It’s a rule of cinema as fundamental as the 180 degree rule or the rule of threes: The good Star Trek movies are the even-numbered ones. One, as anyone who’s seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture knows, is not an even number. A new Blu-ray set arriving today has an in-depth and surprisingly frank documentary about the chaos behind the set of the first Star Trek movie, and the movie itself is a case study in how a big budget Hollywood picture can go wrong.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is, for better or worse, an episode of Star Trek writ large. Kirk and his crew, along with a few new members, reluctantly reunite to fight V’Ger, a vast, god-like entity that’s been vaporizing everything in its path and is headed straight for Earth. The Enterprise braves the dangerous cloud surrounding V’Ger, only to find at the center the NASA-created Voyager 6 probe, made sentient by a machine race and facing depression as it has fulfilled its mission of learning all that there is to know.
On paper, Paramount threw everything into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Robert Wise, the director, had edited Citizen Kane before going on to direct everything from the classic musical The Sound of Music to the intimate horror classic The Haunting. If that weren’t enough, he had an impressive resume in the science fiction genre: The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain were enormous hits with both critics and audiences. In addition, the mastermind of Star Trek himself, Gene Roddenberry, was working on the script. The original cast was back. The budget was lavish. What could possibly go wrong?
The truth was that Wise had inherited a movie with a decade-long history of being trapped in development hell. Roddenberry’s original script, submitted in 1975 and later printed on its own, was more or less the movie we know today, but was rejected by Paramount. Amazingly, the reason was, that to Paramount executives, the idea of the Enterprise crew fighting a gigantic entity with delusions of being God wasn’t epic enough. Roddenberry solicited other scripts, and, by all accounts, those pitch meetings went similarly poorly. The production had a false start in 1977, which got as far as hiring the legendary Ralph McQuarrie to contribute concept art, but by March 1977, the latest script had been rejected yet again, and Paramount seemed ready to let Star Trek go.
And then May 1977 came along, and Star Wars changed Hollywood. While many studios were scrambling, Paramount had a golden goose. Except, executives, even as they hired Wise, still didn’t like the script. Neither did Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, who’d only reluctantly signed onto the project with script approval. As you can see in the clip above, that meant rewrites had to be approved by a committee, on the set, often the same day those pages were due to be shot. In a 1980 book on the movie, Gene Roddenberry claims the ending was only saved from a total rewrite by a Penthouse interview with NASA director Robert Jastrow arguing that artificial life could in fact exist.
Unsurprisingly, the production quickly fell behind, not least because Robert Wise felt he could only shoot 12 hours a day. Not helping matters were the relentless effects delays and production problems; the movie’s transporter grid was so bright, for example, it melted actors’ shoes. Ultimately, filming took 125 days, and special effects took even longer as Paramount wound up wasting a year and millions on an inexperienced effects company. The effects team behind Close Encounters of the Third Kind reunited to rush out more effects shots in months than they completed in years. The final indignity came with release: When Wise presented his first assembly, which was simply the scenes of the movie in order, Paramount head Michael Eisner said it was good enough and put it into theaters. Wise would get the last laugh when his preferred cut was released in 2002, but that offered no comfort at the time.
The movie wasn’t, ultimately, a disaster, despite winding up being the most expensive movie ever made at the time. Until the 2009 reboot, it sold the most tickets in theaters and was the highest grossing entry in the franchise. The real effect was that Roddenberry was forced out of his own franchise: The studio blamed him, and turned to Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer to make a cheaper sequel instead. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would go on to define the entire film franchise. But Trek fans will always wonder what might have happened if Wise and Roddenberry had a little better luck at the tables in Hollywood.