'Star Trek: The Next Generation' Cast Member Denise Crosby On Why ‘Trek’ Is More Important Than Ever

  • Science Fiction

Before meeting Denise Crosby — who played security chief Tasha Yar aboard the starship USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D — I watched the documentary Trekkies, which she both produced and hosted, visiting Trekkies (or Trekkers) around the country. The movie had always seemed, from the outside, like a long reel of convention footage, sort of a way less fun Heavy Metal Parking Lot with nerds instead of Judas Priest fans. But it’s so much more than that. Instead, Trekkies is a scrupulous examination of all facets of of 90s fandom, as Crosby goes far beyond the convention centers and embeds herself in the lives of Klingon schoolteachers, CGI whizkids, celebrity stalkers, entrepreneurial eccentrics and several bewildered, flattered cast members from Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager.

Crosby and Trekkies director Roger Nygard created the best Trek documentary, offering up the real emotional landscape of passionate Trek followers instead of slipping into the venerating, fawning tones typical of how we so often discuss Star Trek’s utopian optimism. Instead of asserting the importance of Trek, Trekkies demonstrates its living, breathing humanism in the lives of its adherents. And so today, on Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, few people could provide as crucial a perspective on Star Trek as Crosby. She may not have served aboard the Enterprise for very long, but her own journey has taken her deep into the heart of the United Federation of Planets — the version that lives in our hopes for a better tomorrow .

Fandom has changed a lot since the 90s, particularly with the advent of social media. If you were to make a Trekkies 3, how do you think the fandom narrative would evolve over the years?

Well, you know, it will be really interesting to see. I have an idea to do a Trekkies 3 and I hope I can. I think mainly because we have a new cast (with the J.J. Abrams reboot) and we're on the threshold of a new series, the series will be viewed in a different way. I'm curious what that feels like to people — to the actors themselves, what experiences they had.

But it's just really about how the fans are going to perceive Star Trek being told in a different medium, since it will be streaming. Times are changing, so does it have relevance? It may be more important now to watch something like Star Trek than ever before. Because the world sometimes feels so tenuous and this gives you such a futuristic hopelessness that maybe it's really time to do a new Star Trek. It will always be interesting to take the temperature of how it's perceived right now. And there are places I've never been to, like what does Star Trek mean in Asia? What does Star Trek mean in Africa, or India?

One of the most amazing things I encountered with Star Trek was going to Serbia. When the war was going on there, in Kosovo, there was a group of fans that would just get together in basements, hideouts basically, and watch Star Trek while NATO was dropping bombs around them. And how much it meant to them, this hopefulness, that we'll survive and it will get better. So who knows how it's reaching other countries. I'd like to find out.

Star Trek is everywhere.

When you started Star Trek: The Next Generation did you or any of the other cast members understand what you were getting into? That you’d become these almost monkish representations of the entire Star Trek spirit and message?

Not at all. Quite the opposite. When this notion that this new Star Trek was being made we were met with a lot of hostility, by the buzz. Thank god there was no Twitter and Facebook and that kind of stuff, because I could only imagine how hostile and negative it would have been. It was held in such reverence — the original show and these characters — that it was almost blasphemy to do this new series.

Once it got on the air though, people started to immediately embrace it and it started to turn around. And we as actors were like, ‘what the hell is this?’ We were just happy to have a gig, getting paid to act. And we couldn't figure out what this was about until later. And now 30 years later we understand this is not just a TV show to a lot of people, this is really a piece of their life and their persona.

That being said, you can’t as an actor approach something with that kind of reverence. You have to approach it as you would approach any job. I wouldn't go to the set of Ray Donovan any way differently than I would go to the set of Star Trek. I would still do the same level of work and background work.

Sometimes it would seem a little daunting that we were holding this sacred cow in the air, but we would say 'nah, we're just actors doing our job.’

You returned to Star Trek: The Next Generation several times and even pitched the character of Sela (a half-Romulan child of an alternate dimension’s Tasha Yar… it’s a long story). What was it like returning to the show, this time on your own terms?

The episode "Yesterday's Enterprise" was the one that opened the door for me to come back — it brought the character of Tasha Yar back. I thought it was a tremendous episode. It was so well-written. And definitely a fan favorite.

I never thought that would happen. That was just shocking. When I was dead, I was dead and I was moving on. And so that opened the door to that. And from that episode I began to form this idea that Tasha had this daughter. So I pitched that idea. Much to my shock, they went with it; tweaked it a little bit, but Rick Berman decided to use it. Again, it was just like completely surprising that I was continually being on this show.

It was a very interesting time because I was off doing this other stuff, but the cast was still there, still doing the show. So I now had this different sort of berth on the show, a little bit. I wasn't really part of them, but I still was a part of them. It was a very interesting dynamic. And it was interesting for me to sort of come in and take the temperature on the set because I had a sort of objectivity. I was away, and they were still in this world. And different personalities were starting to take hold and levels of stuff were going on that I really noticed, having been apart from it. There was a little part of me that was sort of arm’s length about it.

But it was on my own terms, and I think it's provocative at times, to different cast members, without intending to be. Because when someone leaves a show, every other actor has to question their position their, their reason to be there. They'd go home and say, 'well god, she's doing that, well, what am I doing?" And you have to come to terms with that somewhere. And that's certainly not what I was intending to, stir things up, it was just the nature of it.

Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' episode "Yesterday's Enterprise."
Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' episode "Yesterday's Enterprise." CBS TV Studios

In an interview with Vice, you said of The Next Generation:

In my opinion the intentions were good, but they should have taken it even further—that was my main frustration with the show. I hate to burst your bubble, but it was the writers, not Gene Roddenberry, who were fighting to make the female characters more dynamic. There was a real friction with putting the women in power.”

Star Trek is this idealistic vision to its fans, but it’s easy to forget that it’s also a production, with all the practical conflicts, challenges and industry biases that come along with that. How do you think the next show, Star Trek: Discovery, can be better and become more like our idealistic vision of Star Trek?

I think what Star Trek does best is hold a mirror up to us. I'm a huge fan of Bryan Fuller's work, I think he's a tremendous writer and I think the show is in the best hands possible. He certainly has Trek experience [Fuller wrote two episodes of Deep Space Nine and numerous episodes of Voyager] and he has just a wonderful way of developing character and story.

The characters are going to have to be really identifiable, people you're going to want to invest in. The stories that Star Trek tells are little morality tales, holding it up to us but cloaking it in an adventure-based travel forum.

I think TV is the best place for Star Trek. I know the movies — certainly they've made enough of them — but Trek is really more contained, the story is more of a contained story than what it needs to be on the big screen.

Hopefully he'll be able to have this fresh voice and a beautiful legacy.

Trekkies deals mostly with Star Trek fans, but it also has absolutely wonderful interviews with the Star Trek: The Original Series cast. I’m sure you were still wrestling with your own Trek legacy while working on Trekkies, so how did those interviews influence your perspective?

I think the original cast went through what we, as the next generation, had to go through too, and really tried to embrace it and not run from it. Or not hide from it. Or not hide that it exists.

Better to open the doors and walk through and just go 'I have no problem that this will probably go until the day I die.’ Star Trek will be running somewhere and people are going to want to talk about it and know it and love it. So I think it's important to embrace that.

I learned so much from talking to people like Nichelle [Nichols, who played Uhura in the original series] — I didn't know the thing about Martin Luther King telling her, ‘you need to stick with the show, this is much bigger than you’ — things like that that you kind of go, ‘wow, that each one had this journey to take with this show.’ I'm so grateful that we had the camera get there to get Jamie Doohan [Scotty] and DeForest [Bones] and Leonard [Spock].

I am grateful too. Happy birthday, Star Trek. You’ve meant so much to so many of us.

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