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The Remaking of STAR TREK, Part 5: Into the Black Hole
By Edward Gross
December 15, 2000
After rejecting initial treatments developed by Gene Roddenberry, Paramount studio's search for the proper vehicle to launch the first STAR TREK film began The writers approached included science fiction veteran Robert Silverberg; famed author Harlan Ellison, whose sole contribution to the show had been its most popular episode, 'City on the Edge of Forever;' and John D.F. Black, who had served as story editor of the original show's first season and penned 'The Naked Time,' (and who later wrote the story for the 'Justice' episode of THE NEXT GENERATION.)
John D.F. Black describes the storyline he pitched with a good-natured shrug. Something in his voice conveys the feeling that he still can't believe the way the studio handled the proposed film. 'I came up with a story concept involving a black hole,' recounts Black, 'and this was before Disney's film. The black hole had been used by several planets in a given constellation as a garbage dump. But with a black hole there's a point of equality. In other words, when enough positive matter comes into contact with an equal amount of negative matter, the damn thing blows up. Well, if that ever occurs with a black hole, it's the end of the universe--it'll swallow everything. The Enterprise discovered what's happened with this particular black hole, and they try to stop these planets from unloading into it. The planets won't do it. It comes to war in some areas and, as a result, the black hole comes to balance and blows up. At that point, it would continue to chew up matter. In one hundred and six years Earth would be swallowed by this black hole, and the Enterprise is trying to beat the end of the world. There were at least twenty sequels in that story because the jeopardy keeps growing more intense.'
Paramount rejected the idea. 'They said it wasn't big enough,' Black notes wryly.
In his excellent nonfiction assessment of horror and science fiction, DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King reported the rumor that Harlan Ellison went to Paramount with the idea of the Enterprise breaking through the end of the universe and confronting God himself. And that wasn't big enough either. Removing tongue from cheek, the author explained the real story to King: 'It involved going to the end of the known universe to slip back through time to the Pleistocene period when man first emerged,' he said. 'I postulated an alien intelligence from a far galaxy where the snakes had become the dominant life form, and a snake-creature who had come to Earth in the STAR TREK future, had seen its ancestors wiped out, and who had gone back into the far past of Earth to set up distortions in the time-flow so the reptiles could beat the humans. The Enterprise goes back to set time right, finds the snake-alien, and the human crew is confronted with the moral dilemma of whether it had the right to wipe out an entire life form just to insure its own territorial imperative in our present and future. The story, in short, spanned all of time and all of space, with a moral and ethical problem.'
Paramount executive Barry Trabulus 'listened to all this and sat silently for a few minutes,' Ellison elaborated. 'Then he said, 'You know, I was reading this book by a guy named Von Daniken, and he proved that the Mayan calendar was exactly like ours, so it must have come from aliens. Could you put in some Mayans?'' The writer pointed out that there were no Mayans at the dawn of time, but the executive brushed this off, pointing out that no one would know the difference. ''I'm to know the difference,'' he exploded. ''It's a dumb suggestion.' So Trabulus got very uptight and said he liked Mayans a lot and why didn't I do it if I wanted to write this picture. So I said, 'I'm a writer. I don't know what the fuck you are!' And I got up and walked out. And that was the end of my association with the STAR TREK movie.'
The Robert Silverberg story, entitled THE BILLION YEAR VOYAGE, was more of an intellectual foray as the Enterprise crew discover the ruins of an ancient but far more advanced civilization, and battle aliens in order to take possession of the wondrous gifts left behind, gifts which would surely benefit mankind some day in the future when he is ready to accept that responsibility. This trio of stories were fascinating attempts at reviving the show, and it seems unimaginable that all of them were turned down. The revival game was destined to continue for some time to come.
By 1976, STAR TREK was celebrating its ten-year anniversary, and the show's fan following was continuously growing larger, with the demand for a new film or television series growing more vehement. It had been seven years since the last new episode, and the only difference between then and now was that the idea of reviving the show, in one format or another, was actually being considered by Paramount.
At the same time, America was preparing for the next phase of its exploration of the final frontier: the space shuttle. This was the year that the orbiter would lift off into space via rocket boosters, and land like a plane. But first, there was the matter of the experimental model, which was designed to test the landing procedures, but not actually fly. The fans of STAR TREK deluged President Gerald Ford with letters, and it was only a short matter of time before the President of the United States made the official announcement: this particular shuttle would have the name Enterprise, after the starship from the famed television series. And to help celebrate the occasion, Gene Roddenberry and the cast from the show were invited to play a part in the ceremony on September 17, in which the shuttle would be hauled out of its hanger for the first time.
'They rolled out the space shuttle Enterprise,' Roddenberry recalled. 'The military band marched out, and the leader raised his baton. I was waiting for 'Stars and Stripes Forever' or 'America the Beautiful,' or something. Instead, they played the STAR TREK theme. Twice. I had this funny feeling in my stomach, you know, like that was going just a little too far. People ask me, 'Aren't you proud about the space shuttle?' Well, sure. But this morning we were all feeling uncomfortable. There were senators, generals and politicians all around. And the band was playing the STAR TREK theme. I thought to myself, 'Geez, these are the people who are running our country!'
'I must admit that when they first announced that the shuttle was going to be named after the Enterprise, I didn't completely approve. I was afraid that my friends at NASA and the space industry would think that it was a shrewd publicity ploy for the movie. You know, everyone has this stereotyped idea about producers who wear Hawaiian shirts, smoke big cigars and do anything to see a few lines in print. And that's all untrue. It was the STAR TREK fans that started all this. They began a letter-writing campaign to the President. I completely disassociated myself from it. I would have preferred the shuttle not bear a military name like the Constitution or the Enterprise. I would have named it after a famous rocket scientist. But a friend of mine told me later that I was just too close to the whole project to see it for what it was. The role of the arts, he said, was changing. The very function of art today is to give people goals, to inspire them. And apparently the Enterprise has inspired a lot of people.'
Indeed. So strong had STAR TREK's following grown, that the show truly became a part of the national social conscience, and Paramount was not oblivious to this fact. Despite Roddenberry's concerns that the naming of the shuttle after his starship would come across as a cheap, albeit inventive, advertising ploy, it didn't hurt the studio's enthusiasm to bring the Enterprise to the big screen. If any attempt to do so seemed likely to happen, it would probably be the one initiated in July of 1976. Jerry Eisenberg was hired as producer, with Phil Kaufman (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE RIGHT STUFF) directing. Scripting were a pair of English writers named Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, whose credits included DON'T LOOK NOW and JOSEPH ANDREWS. Their experience in science fiction was non-existent, but what they lacked in knowledge, they made up for in enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn.
Harlan Ellison voiced his disbelief over the hiring of these particular writers. 'God knows what they're going to do. I mean, it's insanity to get two English writers who write very toney, European scripts to come in and do what is basically an action-adventure movie. I don't know what pompous aesthetics they're going to throw in. All STAR TREK has ever been is an elaborate shoot 'em up, and confusing it with the BHAGAVAD GITA only muddles its waters. The thing that made some of the TV episodes so unbearable was the pretentiousness.'
Roddenberry didn't agree. 'I'm very excited about some of the ideas they've come up with. The concept that only a science fiction writer can write science fiction motion pictures is ridiculous. Look at me. I came up with STAR TREK, and I was a dramatic writer. I wrote for TV.'
Kaufman, in particular, was thrilled with the prospect of being involved. 'George Lucas is a good friend of mine,' he had told one reporter. 'He told me before he made STAR WARS he'd made inquiries as to whether STAR TREK was available to be bought. I thought George had a great thing going. When I was asked if I would be interested in doing STAR TREK, well...I felt I could go through the roof.
'My agent called me up,' he continued, 'and said, 'What would you like to do?' I said I would like to do a science fiction movie. And he said, 'Well, I'm sure you wouldn't want to do STAR TREK.' I said, 'Wait a second--they're making a movie out of STAR TREK?' He said, 'Yeah, but they're gonna make a 2 or 3 million dollar quickie.' I told him, 'I don't think they really know what they've got there if that's what they're going to do. Let's explore it.' Right away I got a call from Jerry Eisenberg, who had been put in charge. We talked, and I came down and met with him first and then with Gene Roddenberry. In the process of getting involved with the project, I moved it up from being a small project into a $10 million picture.'
In addition to all of this, the original cast had essentially been signed to reprise their original roles, with the exception of Leonard Nimoy, who at the time had refused all interviews pertaining to STAR TREK. William Shatner, however, had no problem in discussing the situation. 'Leonard Nimoy has a beef, and it's a legitimate one,' Shatner said in 1976. 'It's about the merchandising, and it's something that irks me as well. Our faces appear on products all over the country, all over the world, and we've not really been compensated fairly for it. Leonard was walking in London, England. He stopped to look at a billboard. The billboard's divided into three sections. The first section is Leonard's face with the ears--Spock--the ears are drooping. The second section of the billboard has Leonard, with the drooping ears, holding a tankard of ale. The third section has an empty tankard of ale, and Leonard's face, with pointed ears straight up in the air. So Leonard and I have had this battle, with whoever licenses STAR TREK, for a long time. I mean, kids are walking around with my face on their shirts. Occasionally I see a postcard with my face on it. People are exploiting us. So anyway, Leonard goes back to the studio and says, 'There's a demeaning billboard of me out there. Did you guys okay it?' So he goes to his lawyer and tries to sue. Right now Paramount wants Leonard, and Leonard wants fair recompense. It's only reasonable that Paramount meet his demands. Something has happened here. Someone has made a lot of money from the show, and the people who were the show have seen very little of it. I think Leonard is totally in the right.'
While Nimoy would eventually agree to do this attempted resurrection of STAR TREK, the format would again be changed and he would again drop out. As time went on, it seemed as though the problems facing cast and crew were unending, yet despite all this, Roddenberry remained optimistic. 'I'm very pleased with the way the film is going,' he enthused at the time. 'We've just signed Phil Kaufman--who's done many fine films--to direct. Things really began to change around here when the studio shifted its power base and David Picker took charge. He put Jerry Eisenberg in command of the film, and Jerry knows how to deal with the front office quite well. Once these men entered the picture, things began to move quite smoothly.
'It's taking more time than usual to come up with a good script, because we're faced with some unusual problems. This is not just another movie--this is STAR TREK. A lot of people in the business have said to me, 'Hey, it should be easy to do the film. Just do an extended TV episode. You've done lots already; just do it again.' Well, I didn't want to do it that way. A movie is different from a TV show in a lot of ways. For one thing, the audience has made an investment in the film. They've shelled out money for the ticket, as well as for parking, baby-sitters, maybe dinner. They don't want to see a TV show on the screen. They're a captive audience, and they want something special. It's like getting a book and finding out it's lousy. If you've been given it as a present, you figure, gee, since I got it for free, it's no big deal that it's bad. But if you've paid $8.95 for it, you get a little pissed off.
'With the STAR TREK script, we have defined personalities and really can't do anything contrary to the behavior patterns we've already established in the past. We're finding out that it's easier to work from scratch in terms of a storyline, but because all the details of the film are so well known already, it's getting harder and harder to come up with something new. I don't know what we'll finish with at this point, but I'm sure it will be a film that has a lot of entertainment value--action, adventure and a little comedy. I want a 2001.'
Unfortunately, he didn't get it, although it wasn't from a lack of trying. The Scott-Bryant screenplay opens with the Enterprise investigating a distress signal sent from the USS DaVinci. By the time they arrive in that quadrant of space, the other starship is gone. Suddenly, Kirk's brain is struck by electromagnetic waves, which results in erratic behavior and his commandeering a shuttlecraft. He pilots it towards an invisible planet and disappears. Three years later, Spock leads an expedition back to that area of space, and they discover what they believe to be the planet of the Titans, an ancient but highly advanced race that had been thought extinct. Problem is that the planet is being drawn towards a black hole, and it becomes a race against time between the Federation and the Klingons, who are both interested in that particular world. The one who saves the planet will receive the fruits of their knowledge.
On the planet's surface, Spock discovers Kirk, who has been living there as a wild man. However, the captain is restored to normal in short order, and together they discover that the planet is actually populated by the evil Cygnans, a race who have destroyed the Titans. The story concluded with Kirk, in an effort to destroy the hostile Cygnans, ordering the Enterprise into the black hole. As Susan Sackett noted in THE MAKING OF STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, 'During the trip through the black hole, the Cygnans are destroyed and the Enterprise emerges in orbit around Earth. But it is Earth at the time of the Cro-Magnon man, the dawn of humanity. The ancient Titans, it would seem, were the men of the Enterprise.'
Jon Povill, who had shifted into the background as Gene Roddenberry's assistant, noted the project with interest, though he wasn't convinced it was right for STAR TREK's debut on the movie screen. 'It was an interesting script in a certain sort of way,' Povill explains. 'It was not Star Trek. People would have gone to see it, and it would have done as well as we did with STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, but it's just as well that it didn't get made. Chris and Alan even felt that it was something that wasn't quite successful. They didn't feel they had brought off a script that was just right. They didn't feel confident about it. Then Phil Kaufman decided that he wanted to take a run at the script. His treatment was, I think, worse than the script. Then the whole thing kind of fell apart.'
It's been over a decade and a half since the Scott-Bryant script had been written, and while Allan Scott cannot recall the specifics of the storyline, he has no trouble remembering his involvement with the proposed film. 'Jerry Eisenberg brought us into the project,' says Scott. 'He was going to be the producer at the time. We came out and met with him and Gene. We talked about it, and I think the only thing we agreed on at the time was that if they were going to make Star Trek as a motion picture, we should try and go forwards as it if were from the television series. Take it into another realm, if you like, into another dimension, and to that end we were talking quite excitedly about a distinguished film director and Phil Kaufman's name came up. We all thought that was a wonderful idea, and we met with him. Phil is a great enthusiast and very knowledgeable about science fiction, and we did a huge amount of reading. We must have read thirty science fiction books of various kinds. At that time we also had that guy from NASA, who was one of the advisors on the project, Jesco von Puttkamer. He was at some of the meetings, and Gene was at all of the meetings.
'We were under instructions at the time,' he adds, the passage of years unclouding a bit, 'that they had no deal with William Shatner, so in fact the first story draft we did eliminated Captain Kirk. It was only a month or six weeks later when we were called and told that Kirk was now aboard and should be one of the lead characters. So all that work was wasted. At that time, Chris and I would sit in a room and talk about story ideas and notions, and talk them through with either Phil or Gene. Without any ill feelings on any part, it became clear to us that there was a divergence of view of how the movie should be made between Gene and Phil. I think Gene was quite right in sticking by not so much the specifics of STAR TREK but general ethics of it. I think Phil was more interested in exploring a wider range of science fiction stories, and yet nonetheless staying faithful to STAR TREK. There was definitely a tugging on the two sides between them. One of the reasons it took us so long to come up with a story was because things like that would change. If we came up with some aspects that pleased Gene, they often didn't please Phil and vice-versa. We were kind of piggies in the middle.'
It's pointed out that in many instances there was a similar situation between Roddenberry and director Robert Wise on STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. 'I would imagine,' Scott replies earnestly. 'Eventually we got to a stage where we more or less didn't have a story that everybody could agree on, and we were in very short time of our delivery date. Chris and I decided that the best thing we could do was take all the information we had absorbed from everybody, sit down and hammer something out. In fact, we did a fifteen or twenty page story in a three-day time period. I guess amendments were made to that in light of Gene and Phil's recommendations, but already we were at a stage by then that the thing was desperate if we were going to make the movie according to the schedule that was given to us. We made various amendments; we went to the studio with it, and they turned it down.
'We never heard the reasons that it was turned down. I think other political things intervened, and I think the management at Paramount changed as well. I'm almost sure that at that time Michael Eisner came in and David Picker left, and I think that may have been as significant as anything else that may have happened. Our working relationship with Gene was very good and very friendlysimilarly with Phil. The only thing I can remember about the story itself is the ending, and I truly don't remember anything else but the ending. It involved primitive man on Earth, and I guess Spock or the crew of the Enterprise inadvertently introduced primitive man to the concept of fire. As they accelerated away, we realized that they were therefore giving birth to civilization as we know it. That's the only thing I can remember. I know a black hole was very important to the story. I guess it was through the black hole that they ended up in time warp.'
Although there had been a slight feeling of intimidation at the outset, this quickly faded as the writing duo got further involved. 'I think as time wore on, we became less intimidated and much more absorbed in the STAR TREK ethic,' Scott concurs. 'You can't work on that project with Gene and not become involved with it. The difficulty for us was trying to make, as it were, an exploded episode of STAR TREK that had its own justifications in terms of the new scale that was available to it, because much of the show's charm was the fact that it dealt with big and bold ideas on a small budget, and of course the first thing that a movie would do, potentially, was match the budget and scale of the production to the boldness and vigor of the ideas. Of course we spent weeks looking at every episode of STAR TREK, and I would guess that more or less every member of the cast came by and met us.
'We were surprised that it didn't go, because it seemed that it would. It was absolutely a 'go' picture. But it was a very exciting project to be involved with. I'm sorry it didn't work, because we would have enjoyed it even more if it had. We had a lot of fun, and it was really an enjoyable time. I don't feel unhappy about it at all. It was just one of those deals that happens at studios from time to time that fell down the middle.'
Phil Kaufman's reaction to the cancellation of the film was not quite so idealistic. 'We were dealing with important things,' he said. 'Things that George [Lucas] has a smattering of in STAR WARS. We were dealing a lot with Olaf Stapledon. There were chapters in LAST AND FIRST MEN that I was basing STAR TREK on. That was my key thing. Gene and I disagreed on what the nature of a feature film really is. He was still bound by the things that he had been forced into by lack of money and by the fact that those times were not into science fiction the way they are now. Gene has a very set way of looking at things. My feeling always was that he was anchored in a 10-year-old TV show which would not translate for a feature audience ten years later with all that had been done and could potentially be done in a feature scope. For years I had walked around San Francisco with George Lucas talking about what he was doing. I knew what the potential of this kind of stuff was.' Perhaps most shocking to him was the feeling that Paramount canceled the film because of the success of STAR WARS, which was released in May of 1977, and the belief that they had blown their opportunity at the box office. 'They didn't even wait to see what STAR WARS would do,' Kaufman said incredulously. 'I don't think they tried to understand what the phenomenon of STAR TREK was.'
'We considered the project for years,' summed up then Paramount president Barry Diller. 'We've done a number of treatments, scripts, and every time we'd say, 'This isn't good enough.' If we had just gone forward and done it, we might have done it quite well. In this case [the Scott-Bryant-Kaufman version], it was the script. We felt, frankly, that it was a little pretentious. We went to Gene Roddenberry and said, 'Look, you're the person who really understands STAR TREK. We don't. But what we should probably do is return to the original context, a television series.' If you force it as a big 70-millimeter widescreen movie, you go directly against the concept. If you rip STAR TREK off, you'll fail, because the people who like STAR TREK don't just like it. They love it.'
So, once again, the Enterprise's destiny was being charted towards the television screen, although no one had any idea--though they should have suspected--that she would never complete the voyage.