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Return to Tomorrow: Making “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979)

Even for those whose universe doesn’t revolve around Star Trek, the problem-plagued production history, release and reception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) is unique in the annals of Hollywood, and in more ways than one.

For starters, it was the first-ever big-budget movie adaptation of a (perceived) failed television series, one unceremoniously cancelled nearly a decade earlier to boot. The project then went through an agonizingly long process of developmental hell lasting several years. Initially the revival was planned as a medium budget theatrical feature before the decision was made to reworked it as a weekly television series, the flagship for a then-revolutionary, studio-backed fourth television network. Plans shifted again in the wake of Star Wars (1977), and Star Trek became a Motion Picture once more, this time with no expense spared. That process took more than three years, with teleplays written and actors cast for the never-produced TV version, and even sets and miniature models constructed that had to be junked or extensively retooled when Star Trek became a big-budget movie.


A deal between Paramount and theater owners fixed the movie’s release date: December 7, 1979. That meant the picture had to start filming with a shooting script only two-thirds done. Numerous unanticipated technical problems and deliberations over the script pushed it further and further behind schedule.

The other, even bigger shoe yet to drop concerned Star Trek’s special visual effects. Paramount contracted with the firm Abel & Associates, a company with zero feature film experience but famous for their visually dazzling television commercials. Robert Abel’s firm ordered state-of-the-art equipment, created concept art, built models, etc., but $6 million and 12 months later they had nothing to show for it, with zero usable footage.

Effects veteran Douglas Trumbull reluctantly assumed command, while a second firm, John Dykstra’s Apogee Co., was contracted to handle the overload. Together, they had just nine months to complete two years’ worth of visual effects work.

All of this – the years of script development, money wasted on sets, models, and talent for the never-produced TV series, delays with the live action unit, the millions wasted by Abel & Associates, and the unimaginable overtime and manpower required to finish the special effects in order to meet the film’s release date, pushed the Star Trek’s final cost to $42 million (though possibly even higher than that), making it one of the four or five most expensive movies ever made up to that point. The race to the finish line was so close there was no time to preview the film, no time to fine-tune the editing, no time even to strike premium 70mm prints for the biggest movie houses; Paramount wasn’t even sure whether prints would reach theaters in time.

Return to Tomorrow

This fascinating, one-of-a-kind tale is exhaustively (and, boy, do I mean exhaustively) chronicled in Preston Neal Jones’s Return to Tomorrow: The Filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, from Creature Features Publishing. The book itself has an equally serpentine history dating back to 1979. Jones interviewed the entire principal cast, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, director Robert Wise, and virtually all of the other key production personnel, some 60 interview subjects in all. The work was originally slated as a cover story for a proposed double-length issue of Cinefantastique, at the time the Rolls Royce science fiction-fantasy-horror cinema magazines, one rich in unusually scholarly articles and reviews about old and new genre films.

For various reasons Jones’s piece was never published. The book reworks the material into a massive, 672-page oral history. On the plus side, it’s fascinating to read 35-year-old interviews conducted mostly around the time the movie was just going into release, December-January 1979/80. All of the trials and tribulations of the making of the film are there, and many of the interviewees are extraordinarily frank in their displeasure and frustration, though most are upbeat and look back fondly on what proved to be an extraordinarily demanding experience. And because of Jones’s obsession to even the tiniest details, Return to Tomorrow paints a vivid portrait of the long and arduous process of studio movie making as few film books have.

But it’s also a bit like poring over several dusty cardboard boxes of raw research material. The most obvious problem with the book is its endless repetition of nearly identical remarks. Even Lukas Kendall, in his brief Afterword, jokes about this: “Everybody loved Robert Wise.” Indeed they did. It’s probably not an exaggeration to state that at least 50 of the 60 participants say something along the lines of, “Were it not for Robert Wise’s experience and expertise in all facets of filmmaking, and especially his eternally calm demeanor, the whole project would have fallen apart.” Moreover, probably half of the 50 say basically the same thing multiple times – three of four times in some cases. Actor DeForest Kelley, “Bones” McCoy, remarks about several lines of dialogue shot but cut from the film, again and again, throughout the book. Someone on the special effects team will discuss the inception and creation of a particular visual effect, and then another member of the same team will talk about the same effect in essentially the way, all over again, sometimes over many pages.

The making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an inherently engrossing, even highly suspenseful tale. Disaster strikes often. Shit! How are they ever going to be able to overcome that obstacle? Will the movie be finished in time? But reading Return to Tomorrow is like watching the Indy 500 in extreme slow motion, with the racecars crawling down the track at 20 mph.

The book has absolutely no sense of pacing, of telling a story. The red-letter day when the famously unfazable Robert Wise finally blew his stack after screening Abel’s pitifully inadequate smattering of completed effects shots receives little build-up, and when that turning point in the production finally happens, it’s unceremoniously tossed in the literary laundry basket, jumbled in with the rest of the dirty clothes, given the same weight, maybe even less, that the prolix coverage of the creation of warp coil lighting effects.

Despite little bits of bridging material here and there, Return to Tomorrow rarely places the production of Star Trek into context. For instance, there’s virtually no mention at all of Paramount’s aims and long-term strategies with Star Trek relative to the company at large, or its place in the mad scramble by Hollywood to duplicate Star Wars’s success during 1978-84. No other Paramount movies concurrently in development or production are mentioned, and there’s practically zero discussion about the state of the film industry at large in the late 1970s, all of which would have helped to put Star Trek into better contextual focus.

Though primarily an oral history, the author’s own voice is largely absent; there’s no 35-year hindsight, reflection, and analysis. Though it would have been a hard sell to non-Star Trek fans, the work is really geared for the hard-core buffs only, a shame. In the hands of a strong editor and with a lot of pruning (like, 75%), the book might have lost very little of note while transforming itself into a truly insightful, exciting work that, in addition to shedding lots of new light on this volatile production, could have appealed to a much wider audience, and have been a remarkable case study of studio production, art vs. commerce, right at an industry crossroads.

What Return to Tomorrow underemphasizes, when mentioned at all, is how remarkable an achievement The Motion Picture is beyond having made its release date by the skin of its teeth. Though flawed in many respects, the first movie Star Trek accomplished a great deal largely unrecognized at the time, and in retrospect the movie plays a lot better than it did for many when it was new. Indeed, there’s really been nothing quite like it, before or since.

First, the movie was burdened with having to reinvent the wheel through a maze of contradictions. It had to look enough like the old TV show to be recognizably Star Trek and to please its hard-core fans, the perceived core of the movie version’s box-office. And yet to avoid being laughed off the screen it couldn’t look too much like the old show – tastes and technology had changed more in those intervening ten years than perhaps any decade of the 20th century – and it was imperative that a movie Star Trek equally appeal to mainstream moviegoers barely aware of the old show’s existence.

Similarly, the script needed to conform to the spirit of Star Trek and include those elements and characters deemed essential to its appeal, reintroducing iconography intimately familiar to some moviegoers, brand-new and unfamiliar to others. It was a project with a singularly proprietary executive producer and co-writer (Roddenberry) clinging to certain, not always good concepts while notably ineffective as a producer in other ways. There were leading actors muscling in on the script, largely to protect their own interests and their vision of characters they had been inhabiting on and off for more than a dozen years.

Further, the show’s hardcore fans, the Trekkies (or Trekkers or, as they seemed to call themselves then, as the book suggests, Trekkians), after waiting song long for their beloved series’ revival, had their own ideas about what a Star Trek movie should be like, meaning a lot of them would be impossible to entirely please. That Star Trek: The Motion Picture manages to get it right at least 85% of the time is nothing short of miraculous. One need only look at movie adaptations of other popular TV shows (Sgt. Bilko, Lost in Space, The Avengers, etc.) to see just how easy it is to be so profoundly wrong-headed.

The other remarkable thing about Star Trek: The Motion Picture is better appreciated in this age where high-concept, short attention span completely dominates, and adult, intelligent, and methodically paced big-budget movies are practically non-existent. The biggest complaints levied against the movie by interviewees in Jones’s book are the pacing (too slow) and that it needed less emphasis on the special effects and more on character interaction, particularly among the original cast. That’s true to a point, and clearly this was addressed in the sequels beginning with Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), in which the characters’ relationships with one another was the whole point.

What’s interesting though about Star Trek: The Motion Picture is how utterly different it is from all of the other Star Trek movies, even those featuring the original cast. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that it’s closer in spirit to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) than Wrath of Khan. While Star Trek explores ideas already done to death in literary science fiction, they were relatively new in science fiction cinema, and so far out as to completely baffle some critics. (Amusingly and infuriatingly, my old nemesis Richard Schickel predictably gave the film a highly negative review, partly because he couldn’t figure out why, in his mind, the Klingons piloting the V’Ger ship didn’t show themselves at the climax. Wait – what?)

Further, while the movie maybe could’ve used a bit more humor (more original series producer Gene L. Coon’s realm than Roddenberry’s, who preferred his Star Trek deeply serious; even 2001 has its share of deliberate laughs), it more than satisfies most of the basic requirements of a bona fide Star Trek movie. For instance, one of the original series’ tenets, an optimistic, tolerant, and culturally and racially diversified vision of the future, is there, in spades, throughout the film. So is one of the central themes of the TV show: Captain Kirk’s Horatio Hornblower-like sense of duty to his ship and his uniquely talented instinct as a leader in times of crisis, which sometimes cause personal and professional conflicts with his junior officers.

It’s a movie that requires its audience to think about problems and abstract ideas. In going along for the ride, the audience is required to share in the mystery while exploring these “strange new worlds.” Not everything is made plain. In this way The Motion Picture is more like a link between Kubrick’s 2001 and Peter Hyams’ way-too-explicit sequel, 2010 (1984).

Meanwhile, the film does much to expand upon preexisting concepts. One interesting point that the book reveals is that Wise was very insistent that the immense size of the USS Enterprise be emphasized, which is why there are all those extras in that big recreation room set, and why in dry-dock and elsewhere are there always seen drone-like workers in space gear floating around, fixing things: to lend a sense of scale. Many viewers complained that the introduction of the Enterprise goes on too long, but for this writer then as now it’s practically perfect. Wise and his encouraged effects team were painting on a big canvas, for wide Panavision screens. On small TV monitors yes, this sequence seems to go on forever, but in big movie theaters and now, on Blu-ray, even on obviously smaller 100-inch projection systems, its effectiveness still impresses.

In any case, Return to Tomorrow is the kind of book that’s extremely interesting on many levels, but it’s like panning for gold and sifting through tons of silt over many hours to find maybe $50 worth of nuggets. There’s a mountain of great raw material here but, Lordy, it could have been presented far more effectively.