Star Trek: The Franchise’s Big Turning Points

Examining some of the key turning points in the Star Trek series, with the projects that never quite made it to the screen...

“History is replete with turning points. You must have faith.” – Spock

Star Trek has been with us for over 50 years in one form or another. It started in 1964 with the filming of the pilot episode of the original series, and it has continued to the present day, through films and subsequent TV series, along with other mediums such as books and video games.

We’re principally interested in the core of the franchise here, the TV series and films, and we’re going to take a look at some ‘what if…’ possibilities of projects that almost happened but didn’t. If you’re reading this from an alternate universe or timeline, perhaps this is normal Star Trek to you? If so, let us know how these films and TV series turned out in the comments.

The Original Series Pilot (1964)

Time period: 1964

The scenario: Star Trek, but not (quite) as we know it.

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How likely was it? It had reached the fully produced pilot stage.

Unusually, Star Trek had two pilot episodes. The original pilot episode, called The Cage, had a slightly different setup from the one we are all familiar with, providing a fascinating insight into an alternate Star Trek that never was. That said, there are more similarities to what we eventually got than differences.

First, the staging. The setting is still that of the far future and we’re still travelling aboard a gigantic starship called the USS Enterprise, but there are some small differences in things like costumes. The most glaring difference is: no Captain Kirk! Instead, Jeffery Hunter plays Captain Christopher Pike. There is also a different actor playing the ship’s doctor, although he fills a similar role, that of the captain’s confidant and moral sounding-board. Spock is present, but here, Leonard Nimoy plays the role differently. In an interview, Nimoy once explained that Jeffrey Hunter was a fairly quiet man, compared to the larger-than-life William Shatner, and it was this that made him play the role as a less emotionally repressed character. However, the backstory for the character may have been subsequently altered for the second pilot, so the changes were probably due to a combination of factors.

This version of Star Trek features a female first officer called Number One. There are conflicting reports as to why this idea was dropped. Audiences of the time might have been uncomfortable with the idea of a woman in a command position on a starship – even female members of the test audience considered her to be ‘pushy’ – but it’s also been hinted that executives were unimpressed with show creator Gene Roddenberry casting his then girlfriend in a starring role. In dialogue, it’s hinted that she has a computer-like personality, and it’s possible that this is another reason why Spock, now the first officer instead of Number One, became more stoic in the eventual incarnation of the series.

Would it have been good?

Upon viewing The Cage, executives were impressed by some aspects of Star Trek – they must have been, as they gave it a second chance by allowing second pilot to be made – but famously, they criticized it for being ‘too cerebral’ and lacking in action. So, how does this potential Star Trek stack up against the Star Trek we eventually got? The casting of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley is commonly regarded as one of the greatest in TV history. A consummate triumvirate, Spock is the logical character, Bones the emotional one and Kirk is the man of action. It’s this recasting, along with a rethought Spock, that creates the magic.

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For better or worse, The Cage is low-key and lacking in humor and action compared to the eventual series. It’s hard to argue with the casting changes that were made, but most of the criticism that is levelled at the original series, particularly by people who are viewing it for the first time, runs along the lines that it’s a bit corny, relying on shirt-ripping action sequences and humor that hasn’t dated terribly well. Perhaps the decisions that were made seemed right for the mid-1960s, but bear in mind that Star Trek was not a ratings success in its initial run. We must wonder what would have happened if the studio hadn’t interfered and we’d ended up with a less action-orientated show that stuck to thought-provoking science fiction. Perhaps The Cage is how Star Trek would be made today? Fascinating.

The TV movie/mini-series idea

Time period: various

The scenario: Star Trek as a film-length TV presentation or a mini-series rather than a feature film or traditional series.

How likely was it? It was always on the back burner.

It’s an idea that has been put forth throughout the history of Star TrekStar Trek as a series of TV movies of between 90 and 120 minutes. If things had gone differently, it might have been what we had rather than either a 1970s film or a TV series. On the other hand, the TV movies were suggested as a spin-off if the film went on to be a success. At other times, it seemed like a successful ‘reunion’ style TV movie or two might create enough interest for a feature film. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica started as a mini series that served as a pilot for the eventual TV series, and the series run included a TV movie re-examining earlier events from a different perspective. Babylon 5 also used occasional TV movies to good effect, so it’s an approach that can work.

In the 1970s, a series of TV movies would have given Gene Roddenberry the luxury of a longer running time and a bigger budget. It would have also suited the lead actors as it wouldn’t require the huge commitment necessitated by a series. One difference between Star Trek movies and the series is that the films can’t take the same risks as individual episodes. Many of the best Star Trek episodes would make a terrible film. The Lower Decks, from Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a story that concentrates on minor characters rather than the stars of the show, and it’s a good example of the of the type of subject that would be unsuitable for a feature film. Presumably, the TV movies would have hit a halfway point between movie grandeur and story structure and the fascinating possibilities for a TV episode to explore a single idea or character.

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Would it have been good?

As we mentioned, TV movies offer a good balance between the, often stifling requirements, imposed by a feature film and a freedom for risk taking of an individual TV episode. There are many times throughout the franchise history where a TV movie or two would have presented interesting opportunities. Maybe it could still happen?

The God Thing

Time period: About 1975 onwards

The scenario: A more directly religious and philosophical version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

How likely was it? The script was written.

Star Trek wasn’t sufficiently successful to keep it on the air during its original run. Following cancellation, however, it did become popular, and for this reason, there were many attempts to bring it back in some form. One of the projects that nearly made it to production was The God Thing, a potential Star Trek feature film. The story is particularly fascinating to dig into because its ideas reverberate backwards and forwards throughout the history of the franchise. In other words, we can build up an unusually detailed idea of what the film would have been like as it drew on existing material and also went on to influence later Star Trek.

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Set after the completion of the five year mission, the crew of the Enterprise have largely gone their separate ways. However, the ship and the crew are pressed back into action due an enormous destructive entity heading towards Earth. So far, this sounds like familiar territory for Star Trek fans. For one thing, the story, about an out of control machine searching for its creator, is similar to an original series episode called The Changeling. The idea is revisited here, just as it was ultimately used for 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The idea did diverge from what we’d seen before because Gene Roddenberry explored the religious aspects in more depth. This time around, the probe claims to be God, arousing the fervour of the human race, at one point even turning the crew of the Enterprise against its captain. This, and other plot points, crop up later, within Star Trek canon, in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The idea of a returning God figure, who turns out to be a false God, was also used in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called The Devil’s Due. Gene Roddenberry felt that the controversial religious elements of the script made the studio executives nervous and that this is what led to the rejection of his script.

Would it have been good?

The film that we did eventually get, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, followed a similar outline to much of what had been planned for The God Thing, but without the religious overtones. The special effects, score and staging in general of The Motion Picture are excellent, but its reputation isn’t great, and it was only a moderate financial success, given the huge budget. Most of the criticism that the film receives tends to be about it being slow and reliant on amazing special effects.

Perhaps if it had more of a definite, rather than largely abstract, exploration of the philosophical implications of a God-like machine seeking out its creator, it would have been better received. Having said that, Star Trek V did, largely, take that approach and that film is generally derided as the weakest Star Trek film.

Starfleet Academy

Time period: 1970s onwards

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The scenario: Either a prequel, origin story or a completely new set of characters.

How likely was it? It was seriously considered more than once.

The idea of a series or a film based around Starfleet Academy started in the 1970s, as it was one of Gene Roddenberry’s first suggestions for a potential film. From then on, the idea has been raised from time to time. The late Harve Bennett, legendary Star Trek film writer and producer, favoured the idea for the follow-up to Star Trek V, not least because a prequel set in the academy would negate the complicated negotiations with the existing cast. The film was scripted, but the studio execs changed their minds and decided to put their money into the more conventional Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country instead. The details of what would have gone on in this film seem remarkably similar to the start of the 2009 reboot movie.

However, this would have been an entire film charting the academy experiences of the main characters. Bennett had his eye on John Cusack as the young Spock and Ethan Hawke in the Kirk role. At other times, the idea was raised, but as a youth-oriented TV series, mainly dealing with a new set of characters.

Would it have been good?

There are a number of ideas here. The 1970s prequel film idea, would have been a shame because people were crying out to see the continuing adventures of the characters that they loved. Harve Bennett thought that the early 1990s script was wonderful, and was sorry that it never got made. The Beverly Hills 90210 mixed with ‘Top Gun in space’ TV show of the late 1990s might have been the antidote to Trek’s then declining ratings and have done more to save TV-based Star Trek than Enterprise was able to do.

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Star Trek: The Planet Of The Titans

Time period: 1976

The scenario: An intriguing and ambitious science fiction film, that might not have been very Star Trek.

How likely was it: Developed all the way to scripting, but was rejected.

Of the 1970s potential Star Trek movies that didn’t get made, Planet Of The Titans was the one that got closest to production. You might expect the story to be another The Changeling rehash, but it’s largely unconnected to the other potential Star Trek projects of the era.

This time around, the studio recruited talent from outside the Star Trek family in the form of Chris Bryant and Allan Scott. Not only were the pair new to Star Trek, they were also largely inexperienced with science fiction writing, although they had impressed with their adapted screenplay for the spooky and unconventional ghost film Don’t Look Now (1973). Having relocated to LA from the UK, the two soon produced an outline which was well-received by both the studio executives and Gene Roddenberry.

It’s a plot that could hardly be criticised for being too simple, so hang on your dilithium crystals. In the story, the crew of the starship Enterprise, led by Captain Kirk, are sent to investigate the disappearance of another federation ship, the USS Da Vinci. Kirk is affected by some sort of space phenomena and disappears while piloting a shuttle craft. Three years later, the Enterprise returns to the location and discovers that Kirk had been living on a previously hidden planet. The planet, which is theorized to be the home of The Titans, a mythical race, is also sought by the Klingons. Ultimately, The Enterprise and her crew are transported to Earth’s past and influence human history by, amongst other things, introducing fire.

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The film was fairly advanced in its production, to the extent that some design and model work had begun. Legendary James Bond production designer Ken Adam was brought on board and began designing a new Enterprise. His initial sketch involved a triangular engineering hull and these sketches were fleshed out by conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie. The concept art concerning the inside of the Enterprise is closer to what we saw in The Motion Picture and Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s a modernized living and working space for the crew rather than the campy, but highly colourful, setup we got in the 1960s TV show. One design featured an open space within the main saucer section that was joined by tubes. We may be able to infer a glimpse of what this might have looked like on film by referring to Adam’s similar sets for the interior of the space station in the film Moonraker.

Although the working relationship was reportedly good, there was some push-pull friction between the two writers, the director, Philip Kaufman and Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry wanted to make sure that the new film was true to the original series and the characters that he had created, but the others seemed to be more interested in creating an original and challenging piece of science fiction, perhaps egged on by 2001 and other transgressive cinema. Although the script outline had been green-lighted by the studio, the finished script that had resulted from the tug of war between the different parties was rejected.

Would it have been good?

It’s one of the unmade projects that we know the most about, but it’s perhaps the hardest one to judge. The plot seems complicated, bordering on convoluted, and it doesn’t sound like either the director or the two writers were especially committed to Star Trek itself. Indeed, it seems that the three of them were more interested in the chance to make an intriguing and artistically challenging science fiction film with a decent budget behind it. Now, in their defense, we have to remember that at this time, Star Trek was still, primarily, a rather campy 60s science fiction TV series.

If their vision had been given free rein, we could have ended up with either a thought-provoking piece of cinema or an over-indulgent mess (*cough* – Dune). Looking back through the Star Trek films that we have, they tend to work better as an adventure film with some use of allegory and moving character moments thrown in, all within the confines of Roddenberry’s optimistic view of the far future.

Untitled Philip Kaufman movie

Time period: Late 1970s

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The Scenario: Film focused on Spock vs his Klingon nemesis.

How likely was it? Only reached the outline stage. Studio interest in science fiction had waned.

After Planet Of The Titans was rejected, director Philip Kaufman tried his hand at a film outline. We don’t know many details, but apparently it would have centred around Spock battling against his nemesis, a Klingon played by the mighty Toshirô Mifune! Apparently, a shared psychedelic experience would have featured. Adding to the woes of the production, word was starting to circulate about rival impending project called Star Wars. Executives worried that people wouldn’t be willing to pay to see two science fiction films that year. Of course, the year after Star Wars came out, the studios were frantically searching for absolutely any franchise properties that could be launched into space, including the subsequent James Bond film, Moonraker.

Would it have been good?

It was rejected at the outline stage, and we don’t know a great deal about it. As with Planet Of The Titans, looking at some of Kaufman’s comments from interviews, it doesn’t sound like he was particularly protective of Star Trek in itself and had in mind some trippy goings on. But having said that, perhaps that’s a bit unfair to him. Taking a look down his resume, it’s worth noting that he was the co-writer of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and the director and screenwriter of things like the Marquis de Sade biopic Quills (2000), historical space drama The Right Stuff (1983) and Michael Crichton adaptation Rising Sun (1993), all good, fairly conventional fare. Bear in mind that in 1978 Kaufman went on to work with Leonard Nimoy on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, a well regarded film, and probably Nimoy’s best non-Star Trek film performance. Additionally, Kaufman remarked that the character Spock influenced his conception of the ‘pod people’ in that film.

When assessing the potential of this project, we come back to the problem that, aside from a bit of spin-off material, Star Trek was still 79 TV episodes of a colourful 1960s adventure series. Whatever the next incarnation ended up being, it would have helped to define the legacy of Star Trek. Given Kaufman’s subsequent track record, coupled with the fact that he obviously dug both Spock as a character and Nimoy as an actor, added to the fact that Toshirô Mifune as a Klingon would have been marvelous to see, perhaps this one would have been worth a watch.

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Continuations (TOS, Enterprise)

Time period: Late 1969/2005

The scenario: More Trek

How likely was it? It all came down to the ratings.

With hindsight, it seems like a shame that Star Trek was cancelled when it was. Looking at the outlines for unproduced episodes that exist, it looks like season 4 and beyond would probably not have involved any great changes to the cast or the overall premise of the show. There would have been some followup to earlier episodes and of course, some new adventures for the crew.

Star Trek: Enterprise was cut short, and that’s a shame because most people agree it was finally getting into its stride. In addition, it relied on recurring characters and story arcs, and some of these were left unresolved. If it had carried on for a fifth season, the Andorian, Shran, may have joined the crew of the Enterprise and we might have found out who the mysterious person from the future was (a Romulan? Jonathan Archer from the future?). There were also plenty of ideas involving revisiting elements from the other eras of Star Trek lore. Alice Kridge coming back, before her character was Borg queen? Now, that’s something we would have liked to have seen.

Would it have been good?

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It looks like the original series of Star Trek would have been more of the same. In many respects, it did continue beyond the third series in the form the of film series and subsequent spin-offs.

Most people feel that Enterprise was continuing to improve, and it would have been interesting to see the plotlines played out. It’s a shame that we haven’t had original Star Trek on television since 2005. That said, the overall quality of the episodes never reached the heights required to garner the viewing figures needed to keep such an expensive show on the air. Can anyone objectively say that the average episode quality was as high as rival science fiction show Battlestar Galactica, for example? Enterprise always seemed to be aiming for ‘good’, rarely managing to hit ‘excellent’. At four decently-budgeted seasons, even fans of the show would have to admit that it had been given every chance to succeed.

Star Trek: Phase II

Time period: 1977

The scenario: A 1970s Star Trek TV series, a halfway point between classic Trek and The Next Generation.

How likely was it? Probably would have happened if not for studio politics.

In 1977, Star Trek: Phase II was to be the flagship production for the Paramount Television Service, a proposed fourth American television network. Once again, Gene Roddenberry was in charge, and he set about planning a Star Trek fit for the late 1970s. The first problem he ran up against was the fact that it might have to be Star Trek without Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock as the two actors were either not interested or too expensive. This necessitated two new characters, a young man who could take over as commander of the ship and another who could play the vulcan science officer. Decker, the Kirk replacement, wasn’t cast during this initial planning stage, but the Spock replacement was, and we also know more about this character. His youth and the fact that he may have been (according to differing accounts) entirely non-human built on the possibilities, first established with Spock, for exploring human culture from a fish out of water perspective. These themes would be picked up by two future Star Trek characters: Data, the android, and Wesley Crusher, the gifted youngster.

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Later in the show design process, it seemed that Spock and Kirk might return, but as occasional mentor characters rather than series regulars. Kirk as a mentor to a younger man who carries out his directives influenced the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation characters Captain Picard and his second in command Will Riker. There’s another connection to a Next Generation character. Ilia, a partial telepath who had a previous romantic connection to Decker, is somewhat similar to Deanna Troi. Ilia also helped to satisfy Roddenberry’s desire to get more female characters into significant roles in Star Trek. Beyond that, most of the regular characters from the original series were set to return.

The production reached an advanced stage, and in terms of physical assets, many props, models and sets were created. Thirteen scripts, including the pilot episode, “In Thy Image” were in a finished state, and some other episodes existed as outlines. Original Star Trek production designer Matt Jefferies redesigned the starship Enterprise. In particular, he added squared-off engine nacelles, noting that modularity for easy upgrades had always been part of the design. Screentest photos exist of Xon and Ilia in a uniform that strongly resembled the classic one. Eventually, the idea for the new TV network folded, and with it went Star Trek: Phase II, yet another potential incarnation of Star Trek.

Would it have been good?

It’s possible to get a picture of what the finished project would have been like due to the concept drawings, screentest photos and finished scripts that exist, along with the subsequent projects that draw on Phase II ideas. Largely, the pilot episode, In Thy Image, was realised as the feature film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek: The Next Generation bears many similarities to Star Trek: Phase II, particularly in its first season. Riker is similar to Decker, and his relationships with Picard and Troi are similar to those between Decker, Kirk and Ilia. Two of the Star Trek: Phase II episodes were later adapted as Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, so similar were the two series.

So, what we’re talking about is something a bit like Star Trek: The Next Generation, but in the 1970s and with most of the original crew along for the ride. It’s a shame that we’d never have got to see the original crew films or The Next Generation, but then, we wouldn’t know what those things were anyway. Indications are that it probably would have been good, but as Spock once said, we need to have faith, that the universe will unfold as it should. So, it’s difficult to wish for, for that reason.

Star Trek: Excelsior

Time period: 1991-2001

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The scenario: Captain Sulu and a few of his friends flying around in the Excelsior.

How likely was it? There was organized fan support at every stage.

Actor George Takei has always been protective of the character of Sulu, a regular supporting role in the 1960s TV series. In the early days of the film series, he constantly lobbied to have more for his character to do and even to have Sulu given his own ship. This wish was finally granted, to great effect, in 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Subsequently, he always hoped for his own series, which would probably have been set after the events of Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country but long before those of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a period that hasn’t been explored in much detail by the franchise.

Interest in a Captain Sulu driven Star Trek peaked off and on over the years. There was interest after Star Trek VI and after the character’s appearance in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager in 1996 and again, as Star Trek: Voyager was coming to an end. At different times, it could have been a series or a series of one-off TV movies. Ironically, George Takei’s popularity as a celebrity has increased in recent years thanks to his prominence on the Internet, his work as an activist, along with his appearances on the Howard Stern radio show. If that had happened a few years earlier, it might have increased interest in a show starring him as the lead.

Would it have been good?

Coming off the back of Star Trek VI in 1991, it would have run alongside Star Trek: The Next Generation. If it had been spurred on by Sulu’s Voyager appearance in 1996, it would have been a contemporary of Voyager and Deep Space 9 and the still popular repeats of Star Trek: The Next Generation, giving a rather crowded line up. If it had followed the end of Star Trek: Voyager in 2001 as a full series, it would have been what we had got instead of Star Trek: Enterprise. As a series of one offs, alongside the other series of the time, it would have been interesting to see, if done well.

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Star Trek: Federation

Time period: 2006

The scenario: A dark, modern take on a Star Trek series.

How likely was it? The Singer name carried a lot of weight, but the studio went with the prequel movie instead.

Following the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise, Bryan Singer made a proposal for a Star Trek series. Earlier, he had been involved with the creation of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, but had to drop out before he could direct the initial mini-series. So, there’s no doubt that his intimate knowledge of that series will have informed his take on what he wanted to do with Star Trek. He put together a writing team who produced a 25 page proposal set centuries after the TNG era at a point at which the federation had entered a dark age of decline and stagnation.

Would it have been good?

Star Trek: The Next Generation is sometimes criticized for presenting a view of the future that is too utopian for its own good. It was a conscious decision on the part of Gene Roddenberry to create a society that was largely free of conflict. Here’s a strange aspect of futuristic fiction – a 1960s TV series set in the 23rd century benefits from less knowledge about the future than a 2000s series set in the 22nd century, particularly in the area of technology. It’s a problem that was constantly cropping up during the production of Star Trek: Enterprise. For example, in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it becomes apparent that the Enterprise D computers don’t have search engine technology. By moving the setting forward hundreds of years, the writers would have given themselves a clean slate from which they could examine current and future scientific and social issues. To some, it might seem a shame to have made Star Trek too dark though.

Star Trek: The Beginning

Star Trek: The Beginning was a proposed 11th Star Trek film penned by Band Of Brothers lead writer Erik Jendresen and backed by Star Trek producer Rick Berman. A first draft of the script was produced, and the film was set a few years after the end of Star Trek: Enterprise, but would not have featured existing characters. The lead character, however, would have been an ancestor of Captain James T. Kirk. The backdrop for the story would have been the political changes that led to the formation of the United Federation of Planets alongside the war between Earth and Romulus. So, this film would have been a continuation of Enterprise that filled in some gaps between the ending of that series and the start of tthe original series. Eventually, Paramount decided not to proceed with the film and went, instead, with JJ Abrams’ Star Trek idea.

Would it have been good?

Should it have happened? A lot will depend on how much you like Enterprise and how much you like the Star Trek reboot. Rather than rewriting the timeline and revisiting the classic characters, this film would have taken us into a previously unexamined area of Star Trek history and introduced new characters. The rejection of this script co-incided with a regime change at Paramount and it was, in many ways, the final gasp of the Rick Berman era of Star Trek that had begun in 1987 with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even if the idea was good, and even if you’re a fan of the Berman era, perhaps it was time for a shake up. Remember what they say about all good things…