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The Remaking of STAR TREK, Part 4: The Search for a Script
Detailing Gene Roddenberry's early attempts to mount a Trek feature film.
By Edward Gross
December 14, 1999
'During the early '70s,' explains David Gerrold, 'NBC was the villain, because they had cancelled STAR TREK, and Gene made sure that everybody knew that NBC was the villain. Gene was this man who wanted to change the world for the better, and NBC wouldn't let him. Then the movement shifted to, 'Gee, let's have a STAR TREK movie,' and all of a sudden Paramount is the bad guy. It was always NBC was the villain for the series and Paramount was the villain for the movies, and it wasn't that way. By 1977, some of the fans were beginning to perceive that Gene was the reason for the delay in the STAR TREK movies, because the word did get out that he hadn't come to terms on his contract, and while some of the fans were mad at Gene, for the most part the public perception was [in his favor], and Gene was carefully nurturing it. He'd go out to various speaking engagements and he would say, 'It's difficult. How do you convince the studio executives that what you're talking about is changing the world?' And he'd do it very slyly. We're talking about studio executives, who are maligned by everyone who works for them. If a studio makes fifteen hit pictures in a year, who gets the credit? The directors, the actors, the executive producers of the picture, but the studio executive who said, 'I'll buy this picture; I'll finance it,' he's 'just lucky enough to be sitting there when they brought the project in to him.'
'I have to tell you that I've spent a lot of time with studio executives, and they can tell the difference between a good story and a bad story. They get excited when they work with exciting people. You don't get to be the head of a studio by accident, and the ones I've met are not stupid men. Admittedly there have been some stupid men as studio executives who do make mistakes, but twenty years at Paramount? Paramount is the most successful studio in the industry. Down the line they're doing all these great pictures like THE GODFATHERs, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER...and they can't get STAR TREK on the boards? Give me a break.'
Whether this assessment is correct or not, one cannot deny the fact that something was causing this project innumerable delays. In any case, Roddenberry was given his old office at the studio and told to write a movie script for a low-budget feature film. 'They turned me down a couple of times,' Roddenberry said. 'Then finally they said, 'Write a script, and we'll give you an office on the lot and think about it.' They were not that serious about [it] when we first started. I think they had in mind a $2-$3 million picture. We debated a long time whether it would be a two-hour TV film or a movie for theatrical release. I didn't want to do it for television. When the original STAR TREK ended, Paramount thought it had a real loser on its hands, a stinker. Oh, they'd make a couple of bucks on reruns, but they knew the show would never amount to much. They destroyed all the sets. Everything. Even Spock's ears. I felt that for TV, the limited budget allowed just would not suffice for the rebuilding of the sets and of the Enterprise. It would be the same quality as on the old show and, after all these years, I felt that they wouldn't be good enough. They said, 'Okay, we'll do a theatrical release. Go write a script.''
'I was working on the series BARBARY COAST,' explains actor William Shatner, 'which was done at Paramount. It was on one end of Paramount, and STAR TREK had been filmed at the other end of Paramount. I had never, for the longest time, revisited the stage area where [we had] filmed. So one day I decided to go there, [and] as I'd been walking and remembering the times, I suddenly heard the sound of a typewriter! That was the strangest thing, 'cause these offices were deserted. So I followed the sound, till I came to the entrance of this building. And the sound was getting louder as I went into the building. I went down a hallway, where the offices for STAR TREK were...I opened the door and there was Gene Roddenberry! He was sitting in a corner, typing. I hadn't seen him in five years. I said, 'Gene, the series has been cancelled!' He said, 'I know, I know the series has been cancelled. I'm writing the movie!' So I said, 'There's gonna be a movie? What's it gonna be about?' He said, 'First of all, we have to explain how you guys got older. So what we have to do is move everybody up in a rank. You become an Admiral, and the rest of the cast become Starfleet Commanders. One day a force comes toward Earth--might be God, might be the devil--breaking everything in its path, except the minds of the starship commanders. So we gotta find all the original crewmen for the starship Enterprise, but first--where is Spock? He's back on Vulcan, doing R&R; five year mission--seven years of R&R. He swam back upstream. So we gotta go get him.' I call that show What Makes Salmon Run? So we get Spock, do battle and it was a great story, but the studio turned it down.'
Although little is known about the resulting script, entitled THE GOD THING, reports have stated that the premise questioned the very nature of God and the universe around us. Paramount was apparently not interested in a script that, essentially, pit Captain Kirk against God. Director Richard Colla, who had helmed THE QUESTOR TAPES TV movie pilot, was very familiar with that particular screenplay, and recalls it fondly. 'That script was much more daring,' he says. 'They went off in search of that thing from outer space that was affecting everything. By the time they got on to the spaceship and got into its [the alien's] presence, it manifested itself and said, 'Do you know me?' Kirk said, 'No, I don't know who you are.' It said, 'Strange, how could you not know who I am?' So it shift-changed and became another image and said, 'Do you know me?' Kirk said, 'No, who are you?' It replied, 'The time has passed, and you should know me by now.' It shifts shapes again, and comes up in the form of Christ the Carpenter, and says, 'Do you know me?' And Kirk said, 'Oh, now I know who you are.' And he says, 'How strange you didn't know these other forms of me.' Really, what Gene had written was that this 'thing' was sent forth to lay down the law; to communicate the law of the universe, and that as time goes on the law needs to be reinterpreted. And at that time 2,000 years ago, the law was interpreted by this Carpenter image. As time went on, the law was meant to be reinterpreted, and the Christ figure was meant to reappear in different forms. But this machine malfunctioned, and it was like a phonograph record that got caught in a groove, and kept grooving back, grooving back, grooving back. It's important to understand the essence of all this and reinterpret it as time goes on. That was a little heavy for Paramount. It was meant to be strong and moving, and I'm sorry it never got made.'
'I handed them a script and they turned it down,' Roddenberry stated matter of factly in 1980. 'It was too controversial. It talked about concepts like, 'Who is God?' [In it] the Enterprise meets God in space; God is a life form, and I wanted to suggest that there may have been, at one time in the human beginning, an alien entity that early man believed was God, and kept those legends. But I also wanted to suggest that that might have been as much the Devil as it was God. After all, what kind of god would throw humans out of Paradise for eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? One of the Vulcans on board, in a very logical way, says, 'If this is your God, he's not very impressive. He's got so many psychological problems; he's so insecure. He demands worship every seven days. He goes out and creates faulty humans and then blames them for his own mistakes. He's a pretty poor excuse for a Supreme Being.' Not surprisingly, that didn't send the Paramount executives off crying with glee. But I think good science fiction, historically, has been used that way--to question everything.
'[Anyway,] the movie then sagged for quite some time,' he continued. 'It really got bogged down. I didn't hear anything for over three months. Meanwhile, unknown to me, the executives then in charge were interviewing writers, accepting outlines. I found out about all this quite by accident. None of the outlines were accepted. I think the main reason for all the problems with those scripts rested in the fact that most of the people making decisions concerning the film knew little or nothing about STAR TREK. As it turned out later on, several of the principals had never even seen the show.'
Despite this statement to the contrary, according to THE MAKING OF STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, some script activity took place between Paramount's rejection of THE GOD THING and their soliciting story ideas from other writers. Jon Povill, who would eventually go on to be story editor of the proposed STAR TREK II television series and associate producer of the first film, had worked with Gene Roddenberry as a researcher for what was then planned to be a novelization of THE GOD THING. Roddenberry suggested that Povill take a crack at writing a treatment. The result dealt with the people of planet Vulcan going mad, and the Enterprise's mad-dash through time to set things right by combatting a psychic-cloud that is affecting the population. Roddenberry decided the premise would make a nice television episode but not a feature film, then in December of 1975 asked Povill to collaborate on another treatment based on one of Roddenberry's ideas.
That new treatment begins with a darkened and lifeless Enterprise suspended in blackness. Beneath the vessel is an 'eerie luminescence' that turns out to be a mass of pulsating crystal plasma, and within that plasma are the mangled and apparently lifeless bodies of Kirk and the rest of the starship crew. Then, the bodies begin to heal and slowly disappear, only to rematerialize on a now fully functioning Enterprise. Via ships logs, Kirk and company learn that the Enterprise had been in the midst of studying a black hole, when Spock, Scotty and a twelve-member science team took a shuttle to study the phenomenon at various proximities. There was a sudden surge of energy collapsing towards the center of the black hole, which managed to capture both the shuttle and the Enterprise. From there, all they remember is slipping into death.
Kirk attempts to contact Starfleet command, but the only response is static. The Enterprise crew tries to study the plasma-mass below the ship, but a moment later it's gone. Assuming that the members of the shuttle team are gone forever, the captain orders a course for Starbase-12, and is then informed that every aspect of the vessel has somehow been enhanced. But why? And by whom? Just as they learn that the starbase is not where it should be (or anywhere for that matter), Chekov makes the announcement that he has discovered they've been dead for eleven years. As they change their course for Earth, the Enterprise encounters a Rigelian starship, whose captain does not recognize the Enterprise and informs Kirk that Earth has never been a part of the Federation of Planets. In the ensuing battle, Enterprise manages to disable the Rigelian ship.
Growing more confused by the moment, Kirk wonders if they should divert to Vulcan to check and see if per chance Spock is there, but it is McCoy's opinion that they head straight for Earth so that they can get some answers. The captain reluctantly agrees, but on Vulcan, Spock utters Kirk's name and remembers parts of a former life, which has not happened in two years. At that exact moment, Kirk orders the Enterprise's course to be altered for Vulcan, explaining to McCoy that over the years he and Spock had developed a telepathic link, and something tells him that Spock is still alive. While the ship is in orbit, Kirk beams down, is greeted warmly by Spock and the two of them transport back up to the Enterprise, breaking orbit just as a pair of Vulcan cruisers approach, which they manage to outrace. Both Kirk and Spock attempt to figure out what's going on, realizing that the universe has somehow been altered, which leads Spock to deduce that, given the enhanced abilities of the Enterprise, the task at hand has something to do with time travel.
When they arrive on Earth, there is no sign of Starfleet Command. 'Futuristic design fills the screen awesomely,' note the writers. 'To our audience, the city is a marvel. To Kirk, however, it is a travesty.' The people are uniformly dressed, and the city itself is a conglomeration of structures, lacking the beauty of the 23rd Century they had known. Meanwhile, Uhura has been continually attempting to reach someone on the old frequency, and eventually locates the survivors of the shuttle mission, who, like the crew of the Enterprise, were spared from the time-changes, thanks, according to Spock, to a time gap which resulted from use of the transporter, the study of which is what brought them to the black hole in the first place.
Kirk and Spock beam down to the wilderness habitat of the survivors, and are informed that shortly after the scientists arrived, the planet's surface was suddenly covered with a vast, ugly urban sprawl, and the world was abruptly populated by a 'race of mindless automatons who do nothing but eat, sleep and perform their designated functions within the social order.' They ask about Scotty, and are told that he had been working in a special laboratory in Munich, studying the time gap so that he could get the Enterprise to avoid the black hole that destroyed it. That was all they had heard from him before the changes took place. Scotty, they realize, is somehow the source of the time-shift.
Eventually learning that they have to go to the year 1964, the Enterprise travels backwards in time but at great expense to its power. Kirk, Spock and one of the scientists (Yeoman Roberts) beam down to a Munich that 'looks notably different than what they expected.' Cars have electric motors, people's clothing differ slightly and the whole pace and tone of the city is slower than they expected, emphasizing the changes that have already taken effect. Then they discover a replica monument of the laboratory they seek, commemorating the initial appearance of the 'Mediator' in 1937. They are 27 years too late! According to the people they question, the Mediator brought peace and optimism to the world, cured diseases and fed the hungry. He can be found at the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva. The latter is quite a shock, as it means that World War II never took place.
They beam over to Geneva, and learn that the Mediator is a computer, which was reportedly a gift from aliens who left instructions on how to build it. The work itself was done by a committee of world leaders and scientists (interestingly, the latter played an important part of Roddenberry's THE QUESTOR TAPES: a similar type of committee put the android together). Kirk meets with Winston Churchill, who denies him access to Scotty. With little choice, they go back to the Enterprise and beam the committee aboard so as to explain their position. Shortly thereafter, Mao Tse Tung, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt and two secretaries are beamed aboard, and--needless to say--they're a bit overwhelmed.
Kirk conducts a tour, ultimately explaining that this is Montgomery Scott's home and he must be returned to it. They have no objections, but only the computer speaks to him. Using computer tapes as evidence, Kirk goes before the committee, pleading for the opportunity to meet with Scott. Adolph Hitler (!) argues that he is needed here, and, given the fact that Scott is now an old man, he can be of no use to the Enterprise. Hitler is suspicious, pointing out that Kirk would not have 'made such a perilous journey simply to renew an old friendship.' He demands to know the captain's real motives. Kirk finally explains that Scott is responsible for the future time alteration, and has no choice but to show history tapes of what should have occurred between the years 1937 and 1964. They witness World War II, use of the atomic bomb, the Korean War, Kennedy's assassination and so forth. The 'audience' is horrified by what unfolds.
'Granted that this is an awful prospect,' says Kirk, 'but progress must be made one step at a time by a great number of individuals. Mankind will finally correct these horrors on his own, without the intervention of a 'Mediator.'' He adds that their Mediator is a product of the history he has wiped out. Because of Scott's interference, the committee has made themselves slaves to a computer. The only way to prevent the world from being enslaved is to allow Kirk to meet with Scott. They refuse, pointing out that they will not allow their age of splendor to become like the one they saw on the viewing screen.
Later, in private, Kennedy admits that he agrees with Kirk, and, despite the fact a time alteration would claim millions of lives, including his own, gives him the location of Scott's island hideaway in the South Pacific. When Kirk, Spock and McCoy arrive on this island, a considerably older Scotty is naturally shocked to see them. He explains that his first experiments had proven successful, and five years later, he attempted time travel to prevent the black hole incident, but something went wrong and he suddenly found himself surrounded by German soldiers, who immediately attacked him. He was forced to stun them with his phaser. He merely wanted to return home, but found himself in the position of having to trade scientific information for food and equipment, and, as a result, changes in history were immediately put into effect, most notably the fact that the world's arsenal was more powerful than it should have been at the time. Feeling intense obligation, he had to make sure those weapons were never used. He ultimately realized that history had already been changed, so all he could do was hope that the changes would be positive ones. Following through with this, he developed potent medicines and agricultural systems, saving lives and eliminating famine. Kirk tells him about the future, and Scotty, rather than feeling regret, explains that he could use this knowledge to alter even that time period. Spock disagrees, stating that they need the dilithium crystal which serves as an ornament on the man's dining table so that they can go to 1937 and correct history. Scott will not go, stating that this is his world now, but he gives Kirk the crystal, reasoning that even if the captain straightens everything out, perhaps this alternate reality will exist on another dimensional plane.
They beam back aboard and begin their journey. Unfortunately, Enterprise's engines will only take them back as far as 1940. Phasers lash out and destroy specified targets in both Geneva and Munich. A moment later, the Enterprise itself explodes. A younger and happier Kirk, Spock and Scott appear at Starfleet Command in the proper time frame of the 23rd Century. Spock informs the Command Officer that his time gap calculations were mistaken, and investigation of the black hole will not be necessary. The Enterprise crew has been rewarded by the plasma entity--actually the evolved form of humanity in the alternate future--with another chance at life.
In April of 1976, Povill expressed his impressions of this treatment, giving every indication that a tremendous amount of thought had gone into its development, and providing insight to its meaning. 'Does the advancement of a technological civilization require that mankind must or will sublimate and subjugate pleasures into extinction?' he asked. 'Is Captain Kirk, whose love is reserved for his inanimate ship, evolving into a Spock-like creature whose potential for love was extinguished in childhood by inanimate logic and order? Will the battle in a man's mind to retain his humanity grow more intense as the centuries advance? Will the human race build itself into a joyless condition, as the Vulcans did? Finally, the point relating to our story, where are the forks in such an evolutionary road and what are the future prospects of man along each route?
'This set-up holds an additional advantage,' Povill added. 'By making the 23rd Century clearly superior yet distinctly distasteful, our audience will be rooting for World War II to be fought. Too many people would find our early image of a Century-Citified Earth quite acceptable and not enough of a loss to require suffering to change. We need the audience to want the chance to fight the damned wars and solve the problems on our own as they come up. We are reaffirming humanity, not philosophy, and this should be clear enough to get the audience with us on this point early on. Make them want to throw off the unbridled progress. This is no less dramatic than having them feel ambivalent about throwing away an advanced 1970.'
Apparently these notes struck a chord with Gene Roddenberry, as two days later he issued his own concerning the treatment and where he would like to see the proposed script go. 'We probably should say that the architecture may look somewhat advanced plus neat and clean to our film audience, but that it seems very primitive to our 23rd Century characters,' Roddenberry pointed out in referring to the first beam down to Earth in the future. 'This leads to the interesting question of why there has been no architectural advances in the last several centuries. In other words, it is our first indication that this quality of total peace and order has taken away humankind's bruises, disappointments, angers and frustrations which lead to all the dissatisfactions and torments which cause people to rebel against present things and create better things. The people are no longer capable of original thought,' he elaborated. 'They can think, perhaps even efficiently, within their areas of specialization, but are simply totally lost outside that area. [Yet] every physical need is taken care of; he has absolutely no wants!
'McCoy, always our humanitarian, can argue that it comes pretty close to being the best of all possible worlds. Who's to say that their own rather anarchic 23rd Century society is any better? These people are never threatened in any way, never lied to; all of their senses are regularly gratified. They may not develop intimate personal relationships like us, but they do have a marvelous sense of being an integral and protected part of the whole socio-organism which they deeply and sincerely love. The socio-organism, in fact, fulfills one of humankind's most ancient needs, i.e., to be fully and firmly a part of something bigger than the human's selfish self.
'Couldn't the Enforcers [police officers of this altered future] carry phasers? Scotty no doubt had a phaser when he went back in time. Perhaps he's added to it a 'pleasure' setting which sends the victim into positive throes of ecstasy before, then, at the height of 'orgasm,' being eliminated. It could be argued that the orgasm seems to the victim to last a hundred years or so; before being eliminated, they seem to themselves to actually live an incredibly pleasant 'lifetime' before dying for the good of the socio-organism. Hell, who's going to worry about that kind of death? Maybe all deaths at the end of a usefully productive life are arranged this way. Sort of something to look forward to. Hell, you can't get people to rebel against that!
'By the time Kirk gets to discussing the situation and making the decision, he should be a troubled man,' added Roddenberry. 'I said something in the rewrite I gave you about someone criticizing the fact he is 'playing God' by going back and changing history all over again. Kirk is a bright man raised in the philosophy of IDIC and this has got to cause him considerable utter turmoil. As we discussed earlier, the crystal-plasma mass sent some kind of a message to Kirk which was so powerful it damned near shorted out his mind. All he could get out of it was a sort of feeling of loneliness. Is it possible that Spock, using mind-meld, might try to use his own brain to determine whether or not there was an intelligent life form's message? If so, Spock might volunteer to attempt to try to decipher that message. It is possible the message could be so complex that even Spock isn't able to come right out with it. Perhaps it takes weeks of Vulcan meditation. During these weeks, the Enterprise could have gone back in time, still not having made the decision whether to interfere. We do have a nice 'will he or won't he?' question hanging over our story for a while. Maybe the temporary decision is that they'll go back to the earlier century and if they decide not to interfere, they'll simply live there since it is at least a world somewhat closer to their own. But at the last moment, Spock finally understands the message.
'Since I am smarter than Spock,' he joked, 'and know what the crystal-plasma mass said, here it is: It is in fact humankind's future to become a 'oneness' with itself and indeed with the entire universe. But it is the plan of the universe for this to happen to intelligent life forms eons later. It has happened to humankind long before they are ready. In short, they've found a 'oneness' in themselves without finding it with the universe. As such, they blundered into the ultimate selfishness. The crystal-plasma mass is condemned to live separately from all the rest of the universe through all time. Hence the loneliness.
'I hope to God you can say the above in a simpler way,' he closed. 'I guess what I am actually trying to say is that our destiny is to become a part of God, which is really All. Because changed humanity was not allowed to grow through adolescence and adulthood in the normal fashion, it never made the All. Individualism, selfish individualism, is absolutely necessary. When the time comes for that to be changed, it will happen of itself. But humankind must live through the entire stage and extract every bit of knowledge and experience from it before moving on to a higher plateau of existence.'
Needless to say, this story was rejected as well, and STAR TREK was back at ground zero.