STAR TREK VOYAGER: BACK TO GRIFFITH

STAR TREK VOYAGER: BACK TO GRIFFITH

STAR TREK VOYAGER: BACK TO GRIFFITH

25 years after the crew of the USS Voyager tripped back into time to LA's Griffith Observatory, staffer David Maddox recalls the visit, with help from Tim (Tuvok) Russ.

Time travel! Altered history! New technology! On-location filming! Historic landmarks! November 6, 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the US airing of the Star Trek: Voyager episode 'Future’s End, Part One'. The 1996 episode was a landmark for the series because it saw the lost crew return home to earth, albeit by accidental time travel that landed them in the late 20th century. The episode featured the introduction of the 29th century Federation (known for monitoring time disruptions), the Doctor received his mobile holo-emitter, and the crew got to explore mid-90’s Los Angeles. There were notable guest stars such as Ed Bagley Jr, Sarah Silverman, Allan Ryal, and the world famous Griffith Observatory.

The historic domed landmark structure has stood atop Mount Hollywood as a distinguishing part of the Los Angeles skyline since its constructed in 1935. The Griffith Observatory, dedicated to public outreach and astronomy, was not built to be and never has been a research facility. Instead, the exhibits and telescopes have been continuously open daily to give the public a glimpse into the stars and teach a little science.  

Long time Observatory Director, Dr. Ed C. Krupp, has said, “The motion picture industry has often found it convenient to rely on local talent and as a consequence has, since the 1930s, written Griffith Observatory into the script for hundreds of major films.” In fact, the number of science-fiction films and television genre shows that the observatory has appeared in is as impressive as the building itself. And it may have taken 61 years from its opening day, but Star Trek became part of that legacy with 'Future’s End Part One'.

To recap the episode, in an attempt to track down the cause of a major time disruption that resulted in Voyager’s temporal displacement, Lieutenants Tuvok and Tom Paris (played by actors Tim Russ and Robert Duncan MacNeil, respectively), enlisted the help of Astronomer Rain Robinson, a guest-starring Sarah Silverman, who worked at the SETI outreach division of the Observatory. Using hi-tech equipment for the era, the team managed to find appropriated future technology and correct the chronal anomaly, then returned to their own time in the Delta Quadrant. 

While the Observatory is presented as a structure that features planetarium shows, the SETI division does not actually exist in our real world. The interior sets of Silverman’s office were done on a soundstage, but the outside grounds were used for not only some impressive establishing shots, but an exciting phaser shoot out as well. In fact, this became one of many genre gunfights to take place on the Observatory’s front lawn, joining the ranks of the Rocketeer, Marvel’s Agent Carter, and Wonder Woman.

Tim Russ, who portrayed Vulcan Chief of Security Tuvok, has great memories of the experience. “I had been to the observatory before we filmed there. I really like that place, as I am an amateur astronomer.” Russ, a member of the Planetary Society, had participated in that group’s Mars events, as well as promo spots, over many years. In addition to the Voyager episode, the Griffith Observatory is home to two of Russ’ favorite real science memories, “Viewing (the comet) Shoemaker-Levy 9’s Jupiter impact with my own telescope. I was able to visually observe the impact spots on the surface of the planet. And another was the Mars close approach over 17 years ago. And as a bonus, for the more recent Mars close approach, I got to hang out with Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men on the moon.” This is just another example of how the observatory bridges the lines between science fiction and science fact.

Most of the Voyager series was filmed on the Paramount lot, mainly in Soundstage 6, but every once in a while, the cast got to venture into the city for on-location shooting. Russ remembers, “That whole week was a lot of fun, and it actually was one of my favorite episodes to work on, because we were shooting all over the city including the observatory, in beautiful spring weather, wearing civilian clothes, and I was hanging out with Sarah Silverman much of the time…” 

In fact, Silverman’s character was so engaging, that writer/producer Bryan Fuller has stated that Brannon Braga, Voyager's co-executive producer, considered making Rain Robinson a member of the crew based on her performance in 'Future’s End'. In a 2011 interview with Anthony Pascale, Fuller remembers that Braga “…enjoyed writing for Sarah and the freshness she brought to the show.” Plus, there were rumored possibilities for a romance with Tom Paris. In the end this did not happen, and Jeri Ryan joined the cast as Seven of Nine in the fourth season, but it’s fun to think of what might have been.

Several of the episode’s plot points relied heavily on a satellite dish that was mounted on an elevated platform on the front lawn until a major renovation project in 2002 had it removed. During the show, Robinson (Silverman) used the dish to track the starship Voyager, because it was apparently attached to incredibly powerful scientific equipment that could locate anything from distant comets to changes within the elements of the atmosphere. In reality, it used to just give the building DISH network as reception on top of the mountain was spotty at best.

Another moment captured in time is a brief appearance of the old snack bar next to Robinson’s parked van. The structure was affectionately known to the museum guide staff as The Pit and sold bargain nachos and popsicles. It has since been replaced with a public restroom. Make of that what you will.

Griffith Observatory is unique. It can be incorporated into almost any vision, from a tourist attraction, a secret government research facility, a research station, and even an other-worldly palace. Voyager showcased it expertly, remaining true to its original function, allowing it to become part of Star Trek lore, while the characters themselves joined the observatory’s rich history.