STAR TREK, The Motion Behind the Picture
STAR TREK, The Motion Behind the Picture
Star Trek, The Television Program, premiered over the NBC television network on Thursday evening, September 8, 1966, and, arguably, went on through countless reruns to become the most popular series in television history. After three years, two producers, several premature cancellation notices, and enumerable adventures to galaxies where no man had gone before, the United States Starship Enterprise cruised into her hangar at Paramount Studios and prepared to make dry dock her permanent home. In July of 1969 the final episode, “Turnabout Intruder,” aired belatedly and the seventy-nine show run of Star Trek had seemingly come to a close.
Speculation began almost immediately that a feature-length motion picture would be made from the deceased but deeply mourned series. Interviewed that summer and questioned regarding the eventuality of a Star Trek picture, William Shatner appeared to shovel the last bits of dirt over the battered hull of the Enterprise when he responded curtly “No…Nothing…Forget it.” Shatner reasoned that his career would never be tied down to an everlasting association with Star Trek, and that the creative impetus that first inspired the program had long since run dry.
Five weeks later, in the early part of September 1969, the syndicated rerunning of Star Trek episodes began in cities throughout the country and Paramount soon discovered that it had an unexpected hit on its hands. The science fiction ratings numbers in the pasture than it had even shown on the farm. Competition faded quickly from the channels while Star Trek clearly dominated its time block from coast to shining coast. UHF stations had suddenly come into their own with the programming of the beleaguered network refugee. The legend was only beginning.
The merchandising of the series was just beginning as well. In New York, the first Star Trek convention was held at the Americana Hotel as thousand of “Trekkies” poured into the city from all over the country. At first an isolated event in a single city, the phenomenon soon blossomed into a nationwide media event with similar conventions beings scheduled in virtually every major city in the land. Members of the original cast began appearing at the larger gatherings, and hug profits started rolling in for nearly everyone wise enough to stage and maintain these gargantuan enterprises. Meanwhile, thousands of signatures were being collected and patiently being submitted to both Paramount Pictures and the National Broadcasting Company in the hope that Star Trek might either be rejuvenated as a weekly series or turned into a motion picture.
If NBC was oblivious to the outcry, Paramount was not. In the mid seventies, the studio began thinking in earnest about filming a feature version of Star Trek. At the outset it was obvious that there would be problems, perhaps insurmountable. Most of the cast had indicated a willingness to participate in the project with the notable exceptions of the program’s principal players, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Both actors had tasted and savored the popularity that the show had brought to them and neither performer wished to take what seemed tantamount to a backward step in their respective careers. Nimoy nurtured a desire to do more important things with his life than stand before a camera covered with green face paint. He wished to direct and place the more juvenile aspects of his career to date firmly behind him. Shatner considered the three-year series a part of his permanent past. He too wished to prove to the public and to his peers that Captain James Kirk was merely a tiny part of a long and highly versatile career. Both actors required suitably fattened salaries and final, unequivocal script approval up front before either would consider an involvement in a movie. For a time the studio had even considered making a film without Nimoy. Spock, unquestionably the program’s single most popular character, might have to be killed off.
But these were later problems. Early on, the search for a workable script was proving futile. Several scripts were commissioned by the studio and later rejected. The brilliant writer Harlan Ellison, author of the Emmy winning episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” perhaps the series’ finest moment, was among the writers whose scripts we rejected. Ellison’s work was judged too ambitious by the studio which apparently wanted to get by with a less expensive screenplay. The picture, it seemed, would not be destined for theater screens in America but only in Europe. In the United States, the Star Trek film would serve as the pilot for a newly rejuvenated version of a weekly or even monthly network television series. Earlier, a wealthy industrialist named Obermeyer had attempted to set up an independent fourth network to combat NBC, CBS, and ABC with his own alternate programming. The idea had gotten off a shaky start with only a handful of stations subscribing throughout the country. Finally, his dreams in ruin, Obermeyer gave up his network and called off any future commitments. Now Paramount was considering its own entry into the fourth network follies, and Star Trek was envisioned as the heavy artillery that might lure subscribers into the fold.
According to Susan Sackett in her book The Making of Star Trek (Simon & Schuster), the final script, titled In Thy Image, would be based upon a story idea by producer Gene Roddenberry which had originally been intended as an episode from Roddenberry’s unsold series Genesis II. The original story, “Robot’s Return,” was revised by Alan Dean Foster who had written the paperback adaptations of NBC’s short-lived Star Trek cartoon series. Roddenberry and writer Harold Livingston continually reworked and refined Foster’s scenario until they were at last satisfied that they had arrived at a manageable script. In Thy Image would be the two-hour pilot film that would signal Star Trek’s return to the airwaves.
Alas, the intended series was not to be. Realizing somewhat belatedly than discretion was the better part of madness, Paramount abruptly canceled its plans to organize a fourth network and hastily pulled out of the negotiations. The major networks, happily, were safe. It remained for Paramount to pull yet another surprise out of its bag of corporate tricks. On March 28, 1978, it was revealed that Star Trek, rather than being scrapped for the unpteenth time, would be turned into a major theatrical motion picture. To nearly everyone’s shock and delight, the entire cast had finally come to terms and agreed to appear in the picture. Multiple Oscar winner Robert Wise was chosen to direct the increasingly ambitious production which was now budgeted at fifteen million dollars.
Filming of Star Trek, The Motion Picture commenced on August 7, 1978, and for Gene Roddenberry, who had never given up his dream, this was indeed a dream come true. As with most dreams, however, a number of nightmares surfaced between the hours of midnight and dawn. Robert Abel & Associates were hired to achieve the optical effects. Abel and his co-workers were sincere and ambitious, but it soon became horribly apparent that their skills were insufficiently developed for the enormous complexities of a wide-screen spectacular. In the summer of 1979, which all of the film’s live-action photography completed and a mere handful of months remaining until the scheduled release of the picture, much of the optical footage already shot had to be scrapped. Douglas Trumbull was asked to come in and leud his considerable expertise to the beleaguered company. Trumbull and his crew labored through round the clock shifts in order to bring the picture in on time. Reportedly, many of William Shatner’s scenes were thrown out along with the appeared that the part of Captain Kirk would be reduced to a mere cameo. When it behooved the studio to request the actor’s cooperation in the reshooting of a number of key sequences, Shatner assignments. Luckily, there appeared a break in his schedule and the actor was able to return to the set for the new footage.
By September, the visual effects were nowhere new completion, and nerves, understandably, began to fray. Although Paramount was locked into a rigid commitment to open at Christmas, the studio, panic-stricken, began thinking in earnest of delaying the premiere until the spring of 1980. It was feared, and with good reason, that the picture would not be finished in time. After several discussions with the legal department, however, it was decided that the resultant harm to the picture and to the studio would be too great. Theaters plan their release dates months in advance of an opening and to change their schedules so near to the well-advertised premiere of the picture would have left many chains literally out in the proverbial cold.
Spirits at the corporate level were sinking so low that Paramount began to fear that it had the financial disaster of all time on its hands. Robert Wise, tiring of the enumerable changes in corporate planning, responded in disgust that he had washed his hands of the project. In a gem of executive decision-making it had, at one point, been suggested that the picture be released initially sans any special effects whatever until the time that the prints could be recalled and replaced with a “finished” product. As it turned out, the picture was released somewhat incomplete with a longer version scheduled for the reissue sometime in mid-1980.
Groping at musical straws, the intelligentsia at the studio decided the Jerry Goldsmith’s score was lacking in quality and that his completed them sounded too unlike the work of fellow artist John Williams to become successful. If Goldsmith aped Williams, they reasoned, the soundtrack album would be a hit and people would then want to see the film. Goldsmith was furious and adamantly refused to take the suggestion seriously. As madness filled the air, it was decided that what the picture really needed was a rock or disco main title. Surely they would have a hit on their hands if only Jerry Goldsmith would modify his style to accommodate the Bee Gees. When the gifted composer walked off the picture, reason reared its unfamiliar head and Goldsmith was given permission to finish the film as he’d started it. At Gene Roddenberry’s insistence, however, the musical theme of the original television series was inserted, however briefly, at strategic points through the film. While the familiar series theme by Alexander Courage was somewhat awkward in the context of its obviously forced placement into a larger body of music, Roddenberry reasoned that the admirers of the television program would be disappointed if the piece were excluded from the film. Dutifully, and not a little reluctantly, Goldsmith complied.
Alarmed and dismayed by the delays and rumors of impending disaster, the cast and crew grew increasingly bitter. During a radio interview with William Shatner in Los Angeles, an interviewer asked for the actors’ impressions of the eagerly awaited film. Replied Shatner: “They should have left well enough alone.”
Snow gently draped the streets. A chill was in the air. It was Christmas in America. The world premiere of Star Trek, The Motion Picture was held in Washington, D.C. In the audience were the stars, the producer, the director, the composer, and an enthusiastic assortment of politicians, celebrities, and simple fans. Soon millions more would witness for themselves the video molehill that aspired to the lofty peak of the snowcapped Paramount mountain.
What they saw at last would surprise and delight many, yet disappoint still more. Star Trek, as its production would suggest, is a very mixed bag of tricks. It should be stated at the outset that in spite of a myriad of problems both subtle and obvious, Star Trek, The Motion Picture is the script. It is entirely too ambitious for its own good. That was in fact the problem from the start. In Thy Image literally backed itself into a corner from which there seemed no escape. Logically, there was no way that the story could realistically be resolved without allowing the machine to reign triumphant over mankind. Quite obviously, it was not the intention of Messrs. Roddenberry and Wise to resurrect the mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise only to obliterate the ship, its crew, and the rest of mankind in the bargain. Therefore, it was relatively essential that the film should have an upbeat ending. The problem was how to do it plausibly. Judging from the finished product, however, it would appear that the question was never resolved.
The finale, while lovely and optimistic, is just a trifle too east, too pat. The incomparable dilemma woven so laboriously earlier in the film is all at once not a problem at all. The solution is wrapped simplistically in a neat and tidy little package and sent off on its merry way. It nearly conveys an impression of an hour long television episode which, racing against the ticking of the corporate clock, must suddenly resolve all of its loose ends before turning into a pumpkin… or an NBC peacock.
Briefly, Star Trek concerns the efforts of the Enterprise crew to neutralize a matter-devouring emissary from a distant galaxy threatening to make breakfast of the Earth. The rampaging visitor is actually a probe sent to the stars by mankind to search for other forms of life. Somewhere along the way it ran into a bad element, a planet of machines that, like IBM, sought to take over the world. In a wedding of steel, the two machines converge and begin the long journey back across the stars in search of truth, the meaning of existence, and a creator to call dad.
If any of this sounds familiar, there’s ample reason why it should. The Star Trek television program itself has utilized this basic premise repeatedly, adding to the considerable annoyance of admirers who had hoped for a more original story to propel the Enterprise and her crew into theatrical space. With some justification, it was hoped that the writers of Star Trek’s initial big-screen flight would venture where no man had gone before. Instead we have an implausible pastiche of small-screen series reruns… or The Best of Star Trek. In Thy Image, as it turned out, was a fitting title for a story that merely copied elements from three of the televisions series’ most televised episodes. In “The Immunity Syndrome,” the giant starship penetrates a huge, single-celled, floating amoeba that is absorbing planetary systems in its path. Once within the creature’s system, the Enterprise is pulled deeper and deeper until little hope remains that it will ever see the stars again. In “The Doomsday Machine,” the Enterprise encounters a huge floating tree stump that is absorbing planetary systems in its path for a gastral production of “Stump the Stars.”
The episode that most clearly resembles the motion picture, however, is “The Changeling,” in which an Earth probe called Nomad converges with a malignant probe sent from another galaxy. Assuming the characteristics of the alien probe, Nomad returns to the planet of its origin, searching for its creator and destroying virtually everything in its path.
Still, for all of its faults of which there are many, Star Trek, The Motion Picture is a visually stunning, vastly appealing endeavor, retaining many of the assets and much of the charm of the original network series. Certainly the film is at times awkward and juvenile but it is also filled with grace and poetry. There is a moment, perhaps the finest moment of the film, which recalls the lyrical symmetry of Stanley Kubrick’s monument to filmmaking, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It occurs as James Kirk is returning to his ship, the Enterprise, after an absence of considerable duration. Kirk has since been kicked upstairs and promoted to a desk job, but his eternal love affair with the great star cruiser has never abated. The ship floats in dry dock in space, being refitted for the mission to come, as a shuttle craft piloted by Scotty and carrying Jim Kirk approaches her moorings. The elation in Kirk’s eyes in apparent as the smaller craft nears the sleek and gallant cruiser. His excitation mounting, his pulse quickening, Kirk catches his first glimpse of the Enterprise. This is no momentary adulation, for the silver vessel is the captain’s love, his very life. She has been his mistress, the greatest love his heart has ever know. Though career and ambition have forced their separation, he knows now that she is the most enduring specter of his life.
The moment is captured beautifully by Richard H. Kline’s splendid cinematography and Douglas Trumbull’s majestic visual effects. It is a sequence of pure sensual wonder and elegance as the shuttle craft gently caresses the giant ship, savoring and fondling her every curve from above, beside, and beneath. Kirk’s eyes are ablaze, his face a mirror of his barely concealed passion while the tiny shuttle craft acts as a surrogate for his clearly sexual advances. This is foreplay on a grand scale., one of the loveliest and most unusual love ballets ever committed to film.
The human elements in Star Trek, however, are not a successful. The cast performs competently, but it must be stated that the picture lacks a single standout performance. The situation is certainly not helped by Paramount’s lack of confidence in allowing the original cast to carry the film. A similar effect was achieved from “Assignment Earth,” the final episode of the series’ second season, in which the program’s format was altered to accommodate a pilot script for a spin-off series. Since the episode focused on an additional set of characters, created to inhabit a new and entirely; separate television show, these new characters were highlighted throughout the episode while the Star Trek regulars were reduced to the status of supporting players. It was an awkward and uncomfortable situation, reminiscent of the structural dilemma within the motion picture. As the story revolves around Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta, portraying characters created for the film, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy become mere stooges, ineffectual and unimportant. It is a major miscalculation.
In the final months of the production, with time rapidly escaping the technical crew, John Dykstra, who had helmed the miraculous visual effects for Star Wars, was imported to assist Douglas Trumbull in saving the picture. With so little time at their disposal, the two special-effects wizards managed to achieve an astounding feat, for Star Trek is an astonishingly beautiful film. Here again, however, the script has deserted the technicians. After filing the screen with awesome spectacle, even they have been mercilessly backed against a wall by the limitations of a hopelessly inane finale. After the majestic prelude to Voyager’s discovery, one cannot help but succumb to an overwhelming sense of disappointment at the sight of the tiny earthbound capsule, and the sad realization that the film’s authors had proved incapable of carrying through the sense of wonder to completion.
Admittedly, after repeated viewings the initial disappointment and incredulity become easier to swallow. It is a lovely ending if one can just get by the maddeningly illogical denouement. One can understand how mechanized beings on another planet might have come to accept Voyager as “V’ger,” but it is difficult to imagine how the probe could have forgotten its own name simply because three letters on its hull had become illegible. It’s rather like having to read your own name tag at a convention to learn who you are.
Still, there is a certain, indefinable sense of magic about Star Trek, The Motion Picture that defies criticism. Perhaps it’s the hope, that invisible longing that so many of us carried in our hearts, to see a loser overcome impossible obstacles and finally make the grade. As stated earlier, Star Trek is indeed a mixed bag of tricks. It is neither the greatest science fiction motion picture ever made, nor is it the worst. The truth lies somewhere in between. More importantly, Star Trek has managed to survive, and that, in the final analysis, is the most enduring trick of all.******
Produced by Gene Roddenberry. Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Harold Livingston from a story by Alan Dean Foster and based on the television series Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry. Music be Jerry Goldsmith. Starring William Shatner (Captain Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (Doctor McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), George Takei (Sulu), Majel Barret (Doctor Chapel), Walter Koenig (Chekou), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Persis Khambatta (Ilia), Stephen Collins (Commander Willard Decker), Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand). A Paramount Pictures release of a Gene Roddenberry production. Running time: 130 minutes. Rating: G.