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Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Gene Roddenberry (Review)

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

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is heavily influenced by Gene Roddenberry. It’s a piece of work that serves as an example of Roddenberry’s vision of the franchise – what he felt Star Trek should look like in the late seventies and beyond. Much like the first and second seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there’s a sense that this is the perfect distillation of Roddenberry’s later-day version of Star Trek, distinct from the versions that existed before and afterwards.

Although Roddenberry doesn’t have a writing or story credit on The Motion Picture, his influence is keenly felt; right down to hiring a bona fides science-fiction writer (Alan Dean Foster) to provide the story. (After hearing pitches from other authors like Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and Theodor Sturgeon.) This was in keeping with his work on the early seasons of the show, where he tried to convince published science-fiction authors to contribute to Star Trek.

While Roddenberry doesn’t have a writing credit on the film, he did write the novelisation of the screenplay, which serves as a direct insight into how Roddenberry approached the franchise and how he saw Star Trek in 1979.

st-tmp-roddenberry

It is worth prefacing this with the controversy surrounding the novel. Given Roddenberry’s lack of experience in prose, one of the more persistent rumours about the novelisation of The Motion Picture is that it was ghost written by another author, with Roddenberry’s name stuck on the cover. This would not necessarily be out of character. Roddenberry was, after all, in the process of myth-making at the time and was prone to exaggerating his own accomplishments at the expense of others.

Certainly, the history of the Star Trek tie-in novels in Voyages of Imagination seems to lean rather heavily on this presumption, making several references to the rumour:

A persistent rumour about this book is who the real author was. Many different names have been attributed to it. Editor David Hartwell, who launched the Pocket Star Trek line and edited the novelisation, remarked, “Gene Roddenberry wrote the novelisation for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

It returns to the rumour when discussing Alan Dean Foster’s adaptations of episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series:

Alan wrote a draft for the Star Trek: Motion Picture in 1977. He said, “I wrote the original treatment, based on a two-page suggestion of Roddenberry’s titled ‘Robot’s Return.’ I never wrote a screenplay. I was never asked to.” As to the longstanding rumour that Alan wrote the novelization for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alan said, “I had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the novelisation, and was not asked to write it.”

Those are carefully constructed statements. Note that Voyages of Imagination suggest the rumours are about who ghost-wrote the novelisation, not whether the book was ghost-written at all.

However, there is a significant body of evidence that supports Roddenberry as the author of the novelisation. After all, while Roddenberry was prone to usurp credit for production decisions and minimise the role of others, he was not as quick to jump credit on writing. He practically blackmailed Harlan Ellison into keeping his credit on The City on the Edge of Forever, despite the author’s objections to the produced teleplay. Roddenberry would frequently re-write scripts like Shore Leave from scratch, but seldom grafted his name on to the credits.

(Although, as Alan Dean Foster notes below, Roddenberry did plot to take credit on the screenplay for The Motion Picture, even making moves to ensure that he was the only name listed on the film’s story or screenplay. Ultimately, this didn’t come to pass, but it does give an indication of how invested Roddenberry was in building up his own name and his own role in the larger Star Trek mythos.)

There may even have been pragmatic reasons why Roddenberry would not abuse a writer’s credit on the television show. He desperately wanted to present the image of Star Trek as a franchise that was friendly to the larger literary science-fiction community. Keeping the names of writers like that on their scripts was a nice way to convince other authors that it might be worth their time and effort to work on the show.

It’s possible the same logic applied here – Roddenberry may have been reluctant to use a high-profile or experienced ghostwriter, worrying what image that would project. Star Trek tie-in writer Christopher L. Bennett is skeptical of claims that Roddenberry used a ghostwriter, particularly Alan Dean Foster:

Nobody who is at all familiar with Alan Dean Foster’s style could possibly think he ghostwrote this book. It’s clearly the work of a first-time novelist, most likely a screenwriter, because it overuses italics in a way reminiscent of the way screenwriters use underlining or other emphasis to call the production staff’s attention to important bits of stage direction. And the preoccupations — both with utopian futurism and with sexuality — mark it very clearly as Roddenberry’s work.

The myth that Foster ghostwrote the novel arose from two causes. One is confusion with the Star Wars novelization that Foster did ghostwrite. The other is a French (I think) translation of the book that accidentally left off the credits for Livingston as the screenplay author and Roddenberry as the novelizer and only listed Foster as the author of the screen story.

I’ll never understand why people have trouble believing that Roddenberry wrote the book himself. It makes sense that George Lucas would use a ghostwriter, because he was a film editor who became a director. But Roddenberry started out as a writer, and then a writer-producer. He was inexperienced with prose writing in particular, and it shows, but he knew how to write.

Bennett’s argument is quite convincing, and it certainly fits with the novelisation of The Motion Picture as written. The prose is awkward and almost minimalist – there’s a sense that the book is mostly the result of an attempt to translate (rather than adapt) the material from a screenplay to a novel.

The novel also displays a very Roddenberry-esque fascination with sex and free love. Kirk’s first name, for example, is apparently shared with his mother’s first “love instructor.” The central source of conflict between Decker and Kirk in the second half of the novel is who will get to sleep with Ilia, with Kirk’s sexual experience apparently making him the best qualified:

Kirk hesitated, struck with the thought that his own experience might be superior in this area, too. Unlike Decker, he had no emotional attachment to the Deltan navigator—and a mechanical replica of the navigator’s body would mean even less to him. But even as Kirk was telling himself this, he realized that the question here was not technique. It must be Decker for the simple reason that the real Ilia had loved this young man—sexual technique always came out a poor runner-up in any race with love.

Decker is a little uncomfortable with this, as his “primal male memory began to rebel at the thought of stepping aside to let Kirk take over this job, too.” The way that the crew are so nonchalant with sleeping with the Ilia probe is very creepy – as if Starfleet has weaponised sex, and considers it a viable tool to use in most situations. (“Look, Doctor, I’d mate with a photon warhead if it would help,” Decker offers at one point, like a good company man.)

Roddenberry was a little uncomfortably focused on sex and free love in his later writing, and one suspects that his influence on The Next Generation led to episodes like The Naked Now, Angel One and Justice. Ronald D. Moore has joked about some of his sleazier contributions to the original script for Ménage à Troi. There’s a sense that Roddenberry never really moved past the sexual liberation of the sixties, and the result is a writer whose work often feels quite pervy and awkward.

There are other dated references that seem to anchor Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek in the late sixties and early seventies. There are reference to McCoy’s “incredible abilities in holistic medicine” and “his contempt for drugs and surgery”, reflecting attitudes that were part of the zeitgeist at the time. Allusions are made to the Vulcan “seventh sense”“the sense of oneness with the All.” These seem like an expression of the fascination with ESP and other pseudo-science that underpinned Where No Man Has Gone Before.

Other smaller evidence that points towards this being the work of Roddenberry include the description of the way Spock’s “deepset, almost burning eyes carried a vaguely Satanic look”, which echoes Roddenberry’s description of the character. There’s also a conscious effort to downplay any militarism or conflict in the script. So we get an extended conversation about how McCoy wasn’t really “drafted” and Kirk overcomes the bulk of his issues with Decker half-way through the book, reflecting on how petty the conflict was.

“He was genuinely shocked as he realized how close he had come to defiling an entire lifetime’s beliefs,” we’re told of Kirk’s central character conflict in the film – the idea that Kirk might want the Enterprise back and might be willing to take advantage of a crisis to get her back. That character beat was the best part of the film, so tidying it away so dismissively feels like Roddenberry is pushing his utopianism ahead of the best interests of the story.

Even if it’s possible that the novel could have been the work of another writer, Roddenberry’s influence is clear. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is dripping with Roddenberry’s favourite Star Trek tropes, particularly those that would become more and more pronounced while he was producing Star Trek: The Next Generation. Most notably, one can see a clear delineation between Roddenberry’s attitude to Star Trek as it was produced in the sixties, and his attitude in the eighties and beyond.

As even Ronald D. Moore has noted, there was a point where Roddenberry’s conception of Star Trek dramatically changed. After all, Roddenberry’s “no conflict” rule on The Next Generation was directly at odds with the approach taken by the classic Star Trek television show. There, the leading trio were frequently thrown into conflict with one another. There was a point where Roddenberry seemed to stop thinking of Star Trek as a television show, and embraced the idea of Star Trek as a moral philosophy.

Roddenberry acknowledges his Star-Trek-as-philosophy position in the foreword to the novel, reflecting on why he keeps returning to the franchise:

Why Star Trek again? I suppose the real truth is that I have always looked upon the Enterprise and its crew as my own private view of Earth and humanity in microcosm. If this is not the way we really are, it seems to me most certainly a way we ought to be.

A cynic might suggest that Roddenberry was trying to justify the decade-plus of his life that he had devoted to a franchise, or that the show’s fanatical following had begun to get through to him.

Either way, there’s a clear sense that Roddenberry was approaching Star Trek as a mouthpiece for his own particular brand of utopianism. This was no longer one vision of a possible future through which interesting human stories might be told. This was the future that mankind must inevitably aspire towards. Indeed, Roddenberry’s novelisation The Motion Picture almost reads like the sacred text of a utopian cult. It is as interested in world-building and philosophical pronouncements as it is in character and plot.

Roddenberry works quite hard to make The Motion Picture read as a bridge between that classic Star Trek and his bold new vision of The Next Generation. Trying to reconcile the differences between the more gritty crew members of Kirk’s Enterprise and the more evolved humans serving with Picard, Roddenberry suggests that mankind is already hyper-evolved; Starfleet officers just tend to be throwbacks.

In one of the novel’s most oft-discussed passages, Kirk makes reference to how the Enterprise crew are anomalies in this utopian future, throwbacks to a less civilised era:

We are not part of those increasingly large numbers of humans who seem willing to submerge their own identities into the groups to which they belong. I am prepared to accept the possibility that these so-called new humans represent a more highly evolved breed, capable of finding rewards in group consciousness that we more primitive individuals will never know. For the present, however, this new breed of human makes a poor space traveler, and Starfleet must depend on us “primitives” for deep space exploration.

The unsettling threads of Roddenberry’s utopianism are already pushed to the fore. These “new humans” seem uncomfortably like the Borg – individuals subsumed into a larger whole. It underscores just how effectively the Borg would serve as a criticism of Roddenberry’s Federation utopia.

In fact, Roddenberry writes an introduction in-character as Kirk, where he attempts to soften some of the characterisation from the television show:

Nor have I been as foolishly courageous as depicted. I have never happily invited injury; I have disliked in the extreme every duty circumstance which has required me to risk my life. But there appears to be something in the nature of depicters of popular events which leads them into the habit of exaggeration.

There’s a sense that The Motion Picture is really just a device that Roddenberry can use to map out and define his own vision of Star Trek, downplaying elements that he finds distasteful while adding details that reinforce his utopianism. (It is even footnoted, as if ready to be used as a reference text..)

Even his descriptions of the Enterprise seem to blaze a trail that will eventually lead to The Next Generation. His description of the new refitted Enterprise makes it sound more like a flying city than a military ship:

There were many (none of them deep-space veterans) who thought this new design was wasteful preoccupation with games and sociability. But those whose space experience was numbered in years knew that the function served here was as necessary to a starship as its engines. Here the most vital of the ship’s mechanisms were kept in peak operating efficiency through music, song, games, debate, exercise, competition, friendship, romance, sex—the list was as endless as human ingenuity itself. Companionship and community were as basic to life support as oxygen and food. To those who might spend years of their life in this vessel, this place was their village square, their park, library, café, family table, their mall, meeting hall, and much more.

This reads like a fairly accurate description of Picard’s Enterprise, which seemed to be built with the facilities to allow a community to flourish. After all, Picard’s Enterprise is frequent described as a floating hotel or a cruise liner.

The Motion Picture seems to be the point at which Roddenberry stopped thinking of Star Trek primarily as a piece of science-fiction entertainment. There had always been utopian elements at play in Roddenberry’s depiction of mankind’s future, but The Motion Picture seems to be the point at which these all come to the fore – the point at which they seem to become the point for Roddenberry.

If the script for In Thy Image seems like a blueprint for a next generation of Star Trek, Roddenberry’s novelisation of The Motion Picture reads more like a mission statement – it’s a vision of the future, from a man who clearly considers himself a visionary.

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9 Responses

  1. Well said. I came of age just as the TOS team was finishing up their cinematic adventures, so Roddenberry’s interactions with the franchise are all archaeology to me.

    From where I stand, it looks like the 70s, at the conventions, is the crucible in which was formed the “Star Trek as our future” philosophy was born. (This relic is fantastic for exploring the topic of Trek’s changing purpose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P32wGXbNMbo )

    The old show certainly touched on cultural changes that had occurred in the intervening centuries. Its focus was clearly on adventure though. And not the human adventure, but more of the shoot-em-up variety.

    • Thanks for the kind words as always Mickey!

      I think you’re on to something with the conventions. That probably would have been the point at which Roddenberry realised how profound an impact the show had had on fans who looked to it for meaning and inspiration, and then he decided that he could turn that from a pleasant side effect into a major feature of the franchise.

  2. Nicely researched and written. With one exception. “Roddenberry could easily have tried to force a “story by” credit on to the film for his work in drafting the outline for “Robots’ Revenge.” ”
    Not only did he try to do exactly that, he tried to have my name removed from the final credits. My then media agent, Ilse Lahn, at the Paul Kohner Agency, was forced to file for proper credit with the Writer’s Guild. As soon as he learned that we were doing that, Roddenberry’s “people” (yes, they do actually say things like that in Hollywood) informed us that he would not contest our filing.
    This has been documented elsewhere, I believe.

    • Thanks Alan, and apologies for the mistake. It has been corrected. I hadn’t heard that, but am happy to count your comment as a reliable source on this.

      That is absolutely nuts, by the by. The more I dig into the history of Star Trek as a franchise, the more I discover how awkwardly and counter-productively and insideously Roddenberry tried to assert his own narrative of its production, as if creating the show, writing several episodes (and re-writing quite a few more), and serving as the focal point of fan culture had not been enough.

      I can understand, for example, his insistence on re-writing Harlan Ellison. It was his show. Ellison’s script is fantastic as a piece of science-fiction, but it’s a less comfortable fit for Star Trek than the version filmed. But it’s the incredibly unprofessional conduct surrounding that which I cannot understand. The blackmail to keep his name on the script, the lying about the script to denigrate Ellison.

      It’s weird to think that I grew up with that cultivated image of Roddenberry as the kindly old grandfather of the franchise. This isn’t an appeal to ignorance or nostalgia or anything like that. I am glad that I learned the contributions made by Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana and countless others, and what I have uncovered does explain a lot of the stuff that I had difficulty reconciling about the franchise as a child – notable why certain things did or didn’t happen when they did or didn’t – but it’s just an amazing contrast.

      Sorry to ramble. Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

      • Hey, I vas dere. Certain things do stay in one’s memory. If you live long enough, you become history.

  3. My one vivid memory of the novelization is from Kirk’s in-character introduction, in which he acknowledges and is flatted by Kirk/Spock slash-fic, but says it never really happened that way. Roddenberry must have been reading a lot of fan fiction in the ’70s.

    • Yep. Roddenberry was very in tune with fan culture. And while he says it didn’t happen that way, he’s careful to stoke the fire by revealing that Kirk and Spock’s relationship can be described by some sort of Vulcan term which sits half-way between lovers and brothers, if I recall. (Although I may be misremembering.)

  4. Great review as always.

    I remember reading this book many years ago and even back then I found Roddenberry’s utopianism rather unsettling, even frightening with it’s Pod People like hyper evolved new humans (as I’ve said before I’ve found the early years of the Next Generation nearly unwatchable thanks to this ethos.) That said I did find the idea of Starfleet as refuge for people who don’t quite fit with the stifling nature of Federation society – the ‘primitives’ – as absolutely fascinating.

    Mind you it probably wouldn’t fit any other conception of the franchise.

    • Thanks!

      That’s actually a good point, although it does become a little horrific if you think about it too long. After all, Starfleet seems infested by these “advanced humans” by the time that Roddenberry created The Next Generation – so what happened to Kirk’s “primitive” breed of humanity? It makes it seem like a quietly horrific version of the X-Men, where mutantkind has quietly replaced mankind, except every mutant’s super power is being smug and superior about their heightened morality.

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