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The Remaking of Star Trek, Part 7: Developing a New Series
Work on Star Trek Phase 2 leads to a script for a feature film.
By Edward Gross
December 20, 1999
With the STAR TREK II writer/director's bible having been written, producer Harold Livingston began contacting writers and agents in an effort to get the first thirteen scripts in motion. 'I wanted to make STAR TREK more universal,' explains Livingston matter of factly. 'I felt that success not withstanding, the show had a restrictive audience. There was a greater audience for this. I felt that almost all of the stories seemed to be allegorical, and I wanted to make them a little harder and a little more realistic. My broad intention was to create a series that would attract a larger audience by offering more. We would still offer the same elements that STAR TREK did, i.e. science fiction and hope for the future, and do realistic stories.
'I just thought they had reached a certain barrier with it,' he continues. 'How much could you do before it becomes totally redundant, and then where do you go? I wanted to bring it down to Earth...figuratively. They had so many stories which, to manipulate or move the plot, this goofy thing appeared out of nowhere. I'm thinking specifically of some Greek with an echoing voice that came on and saved them. That was done too often. And I simply also wanted scripts that were interesting and made sense and moved from a literary standpoint. I felt that too much of that was neglected or overlooked, because they had their science fiction themes. I wanted to do both, although I don't know if it would have worked. I have a great fear of these cultist series-films, because they're really self-defeating in the end. You're going to have a limited audience. That was my feeling, right or wrong.'
Requests for stories went out to a variety of people, all of whom had experience either in STAR TREK, science fiction, or genre television. Everything was coming together smoothly, and on July 28, 1977, Jon Povill made note of a story he had received from the show's NASA technical advisor, Jesco Von Puttkamer. Entitled 'The Sleeping God,' it dealt with a being named Singa who is so incredibly brain-powerful, that he is kept in suspended animation to conserve the resource. This being serves the Federation. 'In the other corner,' says Povill, 'from another universe, is Nahga, more or less a mutated super computer that has succeeded in the ultimate narcissism. It has studied and destroyed all competing forms of intelligence throughout its entire universe. Now it has opened a corridor into ours and has sent its first war machines through it. They have thus far been unstoppable, destroying several Federation and Klingon planets.'
Naturally the Enterprise finds itself in the middle of the situation, and Kirk must use everything at his command, including Singa, to enter the Nahga's realm, and stop this threat to his own universe. 'I think there are useable elements here,' Povill points out, 'but the story as it stands would cost about five million to do.' That fact alone seemed enough to stop conversations pertaining to the story, although it did eventually appear in one of Bantam Books' STAR TREK: THE NEW VOYAGES.
The next day, famed science fiction author Norman Spinrad wrote to Harold Livingston regarding a story the two men had discussed, that essentially dealt with the search for ultimate knowledge as well as personality changes in some of our crewmembers, some of whom pick up traits of the others. On August 4, Gene Roddenberry referred to the story by saying, 'We could use any ideas [which] might make this story work. Spinrad is brilliant, and he is onto the right thing.' Negatively speaking, he noted that the production probably couldn't afford an alien maze as described in the story. 'Also,' he explained, 'it is largely a two-man story with them interacting with a 'hidden power.' It is hardly action adventure. The jeopardy is mostly intellectual.'
The entire STAR TREK II company was very excited by Spinrad's full treatment, which came later. Roddenberry in particular was extremely positive, suggesting that perhaps the alien power could sway the Enterprise crew over by offering to give the individual whatever it was they desired most. This, he pointed out, was similar to but different from the premise of the original show's first season episode, 'The Naked Now.' Interestingly enough, the idea of trying to sway the crew by offering them whatever they desire, was picked up in the 'Hide and Q' episode of THE NEXT GENERATION.
'I don't remember where the idea came from,' Spinrad admits, 'except that I've always been fascinated with the high-mind concept, which I have dealt with in books. It would have made a great TV piece, because it's all in the acting. They all take on each other's characteristics, which is something really weird and strange, that wouldn't be as interesting in a novel, but would as a film or play. Something oral. Something with acting.'
In Patrick Duncan's 'The Phaethon Derelict,' which reached Povill on August 1, 1977, the Enterprise encounters a planetoid that turns out to be a space vehicle from Earth, launched in the 21st Century, and it's populated by the descendents of the original crew. The ship's propulsion units have long since failed, and it was thought lost or destroyed long ago. A landing party from the Enterprise beams over, and they discover a race who have based their religion on Starfleet directives. Kirk wants to help these people, but the Prime Directive is now theoretically in effect in this situation; thus he cannot alter the natural development of this society. How, then, to save them? That is Kirk's dilemma. This story holds a variety of similarities to plots we've seen before, most notably from Robert Heinlein's ORPHANS OF THE SKY, the TREK episode 'For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,' and David Gerrold's novel based on the series, and a tribute in itself to the Heinlein work, THE GALACTIC WHIRLPOOL.
'There is much bullshit in this story,' Povill noted of the outline, 'but the basic premise of the derelict planetoid/spaceship--children of SPACE: 1999 as it were--with a retrogressed culture seemed intriguing.' This story, like Puttkamer's, was not taken any further, but it did help to fuel Roddenberry's concern that perhaps they weren't receiving the proper stories for the series.
'Apparently the past has a way of repeating itself,' he said in early August. 'During our first three years, a principal problem in most story ideas received was that they usually presented our captain and crew with no particular jeopardy or need. In other words, it is not sufficient for a story idea merely to have our people in starship running into something interesting while out in space. In fact, it is not even sufficient to have them run into merely something fascinating!
'The above is why the typical story of 'two interesting civilizations' rarely works out,' added Roddenberry. 'Too often a writer thinks he has brought in enough if there are needs created for other characters in the story. This simply doesn't work. Yes, we want our STAR TREK story to involve fascinating things we meet out there, but those fascinating things must create an important need for one or more of our characters. That need can be for something to happen--or something not to happen. That need should grow steadily more and more important so story moves toward climax. Also, the resolution of that need must grow more and more impossible. Admittedly, all this is fairly elemental stuff every writer knows. But I think that all of us (including yours truly) often tend to forget it when doing science fiction.'
One of the writers contacted was Alan Dean Foster, author of numerous genre novels, including the STAR TREK LOG series for Ballantine Books. 'Roddenberry had gotten in touch with me because of the LOG series,' Foster recalls. 'He felt that I was comfortable with the STAR TREK universe, and familiar with the characters. So I submitted three story ideas, one of which was based on a page and a half outline for 'Robot's Return,' an episode of [his] GENESIS II. He thought that could be developed and wanted to see what I could do with it. So that was one of the three things I took home and developed into story ideas which ran about five or six pages each. One of them, which I would still like to do, involved the Enterprise arriving at a planet which was the 1860s south, only the white folks were the slaves and the black folks were the ruling class. Anyway, Roddenberry told me to develop the story for 'In Thy Image' into a full-scale treatment. After it was turned in, it was decided to open the series with a two-hour movie for TV, which is fairly standard practice when they can manage it. Of the treatments at hand, mine was the best suited to carry two hours, so I went home and developed the outline further.'
'Robot's Return' dealt with a space probe returning to Earth, after hundreds of years, in search of its creator, NASA. 'In Thy Image' took this basic GENESIS II premise and placed it in the STAR TREK universe, enlarging the overall threat along the way, as Kirk and company must save the entire planet from this deadly machine. 'At that point,' interjects Bob Goodwin, 'they had spent about four years trying to get a script for a feature, but they couldn't come up with anything that Michael Eisner liked. We had various options on the two-hour premiere [which would be released theatrically in Europe], and I suggested to Gene that since it had never been done in the series before, we should come up with a story in which Earth was threatened. In all the STAR TREK episodes before, they never came close to Earth. 'In Thy Image' fit that criteria perfectly. I remember that one day we went into the administration building. In there was Michael Eisner, Jeff Katzenberg, Gary Nardino, me, Gene and a bunch of other people. In the course of that meeting, I got up and pitched this two-hour story. Michael Eisner slammed his hands on the table and said, 'We've spent four years looking for a feature script. This is it. Now let's make the movie.''
What wasn't revealed until recently was that Paramount's hoped-for fourth network collapsed before it could make it to the airwaves. The studio had decided to go ahead with a STAR TREK feature, but kept the pretense of a series alive to avoid embarrassment, hoping that a theatrical film would lead right back to television. Meanwhile, those laboring on STAR TREK PHASE II believed that they were producing a TV show.
The atmosphere of a meeting held on the Paramount on August 3, 1977, was a combination of joy and sobriety. On the one hand it was proof that STAR TREK was very much alive in Paramount's eyes; on the other it revealed how problematic resurrecting the show actually was. Meeting with Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and other key executives, Gene Roddenberry stated at the outset that he expected to have up to ten scripts in development within a two-week time period. Michael Eisner felt that their primary concern must be the two-hour opening episode for the simple reason that it would kick off the new series and tap into the 'enormous amount of worldwide potential in the first return of STAR TREK. A February 1st answer print is vital, and the film must be superb.'
While Roddenberry agreed with this, his general feeling was that the more stories they get into development, the wider their choice of an opening story. 'The intention,' he said, 'is to give the best material to top established writers.' Michael Eisner, without hesitation, pointed out that he had no problems with paying whatever writing cost was necessary to insure the best possible script. He even went so far as to state a willingness to pay up to two hundred thousand dollars. Another concern was the lack of director, although Gary [THE BLACK HOLE] Nelson was being talked to, with Bob Collins as a backup. Eisner continued to emphasize how important it was for them to meet the February 1st date, and for the story to be finalized so pre-production could begin.
'We'd be kidding you if I didn't say we have some problems on the February 1st date, but we're hoping to overcome them,' Roddenberry explained.
'Look,' Eisner responded, 'I'm willing to go with a three million dollar budget, if the script is good enough. I'm not encouraging extravagance, but I am concerned that we meet the target date and the film be visually fabulous. We need a writer who can make the characters come alive, with a terrific director and a terrific story.'
Changing the subject for a moment, Gene Roddenberry admitted that he was bothered by the idea of tailoring the opening script to both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, as the latter would not be a part of the regular series. 'I'd prefer to eliminate Nimoy completely,' he said.
Eisner disagreed, stating that it was absolutely necessary for them to have both actors reprising their original roles, and that they must be signed even at unreasonable figures.
'I don't agree,' countered Roddenberry. 'I can almost promise us that the excitement generated by the return of STAR TREK with most of the original crew, aided by a publicity campaign to hype excitement over the new, different type of Vulcan, would cancel out any disappointment over Nimoy's absence.'
The Paramount chieftain would not accept this. The actor, he insisted again, must appear in the film, even if only briefly during the opening scenes. Both Roddenberry and Goodwin agreed, feeling that it would be a preferable way of handling the situation, because it would satisfy audience demand while at the same time allowing them the freedom to work with the new story and characters.
As stated earlier, one of the reasons that Nimoy did not wish to appear on the series stemmed from a lawsuit launched because the actor felt he should be compensated for the money Paramount was making from his likeness on STAR TREK merchandise. Gary Nardino explained that a deal had been offered to the actor that would include the opening film, select episodes and a settlement of his lawsuit against them. In response, Eisner said that he would be willing to pay the actor up to $100,000 for three days work, but the deal with Shatner should be closed first so as to keep his cost down. 'It's understood,' he added, 'that there's no interest in him for the series, although we may have to make a pay-or-play PTS [Paramount Television Service] commitment as incentive for the two hour film.'
Roddenberry again stated that he was concerned about making the February 1st date, and Eisner explained that he was attempting to generate money abroad on the property before it went to television. Approval was given to put thirteen scripts into work for series delivery in March 1978, but no series problems or deadlines should affect the two-hour film. 'There is only one priority at Paramount,' Eisner stated emphatically: 'STAR TREK.'