In December of 2002 when Starship Exeter released its first episode, “The Savage Empire,” it was a total game-changer. Exeter rewrote the rules of what a Star Trek fan film could be and helped to usher in what many call the modern age of fan films. Twelve years later, Starship Exeter released the final act of its second episode, “The Tressaurian Intersection,” considered by many to be one of the few MUST SEE Star Trek fan films out there.
But the story of Starship Exeter actually begins in the fall of 1995 in Minneapolis, MN, when Jimm Johnson was showing his brother Joshua some special effects he’d been working on for an amateur film, and Josh commented that they looked a lot like the 1960’s era Star Trek special effects. “Hey, we should do a Star Trek movie!” one of them said, and things grew out of that. As they worked on the idea, they played around with different names for their starship, which would be a Constitution-class vessel like the USS Enterprise. Eventually they decided on using the name Exeter, as that was a known, recognizable vessel that had been left intact but without a crew at the end of the TOS episode “The Omega Glory.” This allowed the brothers Johnson to fill the Exeter with a crew of their own characters and develop new missions.
Nowadays, it seems like everyone has access to TOS-style sets to film their fan series on. But back in 1995, the idea was almost unheard of. Using only their own money, time, and resources, Jimm and Josh began a two-year process of filming with many starts and stops… including a move to Austin, TX, where filming was later completed. They built their own set pieces to have a 1960s Trek-era look and feel. They sewed their own uniform shirts. Jimm even played the lead, Captain John Quincy Garrovick (cousin to Ensign Garrovick of the TOS episode “Obsession”), and Josh played the very intriguing Andorian Communications Officer, Lt. B’Fuselek. Both brothers appeared in the credits under stage names.
With all this footage filmed, it then took another five years to release a completed episode. Now, before you think Jimm and Josh were just a couple of procrastinators, realize that, back in 1997, digital editing technology was only just beginning to come down in price and complexity enough for the average person to be able to afford and use it properly. The brothers, as co-producers, also made the critical decision to film the space-based visual FX with physical models rather than using computer 3D graphics programs. Considering the quality of most amateur CGI software at the time, this was probably the right call, but it did require additional time.
While Jimm and Josh and a few others worked when they could completing Exeter (remember that this wasn’t a paying gig), another fan film series, Star Trek: Hidden Frontier, had released two seasons worth of half-hour episodes, using green screen technology to Chroma-key actors in against backgrounds and creating VFX completely with computers. Hidden Frontier also helped to usher in the modern age of fan films, but camera angles and character motion was limited because of green screening. Even something as simple as two crew members walking down a corridor could look awkward when using green screens.
But then Starship Exeter’s “The Savage Empire” was finally made available for download, and fans went wild! Not to take away from the accomplishments of Hidden Frontier, but Trekkers hadn’t ever seen anything like Exeter on the Internet before. By today’s standards, Exeter’s first episode might seem a little weak. Even producer Jimm Johnson commented in a podcast interview from 2006 that although they wanted it to look like it had a 1960’s Star Trek production value, “…we probably only hit the 70s Doctor Who production value.” Ouch!
But it’s pretty much true. The acting, while better than one would expect from amateurs, is uneven (although you can tell they’re all trying really hard). The sound quality and lighting could stand to be better at certain points. The pacing slows quite a bit in places before picking up again. The tree-covered, park-like surface of Andoria doesn’t look particularly alien (this episode was filmed a decade before we visited the frozen Andorian homeworld on Star Trek: Enterprise). The bridge shots are a combination of a command chair and a funky Chroma-keyed background. At one point, we even see a threatening, supposedly 9-foot tall purple lizard made out of what looks like Play-doh.
Yet despite all that, fans loved it. For all its flaws, Starship Exeter FELT like Star Trek. This 35-minute film almost seemed like a long-lost spin-off series where the missions were a little less glamorous than Kirk’s but just as important. The crew weren’t always completely at ease with each other; Captain Garrovick was a harder man than Captain Kirk, but still believable as a starship commander. The Star Trek “vibe” was there, from the use of TOS music to hand-to-hand fight scenes and even cliff-hangers at the end of acts (all that was missing were commercials!). And references to established Star Trek canon abounded, including Andorians, Klingons, a rendezvous with the starship Lexington, and even an appearance by a younger Klingon Chang from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (and we even discover how he lost his eye).
News quickly spread about Exeter, and not long after posting the video files online for download (‘cause YouTube was still three years away from existing back in 2002!), a mention on Slashdot.com resulted in so much traffic that the host, Mac.com, had to shut down Exeter’s website. Fortunately, a fan stepped up and offered to host the videos, and soon Trekkers across the planet were watching the first new episode of TOS that any of them had seen in nearly three decades. A few fans were so excited that they created an 18-page issue of their online comic book series to feature Starship Exeter and her crew.
Initially, Jimm and Josh weren’t planning on doing more Exeter. One episode that took seven years to produce was enough… or so they thought! In the months after the episode was released, so many fans contacted the Johnsons to lend their support that they decided to try doing another episode after all. But this time would be different. This time they would nail that 1960s production value. This time it would be 100% Star Trek.
And guess what? They succeeded brilliantly! It just took them another ten years to finish…
Next time: we take a look at Exeter’s second groundbreaking episode, “The Tressaurian Intersection”…still one of the best Trek fan films out there. What made it so good? And why the heck did it take a full decade to complete? Come back and find out!
In the meantime, you can watch Starship Exeter “The Savage Empire” here.
Rating: (“The Savage Empire”):