In one telling scene of the new Ben Lewin film Please Stand By, a caregiver named Scottie (Toni Collette) asks her son Sam (River Alexander) why her autistic charge Wendy (Dakota Fanning) finds Star Trek so “fascinating.” Exasperated with his mother’s nerdy bias, Sam says “Maybe it’s the characters.” Out this weekend in a limited theatrical release and available through VOD digital services, Please Stand By tells Wendy’s story: a young autistic woman hell-bent on delivering her sprawling Star Trek fan script to a writing contest. Like all good Star Trek, Please Stand By is a character-driven story, seemingly one without any science fiction. Still, the film’s script writing contest does come from an alternate dimension.
“I don’t think there was a contest like this, no,” Lewin tells Inverse. “But, we politely asked J.J. Abrams if he would do a TV announcement. He was considering it! But he gave it his blessing. It’s not based on an actual contest, but it could have been.”
In the movie, the writing contest seems to take place in present-day and encourages writers to send in their fan scripts to “Star Trek Boldy Go Writing Contest.” Something like this hasn’t existed in the present day, though there are two historical examples of similar concepts. In the Nineties, Star Trek: The Next Generation had an open-submission policy, which meant that amateurs could submit their spec scripts for consideration on the show. The most successful fan to get his script accepted was the now, famous writer/producer Ronald D. Moore. Also, From 1998-2007, Pocket Books ran a short story contest called “Strange New Worlds,” which awarded writers with money, and publication in special Star Trek anthologies. The contest also made a comeback in 2016. For Trekkies of a certain age, memories of mailing their stories into the “Strange New Worlds” contest will likely be stirred by watching Wendy work on her fan script.
Wendy’s autism creates a neat parallel with the famous character of Spock, allowing the narrative of the film to gracefully touch on themes of isolation and emotional expression in a way that will be familiar to Trek fans who felt left out as kids. Lewin cites these emotional components — and their connections with autism — as his primary motivation for taking on the script, written by Michael Golamco. “My life is a search for stories that move me. It’s very instinctive,” he says. “I got this script and I felt that I knew people like this. But I wanted to know more. People with autism are usually represented as men. So, one of the things that intrigued me was that this was a woman. I felt that was fascinating about the story, but I realized quickly I had a lot to learn.”
What Lewin had to learn, was quite simply, everything there was to know about Star Trek. “I knew practically nothing about Star Trek!” he says. “I became a scholar of it in the course of making the movie. I started binging watching all the original episodes. And I decided we were going to base it in that kind of early Star Trek culture. I tried to keep our representations accurate. I mean they wore the same spacesuits as they did in the “The Tholian Web.” And we filmed at Vasquez rocks where Captain Kirk fought the Gorn. We tried to keep the language in that original Gene Roddenberry style. I think I took the authenticity very seriously. And I hope that our Trekker audience appreciates that.”
Though Wendy sees herself as Spock, to a point, it’s her estranged relationship with her sister Audrey, that comprises the film’s primary emotional journey. The Trek connections are subtle here too, Audrey is played by Alice Eve who played Carol Marcus in Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013. But Lewin was aware that making Trek connections to obvious could hurt the integrity fo the movie.
“I didn’t want to make the two stories too parallel. That would have been to on the nose, too artificial,” Lewin explains. “But, I certainly wanted to maintain the symbolism of two people who are very close and having to deal with separation. Wendy is speaking the voice of anyone who is going on a journey they’re afraid of.”
Even though Wendy’s dog rocks a Star Trek sweater, she doesn’t have a friend named Sulu, nor does she dress in a Starfleet uniform. But, there’s something a brilliant about having her caregiver being named Scottie. Toward the end of the film, when Wendy thanks Scottie, you can see her transposing the Scotty from the Enterprise with the real person who looks out for her. It’s a nice idea, too. That somewhere, there’s a person who, like the fictional Scotty, can keep all of our engines going, even when things feel like they’re on the verge of falling apart.