Old friends reunite over “Star Trek” fan films

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on July 17, 2014.

Mark Wolfe poses with Brandon Stacy, how plays Spock on the fan produced Internet series “Star Trek: Phase II.” / COURTESY PHOTO

Dale Morton was 43 years old when his childhood fantasy came true.

He walked through the red turbolift doors and found himself standing on the bridge of the USS Enterprise.

The screens were all lit up, the lights were all blinking and it was all Morton could do to keep his welling emotions under control.

There, in the middle, room was the command chair where Captain Kirk recorded so many of his famous captain’s logs.

“I’m standing in the place where Kirk usually stands. I’m standing in his point of view,” Morton said.

To his right was the station where Commander Spock dutifully monitored the spaceship’s shields.

A few steps over was the panel, where engineer Montgomery Scott would crank the ship’s engines until he was “giving her all she’s got, Captain.”

Morton wasn’t really aboard the Enterprise, obviously, but it was the closest possible thing.

He was standing in a recreation of the original “Star Trek” set, built from the original blueprints for an Internet film series called “Star Trek: Phase II.”

There were no cameras or crew when Morton visited the set the first time, however. It was just him, his childhood friend Robert Withrow and “Phase II” creator James Cawley.

“There is no experience on this earth quite like it,” Morton, 45, of Hurricane, said. “You’re there.”

Morton, Withrow and their friends Mark Wolfe and Clayton Sayre spent many a childhood afternoon playing “Star Trek.”

Now the men are part of a fan-driven production with fans all over the world.

It was Sayre who first introduced Morton, Withrow and Wolfe to “Star Trek” in elementary school.

He watched the show religiously with his grandfather Jim and it wasn’t long before his best friends were hooked as well.

They had viewing parties where they all dressed up as Starfleet officers, and even shot low-budget fan films with a Super 8 camcorder.

As they got older, they began traveling to Star Trek conventions.

Withrow, 45, of St. Albans, said the gatherings were much smaller events in those days, giving greater access to actors from the show.

Once, they spotted “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry at a hotel in Huntington. They went up and introduced themselves, and wound up spending an hour talking with the legendary screenwriter and producer.

But as often happens with childhood friends, the guys began to drift apart as they got older and began building families and careers.

Withrow now owns St. Albans Windows. Morton turned his love for sculpting and model making into a business, Dale Morton Studio Mascot Costumes in Hurricane.

Wolfe is a successful graphic designer in Charleston. Sayre is now an artist in Atlanta, Ga.

Clayton Sayre, originally of St. Albans, plays Commander Kor in a new episode of “Star Trek: Phase II.” / COURTESY PHOTO

Their days of playing “Star Trek” were over, the memories stashed away like a box of toys in the attic.

Until, that is, a chance encounter would bring them all back together.

Withrow’s love of “Star Trek” grew into a larger love of movies and television. He began to amass a large collection of original props from the sets of movies like “Braveheart,” “The Last Samurai” and “The Patriot” as well as about 30 props from the original “Star Trek” series.

That’s what led him to a toy and model show in Louisville, Ky. in 2008.

He found his way to a booth selling bootleg DVDs. Browsing through the titles, he came across a disc for “Star Trek: Phase II.”

“I thought, what is this?” he said.

It clearly was not an officially-licensed product, but the photos on the DVD case showed extremely accurate sets and costumes.

He paid $10 and took the disc home.

Launched in 2004, “Phase II” is a continuation of the original NBC series, which ran for only three seasons between 1966 and 1969.

The web series is a completely fan-driven effort, run by volunteers with no paid actors or production crew, yet the series has been able to faithfully recreate the look of the original series with props, costumes and sets all built to original specifications.

Withrow said the acting on “Phase II” was a little rough in those early days — it is much improved now — but the series clearly had potential.

“What I could not get over was the outstanding appearance and quality of the sets,” he said.

Withrow went to the Internet to learn more about the series and immediately sent an email to the crew.

He explained he was a life-long “Star Trek” fan, he was impressed by their work and offered to make a donation to the project in exchange for a tour of the set.

“They basically said ‘Thanks but no thanks.’”

Withrow was disappointed but put it out of his mind.

Then, the next day, he received an email from Phase II creator Cawley, asking Withrow to give him a call.

“Immediately, we hit it off,” he said. “It wasn’t long before we were talking the same language.”

Withrow told Cawley about his extensive collection of movie and television props. It wasn’t long before Cawley flew to West Virginia to spend a weekend with Withrow’s family.

His last night in the Mountain State, Cawley invited Withrow to come to New York and join the “Phase II” crew.

“He said ‘I’d like you to play an admiral.’”

Withrow made his first trip to Ticonderoga, N.Y. where the series is filmed to tour the set and watch the production.

Then, about a year later, Withrow he returned to film “Going Boldly,” a ten-minute short to introduce the production’s new Captain Kirk, veteran character actor Brian Gross.

Sayre also got a chance to act in the short. He played Admiral Withrow’s Troyian sidekick.

The men have since become a recurring actors on the series.

Withrow reprises his role as the admiral in a few more episodes, including the soon-to-be-released “The Holiest Thing” and “Mind Sifter.”

Sayre, meanwhile, has portrayed a few different characters.

He played a Ferengi commander, a villain, in “The Holiest Thing.”

“He just blew everybody away with his talent,” Withrow

It reminded Withrow of their childhood days.

“He was always playing the villains in those days,” he said. “Here we are 30 years later. It’s very surreal.”

Their old friend Dale Morton even got to do Sayre’s make-up.

Dale Morton, of Hurricane, applies a special Ferengi mask to his friend Clayton Sayre for an episode of the fan-produced web series “Star Trek: Phase II.” / COURTESY PHOTO

Morton first met director James Cawley when he visited the set with Withrow.

Withrow had told Cawley about his friend’s talent for mold-making, so Cawley asked Morton to make a statue for Captain Kirk’s personal quarters.

Kirk had several statuettes in his chambers in the original series, likely souvenirs from his travels across the galaxy. Cawley had been unable to find the original props, however.

Morton went home and sculpted the Mayan-esque statue from clay, painted it and mailed it to Cawley.

“He was so happy with that he put another one on my plate,” Morton said.

This time, Morton made Cawley a tiki statue for Kirk’s chambers. Then he heard “Phase II” planned to use Sayre as a Ferengi on a future episode.

The Ferengi are an alien race with gigantic ears, bulging foreheads and large, wide noses — faces that require more than simple makeup.

Morton had plenty of experience making masks, so he volunteered to take a crack at the Ferengi. He sculpted a rough version of the mask and sent some photos to Cawley.

“He was pleased as punch. He just loved it,” he said. “They don’t use elaborate aliens on that series very often because they don’t have anybody to do it.”

Morton is now the production’s go-to artist when “Phase II” needs specialty make up.

Last month, he did Klingon make-up for Cawley, Sayre and his old pal Mark Wolfe for the most recent episode, “Mind Sifter.”

Based on his success as the Ferengi commander, Cawley asked Sayre to play the classic villain Commander Kor.

Morton invited Wolfe to go up and visit the set while the episode was filming.

Wolfe said he hoped he’d get a chance to help out with the episode, but nothing had been confirmed when he left West Virginia. He made the trip expecting to stand on the sidelines.

“I just wanted to go visit the set,” he said.

When he went to receive his visitor’s pass, he jotted down “Klingon” on the sign-in sheet.

“I was just joking.”

Then a production assistant approached Wolfe.

“He said ‘You’re going to be Klingon No. 3.’”

He sat in the make-up chair, where Morton turned him into a classic ridged-forehead, high-eyebrowed Klingon.

Wolfe already had the goatee.

“He made a good Klingon already,” Morton said.

Mark Wolfe, left, and Clayton Sayre star as Klingons in an upcoming episode of “Star Trek: Phase II.” / COURTESY PHOTO

Wolfe still expected to stand in background but before long he was right alongside Sayre as one of Kor’s right-hand Klingons, opening doors and helping to rough up Captain Kirk.

“I’m acting in a scene with my best buddy from back in the day,” he said.

Wolfe said the crew was very friendly and enthusiastic, and many even approached him between takes for autographs.

But the real treat was getting to spend time with Withrow, Sayre and Morton.

“It was emotional for me. I hadn’t seen Robert since he was a teenager,” Wolfe said. “That was so cool. I got rejoined with three guys that meant a lot to me at one point in my life.”

Wolfe said when he got home, he was inundated with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram messages from people he met on the “Phase II” set.

“They all said the same thing: ‘Welcome to the family.’”