A feature on Star Trek‘s first cinematic outing, originally published in Death Ray 17 at the beginning of 2009.
Loved by some as the best of the Trek movies, hated by others for its ponderous pace, Star Trek: The Motion Picture at least brought Kirk and co. out of retirement. Guy Haley examines its troubled genesis.
Of all SF TV series, the original Star Trek remains the undisputed king. No other TV show has had such an impact on the genre as a whole, or spawned such a sprawling franchise. But its early history was rocky, with its future importance little in evidence. Cancelled after three years, in 1969 (it had, in fact, only narrowly evaded cancellation the previous year), it would be ten years and many near misses before Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit the big screen, and modern Star Trek would take off in a big way.
Trek‘s original viewing figures were low, but it built an audience for itself through endless reruns in syndication. In time it was to return as an animated show (1973-74), but these were lean years for Trek-creator Gene Roddenberry. Aside from the animated series, success continued to elude him. His film Pretty Maids All in a Row for MGM was only modestly successful. Of his many ideas for further TV shows, only four made it to pilots, and none to full series. Though the popularity of Star Trek continued to grow, for a few years he was unable to find work in the film and TV industry, and was forced to make ends meet by taking to the lecture circuit.
Finally, in 1975, development work on a possible feature film began. Scripts by such awesome SF demigods as Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison were received and rejected. Finally, in 1977 a script entitled “Star Trek: Planet of the Titans” by Chris Bryant and Allan Scott was greenlit, but before pre-production started, Star Wars came out, and a cagey Paramount canned the project for fear that the market would not cope with another big SF movie.
Instead, they would reinvent Star Trek for the small screen. Star Trek Phase II was announced. It was to be the spearhead of Paramount’s programmes for a brand-new network which would otherwise show TV movies. The show would bring back the old cast bar Leonard Nimoy (he was trying to disassociate himself from the character, and had had legal issues with both Roddenberry and Paramount to boot) and introduce new characters: Ilia, a bald, hypersexual Deltan, Decker, Kirk’s new executive Officer, and Lieutenant Xon, a full-blooded Vulcan right out of Starfleet Academy. A two-hour opening episode named “In Thy image”, based on an idea of Roddenberry’s for his abandoned show Genesis II, was written by Alan Dean Foster. Experienced TV director Robert E. Collins was hired to direct, and work got underway. But all was not quite as secure as it seemed, and the series was never to be made…
Paramount had worked out as early as August of 1977 that they could not make their new channel work. Unwilling to reveal this to their competitors, they kept it secret, and that included not telling the crew of Star Trek: Phase II. Actors were hired, 13 scripts written, sets built and miniatures completed. Then, in March of ’78, a full nine months after the decision to stop the project, Paramount-head Michael Eisner called a shock meeting: the series and the network were being dropped, but had decided to turn the pilot into a movie. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was born, its tumultuous conception a foretaste of things to come.
Though the story of the pilot (a dangerous alien intelligence comes to Earth looking for its creator. It turns out to be the now god-like Voyager probe) was retained for the movie, Alan Dean Foster was shut out, deemed too inexperienced to pen a movie, and the Writer’s Guild had to step in to ensure his name was retained on the script at all. Roddenberry did not get on very well with new script writer Harold Livingston. Livingston, an old hand, had attempted to recruit several other writers but ending up writing the script himself. The two argued so much that Livingston threatened to quit several times. The result was a script that was endlessly rewritten. Interference from executives and actors added to the turmoil, and daily drafts became the norm. In the end, the finale where Decker merges with Voyager was made up on the day of shooting.
Collins was also given the boot and replaced by Robert Wise (ST:TMP was to be his third SF film). He inherited a film that was ten weeks behind schedule before a single shot had been filmed. The script was unfinished, the sets needed upgrading to movie standard, casting and costuming had to be revisited… Wise, who was convinced to take the role by his Trek-mad wife, became so worried he considered throwing in the towel too, and tried to convince Paramount to can the project altogether.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is rightfully remembered for its fantastic effects work, but these, like so much else on the film, proved problematic to produce. Robert Abel Associates, the company hired to provide the effects, were dropped when it looked like they could not cope with the scale of the job. Paramount offered Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) a big pot of cash if he could get all the work done by the Christmas release date. He dropped most of the already completed effects (only the wormhole sequence is a full Abel effect). Trumbull sub-contracted John Dykstra, and employed the effects team off the just completed Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Trumbull also wrote and directed the sequence where Spock goes deep into V’Ger in a spacesuit, completing it at the last minute. (An earlier version of this sequence had been part filmed but abandoned after it was calculated that just removing the wires from the shot would consume most of the effects budget.)
The models used were large – the Enterprise model was eight feet long – but not large enough to allow the detail shots the production needed, so Trumbull had to commission a special periscope camera system from Panavision. A further problem was that the depth of fields in many shots required exposure times counted in minutes, substantially adding to production time. All this helped make Star Trek: The Motion Picture come in at $46,000,000, the most expensive film ever made at the time.
Post-production went on until the day before the film was released. The copies were shipped wet, straight from the duplication lab, and airlifted to their destinations. Neither sound mix nor effects shots were fully completed until the 2001 release of the Director’s Edition.
Critical reception for the film was mixed. Roddenberry was wary of drawing comparison with fantasy of Star Wars, so had pushed the film in a more serious direction. (To date, this remains the only Trek film in which the phasors are not fired). Regarded as ponderous and self-important, critics dubbed it the “Slow-Motion” and “Motionless” picture, and pointed out that the plot is very similar to that of the second season episode “The Changeling”. The film’s gross, roughly three times that of its cost, was a disappointment to Paramount. But others praised its effects, and Jerry Goldsmith, who began a long association with Star Trek with TMP, was nominated for an Oscar for his score.
Its influence on later Star Trek was pronounced. Its slowness and lack of action prolonged the franchise’s push and pull battle between serious SF concepts and cosy space opera (Roddenberry, often in the middle of this particular storm, was virtually frozen out of the next film, which was to be a swashbuckling space adventure) and it introduced many things – music, make-up, cinematic sensibilities, even the Klingon language – that we regard as uniquely Trek. Star Trek was back to stay.
Star Trek Fact File
A dozen Star Trek The Motion Picture factoids for your edification.
- Gene asked his wife Majel if she’d don a furry tail and reprise M’Ress, the catwoman she’d voiced in the cartoon. She demured and played Doctor Chapel instead.
- This is the first time Klingon and Vulcan are spoken on screen. James “Scotty” Doohan wrote words for both languages (the Vulcan words were dubbed over actors were speaking English, so he devised words that fit the lip movements). Marc Okrand later used the Klingon words as the basis for his Klingon Language.
- The cast were getting older when the film was made – William Shatner was 48, DeForrest Kelley 59, James Doohan 59, Leonard Nimoy 48, and Nichelle Nicholls 46. Special lighting and camera tricks were used to hide their age, and Shatner went on a crash diet.
- The scene where Kirk addresses the crew before they set out involved many notable extras. Including Bjo Trimble who co-organised the letter campaign that led to Star Trek coming back for a third year. David Gerrold, who wrote “The Trouble With Tribbles”, Robert Wise’s wife, Millicent and James Doohan’s twin sons Montgomery and Christopher.
- The costumes for the alien crew members were leftovers from the 10 Commandments.
- The NX-01 was nearly inserted digitally into the shots of Decker showing Ilia previous ships named Enterprise when the film was tarted up in 2001. Though this did not happen, the ringed SS Enterprise from the pictures appeared in Star Trek: Enterprise instead.
- The V’Ger prop was so large that one end of it was being used in scenes while the other end was still being built.
- Chekhov was going to be killed, this was changed so he just injured his hand.
- Uhura’s ear-pieces are the only props from the original series – they forgot to make new ones.
- It is the longest Trek film, and the only one to break the two hour mark.
- Wise made Goldsmith redo his score, as he said it “sounded like sailing ships.”
- A bizarre electronic device, the Blaster Beam, was one of many different instruments used in the score. It was 15 feet long, and was played by hitting it with an artillery shell. This was made by Craig Hundley, who had played two guest roles in the original series when he was a child.
Did you know…?
It’s often assumed that Alan Dean Foster ghost wrote Gene Roddenberry’s novelisation of the film. This is not the case. Foster wrote the script for the original pilot episode of Star Trek: Phase II, upon which the film was based. He did write the novelisation of Star Wars, but he did not write the Star Trek book.