Note: This is a post I meant to write about six or seven months ago, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Stuff happened, but I still have a lot to say on this topic. So here’s a belated tribute to the movie’s anniversary, told in three parts.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the most divisive entries in the decades-long canon of Star Trek.
Much like the return of Star Wars twenty years later, Star Trek: The Motion Picture faced high expectations from a fan base that had patiently waited a decade for a continuation of the beloved series. Weighed down by behind-the-scenes production problems that have become legendary in their own right, the movie upon release was heavily criticized for its languid pacing, meandering direction and lack of action. Coming just two years after Star Wars had sparked a sci-fi and visual-effects boom, the movie was not-unfairly dubbed Star Trek: The Motionless Picture and Spockalypse Now by fans and critics upon its release Dec. 7, 1979.
Despite its many flaws, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an unlikely hit. It failed to generate toy sales and licensing revenue along the lines of Star Wars, but Trek fans tenaciously indulged in enough repeat viewings to deliver an impressive domestic box-office take of $82 million and a worldwide gross around $175 million. That made it the No. 5 film of the year, ahead of Ridley Scott’s Alien and just behind Apocalypse Now, Rocky II and The Amityville Horror. Kramer vs. Kramer was the year’s top-grosser, with $106 million in domestic ticket sales.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture also ended up being a hit in the then-new secondary market of home video, becoming a top rental on videocassette and the short-lived videodisc format upon its release in 1981. And it was further boosted by its airing as an ABC Sunday Night Movie in 1983, which restored some 12 minutes of footage cut from the theatrical version. The restored scenes had a huge impact on the story, including as it does a scene where Spock comes to terms with his own internal conflicts and sheds a tear for V’ger. The extended edition was released on home video to become the definitive version for fans. And a director’s cut was released on DVD in 2000, with Robert Wise going back in to polish the edit and finish several sequences that fell victim to tight deadlines.
All the fun stuff on this one is in the details, so let’s get into it. Most of the information here I’m pulling from several books, including Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ Star Trek: Phase II — The Lost Series, the 1984 edition of David Gerrold’s World of Star Trek, William Shatner’s Star Trek Movie Memories, Gene Roddenberry and Susan Sackett’s The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Herb Solow and Robert Justman’s Inside Star Trek: The Real Story.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture had a long development history. Production on the original Star Trek series was never smooth, from the original 1964 pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike that NBC rejected, to the then-unheard-of second pilot with William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk, through the fight to save the show from cancelation and its eventual demise. Most accounts from people who were there portray an often-chaotic production.
At the center of it was Star Trek creator and executive producer Gene Roddenberry, who himself was a source of much controversy. Roddenberry-approved versions of the show’s history always portray him as a lone creative voice fighting unimaginative network executives. But other points of view from folks like Harlan Ellison, Shatner, producer Bob Justman and exec Herbert Solow are decidedly less flattering toward Roddenberry as both a person and a producer.
After Trek ended its original TV run in 1969, Roddenberry tried to move on to other projects with little success. He wrote and produced the feature Pretty Maids All in a Row, a screwball romantic comedy which starred Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, Roddy McDowell and featured Trek veterans Jimmy Doohan and William Campbell. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. And his Trek-like attempts to do more sci-fi concepts on TV struggled to find an audience, with Genesis II, The Questor Tapes and Planet Earth all airing as TV movies but failing to make it to series.
Realizing Trek would likely be his one and only golden egg, Roddenberry moved back to the property in the early 1970s as Star Trek’s syndication success was skyrocketing. He succeeded in getting Trek back on the air as an animated series, but that was (unfairly, I think) dismissed by pretty much everyone as kids’ stuff, with the real goal being a live-action reunion of the original cast on the small screen or the big screen.
Entire books have been written about the back-and-forth between Roddenberry and Paramount on the issue of reviving Star Trek. Those plans were constantly in flux, taking the shape at various times of a low-budget feature series similar to Planet of the Apes, a series of 90-minute TV movies, a weekly hourlong TV series and, again, as a feature film of some kind. What eventually clicked was a return to the TV series format as Star Trek: Phase II, which would premiere in 1978 as the flagship show of Paramount’s planned fourth television network.
Most Trek fans know what follows: Roddenberry reworked the series, taking on suggestions most notably from the detailed and loving critique offered by “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode writer David Gerrold in his 1972 book (revised in 1984), The World of Star Trek. Among the changes: Kirk was too valuable as the captain of the Enterprise to go into dangerous situations each week, so an executive officer was created to handle that part of the job in Willard Decker. Decker also had some emotional baggage in his relationship with the ship’s new navigator, Lt. Ilia, who was from a planet where sexual relations was just how they got along. (This idea was never explained beyond the idea that Deltans just had sex with each other at the drop of a hat and it was normal for them. Being promiscuous is one thing, but the idea that you’d go into, say, a business meeting and do something sexual as a form of greeting is, well, strange and, frankly, sounds more than a little exhausting.) Chekov got promoted to chief security officer and Nurse Chapel, played by Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett, was promoted to doctor. When Leonard Nimoy refused to return to the daily makeup routine that Spock called for, Roddenberry created a replacement in Xon, a full-blooded Vulcan science officer who instead of trying to control his emotional side like Spock sought to discover that side of himself as a way to better work with and relate to his crew mates. (If any of this sounds familiar, just change the names of Decker, Ilia and Xon to Riker, Troi and Data, and you’ve got half the crew set for Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
The success of Star Wars lit a fire under Paramount, which invested a lot in developing Star Trek: Phase II. What’s especially interesting is that the show never had a chance. Announced in the summer of 1977, it was clear by early August that Paramount’s fourth network didn’t have the support to ever get off the ground. In the book Star Trek: Phase II — The Lost Series, the Reeves-Stevens write that Paramount’s then chief Michael Eisner decided in a meeting Aug. 3 that the pitch for the pilot “In Thy Image” was feature worthy and in that moment the series was dead. But it was a secret kept in that meeting for four long months, during which time scripts were written that would never be produced and sets half-built while behind-the-scenes machinations progressed on the real project, which was the feature. The great expense was apparently justified by the idea that if Paramount decided a year after the feature to return to TV, they’d have a dozen scripts already in the can and ready to go.
Meanwhile, the production cast Stephen Collins as Decker, Persis Khambatta as Ilia and David Gautreax as Xon. Coming on as director was Robert Wise, a true Hollywood legend who started as an editor on Citizen Kane before directing such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Heck, even Leonard Nimoy agreed to come back, demoting Gautreaux to a cameo as the commander of the Epsilon 9 station in the final movie.
It looked at this point like a feature would be smooth sailing, but the production was anything but. The script, first and foremost, needed to be updated to work as a feature. Veteran TV writer Harold Livingston was brought on board and began running afoul of Roddenberry, who constantly interfered in the scripting process by poorly rewriting pages that didn’t need it and setting everything back with substandard work. Livingston quit and was re-hired several times by Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Roddenberry, it seems, was trying to earn a screenplay credit by any means necessary, with his rewrites providing evidence he could submit to the WGA to earn that credit — and the money that came with it. (Roddenberry pulled a similar stunt with original series composer Alexander Courage, writing lyrics to the show’s theme song that were never meant to be used as a way to earn half the writing credit and therefore half the royalties from the tune. Courage never again worked on Star Trek.) Final writing credits went to Foster for story and Livingston for screenplay. You can read one version of the script here.
So production began without a finished script, which is never a good idea. With the movie shot almost exclusively on sound stages, production proceeded largely in story order. That explains why the movie’s plot is so vague for so long, treading water with lengthy re-introductions of the crew members and the USS Enterprise. DeForest Kelley’s Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, as usual, point out the idiocy of this with one of the movie’s best lines: “Why is any object we don’t understand always called a thing?”
At some point, clauses in the contracts of Shatner and Nimoy kicked in to give them story approval, so production slowed down again as everyone tried to figure out an ending to the movie. There were reportedly days where scenes were written in the morning for the cast and crew to shoot later that day.
The ending they did come up with is actually pretty good, though the middle of the movie is a serious slog. The alien object is revealed to be Earth’s primitive Voyager 6 probe, given the ability by an advanced race of alien machines to complete it mission of gathering all data possible and returning it to its creator. Along the way, it amassed so much data it became sentient. But it lacks the emotional side it needs to move to the next level. So V’ger seeks to merge with its creator, which it does with Decker, and moves into the next realms.
Having finished principal photography, Star Trek: The Motion Picture moved into its next disastrous phase: creating the visual effects. Again, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had pushed visual effects to a new level and shown their storytelling potential. And in the wake of Luke Skywalker’s rush down the Death Star trench, there was no way effects like those used on the original Star Trek series or on more recent efforts like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Space: 1999 were going to cut it. But George Lucas and his team at ILM, which created those effects and innovated those techniques, were working on The Empire Strikes Back. That meant Star Trek: The Motion Picture had to go elsewhere to find work that lived up to that level — a very tall order.
By all accounts, the original effects team, Robert Abel & Associates, spent somewhere north of a million dollars and had produced almost no usable footage. Adding to the pressure, Paramount pre-sold the movie to exhibitors, who had forked over significant advances for the right to screen the finished movie on Dec. 7, 1979. That money had helped Paramount finance the movie, but it also meant the release date couldn’t budge. It was a mad scramble to finish the movie and several important shots and major sequences got lost in the shuffle.
Wise also was battling the studio over the final cut of the film, with the studio pushing a version that featured more of the expensive VFX it was paying for while Wise was trying to balance the story. The mad race to finish the movie left Wise without a chance to test screen the movie with an audience, which he said for years afterward would have helped improve the balance of VFX spectacle and story.
Standing out as a triumph amid this scramble is the iconic score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. Reportedly, Goldsmith’s original score was found lacking by Roddenberry, Wise and the Paramount brass. They wanted a triumphant theme along the lines of John Williams’ score for — you guessed it — Star Wars. Goldsmith came up with a theme on the spot that satisfied everyone and went on to become an iconic part of Trek’s musical history, returning in subsequent features and as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Finishing the film truly came down to the wire. Final effects sequences were cut by hand into each individual print of the movie on a Paramount soundstage occupied by hundreds of film canisters waiting to be shipped out. Wise himself carried the print shown at the Washington, D.C., premiere with him on his flight out of Los Angeles.
Fan reaction could be summed up as disappointed but grateful for the movie’s existence. The box office results were not in Star Wars territory, but they did reveal an audience existed for Star Trek. And the movie turned a profit despite the studio calculating a then-record production budget of $44 million that — fair or not — included all the development costs of Star Trek: Phase II and likely all the way back to the early 1970s.
That success opened the door for more Star Trek, albeit versions that were much less extravagant.
Next: Is the movie any good? And why?