Interview: James Heaney of Star Trek: Excelsior, Part 1

Today’s post is Part One of an interview with James Heaney, of the audio drama Star Trek: Excelsior. I know James from a message board about a game we both play. His sig lets us know about Excelsior, his main hobby, but he doesn’t push it a lot. I’d looked at the Excelsior website a couple of times. James and the Excelsior production has just put up a Kickstarter, trying to raise money so that they can get Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig into an episode celebrating Trek’s 50th Anniversary. This is what prompted me to start listening to Excelsior. I’m rather enjoying it, and I started with the part that they least recommend.

We explore all of the above in our conversation. Hope you enjoy!

The Limey Frog (TLF): How did your Starship Excelsior project come about? Who started throwing the idea around, and how did you get from there to recording with a cast?

James Heaney (JH): Way, way back in 2005, I stumbled into Star Trek: The Section 31 Files, which was one of the first fan audio series. Now, I had seen some fan films at that point, but this was 2005: fan films had a lot of problems back then. Even on the top shows, production values were low, with terrible CGI and questionable makeup, acting was very weak, and it generally took years to make episodes that would have been considered bad even in TOS’s third season. Section 31 was a revelation to me: because they were audio, they didn’t have to worry so much about production value: instead of making terrible CGI, they just told me the Nosferatu was being attacked by a battlecruiser of the Divine Celestial Imperium, invented a cool weapon sound effect, and let my own imagination fill in the blanks! Because they didn’t have to film all the actors together in one place, they weren’t bound by geography, and were able to get quality amateurs from anywhere in the world! And they could produce episodes as quickly as once a month, allowing Section 31 to develop complex serial storylines that most of the video series could never seriously attempt!

Audio drama, I decided then and there, was super-cool. But that was all for the moment.

Fast forward a bit. Now it’s 2007. A friend of mine and I had joined a roleplaying game in one of the larger Trek roleplaying federations, Bravo Fleet (they called it a “simm,” short for “simulation”). The simm was set aboard the U.S.S. Excelsior NCC-2000-C, and, for complicated reasons, they were part of a task force exploring the Delta Quadrant, and we played characters who had just joined the Excelsior crew on its way to starting a new mission. It was a fun game, but, partway into our first “mission” — a diplomatic trip to a matriarchal society called Valandria — the captain stopped posting, and generally disappeared from the Internet. Most of the crew went with her. The game very nearly fell apart.

My friend and I managed to play out the mission, but, by the end of it, we only had four people playing the game, and it’s really hard to play a good simm with fewer than six. So we started talking about recruitment. How do we get more people playing our game? We tried some of the traditional methods — forum posts and begging our friends and so forth — but it didn’t work. So one night, probably at, like, 3 AM, scraping the bottom of the barrel, I say to my X.O. (we’d been promoted to captain and first officer, respectively), “Hey, what if we made a fan film based on our adventures? People would tune in, probably a few hundred, and then we’d link to the game on the website, and some of them will join, and we’ll be the biggest ship in Bravo Fleet!”

To which my X.O. (rightly) answered, “How in God’s name will we make a fan film? We are all students, and we live thousands of miles apart.”

And then I asked him, “Have you ever heard of The Section 31 Files?”

Two days later, we had written the pilot script and published the absolute crappiest little audition site you’ve ever seen in your life. We were using a free Tripod webserver. It was atrocious.

The funniest part of all this: after, I don’t know, something like a quarter-million downloads of the audio drama, do you know how many new roleplayers we recruited from this? Three.

TLF: I’ve done what your site says I should not do under any circumstances: I started from the very beginning, “…There you Are”. At this point all your cast and crew are still learning how to do it, and I, as a listener, am trying to get straight all these new characters.

JH: Oh, don’t bother. Most of these characters will be dead or dying by the end of “Turns of Events.”

We always knew they were going to die, but we had some dumb ideas early on, like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be a dark twist if we introduced the audience to all 14 (or whatever) of these characters, made them care about them like we do, then killed them all six months from now?” It was a dark twist, and it does do a good job of announcing what kind of a show Excelsior is — we’re a show where anything can happen — but the execution was poor, and I think the end result was more confusing than anything else.

That’s one of the main reasons we tell people not to listen to the pilot, actually. There’s a, like, 15 minute mission briefing (which is embarrassingly overlong in itself), and the main purpose is to introduce all these different characters, and for about half of them that’s it. I still regret not telling the actors that their “starring” characters were marked for death.

So, seriously, don’t worry about it. The only thing that happens in the pilot that you sort of need to know about is Simon Westlake, the stowaway boy with the brain-rotting disease. He’s important later on. And some of the bits with Cortez are nice. Eleiece is a solid actress.

TLF: You know what, this kinda works for me. I’ve been known to start TV shows, and think that 2 characters were actually one character for a good chunk of the first season. This way, the overhead of learning a bunch of characters in one go is diminished, and the other half of the crew can get introduced more slowly, so it’ll be easier to keep them straight.

Tell me a little about what people have learned over the years of doing this, what changes you’ve made, and so on.

JH: When we started out, we were slaves to the roleplaying game. We figured, this show is a tool for recruitment to the RPG, therefore it should be an absolutely accurate reflection of the RPG. The pilot script is, word for word, almost an exact transcription of all the dialogue spoken in the RPG.

And the pilot script is terrible.

So, as Season 1 progressed, we became more and more willing to edit dialogue for the sake of a better radio show, but we still followed the RPG story exactly. In Season 2, we started to revise the overall flow of the story for the sake of a better drama, but still stuck to the major pivot points. At the end of Season 2, though, there was a really pivotal moment — a character departure — that I decided didn’t work, and, ultimately, we changed it, which radically broke with the RPG.

Ever since then, the audio drama has been its own show, looking to the RPG occasionally for inspiration, but otherwise piloting its own course based on its own needs. In my mind, that’s when the show got good, which is one reason why we recommend people start with Seasons 3 and 4.

There have been plenty of other changes behind the scenes as we’ve incrementally improved our process and our cast has grown, but I think that’s the most fundamental change: breaking the audio drama away from the RPG was just tremendous.

TLF: I’m not knocking your early efforts. I’m enjoying the story so far, which mitigates a lot. And though I think I read your “New listener page” before, I didn’t remember it when I bulk-downloaded all the episodes, and so I read the page again after I started from square one. That page acknowledges that things improved over the years, and recommends people start with newer storylines. That disclaimer mitigates a lot, too. But I’m patient (and possibly stubborn) and once I’ve started, I’ll generally continue through a series, see how people started and where they went after that.

JH: Well, thank you! For all its flaws, there is a lot of heart in that first season. The writers sort of included everyone in the RPG, desperately improvising, the cast was new and fresh and excited to be in a Star Trek show, and the behind-the-scenes crew was incredibly blessed with two very talented mixers who appeared out of thin air to help out (Garry Cobbum and Jim Smagata). We survived, we learned a lot, and I do think the story is, at its core, a good one. I’m always tempted to go back and do a George Lucas on it, redoing the whole season based on what we’ve learned since, but I think when you make art you have to let it stand on its own, and revising it might just kill a lot of what makes it lovable.

TLF: Visiting the site, I see the Excelsior name, and a Sovereign-class ship. I found this hard to look at, until I started “…There You Are”, and it explained about the ship being the Excelsior-C, and some background to the ship itself. Tell me some about the decisions around this setting.

JH: As you probably gathered by now, I didn’t pick the name. By the time I got there, the Excelsior-C had been running, off-and-on, as a Bravo Fleet simm for… oh, something like ten years before we took it over. (In the pilot episode, that stuff about “Grenn, Dhivael, Underwood, Riku” in the opening trailer — those are all former captains from the RPG.)

Truthfully, I thought it was a stupid fanwanky name at the time. I would have renamed the ship U.S.S. Visionary and made her a mid-sized cruiser, if we hadn’t been so married to following the RPG.

But, in retrospect, I was wrong. Star Trek is a series built on traditions, and on a particular formula. You can play with the formula — in fact, you have to play with the formula, in big ways, to stay fresh — but you also have to honor some of the key traditions, or you’re not making Star Trek anymore; you’re making Battlestar Galactica or Firefly or something that just happens to have Klingons in it.

Here’s a great example of this: Star Trek Aurora. Wonderful series. I adore Aurora. I binge-watched it this week, actually, just to unwind from the Kickstarter stress. Everyone should watch Aurora. But — and I hope I cause no offense to Tim Vining here — it’s not really Star Trek. Take Trek out of the title and make T’Ling slightly different — a member of some new “logical” race, or even just a very dour human — and it’s the same show, with the same feel.

The Excelsior name grounds Star Trek: Excelsior very firmly in the Trek tradition, setting the show aboard a top-of-the-line cruiser gives us most of the ingredients of the boldly-go formula, and setting it after Nemesis gives us the freedom to invent and explore in a way that we couldn’t if we were tied down to, say, the early 24th century. It makes us unmistakably, uneraseably Star Trek.

Now, as you’re going to discover, we are constantly looking for new ways to subvert the Trek formula — heck, our opening theme speech for Seasons 2 and 3 is a pretty massive subversion all by itself. But you can’t subvert the formula unless you’re deeply embedded in it first, and being set aboard the Excelsior-C puts us deep in the Trek tradition while allowing us the freedom to play around with it. We’re very lucky to be there.

TLF: I know you through playing the Star Trek Customizable Card Game, and honestly I remember more Trek trivia from that game than I do from watching the episodes themselves. When did you get into the cards, and have the cards helped influence the development of the show? Listening to “The Valandrian Expedition”, the first regular episode, we meet a society that made me think of both Matriarchal Society and Zaldan combined.

JH: I was given my first starter deck by a friend of my mother’s way back in 1995, and fell in love with the game right away. For a number of years in the mid-90s, my parents decided that Star Trek had gotten too racy, and forbade me to watch DS9 and Voyager, so, for quite some time, the CCG was my only connection to new Trek. I learned about the Cardassian/Dominion treaty, and the subsequent Dominion War, not by watching the show, but by opening up a pack of Dominion and reading the lore! Which, looking back, is an insane way to experience the Dominion War for the first time.

I stopped collecting shortly after Second Edition began, because my friends all stopped playing, and I just found the game too boring after a year or two of trying. But when I discovered the CC had relaunched First Edition, in about 2012, I fell in love all over again, and haven’t left since.

I can’t say I ever looked at two cards, combined them, and decided to do an episode based on them. (Although maybe I should try that!) But the cards have had such a profound influence on how I see the Trek universe, it’s hard to separate the two in my mind. For instance, the game’s idea that the Borg are fundamentally unbeatable, and the only reason they haven’t stomped you to death already is because they are playing an almost completely different, very alien game that frankly isn’t all that interested in your puny Klingon armada — that concept really captured the core of the Borg (the pre-First Contact “Q Who?” Borg especially, and yes I know that’s ironic), and stuck with me. It played a big role in shaping Season 3 of Excelsior, which goes to great lengths to re-establish that role for the Borg in Star Trek canon (after the depredations of Voyager): they’re not ants or zombies, and you can’t actually beat them, and they would wipe out out in ten minutes if they cared enough to try… but they aren’t even playing the same game you are, you puny Federation chumps, so you can survive as long as you don’t give them a reason to be interested in you.

Those Borg are scary, and I think I owe the card game a debt of gratitude for helping Excelsior envision them that way.

TLF: I saw on your Kickstarter pledge levels, that you have a timeline for the show worked out. Did you have this from the very beginning? How far back does it go, and how far into the future?

JH: No, I didn’t. And this caused problems. When you have a deeply interconnected, multi-season story with a bunch of moving parts taking place in different parts of the galaxy, it’s very, very important that you know when everything is happening relative to everything else… and I just plain didn’t have that, and inconsistencies started creeping in.

Fortunately, I started to notice the problems midway through the first season, and — with one exception in the pilot episode, plus two bigger exceptions we haven’t been forced to actually grapple with yet (because they deal with future events) — we were able to either reconcile or retcon away all those problems. Ever since then, every event with an associated date that is mentioned on the show has gone on the timeline, and stuff we’re planning to reveal later also goes on the timeline, all of it with source citations and relevant passages of dialogue so I know where the information is coming from (and how “set in stone” it is in case future retcons are required).

I honestly didn’t expect many/any backers at that level. I didn’t think there was all that much interest in an Excelsior timeline, especially when, for just a few dollars more, you can do things like invent your own character, which I just thought was super. But, in retrospect, that was stupid: how many copies has the Star Trek Chronology sold? So now I’m getting a little nervous about how much previously TOP SECRET information is going to leak out — but, hey, we’re committed now.

I plan to clean up the timeline a little bit before sending it out, because right now it’s full of shorthand that only I could understand, and that needs to be expanded for backers. But, in its current version, the timeline’s first entry is “~6000 B.C.” and the last entry is “2403 (Stardate 79283.2)”.

End of Part 1.

Tune in next time as discussion about the timeline continues, we talk more in depth of how the Kickstarter came together, and some brief chat about card-based shenanigans. Make sure to visit the Star Trek: Excelsior site, and give Season 4 a listen (with the side bonus of being ahead of me). And then head on over to the Kickstarter campaign, and give them all your money.

Part 2 now published.

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