The bridge, part 2: at the con

“When you were on it, you felt like you were on the Enterprise.” — Peter McGarvey

Charlie McKee and the other Bakka staff loaded the store’s books into McKee’s Jeep Commando and drove the car right onto the freight elevator for the lift up to the Royal York’s convention floor. Unfortunately, the bridge set plus the truck it arrived in was 300 pounds over the elevator’s weight limit, so eight weeks after construction had begun on May 22, 1976, Gregg Hagglund, Phill Stephens and other volunteers had to manhandle the pieces onto the elevator and then along a couple of hallways on the second floor.

Assembly happened overnight in the Canadian ballroom of the hotel, with the painting and wiring completed a few hours before the sun rose on Friday July 23, the first day of the convention.

“We were standing there and someone yelled ‘Is it done yet?’ and I said ‘Yea, it’s done’ and there was a roar of applause,” Hagglund said. “I turned around and there were 50 or 60 people there, celebrities and convention people, at 3:00 AM because everyone wanted to see what it looked like.”

Hagglund told me Nichelle Nichols, George Takei and James Doohan were notably impressed.

Nichelle Nichols said, “It’s like being back on the real thing, but prettier” and she walked up and down and said, “No creaking” — because we had a really solid deck.

She looked at me and she said, “Can I try something?” I asked what and she said, “When we were doing Mirror, Mirror I had to distract Sulu by lounging silkily (she said silkily) on my station” and George said “Yea, and we lost three days of production because it damaged the console, communications fell in.”

So, Nichelle said, “Can I lounge against it?” and I said “Sure” because we had tested it for strength. So, she went over and leaned on it and said, “My God, it doesn’t move.” I said “Yea. That’s Canadian construction.”

Later, James Doohan came in from the back, opened the (turbolift) doors himself and walked onto the bridge and said, “It looks terrible back here, what does it look like in front?” And he walked over to his station and said, “Every fucking button is here — and some extra ones.”

Episodes in Star Trek’s second season were limited to six days of shooting, so there is no chance that production actually shut down for three days, and I could find no mention of a slowdown in any of the books I own or in the production memos from that time, but it is certainly possible that Nichelle Nichols damaged the set during the shooting of Mirror, Mirror.

Fan reaction

Convention attendees expressed varying opinions on the overall quality of the set.

Joan Winston, writing in her book The Making of the Trek Conventions, called it “a beautiful replica of the Enterprise bridge.” Organizer Peter McGarvey said, “When you were on it, you felt like you were on the Enterprise.” Debra Pearse Hartery told me “The bridge was really nicely done. It was not crappy looking. They really did a bang-up job.”

Some fans who were teenagers at the convention had more critical takes. George Hollo: “I wouldn’t call it the bridge set. It was a fan-built replica but certainly was not screen accurate. It had blinking lights…but I would not say it was a big, huge set.” Robert J. Sawyer is on the same page.

It was less than half a bridge; even then I was a nitpicker, so I remember thinking ‘That’s not right’ instead of saying ‘Wow, what an incredible achievement.’

I remember thinking that it was a good bridge replica but it wouldn’t hold a candle to the real thing. Now we have proper bridge replicas, with Ticonderoga and the set for Star Trek Continues. But it did make a great background for the speakers.

Meredith offered some context to those recollections.

One can appreciate the various opinions of those remembering the set and its accuracy (or flaws), but one has to remember that this was the ’70s. The only references available were the Franz Joseph mock blueprints, paperback-sized diagrams of the set layouts on the sound stages at Desilu from the pages of Stephen E. Whitfield’s The Making of Star Trek paperback, and whatever could be gleaned from collected publicity stills and watching, rewatching and re-rewatching and screen-photographing broadcast episodes off-air on the small colour TVs of the day at NTSC resolution.

It was, at the time, the most accurate recreation that could be built.

And the Royal York would not allow the bridge to be plugged in to the hotel’s power, which did not help.

The entire set had to be run from batteries. We obtained several automobile batteries, ganged them together and hooked an industrial strength battery charger (which, annoyingly, the rules did allow to be plugged into the mains) to the lot. This did work – for about 15 minutes at a stretch, before the lights dimmed to invisibility. This was a sub-optimal embarrassment, relieved only slightly by the audience ovation when someone turned down the lights in the auditorium momentarily so people could see things blinking and whirring. Subsequent venues allowed for mains power.

After the convention, the bridge lived on for years in different versions and different locations.