Review by C.J. Bunce
The most comprehensive retrospective analysis of a film you’ve probably ever read has arrived. For the 40th anniversary of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, film historian Marc Cushman saved his best for last, These Are the Voyages: Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek in the 1970s Volume III (1978-1980), the sixth in his volume of comprehensive histories of the people and productions before, during, and after the original 1960s Star Trek TV series, forming a complete biography of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (who was born 99 years ago this week). The creative vision and determination of Roddenberry came to its zenith in the period leading up to and during the filming of 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and a series was resurrected and turned into a major franchise. Cushman reviewed archives, records, contemporary articles, and interviewed key players for this book, to flesh out once and for all Roddenberry’s successes and failures with the film’s script and his pressure on the studio to maintain creative control, successfully spurring what would become 40 more years (and counting) of Kirk, Spock, and friends.
Some of Cushman’s best work includes interviews with Robert Wise, the four-time Academy Award-winning director of American film classics West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Oh, and he was nominated for an Oscar for his editing of Orson Welles’ benchmark in cinema, Citizen Kane and directing the Steve McQueen classic, The Sand Pebbles. He was tapped to direct the film as a whirlwind of script writers came and went and came back again, with input from the likes of screenwriter Harold Livingston, sci-fi favorites Alan Dean Foster and Isaac Asimov, studio execs Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, other studio regulars Tom Parry, Jon Povill, and Dennis Clark, actors William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, the director Robert Wise himself, and some major scenes and tone provided by Roddenberry, all as confirmed through contemporary papers, despite getting no writing credit on the film. Readers will find some of the most memorable scenes were created in re-drafts, late-night sessions, and last-minute additions by Roddenberry, Shatner, and Nimoy.
Other key interviews by Cushman reveal new information from Harold Livingston, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, David Gautreaux, Jon Povill, Todd C. Ramsay, Alan Dean Foster, Doug Drexler, Bjo Trimble, and Susan Sackett–who wrote the foreword to Cushman’s last book in the series. Actor Walter Keonig supplied the foreword for this book, and selections from his contemporaneous first-hand account, Chekov’s Enterprise, form a framework for some of the chapters. Readers will find hundreds of black and white, behind the scenes photographs to put a face to the more obscure players.
The key conflicts of the writing and direction were nothing compared to the failures of the special effects efforts for the film, which almost delayed the December 1980 release date. Andy Probert, Mark Stetson, Richard Taylor, Chris Ross, John Dykstra, and Doug Trumbull are noted as high points behind the design and artwork behind the scenes, with one effects company–Robert Abel’s effects company–nearly tanking the film for good.
Sprinkled throughout the book are progress updates on Robert Fletcher’s new costume designs, casting and makeup decisions, script excerpts, revisions, and alternate scenes, the status of marketing, tie-in products, and fan projects, and an account of Academy Award-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith’s initial score that was rejected for the film–Wise had to drive Goldsmith back to the drawing (or scoring) board to create a defined theme, which would result in one of the highest regarded of all Star Trek themes, later used as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Like the rest of the book, Chapter 13 is a substantially comprehensive and exhaustive (perhaps exhausting!) account, reprinting national and other major newspaper and magazine critics reviewing the film in the days after its premiere (including a thrashing by Harlan Ellison)–a mixed bag of love and hate that serves more of a reference piece than the more analytical findings in the rest of the book (it’s also useful to see what your personal favorite critics had to say back when).
Cushman quotes the insiders after viewing the final film, who seemed to be in alignment with director Robert Wise, who said the movie was the least favorite of all those he directed; seemingly only co-star ingénue Persis Khambatta said she liked the film, gushing that she was thrilled. Readers will learn that some major players (including Star Trek actors) saw the film as the death knell for their own careers in Hollywood.
Putting together the reception of the film by insiders, the press, and fans, Cushman doesn’t altogether point to the key detraction cited for the film being that it needed further, significant editing work, but interviews with the young sci-fi fan and first-time motion picture editor Todd C. Ramsay and accounts of the odd studio process protecting the editing work from review prior to release by many including Roddenberry, seem to indicate one route that could have been taken to net more positive feedback on the movie. It’s also stunning in this part of Cushman’s account to see just how much the director and editor relied on Roddenberry’s detailed notes and recommended changes to many scenes, despite their constant attempts to sideline him. Cushman’s account of Roddenberry reflect a flawed, overbearing personality, but he clearly knew the universe he created inside and out, and the actors who had lived in their roles for three years knew what dialogue needed altered and spoke up. Ramsay seemed to use his work here to improve on his next projects, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and The Thing.
A modern viewing of the film will likely reveal a film that holds its own today, despite some overlong, indulgent sequences you might excuse as fan service were they included today. You can find several of the players in this book interviewed in the bonus features of the most recent Blu-Ray and digital editions of the movie (available here).
Signed copies are available direct from the publisher Jacobs Brown at its website here. Thorough, well-written, and highly recommended reading for diehard Trekkers and Trekkies, and another book that is indispensable for your history of film course, These Are the Voyages: Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek in the 1970s Volume III (1978-1980) is available now.