Before STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS, there was THE RED SHIRT DIARIES! (interview, part 1)

By now, most of you reading this will have heard that CBS has announced the newest Star Trek TV series (after the one with an old Picard), will be an animated COMEDY made up of half-hour long episodes written by Emmy-winning Mike McMahan (of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty).

The announcement took a lot of fans by surprise, and I’ve seen mixed reactions so far.  After all, a series focusing on the humble ensigns and crewman on the “lower decks” who actually keep the ship running with menial tasks…and making it a Star Trek comedy???  Something like that has never been done before!

Or has it…?

As soon as I read the description of the concept, I immediately thought of one of my all-time FAVORITE Star Trek fan series: THE RED SHIRT DIARIES.  It ran from September 2014 through January 2016 and produced 30 hilarious short episodes plus an almost equal number of specials, sneak peaks, and light-hearted behind-the-scenes vignettes.

Much like potato chips, I guarantee you won’t be able to watch just one episode.  Let me prove it to you…

Wanna see more?  All of the episodes have been collected in the order they debuted here on this YouTube playlist.  You can actually binge-watch the entire series in less than three hours!

What makes this series fun, creative, and unique is the fact that Ensign Williams (played by the amazingly talented ASHLEY VICTORIA ROBINSON) is NOT directly involved in any of the missions that we TOS fans have seen a thousand times. And yet she is involved… in her own way.  A poor player strutting and fretting her hours behind the stage, Ensign Williams is stuck on Deck 7, commenting in her logs on what is going on.  And her insights and observations are hilarious… as are guest appearances by certain fellow crew members and other colorful and familiar faces like Trelane, Harry Mudd, and Balok.

I conducted the following interview for my original “Fan Film Friday” blog with Ashley and her co-creator JASON INMAN back in early 2016, just as they were wrapping up their series.  I’d actually been looking for an opportunity to re-publish this interview here on Fan Film Factor, and the announcement of the new animated Star Trek comedy series Lower Decks seemed like a perfect time…

Ashley Victoria Robinson and Jason Inman

JONATHAN – Ashley, let’s start with you. Like William Shatner and James Doohan before you, you’re also from the land of moose, maple, Mounties, and Molson.  So where in Canada do you hail from, and when and why did you make the move to Los Angeles?

ASHLEY – I was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, the capital city of the country. But my dad was an officer in the military, so we moved around a lot throughout my childhood. I normally claim Stratford, Ontario as my hometown, although that is not, strictly speaking, accurate. Fun fact: William Shatner performed on stage in Stratford when he was coming up as an actor. It’s probably a sign.

I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 because I got accepted into the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and had the opportunity to study acting in both Los Angeles and New York City. The idea of studying and getting to know both major entertainment cities appealed to me greatly…and I had an academic scholarship based on my time at the University of Ottawa, so that was nice.

Since I was already in the States, it just made sense to do the incredible task of getting a work visa and stay here. I’ve now been in Los Angeles for five years. I bill myself as an actor (I prefer the gender-neutral title) and a writer. I’ve been on stage all over Los Angeles and on small screens with shorts and independent movies. I have two commercials on TV (Intel and Barbie); I do The Red Shirt Diaries; I’ve written comics for Top Cow and have contributed reviews, interviews, articles and editorials to and I’ll basically do anything and produce (or co-produce; Jason is my fearless leader) a lot of my own work. Listen to my podcast Geek History Lesson.  It’s good!

JONATHAN – And how about you, Jason? Where do you hail from, and what brought you to L.A. and when?

JASON – I grew up on a small farm in Kansas where I always enjoyed movies and TV shows, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation. Just over five years ago, I decided to stop treating movies like a hobby and make them a career. That led to me hopping in a car and coming out to LA.

Since arriving in L.A., I’ve been at a variety of different jobs, including making DVD special features for movies like The Muppets until I finally wound up in the YouTube world co-creating Good Mythical Morning with Rhett & Link. After two and a half years of writing and producing for them, I hopped in with the awesome guys at Screen Junkies to co-create Movie Fights and produce The Screen Junkies Show, while at the same time I lucked into my dream job co-hosting DC All-Access, the DC Comics YouTube show.  [Note: Jason left DC All-Access in March 2018 after four years. -Jonathan]

In addition to keeping The Red Shirt Diaries running, I also co-host the Geek History Lesson podcast, which you should listen to because it’s good.

[As a side note, after this interview, I did indeed listen to their Geek History Lesson podcast… and I am now totally addicted. I’d been listening for three straight hours before I realized I’d completely forgotten to eat lunch, and then I grabbed a bite while listening to two more episodes. So, yes, you should listen because it’s good… FANtastic, even!  Ashley and Jason have released over 225 episodes…plus they’ve prodcuced countless video podcasts, which you can check out here.  -Jonathan]

JONATHAN – How and when did you two meet?

ASHLEY – We met in 2013 on Free Comic Book Day. I was working at a comic book shop and was impressed by Jason’s eclectic purchases.

JONATHAN – Ashley, you seem quite a bit younger than a typical TOS fan (many of us tend to be old farts by now…or nearly there). How did you become so hooked on the original series rather than the later shows?

ASHLEY – I started watching Star Trek when I was 12 years old because I would come home and Spike TV would play an episode of TOS, The Next GenerationDeep Space Nine, and Voyager… and I would sit and do my homework or write and watch all those episodes. I feel like I was very lucky being exposed to multiple Star Trek series at the same time—to all their virtues and their faults.

The first episode of TOS I ever turned on was “Arena,” and I kept watching it after that. “Arena” is still one of my favourite episodes of TOS and one of The Red Shirt Diaries episodes that I am most proud of. Mister Spock is the reason I kept coming back to TOS. My love for Vulcans runs deep (T’Pol and Tuvok are also near and dear to my heart), and TOS explores a lot of interesting things about their culture.

JONATHAN – Is TOS your favorite series then?

ASHLEY – My favourite series is Deep Space Nine. As a 12-year-old Jake Sisko was the character I empathized with the most and Julian Bashir was the character I had the biggest crush on (still do). I still think Deep Space Nine stands up as the best Star Trek series to date, but one of the great things about the franchise is that every series has something great about it.

TOS is amazing as not only a staple of the evolution of television storytelling and craft of the time, of course, but also for the representation seen on screen and many very solid performances.

JONATHAN – Which one of you came up with the idea for The Red Shirt Diaries, and where did the idea come from initially?

JASON – Ashley originally had the idea of watching all the TOS episodes in order (because she never had), and doing a vlog-style review show…but really had no idea how to go about creating a show for an online audience.

JONATHAN – Did the concept for The Red Shirt Diaries start out close to what we see on screen, or did the idea evolve between conception and execution?

ASHLEY – Jason brought the idea of narrative to the show, making Ensign Williams the youngest crewmember on the Enterprise, and moving away from a review format into satirical star logs. He also brought all the expertise as far as development and production to The Red Shirt Diaries.

The first joke we ever wrote was the bit from “The Enemy Within” (that has since been repeated and will be repeated in episodes to come), where Captain Kirk keeps letting himself into Ensign Williams’ quarters and saying, “Ensign, your door was unlocked!”

Clearly, it’s evolved a lot.

Captain Kirk has the key code to unlock any door on the Enterprise… and apparently, he’s not afraid to use it!

JONATHAN – Once you had the idea mapped out, what was/were the next step(s)?

ASHLEY – The entire pre-production process! When I first told Jason about the idea, he said “Yeah, let’s do it. It’ll be super-easy!” And it’s, like, the hardest thing and the most work I’ve ever put into anything!

JASON – We would watch the episodes, talk about it, write some jokes, and then whoever was going to write the first draft (all Ashley in the first season) would put something to together, and then rewrite. Then we started the process of prop and set builds, casting, and trying to schedule. Scheduling is the most difficult process that always winds up being the most stressful.

Season two was inherently more complicated because we had to account for things like a shooting space, a standing set, twice as many episodes, and entirely new costumes. [NOTE: Season 1 included the first ten episodes of season 1 of TOS.  Season 2 for Red Shirt Diaries was the next 20 episodes of TOS, ending with “Amok Time.” – Jonathan]  Then it’s production, then postproduction, then the marketing. It’s a never-ending process, which is a blessing and a curse.

ASHLEY – This is a really difficult question to answer because we kinda need to give you a window into the last two years of our lives… which is how long we’ve been working on The Red Shirt Diaries.

JONATHAN – Let’s talk about your set. It looks pretty low budget… which actually works to your advantage in a way, as sleek and ultra realistic sets wouldn’t lend themselves as easily to the tongue-in-cheek nature of your episodes. So how low was your budget when you stated out, and how long did it take to build your initial set?

ASHLEY – Well, Doug Drexler [scenic artist on various Trek TV series and films -Jonathan] liked out first season set, so I think it holds up pretty well for cardboard and paint! We made the entire first season for $300 out of pocket, so we’re very proud of what we managed to come up with. It took us about two weeks to build the initial walls for the first season of The Red Shirt Diaries.

Some cardboard, a little colored construction paper, a bit of masking tape and glue…and viola! You’ve got the inside of a futuristic starship!

JONATHAN – What other expenses did you have for your first season?

JASON – We had to buy some equipment to use on set, a few hand-held props, and food for all our actors.

JONATHAN – And speaking of your “season one,” I see that you’ve released your episodes in the same order as they were originally aired on NBC in the 1960s: “The Man Trap” first, “Charlie X” second, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” third, etc. Any specific reason for choosing to do them all in that particular order? (And of course, you had to deal with “Where No Man…” being a bit of a prequel out of sequence, but you handled that really cleverly.)

ASHLEY – We decided to go with broadcast order mainly because that is the way the TOS episodes are listed on Netflix and Hulu. It was always our hope that anyone watching The Red Shirt Diaries would want to go back and revisit the original series (or visit for the first time!), so it seemed logical to have our corresponding episodes in the same order.

JONATHAN – Your episodes have to walk a tightrope by following closely to the events of each TOS episode while not actually “getting in the way” of the main action. Did you find that coming up with ideas for your episodes was more challenging because of the constraints or more liberating because you’ve essentially got the entire starship Enterprise to play with… at least from the point of view of one ensign’s quarters?

ASHLEY – There are always some episodes where we’re not quite sure what to do with the event of an episode or how Ensign Williams could in any way be affected by the main drama. In the second season of The Red Shirt Diaries, we were lucky enough to have an entire writers’ room working with us, and there was no episode that wound up stumping everyone.

JASON – It became a lot easier when we really figured out who Ensign Williams was and what her reactions tended to be like.

JONATHAN – What is the process you and your writers go through to create your scripts?

ASHLEY – It’s a lot like our first season. We all watched the episodes, and people pitched ideas for the episodes they wanted to write. Jason was our show runner and approved or nixed different ideas, and then people were sent away to write drafts.

Jason and I wound up doing a final pass on all the episodes to make sure that there weren’t any significant tonal shifts. The writers’ room was some of the most fun we had working on The Red Shirt Diaries because it was a lot of really amazing creative people really excited to tackle writing these iconic episodes.

JONATHAN – Is it true that you filmed all ten episodes of your first season in just two days??? I realize that filming a three-minute vignette might not sound like much work to the layperson, but I’m guessing that wasn’t at all the case. How did you manage to get it all done (including featuring various guest stars in different episodes) in such a short amount of time?

Next week, it’s the conclusion of my 2016 interview with Ashley and Jason, looking at what it took to film a season of episodes in just one weekend!  We also learn more about the people both in front of and behind Ensign Williams’ view screen…and see what happened when Ashley and Jason tried their hand at crowd-funding.

And remember that you can watch the entire series in order on this YouTube playlist.

2 thoughts on “Before STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS, there was THE RED SHIRT DIARIES! (interview, part 1)”

  1. Before there was Red Shirt Diaries, there was a fan film called “Red Shirt Blues”.

    Not throwing shade, but I remembered this lost gem from(I think) an episode of Sci Fi Channel’s Exposed.

    1. Thanks, Jason. I never saw that before! It is pretty funny. I don’t think I ever said or implied that The Red Shirt Diaries was the first to do lower decks comedy…although it might have been one of the first fan SERIES to do so. But speaking of one-off fan parodies featuring lower decks redshirts, here’s one of my favorites…

      I really need to do a blog about redshirt fan films!

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