- Courtesy Photo
- A still from "Sweepers"
It took five years, hundreds of volunteers, thousands of dollars in donations and an 11th-hour creation of a new fictional universe, but the pilot episode of "Sweepers" is finally available for public viewing. The free science-fiction web series, filmed entirely in northwestern Vermont, debuted February 23 on YouTube, much to the delight and relief of the show's cocreator and executive producer, James Bray of Highgate Springs.
"Even though we're calling it finished, no film is ever truly finished. It's merely abandoned," Bray said, paraphrasing a quote from Star Wars creator George Lucas. Bray, 58, is a retired set and prop designer who spent more than 20 years working for major Hollywood film studios, including Disney and Universal. He and his wife, Jodi Ballinger Bray, who also works and acts on the show, owned and operated a theater company in Starke, Fla., called Stage Door Productions. Jim Bray also worked as a set designer for Vermont's Lyric Theatre Company.
"Sweepers," which is part of a larger sci-fi anthology series known as "The Outer Rim," is set in the 22nd century, when Earth is governed by corporations and belongs to an interplanetary coalition known as the Unified Worlds Consortium. Earth's military has been consolidated into the "Corporate Fleet," whose primary mission is resource acquisition. The show gets its name from its setting aboard the survey vessel the Audrey, which conducts sweeps of exoplanets in search of rare minerals to mine.
It's no coincidence that "Sweepers" bears more than a passing resemblance to another five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. The self-funded web production began in 2015 as a "Star Trek" fan film. Bray and his colleagues, some of whom also worked in the film industry but volunteered their time on this project, had planned to shoot much of the show in a Ticonderoga, N.Y., sound stage. There, James Cawley, a former member of the production crew of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," re-created the entire set of the USS Enterprise with meticulous accuracy, using blueprints he obtained from the 1960s television series.
Bray's fan film, originally titled "Star Trek Anthology," was humming along at warp speed until March 2017, when it collided with an impenetrable force field: the intellectual property rights of CBS Studios and Paramount Pictures, which own the copyright to the "Star Trek" TV and film franchises.
"Star Trek" fan films aren't a new phenomenon. Scores of them are produced worldwide each year by devoted Trekkies who typically shoot them on shoestring budgets as a way to celebrate and participate in the "Star Trek" universe that Gene Roddenberry created. The vast majority of these productions are like Bray's: self-funded mom-and-pop labors of love that aren't meant to make money.
But in December 2016, CBS and Paramount settled a lawsuit against one high-budget "Star Trek" fan film that strayed too close to being a professional movie production. The following March, CBS and Paramount issued a set of restrictive new guidelines for all future "Star Trek" fan films.
So, just weeks before their own shooting was scheduled to begin in the Opera House in Enosburg Falls, where their sets were built, Bray and his crew suddenly were faced with the prospect of having to scrub their entire production and script of all "Star Trek" references. That included such commonly recognized lingo as "warp drive," "phasers," "beam me up" and "Star Fleet." In fact, Bray had just received a delivery of $3,000 worth of authentic "Star Trek" costumes. Subsequently, he and his team stepped back; retooled their sets, wardrobe and dialogue; and created an all-new universe for their vessel and crew to navigate.
"Now we can do whatever we want. We have no canon to adhere to except our own," Bray said. "And so we can go anywhere we want with these stories."
Episode one of "Sweepers," titled "Rift," introduces viewers to the Audrey's five-member crew, who've been surveying in deep space for six months and are getting on each other's nerves. Before returning home, they're offered an opportunity to earn some extra money by investigating a space anomaly that was picked up on long-range sensors.
From here, the story line, dialogue and computer-generated imagery become very Trekkian. This includes some cheesy banter among shipmates, the discovery of an alien space blob nemesis with a menacing baritone laugh, and an angelic alien ally who speaks to the humans telepathically. Like the original "Star Trek" captain, James T. Kirk, the Audrey's captain, Michael Bradley, played by Josh Pagliuca of Burlington, also has a love interest on board — the ship's chief medical officer, Lira Gonzales, played by Sarah Mitiguy of Sheldon. Her devotion to her captain ultimately saves him from inter-dimensional annihilation.
If the shows sounds a bit corny, it is — though no more so than the original "Star Trek" TV series. Several commenters on YouTube pointed out some obvious technical difficulties with the production's sound quality and synchronization. According to Bray, the crew had a steep learning curve on the first episode and "a lot of times we didn't know what we were doing." But despite some minor glitches, the cast and crew of "Sweepers" seemed to be having fun. And they nailed the "ssst!" sound effects of the ship's doors sliding open and shut.
Bray likens "The Outer Rim" to the "NBC Mystery Movie" of the 1970s, which served as an umbrella title for separate television series such as "McCloud," "Columbo" and "McMillan & Wife." "Challenger," another series in "The Outer Rim" anthology, is set aboard a state-of-the-art science vessel that is exploring the outer reaches of the galaxy. "Mother," the third series, tells the story of a family-run merchant cargo ship that operates in the shipping lanes while trying to avoid interstellar pirates and other unsavory space invaders.
Thus far, there's only one episode of "Sweepers." But cast and crew have already shot two episodes of "Challenger," both of which are in the editing process. Episode two of "Sweepers" has been written, and shooting will commence as the cast and crew's time and funds allow. Nothing has yet been done on "Mothers" beyond the series' outline.
"People have been waiting years for this damn thing," Bray said. "We finally got it out there and, so far, people are enjoying it. That's a bucket list item right there."