"Please Stand By" — the new movie that shows a young woman running away from home to take part in a "Star Trek" script contest — was conceived as a sort of love letter to the 51-year-old Trek franchise, according to the film's director. The movie premiered last Friday (Jan. 26).
Shortly after getting the script (written by Michael Golamco, a lifelong Trek fan), director Ben Lewin called a friend whose daughter has autism, a condition that protagonist Wendy, played by Dakota Fanning, also has in the movie. Lewin mentioned the project he was working on. "As soon as I mentioned 'Star Trek,' I got this, 'Oh, yes,'" Lewin told Space.com. The friend could see why Wendy would be a Trekkie.
"I think it's the appeal of that simple morality [of "Star Trek"]; everyone else is the alien, not us," Lewin said. The movie shows Wendy's sympathy for the character Spock, a half-Vulcan alien, half-human who, like Wendy, struggles with expressing emotion. While Lewin said the analogy isn't perfect, he said Spock could almost be seen as a hero with autism. ['Please Stand By' Is a Fun Commentary on 'Star Trek']
Exploring the Trek frontier
Lewin made sure to include members of the autism community during the research and filming. In fact, members of Wendy's group home in the film are, in real life, people who have the condition, Lewin said. He also made time for lots of "Star Trek" research, including a marathon viewing of the original series (1966-1969).
And that "Star Trek" dedication shows. For example, there's a scene in the movie shot at the Vasquez Rocks, where Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) battled the Gorn (Bobby Clark) in the original series (TOS) episode "Arena." Spacesuits seen in "Please Stand By" resemble those the crew wore in the TOS's "The Tholian Web."
The name of the character Scottie (Toni Collette) in "Please Stand By" was also supposed to be a subtle reference to TOS character Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (James Doohan) in TOS, Lewin confirmed. And Trekkies can be assured that a key scene with Klingon dialogue had a grammar expert just off camera, coaching the actors syllable by syllable.
One Trek reference was a bit of a coincidence, though. Fans of the new Trek movies will easily identify Alice Eve (Wendy's sister in "Please Stand By"), who played Carol Marcus in "Star Trek: Into Darkness" (2013). Lewin said that wasn't why he cast her, though. "I cast Alice because she is a terrific actress, and she really wanted to do that part," Lewin said.
Dakota Fanning, despite her young age, has been involved in acting for most of her 23 years. Besides playing a memorable role as the young girl Rachel in "War of the Worlds" (2005), Fanning was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award at the tender age of 8 for her role as Lucy Dawson in "I Am Sam" (2001). As a teenager, Fanning also played Jane in the "Twilight" films.
"Dakota really studies the script, and I don't know how many times she does it, but that's the blueprint for her character," Lewin said. "It becomes instinctive, as opposed to technical, or trying to mimic something. She wasn't Wendy, the girl with autism. She was just Wendy."
Fanning was selected for the role a year before the rest of the cast was chosen, allowing Lewin to remain in contact with Fanning as her character was developed. He said Fanning's representation was meant as just one person's experience of autism; other people with the condition would present differently. "If anything, though, what we found was common [among people with autism] was that sense of isolation … and that yearning for connection and for independence," Lewin said. [The 10 Best 'Star Trek' Episodes (Including All Network Series)]
Collette, who played Wendy's therapist, had played the mother of a child with autism in another film ("The Black Balloon," 2008), so Lewin said the actress already had an understanding of the condition.
Despite the film's serious themes, it has some lighter moments as well. Comedian Patton Oswalt makes a cameo as a police officer who speaks Klingon. Lewin described the scene as pivotal to the film, because during the scene, Wendy is in an unfamiliar and threatening environment and needs to figure out whether this police officer was "a friend, or enemy, or what."
Lewin added that he hopes the movie finds a home among the young, geeky audience that enjoys "Star Trek." If you fall in love with Wendy's character, he said, he'll be happy.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace