When you think of LeVar Burton, what comes to mind first? For millions of Star Trek fans, he’ll forever be Geordi La Forge of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Remember, though, it was Roots and Burton’s compelling performance as Kunta Kinte that transformed made him a star and made him the biggest name involved in TNG when it launched. And he started Reading Rainbow well before boarding the Enterprise and remained with the educational program long after the last TNG feature film. So it’s safe to say that Burton’s career is the sum of Roots, TNG and Reading Rainbow, and so much more as well, including his many times behind the camera as a director (often of Trek). During a recent conversation, Burton marveled at his good fortune and talked about the ways in which Star Trek and Reading Rainbow – what with the TNG Season Two Blu-ray on the way and Reading Rainbow now available as an App -- are still current and vibrant in his life. Below is part one of our conversation, and be sure to visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read part two.
Let’s start with Star Trek. How terrifying is that we’re talking about the 25th anniversary of The Next Generation?
Burton: This is a year of milestones for me. This is the 35th anniversary of Roots. That aired in January, 1977. This is the 25th anniversary of TNG coming on the air. And next year it’ll be the 30th anniversary of Reading Rainbow. We’ve brought Reading Rainbow back this year, not on television, but as an App, using the new technology to get kids to get excited about reading. There’s a lot going on, and it’s all good.
You, Patrick Stewart, Marina Sirtis and the rest of the TNG cast have done several joint appearances and have several more scheduled. What’s that been like for you, to have everyone around you again and to celebrate TNG’s achievements?
Burton: The TNG Reunion Tour, otherwise known as Geezers Unite. They are the best. There’s nothing like it when we get together. We make each other laugh more than anybody else in our lives. We all have our other friends, but when we’re together… it’s hard to explain how much we make each other laugh.
The Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Two Blu-ray set will be out on December 4. As someone who directed two episodes of TNG and many episodes of the other Trek shows, how impressed are you by the technology that allows the episodes to be seen now – in terms of the crispness of the images -- as they were intended to be seen?
Burton: It really is stunning. I went to the one-night only (theatrical) event last year and I’m hoping to do that again for the release of Season Two. There’s actually a trailer for the Reading Rainbow App in that Blu-ray set. I’m very happy. My friends at CBS Home Entertainment have been very generous and very gracious in allowing us access to the Next Gen audience. Trekkers are my people. Star Trek fans are the best.
As a filmmaker, as a filmmaker and a fan, to know that this work will be preserved in the highest quality imaginable going forward, that it will always be this pristine, that it will never degrade from here… We’re going to get to enjoy these episodes for years and years and years to come, and that’s a beautiful thing. I went to the storage facility where they had all the film. I love technology. So I love seeing the applications of technology being used like this.
The episodes of TNG that you directed, “Second Chances" and "The Pegasus,” came later on in the show’s run. But if the Blu-ray producers contact you in a year or two and ask you to participate in either doing a commentary or even in being a part of the upgrade process, how interested might you be in doing so?
Burton: If they call me, sure, I’d love to be a part of that. I’d love to. If they let me tweak the episodes, that would be really interesting, because you’re rarely given that option as a storyteller, as a filmmaker. The exercise is to make sure the translation is as good as it can be. We just went through this with the Reading Rainbow App. We had to make a thousand decisions about what to put in the experience and how to put it in there. In this case, with the TNG Blu-rays, they’re using a technology that gives them the opportunity to take what was already there and just upgrade it so that the current technology really is shown in its best light. On those occasions where they go back and shoot a special effect again, it really is to match the quality of what they’re able to produce now with the imagery. It just makes so much sense.
How is it going with the new Reading Rainbow App?
Burton: Wow. We just found out that kids have read over 500,000 books on our server so far, in the five months since we launched. Can you believe that? That’s half a million books read by kids on our server since June 20. We’re doing the happy dance over here. Spirits are pretty high over here in Burbank.
Some fans may not be aware of the Reading Rainbow App or they may have heard about it, but don’t know what options are available to them. Please take us through it. What can people access, and how much of it is new material versus classic Reading Rainbow material?
Burton: What you’ll find on the App is the best translation of the television show that we could possibly create in this new and digital environment. It’s books, a library of books, and videos, video fields trips, just like we had on the original series. So it’s Video Field Trips with LeVar. The video content for that is new. We’ve been shooting it for over a year. Ninety percent of it is original. On the Islands, which is where you’ll find books in the experience, every Island has books for you and videos, and one of the videos on every Island is a snippet from the original series, what we call Classic Reading Rainbow.
Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow for the second half of our exclusive interview with LeVar Burton. In it, he talks more about TNG, as well as his role on the TV series Perception and his appearances as himself on The Big Bang Theory. And click HERE to check out the official Reading Rainbow site.