Star Trek The Next Generation had been jolted to life by Maurice Hurley’s second season script, “Q-Who?”, with the introduction of Trek’s greatest and most frightening adversary: The Borg.
Predating The Walking Dead, the Borg spun zombies as only Star Trek could. Having always hung its hat on individuality and human intelligence, a ravenous, mindless species whose entire purpose is to strip all that away as utterly inconsequential is Star Trek’s worst nightmare. Driving home this new reality, Hurley’s script showed us the ordinarily composed and unflappable Jean Luc Picard reduced to abject terror. It was disturbing, thrilling, and somewhat overdue. Our heroes were a little too self-assured, and seemingly more than a match for anyone across the Galaxy. They needed to be taken down a peg. I admit a certain naughty pleasure in seeing the mighty Galaxy Class starship with its crew of self-assured know-it-alls, vainly fleeing before this monolithic, relentless, and faceless monster.
I’m always reminded of Robert Shaw in Jaws describing the lifeless eyes of a shark, “… black eyes, like a doll’s eyes… until it bites you, and those black eyes roll over white…” . Here is the truth: there is nothing more terrifying than realizing that you are but a morsel in the food chain. One night, in the wilds of Florida, I came face to face with a twelve foot alligator. Its eyes lit up yellow in the beam of my flashlight. Right then it was up to the gator. If it wanted me there was nothing I could have done. That was my food chain moment. The giant reptile regarded me for several seconds, then slithered heavily through the bushes, splashing loudly into the swamp. I was never the same. The adrenaline lasted a couple of hours. Like me, Star Trek had found its moment of reality, and the series would skyrocket from there on. TNG had clearly become one of the best shows on television.
So, I was hopeful that Star Trek would revisit their walking dead, especially now that I was part of the show. I got my wish late in season three with “The Best of Both Worlds Part I”. To paraphrase Gene Cernan, this time I would be down among ’em, Charlie.
I came to TNG as a makeup artist at the start of the year, and was so 100% into the mythology that I made no bones about my geekiness on stage. There was some debate at the time over whether or not that was a good idea, but I knew I could get away with it. I’d come straight from working with Hollywood legend Warren Beatty, and couldn’t possibly not be cool. The cast was flattered that I loved being there, and they had their fun with me. I remember using a powder puff to dull the shine on Jonathan Frake’s forehead one day. He leaned into it cooing, “Dougie… is this the way you used to touch Warren?”. The funniest cast I’d ever worked with, and Frakes was just the tip of the iceberg. More about that in another article.
Mike Westmore burst into our barely a hole-in-the-wall, rickety makeup lab behind stage 9, appropriately singing “The Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera. He and Marion love that show… again, and again, and again, and Mike often regaled us with his own renditions. He gestured hypnotically at me like Lon Chaney in the 1925 masterpiece. “Count Drexler! Your presence is required on Planet Hell… keep tabs on the Borg. Some are knocking off their eye pieces and appendages. Get out, get under, and wrangle me some drones!”.
I’ve described the cold and the dark that whacks you in the face when you enter a Southern California soundstage. It’s an icy membrane shock of frigid air dividing the real world from the world of make believe. The pile-driver THUD of the vault-like, sound proof door resounds, as it literally shoves you into the dark. And, if that’s not enough, just then, an ungodly racket erupts over your head: BBBBrrrrRRRRRiiiinnnGGGggg! There, hunkered fire engine red on a padded chicken wire sound proofed wall, THE BELL, clattering metallically, rattling your fillings. The bell is god. The assistant director yells “QUIET! WE’RE ROLLING!”
You freeze in place. No problemo. Coming in out of the Southern California bright, you can’t see anything for the first 12 seconds anyway. So, you wait for your eyes to adjust, and as they do, in the distance, you become aware of a bright locus of radiant energy, almost painful to look at. It is the Borg catwalk. It’s big, it’s foreboding, and it does not disappoint.
Annnnnnd… CUT! We’re off the bell! The walla of the crew and friendly chatter begins, when I remember the heavy makeup kit in my hand. I snap back to reality, wrapped in an unreality. Making my way toward the brightly lit set, I’m enveloped in artificial Hollywood twilight. All around, moving with purpose, the crew… grips, construction, wardrobe, makeup, a bee hive of activity. Lovable master prop guy, Joe Longo, flashes me a grin, followed by The Finger. Navigating the obstacle course that is a Paramount sound stage is no small feat. I feel the adrenaline. I love it here. Heavy cables like boa constrictors, snake their way across cold concrete floors. I pirouette around wardrobe racks on wheels. There is Bob Blackman. We pass like ships in the night, waving at one another. Heavy padlocked prop cabinets loom. Charlie Russo looks up, shaking his head at me in mock disgust… “Look out, dummy!” he says, as I just miss tripping over rows of canvas director chairs, C-stands, and trains of lighting equipment.
From the distance comes the inevitable, “DREXLER! DREXLER! DREXLER!!!”. Big Mike Dorn, waving to me from the edge of the catwalk in full Klingon regalia. It was no secret that Dorn loved bellowing my name at the top of his lungs. He had more than once loudly proclaimed that it was a good solid Klingon name, and Ira Behr, hearing that, was not unmoved, and would use Drex as the name of a Klingon in DS9.
I board the Borg cube. Grated catwalks. Borg alcoves with their electronic lightning storms dance like madness. I wax rhapsodic. It’s hard to describe what it’s like being a lifelong fan of the mythology that caused your career, and now to be standing on a Borg catwalk right along side Riker, Worf, and Data. Unreal… yet it couldn’t possibly be more real, because you’re at work! Get after it, pal! No joke! If you aren’t on point, and someone doesn’t look good in dailies, you could cost the production thousands of dollars in re-shoots. That happens enough times, and your career is kaput, capice?
But on this show, with these peeps, it would never be 100% serious, and that was the key to their success.
Jonathan Frakes swings me around by one of my belt loops and yells, “Wardrobe! Would somebody get Dougie Drexler a belt?”. Over yonder, Brent Spiner in his own little Data world, practicing drawing his phaser in one deft move. He flips it over and back into its holster… again and again, and again, until it’s second nature. A 23rd century positronic Thell Reed. Look it up. Brent would do the same thing with his control console, “panel-dancing”, making the most of the amazing Okudagram graphics. Brent practiced it until it felt like a ballet. Effortless. Poetry.
I do my job and check our main players. They all look good. June-bug (Haymore) Jones stands nearby. She gives me a sweet smile. June is Patrick’s makeup artist. We were friends immediately. I was mostly a prosthetics guy, but June took the time to teach me beauty makeup. I’m still pretty hopeless at it, in spite of her top-notch tutoring.
The Borg players. I do not envy them. It’s no fun. You can hear the pitiful moans coming from the darkness off-stage. They’re not feeling good. The suits are tight, they’re hot, they’re notoriously uncomfortable. You’ve got things glued to your eyes, you can’t lay down, you can’t go pee. It’s an effort to even walk. I muse… is that what you meant when you said you wanted to be in show business? I know the answer; it’s yes, anything.
Part of the job is making them feel better. Talk to them. Massage their cramped neck. A heartfelt pat on the shoulder. A cup of coffee. Comfort goes a long way. Most of the crew is too busy to notice them. They become furniture. Part of the set. They are Borg… but it’s up to you to make them feel human.
Being a Hollywood makeup artist, as you might imagine, is a tad out of the ordinary. I mean, even outside of making-aliens-for-a-living strange. I recall that on the episode “I Borg”, “Hugh” (Jonathan Del Arco) and I became set pals. We formed that singular makeup artist-actor bond. You’re wiping their nose, and making sure they’re ok 16 hours a day. Sometimes you have to be parental, and scold them for getting spaghetti sauce all over their makeup. You’re mommy and daddy rolled into one, and it feels like a lifetime compressed into a week. You basically own them. They fall in love with you. They can’t help it. It’s that old “Stockholm Syndrome” voodoo.
My relationship with Jonathan was a little different in that I didn’t apply his Borg makeup, but I looked after him on stage. You have to understand that I’d never seen him as himself. I mean as Jonathan. I only knew him as Hugh. A Borg. A guy with things glued to his eyes, and who couldn’t pee. For all I knew he really was a Borg. This lead to an awkward moment when I ran into him on the Paramount backlot a few months later… This strange guy charges up, all real familiar, and I have no idea who it is. It was Jonathan! I unintentionally hurt his feelings when I didn’t recognize him. “What? Are you kidding me?” he snorted with annoyance. Lol! He was so offended. I’m like, “Dude! I’ve never seen you out of makeup!” But he wasn’t having it. I still feel bad to this day! How funny! That’s this life!
I’m one of the few people who can claim to have made the captain of the Enterprise cry. It’s in the title! Did you read that? That’s right! I’m the guy! Here’s the scene; Prone on his Borg assembly table, Picard is in the process of becoming Locutus. Cybernetic implants are being drilled into his skull. His individuality is being submerged into the Collective. The camera pushes to his eye… a single tear wells and migrates down his cheek. Except there were no tears to migrate.
Patrick was dry as the Mojave desert. He could not generate that pivotal and pitiful wet trail of a tear. Today, you’d fix it in post, but back then, said tear needed to happen on stage, and on command. The call goes out! Drexler! Drexler! Drexler! Somehow it’s my job to make the captain cry. But I know what to do! In my makeup kit I have a mentholated Vicks nasal inhaler. In a flash, I drill a hole in the back of the tube, lean over Patrick, and blow thru it directly into his eye. Predictably the menthol caused a burning sensation, his eye welled with tears, and I was a hero! Take that, you big captain! Go cry to mama!
One final wonderful memory. There was that cliffhanger at the end of “Best of Both World Part I”. Remember? Riker squares off against Locutus… what’s left of his beloved captain. The conflicting emotions that flash across his face make for what is undeniably one of the great moments in Star Trek. For me it was a weird crossing of the streams when we reconvened months later to shoot Part II. Once again, we stand upon that bright, unyielding and vertigo inducing Borg catwalk. We crowd around Alan (“Grandfather”) Bernard’s sound cart. He has a television set up, and ironically they are airing “Best of Both Worlds Part I” here in Los Angeles. Frakes watches himself on the screen throwing down the gauntlet to Locutus, and as the camera wheels around to a tight close-up, he tersely commands, “Mister Worf… Fire!”. The Screen goes black, “To be Continued” fades in. Jonathan Frakes looks up from the monitor directly at me with looney intent, and trumpets … “Riker… The MAN… THE MONEY!” The crew bursts into guffaws. What a guy! Back to reality! I’m in the Twilight Zone, and officially the luckiest boy in the world! Some reality!
The assistant director yells: FIRST TEAM!
We are back on point, back on mission, back to the reality wrapped in unreality. That voice of god, fire-engine-red bell, rings out across the sound stage. The AD calls for “Quiet on the set!”, and it’s time to make history…. Annnnnnnnnd… ACTION!
Doug Drexler is a winner of both American and British Academy Awards, two Emmys (six nominations), the Saturn Award, the Visual Effects Society Award, and is a Peabody Award recipient.
Born in New York City, Drexler began his career as a protege of legendary makeup artist Dick Smith, working alongside the master in his famous Larchmont lab. Drexler’s makeup career culminated with the iconic pantheon of characters seen in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, after which he branched out into a variety of Hollywood disciplines.
Over his 40 years in show business, Drexler has served as visual effects cg supervisor, character makeup supervisor, illustrator, sculptor, scenic artist, and graphic designer. He has collaborated with such talents as Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Mickey Rourke, Michael Douglas, James Caan, Michael Mann, Sir Patrick Stewart, Glenn Close, Dustin Homan, Michael Cimino, Bette Midler, and Madonna.
Drexler was a creative mainstay on Star Trek for 17 years. His credits include Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, including four Star Trek feature films. He has served in more creative capacities than anyone in the 50 year history of the franchise, as scenic artist, graphic designer, VFX artist, and illustrator. His StarTrek career included the primary design of two Enterprise starships.
Drexler served as VFX CG supervisor and artist on SyFy’s critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, and Defiance. His latest endeavors include narrative virtual reality, and most recently won a Canadian CMA award (2018) for the Netflix Alias Grace VR Experience. Doug served as graphic designer on Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, and most recently as designer for Star Trek: Picard, seasons 2 & 3.