get the idea.
Be sure to check out James’s website for the latest news on his work and his novels.