The Road To ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

Star Trek: The Motion Picture turned 40 years old this year. Perhaps one of the least-loved, yet utterly successful films that spawned multiple sequels in the last few decades, The Motion Picture is a bit of conundrum. While it is rooted in the same universe as shows and movies that came before and after it, it has a markedly different look and feel than much of the rest of the Star Trek canon. This makes it something of an odd man out. At the same time, it’s a movie that tried to express a number of character and plot ideas that were used again with much more success in other adventures in the Star Trek universe.

The standard line among those who truly care about the film is quite ably reflected in the article The Treksperts Speak: Celebrating “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” on its 35th Anniversary. Gathering together a number of important writers and documentary producers in the field of Star Trek production history as well as behind the camera work on later Star Trek shows, there is a lot of talk about the uniquely epic nature of the story, the greatness of the musical score, and the important contribution it made to Star Trek history. That may all be true to a greater or lesser degree depending on personal taste, but it does not get at why The Motion Picture is the way it is.

The film is something of an object of fascination for both its good and bad qualities for this author since it first came out 40 years ago. A lot of information about the history of the Star Trek universe is now available on web sites like Wikipedia, Forgotten Trek, and Memory Alpha. These draw on an ever-growing list of books and documentary films by and about the people who worked to create the Star Trek universe and places near to it since 1970. The lens of this history helps bring the The Motion Picture into much better focus. It is one way for fans to see what that film tried to do. It also provides insight into how the film achieved some goals and failed to meet others.

In that spirit, this is the first of three planned articles discussing Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This one discusses the 9-year period between September 1968 and November 1977, when much happened that determined or influenced the contours of the film. The next article will discuss the making of the film itself and its release. Finally, the last article will discuss what happened after and how The Motion Picture influenced the later films, The Next Generation television series, and beyond.

Early Beginnings

As a number of sites attest, the earliest roots of The Motion Picture go back over 10 years before its release to a Gene Roddenberry convention appearance in September 1968. At the World Science Fiction Convention in Oakland, California (also known as Bay-Con), Gene Roddenberry announced that he was in discussions with Paramount (the new movie studio owners of Star Trek, thanks to the sale of production company Desilu by Lucille Ball) to produce a motion picture prequel describing how Kirk and crew met at the Academy. It was met with enthusiastic applause.

Science fiction fans had good reason to be quite optimistic at that point. The series was saved by an enthusiastic fan campaign the previous Winter and Spring. Fans protested at the Burbank, California and New York City offices of NBC. NBC got large amounts of fan mail, with numbers being floated over the years ranging from hundreds of thousands to several million. Much of it was neatly written on good paper or personal letterhead from doctors, lawyers, and even Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor of New York State. The start of the third season of Star Trek was about six weeks away, and everything looked bright.

Little did they know that all was not well behind the scenes. NBC renewed the series, yes, but cut the budget. After originally promising Gene Roddenberry a 7:30pm Monday night time slot, the network reneged and put Star Trek on at 10pm on Friday night — a known graveyard for television shows in the years before VCRs, DVRs, or on-demand digital viewing. As a result of these developments and a growing physical exhaustion of the sort that drove producer Gene Coon from the show in the previous year, Gene Roddenberry hired Fred Freiberger as producer and largely stepped away from day-to-day involvement with the show. Star Trek was rotting from the inside out and would not last past another season. From there, the show was, by nearly all expectations, dead.

After Star Trek: TOS

Where Gene Roddenberry went in 1968 and 1969 was over to MGM Studios to first write and then also produce a sort of counter-culture, free love thriller starring Rock Hudson called Pretty Maids All In Row.

If those words don’t seem confusing when strung together, it was a rough time in Hollywood. The world didn’t seem to make sense any longer to many of the men in charge. With benefit of hindsight, it is now possible to see that changes in taste, in the structure of the film business, and competition with television over the previous 10-20 years were finally killing off movie studios as they had been since the 1920s. Many of the studio names would endure, but the business of motion picture production would change radically in the 1970s.

Without that hindsight in the Summer and Fall of 1968, all the men in charge of movie studios could do is try to hang on and find a way to tap into the emerging youth culture that was constantly in the news. Warner Bros. found a monster hit in the Summer of 1969 with Easy Rider. Produced and directed by two of the film’s youthful stars and made for a mere $60,000, the film made $60 million (or something like $400 million today). MGM was on the hunt for a similar money maker.

What they got in 1971 was a mess called Pretty Maids All In A Row. In spirit much like Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls released the previous year, it’s a film that could not ever be made today. Rock Hudson played a high school football coach who sleeps with the students and encourages a female colleague to do the same. At the same time, those pretty girls he chases (since Rock Hudson was only known as a straight All American leading man at that time) are turning up dead.

Hudson’s career was in a valley between his Hollywood glory days and his re-emergence on television in McMillan (later McMillan & Wife). Roger Vadim directed, his first film since Barbarella. Vadim wanted Brigitte Bardot to play the female lead, but she was unavailable. Angie Dickinson was recruited instead. Telly Savalas essentially plays his Kojak role years before it was invented. A group of attractive young actresses round out the cast.

Despite what the plot suggests, the film was not a career killer for anyone involved. All the big names eventually went on to bigger and better things. The film was pretty much panned by East Coast critics, but did a bit better with those out West. Few financials for the film are available online these days, but John Landis describes the film as a “substantial hit“. Quentin Tarantino put the film on a personal list of Ten Best Films Ever, for whatever reason. While it necessarily didn’t clarify Gene Roddenberry’s future as a filmmaker, it did allow him to add motion picture Screenwriter and Producer to his resume. These would impact Star Trek: The Motion Picture in just a few years.

Back To Television

With Pretty Maids finally released in the Summer of 1971, Gene Roddenberry returned to television. Through his production company, Norway Corporation, he decided to develop a number of pilots with science fiction themes. One of these was for a new futuristic series called Genesis II. The original premise was for NASA scientist Dylan Hunt (played by Alex Cord) to be frozen in suspended animation in 1979 as a test for a system for long duration space flight only to wake up in 2133 in a world recovering from nuclear war. There he meets a number of cultures competing for dominance of the North American continent. Among them are PAX, the democratic pacifist descendants of the pre-war scientific community, and the Tyranians, a race of mutants with two hearts, two navels, and an authoritarian political system. The pilot ends when Dylan Hunt destroys the Tyranians using a nuclear missile they want him to fire at PAX.

Several story ideas were developed for Genesis II if it got the green light from the CBS Television Network. Among these was an idea called “Robot’s Return.” It was similar to the Star Trek: TOS episode “The Changeling” by John Meredyth Lucas. Computers and advanced technology left on a moon of Jupiter by NASA in 1992 evolve into a new form of life that returns to Earth, looking for the God that created it. Since Dylan Hunt is recalled to be part of NASA, the life form considers him to be a messiah. While CBS did not exercise its option on the series after the pilot ran in March 1973, that idea would be picked up a number of times on the road to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Meanwhile, against all odds, Star Trek was not dead. In fact, it was making Paramount large buckets of money. While the third season of the show was not of the best quality, it did produce a high enough episode count for Paramount to consider offering it in syndication to stations wanting to fill nightly holes in their schedules. Kaiser Broadcasting had purchased syndication rights as early as the first season to run against evening network news shows in several major markets. The initial Kaiser ratings were good, and eventually the word spread. Star Trek re-runs saturated television in the early and mid-1970s. With cable (which was rarer in those days), it was possible to see two, three, or sometimes four Star Trek episodes on different channels between 4pm and 9pm on local network affiliates and big city independent TV stations, five nights a week, plus occasionally on weekends. The Star Trek fan base grew substantially in those years and the money to Paramount rolled in.

In 1973, interest was substantial enough that NBC and animation producer Filmation paired with Norway Corporation to produce Star Trek: The Animated Series for the Saturday morning cartoon lineup. Each episode was half an hour and featured nearly the whole cast from The Original Series: Walter Koenig was left out, though he was asked to write an episode. The size of the voice cast made it the most expensive animated series produced at the time and despite what the Wikipedia entry for The Animated Series says, three of the episodes were recorded with all the cast present at once.

TOS script supervisor D.C. Fontana was made Associate Producer and handled much of the day to day work on the Star Trek end of production. Lou Scheimer handled the animation end. A similar production ethic to The Original Series was attempted, in spite of it ostensibly being a show for kids. Scripts from science fiction authors like David Gerrold and Larry Niven were accepted, and several episodes attempted to continue stories and characters from the original television series. The show ran for two seasons for a total 22 episodes between September 1973 and October 1974 with repeats continuing into 1975.

The success of the show was mixed, in both a critical and popular sense. At its best, The Animated Series was a worthy successor to The Original Series. An episode even won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1975. Harve Bennett (producer of several Star Trek films in the 1980s) described The Original Series as about 1/3 great, 1/3 good, and 1/3 just there (and pretty bad), which he said was a great ratio for a television series.

The problem with the animated series is that it comes nowhere near to that mark. There are a handful of really good episodes and the rest fall off to mediocre pretty quickly. That, combined with some animation mistakes (a colorblind director mistook pink for gray, causing some odd color combinations), caused Gene Roddenberry to question the legitimacy of The Animated Series as canon in the 1980s. Others, like D.C. Fontana, consider it to be the fourth season of The Original Series. Many of the concepts introduced there (like James Kirk’s middle name being Tiberius) were picked up and used in later Star Trek movies, series, and remasters.

If one thing came out of The Animated Series as far as storytelling philosophy goes, it was a tendency toward the epic. Animation made it as easy to draw a three-mile -ong spaceship as one only 100 feet. It also made it possible to create new races of aliens that would have been impossible to realistically place in a live action show. This tendency would re-surface shortly when Paramount came knocking to make a Star Trek movie.

The Animated Series also is significant to the history of Star Trek: The Motion Picture because it was the last time that Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy (who played Spock) worked together until the end of the decade. After the series ended, Nimoy came to differ with Roddenberry and Paramount over the lack of checks he was getting for his image on Star Trek-based advertising and merchandise. A lot of Star Trek-themed toys and ads were created in the 1970s, with Spock featuring prominently on many of them. Nimoy didn’t think he was getting the correct piece of the action. When asked about participation in any future Star Trek projects, Nimoy’s answer was a flat “no” for several years.

A Star Trek Movie?

In the Spring of 1975, Paramount came to Gene Roddenberry with a proposal: if he could come up with the right script, he could make a moderately priced Star Trek motion picture, with a budget of say, $3-5 million. This likely seemed a logical thing to do from the point of view of the studio.

Though big Hollywood studios were historically averse to the idea of science fiction films prior to the arrival of Star Wars because of their history as B-movie and drive-in entertainment, the popularity of the series in syndication suggested that there was enough of a market to cover that kind of cost. The fact that Roddenberry had also made a studio movie that made a few bucks probably didn’t hurt either. In all, it seemed a pretty safe bet, if there was script that could make everyone happy.

The first script that Gene Roddenberry came up with had the working title “The God-Thing.” There are a number of ways that the script is described, either by Susan Sackett, William Shatner, or Richard Colla (director of The Questor Tapes.) All of them are “Robot’s Return” on steroids and should seem very familiar in light of the film that actually got made. One of them goes like this:

An unknown entity of immense power is heading toward Earth, destroying the minds of starship crews in its wake. Spock is meditating on Vulcan, and had a vision of events affecting his friend James Kirk on Earth. On Earth, people begin having dreams and visions that God is returning. Admiral Kirk reassembles his old crew and takes the re-fitted Enterprise out to meet the entity. When they finally meet, the entity assumes many forms, all familiar in religion and myth including Jesus, that demand worship from the crew. The entity is a computer, created by beings cast out from another dimension. It is not a God but a Deceiver — a malign, malfunctioning entity. Kirk finally defeats it after one or more of the crew are injured or killed, and crew is left with a parting gift: they are returned to a point in time where the Five Year Mission is ending, with several years to live over again.

Whatever the script actually was, Paramount executives hated it. The studio was headed by fairly devout religious men, and none of them wanted a meditation on how God might be an alien and how humankind might outgrow or defeat God. Star Trek had dealt with those themes before on both The Original Series and The Animated Series, but was careful to cast aliens as Greek or Mesoamerican deities, not figures in religions still popular in much of the world. This script was, in tone, a much more direct humanist confrontation about the human need for religion and how ethical humanity could move beyond it. It was too metaphysical and controversial. To executives not inclined toward science fiction films, this was the wrong move.

With the failure of Gene Roddenberry to come up with a satisfactory script, Paramount executives looked to external talent to develop a suitable alternative. They turned to writers Chris Bryant and Allen G. Scott, who produced a script called “Planet Of The Titans.” It went something like this:

The Enterprise is racing to save a ship called the Da Vinci but arrives too late. The ship is gone, though survivors remain. Kirk is subjected to an electromechanical shock during the rescue, goes crazy, and flees in a shuttle craft toward what Spock believes is an invisible planet. Spock takes the Enterprise home in disgrace and leaves Star Fleet. Three years later, the Enterprise is refitted and under the command of Captain Gregory Westlake. A planet has been discovered where Spock suggested one would be, and it is thought to be the home to a powerful ancient race called the Titans, now disappeared. That planet is about to fall into a black hole. The Federation and the Klingons now race to this planet to locate technology that will affect the balance of power. The Enterprise picks up Spock on Vulcan, who only goes because he’s had a vision of his own death with the Enterprise crew. The ship arrives at the planet and is forced to perform a saucer separation to allow the engineering section to escape the protective fields that surround it. Spock reunites with Kirk, who has lived a feral existence with other beings trapped on the surface. The crew discovers that the planet is ruled by the malevolent Cygnans since the Titans left long ago. The Cygnans beam aboard the saucer section with the crew, it rejoins the rest of the ship, and Kirk orders the Enterprise into the black hole to save the Federation. The passage through the black hole destroys the Cygnans, but leaves the Enterprise trapped in the past at the dawn of human history. They are the Titans!”

The script had Gene Roddenberry’s initial approval and it attracted director Philip Kaufman to the project. Ken Adam was hired as production designer and he brought in Ralph McQuarrie, fresh off work on Star Wars, to redesign the U.S.S. Enterprise (see the Star Trek: Discovery starship design inspired by McQuarrie’s original drawings). The film was to be made in England with Jerry Isenberg as executive producer. Philip Kaufman and Gene Roddenberry eventually fell into conflict over the script, Bryant and Scott dropped out, and Kaufman began a re-write himself, hoping to cast Toshiro Mofune as Spock’s Klingon nemesis. With studio executives unsure over what they really wanted, the producer and director fighting, and Leonard Nimoy still upset, Paramount cancelled the project in May 1977.

A Paramount Television Network With Star Trek To Anchor It

After years of unsuccessful attempts to bring Star Trek to the big screen, Paramount studio executives decided that maybe it should go back to its roots on television and take Paramount with it. Paramount Chairman and CEO Barry Diller had come up through television and the studio was producing a lot of hit TV shows like Laverne & Shirley, Taxi, and (later) Cheers at or near that time. With the right push, it might be possible to lure independent stations in major markets into forming a new, fourth television network to compete with ABC, NBC, and CBS.

There were distinct financial advantages to owning a network. Such an arrangement would eliminate a middleman when it came to broadcasting: product by producers is sold to networks, usually at a loss, and then resold by the networks via advertising for much more money. Content producers only recoup their money later, when a program runs in syndication. Owning a network would allow one division of Paramount to bill another, and keep all the money in the same books. It would be something that could be done gradually; programming would be sporadic at first, just one night a week, with a single anchor television show followed by a series of made for TV movies. Success on that single night would allow the network to expand over a period of months or years.

Thus it was announced on June 10, 1977 that Paramount was starting the Paramount Television Service (PTVS) in April 1978, anchored by a new Star Trek series. A Star Trek two-hour TV movie would premiere in February 1978 followed by hour-long episodes Star Trek: Phase II from 8-9pm on Saturday nights. Paramount would also produce 30 “Movies Of The Week” to fill the 9-11pm slot following Star Trek: Phase II throughout the year, augmented as necessary by films from the Paramount library of hits.

Much about the new series would be familiar, and much would be new. Matt Jeffries would provide a modest update to the design of the Enterprise, primarily in the design of the warp nacelles and struts, leaving much of it the same (see the movie poster at the top of the article with the Phase II design). Uniform designs from the original series would be kept to reduce costs. William Shatner and DeForest Kelley would return to the new series, at least initially. Shatner’s fee was so high that his appearance was only guaranteed for the first thirteen episodes. After that, James Kirk would be recurring guest star, or possibly killed, if the series was successful without him. Leonard Nimoy was asked to appear as Spock in two episodes out of every thirteen, but flatly refused to return to television. Majel Barrett’s Nurse Chapel would return as a Doctor, to take the place of DeForest Kelley if he decided to leave.

In addition to existing characters, three new ones would be brought into the mix. Commander Willard Decker would function as Executive Officer and be mentored by James Kirk. Decker would take over in the event of Kirk’s departure. Lieutenant Ilia would be an alien empath on the bridge crew with a romantic history with Decker. Finally, Lieutenant Xon would serve as the brilliant Vulcan science officer, but with a difference: Xon would be a much younger Vulcan than Spock and still learning to fully control his emotions. Dr. McCoy would react warmly to this young Vulcan and he and Christine Chapel would try to help him as he traveled through the galaxy. The role of Decker was not filled during work on Phase II; Persis Khambatta was cast as Ilia and David Gautreaux as Xon.

Gene Roddenberry was given full creative control over the new series. He immediately hired two producers: Robert H. Goodwin and Harold Livingston. Goodwin was originally tasked with overseeing the 30 “Movies Of The Week” for PTVS, a strong sign of confidence on the part of Paramount executives for his skills. Seeing how having Paramount’s “fair haired boy” would be an asset to making his TV show, Roddenberry convinced him to take over the technical aspects of Phase II. Livingston was a novelist and TV screenwriter who could be counted on to handle the scripting end of production.

Throughout the Summer and Fall of 1977, pre-production on Star Trek: Phase II proceeded. Thirteen scripts were commissioned. Television-grade sets were started, including a new bridge and a new engineering room, and some test footage was shot. Some models were created, including the Enterprise, though not fully completed.

That all ended on November 11, 1977 when Paramount suddenly announced that Star Trek: Phase II was cancelled and a Star Trek film would be made. Production was set to begin in April 1978, once scripts, sets, costumes, and models were updated to meet the needs of the film.

The origin and development of that film will be discussed in the next article: “How Star Trek: The Motion Picture Was Made.”

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