Arguably, STARSHIP EXETER, “THE SAVAGE EMPIRE” is the mother of all modern Trek fan films. Yes, Voyages of the USS Angeles was made in 1999 and 2000, followed by Hidden Frontier (which premiered in 2000), but Exeter was the first one to get significant attention, famously overloading the mac.com servers from the number of hits it was getting, and inspiring a lot of other wanna-be fan filmmakers to actually do it.
Produced over a seven-year period before finally bursting onto the interwebs, it remains one of the most carefully crafted love-letters to the original Star Trek ever made. It’s clumsy and ham-fisted, painful, charming and fun all at the same time.
The plot, which concerns the titular starship Exeter crew stumbling upon Klingon political intervention on a Federation member world, is fairly straightforward. The crew arrives on a mission to collect medicine, but are thwarted in this goal by the machinations of the Klingons, leading Captain Garrovick to make a Kirk-like speech before resorting to physical action to resolve the problem via an extended fight sequence.
In the wake of all the Trek fan films that have come over the past eight years it’s difficult to remember how exciting this was when it first came out, and it’s easy to laugh at its perceived technical naivety.
We won’t pick on the acting here. In fact, we generally won’t critique the acting in fan films because, frankly, the actors are usually amateurs with no training, working for directors with little or no serious film/TV experience, with results that are about what you’d expect. They do their best, and so we won’t pillory them for that.
One of the best things about Exeter is its basic conceit: it’s as if Star Trek had a spin-off, or as if the show was rebooted with a new cast back in 1969. The style, the photographic look, the music is all of that era, with no attempt to modernize. In fact, the show is stubbornly old school. But within that box its makers create their own distinct characters that don’t fall into the familiar roles or personalities of Kirk, Spock, etc. This not only deflects comparison, but also makes the show kind of exciting because we are meeting new characters that aren’t mere simulacra. Captain Garrovick’s not a charmer like Kirk, in fact, he’s brusque and sometimes rude. Cutty is an affable, chummy guy who you’d like to have a cuppa Joe with. Harris is a no-nonsense executive, cool under fire. But the best character is B’fuselek, who—whatever you think of the acting—comes across as being the odd-Andorian out and feels different from all the humans around him. His odd speech patterns and body language are great.
Each character is different from one another, with distinctive worldviews that don’t always mesh well with the other characters. That’s something that’s sorely missing from many other fan film productions, which tend more to a “band of brothers” atmosphere where everyone is so chummy that it could be an 80s sitcom. Here, the characters disagree with one another and we don’t even know where B’fuselek’s loyalties lie for a majority of the episode.
The scope is impressive. There’s effective use of exterior locations and nicely done —if cramped—modular sets portraying the Andorian underground complex. The one thing that suffers is the starship Exeter herself, which is portrayed only via a corridor set (whose scuffed concrete floor is too obvious) and a limbo bridge fragment with a obviously superimposed background, but these are forgivable as such sets are expensive to produce.
The show’s biggest failings are with the photography, which is often improperly exposed, especially in the exterior scenes. There are the usual problems with incorrect eyelines and directional continuity mismatches commonplace in amateur productions. Some of the set dressing looks ready to fall off the walls at any moment. Then there’s the script.
On it’s plus side it’s a fairly direct story. The through-line is easy to follow, and it’s pretty obvious why the characters are acting the way they do.
On the downside, it pays homage to Star Trek perhaps a little too well, imitating its less-wonderful aspects and clichés a tad too often. The plot sort of pokes along at an uneven pace, and there are things that happen to fill-up the action-adventure quota without really moving the story along. There are loose ends galore (the Lipthor monster set up at the front should have factored into the ending). A lot of the dialogue is clumsy and overwritten. And, like many of Trek’s weaker stories, Garrovick has no real stake in what’s going on. He’s meddling in order to get what he needs, not because what he’s doing is right. In fact, Garrovick’s impassioned speech not only goes on too long but it takes place at the wrong point in the story. Worse, it’s irrelevant because it moves no one and makes the audience think not one bit (in Star Trek parlance, it should have been one of those “We’re not going to kill, today,” type speeches that tell us a little something about the human condition, even if no one but us listens).
The script also suffers a little from that fan-fic and fan-film staple: trying to connect too many things from the shows/movies. There are two starships we’ve seen before (Exeter and Lexington). The Shakespeare quoting Klingon leader is named Chang, whom Garrovick apparently blinds in one eye at the climax of their battle, thus “explaining” why General Chang wears an eyepatch in the movie Star Trek VI. It’s unnecessary and makes the universe feel small.
While most of the visual effects are fairly rudimentary and sometimes only barely effective, what’s striking is that many of them were produced in-camera. Producer Jimm Johnson’s insistence on trying to make the effects without computer graphics where possible lead to the use of lots of old fashioned tricks that could have been done on film on the original series. Such effects include custom built optical gizmos like beam splitters to superimpose phaser beams “live” onto shots, model spaceships instead of CGI, etc. In the show’s most impressive effects shot a really grade-A forced perspective trick convincingly portrays a giant monster foot crushing a phaser while a fallen character watches in horror. This was done live, in-camera. No superimpositions. No split screens. It remains to this day one of the most convincing creature shots in any Trek fan-film. (The scene only becomes a joke at the end, when a lifeless, hasty substitute for an intended articulated puppet derails the sequence.) To attempt such effects instead of taking the CGI path of least resistance was ambitious, even if arguably sometimes less effective. But this handmade quality adds to the charm of the film.
In the end, “The Savage Empire” is a loving homage to Star Trek, and, if you can get past its amateur league aspects, it can be a lot of fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s obvious the people making it are having a blast. That enthusiasm comes right through the screen. Sure, it’s groan-worthy in spots, but its heart is in the right place…whether that be in your chest or where your liver should be depends on your species.
reviewed by Maurice Molyneaux and Ryan Thomas Riddle