Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened in theaters 40 years ago today, on December 7, 1979. The polarizing film heralded a new era for the Star Trek franchise after years of uncertainty. Star Trek: The Original Series ran its course over three seasons from 1966 to 1969. The series found new popularity in syndication, spawning the first modern fandom. New stories arrived in the form of Star Trek: The Animated Series. The show brought back The Original Series cast and writers for the spiritual fourth season of the original television show, now in cartoon form. When The Animated Series ended after 22 episodes, there was some consideration put into making a Star Trek movie. The original plans for a film were scrapped in favor of a new Star Trek television series, Star Trek: Phase II. But the success of Star Wars at the box office convinced Paramount to try to replicate that success. The plans were Phase II were abandoned and pieces reworked into what would become Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The film brought back the Star Trek: The Original Series cast. Ray Wise directed the film from a screenplay by Harold Livingston, based on a story by Alan Dean Foster. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry produced. Paramount hired acclaimed visual effects artist Douglas Trumball, hot off of his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, to work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Speaking to ComicBook.com in August, Trumbull looked back on the experience of bringing Star Trek to the big screen for the first time.
“I was not a fan of Star Trek,” Trumbull said. “I was an arrogant young director who had worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I had this attitude that Star Trek was beneath me. I never told that to anybody else, but I think that the truth of the situation was there was a gulf of distance between the kind of melodrama of Star Trek and the epic grandeur of 2001. So I was never really that interested in Star Trek. I certainly knew about the phenomenon, I certainly knew it was at Paramount. I was working under Paramount, developing new technologies for cinema at a company called Future General Corporation. And the Star Trek project came up, and it became so important to Paramount that it completely eclipsed anything else that was going on at the time.”
Trumbull said there was an effort to elevate Star Trek to a level worthy of cinematic storytelling. “I think that everybody was on the same boat in that respect because there was a definite desire to elevate Star Trek to kind of higher territory and epic territory. And that's why it's named Star Trek: The Motion Picture, not just Star Trek something else. They wanted to make sure it was differentiated from the television episodic series. That was why, I think, they hired Robert Wise, because he had done The Sound of Music and West Side Story, really important films that were epic in nature. And I think that's what they wanted for Star Trek.”
Star Trek: The Motion Picture had a brutal filming and post-production schedule that took such a physical toll on Trumball that he was hospitalized after the film was finished. For a time, he didn’t like to discuss the film, but now he says he has a greater appreciation for the work he and the others involved accomplished.
“I feel now that I'm more happy with the picture than I ever was,” he said. “And I'm beginning to understand the film better than I did at the time because I've had to rewatch it, getting ready for interviews, and I had to kind of brief myself getting ready for the Star Trek convention last month in Las Vegas. A couple of things happened to me, about not just the film but the whole Star Trek universe and the Trekkies, as they call them, the whole phenomenon of Star Trek as a whole, It's a profoundly important kind of cultural event of some kind that I – it's hard for me to describe. I'm not a writer, but people who love Star Trek are intrinsically very sweet and very thoughtful, and very much looking forward optimistically to the future. I just think it's just so charming and so sweet and so endearing. Being in an elevator at a hotel with a Klingon and a star trooper or whatever you want to call them, is really fabulous. I just have nothing but good things to say about it. In the days that I was coming off 2001, as I was saying, I was kind of arrogant about what I thought science fiction should be or could be. Now I realize that Star Trek really is bigger than I thought it was at the time.”
While Star Trek: The Motion Picture wasn't the box office success that Paramount had hoped for, it did well enough for the studio to take a chance on a sequel with a smaller budget. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan cemented Star Trek as a cinematic force. The Star Trek film franchise has now spanned four decades and 13 movies, with the 14th film and 15th film both being planned.
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