Persis Khambatta

The Story of Star Trek: Phase II

Star Trek The Motion Picture poster
Star Trek: The Motion Picture poster with the Phase II Enterprise

After several attempts to bring Star Trek to the silver screen, Paramount decided in 1977 to produce a second television series instead, titled Star Trek: Phase II.

Barry Diller, Paramount’s president at the time, had been concerned about the direction in which Chris Bryant and Allan Scott were taking the franchise with their script for the proposed movie Planet of the Titans. He turned to Gene Roddenberry and suggested it was time to take Star Trek back to its original context: a television series.

As early as the original series’ third season, Roddenberry had talked about making a Star Trek feature. At the 1968 World Science Fiction Convention held over the Labor Day weekend in Oakland, California, he drew applause when he told a rapt audience his plans for filming a prequel to the series, telling the story of how Kirk and his crew had met at Starfleet Academy. For that weekend, Star Trek was on a roll. But the Tuesday after Labor Day, the real world intruded and kept the opening of the first Star Trek movie at bay for more than a decade.

Roddenberry’s dream of making a Star Trek movie sometimes came tantalizingly close to becoming a reality, only to be snatched away by the capriciousness of Hollywood dealmaking. In the spring of 1975, for example, Paramount made a deal with Roddenberry for a low-budget Star Trek feature, costing between $2 and $3 million.

Flagship

When Phase II was officially announced on June 10, 1977, fans learned it was meant to become the flagship of a Paramount television network.

The advantage of setting up a network was obvious: the studio was cutting out the middleman.

As a content provider to the networks, Paramount would produce a series, license it to a network, often at a loss, and then watch as the network sold the series to advertisers at a profit. Only when, and if, the series went to syndication would the studio have a chance to earn extra money.

But, in the case of licensing a Paramount-produced series to a Paramount-owned network, one division of the company would be selling to another, so all the money would stay in the family.

That offered the heady possibility that a series could at least break even, without the long wait until syndication. And syndication could be a never-ending stream of income, as Paramount’s “79 jewels” proved year after year.

The 79 were, of course, the original Star Trek episodes.

Another advantage was that Star Trek attracted television’s most vaunted demographic: American men between the ages of 18 and 34. Advertisers lined up to pay a premium for the chance to show commercials to this demographic.

The plan was for an all-new Star Trek series to anchor the new Paramount network. Star Trek: Phase II was officially a go. A two-hour made-for-TV movie would lead the way in February 1978, to be followed each week by a brand new, one-hour episode, airing between 8 and 9 PM. The 9-to-11 PM time slot would be filled by an original, made-for-television Paramount film — thirty of them in the first year — augmented as necessary by classic films from the Paramount library.

Gathering a team

Gene Roddenberry was ecstatic. After five year of false starts, all the pieces were at last falling in place. Now it was time for Roddenberry to be Star Trek‘s lightning rod again and gather a team.

Supervising the thirty television films Paramount was planning to produce was Robert H. Goodwin, at the time an assistant to Paramount’s head of television production.

Roddenberry knew that he needed a strong producer for Phase II, someone well-versed in the technical requirements of keeping a series on track. When he heard of Goodwin’s new responsibilities — which was a sign of the enormous regard Paramount had for him — Roddenberry made his decision: Goodwin would be the producer for Star Trek: Phase II.

Goodwin was reluctant at first to give up responsibility for thirty TV movies. He wasn’t familiar with Star Trek at the tie, but as watched episodes of the original series he developed an appreciation of what Roddenberry had started more than ten years earlier.

Goodwin agreed to be responsible for the technical aspects of the show’s production. For the writing side, Roddenberry sought out a second producer: noted novelist and screenwriter Harold Livingston.

The stories of the new series could be bolder than the first, Roddenberry told Starlog magazine in March 1978:

The audience is ready for statements on sex, religion, politics and so on which we never would have dared to make before.

He specifically cited a rise in nationalism, and what Roddenberry saw as “largely mythical boundaries and mythical differences in political systems and beliefs,” as a source of storytelling.

I can see no way we can do Star Trek without addressing ourselves to man’s need to go out into space in the twentieth century here, go past Jupiter and so on. All of these things — the cult religions which have come along — I think we will address ourselves to that and try to analyze what this means, what the roots of it are, good or bad.

A final team member Roddenberry enlisted was an old friend: Matt Jefferies, Star Trek‘s first art director. He was working on Michael Landon’s hit series Little House on the Prairie at the time and was reluctant to give it up for the sake of thirteen new Star Trek episodes. But Roddenberry was adamant. Only Jefferies, he said, could update the Enterprise. With Michael Landon’s blessing, Jefferies joined the Phase II crew as a “technical advisor.”

But Landon also made it clear that Jefferies’ work for Star Trek could not get in the way of his responsibilities on Little House. That’s how Jefferies came to recommend his good friend Joe Jennings as the new Star Trek art director.

Other Star Trek veterans who joined the crew included Mike Minor in the art department and William Ware Theiss, costume designer. Lee Cole joined the graphics team. She would have a considerable influence on the sets of the first two Star Trek features.

Jefferies was upgrading his Enterprise. Sophisticated new aluminum phasers, following the same design as the original wood and plastic ones, were being built, some with working strobe lights and detachable battery packs. Harold Livingston accepted a pitch by Arthur Heinemann for the series’ pilot, which was subsequently fleshed out Alan Dean Foster. The story, “In Thy Image”, incorporated Robert Goodwin’s suggestion that, for the first time on Star Trek, Earth would be directly threatened. If that was the case, then the Enterprise needed to be close to Earth — make that, still in Earth orbit — because … it was just finishing its refit!

A movie after all

A meeting was called for August 3, to be attended by Goodwin, Livingston and Roddenberry, as well as studio executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Arthur Fellows. At the meeting, Goodwin pitched “In Thy Image”, hoping it would receive Eisner’s blessing as the Phase II pilot.

The meeting didn’t go as expected. Eisner was so excited by the story, he said: “We’ve been looking for the feature for five years and this is it.”

Goodwin recalled years later that Eisner slammed his hand on the table — “and that was when it happenned.” Less than a month after Phase II had been announced, it was canceled. Star Trek was going to be a movie after all.

The catch was, nobody in the meeting could talk about it yet. As complex as a movie is, the paperwork that fuels it is more complicated still. New deals would have to be negotiated with the cast, with producers, with Gene Roddenberry himself. New budgets would have to be calculated. Paramount sales and distribution people would have to estimate how much it would cost to advertise and market the film and how much the studio could hope to earn. If one piece of the puzzle didn’t fit, the project might not come together. If, for some reason, a movie could not be made, Paramount would face the embarrassment of needing to publicly reverse its decision yet again. Phase II was dead. But it would be five more months before the body stopped twitching.

Until then, a group of dedicated, talented men and women toiled on to create a series they and millions of fans could be proud of, never knowing that the studio had little intention of making it.

From the studio’s point of view, the scripts might eventually prove useful if, after the film’s release, Paramount wished to return Star Trek to its television roots. Sets, props and miniatures might be used in the movie tiself. And certainly the “In Thy Image” story would need further refinement to turn it into a feature script. But all the other work that would be done on Phase II was already beginning its inexorable spiral into a black hole as voracious as the one postulated by John D.F. Black.

When Roddenberry delivered his motion-picture script, titled The God Thing, in August, Barry Diller, the president of Paramount, rejected it, but he asked Roddenberry to write another.

The studio also invited other writers, including Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg and Star Trek veteran John D.F. Black, to try their hand at pitching a suitable story.

In the meantime, Roddenberry went back to work on a second script, this time with co-writer Jon Povill. Once again, Paramount passed. But despite the trouble they were having finding a script, the studio’s interest in making a Star Trek movie continued to grow…

Text adapted from Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, Star Trek Phase II — The Lost Series (1997)

One thought on “The Story of Star Trek: Phase II

  1. This is of course my opinion, but – I’ve read the storylines submitted for “Phase II”, and none of them were very good. One, “Tomorrow and The Stars”, was “City on the Edge of Forever” redux. I doubt that the “Phase II” series would have lasted beyond the first thirteen episodes, and “Star Trek” would then have been dead for good. Only three “Phase II” stories were ever filmed – “In Thy Image” became “TMP” and “The Child” and “Devil’s Due” were filmed for “TNG”. The rest are collecting dust on a shelf somewhere; I think that says a lot.

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