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It’s a good day to… pitch.
Actor Michael Dorn has put together a proposal to bring “Star Trek” — and Worf, the character he played in multiple films and TV series — back to television with both Roddenberry-esque traditions and a fresh twist on the premise. And in the grand tradition of the TV’s most enduring sci-fi property, “Trek” fans may hold the key to actually getting the show on the air.
With Worf remaining one of the most popular elements of the “Star Trek” mythos and an increasing desire to take a greater creative hand in shaping both his own career and his favorite role’s destiny, Dorn had a notion that quickly became a passion: his series proposal, “Captain Worf,” which he scripted himself, finds the heroic Klingon at a slightly hazy point in the future at a time when the Klingon Empire desperately needs to evolve or die, with Worf shepherding his culture into a new, unknown future.
Well aware that Paramount Pictures and its sister corporation CBS control the keys to the “Trek” franchise and had entrusted J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot cohorts for a series of rebooted, action-oriented and continuity-redefining films focused on the original series’ characters, Dorn still received enough receptive signals — from fans, from colleagues and even from studios — that he’s kept “Captain Worf” in the game. Dan Deevy, a longtime “Trek” fan and online journalist who frequently interviewed celebrities for the website Cinema Source, says it appeared that a version of the project came extremely close to becoming reality, timed to coincide with the release of the classic Klingon-themed “Star Trek: The Next Generation” two-parter as a stand-alone Blu-Ray in 2013, but the plug was pulled at some point.
Dorn remained confident that his project still had a legitimate chance to be approved, and in recent weeks, “Captain Worf” has become an Internet sensation: Deevy’s grassroots #WeWantWorf campaign has sparked considerable online coverage, Facebook and Twitter discussion, a t-shirt line at TeeFizz.com and a Tribble-like mini-muffin population explosion at the studio offices — about 30,000 to date, inspired by Deevy’s suggestion to Dorn of what to send to decision-makers.
In a conversation with Spinoff Online, Dorn revealed much of the behind-the-scenes story thus far, including that key factor in any hopeful Hollywood final frontier: no one in charge has said “no” yet.
Spinoff Online: It looks like your “Captain Worf” project has gained a great deal of traction in the public eye lately. What’s been most exciting about seeing the public and fan response since you first put the idea out there?
Michael Dorn: Well, I think it all started in 2012 because when I just basically — this blogger asked me some questions about “Star Trek” and I said, “Oh, there’s always space for ‘Star Trek’ on television. And this is my idea that I had, and it’s in the embryonic stage…” And from that, it just kind of took off.
My agent got a couple calls from producers that really wanted to be involved. And I worked on a couple of shows during that time, and the writers and producers of those shows had heard about it on a social media platform and they were like, “Oh, look, anything that I can do, I want to be involved” — which was good for me, because producers and writers, they’re different, in terms of what it means [in the industry] than the fans. Because the fans are one thing: the studio and the execs, they listen to the fans to a certain point, but producers and people like that who are in the circle, in the group, that’s a different take on it. They listen to them not more seriously, but I guess if it’s coming from somebody who’s not a fan, coming from one of their own. And for them, that means something more.
But in terms of the fandom, I mean, I understand that the fans love the character. And I’ve always mentioned it, and the fans always say, “That would be great.” But I’ve always been a little kind of pragmatic and say, “Well, that’s great. I’m glad you like it.” But what is really made a difference for me is the interest it’s gotten in these social media platforms now. I mean, I’ve been getting these e-mails from people saying, ‘Hey, have you read about this? Have you read about that?’ And there’s about eight e-mails of different blogs and different fanzines that have been blogging about this whole thing. So that, to me, is very encouraging.
Tell me about when the real creative passion for the project embraced you, when you really wanted to take it on and come up with a full-fledged story and not just of noodle around the idea.
Well, that’s a very long story. Actually, it started when I saw these two episodes from “Deep Space Nine.” One was called, “Once More into the Breach,” and the other was called, “Soldiers of the Empire.” And when I saw those episodes, it really lit a fire under me, that it was great writing — they were written by Ron Moore — and it was wonderfully acted in terms of all the Klingon characters and the things that were at stake. And even though they’re not human, the human condition that showed up in all these characters, it really was like, “There’s a series here.” That’s what first started it.
At that point, we were still doing the movies, and the producer had a very tight grip on what direction he wanted the “Star Trek” shows and the movies to go in. And I just went, “Well, you know, I’m just an actor sitting around doing lines. I’m not in those meetings,” so I kind of let it go. But I always had it in the back of my mind.
And then when these producers [called], after the blogger blogged about my interest, that’s what really lit a fire under me to actually write it. Because I had written a few things before, and people actually liked my writing — and I hate to say this, but I always was surprised. I’d say, “You do?” “Oh, yeah. We liked your script.” [Laughs]. And a couple things came very close to being produced, so I know I can do it. And I also know that I write much better — like, ten times better — when it’s a passion of mine, when I know the characters really well, and I know what I want. And I know the genre and all its episodes. So it was quite an easy, easy decision to make.
And when I wrote it, it practically wrote itself, just because there’s nothing really groundbreaking in terms of what we’re going to see Worf do this or anything like that, but it’s just a continuation of those episodes. And I liken it to Shakespeare: It’s the Klingon Empire. It’s a monarchy. It has an emperor, but he’s really a toothless emperor. The real power lies with the council. And also, I liken it to — and I wrote with this in mind — what’s happening in our lives right now with the dangerous situations that we are in. And it’s like we are always on the precipice of destroying ourselves — I mean, constantly. And the Klingon Empire’s the same way. They have a choice. They can either change and let go of these old ways, or they can be destroyed. And Worf takes on that challenge of guiding the Klingon people into this new world.
Tell me about your dealings with Paramount and CBS thus far, as they obviously control the “Star Trek” property.
Well, actually, I’m not the one to ask, because the two producing teams I was with, one I was with a couple years ago, and one I’m with now, they are the ones that have had the contact with CBS and Paramount. I don’t know details, but I can tell you that they haven’t said no. So that’s a victory, in itself.
It would lead you believe they’re open to what the next version of “Star Trek’s” going to be?
Yeah, and so if they had said from the very beginning, “You know, Michael — go away. [Laughs] We hate you. We hate your guts.” Then you could say, “I get it. I’m out of here.” But they haven’t said that. And without knowing the inner workings of any of that stuff or being in any of the meetings, so far, I just think that if they can see that it can be a success, and there’s a place for it, and it can be lucrative without causing too much consternation in the executive offices, I think they’d be open to it. Especially since they have a character that’s willing. There’s a script. The fans are in place. It’s kind of all there.
But you can bring in “War and Peace,” and if it doesn’t fit into what they’re doing, then it’s not going to make it. And I think it’s just one of those things. There’s nothing malicious. There’s nothing underhanded. Nothing at all. It’s just a business decision. And if all the cards and all the stars fell into place, then they make that decision, and it’s a go.
In the grand “Star Trek” tradition, this fan movement #WeWantWorf has arisen — and no one knows better than you how much power the voice of the fans can wield. What’s been your reaction to this movement?
Once again, it’s a fan-run enterprise. I did an on-camera with Dan Deevy a while ago. I did two of them before, and he came up with this idea. And he said, “What do you think?” I said, “Hey, it sounds like fun, but this is your project. This is what you want to do.” With any fan that came to me and said, “Look, I want to do this,” I’d say, “Hey. I don’t own the character. I can’t tell you what to do and what not to do. All I can say is: Sounds like fun.” And all of this is really Dan’s baby. And he’s running with it. I mean, he calls and sends me e-mails to say, “Hey, look, this is where we are.” And I go, “Great!” But otherwise, I’m just an innocent bystander to this whole thing. But I am buoyed by the fact that it’s been getting press on the social media platforms.
The character of Worf has always been extremely popular. Does this feel like the right time for you to take a little creative control of both your career and your best-known role, in the way that Leonard Nimoy did in the ’80s when he moved into producing and directing roles within the franchise?
Yeah, I think part of the thing about directing a pilot — which I’d love to do — is I just want to create something. And when I got in this business, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to create. I wanted to create something from the ground up. And although I did create Worf from the ground up — I did from almost the ground up, because the producers had no idea what the character was going to be or what he was going to turn out to be. They just put him in there. But I’d like to think that I’m knowledgeable and well-read and able to communicate these things and know what the fans want and what is interesting and basically what I want.
And I think it’s time in my career. I’ve been at it for more than 30 years now, so I think I have the experience. So yeah, I mean, that’s an important part. I’m not a producer, I’m not a staff writer, so I wouldn’t try to usurp those positions from anybody, but I would love to have a voice in the production. Even if it’s a small voice, but just a voice. I mean, I did have a voice in the way the character was portrayed after a while, but I wasn’t going there and beat my chest and throw things around the office and say, “Don’t do this. You guys are idiots.” It was never like that. I kind of went, “There is a great character. This is what makes him who he is. Let’s stick to that.” And thank God, they listened to me.
You got to work directly with Gene Rodenberry himself. What did you learn from him, both in terms of what it takes to make something authentically “Star Trek” and how to make a successful TV show work?
He knew what people liked when it came to television. But the one thing that I learned that was really, really important — and it took me a while to have the confidence to really think about that in terms of my career — is no matter how much we love the fans, no matter how much we love the material, you have to believe in what you’re doing.
And I mean, believe in what you’re doing in terms of, if you like something — for instance, if I think Worf should be a certain way, one of the things that I came up with was, in the Klingon universe that I created in this particular story, there are going to be Starfleet people, all other kind of races, that are in the Klingon culture because they’ve had to move forward. They can’t be this sealed community anymore. And so there’s a lot of different races, and one of the things I said was, “What if Worf didn’t have a Klingon uniform, didn’t have a Starfleet uniform, but he had his own uniform?” To me, that’s a great idea. I like the idea and it’s worth fighting for. And it’s a small thing in terms — in the world that I’ve written, I think it’s good. I think you’ve got to fight for that, and that’s what he did.
He said, “I really don’t care what you guys want. This is what I want.” And he has the experience. He had the credits behind him where they would say, “Well, he has been very successful. [Laughs] I mean, he has done very well, so they left him to his own devices. And that’s one of the reasons he went to syndication, because he was in charge. He did not have the network execs or anything like that telling him what to do. And once again, we see that it worked really well. And so that’s what it taught me is that if you feel strongly about something, go for it. And if you can’t go for it, if they want to take it away and make it something, then you just say “No. I’m not going to do it. I’ll see you later.” Because at this point in my career, in my life, it’s very important to have that voice.
Update me on some of the other story points in “Captain Worf.”
We are going to not try to put the timeline in any place in particular. We’re just going to say it’s “in the future,” starting from “Deep Space Nine” on. It doesn’t have to be our time or their time. But it’s just the next years after that, so that’s where it’s at. And it’s not a secret — I mean, the script’s out there — but basically, Worf has never been one that looks war, power, doesn’t look to be head of the Klingon Empire or anything like that. He’s a soldier, and he’s learning. He loves that part of it.
What’s happening is that there is a small war going on, and Worf believes that it’s not just about the war. It’s about something else. And he’s been around quite long enough to know that his feelings, his gut reactions, are almost perfect. Whenever he feels something, there’s actually something going on. So he’s just basically trying to figure out what is happening, and he wants to try to prevent it, if it’s not in the Klingon’s best interest.
Have you had any conversations with previous “Trek” co-stars or former producers or writers?
No, I haven’t. We still talk, and we see each other a few times over the years. But they’ve all moved on. They’ve all moved on to their own careers, their own successes, and so I haven’t brought it up. I haven’t said, “Hey, would you guys consider…” Not at all, because I think this is a small business and if they felt strongly about it, or if they heard about it and they said, “Michael…” I would say “Sure!” But I want to allow them to make that decision on their own. I mean, we’re good enough friends that I don’t have any animosity towards anybody or have a bad reaction. Nothing like that at all. In fact, our relationship with all of them are just fantastic. So I think if they were interested, they’d call. And it’s not them, I mean, you know, that’s life, you know.
What’s your next goalpost, as far as pushing this forward?
We want to film a sizzle reel for anybody that wants to see it. I think it’s very important to show people what it’s going to look like, to show people the feel, so that they can get excited about it also. I mean, it’s one thing to see a script. And I think that’s how the business has changed in that there’s so much in terms of special effects and computers and CG and people doing stuff on the Internet that that’s what people are drawn to. And that’s what they gravitate to is the kind of visceral, seeing something, and how it’s going to grab them and how it’s going to feel and how it’s going to look. So that’s what we’re planning to do.
In the meantime, with all the stuff that’s going on with the social media and on the Internet, you never know what’s going to happen. Somebody could call and say, “Look, Michael. We saw the stuff. Come in and talk to us.” That’s my hope. If I was to come into the room and I can show them my passion. I could show that them that we have thought about this to the nth degree. And all it takes is somebody to go, “You know, let’s do this.” Even if it’s just a pilot or a TV move, or a backdoor pilot, as they say. It’s almost like I want to say, “Hey, look. Just give us a shot.”
There’s so much out there right now. There’s so many platforms for this. There’s Netflix, and there’s Amazon — and we just want them just to give us a shot. That’s all we’re asking. Just let us shoot a pilot. I mean, they shoot I don’t know how many of those things every year. It’s not like it’s a long shot because the fans are there. The publicity is there. The interest is there, so that’s all we’re asking. So we’ll see what happens.