September 8, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek, one of the most successful franchises in the history of entertainment which to date has spawned four spin-off television series, thirteen theatrical films and countless books, video games and other paraphernalia.
While many books, blogs and documentaries are celebrating the show’s milestone and its impact on society and pop culture, there is one part of the story that is getting very little attention: the aborted second series Star Trek Phase II.
Though considered a dud at the time of its cancellation in 1969, Star Trek became a cultural phenomenon in the 1970s. For local television stations, Star Trek reruns were very popular and highly profitable. Consequently, Paramount was being pressured by both fans and local televisions stations across the country to produce more episodes.
Then in 1977 Barry Diller, the head of Paramount Studios, announced the launch of the Paramount Television Service (PTVS) as a “fourth network” that would run on independent t.v. stations. PTVS objectives were modest, offering programming only on Saturday nights, most of which would consist of thirty made for television movies. But the announcement of what would be on the first hour made national headlines, a new Star Trek series. The network and the series would launch in April 1978.
Gene Roddenberry, who had unsuccessfully tried to revive Star Trek as a film franchise, was brought back to produce the new series which would be set after the USS Enterprise’s first five year mission. It would start with a two hour premiere budgeted at $3.2 million ($12.5 million in today’s dollars), which would have been the most expensive made-for-T.V. movie to date. By comparison, the pilot for Game of Thrones reportedly cost $10 million with an average episode costing $6 million.
Roddenberry was able to bring back members of the production and writing teams from the original series. More importantly, he was able to reunite most of the original cast, who received pay raises and “play or pay” contracts” for 13 episodes. The lone holdout was Leonard Nimoy, who was appearing on Broadway in Equus and had filed a lawsuit against Paramount for using his likeness in merchandising without Nimoy’s consent. To get around this problem, it would be written in the series that Spock was now an ambassador like his father.
To replace Spock, Roddenberry created two new characters. David Gautreaux was cast as Xon, the Enterprise’s Vulcan science officer. (Irate fans would send Gautreaux death threats incorrectly blaming him for Spock’s absence on the show.) The other was the ship’s executive officer William Decker, the son of Commodore Matt Decker, the ill-fated commander of the USS Constellation in the original series episode The Doomsday Machine. The part was never cast for the television show, but was played by Stephen Collins in the first Star Trek film. Another new character was Ilia a bald headed alien female to be played by Persis Khambatta.
Production began on the series. Thirteen scripts were commissioned and set construction began in August 1977. Joseph R. Jennings who had worked on the second and third seasons of the original series was hired as art director and started redesigning the Enterprise. Though, to save money, the original uniforms would be literally pulled out of storage and reused.
However, behind the scenes the series was in trouble. A month after announcing the creation of PTVS, Paramount’s internal projections showed that the network would not generate enough advertising revenue to be profitable. By July 1977 Paramount had spent a half million dollars ($1.96 million in today’s dollars) on Star Trek Phase II with filming scheduled to start on November 28, 1977. At first studio executives considered going ahead with the series and try to sell it to NBC, CBS or ABC. However, there was also a concern that because Paramount had announced several unrealized Star Trek films in the early 1970s, they would lose face if they did nothing, so the idea of a movie began. Further influencing the decision to make a Star Trek film as opposed to a t.v. series was the success of a little film that came out the summer of 1977 called Star Wars.
Consequently, as set construction for the t.v. show began, Paramount decided to use the script for what would have been the pilot episode In Thy Image as the script for Star Trek-The Motion Picture. The story by Alan Dean Foster (who had ghost written the novelization of Star Wars) was based on a concept by Roddenberry for his proposed series Genesis II which was announced by CBS in 1973, only to be cancelled before production started in favor of a series based on The Planet of the Apes films.
The script was to be co-written by Roddenberry and novelist/screenwriter Harold Livingston. But by November the relationship between the two men was so bad that they were working on their own separate drafts. The two scripts were turned over to Diller’s assistant Michael Eisner, who would head the Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005 and is credited for reviving its’ fortunes. Eisner felt that Roddenberry’s draft was better for television while Livingston’s was better for a feature film and better overall. Robert Collins, who was slated to direct the pilot was told to combine the two scripts. (The final screen credits read “Story by Alan Dean Foster, Screenplay by Harold Livingston, Based on Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry”) Paramount budgeted the film for $8 million ($31 million today), then expanded it to $15 million which was $4 million more than what was spent to make the original Star Wars.
Paramount kept their decision secret and shared it with only a few people working on the series. Publicly, the studio acted like the show was going on and continued to spend large sums of money until they could work new deals with the cast, crews and producers. Sets and model construction continued and writers worked on their scripts, with no one seemingly noticing the lack of urgency on the studio’s part. However, when November came and went, with no scripts, no shooting and lots of work still needed to be done, people started to take notice and wonder where the project was headed.
When a published report came out in December 1977 that the show had been cancelled, the studio denied the report and said the PTVS had been pushed back to the fall of 1978 and the number of Star Trek Phase II episodes had been increased from 13 to between 15 and 22. In truth, no one knew when filming would, or for that matter, ever start.
Despite the claims to the contrary, production of Star Trek from a t.v. to a motion picture project continued. Collins was replaced by film legend and Oscar winning director Robert Wise in March 1978. Wise’s arrival proved to be a catalyst to the stalled project. Most significantly, he convinced the studio to settle their lawsuit with Nimoy and bring back Spock. On March 28, 1978, at the largest press conference held in studio in two decades, Star Trek-The Motion Picture was announced. The final nail on Star Trek Phase II’s coffin had been hammered.
The return of Spock, meant that Xon was no longer needed and after a brief scene early in the movie the character was killed in a transporter accident. Gautreaux did not play Xon, but was instead cast as the doomed commander of a star base. While the other two characters written for the series, Ilia and Decker literally vanish during the movie.
The transition from television show to motion picture would be time consuming and costly. Sets that were designed for television had to be modified for the larger screen. Likewise all the miniatures and special effects intended to be seen on t.v. had to be scrapped. Also new costumes needed to be made. The $15 million dollar budget eventually ballooned to $44 million ($160 million today) due to production delays (especially with the special effects), and constant script re-writes which in turn led to filming delays. Also inflating the budget was Paramount’s decision to add the cost Star Trek Phase II as part of the film’s budget, which was kept quiet until the 1990s.
Despite never making it to the airwaves, Star Trek Phase II has had a major influence on the franchise. The character of Lt. Saavik in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was based in part on Xon. Xon and Ilia would also serve as the inspiration for Data and Counselor Troi, respectively on Star Trek-The Next Generation. Furthermore, while Decker would be the only “executive officer” Kirk will ever have, there would be one on the bridges of the USS Enterprise-D and the USS Voyager.
The main sets would be redressed and reused on subsequent Star Trek films and the spin-offs Star Trek-The Next Generation and Star Trek Voyager. Jennings’ designs for the remodeled Enterprise would be the basis for the ship seen in the first six Star Trek films and influenced the look of all Federation starships in subsequent Star Trek movies and television projects.
Two Star Trek Phase II scripts would be used for Star Trek-The Next Generation. Because of the 1988 Writer’s Guild of America strike, production of the second season of the show was delayed. To speed things up, the old Phase II scripts were re-read. Consequently, first episode of the season, The Child was based on a script of the same name which would have been the fourth episode of 70’s series, with Troi playing the part intended for Ilia.
The thirteenth episode of season four, Devil’s Due was based on a script that would have been the ninth episode of Phase II.
Star Trek-Phase II is also indirectly responsible for shaking up network television. In 1984 Diller left Paramount for Fox and took with him his idea for a fourth network. Two years later the Fox Broadcasting Company was launched. On April 5, 1987 the network began airing prime-time programing on Sunday nights. Ironically, at one time Fox was in negotiations with Paramount about a new Star Trek series.
On January 16, 1995 Paramount finally launched its own network, United Paramount Network (UPN) with a two-hour premiere of Star Trek-Voyager with 21.3 million viewers though ratings would fall the next week to 12 million viewers and would remain about there during the course of its seven year run. UPN vindicated the nervous Paramount executives of the 1970s as it lost $800 million in its first five years of operations, though, in fairness, numerous changes in the network’s ownership made it hard for it to maintain any internal stability. In 2006 UPN merged with The WB, owned by Warner Bros. to form The CW Network that we all know today.
For many Star Trek fans (read: ‘Trekkies’), Star Trek-Phase II is viewed as a lost opportunity full of “what ifs?” However, some argue that based on the UPN example, and the shows that the new Star Trek series would have been up against, and that Saturday night is the night the demographic groups that would be most likely to watch Star Trek usually go out, (not to mention the anger from the fans over a Spock-less Star Trek) the series would have been a ratings failure, and the course of the franchise may have taken a different direction, including its death.
Regardless, though Star Trek-Phase II never aired, it has played a unique and important role in the history, look and direction of the Star Trek franchise, while at the same time offering a unique glimpse into the ways of television and film production.
Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens 1997 book “Star Trek-Phase II- The Lost Series” (ISBN 0-671-56839-6) is the most complete retelling of the saga of the show that almost was. Featuring rare photos of the sets, screen tests and conceptual artworks. It also features interviews with some of the principals involved and synopsis of the planned scripts.
– Tom Elmore
Staff Writer/Resident Historian: Nerd Nation Magazine
Staff Writer/Resident Historian: Nerd Nation Magazine