Treknobabble #51: Why Did Star Trek Return as a Movie, Not a TV Show?

Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

The debate on whether Star Trek should return as a movie rather than a television series could be focused on either of two different time frames: the late 1970s or the late 2000s. In both cases, there had been no Star Trek television series on the television airwaves for several years. And also in both cases, a movie was finally decided upon, but I think for two different reasons.

In the first case, there had never been a Star Trek motion picture made. There had been one live-action television series, the Original Series (TOS), on NBC, a major television network. And it had not done so well during its original airing; however, when it was syndicated, it found a whole new audience. Since the series had already been made, it was cheap for local television stations to purchase the rights to air the series in any time slot it wanted. The local television stations found they could generate large advertising revenue because of the large number of viewers. They probably found that Star Trek was making more money than many of the new prime time television series that they were airing.

In the interim, an animated series (TAS) was produced, but it was short-lived and didn’t last as long as the live-action series even though the talent behind the animated series was involved with TOS. Even TOS actors did the voices. Both movie and television series executives probably didn’t pay much attention to the failure of TAS, because cartoons were thought of as child’s fare and children weren’t seen as the lucrative market for Star Trek.

Paramount Studios owned Star Trek at the time. Gulf and Western owned Paramount. And the Chairman of Gulf and Western, Charles Bludhorn, didn’t understand Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry had been trying his hand at motion picture scriptwriting and other science-fiction and supernatural television pilots, but he had not been having any success. It was only time before Roddenberry and Paramount would get together to try to revive Star Trek.

I believe a Star Trek motion picture was considered first. I think a motion picture is the best way to generate large revenues in the quickest amount of time. Since it’s really difficult to come up with an idea that immediately strikes everyone as being great, and since trying to decide by committee is difficult with everyone having his or her own preferences, getting a script approved for a Star Trek motion picture proved to be a daunting task. I won’t go into the details here, but Roddenberry couldn’t come up with an acceptable idea, and neither could some of the best science-fiction writers!

I think the Paramount executives thought that the ideas weren’t impressive enough for a motion picture. So a series of television movies were considered, but then a television series was agreed upon. Television sets were built, actors were cast, scripts were written and then “you know what” happened. You don’t? Star Wars!

After the Paramount executives realized that there was a market for a science-fiction motion picture, Star Trek was then headed for the big-screen. (It’s interesting that sets built for television at the time were not considered detailed enough for the big-screen, so the sets had to be rebuilt with some of the elements being salvaged. I wonder with HD television if this is no longer the case.) The Paramount executives were so eager to get in on the Star Wars success that the Star Trek movie was promised to theatres on a certain day. Shooting on the motion picture started even with the script not completed. The director Robert Wise worked up to the last minute before flying off to the Washington premiere with the final print of the film.

So even with most people not liking the first motion picture and even with its huge budget, it still managed to be a success and made the executives realize that money could be made from Star Trek.

Here we are now with months away from witnessing a new Star Trek motion picture. The scenario has completely changed. Both television and motion picture science-fiction set in space seem to be in the doldrums. The only television series I’m hearing anything about is Battlestar Galactica, but I don’t think it has a mainstream audience. Superhero motion pictures seem to be the blockbusters now.

The last television series, Enterprise, failed, having ended prematurely after four seasons. The last movie, Nemesis, generated the least box-office of all the movies. And both Enterprise and Nemesis were failures in the critics’ eyes as well. Star Trek Convention attendance is down. General public interest in Star Trek is at an all time low. So why bother trying to revive Star Trek?

Timing might be everything, and J.J. Abrams interest in Star Trek is probably the main reason why we’re going to be seeing a motion picture. His continued success creatively and financially as a director, producer, and writer, and his reputation for being responsible have given him Hollywood clout. The large budget for Star Trek is normal nowadays for a potential blockbuster. Even though the audience numbers for the previous Star Trek motion pictures don’t justify this outlay of cash, I guess someone thinks that with a new, younger cast, this Star Trek will appeal to the non-Trekkies.

The budget of J.J. Abrams Star Trek could have probably been spent on a couple of seasons of a new television series. But I think there is a greater risk with a television series even though you might think that spending a large amount upfront on one motion picture is the greater risk. Sometimes a new television series gets a guarantee or commitment to have, for example, six episodes produced after a pilot has been well-received. And then when it comes time for the series to air, hardly anyone tunes in for the pilot. And then the first episode airs the next week and even less people tune in. All of a sudden, the network yanks the series off the air, and substitutes the show with reruns of “According to Jim.”

In your mind, you’re probably thinking, “WTF? The network has five more episodes of the series already filmed. Why don’t they just air the rest of the episodes? There might be a groundswell of viewers if they gave the series a chance!” The sad reality is that the Jim Belushi sitcom will most likely guarantee a certain amount of viewers that will outnumber the number of viewers who would likely tune into the show that you love. Without the audience, the advertising revenue from that time slot would drop precipitously. So unless some executive has faith in a show and wants to risk his or her credibility, the network would take a loss on the outlay for the production rather than risk losing more money by airing the episodes.

I recently read a book called “Season Finale – The Unexpected Rise & Fall of the WB and UPN” by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton. One of the writers, Susanne Daniels, was a television executive with the WB. I was hoping to read some behind the scenes stuff about Star Trek Voyager and Enterprise, because both of these series were on UPN. But I don’t think I read anything I hadn’t already read elsewhere.

J.J. Abrams did get his start making the hit series Felicity for the WB. In case you still have qualms about J.J. Abrams heading up this latest Star Trek, here are some words about Abrams from Daniels: “J.J. Abrams … is by far one of the best I’ve ever worked with in terms of pitching stories and shows. He’s charming and funny. He brings heart to a pitch and can tell you clearly why anyone would or should care about the world he’s describing. But the single most impressive thing about J.J. is the depth of the analysis he lays out in a compelling, almost professorial way. He can tell you everything about every character and their story arcs.” Daniels has worked with Kevin Williamson of Dawson’s Creek and Joss Whedon of Buffy and Firefly, so this is high praise indeed. Let’s hope Abrams’ understanding of the Star Trek characters isn’t too different than ours.

(Like most of you, Sean thinks I should be more focused in these Treknobabbles, but I think my non sequiturs add some uniqueness to my discourse. With that said, you might want to skip over this paragraph assuming Sean doesn’t excise this paragraph using his editorial jurisdiction. I wanted to mention two interesting things I read in “Season Finale.” Katie Holmes (Joey) dated James Van Der Beek (Dawson) before dating Joshua Jackson (Pacey) in real life. And Smallville was initially Gotham (or Gotham City, or something similar) until WB executives nixed the concept because they thought it would conflict with the successful Batman movie series. The Superman movie series was already dead. And this was even before Christopher Nolan came on the scene.)

Enterprise was given four seasons to gain an audience that it never got. So imagine if a new television series was considered. Much effort, commitment and resources would be involved. The initial outlay of money for personnel, standing sets, props, costumes, scripts, and whatever for a television series like Star Trek is considerable. A lot of people would probably watch the pilot out of interest sake. Historically, this has been the case. The potential for immediate success is very low. And then at some point, someone would have to make the decision to pull the plug.

With a movie, people accept that all movies can’t be successes. So if J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek happens to underperform, the studio accountants will do their thing and try to minimize the losses.

Abrams appears to have been given considerable power and his working relationship with everyone has only generated good press. None of the strife associated with the first motion picture is evident. The script was ready on time. The visual effects were completed on schedule. No problems with the budget. No strife between producer and actors. And there was no rush to get the movie into theatres! The movie is supposedly done, and everyone is just waiting. I wonder if the movie’s failure will result in the truth of how things went to be revealed. The blame game has a way of loosening tongues.

The precedence for reviving movie franchises exists, so the failure of Nemesis probably had no influence on green-lighting another Star Trek motion picture as long as the Next Generation cast would not be involved. Most people probably thought that the Batman franchise was dead after Joel Schumacher applied his creative vision to it.

Regardless of the reasons for the return of Star Trek as a movie, I must admit that I’m looking forward to it. I would even look forward to another television series. For a pessimist, I don’t know why I have appreciated Star Trek in all its forms for so long. I guess Star Trek’s message of hope can affect anyone.

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  • Great read, reed! (hoho, what a wordplay)

    I can say that I much appreciate your style of writing, which has been interesting for me even though I’m not even a “Star Trek”-fan, in fact I’ve only ever watched perhaps 2 or 3 episodes of the original series.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Hi Kasper, thx very much for your comment!

    To be honest, I thought my Treknobabbles might attract a few Trekkies over to perhaps listen to the Film Junk podcast or read the film articles here. If I’m able to “convert” people to Trekkies, then that would be an awesome side effect! :-)

    I think I’m supposed to be injecting my personality into my articles and I try to be a bit educational as well, even though at least half of my facts might not really be facts. I’m glad I’m reaching some people. I have no idea how many people read Treknobabble.