Star Trek fans have been somewhat concerned lately. Star Trek Beyond, the newest movie was critically well-received but was considered to have underperformed at the box office. Star Trek Discovery, the latest television series, was pushed back from January to May 2017, and lost showrunner Byran Fuller to scheduling conflicts. One thing Star Trek fans need to keep in mind, however, is the history of Trek is a history of almost constant behind-the-scenes struggle.
An easy way to see this history is through the ups-and-downs of series creator Gene Roddenberry. It is especially noticeable in the first two major iterations of the franchise: the first Star Trek television series, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first film.
Star Trek (1966 – 1969)
Gene Roddenberry was a visionary; a genius at world-building and developing new ideas. He also had an infamous reputation for being stubbornly idealistic, arguably to his creation’s own detriment. The history of the original Star Trek television series was one of last-minute script revisions, budget constraints, and fights with NBC executives over what was allowable on air.
It took two attempts at a pilot episode before being picked up for a first season. By the end of the first season, ratings were already weaker than hoped by the studio. Rumors began to spread by the middle of the second season that cancellation was on its way. A massive letter write-in campaign organized by fans and endorsed by Roddenberry helped the show get a third season.
Star Trek‘s third season was moved by NBC to 10 p.m. on Friday nights, one of the worst possible timeslots to air new episodes of TV. Roddenberry backed away from the series, new producers were brought in, and the budget was cut.
Following several network conflicts with Roddenberry and uncertain ratings, the original show was canceled in 1969, after only three seasons. The flame of fandom was kept alive through reruns and conventions.
Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979)
The huge success of Star Wars in 1977 made movie companies rush to create space films. Paramount Studios realized it had the rights to Star Trek and began work on a film.
Poor editing and very slow pacing were the result of being rushed into theaters to fulfill a studio-guaranteed release date of December 1979. The time crunch did not go over well with Star Trek‘s creative voice; Roddenberry’s idealism and temperament again backfired on him. Trouble between Roddenberry and the filmmakers simmered during the making of The Motion Picture. The suits at the studio balked at the final cost of the film (over $20 million dollars more than initially planned). Budget troubles were caused in part by Roddenberry’s delays from re-writing the script several times, forcing film production to come to a near halt while the story was altered.
Other bad luck plagued production. Robert Abel and Associates, a special effects animation company who was among the early pioneers of computer graphics, was hired to work on the film. Abel allegedly took the multi-million dollar budget allocated to him for the movie, and instead used it to invest in new equipment for his studio, thinking he could grow his company for new clients and create Star Trek movie effects at the same time.
After realizing how little work had been finished after several weeks, Paramount re-assigned the rest of the movie to other special effects groups. More budget overruns were created from needing to pay overtime to the crews of the new companies. Only a few effects by Abel made it into the final film. One is a sequence with the Starship Enterprise entering a wormhole, considered by some fans to be one of the weaker effects in the movie.
The uneven behind-the-scenes production, and chilly critical reaction to Star Trek The Motion Picture resulted in Roddenberry being almost totally removed from the decision-making process on future films, essentially becoming an exile from his own creation. He would not regain significant creative input until Star Trek The Next Generation at the end of the 1980s.
Despite these early struggles, Star Trek has continued to the present day. As of this writing, Star Trek Beyond is in the top ten best-selling movies on Amazon. Discovery got delayed and lost its head showrunner, but has been replaced by two of his trusted creative partners, with the time to work on getting things right.
Troublemaking is baked into the series, as much as Roddenberry’s idealism gave the show its distinctive optimism. In a recent poll on the Star Trek official website, fans were asked what quality of the franchise they were most thankful for; “hope” was the winning result.
One fan wrote, “It’s been an escape for me. A place of refuge.”
A refuge, and a place of hope. So despite any worries about the future of this series, this, above all else, shows the real truth of Star Trek.
[Featured Image by CBS Studios/Paramount Studios]