When Federalists and the Federation Collide

Contributed by
Apr 13, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

I love a good sight gag on a TV show when it’s crafted with care and doesn’t jump out at me. I’m also a big fan of the “Star Trek” TV shows, as well as “The West Wing”, so I got a big kick out of this:

This is a screen grab I made from “Star Trek: Voyager”, specifically the episode “Imperfection”. During a crucial scene near the end, Seven of Nine—a human woman once part of the Borg hive mind, but rehabilitated—displays a list of crew members of the starship Voyager who had been killed over the years. The first few on the list were “actual” dead characters; that is, crew on the ship who had died in previous episodes.

But look more carefully. J. Bartlett, L. McGarry, T. Ziegler, S. Seaborn, Claudia Craig, Charles Young? Those weren’t Voyager crewmembers. They were all West Wing characters! Bartlett was President Bartlet*, Leo McGarry was his Chief of Staff, and so on.


I aksed Star Trek graphic art supervisor Mike Okuda about this. He replied:

Yes, some of us in the art department were big West Wing fans, including [Mike’s wife] Denise, myself, and graphic artist James Van Over.  We used to joke that The West Wing—with its close-knit family of characters on an idealistic mission—should have been a Star Trek spinoff.  However, one of my rules regarding jokes was that they should never be apparent to the casual viewer.  If they were, they would yank the viewer out of the story, and that would be a serious disservice to both.  For this reason, I generally tried to keep the text on such gags at the ragged edge of legibility.  That text went by on the screen pretty quickly and was thus unlikely to catch the viewer's eye.

I totally understand their desire to keep jokes like that subtle; especially since, as a fan, if you see it you feel like an insider.

But it’s possible the joke was too subtle. Actress Jeri Ryan, who played Seven of Nine—and who is a) a huge science nerd and 2) a really huge science nerd—didn’t even notice it. I sent her a note, and she replied she wasn’t even aware of the joke until I told her about it!

I’ve been fortunate to be able to visit some sets of TV I’ve watched, and it’s amazing how much attention to detail there is. Actually, now that I think about it…years ago I was in California, giving a talk at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. During a tour of the facilities I got to poke around a couple of F18 fighter jets they’ve commissioned for research use. One had the bottom of its fuselage open, and I was astonished to see very little in the way of piping or hardware. It didn’t look much more complicated than the plumbing in my house!

Literally the very next day my pal Andre Bormanis, an astronomer and head writer on Star Trek’s “Enterprise”, gave me a tour of the show’s set in Los Angeles. It was magnificent. I was in awe of the bridge set, especially all the electronics. I took a peek behind the set, and saw a fantastically complicated series of electronic cables connecting all the monitors scattered around the bridge.

I stopped cold, and then couldn’t stop laughing. The make-believe starship had more complex wiring than real fighter jets doing high-altitude NASA research!

Life is weird, but sometimes pretty awesome. Why fight it? After all, you know what they say.

Tip o’ the Borg optical insert to Janna O'Shea.

Update (Apr. 13, 2013 at 17:00 UTC): The original version of this said I had not met Mike Okuda in person, but in fact we met very briefly when I toured the Enterprise set. Also, I had misspelled "Bartlet" as "Bartlett", going by the way it was spelled on the screen in "Voyager"... but according to Mike, they mispelled it on purpose!