The Acting on Star Trek Is Good, Actually

The Star Trek franchise hasn’t won a lot of awards for acting. Which is pretty messed up when you think about it.

An exhausted Jean-Luc Picard stands amongst his Cardassian torturers in Star Trek episode The Chain of Command
Photo: Paramount

In the new multi-part History Channel documentary, The Center Seat, actor Armin Shimmerman — famous for playing Quark on Deep Space Nine — makes a poignant observation: Star Trek is really popular, but it’s not “beloved in Hollywood.” Shimmerman wasn’t throwing shade at the Hollywood establishment in general, but the point he was making was a little more nuanced: Despite being the most long-running, multi-faceted, and socially relevant science-fiction franchise in the history of both TV and film, Star Trek doesn’t get nominated, nor does it win, mainstream acting awards… like, ever.

This fact is intellectually offensive when you start to think about not just how many good actors have been on Star Trek, but also, how many specific performances have been ignored by the Emmys, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars. Recently, I caught up with documentary filmmaker Brian Volk-Weiss, the man behind The Center Seat (as well as several pop culture docs you’ve probably seen) to try and get to the bottom of why the acting on Star Trek isn’t praised as much as it should be. 

“Let’s talk about ‘Chain of Command,’” Volk-Weiss says, when I bring up the topic of acting chops in the Star Trek franchise. “You know, the five lights episode. Whoever won the Emmy that year did not do a better job than Patrick Stewart. It’s nuts.”

While Star Trek: The Next Generation was nominated for “Best Drama” by the Emmys in 1994, it lost to Picket Fences. And in 1993 and 1994 — the years that the sixth and seventh seasons of TNG aired—Patrick Stewart was not nominated at all. So, to answer Volk-Weiss’s somewhat rhetorical “Chain of Command” question, the answer is either Dennis Franz, or Tom Skerritt. Nothing against Franz or Skerrit, but I think we can all admit that when the greatest actors of the past hundred years are compiled, Stewart would be ahead of both of those guys. 

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In The Center Seat, the idea that Star Trek actors are sometimes overlooked for their Star Trek work is made very clear. In 2021, we may be living in the age of full acceptance of so-called “geek culture,” but as Volk-Weiss points out, that’s actually a pretty new development. Even Patrick Stewart’s bestie, Ian McKellen, was only nominated once for an Oscar during the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy—and, naturally, didn’t win. 

“I really think the popularity of Iron Man led to Black Panther getting an Oscar Nomination,” Volk-Weiss says. “And that had a larger impact on the culture at large. Before Iron Man, before 2008, I don’t remember seeing random teenagers wearing Bib Fortuna t-shirts.” Volk-Weiss isn’t complaining or gatekeeping. Far from it. But, the before-and-after he’s highlighting relative to things that are perceived as “geeky” is relevant when it comes to the under-loved acting performances on Star Trek. WandaVision, a bonafide science fiction series, was nominated for a bunch of acting awards by the Emmys, but it’s not like Patrick Stewart is getting any Emmy love for Picard. Regardless of how you feel about these shows, the weird bias against mainstream awards recognizing the amazing acting in Star Trek is somewhat staggering when you take a few steps back.

But why? Why won’t the Oscars and the Emmys nominate Star Trek for acting awards? In 1987, when TNG began, there were two award-winning actors in its cast: LeVar Burton, who was famous for Roots and Wil Wheaton who was famous for Stand By MeKnee-jerk biases may force even geek-centric people to believe that the best acting Wheaton or Burton ever did was in those more mainstream projects. But, when you look at their body of work, the vast majority of it is Star Trek. Ditto for Patrick Stewart. As much as people praise Stewart’s performances on stage—or in his one-man version of A Christmas Carol—the truth is, for most people, his most famous acting is as Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

If everyone can accept the premise that some of the best actors in history have worked on Star Trek — Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Tom Hardy, Whoopi Goldberg, Scott Bakula, Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella, Paul Winfield, Alfre Woodard, Kim Catrall, Virginia Madsen, to just name a few — then, it should stand to reason that the acting in Star Trek is good. The only reason why a bias exists against the acting in Star Trek, may have something to do with the perception of the 1960s show as being over-the-top and bombastic. Saying William Shatner wasn’t known for his naturalistic performances in Trek might be the biggest understatement in history. And yet, watch Shatner in “City on the Edge of Forever” in the final moments. Watch him in The Wrath of Khan. Even William Shatner, the most parodied actor in all of Star Trek, is actually, very, very good at his job. 

If you watch The Center Seat, and you see all the various actors talking about their processes for getting into character for Star Trek, you’ll realize that underneath all the special effects and prosthetics, some of the greatest performances in all of TV and film have happened on the Final Frontier. 

The Center Seat airs on the History Channel and is available on the HistoryVault.

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