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The Remaking of STAR TREK, Part 8: Trek Phase II
Work continues on a new television series
By Edward Gross
December 23, 1999
In attempting to bring STAR TREK back to audiences of the 1970s, the show found itself saddled with one particular problem that had to be overcome in order for the series to work effectively. 'The original series had seventy nine episodes,' points out Jon Povill, 'and therefore a lot of things had already been done. I think the biggest challenge was coming up with things that weren't repeats of ideas which had already been explored. What we were definitely striving for on the show was doing things that were different, and I think by and large we were successful. That was the biggest challenge, coming up with things that were fresh, and were STAR TREK as well. I think we were helped out tremendously by the new characters of Xon, Decker and Ilia. We wanted characters that could go in new directions, as well as the old crew.
'I particularly liked Xon,' says Povill. 'I thought there was something very fresh in having a nice young Vulcan to deal with, somebody who was trying to live up to a previous image. That, to me, was a very nice gimmick for a TV show that was missing Spock. But we never wanted Xon to be a Spock retread. We wanted him to be somebody who definitely had his own direction to go in, and he had different failings than Spock. Also, he didn't have Spock's neurosis regarding his human half. As far as Xon was concerned, Spock had a distinct advantage in being half-Vulcan and half-human in the context of where he was, what he was doing and where he was working. If he was on Vulcan, it wouldn't have been an advantage, but to be living with humans, it really helped. Xon's youth was also very important and he would have brought a freshness that people would have appreciated.
'Ilia was sort of an embodiment of warmth, sensuality, sensitivity and a nice Yin to Xon's Yang. Decker, of course, was a young Kirk. I think he would have been the least distinct. He would have had to grow, and the performance probably would have done that, bringing something to Decker that the writers would have ultimately latched on to for material. He's the one who would have had to develop more through the acting and performance than the other two. Xon and Ilia were concept characters. They would have developed, too, I'm sure, because characters grow when they're performed much more than they do from just the writing. In the early writing, you don't realize the full potential. You don't know who's going to play the character, how they're going to play it and what the characteristics of their performance are going to be. If you look at 'The Menagerie,' for example, Spock laughs.'
On August 9th, Roddenberry responded to Alan Dean Foster's one-hour treatment of 'In Thy Image' as follows: 'The principal problem in your STAR TREK story outline is certainly not lack of imagination,' he pointed out. 'Rather, I believe, most of my comments will bear upon control and selective use of that imagination. Believability of characters, incidents and scenes is much more critical in picture/sound science fiction than in printed. Most of our story problem seems to boil down simply to getting to know our alien machine character better. Its abilities, limitations, motivations, needs, and so on. With all that established, it should then be much easier to build a tale which rises steadily in excitement and jeopardies (to the starship and to Earth) to a very exciting and satisfying climax.' Ironically, this problem would plague the script even after it had metamorphosized into STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and it was a thematic trap from which no one could extricate the project.
While Alan Dean Foster took Roddenberry's comments to heart and began to expand his outline, STAR TREK II was coming to life on the Paramount soundstages. On August 9, Bob Goodwin filed his first production report. 'Work is continuing on stage 9,' he explained, 'with construction of the Enterprise set. All frames and platforms have been built for the bridge...By tomorrow we will have a layout on the stage floor for the corridor and by the beginning of next week we will start framing and constructing the corridor walls. Joe Jennings has worked out most of the design problems of the engineering room and has started working on drawings which will be ready for you to see by the end of the week. The plan now for stage 8, which will be used as the planet set is to put in the ground row and the backing, but to leave the dirt out until we see if we need that stage space for any extra sets that might needed for our first show.'
As all this was developing, production designer Joseph Jennings was in the midst of creating the interior of a starship, which would be completely unlike the rather primitive looking sets of the original STAR TREK. 'I had been working at Paramount,' explains Jennings, 'and the Production Manager of Television called me in and said, 'How would you like the assignment?' We started preparing and that was about it. It was as simple as that.'
In attempting to upgrade the ship from the original series, he says that the idea was to make the mechanics of the starship much more sophisticated. 'The bridge of the Enterprise was designed to go into series, so we were designing it to be all things to all people. As a result, all of the devices were practical, and they worked off proximity switches. You didn't have to touch the board, but simply had to reach toward it and whatever effect you were tripping would show up. This was not for one specific show. What you're being asked to do is design a set that will function for at least three years of shows, so we were being a great deal more sophisticated than perhaps we would have been were it laid out to begin with as a feature film in which there were a certain given set of actions that had to be performed on that set. Then you only build those things that operate properly.
'When you talk about series,' Jennings elaborates, 'you don't know down the line what you're going to need. As a result, I wrote an operations manual for the bridge, which was intended to be given to guest directors who would come in and would not be familiar with the set, but in a matter of several days would have to come up with a working knowledge of it. So all of the stations and every switch, button and light flash were all spelt out as to what it did and what it was supposed to be. It was an attempt on my part to make the operation of the ship consistent from show to show. As I say, all of that effort and energy when it became a picture was superfluous. To be specific, directors walk in on the bridge of a spaceship and want every damn light winking and blinking, and now you get your spaceship in trouble and the meteor is coming. What do you add to it that's going to look dramatic? Besides, if you look on the instrument panel of any comparable vehicle we know, all of those lights aren't blinking all the time. So I thought perhaps by being very specific in making the thing operable, we could get a little more believability into it from that point of view.'
Jennings strived for more logical designs, with small details that would have added a certain sense of realism to the show. For instance, it was his feeling that the seats on the bridge should have protective devices to keep the crew locked in them during a crisis. 'We always had problems with those bridge chairs going clear back to the original series,' he laughs, 'because quite obviously if the technology was capable of doing what our script said it was capable of doing, it would have been capable of developing a chair in which an operator could be protected, and yet every time they ran into a meteor, they wanted everybody to fall out of their chair. We built all those nice protective restraints so they couldn't fall out of their chairs. What's a director going to do? I mean, they shake their camera like crazy and everybody sits firmly in their seats. Who's going to believe that?'
A second addition to the bridge was a large bubble near the weapons console that would serve, in effect, as a tactical tracking device. 'I can't remember at what point that was taken out,' Jennings says. 'Again, this was pointed towards a series in which everyone knows you're going to constantly be approaching objects in space or objects in space are going to approach you, so it was an attempt at the gunnery sight, if you like. It was a big plastic bubble on the bridge, and we eventually felt we could use miniatures in the bubble and see a 3-D representation of the approaching target. That's what was ultimately planned for it, but it created some sound problems and some light problems and they decided they didn't want to work with it. The shapes I was working with provided focus problems. The old Enterprise bridge was pretty much flat-planed, even though it was circular, which was an economy measure. When we decided to upgrade it, it was built in an elliptical section because we then had the money to build molds. All of the consoles were molded right into the walls. It was made to appear that they were all molded together. But that elliptical shape had an echo to it like a whispering gallery. You could say something into one end, go to the other end and hear it. While we still had it in the mock up stage, we got Glen Glen Sound over and they said it would be no problem. This big bubble created another nexus, so they figured they didn't want to spend that much time with it. I, for one, thought looking out that big front window, which Gene would never let us get rid of, seemed terribly limiting. This was one reason why I had brought up the constructive gunfight, because you could add another string to the bow. It was an auxiliary, another way of looking at things. At any rate, it was removed and became something else. We used that bubble somewhere. Everything was recycled.'
Gene Roddenberry pointed out to Jennings that he wanted him and his people to visualize materials all those years in the future which would virtually support no cross section mass at all, this despite the fact it had to be built out of materials that existed today. 'At the same time,' Jennings interjects, 'you still had to make the set workable. People had to live and work there. That was the driving aim for everybody, and justifiably so. That's what we were trying to do. I'm just illustrating the problems that were and were not, which were solved for better or for worse, but were always ongoing and always in the forefront. Another very good idea, and one that goes clear back to the original, was the axiom that the technology was not to be observed. By that, I mean a tricorder was like a screwdriver in that you don't say, 'Hey, look at me; I'm moving a screwdriver.' You just pick up the screwdriver and take the screw out. All the technology was to be state-of-the-art and people would use it simply as tools. Both the actors and directors' attitude was to do that. I always thought that worked very well. The movie, on the other hand, destroyed that because it said, 'Hey look, how do you figure we did this?'
'The great proper use of that sort of thing was STAR WARS. George Lucas was smart enough to get off of the special effects and you said, 'Jesus, did I see what I think I saw?' That's where you want to be. My kids went back three times to see how they did it, and they still couldn't figure it out. It was there just long enough to establish the idea and get off it before they figure out what's going on. Then you go away with your imagination working on overtime, and I guarantee you that you'll think you saw a great deal more than you actually did. This is where STAR TREK fell down. It was almost like for once the little boy had all the candy he could possibly eat, and what did he do? He ate himself sick. In other words, artistically they were far better off as a series than a film. It's driven to economy, as is all good art.'
Another innovation was the idea of having mini-transporters located throughout the Enterprise so that small objects needed in different areas could instantly be beamed over. This, again, was an attempt to set up a certain number of givens for what was still intended to be a weekly series. 'As I said earlier, the ship was designed to be all things to all people, because once you've established the thing, it's established. It's like I spent eight years doing GUNSMOKE, and once we had a director who decided that because of a piece of business, he wanted the stove in Matt's office downstage so that somebody could come down towards the camera and get the coffee pot. We moved it, and we received all kinds of mail telling us that that's not where the stove belongs. This is part of series television. Your audience has a running familiarity with the surroundings, so as a result you can use pre-established areas. When Spock heads up to the science station, you know where he's going. You don't have to stop and somehow explain it to the audience.'
In the meantime, on August 16th Harold Livingston filed a 'writers status report,' noting that those assigned included Arthur Heinemann, Alan Dean Foster, James Menzies, Margaret Armen, John Meredyth Lucas, Worley Thorne, Shimon Wincelberg and Theodore Sturgeon. Of them, only Sturgeon would not ultimately deliver a story. In addition, Livingston met with a total of seventeen other writers, of which only Bill Lansford had a story that fit STAR TREK requirements, entitled 'Devil's Due.' The producer noted that he and Roddenberry had met with the author 'concerning a story with Faustian overtones, a Devil and Daniel Webster conflict and we expect to assign Lansford after a final meeting.'
While these meetings did not bear much fruit (the story was eventually rewritten as an episode of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION), Livingston was still quite pleased at the way things were progressing. 'We find that these initial meetings are beneficial to writers,' he said, 'because despite the writer's guide and the two scripts we usually give as representative STAR TREK scripts, it is always helpful when the writers discuss face to face and we explain our problems, requirements, standards and specifications. With almost no exception, writers have recontacted us and/or have reacted enthusiastically.'
The memo concluded with Livingston pointing out that they had not yet evaluated Alan Dean Foster's two-hour episode, but that it would be done shortly so that they could determine who would write the actual script, as the producer had elected against Foster doing so. 'Alan brought me two screenplays, which I wasn't very impressed with,' he recalls, 'and I didn't want him to write the script. This is obviously a subjective opinion, but that's what they were paying me for. It was my judgment that they should get someone else.'
Nearly two weeks later, he submitted a list of twenty more writers he had met with, of which only a handful were encouraged to develop their stories further for a second meeting. Two names on the list were STAR TREK veterans: David Gerrold and Carey Wilbur. 'We have also received a large number of submissions from various writers,' said Livingston, 'either in one or two page outlines, and in some cases full scripts. We have investigated most of these, but none have really met STAR TREK standards. They keep coming in and the response from writers is totally overwhelming.'
He added that the search had begun for a writer to flesh 'In Thy Image' out to script form. His first choice, Steven Bochco (HILL STREET BLUES) was unavailable for several months. Two other names being considered were British author David Ambrose (who would ultimately pen the 'Deadlock' script for the proposed series) and science fiction veteran William Norton. An attempt to interest Michael Cimino was unfruitful, which is probably just as well. Imagine HEAVEN'S TREK.
'The problem with many name writers,' Livingston opined, 'is that we do not want to involve ourselves in a situation where we will sign a writer who will be tempted to 'write down' to the story. We must have someone who is actively into science fiction, namely STAR TREK, and will be so enthusiastic he will give us the very best he has.
'After four weeks of developing stories,' he closed, 'talking to writers, word has come back to us now and it is very interesting to note that STAR TREK is considered the 'hardest sell in town.' It is also considered perhaps the most prestigious credit a writer can receive. This, needless to say, we consider very encouraging. The result has been that we are very selective in our story material, and we feel that the stories we now have in work are the best possible stories we could find. Our status now is that we have eleven hours assigned. This includes two 2-hour versions. This would leave us with two one-hour openings. We have requested the purchase of an additional five back-up hours, and are anxiously awaiting approval on this request.'
Bob Collins, in the meantime, had been signed to direct the opening episode, and began to help in the screen test process to determine who would be most suited to portray the pair of alien characters, Xon and Ilia. He elected to begin with the Vulcan, and tested hundreds of actors in pointed ears before he spotted the one he felt most comfortable with to take over the science station from Mr. Spock. 'I found an actor named David Gautreaux to play Xon,' Collins recalled. 'He was a nice young man and a terrific actor, and all of that would have worked, although there was some concern over how people would react to the fact that there was no Spock.'
That was a question which crossed quite a few minds.You can find the rest of our story on the 'Remaking of STAR TREK' in our Movie section, detailing the shift from a new series to a feature film, directed by Robert Wise.