When Reading Rainbow went behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation
[NOTE: This article was updated on April 2, 2018 with new screencaps thanks to the season 2 Blu-ray of Star Trek: The Next Generation. See my additional notes below.]
As I was writing my recap of the official, totally in-canon crossover between Webster and Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was reminded of another TNG-related gem that I came across years ago during my endless search for obscure film and video of particular (and peculiar) interest to regular visitors of this site: Specifically, an episode of the PBS series Reading Rainbow from 1988, where host LeVar Burton takes his young viewers behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation during its first season.
Long-time readers of the site might recall I previously wrote about this episode many years ago, and given the popularity of the Webster article, it seems like a great time to take another crack at this one. (Especially since, like pretty much everything I’ve written for the site that’s more than 7 or 8 years old, my previous attempt was really quite embarrassing and horrible.)
In the years since I first wrote about it, the full episode was uploaded to YouTube, and then removed from YouTube, and is now available as an extra on the season 2 Blu-ray of TNG. I have yet to snap up the TNG Blu-rays, for which I have no explanation, but once I do, I’ll update this article with better screenshots. In the meantime, I’ve gone back and dug up my original screen captures taken from when I taped this episode off the air (yes, kids, with a thing called a “VCR”) from my former local PBS station.
[2018 UPDATE: As mentioned above, I finally got around to taking screencaps from the Blu-ray, but I must admit they’re not that much better in quality than what I pulled off my old VHS tape way back when. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; it’s not like Reading Rainbow was originally captured on 35mm film or anything, and standard definition video can only look so good.]
Ordinarily, I’d give a lot of historical background before getting to a recap, but unlike Webster, Reading Rainbow is a show that needs no explanation. Hosted by actor, director, writer, and producer LeVar Burton, Reading Rainbow was a PBS show all about inspiring kids to read books. The series aired from 1983 until 2006, when PBS budget cuts forced its cancellation. The show was eventually resurrected as an app, which made headlines in 2014 when a Reading Rainbow Kickstarter campaign exceeded its goal of raising one million dollars in less than a day. It eventually racked up over $5 million in donations, which at the time happened to be a Kickstarter record.
Clearly, Reading Rainbow still occupies a special place in the hearts of many, and even if you’ve never seen the show, you know it by its undeniably cheesy theme song that speaks of butterflies in the sky and flying twice as high (which surprisingly aren’t subtle drug references). But the most important element of the show was host LeVar Burton himself. Most people today know him from Star Trek, but at the time Reading Rainbow began, he was already famous for his Emmy-nominated role as Kunta Kinte. In fact, way back when I first heard LeVar was cast on TNG, I was surprised they picked someone so well-known, particularly to play a supporting role.
Well, he’s taken that “supporting role” all the way to the bank, not only starring in seven seasons of TNG and four movies, but also by becoming one of Star Trek’s most prolific directors. All totaled, he’s directed 29 episodes of the various Trek shows, including some fondly remembered outings like “Second Chances”, “Things Past”, and “Timeless”, but also some really unfortunate ones like “Resurrection” and “The Emperor’s New Cloak”. But it seems that was par for the course for most Star Trek actors-turned-directors.
[2018 UPDATE: And the episode on Blu-ray also features a quick interview with LeVar where he talks about how this episode of Reading Rainbow was one of the most popular in the show’s history, and how he’s frequently heard from fans that this episode actually introduced them to Star Trek when they were kids. Which is nice enough, but then he starts going on a strange tangent about how the major milestones of his career—Roots, Reading Rainbow, and Star Trek—represent some sort of “through line” that “speaks to the American experience”. Certainly, I can see how Roots represents America’s history; that one’s obvious. And for all its inclusiveness and multiculturalism, it’s clear that Star Trek is basically “future USA, in space”. But tying Reading Rainbow into the American experience is a bit of a stretch. Hey, whatever; the interview lasts less than a minute, and on the plus side, it includes glimpses of the OG hand-drawn animated credits of Reading Rainbow instead of the newer computer-generated credits which were on my VHS tape.]
Watching Reading Rainbow, it’s impossible to not be amused by LeVar’s whole persona on this show. Every episode features a rather wide-eyed LeVar acting way too enthralled about every simple thing he encounters. Obviously, he was doing this because Reading Rainbow was a show geared towards little kids, but it’s funny how at the same time he was delivering rapid-fire dialogue about plasma conduits and antimatter phase injectors, he was also filming this show and coming off like he just took a massive dose of… well, I don’t really want to say “stupid pills”. How about happy pills? Whatever they were, I want some.
This particular episode of Reading Rainbow is titled “The Bionic Bunny Show”, after the book that’s the primary focus of the episode. It originally aired August 15, 1988, and was filmed in February of that year, when TNG was wrapping up its first season and had already been renewed for a second. So it probably seemed like the ideal time for LeVar to take viewers of Reading Rainbow down to the set of his other notable TV show.
Alas, this look behind the scenes of TNG isn’t quite as compelling as one would hope. In fact, it seems like the Reading Rainbow crew threw a dart at a calendar, then went down to the set and filmed whatever happened to be going on that day. So, obviously, we’re not going to find out how they did the saucer separation trick, or how they made that guy’s head explode in “Conspiracy”, or anything else cool that happened in the first season of TNG.
But in some miniscule way, that makes this peek into the inner workings of the show more interesting. Since they were limited to showing the making of a very short (and very unremarkable) scene, most likely we’re seeing what life was like 95% of the time for the TNG cast and crew. While we all imagine working on Star Trek: The Next Generation to be an exciting, non-stop action extravaganza, as this episode shows, some days were probably more punch in/punch out than others.
The episode begins with a shot from a TNG episode of the Enterprise-D cruising through space, while we hear the opening fanfare of the theme song. Cut to the bridge of the Enterprise-D, shot on video, and in comes LeVar, wearing a stiff cotton work shirt and jeans. “Hiii-iii,” he says loudly, “Welllcome to the Starship Ent – Er – Prise!” See what I mean? Happy pills. He tells all the kids out in TV Land that they’ve probably seen him as Geordi LaForge, “the ship’s navigator!”
“But now,” he slowly says, “Let me show you something I’ll bet you haven’t seen before!” Deanna Troi doing something of vital importance? Riker keeping his crotch out of Wesley’s face?