• Ian

Dark Sublime

Marina Sirtis, who is undoubtedly most famous for playing the empathic ship counsellor Deanna Troi in sci-fi TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation, will be making her West End stage debut in 2019. The play, titled Dark Sublime, will feature Sirtis in the role of an actor who is most famous for - hey, guess what? - their role in a sci-fi TV show.

The entire plot of the 1999 film Galaxy Quest is about a group of second-rate actors from a sci-fi TV show who get caught up in a genuine intergalactic conflict and have to essentially recreate (and live up to) their old roles to help save the day. Tim Allen is the actor who exploits his fame and belittles his fans, Sigourney Weaver's character is frustrated at being stuck playing the bimbo (in total opposition to her most well-known sci-fi character), and Alan Rickman plays the grumpy British thesp, bemoaning the fact that this cheap TV show is his most recognised work - "I played Richard III...there were five curtain calls". It's wonderful, stupid and ridiculously amusing; a proper parody of Star Trek and a simple yet effective rumination on legacy - the actors have to come to terms with the fact that this campy TV gig they did years ago is not only their lasting accomplishment, but a thing of real value and importance to many people, fans and imperilled aliens alike.

Marina Sirtis has either not seen Galaxy Quest, or she has, and wants to have a go. I doubt Dark Sublime will even come close to sending up Star Trek as well or even as deliberately as Galaxy Quest, but here's hoping.

In fact, Sirtis is already sending up her own work to an extent: she's appearing in Jack and the Beanstalk in Bridlington, playing the Empathic Fairy - as Deanna Troi-esque a role as you could imagine for panto. But by signing up to Dark Sublime, she is not just acknowledging the fact that her most famous work is a) behind her and b) something slightly geeky. By playing an actor who is only seen through the prism of a character they played, she'll be inviting us to speculate on how much of this is true of her - how much the lines between life and art have blurred. The same thing happens in Alejandro Iñárritu's Birdman - hell, it happens twice: once by casting former Batman actor Michael Keaton as the film's former superhero actor, and then by Keaton signing up to play the Vulture in Marvel's Spider-Man Homecoming. What is it about science fiction that encourages this kind of introspection?

Sirtis in promotional material for Dark Sublime

Part of the answer lies in our growing appreciation of pop culture as a valuable icon for our times - nobody doubts in the age of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and even "genre" shows like Game of Thrones and Black Mirror that TV can be incredibly popular and also weighty, powerful and relevant. And Star Trek, for all its cardboard sets, dodgy alien designs and occasionally idiotic stories*, has always probed for meaning, always asked deep and urgent questions about the biggest issues: war, death, morality, racism, imperialism, the nature of existence...if the stories were about the search for new life, the wider message was about the search for new ways of living. I mean, come on - in the new series, Star Trek: Discovery, a couple of early episodes devoted to space battles are followed by long, fraught and genuinely exciting debates on the ethics of drawing engine power from semi-sentient, interdimensional space bugs. It's a joy.

If you're still with me at this point: live long and prosper, fellow nerd.

So yes, science fiction is culturally significant while still being that little bit odd, that little bit out-there. Casting Sirtis in Dark Sublime acknowledges both sides of that particular coin. So if it's something of an attempt on her part (and the part of the producers) to cash in on her earlier work, it's also an act of humility to accept that this same work has dominated her life, and will probably eclipse everything else she does. And it's an act of generosity to place herself so directly into this narrative.

Would this show still be going ahead if it didn't involve her, if it didn't cast someone who embodied the play's themes? Perhaps not - her own acting career gives the play a little meta-kick, a knowing nod. In that respect, it reminds me of the RSC's Hamlet back in 2008, which starred Sirtis' fellow Trekkie Sir Patrick Stewart alongside then-current Doctor Who star David Tennant, and was briefly hailed as a sci-fi Shakespeare. In the case of Dark Sublime, the marketing seems to be making much hay out of the science fiction angle ("a play about space. And time") without seeming to actually be a piece of science fiction in itself - the description says it is "about joy and heartbreak as much as it is about quarries and transmat beams". But marrying the show's press with the history of its starring member is, frankly, just good business. And hopefully this all pays dividends by translating into an engaging, thought-provoking piece of theatre - because ultimately, the play's the thing. Dark Sublime, written by debut playwright Michael Dennis and directed by Andrew Keates, will run at London's Trafalgar Studios from June 25th to August 3rd 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.

* For a brief but hilarious trip through some of Next Generation's more ludicrous moments, you won't do any better than the Honest Trailers video. "Klingons do not laugh".