Thursday, September 27, 2012

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The Paramount Centennial Blogathon is an event commemorating one hundred years of movies from Paramount Pictures, hosted by The Hollywood Revue. For a list of participating blogs, visit the host site.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
from my DVD collection

The final episode of the original Star Trek TV series, "Turnabout Intruder," aired Tuesday, June 3, 1969, at 7:30 PM EST. Unlike the previous two seasons, there would be no reprieve from NBC brought about by a letter-writing campaign from the fans - which, it should be noted, was orchestrated by series creator Gene Roddenberry himself. Still, the science fiction adventure show that captured the imagination of millions during its brief three years continued to inspire its audience long after its cancellation, and that fervor became a major factor in bringing Star Trek to the big screen in a feature-length movie.

I've been a Trekkie for over twenty years, but by the time I first got into it, times had significantly changed. There was a second Trek TV show on the air, one that was every bit as popular as its predecessor, with a third one on the way. Trek fandom was a worldwide, multi-million dollar phenomenon, and a bunch of Trek movies firmly established it as a lucrative franchise. I couldn't have picked a better time to become a Trekkie.

But what was being a Trekkie like without any of that? Even during the period between the last Next Generation film, Nemesis, and the JJ Abrams reboot in 2009, when there was no new Trek, I still had plenty of other outlets to sustain me, not the least of which was the Internet fandom. In the 70s, however, it was vastly different.

Long time WSW readers have seen me write about my dear friends Bibi and Eric on occasion. For this post, I've asked them to share their memories of Trek fandom in the period between the end of the original series and the 1979 movie. Bibi's the more fervent Trekkie, but they're both tremendous SF fans. Their house is packed to the brim with books, DVDs, VHS tapes, comics, magazines and other SF-related paraphernalia, and it has been a great shared passion throughout their long and happy marriage.

First, a little backstory: as I said, Roddenberry was responsible for galvanizing the Trek viewership into taking action to help keep the show alive when he saw that it was underperforming in the Nielsen ratings. According to the seminal book Inside Star Trek by series producers Herb Solow and Robert Justman, in late 1966, Roddenberry enlisted SF writer Harlan Ellison, writer of the beloved Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever," to start a letter-writing campaign through the Science Fiction Writers of America, that extended to the general fandom. The campaign worked, though in the book, Solow wrote that he believed the real reason Trek was saved was because it helped NBC's parent company, RCA, to sell color televisions. Also, Justman wrote that Roddenberry brought in uber-Trekkie Bjo Trimble to organize a similar movement during the second season, even though, according to Solow, Trek was not in danger of cancellation at that time. Bi-coastal demonstrations outside NBC buildings in Burbank and New York took place in January 1968.

Ultimately, mediocre ratings, constant schedule changes, an ever-shrinking budget, and upper management changes led to Trek's downfall following the '68-'69 season. It gained a second life, however, thanks to a 1967 deal made by the five-city Kaiser Broadcasting for the syndication rights - a deal made while the show was still on the air, which was unusual at the time. Also unusual was the syndication pattern: airing the Trek reruns daily at 6PM, opposite the evening news, uncut and in order. This format was extremely successful, and Trek reruns soon spread throughout the nation...

... which was how Bibi got into the show. "One night, my parents were away and my older sister babysat me, and thus we were (gasp!) allowed to watch TV, [and] a Star Trek episode was listed," she says in describing her first exposure to Trek. "So I did watch at least one original episode during '66-'68, but I didn't discover it until 1972, when I became totally addicted!"

Eric also discovered the show in syndication, though during its first run, his parents forbade him to watch it - not that it mattered much to him at the time. "I was six, and not yet into SF," he says.  "I probably saw an ad for Star Trek, asked to watch it, was told no, and forgot all about it.... My parents weren't really anti-SF, but they didn't get it.  For them, anything with a speculative element wasn't real and was therefore just silly.... My parents were worried that I would be frightened by the pointy-eared monster on the show, and that it would give me nightmares. Apparently, the Wicked Witch and the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz had done just that (still pretty creepy, if you ask me).

"It sounds ridiculous that anybody would think that Mr. Spock was a monster, but that's because he's now a well-established cultural icon. At the time, he was a brand-new character in a brand-new show - a show that my parents knew nothing about, had never seen, and weren't interested in. They probably had nothing to go on but a fleeting image on a promo or a photo in TV Guide."

Almost from the beginning, there was product designed to meet the large fan demand for more Trek. In the early 70s, Roddenberry's mail-order catalog company, Lincoln Enterprises, made available to the public Trek memorabilia such as film clips, or single frames of film from the show. 

And then there were the books. In 1967, during the first year of the show, Hugo Award-winner James Blish wrote the first of a series of Trek novels that included both adaptations of the episodes and all-new, original material. A year later, the first Trek novel, Mission to Horatius by Mack Reynolds, was released. Blish wrote the second one, Spock Must Die!, in 1970.

"I was fanatical enough that I listened to a show's rerun, read along in the book, and penciled in the CORRECT words - the ones uttered on the TV show," says Bibi in describing her early obsession with the books. "This, no doubt, makes any first editions I might have of Blish's books utterly worthless! Not to mention [that] this was long before I understood that perhaps a novelization of a TV episode or of a movie came from the actual initial TV/movie scripts, and thus could maybe be considered 'more correct' than what got uttered on the TV show. Then again, it was not as if James Blish's versions were making Star Trek gloriously anew or better; his own original stories were not, frankly, any better than the better fan writers at the time, but it was all we had until more was published."

In many ways, the history of what we call fan fiction is the history of Trek fan fiction. While there are precedents with regard to amateur writings inspired by the work of Lewis Carroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, and JRR Tolkien, it was Trek fandom that popularized the practice. They created "fanzines" containing original Trek adventures written by fans (including the homoerotic subset known as "slash"), along with original art. These were sold either through the mail to other fans or at Trek conventions, the first of which was in January 1972, in New York.

In 1976, Bantam published Star Trek: The New Voyages, the first professional publication of amateur fan fiction ever. From Roddenberry's foreword:
We were particularly amazed when thousands, then tens of thousands of people began creating their own personal Star Trek adventures. Stories, and paintings, and sculptures, and cookbooks. And songs, and poems, and fashions. And more. The list is still growing. It took some time for us to fully understand and appreciate what these people were saying. Eventually we realized that there is no more profound way in which people could express what Star Trek has meant to them than by creating their own very personal Star Trek things. Because I am a writer, it was their Star Trek stories that especially gratified me.... all of it was plainly done with love.
During her high school years in Indiana, Bibi was co-president of an SF club that became more Trek-centric during her time within it. Trek's roots in traditional SF has always meant a great deal to her. "Part of [Trek's] sterling appeal, aside [from] its liberalism and optimism, was how REAL SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS wrote a number of the episodes. Theodore Sturgeon! Robert Bloch! Roddenberry bet the wheel on how there was an intelligent audience out there who were dying for intellectual stimulation - and he was right."

She and her club put out a Trek fanzine, which lasted six issues. They also got to meet Roddenberry when he appeared at Indiana University one year. To their great delight, he recognized their fanzine when they showed him a copy during a lecture to a smaller group of Trekkies. Eventually, Bibi would start going to Trek conventions, her first one being in New York.

"Back then, all we had was the written word," she says. "I scoured newsletters, saved up my sixty cents (gluing them on index cards so they'd be safe to mail) or my precious one dollar bills, and sent away for fanzines and newsletters, including Bjo Trimble's. There was a whole underground of fandom, and some of my oldest friends started from being Star Trek penpals.  Leslie Fish - who (while not one of my oldest friends!) was one of my early pen pals, and I hers - wrote later, as others have, of how she literally thought she was the only fan in the world. We were introduced to the 'secret societies' of obsessed fans, until, at long last, came the conventions, where you could buy and devour more fanzines and buttons and tribbles and newsletters and buttons and tribbles and Star Trek paraphernalia, and have I mentioned the buttons and tribbles? Not to mention [getting] glimpses of the stars and writers themselves!"

In September 1973, Filmation released a weekly animated Star Trek series in which most of the original cast voiced their own characters. Several writers from the live-action show worked on this show as well. Though it would win a Daytime Emmy Award for Best Children's Series, it only lasted two seasons. "I've never been that much for cartoons, but [the animated] Star Trek was worth getting up early on Saturday mornings," says Bibi. "I have not re-watched them since they first came out, but my memory is that they were good and that they really did try to have the same writers... and ideas come to life, just in cartoon form. It was not just a 'kiddie show.'"

Roddenberry went public with the idea of a Trek movie as early as 1968, at the World Science Fiction Convention. A year earlier, Paramount Pictures had acquired the rights to Trek when parent company Gulf + Western paid $17 million for Trek's production studio Desilu (which was also home to Mission: Impossible and Mannix). According to Solow in Inside Star Trek, in 1973, Roddenberry made a movie pitch to Paramount, but they bickered over money, and a Trek film never got off the ground. Four years later, he changed tactics and tried to pitch a second live-action Trek series, but couldn't bring back popular co-star Leonard Nimoy. Then Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind happened that same year, and suddenly the market for science-fiction movies blew wide open. In 1978, Paramount contracted Roddenberry to produce a Trek movie.

Directed by Robert Wise (who also did The Day The Earth Stood Still), from a screenplay by Harold Livingston (based on a story by Alan Dean Foster), Star Trek: The Motion Picture made its world premiere at the Smithsonian Institute on December 9, 1979. Its opening weekend take of over $11 million was a record at the time, and it would go on to receive three Academy Award nominations, for Visual Effects, Art Direction and Original Score. However, it took over four months to shoot at a budget of over $46 million, and received mediocre reviews. The studio blamed Roddenberry for constantly rewriting the script, and though they went forward with a sequel, he was reduced to the role of consultant.

Bibi saw it opening day, and was outraged to see the climax spoiled by her local movie reviewer the next day. She responded with lengthy letters to both the paper and the reviewer, but neither wrote back. Still, it failed to dim her appreciation of the movie. "Yes, certain scenes did go on and on a bit (the fly-by scene, for one), but - and Eric feels this way too - it did have a real science fiction theme to it with the exploration of the idea of what would happen to our very own early 'space junk,'" she says. "I know some fans didn't like it, but we did - not that we saw it together back then. We've always been more appreciative of the academic sense of wonder part of SF rather than the action-adventure 'space opera.'" 

I agree with Bibi to an extent. TMP had a powerful, heady premise, one very much in the spirit of the original series: a highly advanced artificial intelligence coming to Earth to look for its creator. It invites comparisons to the relationship between man and God, while positing the idea that the search for knowledge alone is insufficient for living a fulfilling life. However, the slowness of the story just kills any sense of excitement. I've always suspected that Wise, instead of taking his cues from Star Wars, was more inspired by 2001 instead, another intelligent SF story bogged down by its pace. (Indeed, FX guru Douglas Trumbull, who worked on 2001, was brought in towards the tail end of post-production after working on Close Encounters.) As a Trek fan, I can still appreciate it, but I doubt I'd bother to give it a second look if I weren't one.

Throughout its forty-year-plus history, Star Trek has had its moments where its future was cloudy, but one way or another, fandom has always found a way to keep it alive. One suspects this will always be the case, come what may.

"One of the reasons Star Trek was so great is not only that it was actual science fiction, but it was the only real SF show on TV," says Eric. "Even those of us who started with the printed word were in awe of seeing actual intelligent SF on TV."



  1. Great post! I had no idea that Roddenberry had a mail order catalogue in the 1970s that was selling Star Trek memorabilia. Lots of great info here. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Very interesting post! I had no idea that things like fanzines got their start in Star Trek fandom. Very cool. Thank you so much for participating in the Paramount Centennial Blogathon!

  3. Some fanzines are still around, even in this digital age.

  4. Thanks for the great post! I was hoping for a picture of Bibi and Eric. And wouldn't it be cool if Bibi shared her old fanzines online?

  5. Why yes, it would. Perhaps we could bribe her into it somehow...


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