"Tales of the Seventh Fleet" (TOTSF) is an anomaly.
As a production it does not compare with the likes of "Exeter", "New Voyages" or "Hidden Frontiers" and yet it is known, loved and respected by the majority of the fan film community. It is a shoe-string production on home made virtual sets and yet from the onset it drew the technical interest of its peers.
The secret is in the people involved.
Reading through the various Forum archives to get a feel for the background on this fan group I have gained the unshakeable impression that they are primarily Star Trek fans. They aren't doing this to replace or improve on the originals - they are doing it to celebrate the original. They know the Star Trek canon inside out and want to explore and expand on that original without adulterating it.
Technically they are your average, amateur theatrical troop - they perform for the love of performing! They aren't looking at their work as a stepping stone to professional acceptance. They continually state that their work is a learning curve, that they are trying this or that to improve their production. Filming and audio techniques, post production and CGI, scripting and acting - when they are not performing they are thinking about how they could improve on their work.
They have been incredibly prolific. They released "Return To Doomsday" in April 2004, "Upgrade" in May 2005 and finished filming their third episode, "A Touch of Home", in November, 2005. The two completed episodes can be downloaded for free from the website of the USS Justice.
The "USS Justice" is a fan club based in Morris County, Northern New Jersey, part of Region 7 of Starfleet International (SFI). From the start this Fan film group has been called "Tales of the Seventh Fleet" because, although the USS Justice is the prime mover, the flagship of the series, they have thrived with the support from the other Trek fan clubs in the region. Their policy has always been that they will help any ship in the region produce a fan film - it doesn't need to include the USS Justice or be based on the Star Trek "movie era" as theirs have been.
In an online interview with Eugene R."Gene" Hendricks, the shows director, I asked... "When you say any ship, if a ship from another SFI region came to you with a viable project, you'd help?"
Gene: Of course. We only chose Region 7 because its our region and the ships are in the area. We'd be willing to help anyone out, though. It'd just require being more ... creative.
Kirok: I'm interested in what you said to Jacqui [My daughter who has taken an interest in fan films recently] - 'If you can get a uniform and a green wall, we can include you!' In your opinion could an inter-region - even international! - project work on green screen?
Gene: Definitely! For example, we can take Jacqui and put her onto a background of a ship's bridge and then put that into our view screen. Cut that into the screen and it's seamless.
Kirok: Getting back to some background on your history, "Return To Doomsday" was released in April 2004. When did the Justice get the Fan Movie bug?
Gene: The idea came up before I joined the club. They had the idea of doing a Starfleet Marines project, but that was a little too ambitious. I joined in September of 2002 and we started talking about different ideas for recruiting. The video project was one of them. Ed actually had the Doomsday Machine idea and we figured, if nothing else, it was a good Proof of Concept.
Kirok: The CO of the USS Justice, Edward C. Tunis III, has a big input in things. Could you expand?
Gene: Ed's the driving force behind us. He is really big into Trek and has all of these ideas on what we can do. He's pretty much the reason that we got to be William Shatner's honour guard during a paintball game.
Kirok: I remember seeing that in "Communique".
Gene: Ed's always got an idea on a new story or new character we can try and use in the series. He may not be the most technical of our crew, but he's one of the most creative and probably the hardest working.
Kirok: Gene, Have you had any previous acting experience? I noticed that you co-wrote that last script and you've acted, directed and sound engineered - you're a real Jack-of-all-trades!
Gene: My only previous experience was a 6th grade play I was in. My sister, on the other hand, has a degree in Musical Theatre. I have written some things, though. Everything else I picked up as I went along.
Kirok: How about the lady who plays Dr Lupia? Your wife?
Kirok: Ah! The family that plays together ... There is an obvious ... comfortable ... relationship between you on screen
Gene: I'm glad that comes across. We tried to make the situation as realistic as possible. Although, neither of us are quite what the characters are. Still, it helps, since neither of us are really actors.
Kirok: She joined at the same time as you? Is she a dedicated Trekie ... or does she just want to share your passions?
Gene: Same time as me. We actually were at a convention when we joined. She was actually into TNG when it came out, I, on the other hand, am a hard core TOS fan. Makes for interesting conversations.
Kirok: Drama! Marital conflict!
Gene: Not really. Just ... interesting.
Kirok: What about the other characters that we see on the Fan film? Stoeffles for example."
Gene: Most of those are outgrowths of our Role Playing characters. Stoeffles, Enigma, the Lupias, all RPG characters. Not the stories, but the characters, at least, initially. They've grown since then.
Kirok: Thanks for letting me read your latest script. Could I get away with a tease by saying that I reckon that having a subplot off the ship is a great idea? One of the things that I thought held back your first two episodes was that they were limited because the live action all took place on board ship. With the introduction of an off-ship scene you are really opening up the plot opportunities.
Gene: Even though the off-ship scene is also CGI backgrounds? That's one of the things I tried to do in the script, it's one of the beauties of green screen. I, as editor, know that you just need stuff to cut to so I wrote it with an A and B plot from the beginning.
Perhaps part of their secret is that they are never standing still, as a fan film group they are continually forging ahead. For example they completed filming their latest episode "A Touch of Home" on Nov 27. Now, as you might guess there is a lot of work that needs to be done to a film between it getting "in the can" and when it is ready for release. This is especially true of a production like TOTSF which relies heavily on "green screen" - filming the actors is only the start of the story! This is normally when the film crew will go into seclusion until their work is done.
TOTSF is not just a fan film group though, it is also a Trek Fan Club and as such they not only have a commitment to making as polished a film production as they can but to having fun as well! Part of that, like most clubs, includes "meet and greet" and in their case they have some pretty interesting stuff on their table when they attend a Con!
On the weekend of October 15-6 they attended UberCon (http://www.ubercon.com/), the area's premiere gaming convention, held at the Meadowlands Sheraton in East Rutherford, NJ. Cast & crew manned the tables to answer questions and take patron's photos against a "blue screen" which "transported" them the Bridge of the USS Justice, the Transporter Room, Engineering, or to an alien planet. One lucky UberCon attendee even won a walk-on role in their next episode in a free raffle!
Not many clubs can do all that! Said Gene …" We had 44 people get their pictures taken, on various backgrounds … 10% of the attendees, which is amazing! I'd say about 1/3 of those asked for more information on the Justice … we had a few celebrities get their pictures taken. Jennie Breeden, the Guest of Honor and comic artist … She immediately put it on her table and displayed it for everyone to see. We also had Keith R. A. DeCandido, author of "Articles of the Federation" and "Tales from the Captain's Table," get his picture taken on an alien planet."
What struck me was that, not only was there a lot of fan interest in TOTSF and the other fan films that they were showing, there was a lot of professional interest as well. "CJ Henderson, Origins Award-winning author and Trek fan, … expressed interest on working on a script for TotSF!" as well as negotiations regarding "future guest appearances at Ubercon and Dreamation for the coming year. In fact, Dreamation has promised to showcase us and we'll (most likely) be debuting "A Touch of Home" at their convention!"
All this got me thinking about the place that their fan film production held in the overall scheme of things. Looking through their recently updated website I could see that they weren't a single issue club. I asked Ed Tunis about the USS Justice we don't see on film: What are their club meetings like? Do they have members who aren't involved in the fan film?
Ed: Some of the cast has started out simply as "friends of the chapter" but like the Borg we eventually assimilate them. :-) The club meetings are for the club not just the video project. The JUSTICE does a lot more than just the videos. But normally all our functions are very laid back.
Kirok: The USS Justice goes back way beyond the current fan film project. Could you give us some background on the club and your own part in it?
Ed: The Starfleet chapter known as the USS JUSTICE has been around now for OVER TEN YEARS! Some of our first projects were hosting a mock Star Trek trial and a STARFLEET styled USO show! The core group really isn't into the politics of STARFLEET International, hence why you don't ever see us kissing anyone's butt. We are about being fans of the show which is what this is suppose to be all about.
Kirok: One club function even I had heard of was the paintball shootout with Shatner. For an Original Series fan this would have been a day to remember!
Ed: That would be the Shatnerball 2003. I've been playing paintball since 1986 (almost as long as I've been in SFI) and I missed out on the 2002 game do to eye surgery. When we found out about the 2003 game being in Pennsylvania, I had to jump on it and do something. When we found out the them being US Calvary, I talked the group of about a dozen or so of us who were attending to go the "extra mile" and have yellow stripes placed on our pants and all wear kepi hats to go with the theme. Since I was in touch with the promoter and I pointed out what we were doing we were asked to be Mister Shatner's honor guard. We actually got to repeat the honor in 2004 out in Joliet, Illinois, when we dressed as gangsters for the 2004 match. It was something to play for charity along side William Shatner. The group spend a good part of the morning with him privately. Show me another fan club that can state that claim!!
Kirok: Gene was saying that the idea for a fan film was first suggested as a way of increasing membership, has it?
Ed: We were introduced to the fan film series, Hidden Frontier, based out of California and with the advancement of computers and video, we figured - heck we could probably do this too! It was obvious to us that doing such a project would not only be fun but would encourage others to check our club out and maybe even be apart of it!
Kirok: Gene has re-affirmed the clubs offer to help other Starfleet chapters get started with a fan film project. Have there ever been any approaches?
Ed: I can't fully comment since some groups are still in the developmental stage, but yes a couple other Region Seven Chapters have expressed interest. We've been trying to work with them to see if another "side of the story" can be told by staying true to not only TotSF but their own chapter's fiction.
Kirok: Of course you act in the fan film, what other positions do you serve in?
Ed: LOL - it would be easier for me to list what I don't do. :-) Not only do I share the role of "head cheese" on the whole production, I also do camera work, video capturing, boom mic operator, public relations, assistant script writer, directing, sandwich guy. Everyone does double if not triple duty here. I was also instrumental in a lot of the new interior shots we now have for episodes 2 (UPGRADE) and on. And no I'm sorry I don't want to give out that trade secret.
Kirok: What is the future for "Tales of The Seventh Fleet"? What direction would you like to see the Justice move towards in the future?
Ed: Obviously we will continue to see the ongoing adventures of the JUSTICE but I would like to see other chapters get over their shyness and take our hand in helping them be apart of the TotSF family. As far as the future time line goals of the JUSTICE, all I can say is we have a plan and every step we take both story and production wise is inching us towards a story goal that is vastly overlooked by all the Trek genres.
With all the new startup, concept groups around at the moment one might forgive the crew of the Justice if they were to rest on their laurels. However after seeing some raw footage from episode 3, it seems to be pretty safe to say that Tales of the Seventh Fleet will be raising the bar for new starters to aim at!
My thanks to Ed and Gene for their help in the making of this article which appears in substantially the same form in Communique, the Newsletter of Starfleet International.