It’s March 1977, and there’s a very odd party going on at Paramount. The champagne’s flowing, the glasses are clinking, but the atmosphere’s far from celebratory.
Writers Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, who for the past six months had been working on a Star Trek movie script, have decided to leave the project following numerous rewrites and conflicted ideas from producers.
Susan Sackett, who was Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry’s personal assistant at the time, was one of several people at that party. “The occasion was one of celebration,” Sackett wrote in the seventh issue of Starlog magazine, “yet touched with the sadness of saying ‘au revoir’ to old friends.”
Old friends though Scott and Bryant may have been, there are suggestions here and there of the tension which had hastened their departure. One of the gifts presented to the writers was a bottle of Anacin – a combination of Aspirin and caffeine – together with a note that read, “Take no more than 48 a day. The dosage may be increased if the director’s in town.”
Scott and Bryant had also left a memo on a bulletin board, listing some of their favorite restaurants located near the studio. Beneath it were the words, “There are also two convenient cemeteries – one just behind the lot the other in the filing cabinet.”
In fact, Sackett’s report gave only a vague flavour of the conflicts going on behind the scenes of Paramount’s proposed Star Trek movie. The full extent of the antipathy really came to the surface in David Hughes’ book, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made.
“Paramount really had no idea what they wanted,” Bryant recalled, the frustration clearly still in evidence. “It was a miserable experience.”
As well as the headache pills, the writers were given another gift by those at the party – one Sackett understandably omitted from her report: a pair of t-shirts. On the front was a picture of the Enterprise crew: Spock, Kirk, Bones and so forth. On the back, the legend:
FUCK STAR TREK.
Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach
We’re in the UK, 1975. Leonard Nimoy is looking up at a billboard poster, and he’s not a happy man. The advert, standing about 10 feet tall, shows Spock with his famously pointy-ears drooping forlornly. Next to it, another Spock, this one drinking a pint of beer. Next to that, still another Spock, pint glass empty, ears erect.
Nimoy is livid. So livid that he apparently gets his lawyer to try to sue Heineken, the company behind the adverts.
“Leonard Nimoy has a beef, and it’s a legitimate one,” William Shatner explained a year later. “It’s about the merchandising, and it’s something that irks me as well. Our faces appear on products all over the country, all over the world, and we’ve not really been compensated fairly for it […]. So Leonard and I have had this battle, with whoever licenses Star Trek, for a long time. I mean, kids are walking around with my face on their shirts. Occasionally I see a postcard with my face on it. People are exploiting us.”
Since its cancellation by NBC in 1969, Star Trek had only grown in stature – thanks in no small part to the devotion of its fans. As the original three seasons were repeated across America, the adventures of the Enterprise garnered an ever increasing following. The calls for a new series growing increasingly loud as the ’60s gave way to the 1970s, and Gene Roddenberry was similarly keen to bring Star Trek back in cinematic style.
In fact, even as Nimoy gazed angrily at that Heineken poster in 1975, Roddenberry had finally achieved the breakthrough he’d been looking for. Paramount Pictures, encouraged by the success of the original series’ syndication ratings, gave Roddenberry the permission to develop Star Trek film script. By May of that year, Roddenberry had set up office at Paramount and begun drawing up his first story ideas with great enthusiasm.
Little did Roddenberry know that his problems were only just beginning.
The God Thing
William Shatner first heard about the plans for a Star Trek movie not from his agent or some execs at Paramount, but from Gene Roddenberry’s typewriter. Shatner happened to be at Paramount Studios for a TV series he was appearing in at the time, Barbary Coast, and just for old time’s sake, he decided to drop by the old sound stage where Star Trek was filmed back in the 1960s.
To his surprise, Shatner heard the distinct clacking of a typewriter. Following the sound, he found Roddenberry, diligently typing away on his own in a small office. Shatner recalls, in Edward Gross’ book The Remaking Of Star Trek, that this was the first time he’d set eyes on Roddenberry in five years.
“Gene, the series has been cancelled,” Shatner joked.
“I know the series has been cancelled,” Roddenberry said. “I’m writing the movie.”
Suddenly intrigued, Shatner asked Roddenberry what the film was going to be about. Roddenberry explained that it would be set a number of years after the series, to explain why the cast suddenly looked so much older. James T. Kirk was now a commander, while the rest of the Enterprise crew had also climbed through the ranks. The story which followed was high-concept stuff even for Roddenberry.
“One day a force comes toward Earth – might be God, might be the devil – breaking everything in its path, except the minds of the starship commanders. So we gotta find all the original crewmen for the starship Enterprise, but first – where is Spock? He’s back on Vulcan, doing R&R; five year mission – seven years of R&R. He swam back upstream. So we gotta go get him.”
This was part of a script that Roddenberry called The God Thing, a story that imagined the almighty as a machine floating through space, reiterating the laws of the universe in different forms for different epochs. Two-thousand years ago, the alien intelligence had taught those laws to the people of Earth by appearing as Jesus. The God Thing would have seen Kirk and his cohorts encountering this shape-shifting entity as it morphs through various forms; the mysterious god-machine has apparently malfunctioned, like a skipping record player.
It was a bold idea, alright, but all a bit much for Paramount.
This was after all, a script in which Spock says, “If this is your God, he’s not very impressive… He demands worship every seven days. He goes out and creates faulty humans and then blames them for his own mistakes. He’s a poor excuse for a Supreme Being.”
The God Thing script was duly shelved. Both Roddenberry and Paramount knew that they wanted a grand story worthy of the silver screen, something cinematic. The problem was, neither could quite agree exactly what a Star Trek movie should look like.
Black holes and Mayans
After The God Thing was rejected, Paramount began looking elsewhere for story ideas. Among the various sci-fi writers approached to write a Star Trek story was Harlan Ellison, who came up with the idea that a race of alien reptiles was going back in time and fiddling with events in Earth’s history, thus making people and even entire landmarks disappear in a puff of smoke. To combat this curious menace, Kirk reassembles his crew and heads into the past to discover who the reptile aliens are and why they’re vandalising Earth’s timeline.
“I postulated an alien intelligence from a far galaxy where the snakes had become the dominant form,” Ellison told Stephen King in the latter’s book, Danse Macabre. “A snake creature who had come back to Earth in the Star Trek future had seen its ancestors wiped out, and who had gone back into the far past of Earth to set up distortions in the time-flow so the reptiles could beat the humans.”
Ellison’s story “spanned all of time and space” – something that certainly fitted Paramount’s brief. But a studio executive named Barry Trabulus had one small request. Trabulus liked Mayans a lot. Would Ellison write some Mayans into the movie? Ellison, never one to suffer fools gladly, stated in no uncertain terms that Trabulus’ idea was a foolish one.
“I’m a writer,” Ellison thundered. “I don’t know what the fuck you are!”
And with that, Ellison stormed out of the office, never to return.
Don’t Look Now
Other story meetings ended less explosively, yet bore similarly withered fruit. Writer John DF Black, who’d written the Star Trek episode “Naked Time,” proposed a story in which the Enterprise tries to stop a black hole from destroying Earth and, in turn, swallowing up the entire universe. There are interplanetary wars, and, according to Black, “at least twenty sequels in that story because the jeopardy keeps growing more intense.”
This story also failed to pass muster with Paramount. “They said it wasn’t big enough,” Black said.
With the Star Trek movie project still hobbling along by the autumn of 1976, producer Jerry Eisenberg brought in Chris Bryant and Allan Scott, who’d written the adapted screenplay for Nicolas Roeg’s horror film, Don’t Look Now. Bryant and Scott went away and wrote up a 20-page treatment which took the idea of a cinematic Star Trek and ran with it.
They imagined that the Titans of Greek legend actually existed on a distant planet. Spock, leading an expedition searching for a missing Kirk, finds this planet hovering on the brink of a black hole. With Klingons hot on his heels, Spock touches down, finds Kirk, and also discovers that a race of evil aliens called Cygnans have destroyed the last of the ancient Titans. The story would have ended with Kirk and Spock escaping into the black hole in the Enterprise, before emerging in Earth’s orbit at an early point in our history.
Again, the story was grand. It took in multiple epochs, aliens, and even the question of our own origins. Yet still it didn’t seem quite right somehow. “It was not Star Trek,” opined Jon Povill in The Remaking Of Star Trek. “People would have gone to see it, but […] it’s just as well it didn’t get made.”
Of the back-and-forth struggle to generate a Star Trek story which satisfied all involved, it was Nimoy who, sage as ever, summed it up best:
“They were preoccupied with this idea that it must have size and stature. But although everyone seemed to have an idea about what a Star Trek movie should not be – a magnified television episode – no one could agree on what it should be.”
Piggies in the middle
While Bryant and Scott were still writing their Planet Of The Titans script, Paramount had settled on a potential director: the filmmaker Philip Kaufman, who’d at that point made such acclaimed movies as The White Dawn and The Outlaw Josey Wales. A counter-culture writer with a considerable interest in sci-fi, Kaufman’s ears immediately pricked up at the prospect of making a Star Trek movie.
“My agent called me up,” Kaufman told Ain’t It Cool, “and said, ‘What would you like to do?’ I said I would like to do a science fiction movie. And he said, ‘Well, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to do Star Trek.‘ I said, ‘Wait a second–they’re making a movie out of Star Trek?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but they’re gonna make a 2 or 3 million dollar quickie.'”
Kaufman’s enthusiasm for Star Trek helped to convince Paramount to up the budget considerably to a more generous $8-10m. Unfortunately for Bryant and Scott, producing the first draft of the Titans script – which they turned in on the 1st March 1977 – appeared to have left them psychologically exhausted (to make matters worse, the script would later be dismissed by Paramount executives).
For the screenwriting duo, the writing was on the wall. “We begged to be fired,” Bryant recalled in The Greatest Sci-Fi Stories Never Made. “Which they finally did.” Hence the leaving party, the bottle of pills, and the potty-mouthed t-shirts.
“The one thing I’ve learned from that – and I’ve never forgotten it,” Bryant added, “was that you cannot write for a committee, ever. I never have again since, and I’ve done well over a hundred scripts since then.”
Interestingly, Bryant’s strong feelings about the Star Trek project don’t quite match with Allan Scott’s. Bryant suggests that Philip Kaufman wanted to kill off the original Trek TV cast; Scott recalls that they wound up caught in a middle ground between Kaufman and Gene Roddenberry.
“Without ill feelings on any part,” Scott said, “it became clear to us that there was a divergence of view of how the movie should be made between Gene and Phil. I think Gene was quite right in sticking by not so much the specifics of Star Trek but general ethics of it. I think Phil was more interested in exploring a wider range of science fiction stories, and yet nonetheless staying faithful to Star Trek. There was definitely a tugging on the two sides between them. One of the reasons it took us so long to come up with a story was because things like that would change. If we came up with some aspects that pleased Gene, they often didn’t please Phil and vice-versa. We were kind of piggies in the middle.”
After their leaving party, Bryant and Scott left a final memo for their screenwriting successors:
“Giving birth takes nine months. We’ve only been gestating for seven. So there’s no baby. But there’s an embryo. Look after it.”
Kurosawa with Klingons
The Star Trek embryo continued to evolve under the watchful eye of Kaufman, who had his own ideas as to how the story should pan out. While Kaufman didn’t want to write the original Trek TV cast out, as Bryant maintained, he did see most of them as background details in a plot which focused largely on Spock. Indeed, Allan Scott recalls that, at one time, Paramount hadn’t yet hatched a deal with Shatner to return as Kirk, so a draft was written without him in it.
At any rate, Kaufman was interested in making what he called a “Kurosawa epic”; he even had designs on hiring Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune to play a Klingon villain against Nimoy’s Spock.
“My version was really built around Leonard Nimoy as Spock and Toshiro Mifune as his Klingon nemesis,” Kaufman later recalled. “My idea was to make it less ‘cult-ish,’ and more of an adult movie, dealing with sexuality and wonders rather than oddness; a big science fiction movie, filled with all kinds of questions, particularly about the nature of Spock’s [duality] – exploring his humanity and what humanness was. To have Spock and Mifune’s character tripping out in outer space. I’m sure the fans would have been upset, but I felt it could really open up a new type of science fiction.”
While the story remained amorphous, the Star Trek project managed to hire two of the era’s most talented designers. One of them was Ken Adam, the genius behind, among other things, the volcano lair in You Only Live Twice and the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
Kaufman’s friendship with George Lucas also resulted in the hiring of artist Ralph McQuarrie, whose concept art had done so much to get Star Wars, then still filming, before cameras at 20th Century Fox. Together, Adam and McQuarrie created some fascinating work, including a drydock built inside a hollowed-out asteroid.
Unfortunately for Kaufman and everyone else, it may have been Star Wars which hastened the Star Trek movie’s demise.
In an off-shared anecdote, Kaufman remembers hobbling downstairs one morning after a punishing, all-night writing marathon. Finally, Kaufman thought, he’d cracked the Star Trek problem.
“Rose, I’ve got it!” Kaufman called to his wife. “I’ve got the story!”
At that very moment, the phone rang. It was Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was then the assistant to Paramount’s chairman, Barry Diller.
“Philip,” Katzenberg said, “We’re in trouble.”
Paramount had decided that Star Trek‘s future lay on television and not the big screen. So with that, the plug on Planet Of The Titans was finally pulled.
The final frontier
In the wake of the Star Trek movie’s cancellation, theories varied over who to blame for its failure. Kaufman suggests that the negative buzz surrounding Star Wars from the bosses at Fox had led Paramount’s Barry Diller to proclaim, “There’s no future in science fiction.”
Barry Diller, in turn, seemed to blame the lack of a decent script: “We’ve done a number of treatments, scripts, and every time we’d say, ‘This isn’t good enough.’ If we had just gone forward and done it, we might have done it quite well. In this case [the Scott-Bryant-Kaufman version], it was the script. We felt, frankly, that it was a little pretentious.”
Sci-fi writer David Gerrold, who wrote the classic Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles,” the problem lay with Gene Roddenberry, who’d been slow to agreeing on the terms of his contract for the Trek movie and then refused to take the executives’ ideas on board.
“I have to tell you I’ve spent a lot of time with studio executives,” Gerrold said, “and they can tell the difference between a good and bad story […] Paramount is the most successful studio in the industry. Down the line they’re doing all these great pictures like The Godfather, Saturday Night Fever... and they can’t get Star Trek on the boards? Give me a break.”
Roddenberry, on the other hand, blamed Paramount.
“Paramount went about the movie in exactly the wrong way to accomplish anything artistic,” Roddenberry complained. “They decided to make it a committee effort, and have no one really in charge. They told me that I had creative control – then told Jerry Eisenberg that he had it, and then without his knowing it they also told the director that he had creative control. You can’t make a worthwhile movie that way. Good movies are made almost invariably by one person carrying the enthusiasm and the vision of it into completion. This is the way George Lucas made Star Wars over three years of struggle. He fought hard because he had the vision of what he wanted. I found myself being second-guessed by people at the studio who had never even seen Star Trek. It was just a horror tale.”
Whatever went wrong behind the scenes between 1975 and 1977, it was clear that indecision over who or what should be written lay at the heart of it. Susan Sackett, who reported on that fateful 1977 leaving party and later wrote The Making Of Star Trek: The Motion Picture with Roddenberry in 1980, suggests that, at one point, no fewer than 34 writers were suggested as potential Star Trek scribes. That list read like a who’s who of the talented and now very famous, from Francis Ford Coppola to George Lucas to Psycho novelist Robert Bloch. And guess how many of them actually got a shot at writing a script? Precisely none.
With Planet Of The Titans shelved, work began on a possible new TV show entitled Star Trek: Phase II. This was also cancelled: just one year later, in March 1978, Paramount announced that it had changed its mind again and that work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture was about to begin.
After years of floundering and indecision, the Star Trek movie finally began to gain traction with veteran director Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain) at the helm. At last, Roddenberry would have the opportunity of realising the film he’d talked about so enthusiastically back in 1976: “…a film that has a lot of entertainment value – action, adventure and a little comedy. I want a 2001 [A Space Odyssey].”
Ironically, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in 1979, would be riddled with challenges of its own – not with writing this time, but with visual effects. A project that had once been greenlit for about $3 million had ballooned to a then-huge budget of $46 million by the time it was finished.
Star Trek, it seemed, wouldn’t emerge on the big screen without a fight.