January 8, 2022

FTV: Star Trek – The Movie(s) – Part 2

     When we left Part 1, William Shatner had just had a close encounter with Gene Roddenberry who claimed to be working on a script for a new Star Trek vehicle.  It would either become a low-budget TV movie or big screen feature, but Gene did not share the specifics with Bill.  It was 1975 and Star Trek, The Original Series (TOS) had been off network television for six years.  The spirit of the program was alive and well in syndication and rabid fans were flocking to Star Trek conventions in droves, but Shatner had no inside intel about any new Trek related projects.  He figured The Great Bird of the Galaxy (as those inside the Trek franchise referred to him) had slipped a cog somewhere along the way and was living in the past.

     Having left TOS behind, Shatner wasn’t idle in the 1970s.  He appeared in various guest star roles on TV, appeared in a couple so-so movies, and made the rounds as a game show panelist on programs ranging from Hollywood Squares to Celebrity Bowling.  In his own book, Richard Dawson mentioned Shatner had been the first choice to host Family Feud before Dawson landed the gig.  Shatner was done with Star Trek save the occasional convention appearance, but as we shall see, Star Trek was not through with him.

     That the first film, Star Trek – The Motion Picture, was made at all is a rather long tale.  We will need to condense the account presented in Shatner’s book (with Chris Kreski) Star Trek Movie Memories (HarperCollins 1994).  Let us see if we can make a long story short enough for this space.  The first attempt to get the low-budget Star Trek revival rolling hit a few snags.  With a revolving door at the upper levels of Paramount management and the inherent political intrigues that go along with running a major studio, Roddenberry’s first attempts to get Star Trek revived fell by the wayside.  After three years of wrangling (and a huge hit scored by another Sci-Fi franchise called Star Wars), those involved could not generate enough enthusiasm for a Trek project.  In fact, the success of Star Wars prompted Paramount to pull the plug on Star Trek completely.

      In June of 1977, a team of Paramount execs (Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, and Jeffrey Katzenberg) announced they would launch a fourth major TV network, The Paramount Network.  They would use the previously rejected Star Trek:  Phase II project as the cornerstone of the new network.  They would start small and build the rest of the schedule around the revived Trek franchise.  The PN died on the drawing board, but not before bringing the idea of a Star Trek movie back to life.  There was now a script in the works and most of the major players from TOS were interested, except for one.  Leonard Nimoy’s reluctance to work with a man (Roddenberry) who was profiting by selling blooper reels of cast mistakes (and thus tarnishing Nimoy’s professional reputation) left the project without a marquee player.  When Nimoy learned a lot of merchandising money was also passing through Paramount’s coffers (using his and other cast members’ likenesses without compensation), he decided to sue Paramount.  Leonard felt doubly betrayed when Roddenberry would not offer to support his case against the studio.  Thus, no part was written for Nimoy in the movie so they needed to work around this missing piece.  The plan was to cover Mr. Spock’s absence by introducing a new Vulcan character named Xon.  An actor named David Gautreaux was screen tested, hired, and then put into limbo while the studio tried to get the project off the ground floor.

     The original script Roddenberry had shown Shatner was entitled In Thy Image.  The premise was pretty much the same as the one Gene had described to Bill a couple of years earlier.  The studio hired Harold Livingstone to clean up the story line and ultimately his treatment became the one used in Star Trek – The Motion Picture.  Roddenberry never forgave Paramount or Livingston for re-writing his script.  The feud his hard feelings created began to unravel Roddenberry’s influence in the Trek universe he had created.  Any script passed on to Gene for his ‘approval’ came back with many criticisms and major changes.  He kept reverting to his original In Thy Image title and plastered his name at the top of the writing credits.  Over time, the producers placated Gene by thanking him politely for his input, and then ignoring it completely.

     The months and months of infighting bogged down the whole project.  When the original director and producer were replaced by Robert Wise, things began to take shape.  Wise was widely acclaimed for his work on films like Citizen Kane, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Wise was no Trekkie so he hunkered down in a studio to watch as many of the TV episodes as he could.  When he showed the script to his wife and father-in-law (both huge fans), they said emphatically, “Hey, what’s this?  You can’t POSSIBLY do Star Trek without Spock.  It just won’t work, because he and Captain Kirk have such a thing going.”  Wise told the studio, “I am in, but only if Spock is involved.”  The studio agreed:  “We have been thinking the same thing.”  But what about Leonard Nimoy?  He would be a harder nut to crack.

     While Leonard was in New York doing a play, Nimoy said his agent, Sandy Bresler, called with the first feeler about him returning to Star Trek.  His response was, “If you EVER call me again about Star Trek, you’re fired!”  Bresler never brought it up again, but he did have Nimoy’s business manager, Bernie, call instead.  Bernie put him in touch with Jeff Katzenberg from the studio who offered to fly to New York to talk things over.  After stroking Nimoy’s ego a bit, Katzenberg  asked what it would take to change his mind.  Long story short, Katzenberg convinced Paramount to settle Nimoy’s lawsuit and sent Leonard a check to resolve the issue.  Then, and only then, did Nimoy agree to read the script.  When he was finally assured by Robert Wise that his character would play a more vital role in the story than he had read in the script, he decided it was time to return to the fold.  Sensing his character was now a fifth wheel, David Gautreaux (Xon) suggested he be released from the project before his character ended up ‘toting Spock’s luggage and opening doors for him.’  Xon disappeared from the Trek universe, although Gautreaux did get paid in full for his time in limbo.

     Shatner spent a good part of 1978 avoiding ‘real food’ so he could get his waistline down to ‘action hero’ proportions.  The script wasn’t even finished when the cast assembled for the first read through.  The event was as much a family reunion as it was a script session.  Filming finally began on August 9, 1978 and the Starship Enterprise was hauled out of drydock for the first time in nine years . . . and the movie was already ten weeks behind schedule.  The new uniforms were, “Ugly, form-fitting, pastel-colored, one-piece jumpsuits that itched even worse than our old TV series togs,” according to Shatner.  “Far worse was the fact that due to the design of these outfits, it was virtually impossible for any male member of our cast to sit down without seriously endangering his ability to procreate.”  If one ever wondered why the cast were always leaning on things in the on set photo stills, one needs to wonder no longer.  In spite of the discomfort, Shatner found the camaraderie the cast had during TOS was still there and everyone seemed to be genuinely happy to be working together again.

    As the filming progressed, Shatner and Nimoy discussed the movie’s ending as written.  The volume of dialog needed to wrap up the story would end the picture with a decided ‘thud!’  They approached director Wise with their own version which they did as a short skit to give him an idea of how it would play.  To their surprise, he agreed it was a much better idea than the one they were trying to film.  Roddenberry was still attempting to add his two cents worth and, of course, he hated the Shatner – Nimoy version.  When Gene drew a line in the sand over the script revision, the producers walked right over it, thus ending his creative input on the movie.  They handed the new ending rewrite to Livingstone (who had quit and returned to the film three times due to friction with Roddenberry) and that was that.  Studio politics had steamrolled The Great Bird of the Galaxy, but no one was celebrating – just breathing a sigh of relief;  perhaps they would actually get the film finished and into theaters sooner than later.

     Star Wars had taught the Star Trek team one valuable lesson:  they would need to invest heavily in state-of-the-art special effects to make the movie successful.  They invested close to five million dollars for the effects house of Abel and Associates to produce them.  None of the footage had been received and the primary shooting was close to wrapping up.  When it finally came in, Robert Wise realized they had a major problem:  “The stuff was not good,  They’d had months to play with this stuff, and the results were of really poor quality.  They were just not good enough for all the money we’d poured in.”  They tried again with Doug Turnbull and John Dykstra, two of the best special effects guys in the business, but panic was setting in.  They worked around the clock seven days a week to get the effects done.  Principal photography wrapped the day after Thanksgiving and the film was scheduled to be released on December 7, 1979.  “[Wise] began locking himself away in a darkened editing suite and rough-cutting, desperately trying to piece together whatever scattered bits of the film he had that might not require special effects.”

     The film’s gala premier was set for December 4 in Washington, D.C.  Wise worked up to the last minute finalizing the master reels from which 2000 prints would be made for distribution to theaters around the country.  He ended up transporting the print for the gala opening himself.  The deadline prevented them from doing the ‘audience screening’ normally done before the final edits.  Most of the people involved, including Shatner, never saw the finished project until it was screened at the gala.  A week before the debut, Wise was still putting in marathon editing sessions and it was the only film of the 39 he had directed that did not get a sneak peek screening with a test audience.  The version shown was basically a ‘rough-cut’ but the timeline demands left them no choice.

     It was a good film, but the amount of detail in the special effects gave the whole movie a rather dull, tortoise-like pace, a point noted in almost all of the critical reviews.  The biggest criticism was the crew taking a back seat to the effects, but as Wise noted, there was no other way to tell this particular story.  Shatner wondered if their own ambition would end up tanking future films in the Star Trek universe if the movie did not bring in the big box office numbers everyone hoped for.  Shatner said, “I thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s it.  We gave it our best shot, it wasn’t good, and that’ll never happen again.’  Shows you what I know.”  He should not have worried.  After the major time gap between TOS and Star Trek – the Motion Picture, the rabid Trek-base ignored the weak parts of the film and rejoiced;  they had a NEW Star Trek vehicle to embrace.

     How successful was Star Trek:  The Motion Picture?  It grossed one-hundred-million-dollars at the box office.  Of course, it cost a staggering $45 million to produce (and another $20 million in start-up costs for the failed Phase II project on the Paramount Network that never materialized).  Still, a $50 million dollar profit was not chump change.  Add the income a young marketing executive named Dawn Steel brought in with an extensive merchandising campaign, and Star Trek:  The Motion Picture made it a very lucrative film.  Shatner recalled, “Combined, [the film and marketing] made this molasses-slow, yawn-inducing extravaganza a hit.  Star Trek, it seemed, had once again yanked an upset victory from the gnarled jaws of defeat.”

     As noted in the title, more Star Trek movies would follow, six more with the original crew before they passed the big screen franchise on to Star Trek – The Next Generation.  Then there came the reboot of TOS in movie form with new actors assuming the characters made popular by Shatner, Nimoy, and the rest.  I would prefer to not stretch Shatner’s tale into a three parter, so in the near future, we will offer up some of his stories from Star Trek:  The Movie(s) II – VII.  Before we wrap this particular part of the story, we need a segue from the first Star Trek  movie to the first sequel.

     As the box office and merchandise profits mounted, a longtime Trekker named Charles Bluhdorn used his lofty perch as the chairman of the Gulf + Western company to push for a sequel.  The executive board had reservations with the enormous expense they had put into Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, but Bluhdorn wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer.  First they analyzed what had been done wrong with the first movie.  Convinced the problems could be fixed to make a sequel even more profitable, Bluhdorn convinced the board to see it his way.  Then he did a little arm twisting with Paramount president Eisner to make it happen.

     Eisner, dutiful company man that he was, opted to move forward without Robert Wise in the director’s seat.  Gene Roddenberry had a long term contract forbidding his removal so they did the next most logical thing:  they promoted him to ‘executive consultant.’  Roddenberry collected a handsome salary and was given a chance to comment on every story idea and script, but he soon found out his title was largely ceremonial.  Harve Bennett was now in the driver’s seat, Trek wise, but it would not prevent Gene from at least trying to make trouble.  

     Bennett had the TV cred in science fiction (Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) and was an extremely efficient producer with overtones of ‘penny-pinching’.  He got the job taking charge of the first sequel in a meeting with the Gulf + Western and Paramount brass: “Bluhdorn asked if I had seen Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, and when I said ‘yes’, he asked what I had thought about it.  I said ‘Well, I think it was really boring.’  Bluhdorn spins on me – ‘Can you make a better picture?’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, yeah, I could make it less boring – yes I could.’  ‘Could you make it for less than forty-five million dollars?’  I said, “Oh boy, where I come from, I could make five movies for that.”  

     Harve Bennett was in but it wouldn’t be easy.  The original budget for Star Trek II was set at $11 million.  Roddenberry wasn’t happy about being kicked upstairs.  Nimoy wanted nothing to do with Star Trek ever again.  Director’s were wary because the first film turned into such a disaster.  Bennett knew almost nothing about the Star Trek universe so he spent three months holed up in a projection room watching every episode of TOS, some more than once.  Star TrekThe Motion Picture was far from the ‘one and done’ Shatner envisioned.  We will take a break from all things Star Trek for a bit.  We will delay our insider look at sequels II – VII, but fear not, we will finish this tale in less time than it took to bring the first picture to the big screen.

Top Piece Video:  I am now on my third Shatner Book (Up Till Now) and while searching for a video to go with this tale, I almost considered using one of Shatners ‘songs’ . . . but I absolutely could not!  Instead, I will give you a better version of Mr.Tamborine Man.  Shatner admits he was no singer and his first album was supposed to be dramatic readings seguing into a spoken – semi sung version of a song to go along with it . . .  when he debuted it on Johnny Carson’s show, the producer cut it to only the ‘song’ half without the dramatic reading part – sorry, I couldn’t do it!