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Harve Bennett

Although he will likely be best remembered by genre fans for his work on the Star Trek film franchise, Harve Bennett was a super-producer. His career began in the fifties – with his first credited work on Now is Tomorrow, a television movie starring actors Robert Culp and Sydney Pollack. However, Bennett really came into his own as a producer of seventies television. He helped to create The Mod Squad and The Invisible Man. However, he is perhaps most noted in geek circles for his work on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Along with director Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett effectively reinvented Star Trek. Taking over the reins from Gene Roddenberry after that creator’s bloated (if ambitious) work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Bennett stumbled upon an ingenious idea. Instead of trying to hide the fact that the cast and crew were getting older, he would embrace it. Bennett effectively came up with the idea of allowing the characters to grow older, coming up with an approach that would help to distinguish the Star Trek films from their source material.

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It would be too much to suggest that Harve Bennett was the first writer to reinvent Star Trek, paving the way for creators like Michael Piller or Ira Steven Behr or Brannon Braga or Manny Coto. After all, Star Trek had already been reinvented by Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana before Bennett come on board. However, Bennett was part of the first creative team to reinvent Star Trek in a very overt and very conscious way. Meyer and Bennett were the first creators to be overt (rather than subversive) in how they were updating and revising the Star Trek canon.

Bennett was part of the creative team that oversaw the first truly seismic transition in what Star Trek actually was, the first without any major behind-the-scenes continuity. In doing so, Bennett was one of the first creators to demonstrate the versitility and the potential of Star Trek. In shepherding the movie franchise, Bennett was a vital part of keeping Star Trek alive long enough for the franchise to prove that it could be self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. Bennett is a much bigger figure in Star Trek history than he is given credit for.

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Of course, any discussions of Bennett’s work on Star Trek will focus on The Wrath of Khan. The movie is a pulpy masterpiece, a low-budget second-chance for the Star Trek film franchise that changed everything that fans thought they knew about the series. It is interesting, in hindsight, to think that Meyer and Bennett were the first creators to brave the maelstrom of fan criticism that would become expected with each new iteration of the series. When news leaked that The Wrath of Khan would feature the death of Spock, the production team received death threats.

At the time, The Wrath of Khan was shockingly subversive Star Trek. It was a story about how Kirk’s mistakes would come back and haunt him – how the arrogance he displayed in one late first season episode could have horrific consequences. More than that, Nicholas Meyer consciously played up the idea of “Horatio Hornblower in space!” It seemed like The Wrath of Khan was the first time that Star Trek engaged fully with military storytelling, abandoning sentient alien life-forms for naval warfare in space.

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Of course, the classic series would probably have done this if it had the budget or the technology. Balance of Terror was very much pitched as “submarine warfare in space.” Nevertheless, after The Motion Picture had worked very hard to pitch Star Trek as the spiritual successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey and classic literary science-fiction, The Wrath of Khan made Star Trek more grounded and visceral. Even the costuming was more military than it ever had been before, with most of the primary cast wearing the same uniforms.

The success of the work by Bennett and Meyer on The Wrath of Khan was profound. The movie casts a shadow over the Star Trek franchise. It is a touchstone for no fewer than four of the ten sequels that followed – parts of its DNA can be found in the production of Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. The latter resurrected a newer and young Khan played by Benedict Cumberbatch. On television, Star Trek: Enterprise dedicated a three-episode arc in its final season to emulating The Wrath of Khan.

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However, the influence of Bennett was much greater than that. Bennett remained involved with the next three Star Trek films. He wrote Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and he re-teamed with Meyer on the script for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. That last film was so successful that it helped to spawn Star Trek: The Next Generation and return the franchise to television for another eighteen years. Bennett’s final direct involvement would be some story work with William Shatner on Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. And a cameo.

In the penultimate film starring all of the primary cast of classic Star Trek film, Harve Bennett made a very brief appearance as the Starfleet Chief of Staff. He helped to send Kirk and the crew on their way, in command of a shiny new Enterprise that was largely repurposed from sets built for The Next Generation. It was an appropriate cameo; Bennett had helped to put both the characters on that ship and actors on that set. He had been a guiding and influential light for the franchise.

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However, Bennett’s influence on Star Trek is more than just his direct involvement in four of the first five Star Trek films. Bennett helped to demonstrate that it was possible to really and truly reinvent Star Trek. His work was clear a major influence on the more militiristic tone of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or the later years of Star Trek: Enterprise, but he helped to pave the way for just about every radical and dynamic change to what Star Trek was or what Star Trek could be.

Bennett provided a vital and important lesson about the nature of Star Trek. He proved that Star Trek did not need to be what it had always been before. Star Trek could be different and dynamic and radical, as long as it was good. It is a clear logical leap from Bennett’s reinvention of Star Trek to Michael Piller’s reinvention of The Next Generation and to Behr’s work on Deep Space Nine. Bennett paved the way for the Abrams’ reboot, which was – in many ways – less traumatic than the shift from The Motion Picture to The Wrath of Khan.

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That is a phenomenal legacy. Although Bennett’s body of work on the franchise might pale in comparison to that of Brannon Braga or D.C. Fontana or Ronald D. Moore, his material contribution is profound. He didn’t just change Star Trek, he changed it in a way that demonstrated that it could always be changed.

4 Responses

  1. Can’t believe I’ve only just found out about his death (had to Google it after reading this excellent post)! Another legendary member of the Star Trek family!

  2. Harve produced ST V, not just did some of the writing for it. He was a great guy to this, and many other fans, and I’m sorry he’s gone.

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