Warp Factor Trek

The Star Trek Fan Website

An actress who has experienced the best of both worlds, Elizabeth Dennehy has found success both on screen and off. She originated the role of Shelby in one of the most popular two-parters from The Next Generation, “The Best of Both Worlds”, before returning in a couple of modern Star Trek episodes. I recently enjoyed interviewing Dennehy about her earliest memories of Star Trek and her famous TNG appearances.

Prelude

When Elizabeth Dennehy was growing up, The Original Series was airing. “I didn’t watch the original show, I confess, and I have a huge confession to make: I was never into any kind of sci-fi or any kind of Star Trek,” she admits. “When I was young and growing up, I was a real Anglophile. So, Brideshead Revisited, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Upstairs, Downstairs, all of the Merchant Ivory films. That was my jam; that was what I was really into. And this is going to sound really, really mean, but I went to an all girls school, and the kids growing up who were into sci-fi and were into Star Trek were not the cool kids. I know it’s shocking to hear, but I was into David Cassidy, The Partridge Family, and wanted to be cool. And the kids who were into Star Trek were the smartest kids in the school. They were definitely the scientists, the mathematicians. They were going to do really, really well. But, you know, I was boy crazy. So, I was aware of Star Trek, but I was haughty and a snob and kind of dismissive of it. Now, I realize how wrong I was. I’m sorry, people who are fans!

After majoring in theatre in college and performing some shows in her hometown of New York, Dennehy relocated to Los Angeles in 1989, about to have her first professional encounter with Star Trek. “One of the very first auditions I had was for a new show called ‘Next Generation’, which, of course — because I was totally ignorant of Star Trek and the whole world of Trek and sci-fi completely — was just another audition for another show.” Without technology being widely available, research was a lot more difficult than it is nowadays. Also, Dennehy didn’t think of asking her friends if any of them liked Star Trek. “I’m really, really humble and, you know, with shame, I admit that I saw this audition for this sci-fi show and was very haughty and very young and just thought, Oh, this is, you know, some stupid sci-fi show. I’m sorry,” she laughs, sympathetically, “but it’s true, and I was only twenty-eight.

When she went to audition for the role of Shelby, Dennehy noticed a particular actress, which made her extremely nervous. “In the crowded waiting room full of actresses,” says Dennehy, “I spotted Joanna Pacuła, and was suddenly very intimidated.” Pacuła had a starring role in the film Gorky Park, which coincidentally also starred Elizabeth Dennehy’s father, Brian Dennehy. “Seeing her in the waiting room, I was like, Oh my God! She’s here?! This must be a big deal. This must be really, really serious,” she recalls. “So then, I’m like, Oh my God! I need to take this seriously.” Dennehy then realised the significance of the potential job opportunity and won the role. “I was stunned that I got it, completely stunned that they offered the part to me.

Origins

“The Best of Both Worlds” was filmed in 1990. When it was her first day on the set, Elizabeth Dennehy felt significantly unprepared to portray Shelby. “My very first day,” she says, “they should have fired me. I did not know the lines well enough at all, and I will never, ever forget that first day.

Riker (played by Jonathan Frakes) and Shelby meeting for the first time

Dennehy’s unawareness regarding Star Trek included the main cast. “I walked into the trailer the first day and I said, to Jonathan, ‘Oh, you’re Riker! I thought it was the baldy guy.’ And he laughed when I said that. He said, ‘You have no idea?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s completely missed.’ It was just not on my radar.

For Dennehy, wearing the costume of Shelby’s Starfleet uniform was uncomfortable and impractical. Made of spandex, it caused her to feel like she was wearing a massive wedgie. She laughs, “Wearing that jumpsuit was hell on earth!

Shelby using a tool

Dennehy was entirely unaware of how to read the call sheets for the “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter. “Now if I had read them — if I had really paid attention and did my detective work — I would have said, ‘Oh, they’re doing this scene, then they’re moving onto these other scenes.’ I had no idea. They don’t teach you this stuff in college and when you’re a theater major, by the way, and they really, really should.

The fact that Dennehy had only ever done soap operas — in which each episode is rehearsed in its entirety before filming — impacted the way she expected the TNG shoot to go. At first, she didn’t realise that, to film the first part of the “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter, each scene would be rehearsed with the actors, who would then have their hair and makeup prepared while the crew lit the scene and rehearsed camera moves with stand-ins, before the scene would finally be filmed. “I thought I had all day to learn my lines,” she recalls. “So, that was a really important but very stressful and anxious lesson that I learned on my very first day. I did not know my lines. I was not prepared enough. And man, my God, was that a kick in the pants.

Shelby expressing the odds of a Borg cube enduring

One of her lines in particular was especially challenging for Dennehy. “I’ll never forget it now. It was, ‘Projections suggest that a Borg ship like this one could continue to function effectively even if seventy-eight percent of it was inoperable.’ I couldn’t get it out of my mouth. I couldn’t do it. They had to keep stopping, and finally, I managed to get the line out once, and they made it work.

Recalling another line, Dennehy says, “‘Separate the saucer section. Assign a skeleton crew to create a diversion’ broke my brain! It’s not a question of learning it. The hard thing is making it sound natural, like you talk this way all the time. That was really, really hard.

Shelby recommending a saucer separation to Riker while Data stands by

It’s true to say that Dennehy’s first day on set didn’t go as smoothly as it could have done. “That was terrifying. That was really, really terrifying, so that was my first day. And then, after that, I went home and learned all of my lines.

Dennehy speculates that her first day would have gone even worse if the episode had been produced in modern times. “I think nowadays I would have been fired,” she reckons. “Nowadays, they would say, ‘She’s got this huge, really important part and she can’t even say her first line? She’s gone! We gotta go to number two on the list. Call Joanna Pacuła!’

Shelby with Riker in a turbolift, commenting on his tendency to pass up command opportunities

Performing Shelby’s harsh interactions with Riker was a challenge for Dennehy. “I had to say some really emasculating things. For example, ‘I suppose that’s why someone like you sits in the shadow of a great man for as long as you have, passing up one command after another.’ I just had to stick to my guns and remember that I had a job to do. They brought me here to do a job, and he’s in my way. His caution, his fearfulness, his over-carefulness was literally standing in my way. I think that Shelby saw a problem, and a way to solve it, and was like, ‘Just give me the reins and get out of my way if you’re going to be too scared.’

Dennehy is grateful for her initial unfamiliarity with Star Trek. “I think that it was because I was ignorant of the massiveness of what I was doing that it was easy for me to play Shelby, because I was like, ‘I got a job to do, so let’s do this job. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what status or ranking you have. I don’t care if people like me.’ And I think that if I had been a fan, and if I had realized the enormity of the whole thing, I would have been too intimidated to stand up and challenge Riker’s authority.

Riker and Shelby tensely facing each other

Collaboration

During production on “The Best of Both Worlds”, Elizabeth Dennehy found that her familiarity with Riker actor Jonathan Frakes became important. “Jonathan had worked with my father, so the minute he met me, we were family,” she says. “He took me under his wing. It would have been daunting, hard and scary if I didn’t have that, if he had been, you know, a hottie ‘I’m just phoning it in,’ and I have worked with people like that, who just show up, check a time card and leave, but he is a director.” In fact, Dennehy cites Frakes as the Star Trek director she most enjoyed working with, rather than Cliff Bole (who directed both parts of the “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter) or Terry Matalas (who directed her in the Star Trek: Picard episode “Võx”). However, she also concedes, “I love them all. They were all great, but I spent so much time with Jonathan. He was so incredibly generous. We collaborated as actors on ‘The Best of Both Worlds’; I was never directed by Jonathan.

Her working relationship with Frakes was especially important to Dennehy while trying to determine who Shelby would become.“We didn’t have the second part when we shot the first part and we had no idea what was going to happen, so Jonathan and I had many conversations. We talked through every scene. Like, ‘Where do we want this to go? What are all the possibilities we can play in this scene that will make sense with whatever happens at the end?’ Was I going to end up being a Borg in disguise and a villain? Was I a Mata Hari? Was I a double agent? Were we going to end up falling in love and getting married and falling into bed together?

Shelby and Riker gazing at each other

Dennehy and Frakes accounted for the potentialities by tweaking their performances. “When we shot the first one, we put in, very purposefully, little moments where it could go any way. When we were fighting, we also had to have some real respect and a little bit of heat there, in case it turned out that we were going to run off together, or whatever. Also, some little moments of overconfidence, in case I was going to end up being a villain. We had no idea! So, that was a purely technical thing. A lot of Easter eggs were planted in that first one, so that, with whatever outcome came up in the second one, it would track. We really built that whole story together with Cliff Bole, the director.

Dennehy was given some advice for portraying Shelby’s interaction with Riker, portrayed by the much taller Frakes. “Cliff Bole gave me one of the best notes I ever got in an acting job,” she reminisces. “I suppose his job would have been to communicate to me the wishes of the writers. He said that, when I was looking up at Jonathan, it made me look like a little kid. And so, what I had to do instead was to cheat it and look like I was looking him directly in the eye, even though I wasn’t. And that, I think, gave me an imperious air of, like, ‘I’m not looking up to you; I’m going to meet you head on. You don’t scare me, and you don’t intimidate me.’ That changed everything.

Shelby along with some of TNG’s main cast of characters

Dennehy also delighted in working with the rest of the cast and crew of The Next Generation. “They were so fun. They were really great. Top drawer people. They’re pranksters, and we laughed a lot. Everybody was lovely.

Now over thirty years later, Dennehy cannot remember much about how it was to work with George Murdock, who guest-starred as Admiral JP Hanson, Shelby’s supervisor when they arrive aboard the Enterprise together at the start of the “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter. Regarding Hanson, Dennehy notes, “He and I just said hello, chit-chatted, nothing very memorable.

Hanson, Shelby, Riker, and Picard

As a guest star, Dennehy basically had least say amongst the cast members in deciding precisely when scenes would be shot. The production crew would prioritise filming footage involving the main cast members, so that they could be sent home first. As a result, Dennehy endured long durations of waiting to be called to set. “So, there were many, many hours of sitting around waiting, during which I was cramming my lines to save my life so that I never, never would have a repeat of that terrifying first day. Not that I’m complaining. That’s every acting job — the cameras are setting up, the lights are setting up. It was no different from any other set.

Dennehy participated in the season finale of TNG’s third season and returned for Season 4’s season premiere. Having had experience of doing a season finale and then the following season’s first installment, she already expected that, for her initial TNG episode, the cast and crew would be very tired and in need of a break. “They just… wanted to stop. I mean, I don’t know how Brent did it with the technobabble. I don’t know how his brains didn’t explode. So hard! He must have been quite exhausted.

Data (played by Brent Spinner) and Shelby

There was a summer break between the two parts of “The Best of Both Worlds”, which allowed the cast and crew to rest, including Dennehy. “I didn’t eat a thing that summer because I knew I had to put that, you know, wedgie spandex jumpsuit back on, when I got back, and pick up right where we left off and look exactly the same, so I literally ate nothing but fruit that summer.” Coming back for the second part, Dennehy recalls, “Everybody was well rested and much more jovial and happy-go-lucky.

Next time: Elizabeth Dennehy discusses the aftermath of “The Best of Both Worlds”.

Leave comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *.