Star Trek’s Nine Lives – How The Sci-Fi Saga Keeps Cheating Death
By Eric Diaz on May 21, 2013
Right now, you can’t turn a corner and not see something Star Trek-related hit you in the face, with the theatrical release this past week of JJ Abrams’ long awaited sequel Star Trek Into Darkness. For nearly fifty years now, the Star Trek franchise has been a part of American popular culture in some form, and many out there see it as something perennial, something that is always there and will always be around. But the truth is, Star Trek has nearly gone away for good several times, only to be brought back from the jaws of death just when it looked like it was all over.
These are the stories of the people who saved Star Trek from possibly disappearing for good. Much like Captain Kirk, this classic franchise has been cheating death on a regular basis.
The Fans Save Star Trek (1968)
There is something of a popular notion that the classic Star Trek series was a dismal ratings failure in its original network run, only to become a popular and beloved series when entering daily syndication in the early ’70s. The truth is, while Star Trek was never a major television series, in its first season, the show was actually a modest success ratings wise. Debuting on September 8th, 1966, “The Man Trap” actually drew in 19 million viewers, a staggering amount by today’s standards. Star Trek was the only new series of the 1966-67 television season on any of the three major networks to even crack the top fifty shows. So NBC was more or less pleased that first year, at least enough to greenlight a second season in early 1967.
But the ratings had really begun to slip in the second year, and the feeling amongst fandom was that Star Trek would not get a third season. Now, this wasn’t like today, when any time a cult favorite show is threatened with cancellation, an online petition shows up on Facebook or in your inbox, and everyone clicks a box and is done with it, feeling they’ve done their part. Back in 1968, NBC was said to have received over a million actual letters from fans, begging for Star Trek to be renewed for a third year. Super fans Bjo and John Trimble helped with a lot of the organizing of the letter writing campaigns, but an equal number of fans simply wrote letters to the network all on their own. NBC was so deluged with fan mail, in fact, that the network actually took a moment of airtime to tell viewers that Star Trek had indeed been renewed for a third season. In other words, “stop sending so many damn letters.”
Of course, the network found other ways of screwing with the show, even while agreeing to bring it back. The executives at NBC were said to have never been fans of the show, and were more than happy to see it die and replaced with something cheaper to produce. They moved the series to Friday nights at 10:00 pm and slashed the budget, forcing an angry Gene Roddenberry to leave the show in everything but name. The season opener, an episode called “Spock’s Brain“, is widely considered one of the worst episodes of the series ever, and it set the precedent for how season three was going to be (although in fairness, there are some excellent episodes in that season as well). Nevertheless, with a third season ordered, that gave Star Trek 79 episodes total, enough to enter syndication after it was ultimately cancelled. Had the fans not rallied to ensure that third season, though, syndication may not have been possible, and without it, it is very likely that no one would remember Star Trek at all today.
Saturday Morning Saves Star Trek (1973)
After Star Trek had become such a hit in syndication in the early ’70s, fans instantly started to try and find ways to bring it back for real. NBC, at this point probably regretting their decision to kill what was obviously a potential cash cow, decided to revive the show… as a Saturday morning cartoon. But despite Filmation’s desire to make the show more kid friendly (a young child was originally going to be assigned to each crew member, including a little Vulcan one for Spock. Star Trek Babies, anyone?) Roddenberry put his foot down and said no. If Star Trek was coming back in animated form, it wouldn’t be bastardized.
What resulted were 22 episodes that were pretty much pure Star Trek. Almost the entire original voice cast from the original series returned (except for Walter Koenig as Chekov, for budgetary reasons) and many episodes were direct sequels to classic episodes. Sure, the animation was limited (and that’s being nice about it), but it was nice to see aliens that were actually aliens and not just little people with weird face paint or odd facial hair. Despite winning an Emmy, the show only lasted two seasons, but it proved that a revival of Trek could happen, and if it could happen in one form, it might still happen in another.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg Save Star Trek (Sort Of) -1978
Throughout much of the 1970’s, an honest to goodness Star Trek revival was always in the cards in some form. In 1975, Trek creator Gene Roddenberry began work in earnest on a big screen version called “The God Thing.” (an avowed atheist, Roddenberry loved stories that poked holes in the notions of any kind of deity.) This wouldn’t be the first time a movie version of Trek was proposed; in 1968, before the show was ever even cancelled, Roddenberry told fans that a big screen version was coming, one which would tell the origin story of the Enterprise crew and how they all came together.
For the next two years, the script went through various permutations, and writers from Harlan Ellison to Ray Bradbury were brought in to pitch ideas as well. Paramount executives didn’t take to any of them, though. Another script called Planet of the Titans was commissioned, but Paramount executives didn’t much like that one any more than the others. After two and a half years of this back and forth, it was decided that Star Trek would come back to television after all, as part of Paramount’s proposed television network, the Paramount Television Service, set to be launched in 1978. Star Trek: Phase II would be the anchor series for the new network. Sets were built, a new Enterprise model was constructed, and all of the original cast (with the exception of Leonard Nimoy) would return.
And then, in 1977, a little movie called Star Wars happened. At first, Paramount thought the enormous success of Star Wars was a fluke, and work continued on Phase II. Then, for various reasons, the notion of a Paramount-owned network ended just as quickly as it had started. Two weeks before production was to commence, Phase II was shuttered. That might have been it for Star Trek once again, but the enormous success of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the end of 1977 proved that Star Wars was no fluke; science fiction was Hollywood’s new darling genre. It was time for Paramount to strike while the iron was hot — and the pilot script for Phase II called “In Thy Image” was reworked for the big screen. A-List director Robert Wise, the man who gave us The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, and West Side Story, was brought in to direct. Paramount gave the movie an enormous budget by 1970s standards, and finally, after ten years, Star Trek was really back. If not for the double whammy success that year of Star Wars and Close Encounters, made by two guys who grew up watching the original series named George and Steven, Star Trek might have never come back at all.
Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer Save Star Trek (1982)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in December of 1979. Hardcore fans who had waited ten years to see the Enterprise soar again lined up over and over to see the movie. But the truth is, even though no one wanted to admit it at the time, just about no one actually liked the movie. The movie was bloated, pretentious, and worst of all, incredibly boring. The colorful characters of the original series were muted down to dull Earth tones and what should have been a joyous reunion became a slog to sit through, as most of the movie resulted in the characters looking at pretty colors on the view screen. In an effort to be taken seriously, or be another 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Motion Picture forgot that although the original series was thoughtful and often philosophical, it was also lively and colorful and fun.
Nevertheless, the movie sold tickets, and despite having cost an enormous amount of money, managed to turn a profit for the studio. Paramount wanted a sequel, but they wanted one made for a hell of a lot less money and which would actually evoke the fun character drama and action of the original series. The first thing Paramount did was essentially fire Gene Roddenberry. They gave him the title “executive consultant,” where he was paid handsomely to just stay out of it all. For various reasons, Roddenberry was seen as the source of all of the previous film’s creative problems. Whether or not that was accurate, that seemed to be the perception at the studio.
Instead, Paramount went to a television producer named Harve Bennett to bring the movie in on budget and to make it actually entertaining. Bennett, who had twenty years of experience with Paramount’s television department, had never made a feature film for the studio. He was called in to the office of Charles Bluhdorn, the then owner of the studio, who, according to Terry Lee Rioux’s From Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley, asked him point blank, “could you make a better movie?” Bennett answered “Well, you know… yeah, I could make it less boring. Yes I could.” Bluhdorn then retorted “could you make it for less than forty-five fucking million dollars?,” to which Bennett replied, “oh boy, where I come from… I could make five movies for that.” And with that, and a “paltry” $12 million dollar budget, Star Trek II was off to the races.
Bennett screened every episode of the series in an effort to make the new movie more like the actual show and less like a bloated knock off of Stanley Kubrick. After the creative debacle of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, no known name director in Hollywood wanted to touch Star Trek with a ten foot pole. Everyone thought Trek screwed up their chance for a true revival with the last movie. So Bennett hired relatively unknown director Nicholas Meyer, a non-Trek fan who had one movie credit to his name, the time travel flick Time After Time. Meyer took various drafts of the screenplay, all of which contained various different elements (some dealt with Kirk having an adult son, others the planet creating Genesis project, the return of series villain Khan, etc.) and fused them into one satisfying screenplay. And he did it all in twelve days.
Bennett and Meyer lured Leonard Nimoy back into the franchise with the promise of getting to play an awesome death scene. Lowered budget or not, for the returning cast, it really felt like Star Trek for the first time since the series was cancelled. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released to both critical acclaim and fan support in June of 1982. The duo of Harve Bennett and Nick Meyer had brought back Star Trek into the cultural zeitgeist once again, just when all seemed lost. The success of Wrath of Khan with both critics and fans gave the series a major kick in the ass, and suddenly Trek was back in a big bad way.
Harve Bennett stayed to produce the next four installments, and all except the last one (The Final Frontier) were hits, especially part IV, The Voyage Home. Bennett left the franchise after the studio refused his pitch for a “Starfleet Academy Years” prequel as a concept for Star Trek VI, focusing on the budding friendship of a young Kirk and Spock with all new actors. (Fans hated the idea, although twenty years later many of these same fans would embrace it.) It was in large part due to the success of the movie franchise, thanks largely to Bennett, that Paramount decided to return Trek to television again, this time with an all new cast on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Michael Piller Saves Star Trek: The Next Generation (1989)
Due to the new found success of the movie series, Paramount revived the idea of a new Star Trek television show, this time for first run syndication. This of course ended up being Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted in 1987. Despite being a ratings hit from day one, audiences just were not warming up to the new crew of the Enterprise-D. No matter how talented folks like Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner were, replacing cultural icons like Shatner and Nimoy was no easy task, especially with the original crew still doing great on the big screen. In the third season of the series, co-producer Rick Berman brought in Michael Piller as the series’ new show runner and head writer, in hopes of saving the show creatively. Piller was put in charge of the writing staff in season three, and the first thing he did was make two massive changes to the way the show was run that changed the series’ standing in the eyes of the fans for all time.
First off, he made a declaration that from now on, the series would shift away from “alien of the week” concept to focus on character above all else. The new more character-centric approach worked liked gangbusters. In season three, Next Generation finally crept out of the original series’ shadow and became a pop culture phenomenon all its own, especially when the cybernetic villains known as the Borg returned to transform Captain Jean-Luc Picard into one of their own in “The Best of Both Worlds,” the franchises’ first ever cliffhanger. The second thing Piller did was create an open door policy for scripts on the show, meaning fans could submit scripts to the series in hopes of actually getting them made. Many great episodes came to the series due to this policy. Writer Ronald D. Moore (later the creator of the new Battlestar Galactica) was brought into the Next Generation writing staff through the open door policy as well.
Star Trek: The Next Generation exploded in the ratings, which led to more spin-off series like Deep Space Nine and Voyager, both of which Piller co-created. During the ‘90s, Star Trek was prospering with multiple series on the air, and the movie franchise continued with the Next Generation cast. Too much Trek all at once eventually led to over-saturation and apathy towards the franchise, but it was Michael Piller’s involvement that saved the franchise from never getting out of the shadow of Kirk and Spock in the first place. Piller sadly died of cancer in 2005, but his legacy is a collection of some of the best television episodes ever produced.
JJ Abrams Saves Star Trek, After The Untimely Death of Enterprise (2008)
Under the Rick Berman regime, from 1987-2005, there were a staggering 625 episodes of Star Trek content produced. Although they were considered to be hits, neither Deep Space Nine nor Voyager garnered the same kind of ratings anywhere near what Next Generation was doing in its heyday. By the time Voyager ended its seven season run in 2001, the popular thinking was that maybe the Trek franchise needed a nice, long rest. But Paramount wasn’t letting go of its golden goose just yet. The studio commissioned a new series to take Voyager’s slot on UPN as soon as Voyager went off the air. (Star Trek: Voyager had done what the aborted Star Trek: Phase II series was set to do back in the ‘70s: be the anchor for a Paramount-run network.)
Paramount knew that fandom for Star Trek was eroding; by this point in time, there were other genre shows like Buffy, X-Files and Farscape over which geeks could obsess. Trek was no longer the only game in town. So, Paramount and Berman decided they were going to make a non-Star Trek version of Star Trek. Enterprise would be a prequel series, set a mere 150 years from now, with humans who looked and sounded more contemporary, more “like us.” The show would be “sexier” (in other words, lots of gratuitous shots of a hot Vulcan woman in her underwear getting radiation decontamination), and the theme song would be a terrible Rod Stewart pop track. Heck, the name Star Trek wouldn’t even be part of the title, it would simply be called Enterprise. Paramount was hoping that non Trek fans would watch and old Trek fans would forgive how embarrassed-to-be-Star Trek the show really was. Neither happened. Enterprise struggled in the ratings for four seasons.
The final season of the show saw an actual Trekker take the helm, as producer Manny Coto stepped in to make the show an actual prequel series to Star Trek in more than name only, with tons of nods to the original series and even the animated show, in a hope to make a last ditch effort to get the old Trek fans back. It was a noble effort, but it wasn’t enough. Enterprise ended its run after 98 episodes in 2005, the first Star Trek series to be cancelled since the original show. Many believed that was the quiet, sad death of one of the greatest science fiction franchises of all time. Considering how many times Star Trek has returned from the brink of death, they should have really known better.
This time, the higher ups at Paramount were smart. They let Trek lie dead for a few years, then in 2007 announced an all new movie titled, simply enough, Star Trek. The movie would have a budget not seen since The Motion Picture. JJ Abrams was brought in to produce and ultimately direct. This new Star Trek would end up fulfilling the old promise made by Gene Roddenberry way back in 1968 about a Star Trek movie being a prequel about how the original crew got together, and in part be a version of Harve Bennett’s “Academy Years” script that was scrapped way back in 1990, with younger leads cast in the original iconic roles. Star Trek reinvigorated the franchise in a way that no one thought possible, and was the highest grossing Trek film ever, even with adjustment for inflation factored in. In many ways, this new Abrams version is more Star Wars than Star Trek, but there is no denying that the movie’s success saved the franchise from the jaws of oblivion once again. With the franchise quickly approaching its 50th Anniversary, probably more popular than ever, it is hard to imagine that Star Trek will ever need a miracle worker (or workers) to save it again. But if it does… it’s good to know those fans are out there with enough love for the series to bring it back to life again.
Eric Diaz is a lifelong nerd who created the lifestyle column Gayscape for Geekscape.net and whose pop culture lists can be found regularly at Topless Robot.