To Boldly Go - LeVar Burton Talks Star Trek: The Next Generation

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LeVar Burton as Star Trek: The Next Generation's Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge

It was 45 years ago that NBC took a big leap of faith with Star Trek creator/executive producer Gene Roddenberry and boldly went where no man had gone before. Despite lasting just three seasons, Star Trek spawned a huge franchise as well as a massive global fan base.

Star Trek returned to the small screen in 1987 with a spin-off series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Among the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D is its chief engineer Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, who, in fact, was named after George La Forge, a quadriplegic Trek fan who passed away in 1975. Although blind from birth, Geordi can “see” thanks to a special prosthetic device called a VISOR. Already known to millions of TV viewers as Kunta Kinte in the Roots miniseries and the host of the long-running PBS children’s series Reading Rainbow, LeVar Burton was cast as the smart and likable Geordi La Forge.

“I’ve always thought the best way to describe my character is to talk about his level of looseness,” says Burton.“By that I mean that out of all our heroes, Geordi is the one who I feel takes himself the least seriously. He brings a sense of enthusiasm to his job as well as a sense of ‘if I can’t have fun while I’m doing this then there’s no point.' I think that’s what I appreciate most about him. He is as good at his job as any other member of the crew and at the same time is able to, like I said, not take himself too seriously.

“Out of all The Next Generation characters, Geordi is the youngest. and so he was also the last to be developed in terms of his family life and background. It wasn’t until, I think, the show’s sixth or seventh season that we met anyone from his family or even his past for that matter. So there is still quite a bit that we don't know about him and he’s probably the least explored of all the characters in terms of where he comes from and what his history is.”

During The Next Generation’s penultimate sixth year, Burton had the chance to explore his interest in directing and took to it like a proverbial fish to water. “My directing career actually grew out of my work on Reading Rainbow which I produced for several years,” he explains. “I love the medium of television and the potential to use it to a powerful end. I’ve certainly experienced this as both an actor and as a producer, so I had the desire to sort of stretch my wings as a director and see where it would take me.

“The intention was to see if I had any talent and aptitude at all for the job. I was able, in the safe environment of The Next Generation family, to stick my toe in that water in an absolutely protected way. You really fly with a huge net when you take that step and cross that line for the first time. Not only are you working with people you are very familiar with and with whom you work intimately on a daily basis, but people you also consider your family. None of them wants to see you fail, so, you just have an awful lot of support. It’s really a no-lose situation if you bring any sort of consciousness at all to the job,

“The training process was literally like being paid to go to school. I attended dailies, went to production meetings and music scoring sessions and just really immersed myself in the process of all the different elements that make up preproduction, production and postproduction. The other part of my training was 18 years in front of the camera, watching, looking, learning, paying attention and keeping my eyes open.”

Burton directed two episodes of The Next Generation and, when the series ended in 1994, he subsequently directed, among other things, multiple episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. He also reprised his role of Geordi La Forge in the four Next Generation feature films as well as the 1998 Voyager episode “Timeless.”

“I loved the Voyager cast,” enthuses the actor. “They reminded me an awful lot of The Next Generation cast. It was like deja vu all over again working on that show in the sense that its sets were on the same stage as ours were. Its bridge was where our bridge was, and it was the same with their engineering section as well as sickbay, etc. So it was like being home, yet it wasn’t.”

Earlier this year, the actor guest-starred as himself in episodes of Community as well as The Big Bang Theory and can also be seen playing Paul Haley in TNT’s upcoming new drama series Perception starring Eric McCormack. Whether in front of or behind a camera, there is nothing he enjoys more work-wise than helping tell a story, but not just any old story.

“I’m always trying to select projects to be involved in and associated with which sort of advance the human agenda. I think that Roots, Star Trek and Reading Rainbow are prime examples of that,” notes Burton. “They also show the best possible use of this medium called television, which in my opinion is the most powerful tool we possess in our culture for addressing social growth and change. As such, it needs to be used with consciousness, care and thought. We don’t always hit the mark, but it sure is nice when we do. I am very much aware of this potential and just prefer to go where it is as opposed to where it is not.”

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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