Thursday, January 22, 2004

“Is Star Trek dying? It’s enough to make Spock laugh.”

That how my New York Times story began in August 2004, just before what would turn out to be the last season for Enterprise. It’s in fact how my telephone interview with Leonard Nimoy began. The question my editor wanted my story to ask was precisely that: is Star Trek dying? And Nimoy not only laughed---he kept on laughing. This is his complete response to that question:

“(Laughs) This is so funny…well, Star Trek has died several times, and (laugh) and come back stronger than ever. It’s hilarious. Let me go through the history very briefly, very quickly, in a nutshell. At the end of the second season we were cancelled. There was a big letter writing campaign, asking NBC to keep the show, so NBC kept the show on for one more season. Then it was cancelled again, right? Eleven years later we made a movie, and everybody said that’s the end of Star Trek. Star Trek THE Motion Picture—it’s over. Couple years later it was revived and something like ten more movies were made. [laughs] Spock died, Spock came back [laughs] It goes on and on. [laughs] I think Star Trek is ready for another reincarnation. It’s hilarious, I can’t help but laugh.”

I was reminded of this as I reviewed the history of Star Trek VI, because not only were there uncertainties between many of the movies, within the process of this one there were several births, deaths and resurrections. It almost never happened, then almost didn’t happen, then was definitively cancelled. And at the last moment, reborn. Hilarious now---hysterical then. Even for Hollywood.

The doubt started when Star Trek V: The Final Frontier became the first Trek feature to not show a profit in its first run. So Paramount, already beset with a string of expensive failures (though Star Trek V wasn’t one of the expensive ones), dawdled until it was almost too late.

But Star Trek’s 25th anniversary was coming up in 1992, and on television TNG was sparking renewed interest in all things Star Trek. At first, executive producer Harv Bennett tried to cut costs in salaries by using new actors, and at the same time play to a younger market with a movie about Kirk and Spock in their Starfleet Academy days. Everybody in the original crew plus Gene Roddenberry were against it. (Ironically, William Shatner said he proposed such a story for the next Trek TV series after Enterprise, and in 2006 it's rumored to be the premise of Star Trek XI. )

Roddenberry knew something that Bennett apparently did not appreciate: part of the magic was in the casting, and was proven in the original cast. It was one of Roddenberry’s chief talents, and in both of the shows he cast, he found an uncommon on-screen chemistry with relatively unknown actors. (There was plenty of off-screen chemistry as well, among all the TNG crew, and two factions of the original cast: the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumverate, and the rest of the regulars.) Of all of Roddenberry’s talents, this was the spookiest. Even actors he wasn’t crazy about at first (like Patrick Stewart) turned out to be perfect.

Besides, what was the point of celebrating a quarter century of Star Trek if you ignore the people who carried it for all that time? For whatever reason, Paramount decided to gamble on one more show for the original cast, and Harv Bennett separated himself from Star Trek for the first time since Star Trek II.

With Bennett gone, Paramount went to Leonard Nimoy (the two had problems over IV, and it could be argued that Bennett did not serve Shatner’s V well as executive producer.) Nimoy came up with the basic idea for the story. The Paramount executive in charge insisted on a particular new writing team that Nimoy found to be useless, and he went to Nicholas Meyer, the writer-director of II and co-writer (with Bennett) of IV.

Together they worked out the story, and agreed that Meyer would direct and Nimoy would executive produce. But even though time was getting short to have the picture ready for the 25th anniversary, Paramount went back to the ineffectual writing team until it was clear to everyone they had nothing. Finally the writing job was given to Nick Meyer, who was under contract to Paramount already, and his assistant, Denny Martin Flinn. There was apparently further intrigue, creating tensions between Meyer and Nimoy. But finally, there was a script, just in the nick of time (all puns intended.)

And then in an amazingly short time, the film was cancelled.

Negotiations over the budget had come down to a difference of $2.5 million, but Paramount wouldn’t budge. Nick Meyer believed in the art of working with limitations, but he also knew what he absolutely needed for a Trek picture. So Paramount decided to kill the project. But then with all hope lost, something budged Paramount: the head of the studio was replaced (with the father of the Trek movie’s co-producer and second unit director!) and apparently with one phone call, Meyer got the budget he needed. So on a very short schedule, the filming of Star Trek VI began.

The rush of the schedule may have led to more mistakes in details than usual, and the budget decreed eliminating an opening sequence, of the already retired crew being rounded up for one more mission, leading to some uncertainty at the film’s beginning about how much time had elapsed between adventures (although it may also have been killed due to objections from Gene Roddenberry and Nichelle Nichols to portraying the legendary crew as bored losers in retirement in a 23rd century society as clueless and corrupt as ours.) But it could have been much worse.

This combination of a tight budget and tight schedule could have ruined the movie but it seemed to have had the opposite effect. Stylistically Star Trek VI is the most economical of the Trek films. It moves briskly and efficiently, not a moment is wasted, yet due to skillful directing and editing, the pace is not rushed and scenes are not truncated. The acting by the guest stars is excellent: bold yet also economical.

The dialogue sounds fresh and except for the quotes from Cold War and other history (not to mention Shakespeare), even improvised. Even the stagier moments towards the end of the film (the crew carefully posing around the Federation president, the final “yearbook portrait” on the bridge) work perfectly in that spirit. There were few new sets or costumes, yet the visual effects weren’t neglected, as some were on Trek V. The original crew film series went out on a winner.

No comments: