Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Death and Highly Improbable Posthumous Success of Some Show From the '60s; or, Almost Everything Was Terrible in the '70s; or, The Messiest, Bloodiest Television Revival Ever; or, Why Star Trek the Motion Picture Is Not Very Good

Famously, Star Trek went off the air, finally and for good, only a matter of weeks before the Apollo moon-landing.  Later, people involved with Star Trek would wonder what might have been if this momentous event had happened earlier: would the reality of outer-space travel, beamed live to televisions across the nation, have given the nation's top dramatic space show a new lease on life?

Well, maybe.  But if so, it probably would have doomed Star Trek forever.

Getting cancelled, it turns out, was probably the best thing that ever happened to Star Trek.  If Star Trek had run for a few more years, winding down in the manner typical of a reasonably popular television show, it almost certainly would not have become a phenomenon at all, and we probably wouldn't remember it at all today: not any more than we remember Wagon Train, the popular, long-running show Star Trek was based on.

Why was Star Trek cancelled?  Well, really, the question is why it wasn't cancelled before.  CBS had in fact planned to cancel it both after its first year AND after its second year; both times, the show was belatedly saved by a letter-writing campaign, the first led by a number of respected science fiction authors, the second by a few ordinary fans, the legendary Trimbles.  Why the studio wanted to cancel it is a bit more complicated; but it mostly came down to the fact that Star Trek was very expensive and not quite popular enough to justify itself in the network's eyes.  According to some, Star Trek was, in fact, very popular with the "youth" demographic especially coveted by advertisers, which means that in this day and age it would probably have stayed on the air a good deal longer; but Star Trek came before networks had begun to think in this way.  Judged on an absolute scale, it simply wasn't popular enough for CBS and Desilu to continue underwriting its exorbitant budget.

And by the end of its third season, Star Trek was tired.  Gene Roddenberry, its creator, had already jumped ship for easier and more profitable pastures; and despite managing to pull together a decent season, Star Trek seemed to be feeling its age.  Death was, to a degree, a welcome respite.

This was bad news for a lot of people, though, including the many who had drawn their paychecks from the show; but it was especially bad news for William Shatner.  Having just gone through a costly divorce, he found himself completely insolvent, forced to travel the country with a theater troupe, a dog, and pickup truck, living out of a camper because he couldn't afford to pay hotel bills.  Eventually, by taking every single role available to him, he was able to get back on his feet in time for Star Trek's eventual revival.  Leonard Nimoy did much better; he continued to work on television and theater in various high-profile roles, including on Mission Impossible and as Sherlock Holmes.  Deforest Kelley took a supporting role in one of the greatest worst films of all time, Night of the Lepus, about giant, mutant killer bunnies with a taste for human flesh (I highly recommend it), and then retired to his house and wife.

Life, it turns out, goes on.

In America as a whole, though, this seemed somewhat more in doubt.  The optimism of the '60s was more than gone: the Civil Rights movement had ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King and race riots across America, politics seemed to be heading for a nadir of corruption and nastiness under Richard Nixon, the economy was failing and falling apart, the mainline religion of much of America was in its last death throes, the Vietnam War was ongoing with horrific death tolls and no end in sight, divorce, promiscuity, and the other offspring of the Sexual Revolution were tearing apart communities and families everywhere, and nuclear war and the complete annihilation of the human race was a terrifyingly real possibility.  Also, everyone had mullets and mustaches for some reason.  On the plus side, David Bowie was releasing some damn good albums.  Trade-offs, man.

Faced with all this, a profound sense of malaise began taking hold of Americans everywhere--and everywhere people, abandoned by their society and having largely lost their religion, began searching for something to inspire or distract them.  Many millions soon found it--in the bizarre, stylized images beamed in daily from their local station.

Star Trek as a network show was, relatively speaking, a failure; it didn't make anyone too much money, when all was said and done, and it didn't exactly catch fire in the public imagination either.  Its real success came later.

For what happened almost immediately, when Star Trek went off the air, is that it was sold, for a relative pittance, to local stations in syndicated form.  These stations could then literally do whatever they wanted with it; most of them ran it daily, or more often, to fill the holes in their schedules.  Soon, local television everywhere was filled with the adventures of Kirk and Spock and crew, voyaging to the Final Frontier five nights a week or more.

Here, in the backwaters of American television, something happened that no expected to happen: Star Trek became a hit.

Not just a hit; a phenomenon.  Star Trek, in its syndicated incarnation, became something the likes of which the world had, truly, never seen before.

Almost overnight, there sprang up a fandom more like a religion than anything that had come before it; and with it a dizzying variety of fan magazines ("fanzines") stuffed with interviews and tidbits, technical books touting the accuracy of their schematics and specs, and conventions with rapturous crowds of costumed fans thrilling to their mutual obsession and the presence of the show's cast and crew.  Star Trek fandom was preceded and paralleled by the growth of comic and science fiction fandom and their conventions; but, in truth, it really was a new thing: not a gathering of collectors looking to trade or buy rare comics, nor a show of coming attractions by media companies looking to pick up readers and viewers (of the sort that Gene Roddenberry had run his Trek pilot for in the '60s), but a spontaneous, grass-roots explosion of people, of all ages and walks of life, who wanted nothing more than to come together and celebrate their shared devotion for a single, dead and buried television show from the '60s.  "Trekkies" were, as their derogatory name suggests, a lot more like hippies or drug junkies than Gunsmoke fans.  They watched the 79 episodes of Star Trek over and over and over again, talked and argued about them, dressed up in costumes based on them, went to conventions dedicated to them, and wrote their own imagined additions to them.  Their love for this strange, failed experiment in television could not seemingly be either suppressed or sated.

Even beyond the hardcore fans, a lot of people were now watching Star Trek, or at least seeing it spin by as they flipped channels; Nana Visitor, Kira from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, would later recall watching the show as she cooked dinner in her brownstone apartment, and this was an extremely common experience through every kind of place and all demographics.  Star Trek was quickly becoming a mainstay of popular American culture, its odd names and terms ("Spock" and "beaming" and "phasers") becoming a part of everyday vocabulary.  By the time NASA proposed a public vote to name the first Space Shuttle in 1976, the public overwhelmingly chose the name of an obscure hunk of plywood from the '60s: the Enterprise.  Like it or not, Star Trek was here to stay.

What was it, exactly, that made this strange little show such a hit, that made it such a source of fascination, nay obsession, for so many?  This is a huge question, and one well beyond the scope of any one person to fully answer; but I can hazard a few guesses.  In the malaise of America in the '70s, Star Trek provided a number of things to its beleaguered people.  To begin with, there is the fabled Star Trek optimism.  Although, as I have pointed out, this optimistic outlook was not particularly unusual for its time in the 1960s, by the time the '70s came around, America's optimism had turned into near-universal pessimism; and the prospects that the future would look better, or even the same, as the present did not strike many people as all that great.  In this atmosphere, Star Trek's vision of the future suddenly seemed shockingly positive--not race riots, but racial harmony; not nuclear annihilation, put interplanetary peace; not Nixon, but Kirk.  In a sense, what Star Trek gave America was the past in the guise of the future; the '60s masquerading as the 2360s.  But whereas the optimism of, say, the Andy Griffith Show (another optimistic work from the 1960s) now seemed dated and archaic, tied to an America that seemed to have vanished irrecoverably, Star Trek was tied to no particular time and place except the broad, ineffably vague expanse of the future.

This, however, was not all that made Star Trek popular; along with it, and probably greater, was the grand style of storytelling and the colorful characters we have already discussed.  People did not fall in love with a futuristic utopia, or even an optimistic prediction; they fell in love with the imperfect, conflicted Spock, and the imperfect, irascible McCoy.  They fell in love with heroes.

This, then, was at the heart of Star Trek's appeal; the combination of positivity with imperfection, of change with continuity.  The Federation in the original Star Trek was no utopia; it had money, religion, and many an insane or bureaucratic asshole in a position of power.  It was, however, clearly a nice place, and definitely in the right in the grand scheme of things, the way that America under the Kennedys had been a nice place, and basically in the right in the grand scheme of things.  In the same way, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were all flawed, imperfect individuals, of the sort anyone could fairly easily relate to; but there was no doubt that they were heroes to be cheered for and emulated, not anti-heroes to be watched with suspicion or supported only with a profound sense of disquiet.  In Star Trek, humanity was still flawed, and there were still black hats and white hats, and all kinds of problems; but Richard Nixon was not in the White House, and there were no fingers poised over buttons waiting to blow up the planet.   The world of Star Trek was not utopia--but it did have some heroes, a lot of planets, and an infinity of stars.  That was enough.

More to the point, it had 79 different stories, ranging from the campy to the profound; and people liked them.  On some level, it was that simple.

Star Trek, then, was a hit; but it was still a dead hit.  All over Hollywood, people began wondering if it could be ever be a living one as well.

This story should really be a very short one.  Star Trek was now very popular; and all the cast, crew, and creatives behind Star Trek (with the great exception of Gene Coon) were still alive and well.  A revival of some sort was, by Hollywood standards, a pretty sure thing; and there were a lot of options.  Star Trek could come back as a feature film, a television show, or even a cheap TV movie--or all of the above.  Really, it didn't matter too much, given Star Trek's popularity and its fervent fanbase.  Pick a story and a format and start running; and start raking in the cash.

That didn't happen, though; instead, it took essentially the entire decade of the 1970s for Star Trek to finally drag itself out of the grave, bloodied and bruised, brush itself off, and then spend two and a half hours blankly staring at a viewscreen.  Why was this the case?

Well, it's everyone's fault, as it usually is; but at the heart of it, once again, is Gene Roddenberry.

Roddenberry was probably approached by the studio fairly early with the prospect of crafting a revived Star Trek; according to Shatner's Star Trek Movie Memories, this happened as early as 1972, only three years after Star Trek went off the air.  According to Shatner, though, in the early years Roddenberry simply didn't want to.

This isn't actually as odd as it sounds.  Roddenberry had jumped ship at Star Trek after the second season, looking for greener pastures; and over the ensuing years, he had tried his hand at many different creative pursuits, including movies and television pilots.  Why go back to the well again when there was far more profit and pride elsewhere?

Unfortunately for Roddenberry, every single one of these promising projects ended up failing miserably; and soon Roddenberry found himself facing the financial abyss once again.  At this stage, Star Trek started looking a bit more helpful.  With the fanbase booming at a near-religious pitch, Roddenberry soon discovered the immense profit potential of being the creator of Star Trek.

Perhaps more importantly, he also discovered the immensely flattering reality that these people really did love him, their "Great Bird of the Galaxy," and really did want to hear everything he had to say, about everything.  To them, he was a visionary; and he soon started speaking of himself in the same terms, articulating quite different views from that laid out in the original Star Trek series, with its moralism straight out of contemporary Westerns and its Americanism drawn from the Kennedys.  According to Roddenberry now, mankind was in its infancy and could and would perfect itself completely in the future, religion was bad and did nothing but impose shame on people, and lots and lots of sex without reservations was definitely the way to go.  This was Roddenberry's gospel; and if it sounds to you exactly like pretty much every other progressive from the '70s, well, congratulations, you've cracked the code.  Somehow, though, when Roddenberry said these things, people believed them; after all, Star Trek was living proof that progressivism could succeed, that there could be a brighter future after all.  In the long term, people imagined, maybe these ideals really could bring about the paradise they promised.  In the short term, anyway, they kept Roddenberry's bank accounts solvent.

Buoyed by the adulation of his fandom, Roddenberry took to the road, making his living as a traveling lecturer across America.  He wowed audiences with tales of his titanic struggles with the studios, and of the genesis of the show they loved.  At the heart of his "World of Star Trek," though, was something unique from Star Trek's history: blooper reels, featuring flubbed lines and other silliness on the set of Star Trek, and created originally for the cast and crew Christmas party back in the day.  Today, when such reels are a commonplace DVD extra, this might not seem like a big deal; but this was pretty much the first time any such thing had ever been shown to the public, and people really did love it.  Unfortunately, Leonard Nimoy, now estranged from Gene Roddenberry for several other reasons, very much did not; infuriated that this private memento was being used to make Roddenberry money without his or anyone else's permission, he wrote his former boss an impassioned letter of protest.  Roddenberry, according to Nimoy, responded by offering him his own copy.

In any event, Roddenberry was now officially making a living as the Creator of Star Trek; and he was now very much ready to deal when the studio came to him looking to make some money off of the Trek property.  Almost immediately, this resulted in Star Trek: The Animated Series, a half-an-hour, children's-show-formatted series of Trek adventures which began airing in 1973 and ran for about a year.  Shepherded by DC Fontana, one of the leading lights of the original Star Trek, and featuring all of the cast sans Chekov, this show promised fresh Star Trek adventures to a hungry audience.

Unfortunately, TAS is pretty damn awful.  Okay, that's unfair; but not too much so.  The show's most famous episode, Yesteryear, really is a very good piece of television; but everything else, without many exceptions, is some combination of bizarre, hokey, or both.

My favorite episode of TAS, which to be fair is probably one of the worst, is The Infinite Vulcan, written by Walter Koenig, coincidentally the only member of the TOS main cast to be excluded from the new show for budgetary reasons.  If he was trying to get back at everyone with this episode, he certainly did a good job.  The show features a giant Spock clone created by a giant, Spartan-looking clone, allied with a bunch of talking plants and bent on conquering the galaxy in the name of peace.  Not coincidentally, all of these elements would have been pretty much impossible to do on the live-action show; and also not coincidentally, all of these elements are pretty damn terrible.

Looking at TAS with a more critical eye, it's not hard to figure out what's wrong with it; and it's well expressed by DC Fontana, who talked about how much she enjoyed working on the show, because with animation, the writers could literally do whatever they wanted in terms of aliens, concepts, and effects, without being limited by a television budget.  This certainly lets TAS do all kinds of funky things, including featuring an Aztec Serpent-god, a race of bear-wolf-men, and also literally Satan (don't worry, he's apparently just misunderstood).  This would indeed be a great thing if you thought about Star Trek as a great show about weird, funky sci-fi concepts that was unfortunately hampered by a low budget; it's pretty awful if you (correctly) realized that Star Trek was a Western military character drama that just happened to be set in space.  The animation is great for portraying Tchar, hereditary prince of the Skorr, who is secretly plotting to steal the Soul of the Skorr, the sacred artifact of his people, and thus ignite a galactic Jihad and also coincidentally is a giant yellow bird-man; it's not so great for portraying the actual characters, who stare soullessly at the screen with giant flesh-colored eyes and black pupils, as their mouth barely moves in an otherwise motionless face.  Even the actors sound bored; appropriate, as some of them were literally phoning in their dialogue, or at least recording it themselves and then sending it in to the studio.  If the delight and joy of Star Trek TOS is the larger-than-life performances and personalities of its characters, TAS is a lifeless, dead-eyed zombie of a show.

On the plus side, it is just bizarre and zany enough to be entertaining.  Perhaps this is all that could be asked of it, as a half-an-hour animated television show run on Saturday mornings.  As a premonition of Star Trek's coming revival,  though, it is hard not to find it a premonition of worse things to come.  TAS is in no sense still a Western or character drama; it is a show driven by one zany, over-the-top sci fi plot concept after another.  This, it seems, was the common idea among people trying to revive Star Trek at this time; and the search for a sci-fi plot grand and cosmic enough to fill the big screen would ultimately drive a lot of people in Hollywood almost to distraction over the next five years.

Star Trek The Animated Series was, in the end, a modest success; it took minimal effort for almost everyone involved, ran for a season and a half, and won an Emmy Award.,  It did not, however, run for very long, and it was hardly enormously profitable.  This was not the revival of Star Trek anyone was looking for.

In 1974, then, CBS Paramount approached Gene Roddenberry again asking him to write a relatively cheap, TV movie revival of his old show.  Returning to his old office in the abandoned Trek office building, he began working feverishly at writing his new version of Star Trek.  Unfortunately, it...well, perhaps it's easiest just to narrate here.

What Roddenberry had concocted by himself in his vacant office was a script with the highly improbable title of "The God Thing."  Its plot, according to those who read it, features the Enterprise confronting an ancient mechanical probe from deep space which turns out to be responsible for all the manifestations of divinity in Earth's history.  This divine monstrosity, now in a desperate state of disrepair, would have furiously demanded worship from the Enterprise and its crew, successively manifesting itself as all the divine figures from Earth history, to culminate finally and rather literally in a bleeding Christ.  At this point, the Enterprise would have phasered it into oblivion.

This...ah...interesting story did not overly impress the studio executives at Paramount.  One person it did impress, apparently, was William Shatner, who recounts being blown away when initially introduced to it by Gene Roddenberry.  A decade or so later, he would attempt a very similar plot in Star Trek V, to equally interesting results.

Unfortunately, Shatner was pretty much the only person impressed by this effort; and so began a long, bizarre, and ultimately futile attempt by the studio to find writers and a story for the revival of Star Trek.  Everyone, it seems, agreed that the story of this revival needed to be big, even cosmic, in scope, a dazzling original sci fi story for the ages; hence, the plots pitched included elements such as the Enterprise travelling through a black hole, finding the mythical Planet of the Titans, and waging war with a race of evil reptilians in the prehistoric past.  Roddenberry was still very involved in this process, even trying his hand at collaborations; but so were a who's who of science fiction and other talent in Hollywood at the time.  All of these stories, though, ambitious as they were, failed to make it in the eyes of the studio.  Among those brought in to pitch ideas at this stage was Harlan Ellison, the legendary science fiction author; according to him, this interview ended when a studio executive suggested that he create a plot based on the Chariot of the Gods, upon which he stormed angrily out of the room.

Star Trek's development, then, was a huge mess, and it dragged on for years and years without showing much progress.  At the heart of this mess was a basic lack of clarity about what, precisely, Star Trek was, and what made for a good Star Trek story, worthy of the hype of the millions of fans who had waited for half a decade to see it return.  Would reptilian aliens do it?  What about black holes?  Faced with this basic dilemma, development stretched on and on and on, without anyone, really, ever coming within a black hole trip's distance of Roddenberry's original Western-cum-military-drama concept of the show.  At some point, this TV movie became a full-blown, big-budget feature film, and directors and producers were even hired.  Still, the attempt to create a worthy story for the movie dragged itself out, torturously and seemingly without end.  Finally, the studio pulled the plug.

It was at this stage that something truly unexpected happened: a little film called Star Wars was released, and a science fiction movie was now the biggest financial mega-hit in history.  Paramount, in the view of most people at the time, had obviously flubbed their opportunity to hit it big; but still, something could be done with this zombie property.

Thus Star Trek the movie became Star Trek the television show.  This seemed like a wise move at the time, and indeed it mostly proved to be so.  This time, unburdened by the prospect of creating a single, deeply satisfying story, things proceeded much more quickly: writers and producers and directors were hired, sets built, a writer's bible and an entire season's worth of stories and writers selected, scripts written, and the cast, new and returning, hired.  Star Trek was headed back to television, and there seemed to be no force in the universe that could stop it from doing so.

It is hard to know, looking back, whether Star Trek Phase Two, as it was called, would have been good or terrible.  There are some good signs, certainly; some of the stories really do show enormous promise, and the character of Xon, created to be a new Vulcan replacement for Spock, is an intriguing what-if in the franchise's history.  There are also, however, some more troubling signs.  At the top of that list is Lieutenant Ilia, a bald, mildly psychic woman from a society where, according to the writer's bible, "making love is as ordinary as shaking hands," and obviously created by Gene Roddenberry to serve no particular purpose on the show besides being bald and hyper-sexual.  Troi in the early seasons of Next Generation is effectively a toned-down version of this character; and the utter failure of her character in these early years (before she, like TNG as a whole, was rescued and reconceived) is a good indication of where Ilia's character would likely have ended up.  Also fairly pointless is William Decker, obviously inspiration for Riker in TNG; effectively a bland mini-Kirk, the character was created at least in part as a backup plan if negotiations with William Shatner went sour.  Once again, Riker in the early seasons of TNG shows the pitfalls of such a character; bland, and vacillating between seeming useless and making his captain seem useless.

Star Trek Phase Two could, then, have ended up being a worthy successor, recapturing at least some of the weird magic that had made Star Trek great; but it could also have ended up in the same hell as the first two seasons of TNG, dominated by Gene Roddenberry's feuds and obsessions, and unable to pull together any consistent life of its own.  This is perhaps, given what I'm about to tell you, a bit more likely.

For behind the scenes, there was once again trouble in paradise.  This trouble had a name: Harold Livingston, an old hand in the industry, who had been hired to act as writing producer for the new show.  The problem, such as it was, was simply this: Livingston and Roddenberry hated each other, viscerally and completely.  For Livingston, Roddenberry was a truly horrific writer obsessed with maintaining control over everything in regards to his creation.  For Roddenberry, Livingston was an interloper, challenging his own authority in his own domain; and Livingston was far from the only one to fall prey of Roddenberry's vast ego during this development process.  With these two, the chief creative forces of the show, constantly locked in combat, there was very little chance of Star Trek Phase Two ever finding smooth sailing.

In any event, in the short term, there was one major crisis to surmount: writing the premiere episode.  Once again, the trouble focused around finding the perfect story and script to reintroduce Star Trek to the public.  For a change, though, the actual story was found fairly quickly, as part of the season's worth of story concepts Livingston had pulled in from writers far and near.  Titled Robot's Return, this was the work of Gene Roddenberry's friend Alan Dean Foster, and everyone agreed that it would make a suitably grand, cosmic, and mysterious reintroduction to Star Trek.  Now they just had to write it.

Here, though, everything quickly went straight to hell.  At the heart of this struggle was Roddenberry's obsessive need for control, a proprietary feeling of ownership over Star Trek that could not bear to relinquish the reins to anyone--least of all a man who did not hide his opinion that Roddenberry simply couldn't write.  Faced with this challenge, Roddenberry took to obsessively rewriting everything, without authorization and often in secret, as a way of maintaining his control over Star Trek in all its aspects.  Livingston recounts sending a version of the premiere script to the studio for comment, only to have Roddenberry literally rewrite it without authorization, and then send it on the studio without telling them what he had done--and this sort of thing was, apparently, far from uncommon.  The Great Bird of the Galaxy was now an absolutely uncontrollable force: no matter what anyone said or did, Roddenberry would not let go of his creation, the source of his income and the cause of his adulation by millions of fans; and in his battle of egos with Livingston, he would never, ever back down.  Livingston quit, was rehired, quit, and was rehired in nightmarish succession, over and over again.  Third parties brought in to resolve the issue were effectively fed to the wolves.  As the official premiere date inched closer, Star Trek found itself torn apart by civil war.

Then, once again, the studio changed direction; at almost the last possible moment, they pivoted back towards film, cancelling the television show and the new network it was supposed to anchor, and instructing their worn-out creatives to retool Star Trek into a big-screen sci-fi spectacle for the ages.

Partly responsible for this change, according to many, was the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which, after the success of Star Wars, proved once and for all that big-screen sci fi could be a sustainable money-making proposition.  According to legend, Michael Eisner, the studio executive tasked with overseeing Star Trek at the time, actually shouted at the screen during a showing of Close Encounters: "This could have been us!"

In any event, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as it was now titled, seemed like a fairly safe bet.  The script for the premier, already penciled in for two hours, could be fairly easily retooled into a feature film; and the sets and actors were already built and hired, respectively.  A new director, though, was soon hired to match the film's new grand ambitions; Robert Wise, a famous and well-respected auteur, responsible for The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still and many other classics.  Wise even managed to lure Nimoy, who had been mutually feuding with Roddenberry for close to a decade, back into the fold, dooming David Gatreau's Xon but giving Star Trek back one of its leading lights.  With everything seemingly on their side--money, the studio's undivided attention, a great artist at the helm--how could Star Trek possibly fail?

The answer, once again, was Roddenberry and Livingston.  Even as the script for the film was retooled, even as the sets were redesigned, even as the cast and crew were being paid and waiting patiently to do their work, Roddenberry would not stop rewriting, and Livingston would not stop expressing his indignation at what he considered to be Roddenberry's sub-par work and constant interference.  Filming was delayed significantly as the two went at it, with Wise now an unhappy bystander to their conflict; even when filming was finally started, the two kept at it, constantly rewriting and re-re-writing each other as the cameras rolled.  Cast members describe script changes arriving to the set marked not by the day, but by the hour: and like clockwork, every change marked "Livingston" was followed by one marked "G.R.", and vice versa.  Again, Livingston was fired, then re-hired when Roddenbery proved unequal to the task at hand.  So dire was the situation that even Nimoy and Shatner, while filming, began suggesting major script and plotting changes, some of which made it into the film.

Having begun filming late due to behind-the-scenes feuding, Star Trek: The Motion Picture ended up barely making it in time for the premiere.  At the same time, the new industry of special effects was turning out to be far more expensive and unreliable than anyone expected; the first company hired proved unequal to the task, forcing enormous amounts of money to be spent hiring other houses to work around the clock to get everything done in time.  As Robert Wise describes it, the final special effects arrived just in time to be dropped literally whole into the film; and Wise himself was forced to carry the final cut in his suitcase, on a commercial flight, overnight to the world premiere of the film.  Advance screenings and re-editings were entirely out of the question.

At long last, though, Star Trek was back, really and truly revived.  Fans lined up for city blocks, reveling in their victory.  Then, they walked into a darkened theater and watched one of the most bizarre and stupefying movies ever made.

It's really hard even to describe Star Trek the Motion Picture, let alone critically appraise it.  It is comparatively easy to point out the very apparent flaws; the fact that all the characters are quiet, unpleasant ciphers barely recognizable from the original show, the fact that all of the action and danger in the film is entirely laughable, the fact that an overwhelming portion of the film is taken up with sequence after sequence in which our heroes stand around staring blankly at the viewscreen while endless, psychedelic special effects sequences unfold outside.  It's also fairly easy to point out the few manifestly excellent things about the film: that the music is exceptional, that the special effects are, in fact, both beautiful and bizarre, and that the basic plot, featuring a self-aware machine returning to its creators to seek the meaning of existence after acquiring all knowledge in the universe, is quite intriguing.

This, at least, can be said without too much trouble: Star Trek The Motion Picture is not a Star Trek movie.  Indeed, the motion picture is in many ways virtually the opposite of its forebear.  For the original Star Trek, the world of the future is bright and colorful, mythic and larger-than-life; for TMP, the world of the future is overwhelmingly shaded with gray, tan, and mauve, with muted, toned-down people speaking quietly and staring blankly at things.  Star Trek features grand, mythological heroes, towering indelibly over everything around them; TMP features a collection of blank, generally unpleasant ciphers constantly made insignificant by their surroundings and the various psychedelic light shows unfolding before them.  For Star Trek, space is a nautical metaphor, the shining stars a kinder, friendlier version of the lapping waves of the sea; for TMP, space is black and empty and enormous and filled with incomprehensible strangeness.  Star Trek is above all a vision of belonging, a warm, social myth of heroes and villains; TMP is a parable of profound alienation, a story of cosmic despair in the face of limitless knowledge and distance.

This is not to say, precisely, that Star Trek TMP is a bad movie.  I mean, I don't like it all that much; but there are definitely some who do.  It does feature, without question, one of the great film scores of cinematic history, by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith; a film score that it is almost impossible to praise sufficiently, and which is largely responsible for whatever genuine power the film has.  It also features some truly striking images, though a proper enjoyment of such continual, abstract, psychedelia would probably require a sizeable amount of hallucinogens.

In one sense, though, TMP is a profound throwback of sorts; a vision of science fiction film before the Star Trek and Star Wars revolution.  For TMP's primary inspiration is clearly not Star Trek the television show, but Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, another tale of alienation and strangeness and limitless intelligence, replete with psychedelic imagery and the terrifying poetry of distance.  TMP, in fact, owes practically nothing to Star Trek's vision of science fiction as a Western military drama, with bold, heroic characters splashed broadly across a colorful universe; it owes everything to Kubrick's spare, distancing vision of human knowledge pushing terrifyingly against the infinite.

I do, in truth, love 2001; but judged by the standard of its predecessor, TMP is without question inferior.  More basically, the idea of combining a 2001 successor and a Star Trek film cannot help seeming massively misconceived on almost every level.  Kubrick shoots his human characters from a great distance, physically and emotionally, relishing the irony of their pettiness and insignificance in comparison to infinity and transcendence; to take Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and treat them like this, though, is a bit like taking Achilles and Hector and trying to use them as the leads of a Jane Austen novel.  The combination only diminishes everyone and everything involved.  The 2001 successor in TMP suffers for being wedded to Star Trek's characters and setting; and the Star Trek film suffers far, far more from being wedded to a 2001 knockoff.  On this level, for all its strengths, it is very difficult for me not to see Star Trek TMP, fundamentally, as a failure.  A glorious, bizarre, transcendent failure; but a failure nonetheless.

In any event, love it or hate it, Star Trek was now back; and it was now the monster financial hit its owners had always dreamed of it being.  Star Trek had made the long trek (so to speak) back from death, and had finally been revived--but at what cost?  Surely many fans came away from the new film, stuffed with expensive special effects and grand cosmic speculation, wondering if, perhaps, Star Trek had not lost its soul in the process.  The "Wagon Train to the Stars," Horatio Hornblower for the Space Age, was gone; and in its place was a strange, cryptic bore, obsessed with infinity.  This must have been quite disconcerting for many--a bit like seeing your boisterous teenage son return from college as a mushroom-taking Nietzsche fiend.  For all its defenders, Star Trek the Motion Picture was never particularly beloved by Star Trek fans.

Nor, more to the point, was it beloved of critics.  For, truth be told, Paramount was not at all happy, on many levels, with Star Trek the Motion Picture.  Oh, they were happy with its box office take; but considering this film had been in development, when it came out in December 1979, for close to five years, racking up enormous costs along the way (the standard industry number is forty-five million dollars, the equivalent of about one hundred fifty million in today's currency), it turned out not to be anywhere near as profitable as it could have been.  Add to this the critical shellacking it had received, and the management saw plenty of room for improvement.

On the most fundamental level, though, the entire process for creating this film had been so messy, bloody, and painful for everyone involved that the thought of doing it again, in anything like the same way, was basically unthinkable.  Star Trek had been revived once; but it could only be a franchise, or even a consistent presence, if massive changes were made.

The first of these changes, made almost immediately, was the removal of Gene Roddenberry from any position of creative control or influence.  Never again would the studio let him have any power whatsoever in the making of Star Trek movies.

Next time, we will follow what is, in a real sense, the true revival of Star Trek, in a form far more recognizable to fans of the show: the Wrath of Kahn.  Godspeed!

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