Back in 1969, the odd science fiction television series Star Trek was cancelled after just three seasons. For most shows, that would have been the end of it, but Star Trek had managed to gather around itself a particularly fervent type of fandom–it was these fans who picketed the studio headquarters to keep Star Trek on the air for its third season, and it would be these kinds of people who would push for the resurrection of their favorite show long after it had dropped from primetime.
The fans would be getting help, however, and if their demonstrations didn’t catch network executive’s attention, Star Trek itself would. The series was sold into syndication in 1972, and became immensely popular; by the end of the decade the series was shown in reruns in more than 210 markets worldwide. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had long wanted a feature film, but the cult following and popularity of the show in syndication was what pushed Paramount Pictures to begin plans for a film in 1975.
Roddenberry was given about $5 million to develop this new feature’s script. He produced what he considered an acceptable script by June 1975. “The God Thing”, as his draft was called, featured the admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) taking command of his old ship, the Enterprise, to confront a massive object heading towards Earth. The object turns out to be a supercomputer from another dimension; the Enterprise crew wins out, and Earth is saved in the end. Paramount didn’t like the script, and instead postponed the film while a revolving door of acclaimed writers took their stab at crafting a new story. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison’s draft featured snake-like aliens tampering with Earth’s past; other writers who were approached included giants like Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon. By late 1975 Roddenberry and scriptwriter Jon Povill teamed up to write another script, which like many others was rejected as not “epic” enough.
The constant delays began wearing on the cast, who was anxiously awaiting word, and the producers (who were wary about wasting more money). Paramount reasoned that since the adaptation was of a television series, the studio’s television division should handle the production. Povill came up with more than thirty possible scriptwriters, including Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, but none were ever approached. Finally British screenwriters Chris Bryant and Allan Scott wrote a 20 page treatment entitled Planet of the Titans, which Paramount executives Barry Diller and Michael Eisner liked. This story had Kirk and company travel back milliions of years and teach early man how to use fire. Povill wrote up a list of possible directors (including Lucas again), but they were all either busy, or unwilling to work for the small script budget. The studio turned to Philip Kaufman, who agreed to take on the project. For a while, momentum on the project picked up, but fan elation at a director being picked and script being written slowly dissipated. The first draft of the completed script was not turned in until March 1, 1977. Dissatisfied with the changes to their product, Bryant and Scott quit the following month and the month after that Paramount decided to cut their losses and canned the entire project.
Diller wasn’t done with Star Trek, though. He suggested to Roddenberry that Star Trek be taken back to its roots as a television show. Diller was planning a new TV nework, the Paramount Television Service, and wanted a new Star Trek series to anchor it. So was born Star Trek: Phase II. Roddenberry brought many of the old crew from the original series to work on the new project. Some changes to the story were necessary, as Leonard Nimoy (who played Spock) was unwilling to return; this included the addition of a Vulcan prodigy Xon, a new first officer, Decker, and the beautiful, bald Deltan Ilia. But this show was not to be. Paramount was surprised by the success of science fiction films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, and was eager to produce their own science fiction film. Just two weeks before Phase II production was to start, it was cancelled, and producer Harold Livingston’s screenplay for the television pilot was turned into the plot for a full feature.
Paramount announced on March 28, 1978 that Academy Award-winning director Robert Wise would helm the $15 million feature. Nimoy joined the cast again, and the script was rewritten for feature length and to incorporate various changes. However no one was truly satisfied with the script, which essentially returned to the idea of “The God Thing” of a massive, sentient computer and incorporated many ideas from the first draft which had been cut. A final draft was approved in September 1978, but it would be revised even during filming.
Since Phase II was approaching production, many sets had already been created for the television series and were simply modified for the big screen. Production designer Harold Michelson created new sets of familiar Enterprise locations like engineering and the bridge. Computer terminals were filled with looping animations; when the original number of animations was exhausted, the graphics and production designers went out and filmed their own. To make sets seem larger than they were, the production used forced perspective and specially-designed matte paintings to extend the length of the sets. Almost $2 million was spent to realize the production’s sets.
Another element that had to be redesigned was the Enterprise itself. Illustrator Andrew Probert and art director Richard Taylor adapted the design planned for Phase II (itself inspired by the television series model designed by Matt Jeffries) and created an art deco aesthetic, with swept-back touches and a smooth, iridescent paint finish. More problematic was the design for the sentient computer, V’ger; the initial design was rejected and instead a 68-foot model was fabricated using everything from wood to styrofoam cups.
Filming began on August 7, 1978 with a few ad-libbed ceremonies; by the end of a long day of filming more than 1650 feet of film had been shot and only a little over a page of the script had been completed. The continuing trend was of considerable shooting delays, costing a lot of money; every hour filming on stage cost $4000. By August 9 Star Trek was a full day behind schedule. Problems included getting the live-action special effects to work properly; a sequence in which the Enterprise is caught in a wormhole was shot at two different frame rates dragged on until the end of August. The cast learned that they were not going to be released for nearly six weeks longer than anticipated. Persis Khambatta, the actress who shaved her head to portray Ilia, had her own issues; the light bulb she wore when portraying a robotic duplicate of herself created a burn in the hollow of her throat, and she was threatened with carbon dioxide poisoning when shooting a shower sequence. The issues continued until the very end of production, when faulty lights nearly electrocuted three people. The film wrapped after 125 days on January 26, 1979.
But while the actors went to wrap parties, a significant amount of work lay unfinished. The original contractors for the films special and optical effects, Abel and Associates, were costing more money than original intended and were falling behind on their work. A year into production, the company had almost no usable footage to show for their work. Part of the reason was that Abel and Associates worked on television, not film, and had a steep learning curve. Paramount pulled effects artist Richard Yuricich to act as a liaison and speed up work, to the point where Yuricich was given all model miniature and matte painting tasks, but the production still fell behind. Eventually Paramount and Abel parted ways, and effects artist Douglas Trumbull was brought in to fill the gap. Trumbull was given a virtual blank check if he could finish the effects by December 1979, the release date Paramount had already locked itself in to. Trumbull said he could, and quickly assembled a team to start working feverishly.
The effects were not the only postproduction work being completed; a good deal of the film’s audio had also not been created. Composer Jerry Goldsmith was given the task of writing the film’s score, although he and Roddenberry initially clashed over the film’s theme (for more information, see “Making Movie Music: The Original ‘Star Trek’ Films”). Frank Serafine handled the film’s sound effects, including the whirring of control dials and beeps of computer monitors. Serafine and The Motion Picture were one of the pioneering films in using digital audio technology.
Owing to the rush to complete the film, The Motion Picture wasn’t screened for test audiences, but it was certainly marketed. There were Star Trek-branded McDonald’s Happy Meals, watches, and ship models. Among the printed media produced included a novelization (written by Roddenberry), coloring book, and Marvel comic. Wise carried the fresh print of the film to its premiere in Washington, DC.
Commercially, The Motion Picture was successful, making $17 million in its first week and a worldwide total of $139 million. But it wasn’t the big hit Paramount was hoping, certainly not a second Star Wars. Furthermore, the film was generally panned; the BBC described its reception as a critical failure. Fans and critics alike gave it a variety of derogatory nicknames, including The Slow Motion Picture, The Motion Picture, and Where Nomad has Gone Before (referencing plot similarities to an episode of the original series.)
But while the film is still known as one of the poorer entries of the series, it’s generally been thought of a bit kinder in recent memory, especially since later films were often poorer. Wise would release a ‘director’s cut’ that was widely considered a superior film. Roddenberry, for his part, was blamed for the plodding pace that critics hated, and was essentially kicked out of creative control. While disappointing, The Motion Picture‘s gross secured production of a sequel; the result would be the creation of arguably the best film in the entire franchise, and one of the great science fiction films–Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Star Trek History: Making The Motion Picture
*Susan Sackett and Gene Roddenberry. The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (ISBN 0671251813).
*JM Dillard. Star Trek: “Where No One Has Gone Before” – A History in Pictures (ISBN 0671511491).
*William Shatner. Star Trek Movie Memories (ISBN 0061093297).