On Location With Star Trek

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DESIRE’ GONZALES
dj@gonzales.com

“We’re Rolling!”
“And,… ACTION!”

Those phrases echo over the arid landscape as the wind whispers in your ears. You can easily imagine the phantoms that populate the twisted, raw rock that boldly thrusts skywards from the earth to form one of the most photographed places on the planet. Vasquez Rocks.

Vasquez Rocks? What’s that?

Name a television series, a commercial, or any number of western movies and you will recognize Vasquez Rocks. Movies like THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, GUNGA DIN, FOR THE BOYS, and FLINTSTONES filmed there. One of the latest Jack In The Box commercials takes place at Vasquez Rocks. Some of Taco Bells commercials also. The television series, RIN TIN TIN,
F-TROOP, THE MAN FROM UNCLE, WILD WILD WEST, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, AIRWOLF, KNIGHT RIDER,… to name only a few filmed there.

Several of these television series filmed repeatedly at Vasquez Rocks. Just like STAR TREK.

Yes, STAR TREK.

Vasquez Rocks, once privately owned, is now a part of the Los Angeles County park system. They are located north of Los Angeles at the Agua Dulce off-ramp on the I-14 freeway. The rocks are named after the notorious Spanish-Californian bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, “polite and kind to women and children,” who used the area as his hideout from the law. The authorities never found his hideout. Something a little hard to believe when you’re standing at the rocks and looking at the speeding traffic on the freeway. The 745-acre park has the hallmark of wildly tilted slabs of sandstone, products of the ever-active faults of Southern California. And, during the time that the area was privately owned, a “mud” fort existed. The fort was constructed for LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935), starring Gary Cooper. And, over the years had been used by many television series. The last series to use the fort extensively was F-TROOP where they added a log-facade to part of the mud-facade. The fort was torn down in the mid-seventies after a lawsuit was brought against the county for 3 million dollars. It seems a lawyer, ignoring posted warning signs, climbed the fort and fell, injuring his back. The fort is buried right where it once stood.

Vasquez was used in five different episodes of the original Star Trek series — “Shore Leave,” “Arena,” “The Alternative Factor,” “A Private Little War,” and “Friday’s Child.” (Well, seven episodes for the real purists. The fort at Vasquez had a camouflaged, cameo roll in “The Cage” which was repeated later in “The Menagerie.”)

The first time STAR TREK went on location at Vasquez Rocks — excluding the pilot — was for “Shore leave.” In that particular episode, there were two locations — the rocks and Africa, USA. It is easy to pick out which scenes were shot where. Whenever the landing party is on arid land, they are at Vasquez Rocks. Sometimes, they run from one location right into the other location (ah, the magic of television). The two sites are actually quite close to each other, but not THAT close. They are located off the same road but in opposite directions. In fact, you can see the railing for the road in the scenes shot at the lake at Africa, USA Several other series shot there in the sixties and it is rumored that the treehouse from TARZAN still exists. Unfortunately, a devastating flood changed the familiar landscape — ripping out trees and destroying the lake. The area is now a trailer park.

In the episode “Arena,” the cast and crew spent most of their shooting schedule at Vasquez Rocks. The requirements of the script just could not be handled by a studio set. So, you could almost say the rocks starred in the episode, for only the ship interiors were done at Paramount. The fort was re-dressed to appear as the Cestus Three Outpost. And, yes, if you think that in one scene, it looks like the Gorn is crossing a road…, you’re right. The Gorn IS crossing the road that leads into the main area of the park.

During “The Alternative Factor,” it looks like STAR TREK spent only one day on location. The rest of the exteriors for the show were done entirely on set. The shots do not match very well in the episode but production scheduling for any series is fickle at best.

STAR TREK was probably very lucky to even get that one day at Vasquez.

For “A Private Little War,” STAR TREK shot at what is considered the “backside,” so we do not see the familiar, tilted sandstone. But, the show’s teaser, the Mugato attack’s, and the end-battle sequence were filmed at the rocks.

Production on “Friday’s Child” used both location and studio for exteriors. The Capellan’s camp was filmed entirely on stage, as was the exterior of the cave. (An interesting side-note about that cave — at Vasquez, the “cave” is actually two huge slabs of sandstone leaning against each other.) In the book “The Making of Star Trek,” there are some original location photographs of Vasquez Rocks for “Friday’s Child” (and, at least one from “A Private Little War”).

So far, dear readers, you have only been given a sparse run-down about WHAT was filmed at Vasquez Rocks, not the behind the scenes. A small glimmer of what is involved when a production goes “on location” is hinted at by the photographs mentioned from “The Making of Star Trek.” The logistics are staggering. At Paramount, everything needed to film a series is close at hand. On location, you have to bring everything and I mean EVERYTHING. Lights, lenses, sound equipment, film, dressing-rooms, chairs, make-up, tables, props, construction crews, traffic control, caterers, electricity… it goes on and on and on. You have to bring your own restrooms, too. In STAR TREK’s day it was especially true because Vasquez Rocks was in the middle of NO WHERE. Trucks and trucks and trucks were needed to transport all this stuff.

The cast and crew would look forward to shooting at Vasquez despite it’s lacking one very important item — no phone. (You have to remember that STAR TREK was filmed before the cellular phone.) And, they liked it despite the heat, the isolation, the terrible food, and having to be there at sunrise. They enjoyed it because a normal filming day meant spending a sixteen hour day inside a hot, stuffy soundstage. Who would want to do that day in and day out?

William Shatner has said that one of his strongest memories is watching the sun rise majestically over the sandstone. Sunset is even more breath-taking to watch as you feel the phantoms take over the area as darkness falls. Or, is that an Assistant Director with a bullhorn?

“All right… that’s a WRAP!”