The Sci-Fi Summit - Part 1By Joseph Di Lella
Posted at April 9, 2003 - 6:40 AM GMT
Creation Entertainment staged its 11th annual Grand Slam Convention in Pasadena on the weekend of March 28 - 30, with guests ranging from James Doohan (Montgomery 'Scotty' Scott) and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) from the original Star Trek to Voyager's Robert Picardo (the EMH) and The Next Generation's Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi). Roving reporter Joseph D. DiLella was there to get the latest news straight from the stars.
Before I begin this piece, I must confess that I learned a very important lesson from last weekend's extravaganza. If you fancy yourself a serious reporter, you must not throw personal or professional tasks into the mix. My duties for TrekToday were partially compromised by such events.
Consequently, I was unable to attend the Pasadena Convention Center on Friday. For that, I deeply apologize. If you'd like to read about the first day activities, please go to StarTrek.com for Tim Gaskill's report.
Therefore, my Creation Convention synopsis is a mixture of two types of reports. The first one involves my personal and professional histrionics; of most importance, what it's like to be a hopeful, popular culture author and story writer for Star Trek. The second report involves my musings on Trek stars and guest actors I listened to or spoke with on Saturday and Sunday at the Sci-Fi Summit. You might ask: what can you say that Tim Gaskill hasn't already reported? Come on. You know I have a particular 'spin' on the events that no one else does. Trust me.
The best question might be: how come you missed Friday's festivities, Dr. Joe? Please don't go there. But if you must know...
(A.K.A. A Missed Day At The Convention)
May I first give you a bit of advice: when attending a convention, for pleasure or business reasons, always leave the day before the event. Saving a few dollars on a hotel room is not an advisable strategy. Otherwise life is rushed through, a person's patience is completely exhausted and no matter the professional goal, obtaining bed rest ultimately becomes one's most important priority.
My significant other and I rushed up from San Diego to Los Angeles at 9:18 a.m. that Friday morning to renew a passport. Traffic was...not fun. We made it to the Swiss Consulate at 11:52 a.m. eight minutes before it closed. After spending an hour and a half with bureaucrats who take their job way too seriously, we both left the office in worse shape than when we entered the security-hyped building. If that wasn't miserable enough, the toll booth operator demanded we pay $10 for the 'free' parking in the lot (Swiss Consulate validation was not acceptable).
After arguing for several minutes, the attendant took pity on us. We ended up not paying the fee. Yet, by this time, it was 1:15 p.m. We had already missed Rod Roddenberry and Richard Arnold. Coming up next at the convention were Robert Picardo (the EMH) and Ethan Phillips (Neelix) performing their comedy antics. But alas, their fine talents, as well as those of Robert Beltran (Chakotay), Tim Russ (Tuvok) and Jennifer Lien (Kes) were to be missed by us.
Why? Because of the time crunch, I had to first rush over to see a former Trek writer and Star Trek: The Next Generation script coordinator about ten miles across town. From 1:58 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. on Friday, I met with Star Trek's own Eric Stillwell (TNG's "Yesterday's Enterprise"). Mr. Stillwell, a swell guy, is also the person who sets up Trek cruises once, sometimes twice a year. On this year's trek to Hawaii, fans will once again meet the Star Trek actors and learn about the art of screenwriting.
In-between stories about our respective European travels and tribulations over lunch, Eric and I discussed a project we've been hammering out over the past few months. It's never best to talk about projects until they're given a 'green light' by a publisher. What I can tell you is that if we find the right publisher, our book should help all you would-be science fiction television writers find your niche in the Biz or your money back.
After our lunch, Eric, Elsbeth and I toured the hospitable confines of The Dead Zone headquarters (Lion's Gate Productions). As a regular Zoner, I could not pass up this opportunity. Eric has been working at the Zone as a script coordinator for several years. Like he was for Gene Roddenberry for several years, Eric is now Michael Piller's right hand man.
Before leaving the building, I waved "hello" to Michael Piller (who was off to an important staff meeting), and peeked in on his son, Shawn, and Michael Taylor (both Trek alumni). Though on hiatus, the writers are preparing for next season's Dead Zone, which begins shooting in the next month or so. If everything falls into place, I hope to revisit Eric and Mike for professional reasons before the summer slew of Dead Zone stories hit the production slate in Canada.
We left Lion's Gate Productions at 5:20 p.m. The first day's events at the Sci-Fi Summit were about up. Elsbeth and I were both emotionally spent. Still, we intended to make the evening festivities with Mr. Picardo and Mr. Phillips performing a stand-up comedy bit about their post-Voyager exploits. We drove the local streets past the Warner Brothers Production Studio and arrived at our hotel across from the Santa Anita Race Track by 6:10 p.m. Our plans were to rest up for the 9 p.m. show. In the meantime, I eagerly awaited a phone call from one of my writing partners concerning Enterprise.
Jack was supposed to have good word from David A. Goodman (consulting producer on Enterprise) as to the status of our recent pitches. Since my other partner, Steve, had successfully pitched three of our stories to David's satisfaction two weeks earlier, I had hoped to walk into the convention as a conquering hero. But 7:00, 7:30, 8:00 and 8:30 p.m. came and went without a phone call.
My pal Jimmy Diggs told me years ago the "We've bought your story, can you write a treatment?" call may not come until six months after the initial pitch. The producers at Enterprise, like Mr. Goodman, are incredibly busy, and can't always be reached. Still, like most writers, I obsessed and worried that no news was a bad sign This totally destroyed me. Well, sometimes, no news is good news (as I would later learn that weekend).
After a light repast, Elsbeth and I skipped the evening activities and called it a night. I fell back into the feathers realizing I had allowed attempts at personal fortune come before professional ethics to Trek readers.
What had I gained by missing Friday's festivities? Elsbeth did not have shiny, new passport. I didn't make enough 'quality time' with Eric to flesh out our book ideas in greater detail. Brannon Braga had not yet anointed Steve, Jack or myself as saviours for Enterprise. And me? I was a total mess.
At about midnight, I finally fell asleep. My conscious mind allowed me to nod off only on the condition that Saturday would be brighter, sunnier day. With temperatures expected to reach well over 100 degrees in the greater LA area, I was just happy knowing that the Pasadena Centre was an indoor, air-conditioned facility. Luckily for me, the best was yet to come.
After All These Years, He's Still Scotty
Though we missed Armin Shimerman (Quark) and Alan Ruck (Captain Harriman in Star Trek: Generations), we were present for the most inspirational actor of the bunch that weekend: James Doohan.
You must respect a man of Mr. Doohan's fortitude. Though he can't bellow out the familiar words, "I'm given' 'er all she's got, Captain...if I give 'er anything more, she'll blow to us all to smithereens", to see him walk out on stage, one can feel the spirit of the man we still affectionately call Mr. Scott. No one received a more heartwarming welcome than Scotty, I mean, James.
With coaxing from a Creation Entertainment executive, Mr. Doohan answered several questions. First, Jimmy was asked about his military days. He remembered volunteering for 'Air Observation Duty' on the Royal Canadian Artillery towards the end of the war. After spending ninety-three hours in a Tiger Moth fighter plane, fate caught up with him. On D-Day in World War II, James took eight bullets for his country. Several bullets hit his knee; one lodged in his shoulder, another bounced off the silver cigarette case in his upper jacket pocket. Thus, in a rare instance, smoking actually saved a life that day.
Continuing, Mr. Doohan mentioned that he also took three hits to his right hand which severed two of his fingers. Surprisingly, he held his hand up plainly for all to see. Ever try to catch a peak at Mr. Scott's right hand? You'll never see a close-up of it in Trek. Thus, James showed off the hand he hid from his adoring audience all those years. No one reeled back in his/her chair, appalled at the sight. There was nothing ugly about the fist of a brave man.
James's story about his initial axe from the show was a bit shocking. "I got a note from the studio that evening. We finished the pilot, but in his letter, Gene [Roddenberry] said that he didn't believe the show needed an engineer." The convention audience gasped and grumbled. "So I called my agent late that night. He said not to worry. I didn't. By three o'clock the next day, I was back on the show."
On a lighter note, an audience member dressed up in a Scottish kilt walked up to the stage and asked James how he perfected his accent. James remarked that during the war, he met a fellow officer from Aberdeen, Scotland. After calling the Royal Canadian Artillery Communications Station, Mr. Doohan asked the chap, "What language are you speaking, for it isn't English?" Over the next six weeks, the two men became good friends. James taught him proper English; the Scotsman instructed him to the subtleties of a proper Aberdeen dialect. Mr. Doohan would later use his flair for dialects to voice over sixty Star Trek characters in the original and animated series.
Another fan asked James if he was responsible for the creation of Klingonese. "We were sitting for lunch one day, and Gene said he simply couldn't get it done [the making of a Klingon language]. Gene said two staff members created a terrible sounding mess. So I told him I could do it. Within five minutes, with his assistant, we had the whole thing down. Though at first, it sounded a bit Mongolian..."
Sporadically throughout the thirty-five minute question and answer session, several of Mr. Doohan's family members joined him on stage. First, his lovely daughter, whose third birthday is coming up in early April, walked from behind stage to squeeze her daddy's hand. Later on, his 43-year-old son came on stage to give his father a loving hug. His wife was not introduced, but James mentioned her several times. When it was apparent he was a bit tired, 'Scotty', cane in one hand, but unencumbered by an escort, left for his autograph session. The audience gave him a standing ovation.
The next Trek actor to grace the stage, Walter Koenig (Chekov), answered typical fan questions like: "What's your favorite episode?" ("Spectre of the Gun") and, "Will there be a Babylon 5 movie?" ("Maybe, there's talk, but don't quote me on this"). Walter's attention wandered off to several of his new film projects and another that demands the attention of Trek fans everywhere.
Mr. Koenig told the audience that he is looking for DVD distributors after he completes his new film, Illegal Alien. If you'd like to join in, go to Walter's official web site for further information. According to Walter, this is a chance for all Trekkers to become actively involved in movie making from a investor's viewpoint.
Keeping Gene's Vision Alive
Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), still as beautiful as ever, was the most hopeful and joyful person on Saturday's stage. Sounding more like an Evangelical preacher rather than an actor promoting a product, she constantly reminded the audience of Gene Roddenberry's vision.
This was most evident when a fan asked Nichelle if she was a fan of the current Trek incarnation, Enterprise. According to Ms. Nichols, Gene's tradition is still out there, amongst the hearts and minds of the fans. Though she is honored to be a part of Gene's dream, she feels Trek "has lost the wondrousness" of the original series. Regardless, "whatever keeps Star Trek alive" is most important, according to Ms. Nichols. Fans applauded her honesty. Nichelle responded with the comment, "Did I tap dance out of that one?"
Nichelle is most proud of her legacy as an African American, and how her Trek role inspired a generation. Ms. Nichols recalled the story of one little girl, whom after seeing Uhura on television, ran to her parents, saying, "Look, there's a colored woman on TV who's not a maid". This little girl, full of hope, grew up to be the famous actress Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan). Nichelle tells the story that every time Whoopi meets her, Ms. Goldberg bows her head and addresses her as, "My Lady, my Queen".
What new projects is Nichelle working on now? For one, she is writing the forward to an upcoming book titled Reaching for the Stars, a retrospective of Michael David Ward's paintings of the universe. Though in the early stages, this book promises to bring the Star Trek universe alive through Mr. Ward's brilliant artistic interpretations. Nichelle left the audience with a song, showing off her marvelous voice.
The Original Trek Captain and His First Officer
Even before his scheduled time on stage, William Shatner (James T. Kirk) rushed on stage to up the ante on a Star Trek V: The Final Frontier clapboard up for charity auction. "What's this, only a thousand dollars? You can do better than that." Like a carnival barker, Mr. Shatner pushed the money for the rare item up to $5,000, with all the proceeds going to the Hollywood Charity Horse Show.
When the time came for him to receive Creation Entertainment's 'Lifetime Achievement Award', Bill, joined by his loyal first officer, Leonard Nimoy (Spock), was still in fine spirits. The two, no novices to the popularity of their on screen personas, took in the applause like flowers soaking in a much needed spring rain. The louder the laughter and raucous screams from the audience, the more jokes and jibes the two shot at each other.
Finally down to business, Bill asked Leonard about his new book, Shekhina. Since Leonard has sworn off acting to devote the rest of his life to photography, this book marks a new start in his career. Though Mr. Shatner joked about the photographs of naked women throughout the book, Mr. Nimoy turned the screw on his friend. "The title comes from an ancient Jewish female spirit...you see when I went to the synagogue as a youth, my father would tell me to close my eyes when the priests blessed the congregation. It was said the Shekhina would take the souls of those who saw her. One time I looked up and noticed the bearded priest make the blessing sign (which ended up becoming the famous Vulcan greeting), but did not see Shekhina." The book touches on the definition of God, in the feminine sense, through his pictorials.
When Mr. Nimoy asked his partner in crime about his current career, Mr. Shatner mentioned his new play, which just had a live reading in Los Angeles last month. "It's a story about two men, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, who discuss their beliefs about the hereafter and God." Leonard asked why he didn't receive a call. William responded casually, "I didn't know you were in town". After Mr. Nimoy's eighteen city book promoting tour, Bill's answer seemed appropriate. "You would have made a wonderful Doyle, but who knew you were the slightest bit interested?"
At this point, the stage lights went to black. Left in the dark, nothing more than a backlit screen told the audience that Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia from Star Wars) was signing autographs in the adjacent annex. Mr. Shatner mockingly complained about the lack of respect, and playfully 'ordered' Ms. Fisher to come on stage and personally apologise to Leonard and himself. Within a few minutes, she did. She hugged Bill, but soon fell into Leonard's arms for a passionate kiss. "That always happens to me," Bill said in response to Leonard's luck with the ladies.
Before presenting his friend with the evening's prestigious award, Mr. Nimoy read a poem he had composed on his plane ride into Los Angeles the night before. Dedicated to William Shatner and titled O Captain, My Captain, Mr. Nimoy read a sincere homage to his friend of thirty odd years. For fun, the author asked the audience to guess the last word of each line. With a simple rhythm scheme within a Star Trek context, the audience gleefully shouted out about 75% of the final line words. Afterwards, Mr. Shatner read a comical poem he wrote about his cohort in crime.
At the end of the Saturday show, Mr. Shatner auctioned off a tour of the Enterprise set for charity, which went for $3,500. Like most everyone else in the audience, I wished I had that type of money to blow on a two-hour tour of Paramount. The two Trek legends waved goodbye to the crowd before retiring for the evening.
Contributing reporters and photographers: Elsbeth Wolf and Dainis Kiperts.
Part two of the report on Creation Entertainment's Sci-Fi Summit will be posted soon.
Joseph Di Lella is a freelance writer and panelist at the San Diego Comic Con. He can be reached via this page at AllExperts.com.