David Carson Revisits His Trek Days - Part 1
To say that David Carson had a tremendous influence and impact on the Star Trek franchise is an understatement of major proportions. The Brit, who crossed the pond in the 1980s to direct American shows and films, directed four episodes of The Next Generation, including the landmark hour “Yesterday’s Enterprise;” five episodes of Deep Space Nine, among them the two-part series opener, “Emissary;” and also the first TNG feature, Generations. Carson, all these years later, remains extremely proud of his Star Trek output and took the time recently to talk with StarTrek.com about his experiences. Below is part one of our exclusive interview, and be on the lookout tomorrow for part two.
Do you remember how and why you got your very first job on Star Trek?
Carson: Yeah, I do. Of course, I do. I’d just come over to America to see if I could do some television here or some films. I’d worked as a director in England for some while and was the artistic director of a couple of theaters and worked in TV and film there. But I found that I couldn’t really raise the money to make movies there, the kinds of movies that I wanted to make. So I wanted to come to America and see if I could make a big movie. But I had a family, and so I needed to start doing things that I had good examples of my work on my reel, which was television. So I came here and for five months I drove around town with my reels in my hands, looking for an agent. Luckily, I found one, and he got me two jobs to start with. One was an episode of L.A. Law and the other was an episode of TNG called “The Enemy.”
And you’d never heard of Star Trek, right?
Carson: Right. I was in England and I didn’t know Star Trek. When I was told that I had an interview for the thing, I said, “Oh yes, what’s Star Trek?” My agents went, “You don’t know what Star Trek is? You’d better go down to the video store and get the thing out and have a look at it.” That’s basically how I came to meet Rick Berman and David Livingston and all the people who were working on Star Trek, and that’s how I got that first episode. That led to more of TNG and then to the DS9 pilot and to Generations.
So, did the producers actually tell you what they liked enough about what you did on “The Enemy” to bring you back for more?
Carson: Yes, they did. Part of it was they liked what they’d seen on my reels. How we do television and movies in England is different from how American television is made. We just use different kinds of blocking, different kinds of shots, different ways of interpreting things. I have this propensity for moving the camera, always moving the camera, which at that time wasn’t done so much on episodic American television. So when I directed TNG, when I did scenes on the bridge, I made them look different somehow. That was just by moving the camera and following the actors and being with them, being a little closer to them. The producers liked that style, that European style that I supposedly brought with me. It helped them to feel that they weren’t watching the same thing all the time, that they were getting an injection of something different. That’s how they explained it to me.
“Yesterday’s Enterprise” is widely regarded as one of the single best episodes of TNG, if not the best of them all. How much of a clue, going into it, did you have that it could turn out to be something special?
Carson: I had none, really. I think when you come in as a visitor, as a guest to direct a series like Star Trek, which has a vast universe that you’re trying to plug yourself into, you don’t have the opportunity to compare what you’re doing to what other people have done. You have to be guided by Rick and David and the people who are actually there all the time working on it. In my case, they encouraged me to work with the material in the way that I used to in Europe and give them that thing I was supposedly bringing to them. But I did know that “Yesterday’s Enterprise” started off under extraordinarily unusual circumstance. Having done “The Enemy,” they asked me to come back and do the next show, which wasn’t “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” It was a different script altogether. But when I arrived for the first day of eight days of prep, they told me that they’d just discovered that Whoopi Goldberg was available and they wanted to use one of the stories that she featured in.
But there was no script…
Carson: So, with eight days to go, we all gathered around this big conference table in the Star Trek offices and looked at an outline, and this outline was “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” But it was incredibly complicated, this outline, because it involved having two bridges of the Enterprise, turning everything around and making it a completely different parallel universe, and building up ships and things like that. So we had this extraordinary situation where we on the production side went ahead with our plans. The set builders and everybody else went ahead and built these sets whilst the writers were writing. And the two, luckily, matched together completely. But we had no way of knowing that we weren’t going to go off in completely divergent paths. Fortunately, the story we were going to tell was so interesting and I think it was the first time the TNG actors were stepping into a completely different universe to their own. And they, as actors, really loved doing it. Patrick Stewart loved playing that war-like captain in a war situation after 20 years of war. So it was nerve-wracking at times. We built all these sets, and the scenes and the dialogue just fell perfectly into that.
Carson: Yes, it was. That was great. I loved doing that. I even got the opportunity to invent a couple of games that they played in the bar, because Klingon culture had not been as fully developed as it is now. The head-butting game was my invention and the arm-wrestling game, with the loser being impaled on a knife, was my invention, too.
Your last TNG episode was “The Next Phase,” which was the big ghost episode. That was something else that hadn’t been done yet on the show…
Carson: Exactly, it hadn’t been done at all, so we were able to play with the technology of people walking through other people and doing exciting things that hadn’t been encountered on the series before. That made it a lot of fun.
Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with David Carson. In it, he talks about DS9, Generations and his current projects.