Star Trek: First Frontier is an ambitious, full-length, fan-produced film focusing on Robert April, the first captain of the original USS Enterprise. The fan film, with over 900,000 views on YouTube since it was released month, strikes many of the notes that made Star Trek: The Original Series so special. And even though Star Trek: First Frontier is not exactly a bases-loaded home run, it swings for the fences with such gusto—including building an 11-foot model of the USS Enterprise for visual effects shots—that it’s impossible not to love it. This production was not crowdfunded, but it still breaks many of the fan film guidelines set out by CBS in recent years. However, as its principal photography was all completed before the guidelines were set in place, the team behind it hopes that the movie is “grandfathered” in as a result.
“Even when you were in diapers, you used to look at the night sky, and talk about those distant stars and galaxies, and tell me how far they were away. You read all about it in your science book. You’d say, when I’m grown up, they won’t be so far”
– John April
Star Trek: First Frontier follows Captain Robert April as he returns from a dangerous mission in which he saved the lives of dozens of his crewmates, but all he can see in his mind’s eye are the people he was unable to save. The guilt of it manifests as a post-traumatic stress disorder, and though he puts up a strong front, he does not feel able to return to the stars that have drawn him onward since he was a child. “I am broken!” April says to his wife, Sarah. “I am not the man I once was! I have no idea how to be that man again.”
But April is pressed back into service by a series of attacks by the mysterious alien race, the Sa’ryn: bug-eyed, ’50s sci-fi-style monsters whose only motivation is destruction. “They have evolved to be cruel,” one character explains. “To become more vicious, to terrorize. That is what they do.” The Sa’ryn have been awakened from hibernation by Starfleet explorers and have taken some officers captive, including April’s sister. April is enlisted to take the newly built Enterprise out to find and rescue the hostages and to figure out how to stop the Sa’ryn’s deadly rampage through the galaxy.
There’s a lot to love in First Frontier. The project was the brainchild of director Kenneth Smith, who penned the story but instead of casting himself in a lead role, brought in a number of professionals. Robert Pralgo (The Vampire Diaries) plays Robert April as an intelligent but tormented man, learning to come to grips with his limitations. Tara Ochs (Nashville) is fantastic as Sarah April, a brilliant doctor who loves her husband but cannot figure out how to give him the help that he needs. The standout performance is by veteran character actor Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure). In the small role of April’s father John, he gives Robert the folksy inspirational speech that reignites his passion for space. However, other performances are on an uneven par, as with other fan productions.
The costumes are superb, looking like a gentle upgrade to the uniforms from “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” without being a complete redesign. The sets are convincing, for the most part duplicating the pilot-era Enterprise interiors in excellent detail. The cinematography is solid with the exception of a few out-of-focus patches, taking a cue from Jerry Finnerman’s iconic imagery from TOS but dialing down some of the colors to suit a more modern palette. The score is borrowed directly from James Horner’s compositions for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which at points seems to handcuff the action, as though the film was shot and cut to match the existing score rather than the other way around.
Some of the effects shots are fantastic. The 11-foot Enterprise model looks gorgeous, and even when Smith had to fall back on digital effects to speed up the production, many of the CG elements are quite convincing. In other spots, the film betrays its made-on-a-shoestring budget, with most of the matte effects feeling quite rough. There are a number of awkward edits, and at times characters and ships show up in places with little explanation, and April seems to make the same realization several times during a short stretch of story. The sound mix is annoyingly distracting, with the music and sound effects at times so overwhelming that you can’t hear the dialogue at all.
But every fan film is a learning experience, and this one was made with a lot of love and a metric ton of ambition. I wish the Sa’ryn had more of a motivation than their “all will die” motto indicates. At its best, Star Trek shines by having alien races embody some aspect of human culture that Starfleet’s encounters with them can explore. The script includes a number of action set pieces, but resolving them doesn’t necessitate any growth on the protagonist’s part, making them feel episodic rather than integral.
Still, Star Trek: First Frontier captures a lot of the love of exploration and discovery that TOS built into the DNA of the Star Trek Universe from the very beginning. When Captain April invokes a blessing over the Enterprise in the film’s closing minutes and the ship heads out into the great unknown, any Star Trek fan will feel a sense of satisfaction and anticipation for what lies ahead. “The Good Lord has seen fit to provide us with plenty of stars to sail by. May he also see fit to provide a strong wind in our sails and safe passage on our journeys.”
Make it so.
Watch Star Trek: First Frontier
Behind the scenes on First Frontier
Ever since seeing the Star Trek: The Animated Series episode “The Counter-Clock Incident,” First Frontier producer Kenneth Smith has been fascinated with the character of Captain Robert April. Before Kirk, before Pike, April was the one who took the original USS Enterprise out of drydock for the very first time. What struck Smith so deeply about the character was his sense of deep satisfaction with his life. “When [he was] given the opportunity to relive that life, he turned it down. That always fascinated me,” Smith said. “I knew he must have had some amazing stories to tell to be that satisfied with his life with Sarah. He would be the first married Captain.”
His interest in the character led Smith to ultimately create this 80-minute fan film, detailing his version of April’s first voyage aboard the Enterprise. When his attempt at crowdfunding the movie failed, Smith decided to pay for the production himself, pursuing a seven-year journey step by step. Along the way, Smith collected some impressive talent for the production, including a moving opening narration by Nichelle Nichols.
And his passion for The Original Series led Smith to attempt what no other fan production has done: construct a full-size, physical 11-foot model of the original Enterprise herself and shoot the visuals with old-school model photography techniques.
For more on this project, visit the official Facebook Page.
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