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The Remaking of STAR TREK, Part 1: After the Cancelation
On the 20th Anniversary of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, we launch a multi-part look back at the path from the original series to the big-screen revival.
By Edward Gross
December 07, 1999
Network cancellation was the best thing that could have ever happened to STAR TREK. Had NBC renewed the show for a fourth or even a fifth year, the series would have undoubtedly continued to chug along. But, with considerable budget cuts each season, there would have a diminishing quality about the whole project and it would have undoubtedly faded into the annals of television history.
Such, as we know, was not the case with STAR TREK. Instead, the network cancelled the show in 1969, and it immediately went into syndicated reruns. Now, syndication has been known to turn many a show into a sensation, with independent stations 'stripping' the series five nights a week and giving viewers a daily dose of whatever show they find most appealing. STAR TREK had been such a ratings disappointment for NBC that the final episode, 'Turnabout Intruder,' was not aired until summer reruns of 1970. In the fall of that year, Paramount began offering the show to independent stations, hoping that they would be able to recoup a few lost dollars on this 'dog.' Despite a slow beginning, the number of stations interested in carrying the series gradually increased, with the audience, in turn, growing as well.
Shortly thereafter, it became obvious that there was something brewing. With Neil Armstrong's boot gracing the lunar surface the previous July, outer space suddenly became in vogue. Space was the place, and STAR TREK was the ticket to get there.
'STAR TREK probably came along too early,' explained Gene Roddenberry in THE MAKING OF STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE [1980, Wallaby Books]. 'Had man landed on the moon during our first or second year, the idea of space flight wouldn't have seemed so ludicrous to the mass audience. STAR TREK probably would have stayed on the air. The eye of the world did not turn to space seriously as a future possibility until we were in our third year, and by then it was too late.'
With the mounting interest in STAR TREK came the idea of a convention dedicated to the show, which would be held in New York during January of 1972. Episodes would be shown; merchandise pertaining to the show would be sold, and fans would be given the opportunity to meet and listen to the creative talents behind the series. The promoters of the con were expecting, with a little luck, maybe two or three hundred people. They were not prepared for the two thousand that actually showed up.
A year later, a second convention was held, with guests including James Doohan, George Takei and writer David Gerrold. Again, the promoters took what they thought would be adequate precautions, and again they were wrong. This time between six and seven thousand fans showed up. The same thing happened in 1974 when what is estimated to be between ten- and fourteen-thousand people attended. A firmer grip was placed on crowd control for the 1975 convention when registration was closed at approximately eight thousand, and those people lucky enough to gain entrance experienced William Shatner's first con appearance. The next year's convention was limited to six thousand people, and guests included DeForest Kelley, Gene Roddenberry, Majel Barrett, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei.
'The first convention had been the only hint that something was happening,' explains David Gerrold, whose book, THE WORLD OF STAR TREK, explored the entire phenomenon, and helped, to some degree, in expanding it. 'Then they were going to do one in '73, which I went to, and six thousand people showed up. The following month in Los Angeles, people showed up there too. That was the first real hint that this thing was not dead. But the studio said, 'Three thousand people is no big thing.' You really needed to demonstrate a continuing phenomenon, which had not been demonstrated at that time. So my book was out there, and here were all these fans who did not know that other fans existed. But every fan who got the book, got a list of fan clubs and things like that, and every fan found out about other fans. We kept the fan club and convention list updated, so that by the time things [the conventions] started to peter out, we noticed that an incredible network of fans had been created. I don't take credit for all of it, but I claim credit for triggering a large part of it, because I also helped the other conventions build up their lists. Once the process was initiated, it became a chain reaction, and towards the end of '74 or '75, we began to notice that the phenomenon had developed into something really big.'
Noted Leonard Nimoy at the time, 'They're not just conventions. They're mass celebrations. Somebody says there's going to be a STAR TREK gathering at a particular hall or hotel in such and such a city. There will be people there who are connected with the making of STAR TREK, perhaps some of the actors. Memorabilia will be exchanged and sold. They will show films of past STAR TREK episodes on a giant screen. They'll hold panel discussions on space and STAR TREK. Some of the writers who wrote the show might appear. Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury might be there. There may be some reps from NASA. Thousands of people will attend. And they talk and talk about STAR TREK. They have trivia contests. What did Captain Kirk say to Mr. Spock in 'Amok Time' at the moment when Spock thought he was leaving for home? They quote each other lines, chapter and verse. They have wardrobe contests, look-alike contests--some people do come to these conventions dressed like some of the characters. [But] I think the press has not been totally fair with these people, implying that they are freaky, weird, strange. I have met a lot of people--educated, successful, well dressed--who tell me, 'I'm a Trekkie,' almost in defiance of the denigrating aspect of the appellation.'
At one convention, William Shatner, best known as Captain James T. Kirk, mused, 'How does it feel to be such an important character in a show that means so much to so many people? I'm a little awed by it. I have a great feeling of gratitude. I have a feeling of a total lack of understanding of how it came about, and in many cases I have a real feeling of--I think the word 'love' would be appropriate here -- for all of you. '
Throughout the 'convention years,' the syndicated episodes were breaking all kinds of records, easily reaching a level on par with the most popular shows in reruns, including I LOVE LUCY and THE HONEYMOONERS. Paramount noted this with interest, and was somewhat more than intrigued when the public began to demand a revival of the show. Rumors abounded, with the general feeling being that STAR TREK would either come back as a new television series or perhaps even a feature film.
Still, Paramount made no official move. It's likely that they viewed the phenomenon as little more than a fad, believing that any revival would, in effect, 'miss the boat,' and they would stand to lose even more money.
They were wrong.
STAR TREK was no fad.
While fandom flourished, as did the merchandising of the show, animation production companies began to approach Gene Roddenberry and Paramount Pictures with the idea of doing an animated version. Many of these suggestions were turned down, but Filmation came to them with a package that they liked. The idea was to do a series that would air on Saturday mornings, but would also feature the basic ideals of the original show. Both Roddenberry and Paramount agreed that this would be a good idea, and to that end the original cast was signed to provide the vocals to their animated counter-parts. Additionally, many of the writers involved with the live-action series to pen scripts. Former STAR TREK story editor, Dorothy Fontana, was signed to repeat her duties here, and take on the new ones of associate producer.
'When Gene approached me to do the show,' she explains, 'he asked me if I would like to come on as story editor and producer. Since I wasn't a part of another regular staff at the time, I decided to do it. I had not worked in animation, which I do enjoy, so I had a good time on the show. I left after the first season, because I wanted to move on to something else and not get stuck in animation. The business is funny. If you stay too long in one thing, people start to buttonhole you there and say, 'You can't do anything else,' regardless of all your other credits.'
Roddenberry believed that the animated series would be the first step in getting a STAR TREK feature film made, but the late DeForest Kelley wasn't so sure. 'I questioned it at the time,' he explained back in the '70s, 'and he said he was going to do it. I thought it was the deathblow. Gene said, 'No, I don't feel that way at all. I think it's important to keep some form of STAR TREK alive and in the minds of people.' It's not the network; it's Paramount. The network wants the show again, and would love to have it back. But Paramount, the studio that owns STAR TREK, doesn't want to make STAR TREK prime time because they're making so much money in syndication with it. They feel they would be competing with themselves.'
Twenty-two episodes were produced in all; and, for the most part, Fontana's efforts in securing the finest possible talent paid off. Those scripts, penned by Fontana herself as well as veterans from the old show and the genre, proved to be quite literate, and certainly a bright spot on the Saturday morning schedule. Unfortunately, like its predecessor, STAR TREK ANIMATED was cancelled prematurely, with Roddenberry and the original cast once again going their separate ways, apparently forever. COMING IN PART TWO: LIFE BEYOND TREK FOR GENE RODDENBERRY