'Star Trek' Before J.J. Abrams: The Secret Projects That Were Almost Made
Over the fifty-year history of Star Trek the franchise had its peaks and valleys. The early 2000s were one of those low points as 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, the last movie featuring the Next Generation cast, disappointed at the box office and TV’s Star Trek: Enterprise came to end in 2005 after just four seasons. New hope came in the form of J.J. Abrams, who signed on in 2006 to reboot the movie franchise (resulting in 2009’s Star Trek). But as this excerpt from The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek - The Next 25 Years, From The Next Generation to J.J. Abrams (Thomas Dunne, Aug. 30) reveals, a number of alternative plans for the franchise were halted when Abrams beamed aboard. [More on Vol. I, The First 25 Years, including an excerpt, here.] Here journalist Edward Gross and and television writer-producer Mark A. Altman (Castle, Agent X) detail the roads not taken for Star Trek, from a prequel series set during the pre-Kirk Romulan-Federation war penned by a Band of Brothers writer to a sequel set 300 years after The Next Generation that centered on a Federation in collapse. There was even talk of a new animated series. — THR
Heat Vision breakdown
ERIK JENDRESEN (writer, Star Trek: The Beginning): Shortly after Band of Brothers, I got a call from my agent, who said, "Would you be interested in getting into Star Trek?" And I said, "No." I don't really like science fiction. I'm kind of an odd purist that way. If it's not Jules Verne or H.G. Wells or Edgar Allen Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle, I'm not that interested. But they didn't take no for an answer. [Producer] Jordan Kerner called me back and said, "Would you come consult?" And I said, "Sure." I loved two things about Star Trek. The first was this sort of Horatio Hornblower aspect to Kirk. All of that boldness. It's sort of a throwback to a great kind of literary figure and hero. Second, I realized I loved the fact that the stories were always, at the time, of political or social relevance. There was a message behind them all. And it was kind of lovely. I really respected that.
I decided to tell them something that I thought they'd never go for: Imagine this baby as a trilogy. It should be something that fills that missing place in the canon. It was sort of like having an encyclopedia. This encyclopedia is missing the letter T. There's a gap. And interestingly enough, at least for the original series, an inciting incident that's referred to but we've never seen is the Earth-Romulan War that started the whole thing. I'd ever so loosely fashion the first one on The Iliad. And the sequel would be ever so loosely based on The Odyssey. I would love to leave the hero and his crew stranded and having to make their way slowly back to Earth having no idea whether Earth exists or not. It's going to take them years to get back on this crippled ship. And that journey in the sequel to the prequel would also involve some of the interesting moments that harken back to the original series.
GLEN C. OLIVER (film & TV critic, Ain't It Cool News): Jendersen's Star Trek: The Beginning was massive in scale and rich in emotion. The script felt complex thematically, and suggested settings which were more vibrant and sprawling than anything the Trek movies had shown us to date. The Beginning was, fundamentally, a classic World War II-esque tale focusing on a young and somewhat rudderless Tiberius Chase, who we infer was a forefather of James T. Kirk, forced to quickly define his purpose in life when Romulans show up to smite Earth as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Vulcans.
JENDRESEN: This was all happening during the Serbian-Croatian conflict. And the fact that the Earth stands up against the Romulans [in defense of the Vulcans, whom they've had a strained relationship with since Enterprise] and says, "No." The needs of the few outweighs the needs of the many.
RICK BERMAN (longtime Star Trek producer): Kerner came on as a movie producer under contract at Paramount. Part of his deal was to develop a Star Trek movie. He came to me and they said that they wanted me to work with him and I said great. It just petered out.
JENDRESEN: Rick Berman was perfectly pleasant, but he seemed vaguely disinterested. It was a whole gaggle of producers and Mark Evans, who was the exec on the project. We went in to pitch it to the head of the studio, Donald De Line. I've pitched a lot of projects. I've never been in a more preternaturally dead room than this one. It was like being in a sensory deprivation tank. In the middle of it, one of the producers is sitting there doing that "Kennedy just got shot" with his fist under his chin. So, I think, to hell with it. I took forty-five minutes to do the entire thing. I was just riffing and also sort of discovering and creating things as I sort of started embellishing on my story. I get to the end. Dead silence. And then De Line clears his throat, "Umm, how long would it take you to write this?" I said, "Eight to ten weeks." He just shakes my hand and says, "Write it fast." We walk out and all the producers are just falling all over themselves. "We're doing the next Star Trek! This is unbelievable!" And I'm thinking to myself. I've got to go home and write this now, goddamn!"
OLIVER: Set between Enterprise and TOS, The Beginning addresses the origins of many issues which would become instrumental in the Trek mythos. For example: Starfleet's peculiar, and previously underexplored, balance between militarism and exploration. As is Trek's critical, time-tested conflict arriving from the conundrum of knowing when to follow orders, and when to buck the system. ". . . I will still, and forever, wonder how one can go boldly and follow at the same time?" ponders Chase in one the script's many voiceover letters to the girl he loves, all patterned in tone and style after many of those wonderful Civil War–era messages soldiers sent to family and friends back home.
JENDRESEN: I was quite shocked about the whole thing. I really enjoyed the process. I was also very well aware of the fact that because of the agnostic feeling I had toward the genre, and I wasn't a die-hard fan, I was able to serve it better, because I wasn't precious. I went deep in my research and tried to make sure that this entry didn't in any way defy the canon. And it was really fun to try to tackle the idea of Kirk's progenitor. Who is this guy that he was named after? Where did his spirit originate from?
OLIVER: The Beginning suggests a very, very different brand of Star Trek which smartly, even brazenly, upholds the mythology's core values, while concurrently wrapping them in a very different package for delivery.
JENDRESEN: I was well aware of the fact that this story was a departure from that intention [creator Gene] Roddenberry had always held close [for Star Trek]. But, I had them also face the simple fact that Starfleet came out of a conflict, that sort of wonderful swords-to-plowshares thing that ultimately happened can't happen without the swords part.
OLIVER: What's most compelling about The Beginning is that its setting is, in a way, as much a character as the people populating its story. The way things are, a hyper-militarized, early space-exploration Earth, and the way things need to be to survive—is every bit as critical as the people we're getting to know. We'd have seen a very unusual, very grown-up Trek for the ages.
JENDRESEN: I was so looking forward to the second one, because it was going to be a chase from Romulan space. And also, the great notion being that most of the Romulan fleet would be heading back to Romulus from Earth so they are sort of on a collision course with the whole Romulan fleet. I was looking forward to inventing the adventures of Odysseus on his way home— back to Penelope.
I did have one person in mind when I wrote it. But it's a tertiary character. Tiberius is Kirk's great-grand father. So his great-great-grand father is Tiberius' father, Otto Chase, who leads this group of xenophobes, and I was just absolutely convinced there was only one guy to play him. And that was Christopher Walken.
OLIVER: Would this have worked? The Beginning feels like exactly what the franchise needed, exactly when it needed it. It would've become Trek's equivalent of Nolan's Dark Knight films, for better or worse.
JENDRESEN: I wrote it and turned the script in and on Wednesday of that week, the head of the studio [Donald De Line] was fired.
In 2004, Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski and Dark Skies creator Bryce Zabel developed a fourteen-page treatment titled Star Trek: Reboot the Universe. It was a concept the duo never had the opportunity to pitch to Paramount because it was announced that J. J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions already had plans for rebooting the universe.
BRYCE ZABEL (co-creator/executive producer, Dark Skies): Joe [Straczynski] and I were working on a network pitch for a limited series called Cult, and we started talking about the state of the Trek universe. Before we could stop ourselves, we banged out a fourteen-page treatment. At that moment, we had a lot in common, both producing sci-fi series and, in particular, a devotion to five-year plans. Joe had crafted one for Babylon 5 and Brent Friedman and I had done the same for our NBC alien invasion series Dark Skies.
We wanted to do what they would do in the world of comics: create a separate universe for all the past TV and film Trek continuity in order to free ourselves creatively so we could embrace the good stuff, banish the bad, and try some new things. In our reboot we wanted to start over, use Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and others in a powerful new origin story about what it was that bonded them in such strong friendship and show them off as you'd never seen them before. It was, admittedly, pretty audacious.
Another unrealized pitch for Star Trek developed in 2005 was Star Trek: Federation, a concept from directors Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects), Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation), and Robert Meyer Burnett (Agent Cody Banks, Free Enterprise), which was written as a treatment by Geoffrey Thorne. In the pitch many Federation members have abandoned the alliance and Starfleet is stretched thin when a new enemy, the Scourge, attacks and destroys a starship and several Federation colonies. The only survivor is Lieutenant Commander Alexander Kirk. Dubious of his account of what happened, Vulcan, Bajor, and Betazed leave the Federation, leaving the Ferengi as the dominant power in the galaxy. With the Vulcans reunifying with the Romulans, a new U.S.S. Enterprise is tasked to return the Federation to its goal of going boldly, but with the ulterior objective of finding the Scourge. After its captain and first officer are killed, Commander Kirk (third-in-command) is promoted to captain.
GEOFFREY THORNE (writer, Star Trek: Federation pitch document): What I tried to do was go back to brass tacks and asked myself, "What was Star Trek actually about? The job of a good TV show is to speak to its mass audience, not what we would call the core audience. The core audience is people like me who are going to show up because it's called Star Trek. We already have them; they'll tune in just to see if we screw it up. That's a given. What you want is a show that is competitive with the other networks that are not Star Trek.
What happens when utopia actually happens? That was actually part of the problem of Star Trek as a social phenomena—it started to get church-like for too many people. But that's not how Star Trek was when it started; it was very rough and tumble and I wanted to get back to that. My idea was, every episode would start with a video letter home from one of the crew, and that crewman might not necessarily be in the episode, it would just inform what we were about to see. I said, "Utopia has occurred and everything has stagnated." I pictured a Federation that had hit its plateau and stayed there for three hundred years. Basically using a lot of the same tech from the time of Next Generation. People are pulling out of the Federation because there's no need for a Federation in such a time of peace—but of course it turns out that that's completely wrong. That was the starting point.
Everyone seemed very happy with the pitch and were about to present it when J.J. Abrams came in and said, "I want to make these movies." The new Star Trek films destroyed the possibility for Federation to get off the ground.
Before the bottom fell out of the final frontier, there was also an animated Star Trek: Final Frontierpitch, developed as a Web series for Startrek.com. As it was moving through the preproduction process, Paramount Pictures and CBS Television Studios were split into two separate companies in January 2006, and the future of the website came into question. While Viacom/Paramount held on to the motion picture rights for Star Trek, CBS Television retained the lucrative consumer products licensing and TV rights, past and future. Impressed with the potential for the animated webisodes, studio executives at Paramount Home Entertainment briefly considered the property as a made-for-video project. But with CBS taking control of all Star Trek licensing, and Paramount Pictures only controlling the films, the project languished until a management change in December 2007 put an end to it once and for all.
DAVE ROSSI (producer, Star Trek: Final Frontier): We initially envisioned six-minute webisodes in serial format, each installment ending with a "Same Bat time, same Bat channel" feel. The premise was that a hundred and fifty years or so from the end of TNG, in the wake of a vicious attack, warp travel has been rendered useless throughout much of Federation space. There's a hint of Romulan involvement and, thirsty for justice, the Federation goes to war with the Romulans. The war drags on with no victory in sight and the two sides sign a treaty. It's fifty years later and the Federation has become isolationist, staying within its own borders. One man, Captain Alexander Chase, aboard a small ship called the Enterprise, seeks to reclaim what was best about Starfleet, the Federation, and the tenets that make Star Trek what it is: exploration, betterment of mankind, scientific advancement, hope. Our target audience was not only existing Star Trek fans, but also kids, introducing them to a Star Trek that, due to the freedom of animation, had an epic scope to the galaxy and, while peppered with lots of great action, also told a story.
From The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams: The Complete, Uncensored, and Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek by Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman. Copyright © 2016 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC.
The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years and The Next 25 Years is currently available in harcover, digital and audio versions wherever books are sold.
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