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Star Trek: Phase II (1978) – In Thy Image (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

It’s interesting to imagine what might have happened if Star Trek: Phase II had actually made it to television.

The aborted attempt to produce a sequel live-action television show in the late seventies was ultimately scuppered by the success of films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Prompted by the success of these big-screen science-fiction epics, Paramount pushed for the franchise to move to the big screen. Star Trek: Phase II was abandoned and the pilot – In Thy Image – was reimagined as the script for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Many, including Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, have argued that this was for the best. They wonder whether Phase II could have competed in the saturated science-fiction market of the late seventies. After all, one of the factors that lead to the decline of the franchise in the late nineties was the abundance of similar material out there. Given that the plan was to use Phase II to launch a television network, the obvious point of comparison as Star Trek: Voyager, which is not a favourable comparison.

Still, despite all this, it’s hard not read In Thy Image and wonder at what might have been.

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In Thy Image was written by Harold Livingston. Livingston is the father of David Livingston, the long-serving producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation and all the various spin-offs. Harold Livingston’s script for In Thy Image was close enough to the finished version of the script for The Motion Picture that Livingston retained the “written by” credit on the cinematic release of the film.

And the similarities are obvious. Reading the script for In Thy Image, it’s clear that this is the basis for The Motion Picture. All the elements are there. Kirk as an Admiral being reassigned to the Enterprise after all these years; Spock is absentee; McCoy is “drafted.” Decker and Ilia are added to the cast. Decker’s relationship to Commodore William Decker is not remarked upon. A mysterious force destroys some Klingon ships and carves its way to Earth. Ilia is converted into a probe. Kirk and crew try to stop the creature from killing every life form on Earth. They succeed, and the creature leaves to continue its adventures elsewhere.

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However, as similar as the script might be, there’s a very different tone to the early draft of In Thy Image that has been published. It’s quite possible that – had the series pushed further ahead towards filming – the script would have been modified and re-worked and re-drafted. It’s quite possible that a televised version of In Thy Image would seem like a carbon copy of The Motion Picture, albeit with cruder special effects. However, Livingston’s original work has a slightly more nuanced feel to it.

Most striking is the focus on 23rd century Earth. The planet was never visited on the classic Star Trek television show, which was too preoccupied visiting “strange new worlds” to dwell on our old blue one. The Motion Picture features a few scenes set on Earth, but they are mostly set in and around Starfleet. While they establish San Francisco as the seat of Starfleet authority, they don’t really give a sense of what it’s like to live on Earth. So much that Roddenberry’s adaptation of the film can throw in a whole heap of back story about how the planet has changed without contradicting anything on screen.

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In Thy Image features quite a bit more of the planet – both in terms of time spent on Earth and in locations visited. Kirk is introduced in a park, where McCoy is tending to a wounded domesticated Cheetah. Towards the climax of the episode, Kirk takes the probe to witness the beauty and splendor of Earth. In Thy Image devotes considerable time and energy to exploring how mankind’s relationship with the planet has changed.

“Clearly Earth is now the home of a people who love and respect the living planet,” we’re told. Later on, we get a glimpse of what civilian life must like on Earth, for those not in the service of Starfleet. “We see stacks of fruits and vegetables being freely taken by anyone interested – no vendors or sales people.” The script advises us that “we should have brief, tasteful adult nakedness used primarily to suggest the mature attitudes of the citizens of the century.”

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This is very much a utopia, albeit one subtly different from Roddenberry’s vision of utopia. Roddenberry seems to imagine mankind’s utopia lying a future where the individual has evolved to live completely at peace with the state; where no individual would want to put their own interests ahead of the greater good. Roddenberry’s vision of utopia is a future where The Measure of a Man would never happen because Data would gladly volunteer for dissection.

The utopia in In Thy Image seems to exist as a watered down version of Roddenberry’s vision of the future. There’s no mention or allusion to “new humans” and their group consciousness; no suggestion that Kirk and his crew are “primitive” by the standards of this world. It’s a future where the human race that has figured out the key to peace and prosperity is simply respect for the world around it.

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Of course, these scenes didn’t make it to the film. It’s easy to understand why. Imaging a future where kids can ride on deer and McCoy can tend to a wounded cheetah would be difficult even on the budget and schedule of a major motion picture. It’s hard to image Phase II pulling these scenes off with all the logistical concerns surrounding a weekly television show – even allowing for a little leeway in producing a pilot episode.

The script for In Thy Image is a lot more overtly religious than the final version of The Motion Picture – right down to the title. Again, it’s hard to imagine In Thy Image escaping unscathed from script to screen, but the willingness to engage more directly with religious themes makes the script more fascinating. V’ger (or “Ve-jur”) is more fanatically religious here. It’s journey to find “the Creator” was always an existentialist religious journey, but the organism feels more devoted here.

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When V’Ger asks for a show of “good faith” from Kirk and the Enterprise crew, it is speaking literally. It asks for the “acceptance of the Creator, and the Creator’s wisdom” on the part of humanity. (The machine equivalent of “do you accept…?”) There’s a sense that V’Ger isn’t so much on its spiritual journey as it is trying to convert the universe to its own faith system. “Ve-jur is prepared to show Captain Kirk and other servo-unit proof of the Holy Home,” the Ilia Probe offers. Later, she adds, “Glory to Nasa for sending its Son and its Message.”

Again, it’s quite difficult to imagine this sort of plot airing on American network television, even in the late seventies – it’s likely that the episode would have had to aim for the same sort of ambiguity and subtext that the movie pushed towards. Still, In Thy Image is a lot more forceful on its big ideas – from V’Ger as a religious fanatic through to the discussion about the relationship between machine and organic. There’s a wonderful sequence where V’Ger tries to talk with the Enterprise computer, completely oblivious to the sentience of its inhabitants, and the crew find the Enterprise itself almost swayed to V’Ger.

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(Although this does raise some questions about just how smart the Enterprise computer must actually be. There was a trend in the seventies and eighties among various writers of suggesting the ship might have a rudimentary intelligence – it was the basis of The Practical Joker from Star Trek: The Animated Series, and Diane Duane suggested it in The Wounded Sky. Given how the computer responds to V’Ger here, and how V’Ger has no problems communicating with the Enterprise, it does suggest that the computer might pass some variation of the Turing Test.)

That said, there are occasional awkward moments. Trying to appeal to the probe about humanity’s intrinsic worth, Kirk explains, “Everyone is important – that’s another difference between humans and machines. It’s called morality; it’s part of our imperfection.” That seems like a rather biased view of machine-based intelligence. Who is to suggest that human morality is absolutely and incontrovertibly correct and that mechanical life forms cannot have their own different (yet still valid) attitudes?

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It’s a moment which seems to exist so that In Thy Image can assert that mankind are special and unique and brilliant. Indeed, like The Motion Picture, In Thy Image is a story about mankind elevating themselves to godhood. It’s a recurring theme in Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek at the time, arguably building off ideas that had been established in earlier episodes like The Changeling.

For example, the planned Planet of the Titans movie would have revealed Earth as home to a race of god-like beings. The God Thing was another proposed Star Trek film that has enjoyed a long life in fan imagination. Even the “Scotty travels in time and accidentally has Earth taken over by computers” pitch involved a glimpse at transcendent humans. In Thy Image is really just a part of that group of stories revolving around Roddenberry’s fascination with humanity’s importance and potential.

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It is also worth noting that the female characters here are a bit more prominent than they were on the original show, hinting that perhaps Star Trek: Phase II might have been a little less sexist than its predecessor. Indeed, Uhura has been promoted since her last duty rotation. More than that, though, Livingston’s script has Uhura actually correct Kirk on this – as if to call him out and affirm that she will no longer be treated as the ship’s receptionist. Christine Chapel is now a qualified doctor. Like Uhura, she calls her male colleagues out on the way she is treated. “If sickbays still used bedpans, I’d still be emptying them.”

Again, it’s hard to judge from a single script. As great as it is to hear that Uhura and Chapel have been promoted, there’s the awkward fact that Ilia seems to exist as a walking sex object. She allows Sulu to stroke her just so they can go about their jobs. “I’m trying to relax you – Deltan style,” she remarks at one point, underscoring the awkward idea that Ilia is there to sex-up the crew. It doesn’t help that she spends most of the story replaced by an alien intelligence, just is doesn’t help to know that she’ll get a character-centric episode based around an alien life form using her womb as a way station.

Still, In Thy Image is a script packed with potential. It does have problems, and some issues that could have been tidied up by production, but it’s a lot more interesting and engaging than The Motion Picture ultimately turned out to be.

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