An Interview with Elizabeth Dennehy, Part II: The Aftermath of “The Best of Both Worlds”
Before production ended on the first part of the “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter, Jonathan Frakes tried to warn Elizabeth Dennehy about how it might be received. “He said to me, ‘You have absolutely no idea what you’re in for,’” Dennehy remembers. “And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘People are going to lose their minds when they see the show! It’s the first time we’ve ever had a cliffhanger. It’s the first time my authority has ever been questioned. You better brace yourself.’” Dennehy was about to begin experiencing the reactions to her TNG appearance as well as the perils and thrills of Star Trek fandom.
Although Elizabeth Dennehy faced numerous difficulties in playing Shelby on TNG, Cliff Bole learned about them only after directing both parts of the “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter. Dennehy recalls, “Later on, Cliff said to me, ‘You should have told me. I had no idea.’ And I was like, ‘I was too embarrassed to tell anybody that I had no clue what to do.’”
Dennehy notes that watching one scene in particular brings back a lot of memories for her — one from the first part of the “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter, in which Shelby states, “Projections suggest that a Borg ship like this one could continue to function effectively even if seventy-eight percent of it was inoperable.” The actress comments, “It’s so funny when I watch the show now, because I know that that scene was my first day. I can see the fear in my eyes, and everybody else tells me they don’t see it, but I recognize it.”
Though there was a summer break between the two parts of “The Best of Both Worlds”, Dennehy waited until after both parts had aired before she began attending conventions. She then went to many such events straight away. “My very first one was in St. Louis, Missouri, with George Takei,” she relates. “I was scared shitless! I had three Bloody Marys before I went on stage for the Q and A. I was terrified because I’m used to speaking with a script, but just being myself… and I was afraid that people were gonna ask me really scientific questions. I was afraid that people were gonna think of me as an impostor, that I didn’t deserve to play Shelby because I was not a sci-fi fan or into it at all, but people were lovely and really, really nice.”
On the other hand, the brashness that Dennehy injected into her performance of Shelby wasn’t necessarily well-accepted by fans. “A lot of times when people were seeing part one, they didn’t like me because of that smirky, haughty cockiness. At conventions, people would come to me and say, ‘Oh, I hated you, and you are such a bitch.’ I got such negative energy from fans. They wanted my autograph, but they really hated me. They hated that Riker’s authority was questioned. They thought I was a ball-buster. They thought I didn’t know my place, that I was disrespectful. And I just started asking people, ‘Yeah, but was I right? I had a problem to solve, lives to save. Should I have just waited around for it to be the man’s idea, just waited for somebody else to take my ideas and run with them?’”
Attending a specific early convention was an emotional experience. “I remember, early on, doing a convention in Las Vegas,” Dennehy says, “and my kids were little, and I brought them to Las Vegas. There was a ‘VIP signing autographs’ and ‘getting your picture taken with the characters’ event, and there was a lot of people in wheelchairs. There were a lot of differently-abled people — wheelchairs, walkers — in Starfleet uniforms, and so sweet, so lovely. I was putting my kids to bed that night and they were little. Jack was maybe about six, and he tearfully said to me, ‘Mommy, you be nice to them!’ He was overcome with emotion and so moved at the sight of so many people with hardships they had to overcome to be there. It was overwhelming for a little boy.”
The son, Jack Lancaster, is now twenty-six years old and a professional actor. When he began performing, his mother gave him advice based on her experience of having done TNG. “When he first started getting work,” she explains, “I was like, ‘Let me sit you down and tell you my story of woe, so that you never have to repeat it. Learn to read the call sheet. If they say they’re rehearsing this scene and then there’s other scenes after it, they’re moving on once they get that scene.’”
Elizabeth Dennehy is highly enthusiastic about Star Trek fandom. “I do Cameos every single day. I get mail every single day. My husband was in the movie Titanic and he doesn’t have this! I love the fact that I get fan mail and that I get Cameos. It’s an incredible thing to go to conventions and see people having the time of their life. I love them. I love meeting the people. Fandom is amazing. I don’t understand the people who don’t find it moving or touching. You know, when Will Shatner said, ‘Get a life,’ he was joking. I just think it’s so fun that people have this passion that binds them together — when they have these amazing outings and they get to party and be together and have fun. I think it’s so cool, I really do.”
A highlight of conventions for Dennehy is being reunited with cast members from The Next Generation. “I love seeing them now at conventions,” she enthuses. “It’s always a great reunion. Funnily enough, I keep running into Patrick. He does this group in LA. They’re un-freaking-believable! Improvised Shakespeare. And Patrick performs with them. Shakespeare is something that he cares a lot about, and so do I.”
Appearing at many conventions has alerted Dennehy to a change in audience perception related to Shelby. “Now, when I do conventions, people are like, ‘We were rooting for you. You were so right. They were holding you back.’ And I think that that’s a testament to the world is changing, thank God, and that women are allowed to speak up, take credit for their own ideas, and not care so much about being liked or having their ideas be palatable or flattering, or wait for other people to pay attention to them, or ask for permission to voice their ideas. So, that means a lot to me. That’s also very moving.”
On the other hand, Dennehy pinpoints a specific line, from the first part of the “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter, which seems to have aged badly. This is when Admiral Hanson leeringly refers to Shelby as “just an old man’s fantasies.” Remarks Dennehy, “It’s so funny, that line. Man, you couldn’t get away with that now; you just couldn’t do that now. Every time I watch it — ’cause sometimes I’m invited to screenings — everybody in the audience groans when that line is said,” she laughs. “I wish I could remember if that was questionable back then. I don’t think it was. So, it just goes to show you how far we’ve come. Thank God!”
Dennehy serves on two boards — the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts, where her kids went to school and where she taught Shakespeare for six years, and the Independent Shakespeare Company. She often finds a specific line of dialogue from “The Best of Both Worlds” helpful — “Separate the saucer section. Assign a skeleton crew to create a diversion.” Dennehy elaborates, “I now teach young people acting and Shakespeare, and I use that as an example. What I learned from that is, if you have a lot of ‘shush’ and ‘sis’ sounds in a speech, you have to actually separate every single ‘S’ word from the words that come before and after, but not make it sound like you’re saying one word at a time. The only reason I’m able to do it now is because of the muscle memory that is embedded in my full cellular system, from learning how to say that and make it sound like the most natural thing in the world to say.”
Dennehy’s performance in “The Best of Both Worlds” was so credible that fans occasionally ask her questions which are detached from her subjective reality. “They’ll say, ‘What frequency was your phaser set on when you went on the Borg ship?’ And I’m like, ‘It was a plastic TV remote that somebody handed to me.’”
Dennehy is aware that Shelby has been written as a main character in the Star Trek: New Frontier series of novels. “People have been telling me that for years,” she notes.
To this day, the only Star Trek productions that Dennehy has seen are the episodes she appears in. Thus, she has some initial difficulty choosing which other Star Trek character she’d play if she could play any of them. She goes on to say, “I suppose Whoopi Goldberg’s character, because she wore long flowing robes and didn’t have to starve herself!” She laughs before reflecting, “You know who I really liked? I can’t remember his character’s name, but Todd Stashwick. He was great. I was impressed by him, and he looked like he was having a blast. That looks like a really fun part.” She says this in reference to Stashwick’s Picard character, Captain Liam Shaw.
Dennehy doesn’t take Shelby’s popularity for granted. “Jonathan was absolutely right; I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. I’m very, very grateful that the fans are still so invested in Shelby. It’s so incredibly flattering and humbling,” Dennehy enthuses, concluding, “It’s so sweet to do something thirty years ago and have people care so much.”
Next time: Elizabeth Dennehy comments on modern Star Trek.
Editor of WarpFactorTrek, Dan is an avid Star Trek fan who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Dan has loved Star Trek ever since discovering it in his childhood. He worked as an administrator, for six years, on the encyclopedic Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which involved studying the making of the various series and films. He has been mentioned in the official Star Trek Magazine, has qualified from a Star Trek course taught at Glasgow Clyde College, and coordinates the SubSpace Chatter (formerly The Scotch Trekker) YouTube channel, which regularly features live interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek.