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February 1, 2013

Perspective: They honored Columbia’s memory by recreating web version of 'Star Trek'

A group of well-meaning actors were serious about space being the final frontier

Nacodogches — It was the most touching marriage of pop culture and humanitarianism that I've ever seen.

A group of actors – led by filmmaker Jack Marshall, an executive producer and series director – had banded together to raise money for the families of astronauts who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia when it disintegrated.

Their idea was unique and cut to the very core of what NASA stood for – an Internet version of Star Trek, The Original Series. Proof that space was, indeed, the final frontier.

Star Trek: New Voyages picked the story up immediately after the original series ended on television. New Voyages focused on the voyages of the Enterprise crew in the 1966-1969 StarTrek television series from DesiLu, which was canceled after its third season.

(Incidentally, this was the exact year the first astronaut walked on the moon. The series was simply resuming as if it were the fourth year of the classic five-year mission.)

But it featured a concept that was radical for the time: An  entirely new cast for the classic characters of Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Commander Spock Dr. McCoy and company.

This edgy crew certainly would not be confused with the more well-known actors on the original show. But they certainly had the heart.

Kirk was portrayed by actor James Cawley, who was also executive producer for the show. In his day job, Cawley was Elvis at an amusement park. Dr. McCoy was played by John Kelley, an Oregon-based urologist who also wrote for the show.

Filming took place in upstate New York, primarily.

There was no compensation. The actors and producers worked for free. Their main goal was trying to raise $250,000 to donate to the Space Shuttle Children's Trust Fund on Sept. 8 2004 – the 38th anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek.

I was never able to determine if they made that deadline. But I can verify they certainly tried their hardest with at least two fantastic episodes.

Cawley's 2004 take on Star Trek was fairly radical at the time, although that worldview has changed since JJ Abrams relaunched the Star Trek franchise: Cawley contended Kirk, Spock and McCoy are classic characters like James Bond or Batman, who can be portrayed by more than one person.

Cawley, whose day job at the time was portraying Elvis at Six Flags Great Escape - Splashwater Kingdom in upstate New York, was production designer as well. Cawley spent years and at least $100,000 from his own pocket collecting the original Star Trek set pieces, props and costumes that were used on the original show.

NASA didn't have much to say about New Voyages, but the media liaison at the time for the nonprofit Space Shuttle Children's Trust Fund said on the record he thought it would be a fanatic tribute.

"Certainly, the vision of Gene Roddenberry in the Star Trek series is tantamount to what many believe the explorations of the heavens might be," Conway told me in a story I wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram several years ago.

The biggest geek moment I had during this experience was when William Shatner contacted me through his then-publicist Robin Guido.

"I think it's a wonderful thing for the fans of a science-fiction space show to give real money to real people in a loving desire to help," Shatner said in a release.

(William Shatner is one of my role models.)

Even Paramount Television, which owns the Star Trek franchise, didn't seem to have a comment on the site. Publicist-at-the-time Rachel Fox kept fairly mum on the subject.

In all, these guys did the best thing possible they could have in the wake of a space-related tragedy: They inspired us to keep our hearts open to the future.

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