By Ani Bundel
San Diego Comic Con’s experiment with going virtual for the 2020 convention has not been without ups and downs. But the choice to host virtual roundtable discussions, mainly pre-taped, means that each one gets to add their own flavor to the party. The ones that seem to fare the best in that regard have been the panels hosted and run by professional podcasters. Apparently, in the virtual space, treating one’s SDCC discussions like a bonus episode of their regularly scheduled content is the best way to go. And that brings me to the “Inglorious Treksperts” panel, celebrating one of the most famous Star Trek episodes ever created, The Next Generation‘s two-part “The Best of Both Worlds” story.
Hosted by regular podcast partners Mark A. Altman and Daren Dochterman, along with writer Ashley E. Miller, the panel also included actress Elizabeth Dennehy, who played Commander Shelby in the two-parter. Dennehy played Shelby when she was just 28, and it was one of her first TV roles ever, and even though she insists she was a little green, it’s not like anyone can tell by her performance.
“The Best of Both Worlds” is considered by a vast majority of the Trek fandom to be when The Next Generation came into its own. Though nowadays, it seems like fans give little leeway to the new Treks on CBS All Access, there was a time, especially when Paramount was attempting to revive the franchise in the late ’80s, when Star Trek shows took a bit to find their groove — like two seasons at least. This was very true of TNG, which also had the added speed bump of Season 2 airing during the 1988-89 writers strike, leaving it with a Season 2 finale that was little more than a clip show of Commander Riker’s greatest hits.
So when Season 3 took a step up in storytelling, it was a relief to fans, who had been worried the new series would find itself canceled with Season 3, much like TOS was. Instead, the show delivered this two-part drama of the Federation vs. The Borg, in which Jean-Luc Picard is kidnapped by a Borg cube, forcing Riker to step into the Captain’s chair. The final moments of Season 3, as Riker gives the order to fire on the Borg Cube (and Picard), was a cliffhanger on par with “Who shot J.R.” at the time, leaving fans hanging all summer until it concluded with the premiere of Season 4.
As Shelby, Dennehy’s role was of a young up and comer nipping at Riker’s heels, sneering that he had settled for a career of being number two to the great Picard. Dennehy admitted she was not a Trek fan — she, like many who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, thought of “nerd stuff” as something to look down on, and she considered herself someone who preferred Shakespeare and PBS type fare. But what she learned in the series is that Star Trek’s famed technobabble is far more akin to reciting Shakespeare than most other acting jobs. As she put it: “If you can say ‘Separate the saucer section, assign a skeleton crew to create a diversion’ like you know what you’re talking about and you talk this way all the time, it’s exactly the same.” (She also said she now uses some of her technobabble lines when teaching Shakespeare.)
She also praised working with Jonathan Frakes, who played Riker, and has now gone on to become a director, for helping her reach the place where “you have to play everything.” As in, if you play two dimensional, “we hate each other,” then all you get is two-dimensional characters. But if you play there’s also attraction, recognition of past/potential future selves, and all the nuance. It not only gives the audience 3D characters, but hints that can create the endless debates fan-fiction is made of.
Sadly it does not seem as if there are plans to bring Dennehy back to the Star Trek world as of yet, though she says she’s open to that, and if not that, she’d happily do a guest stint on The Orville. It seems having that experience of TNG did really teach her to appreciate the best of all worlds.
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