January 2, 2022

FTV: Star Trek – the Movie(s)


     The last time my wife surprised me with a book she found at our local St. Vinnie’s, we both had a few moments of head scratching trying to remember if I had already read it.  Published in 1994 by HarperCollins, Star Trek Movie Memories by William Shatner (with Chris Kreski) certainly seemed familiar.  The puzzle was solved a short time later when a pile of books I had loaned to another Trekkie fan were returned.  In the stack was the Shatner/Kreski collaboration that had caused our head scratching:  Star Trek Memories (1993, HarperCollins), a book I had read some years back.  The Memories book is centered on the TV series Star Trek, commonly referred to in Trekland as TOS (The Original Series).  Movie Memories picks up the story just as the TVseries enters its third and final season but well before the franchize hits the big screen.

     As he did in the first Memories volume, Shatner admits his interactions with others sometimes caused feelings of ill will with his fellow cast members.  Looking back, Shatner notes these actions were mostly unintended and often stemmed from what he calls ‘leading man ego’.  In both of his Trek books, he made it a point to let others give voice to what was happening without adding any ‘leading man filter’.  Sure, being a TV/movie star is a glamorous life, but kudos to William Shatner for pulling back the curtain far enough to give us a peek behind the scenes without whitewashing parts to make himself look better.

     On July 16, 1968, William Shatner (aka, Captain James T. Kirk) was on top of the world.  They (Shatner and Kirk) had been summoned by NASA.  The gig was a party arranged as a thank you to the NASA engineers and techies who had done the heavy lifting to put the Apollo moon landing program on track for the Apollo 11 mission scheduled to blast off one year later.  Shatner found himself backstage making small talk with various NASA officials and the three Apollo astronauts assigned to the flight, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and future first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong.  As the speeches and congratulatory comments flowed from the podium in front of the curtain he was waiting behind, Bill realized he was going to be the big finale.

     Shatner recalled the moment when he was finally summoned from behind the curtain:  “I’m absolutely stunned by the thunderous ovation that greets me.  These guys are literally standing o their chairs cheering, even chanting from the floor,  Trust me – I was excited just to be in attendance, but to receive this sort of overwhelming reception was beyond belief.  Somehow it just didn’t seem credible that a make-believe space explorer should merit the center of attention amid these real-life heros.”  On the flight back to Los Angeles, Shatner was pleased that his run as a ‘make-believe space explorer’ had captured the imagination of people in the ‘real’ space business.  “Star Trek,” he mused. “Would be around for a long time.  The show had been penciled into a high-profile, ‘can’t miss’ time slot in NBC’s fall schedule and (creator) Gene Roddenberry would be returning to the show on an everyday basis.”  This optimism was followed by events in L.A. a few days later Shatner would describe as ‘the beginning of the end’ for TOS.

     Star Trek’s prime Monday slot was suddenly reallocated to a new hip comedy show called Laugh-In.  Trek was pushed into a much less prime time slot – Friday nights at ten P.M., just the time when their prime viewing audience would not be home watching television.  Furious, Roddenberry told the suits, “Return Star Trek to Mondays at 7:30 or I walk.”  The suits responded. “Been nice working with ya,” and over the next eight months, budget cuts and an overall sense of doom and gloom about the pending cancellation hovered over the set.  A smaller budget meant no more shooting on location.  One notices much of the third season’s ‘action’ takes place on board the Enterprise.  The cast and crew pretty much went through the motions of producing a TV series and the decline in quality showed.  The Nielsen ratings tanked and to no one’s surprise, season three would mark the last of TOS.

     Shatner’s life went from ‘on top of the world’ in the summer of 1968 to ‘down in the dumps’ as the series spiralled slowly toward it’s inevitable death.  First, his marriage fell apart.  He moved out and the wheels of ‘separation and divorce’ spun him into, “A nagging grief and loneliness in regard to what I’d lost.  Worse than that, I could not even begin coming to grips with the fact that my three daughters, more beloved to me than anything else on the face of the planet, were suddenly gone, living, sleeping, laughing, singing, and playing in a different house.  I learned that there’s nothing more disheartening than the luxury of forced free time.”  As if it couldn’t get any worse, Shatner was soon to be an ‘unemployed starship captain’ covering a divorce settlement based on his ‘TV star’ salary.  Finding any work as an actor proved difficult now that William Shatner was so widely known as Captain James T. Kirk.

     The first summer after TOS was cancelled, Shatner’s agent found him work, of sorts, back in theater.  He joined a small traveling troupe in the Northeast where he would direct and star in standard summer-stock comedies like The Seven-Year Itch.  Touring resort towns from mid-May to early September helped distract Bill from his ‘how the mighty have fallen’ lifestyle and the incumbent financial troubles he was facing.  To cut his costs, he purchased a pop-up camper to set up in a parking lot or whatever space was available for each weeklong engagement.  With a generator to power his postage stamp sized TV, rudimentary kitchen and bathroom facilities, he had all the comforts of home.  With his black Doberman, Morgan, along for company, Shatner roamed the ‘straw-hat circuit’ with his no-frills set up for the summer of 1969.  On July 20, 1969, he and Morgan watched the first Moon landing from East Hampton, New York – a far cry from the elaborate celebration he had attended at NASA the previous July.

     When the summer season wrapped, Shatner was on a blacktop bee-line back to California to see his daughters ASAP.  He kept deflecting his agent who wanted him to turn around and go back east;  his presence had been requested by none other than the Kennedy clan.  Rose Kennedy was a major Star Trek fan and really wanted him to sit at her table at some big charity event, but it was in the wrong direction as far as Shatner was concerned.  Bill resisted to the point where they offered to send their private plane to pick him up.  He later realized he could have had the Kennedy’s plane pick him up as he was passing through Phoenix, fly to L.A. to collect his girls, take them on a joy ride to the charity gig, and return them all back to California.  Shatner was so focused on getting home he was not clear headed enough to think all of it through to propose the ‘family vacation’ angle.  Ironically, he got home, called his daughters so he could rush over to see them . . .  only to find they were on the way to a slumber party (“See you tomorrow, dad.”).

     The next several years would find William Shatner accepting any and all offers of employment. He had the big divorce settlement to keep ahead of and his own living arrangements to cover.  His agent kept him busy guesting on shows like Mission Impossible or hawking products like Promise margarine.  He wasn’t a starship captain or the lead on these shows, but he was working.

     Star Trek was dead, but not completely forgotten.  The series had cost so much money to produce that Paramount began offering TOS for syndication.  It was offered cheap to local stations to help recoup some of the money the studio had sunk into the show.  As a small station time filler, the Trek brand name was kept alive and even began attracting a new audience.  The cancelled series actually became a syndication hit.  Even when the seventy nine episodes of TOS were aired again and again, the ratings it was garnering kept climbing.  Star Trek watching parties were springing up on college campuses across the country.  Interest in the series even developed a new entity no one could have predicted during the TOS’s original run – things known as Star Trek Conventions suddenly came into vogue.  Gene Roddenberry saw these gatherings as an opportunity.  As early as 1972, he began making appearances on the convention circuit spinning tales and insider intel about TOS.  Gene fanned the flames by saying, “I would love to bring Star Trek back to television or maybe even on the big screen, but the networks and film studios just won’t get behind it.  Perhaps with your continued enthusiasm and support, they’ll see the light and give us a chance.  Would you like that?”

     Of course they would!  When Paramount eventually did come to ask him about bringing the series back, he refused!  Roddenberry knew they could not contractually move forward without him.  Gene also knew the game – hold on long enough to let the clamour for Star Trek to increase and up the value of the project.  Roddenberry now had leverage to push other projects to his own advantage.  While he held Paramount at arm’s length, Roddenberry was pitched an animated Saturday morning Star Trek by Filmation Associates.  What better way could there be to grow an even larger (and younger) audience.  He got Dorothy Fontana from TOS set up as a story editor / associate producer who in turn persuaded many of the better writers from the series to pen scripts.

The animated series served Roddenberry well:  It was a money maker, kept Star Trek fan’s hopes alive, and allowed Gene to pitch other pet projects with strings attached.  The carrot he held in front of the donkey was a ‘maybe someday’ return to the mothership – Star Trek – in either TV or big screen form.  It would be 1974 before Roddenberry and Paramount would begin negotiating future voyages of the Starship Enterprise.

     Cut to 1975.  William Shatner is still eking out a living as an actor.  The residuals he had been receiving for TOS had run out and he was, “Entirely unaware that anything was brewing in regard to Star Trek.”  A ski vacation at California’s Mammoth Mountain would open his eyes.

A fellow skier recognized him on the slopes (“Hey you’re Spock”) and aseds him if he had seen, “The Star Trek thing down at the ski lodge.”  The man has now gotten his attention so Shatner paid a visit to the ski lodge to see what he was talking about.  The ski lodge was showing a film of outtakes from TOS they had purchased from none other than The Big Bird of the Galaxy himself, Gene Roddenberry.  

     The clips of actors flubbing lines or cracking up during takes were assembled for the cast.  Typically they would be screened for the cast and crew at their annual Christmas party.  Shatner looked into the matter and found Roddenberry was making some pretty good coin with his blooper reels, but without any compensation for the actors (let alone their permission for him to use their footage).  Leonard Nimoy tried to tell Roddenberry that he was damaging Nimoy’s reputation by peddling these out-take reels.  Gene offered to give him his own copy.  The income supported Roddenberry in some of his lean years, but it caused considerable friction with some of the actors in the Star Trek family.  Bill said he didn’t give the whole continued Star Trek phenomenon much thought until 1975 when he says, “I accidentally got smart.”

    Shatner recalled, “In early 1975, I was appearing in a little one-man show that I used to do, full of Shakespearean sonnets, monologues, poetry, all kinds of stuff, all of it highbrow, none of it bearing the slightest relation to Star Trek.  Still, every night the theater would be mostly full of people curious about seeing Captain Kirk live and in person,  I was not naive enough to believe otherwise.  The audience wanted more, some stronger connection.  A stagehand figured it out for me:  ‘They probably just want to talk to you.  These people aren’t here to see you act, they’re here because they admire you and because they feel like they know you.  I think they see you as a friend.  Somehow, watching your friend reading the greatest sonnets ever written isn’t nearly as interesting as having a simple, face to face chat.’”

     The next night, Shatner took his final curtain call and then told the crowd, “Tonight, if it’s all right with you folks, I’d like for us to spend some time together,  I’d like to throw the floor open for questions.  Over the next sixty minutes, I fielded whatever questions the audience wanted to throw at me, and as I expected, nearly all of them were Star Trek related.  However, what I didn’t expect was that the questions were smart, thoughtful, and extremely insightful.”  Several weeks later, Shatner found himself backstage in New York City waiting to be introduced to another eager crowd, only this time at a true Star Trek convention.  

     When he was announced, “I threw open the stage curtain with a hammy flourish, stepped out onto the hardwood, and stopped dead in my tracks.  My jaw dropped.  My face went white, my eyes rolled up in my head and I was genuinely stunned.  Five thousand people were now staring back at me, all of the cheering, all of them standing atop their chairs, all of them expecting me to be charming, full of absolutely fascinating Trek lore, and unceasingly entertaining.  I was horrified.  When the crowd plopped into their wooden folding chairs nearly as one, the roar slowly faded away and was replaced by my own deafening silence.  I had gone blank.  ‘Uhhhhhhhhh…does,,,,uh, does anyone have a question or something?’ at which point five thousand hands shot into the air and my stomach shot into my throat.”  

     Shatner soon got the hang of reliving Star Trek moments with the fans, but he had no inkling the universe would soon lure him back into space.  While filming a new stock western series for Paramount and ABC called Barbary Coast, he took a nostalgic wander through the sound stage where Star Trek had been filmed.  To his surprise, he found Gene Roddenberry pounding away on a typewriter in his old office.  Shatner thought Roddenberry had lost his mind.  It was 1975 and Star Trek was a relic of TV history, yet there he was, working on Star Trek scripts.  Bill did not know that Gene and Paramount had negotiated a deal for him to work up a low-budget, feature-length Star Trek movie treatment.  They wanted something that could be done in the two to three million dollar range.  “What’s it about?’ Shatner inquired.  Roddenberry looks up with his eyes widening and says, “Somewhere out there, there’s this massive . . . entity, this abstract, unknown life force that seems mechanical in nature, although it actually possesses its own highly advanced consciousness.  It could be God, it could be Satan, and it is heading toward Earth.”

      Shatner could not know he had just been sucked back into the Star Trek canon.  Barbary Coast was canceled after thirteen episodes but Bill would continue his career elsewhere.  The wheels of progress may turn slowly, but those ‘big screen resurrection of Star Trek’ wheels turned at a glacial pace.  William Shatner would not be seen on the big screen back on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise until the end of 1979.  We will pick up the story in Part 2.

Top Piece Video:  A little nostalgia from the first season of TOS . . .