Friday, 13 May 2016

Star Trek at 50: The Genesis Trilogy

In December 1979, Paramount Pictures released Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a lavish, big-budget adaptation of the Star Trek TV series to the big screen. In public, they were confident and enthusiastic. Behind the scenes they were in a state of panic. The film's budget had tripled during production and post-production, and early reviews had not been the kindest. In the event, the movie did quite well and brought home a solid profit.

Leonard Nimoy was still not entirely comfortable with playing Spock when asked back for Star Trek II. He returned after he was told he would get a memorable death scene. His enjoyment of making the film and his involvement in creative decisions led to him committing wholeheartedly to the character for the rest of his career.

The Paramount executives quietly shuffled Gene Roddenberry into a consulting role, blaming his constant rewrites and creative meddling for causing the budget inflation on the first movie. This wasn't entirely fair, as Paramount's own prevaricating over the script, whether there were making a movie or a TV series, hiring a perfectionist director and delaying hiring an effects team until after the last possible minute all played their roles in pushing the costs upwards. But Roddenberry had certainly been the leading advocate of making a slow-paced, 2001-style cerebral film instead of an action film, which Paramount now considered a mistake.

To make the sequel, Paramount brought on board veteran TV writer and producer Harve Bennett. Bennett knew how to make projects quickly but with integrity, delivering excellent value for money and finding the cleverest ways to extract maximum bang for their buck. He was also a good judge of character and an excellent negotiator. When he called Leonard Nimoy to judge his interest in the project, Nimoy expressed concerns that the character of Spock was played out. Bennett offered him the chance for an amazing, emotional and intense death scene. Nimoy thought briefly about it and then accepted.

Bennett was an excellent producer and writer, but had a slight problem in that he'd never watched the original Star Trek series. He holed up in an office at Paramount with a screening room and all 79 episodes of the series. He made notes on each episode, searching for inspiration. Towards the end of the first season, he was intrigued by the episode Space Seed. In this episode a genetically-engineered dictator and tyrant, Khan Noonien Singh, is found on a sleeper ship in deep space. He and his followers are at first grateful to Kirk and the Enterprise crew for rescuing him, but then he tries to take over the ship with the help of a crew woman who has fallen in love with him. Khan is defeated and he and his crew are exiled on the planet Ceti Alpha V, a verdant but untamed paradise planet. Kirk promises to check up on Khan, but this never happened in later episodes. Bennett was pleased that there hadn't been a sequel as it meant he could re-use Khan as the villain for the movie. The first draft revolved around Khan manipulating Kirk's hitherto unknown son into fighting against his father. Additional drafts, plotted with the help of Jack B. Sowards, introduced a devastating Starfleet superweapon known as the Omega System that Khan is trying to steal.

Paramount and the team were pleased with the rapid progress that was being made, but they hit on a snag that it was unlikely that the Federation would create a planet-destroying weapon of mass destruction (fears of similarities with the Death Star of Star Wars may have played a part). Bennett and Soward struggled with this until the art director, Michael Minor, suggested that it could be a terraforming device instead: an object of profoundly peaceful intent that is perverted into a weapon. Bennett literally hugged Minor, declaring that he had "saved Star Trek." The Omega System was retitled the Genesis Device.

A new draft was produced which featured Spock dying very early in the script, a shocking move inspired by Psycho. Negative fan reaction after the script leak led to the studio backing away on the idea of Spock dying. Bennett hit upon a sneaky idea, however, by showing Spock dying in the opening minutes of the film only for it to turn out to be a training simulation. This would trick viewers into thinking that the story had been changed so Spock wouldn't die at all. Instead, his death was moved to the back end of the film and turned into a heroic, "blaze of glory" ending that Leonard Nimoy felt was quite moving. Although the script was becoming more familiar, it was still a bit flabby and Bennett felt a fresh pair of eyes would be useful. Nicholas Meyer, the director of Time After Time, was recommended to him. Meyer had no experience of Trek so viewed the script as a stand-alone move. He made a list of everything he liked from the previous drafts and delivered a streamlined, focused version in just two weeks. This new script had more action, space battles and explosions but also developed a strong thematic link of ageing, the next generation coming up and taking over and the old generation passing away. Meyer linked this in with the Genesis Device to create a theme of death, life and rebirth that underlines the space battles and impassioned speeches between Kirk and Khan. This impressed Paramount and Bennett so much that they offered him the job of directing the movie.

Ricardo Montalban was 61 years old and suffering from back problems when the film was shot, but still practised a formidable daily exercise regime and was in better shape than some of his younger co-stars.

Everything was in place...except for the villain. Bennett had assumed that someone in casting had checked with Ricardo Montalban's availability and his willingness to reprise the role. Casting had assumed he'd done it. In a bit of a panic, Bennett contacted Montalban. The veteran actor was uncertain if he could reprise the role, and was concerned if playing a cold-blooded villain would upset fans of his character Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island. However, he was impressed by the script and quickly got back into character. The producers were especially impressed with Montalban's formidable physical condition: despite being in his sixties and having a back condition, Montalban still vigorously worked out every day. After the movie came out some viewers complained about Khan's "prosthetic chest", which both the producers and Montalban found deeply amusing. Initial script drafts had depicted a lengthy confrontation between Kirk and Khan, including one suggestion that fight using swords, but Meyer had disregarded these. Unable to come up with a plausible way Kirk would survive a direct confrontation (given Khan's genetically-engineered superior strength, speed and stamina), he simply didn't have them meet at all, instead exchanging threats and glowers through viewscreens.

The rest of the Star Trek cast reunited for the film with Meyer keen to give each character their moment in the sun: McCoy and Spock have a series of witty exchanges in the spirit of the TV series, whilst Scotty's nephew joins the crew. Scotty is incredibly proud, but then distraught when he dies in the opening engagement with the Reliant. Sulu is promoted to Captain of the USS Excelsior, but agrees to do "one last training mission" for Kirk. This scene was cut and in the event George Takei had to wait ten years until Star Trek VI showed him commanding the Excelsior. Bennett and Meyer liked the ship name and held onto it for the next movie. Uhura also had more dialogue and scenes, acting as a conduit of information to the bridge in a more naval command-and-control role than in the series. Finally, Chekov was promoted to first officer of the USS Reliant and forced to betray his shipmates with the use of mind-controlling eels. Meyer was worried about this plot element, feeling it was corny, but felt that casting the respected actor Paul Winfield as Captain Terrell helped sell the scene. He also cast an up-and-coming young actress, Kirstie Alley, as Spock's Vulcan protege, Lt. Saavik.

Leonard Nimoy was excited to film Spock's death scene, but when the day of filming arrived he surprised Meyer and Bennett by telling them that he had thoroughly enjoyed making the film and the more collaborative atmosphere of production. He asked them if there was a way he could return in the future if necessary, especially since Paramount had already begun talking about a third film. The death scene was rewritten to include a sequence where Spock mind melds with Dr. McCoy, and a new shot showing his funeral casket lying on the surface of the newly-created Genesis Planet was added in post production.

Star Trek II's visual effects, although fewer in number and simpler than The Motion Picture's, received praise for their clarity and quality.

Shooting began on 9 November 1981 and concluded on 29 January 1982. To reduce costs, a very large chunk of the film took place on just one set: the bridge of the Enterprise, which then doubled as the simulator room at Starfleet Academy and then as the bridge of the USS Reliant, the ship Khan steals and turns against the Federation. Initially the producers were going to depict the Reliant as a ship of the same class as the Enterprise so they could use the same model, but the special effects crew threw a fit. They hated the big, bulky and elaborate Enterprise model and said it'd be cheaper to design and build a whole new model. Bennett and Meyer agreed and the Reliant became a Miranda-class starship, smaller but more manoeuvrable than the Enterprise. The Reliant in fact became the first non-Constitution-class Federation starship to appear in the Star Trek franchise. Compared to the laborious post-production process for The Motion Picture, Star Trek II's visual effects process was more streamlined and even had time to allow for experimental shots, such as using cloud and water tanks to generate the concluding battle in the Mutara Nebula. Production of the effects also proceeded alongside shooting rather than afterwards, allowing closer integration of the effects into live-action scenes.

One area were there were problems was depicting the rapid terraforming of a planet in the Genesis Project demonstration video. Effects supervisor Jim Veilleux was frustrated and turned to Lucasfilm, who had an embryonic studio dabbling in the earliest computer-generated visual effects. They agreed to provide a wholly computer-generated 60-second animation showing the Genesis Device terraforming a planet from a ball of rock into an Earthlike world. This was the first scene in a live-action movie to be generated completely through CGI. The Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Group used the scene as a demonstration of what they could do: a few years later they spun off as a new company called Pixar.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released on 4 June 1982, barely four months after shooting finished. It was a lean, tight and focused movie. It had been made for $11.2 million (which was considered pretty cheap even then), came in at an audience-friendly 112 minutes and was immediately showered with praise by both fans and critics alike. The film opened to a $14.3 million weekend, at that time an all-time record, and took home $80 million in the United States and $97 million in total. Although this was down on The Motion Picture, it was vastly more profitable compared to the film's production costs. There was tremendous approval of the film's action scenes and visual effects sequences, but a lot of praise was lavished on Montalban and Shatner's palpable mutual hatred, the themes of death and rebirth, on the extraordinary musical score by newcomer James Horner and on the film's focus. Even Gene Roddenberry, who had had little to do with the movie, grudgingly accepted it was "exciting".

Star Trek III introduced several of the franchise's most iconic spacecraft designs, including (pictured here) the USS Excelsior and the Spacedock station orbiting above Earth. The movie also introduced the Oberth-class science vessel and the Klingon Bird of Prey.

Paramount quickly moved forwards with a third Star Trek movie. Harve Bennett agreed to return as producer and it was decided to make the movie a direct sequel to The Wrath of Khan. They decided that the plot would focus on the return of Spock, but Bennett was keen that the resurrection could only come at a profound personal cost to Kirk. Working backwards through the script, he decided that Kirk was lose his son, David (introduced in the previous movie), he would be forced out of Starfleet and that the Enterprise would be destroyed. Nicholas Meyer was asked to return, but Meyer was unhappy with the way the final edit of the film was handled by Paramount (including much more blatant foreshadowing of Spock's survival than Meyer had intended) and decided to sit the movie out. Bennett hit on the idea of Nimoy himself directing: the actor had been directing TV episodes, plays and smaller TV films for over a decade and had familiarity with the franchise, the cast and the crew (many of them returning from The Wrath of Khan). Nimoy relished the challenge, especially since he didn't have to appear in front of the camera apart from right at the very end of the movie.

As with The Wrath of Khan it was decided to have a memorable villain, and the first draft focused on the Romulans, including a return for their Bird-of-Prey class warship from the episode Balance of Terror, now updated to a new design. However, it was later decided to change the villains to the Klingons, who a more general audience would be more familiar with. Nimoy decided to cast Christopher Lloyd as the Klingon Captain Kruge, citing his dramatic work rather than his comedy role on Taxi which viewers were more familiar with. Nimoy was particularly praised for his direction of his friend and co-star Shatner, reigning in his tendency to chew the scenery. George Takei was also impressed by how Nimoy and Bennett handled him complaining about a massive security guard calling him "Tiny," which Takei found unnecessary. However, watching the complete sequence back (including the "Don't call me Tiny," rejoinder after Sulu kicks the guard's butt) impressed Takei, who immediately apologised.

Spock's return was well-received by fans, especially given it was achieved with difficulty and only at cost.

The visual effects team had more work to do on this film, including designing no less than four iconic new designs: the Federation Spacedock, the Oberth-class USS Grissom, the Klingon Bird-of-Prey and of course the colossal USS Excelsior. All of these designs would go on to feature heavily in future Trek films and TV series. In particular, Nimoy and Bennett were able to increase the visual effects budget by reusing numerous sets, props and costumes from The Wrath of Khan, and by using an interior set for the Genesis Planet rather than most costly exterior shooting. As a result, the film's budget of $16 million (almost 50% higher than The Wrath of Khan's) went a lot further, allowing for the elaborate planet set to break apart as the Genesis Planet disintegrates and for a lengthy sequence showing the destruction of the Enterprise. Bennett was annoyed when Gene Roddenberry, who loathed the idea of destroying the ship, leaked word of the ship's destruction to fans, resulting in derogatory letters being sent in. The visual effects crew, who hated the badly-wired and unwieldy Enterprise model with a passion, were keen to take a hammer to the model to destroy it completely, but were stopped by Bennett and Nimoy, in case it was needed in the future.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was released on 1 June 1984. The film took $87 million worldwide and was considered a success, but the critical reception was more muted. Some reviews were critical of the obvious sets used to depict the Genesis Planet (although some said they enjoyed this was a throwback to the original series) but for the most part Nimoy's direction was praised, along with the visual effects. The film was the first in the series to be criticised for relying on continuity from the previous movie and not doing enough to work as a stand-alone film.

Paramount were keen to continue the franchise, but wanted a change of direction: this coincided with both Nimoy and Bennett's feelings as well, that the fourth movie should be a break away from the past. Nimoy in particular was to change gears and make a film that was lighter, more comedic and less reliant on staples such as warp drive, phasers and menacing villains. However, Bennett was also keen that lingering continuity issues from the previous films - such as the knowledge of the Genesis Device being made public, the Klingon outrage after the death of Kruge and Kirk and his crew being fired from Starfleet and facing criminal charges - should be addressed. However, the whole plan was nearly derailed when Shatner refused to sign up for the movie unless he got a bit pay rise. Paramount, possibly as a negotiating ploy, asked Bennet and Nimoy to consider a new film set in Starfleet Academy with the characters played by younger actors. It seems that this threat, combined with a more modest pay increase and production approval, convinced Shatner to sign on. New ideas came on board, such as time travel and the idea of something on contemporary Earth that doesn't exist in the future being key to saving the day. The idea of using humpback whales appealed to Nimoy, who wanted to include a message about conservation but not to the detriment of the drama. Wrath of Khan writer-director Nicholas Meyer returned to polish the script and help integrate the best ideas from the development process.

Star Trek IV's contemporary setting led to a well-received change of pace, but also introduced production headaches for director Leonard Nimoy.

The new film invoked time travel so that he bulk of the film was set in contemporary San Francisco. Real locations were used wherever possible to help keep costs down, along with props and models being reused from the previous movies. The Reliant model, for example, was re-employed to depict the USS Saratoga and the Klingon Bird-of-Prey, Earth Spacedock and the Excelsior models were broken out of storage. The only major new model constructed for the film was the alien probe which menaces Earth in the opening and closing sections.

Nimoy found that directing the film was a more daunting task than The Search for Spock, since he had to appear on-screen as well as direct. There were also logistical difficulties with filming scenes involving traffic (which required set-ups taking 30 minutes each) and extras recruited off the street. There were also some positive nods to long-term fans of the series, such as using the US Navy's Enterprise aircraft carrier (although the ship was actually at sea, so the USS Ranger was substituted). The film also nearly cast long-term Star Trek fan Eddie Murphy in a role as a professor, but Murphy wanted to play an alien or Starfleet officer instead. The issue was resolved when he went to film The Golden Child instead, a decision he later regretted.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was released on 26 November 1986. The film was marketed differently from its predecessors, with emphasis placed on the contemporary setting, the more comedic tone and the fact there was no need to be familiar with the franchise to enjoy the film. Traditional fans were dismayed by some of these elements, such as the whales, but found that the movie handled them far better than was expected and were happy with the ending, in which Kirk is demoted from Admiral to Captain and placed in command of a new USS Enterprise. The movie attracted both critical and commercial praise and took home over $133 million, just $6 million shy of The Motion Picture's take but on less than half the cost (The Voyage Home came in on a $21 million budget).

Star Trek IV ended with the crew given a new Enterprise...but Paramount had a slightly different direction in mind for the future of the franchise.

Paramount was extremely happy with the film's profitability and critical acclaim. It was also astonished by the franchise's longevity, and the fact that the original series was still generating significant revenue in syndication twenty years after it debuted. However, the wage increases for the original actors had become significant and Paramount wanted to approach the franchise from a different angle.

On 10 October 1986, one month before The Voyage Home debuted, Paramount announced that Star Trek was coming home to television with a new, weekly TV series featuring a new ship and a new crew: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

No comments: