How ‘Star Trek’ Creator Gene Roddenberry Got ‘Kicked Upstairs’ And Off ‘Wrath Of Khan’

The Next Enterprise
Getty Image

1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture is many things to many people — the first time these beloved characters ever appeared on the big screen, the beginning of the Star Trek movie universe, and the anti-Star Wars. However, it also marks the last significant contribution to the Star Trek movies by Gene Roddenberry, the man who first brought the idea of Star Trek to life in 1966. That’s because Paramount removed him from his supervisory role after the film’s box office numbers came back.

“Wait a minute,” you’re probably thinking. “Why would Paramount ditch the guy who created the property in the first place?” Money, for one thing, was definitely a major factor in the studio’s decision to oust the man much-beloved by science fiction fans at the time. Yet to truly understand the division between Roddenberry and studio executives, we have to dig a little deeper into the complex muck that was and will always be attached to Star Trek.

From Cancellation…

After running for three seasons on network television, including a third and final stretch lobbied for by a now-famous letter-writing campaign, NBC finally axed Star Trek and sent all 79 episodes into syndication, otherwise known as TV’s retirement home. Such was to be the final nail in the coffin in which Roddenberry’s creation would be buried. However, the writer had grander plans for his show, and fans new and old were about to make them a reality.

That’s because Star Trek thrived in syndication, where it quickly developed a cult following among science fiction fanatics and lay audiences alike. Paramount noticed the growing interest and, along with Roddenberry’s involvement, announced plans for a Star Trek film adaptation in 1975. Filming would begin on July 15, 1976, Roddenberry would produce, and most of the original series’ cast could be involved.

Unfortunately, the announced date came and went, and Paramount had nothing to show for it. That’s because — despite everyone’s enthusiasm for the project — the studio executives, Roddenberry, and several other writers brought on board the film couldn’t agree on a story. As the November 1976 issue of Starlog notes, the scripts contained ideas that were just too complex:

“The first script,” Roddenberry recently explained, “was a story that dealt with the meaning of God. What I think bothered Paramount was that I had a little sequence on Vulcan in which the Vulcan masters, the people Spock studied under, were saying: ‘We have never really understood your Earth legends of gods. Particularly in that so many of your gods have said, “You have to bow down on your bellies every seven days and worship me.” This seems to us like they are very insecure gods.'”

The story, known as Star Trek: The God Thing, contained too many complicated and possibly controversial ideas, so Paramount rejected it and asked for another. (It later became the basis for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.) Many other well-known science fiction writers with ties to Star Trek, including Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury, submitted scripts, story treatments and outlines to Roddenberry and the studio. All were scrapped.

…to Phase II

Following the stellar success of Star Wars in 1977, Paramount decided to pull the plug on the Star Trek film adaptation. The ongoing script issues proved too difficult to overcome, and with the blockbuster status of another studio’s brand new science fiction/fantasy property out in the open, executives decided not to compete. However, Roddenberry wasn’t finished, so he announced the return of Star Trek to television with a brand new series.

Tentatively titled Star Trek: Phase II, Roddenberry claimed that — per a “verbal agreement” with the studio — the beloved property would return to its serial roots with a show that would supposedly reinvent the original series. “Hopefully it will be even superior,” he told the Associated Press at the time. Despite the distinction, Roddenberry assured fans that Phase II would include “as many of the old faces as possible, as well as an infusion of new ones.”

Roddenberry and Paramount Television’s announcement also included plans for a “fourth network” to compete with ABC, CBS and NBC — the “Paramount television service.” It would air programming one night a week and would be carried by independent stations interested in its content, though Star Trek provided the main appeal according to Roddenberry:

“It seems [Paramount] said, ‘Instead of gambling on high grosses on a motion picture, why not gamble Star Trek on something that could conceivably be ten or a hundred times more profitable than even a hit movie?’ — which is the kind of money involved if they are successful in starting the fourth network. So the final thing that got Star Trek movie cancelled was the realization that Paramount could use Star Trek as bait, as a leading sales item for a new television network.”

Yet as soon as the announcement for Phase II had circulated through the press, Paramount pulled the plug on its network-building foray and decided to pump some new life into the then-abandoned plans for a film adaptation.

Back to the Movies

On March 28, 1978, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was announced in what at the time was the largest press conference ever held by Paramount Studios. The script was based on the one written for Phase II‘s pilot episode, “In Thy Image,” and would feature many of the same plot points and characters as the abandoned second series. Academy Award-winning director Robert Wise would helm the production, based on a story devised by Alan Dean Foster and a screenplay written by Howard Livingston. Roddenberry remained on as producer, a move that ultimately cost him his spot in the production of future Star Trek films.

That’s because, despite what he did for the original series, the first attempt to make a movie, and the scrapped Phase II revival, Roddenberry demanded what executives thought was too much control. Although Foster wrote the initial treatment of “In Thy Image,” which was revised as a teleplay by Livingston, Roddenberry wanted sole writing credit for the film. He didn’t get it, but he stayed on as producer per his contract with Paramount, and constantly provided notes throughout the film’s production.

“In his original Star Trek concept, there wasn’t any conflict,” Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, explained in a 2011 interview. “So he always had problems with writers who were trying to write conflict, because that’s what drama is.”

Star Trek: The Motion Picture earned $82 million domestically for a $139 million worldwide gross, making it one of the top-earning Star Trek films of all time when adjusted for inflation. However, according to Terry Lee Rioux, DeForest Kelley’s biographer, the film’s total budget came in at a whopping $46 million — a far cry from the $5 million the studio had originally given Roddenberry. Paramount expected more from the movie, so when the numbers didn’t add up, they added it to the Roddenberry blame pile.

The Wrath of Roddenberry

This pile became too heavy to add to during pre-production for Wrath of Khan, when Roddenberry’s desire to control all aspects of the film finally came to a head. By this point, he’d already been kicked out of the top spot and replaced by Harve Bennett. Or, as William Shatner puts it in Star Trek Movie Memories, “kicked upstairs” to a rather comfortable top consulting post. So he “resorted to underhanded tactics while happily collecting his paychecks” instead.

One such tactic allegedly included a script leak revealing the death of Spock, a spoiler that enraged fans. Many initially blamed Leonard Nimoy, who by then was already famous for distancing himself from the franchise with his book I Am Not Spock and other creative endeavors. Yet many at Paramount suspected Roddenberry’s doing, though he would deny these accusations. Nichelle Nichols even made a point of defending Roddenberry from such claims in her book, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories.

Meyer, whom Paramount brought on to direct Wrath of Khan, came to an understanding with Roddenberry throughout the film’s production. The young filmmaker wasn’t able to speak with the consultant that often, which Paramount preferred, but he tried:

“[He] didn’t like The Wrath of Khan — well, it was then called The Undiscovered Country. He didn’t like that script any better than he liked the script for Star Trek VI. But the exchange of letters at least shows that I was trying to be more accommodating and tactful, and — more calmly argumentative than I was on VI — when I just didn’t behave well. I was just… had too much on my plate, I guess.”

Still, in a Los Angeles Times article that went viral in 2011, Meyer expressed his regrets about the whole affair — both in terms of how he and the studio treated Roddenberry, and his lackluster relationship with the Star Trek creator during a rather combative episode while making The Undiscovered Country:

“His guys were lined up on one side of the room, and my guys were lined up on the other side of the room, and this was not a meeting in which I felt I’d behaved very well, very diplomatically,” Meyer said. “I came out of it feeling not very good, and I’ve not felt good about it ever since. He was not well, and maybe there were more tactful ways of dealing with it, because at the end of the day, I was going to go out and make the movie. I didn’t have to take him on. Not my finest hour.”

For despite being “kicked upstairs” within the Star Trek hierarchy, Roddenberry — the man responsible for bringing this world to life in the first place — was never really allowed to have a say in what happened after Star Trek: The Motion Picture failed to garner Paramount the Star Wars-like success they had anticipated. He was merely a representative figure, a man whom the fans adored immensely, and someone whose ideas for the thing that he created didn’t quite match the ideas of the series’ corporate masters.