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‘Star Trek’ Oral History: When Captain Kirk Fought Jesus

This excerpt from 'The Fifty Year Mission' shows how Paul McCartney, Barry Diller, John F. Kennedy and, yes, even Christ all played a role in the original series movie that almost was.

Star Trek was the show that wouldn’t die. After the original series was canceled in 1969, reruns in syndication attracted phenomenal ratings, an animated version ran for two seasons and the convention scene exploded. Things were not going as well for creator Gene Roddenberry. Two follow-up pilots, Genesis II and The Questor Tapes, did not go to series, and his big-screen movie, Pretty Maids All in a Row, flopped. Roddenberry depended on income from the Star Trek lecture and convention circuit. But by 1975, Paramount was toying with the idea of reviving the show as a big-screen feature.

This exclusive excerpt from The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek – The First 25 Years (June 28, Thomas Dunne Books; Volume II covering the second 25 years arrives Aug. 30) by journalist Edward Gross and television writer/producer Mark A. Altman (Castle, Agent X) details Roddenberry’s post-Trek disillusionment and his first attempts to come up with a script, including one that had the crew meeting Jesus and another where they tried to prevent the Kennedy Assassination. Both ideas were rejected by then Paramount boss Barry Diller, though development continued on a new Star Trek. — Andy Lewis


JON POVILL (associate producer, Star Trek: The Motion Picture): Gene was not enthusiastic about Star Trek at the time. He really wanted to do something else. It was the idea of trying to prove himself, not that he was aware he was proving himself. He was sort of desperate to show he could do something besides Star Trek. That came out as, “I don’t care about Star Trek, I want to move on.”

SUSAN SACKETT (executive assistant to Gene Roddenberry): This was a time when he was sort of a writer for hire.

GENE RODDENBERRY (creator of Star Trek): I had been through harsh times. My dreams were going downhill, because I could not get work after the original series was canceled. … I was stereotyped as a science-fiction writer, and sometimes it was tough to pay the mortgage.

There were several aborted film projects he was involved with, including one that would have seen Roddenberry collaborating with Paul McCartney, at the time soaring (no pun intended) with his Beatles follow-up band, Wings.

SACKETT: I have no idea whatever happened to that. It’s probably stuck in a file, like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Paul contacted him and was a Star Trek fan. He invited us to a concert, which was great, and we met backstage. Paul hired Gene to write a story about the band and it was a crazy story. Paul gave him an outline and Gene was supposed to do something with it. It was bands from outer space and they were having a competition. Gene was open to things at this point; Star Trek wasn’t happening and he wasn’t getting his scripts produced, but he had a family to feed. Gene began working on it and it was about the time they started talking about bringing back Trek, so he never got to complete anything for Paul.

POVILL: In May of 1975, Paramount expressed interest in developing a Star Trek film, so Gene moved back into his old office on the lot. ?

WILLIAM SHATNER (actor, “Captain James T. Kirk”): I was working on the series Barbary Coast at the time, which was done at Paramount. It was on one end of Paramount, and Star Trek had been filmed at the other end of Paramount. I had never, for the longest time, revisited the stage area where [we had] filmed. So one day I decided to go there, [and] as I’d been walking and remembering the times, I suddenly heard the sound of a typewriter! That was the strangest thing, because these offices were deserted. So I followed the sound, till I came to the entrance of this building. And the sound was getting louder as I went into the building. I went down a hallway, where the offices for Star Trek were … I opened the door and there was Gene Roddenberry.

He was sitting in a corner, typing. I hadn’t seen him in five years. I said, “Gene, the series has been canceled!” He said, “I know, I know the series has been canceled. I’m writing the movie!” So I said, “There’s gonna be a movie? What’s it gonna be about?” He said, “First of all, we have to explain how you guys got older. So what we have to do is move everybody up in a rank. You become an admiral, and the rest of the cast become Starfleet commanders. One day a force comes toward Earth — might be God, might be the Devil — breaking everything in its path, except the minds of the starship commanders. So we gotta find all the original crewmen for the starship Enterprise, but first — where is Spock? He’s back on Vulcan, doing R & R; five-year mission, seven years of R & R. He swam back upstream. So we gotta go get him.” So we get Spock, do battle, and it was a great story.

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Based on research that had been done by Povill for a proposed non-Star Trek novel to be written by Roddenberry, the above-described treatment for The God Thing focuses on Admiral Kirk reassembling his crew to stop an entity on course for Earth that claims to be God. It turns out to be a living computer programmed by a race that was “cast out” of its own dimension and into ours. The story ends with the “God” entity miraculously granting our crew newfound youth and returning them back to the original five-year mission.

RICHARD COLLA (director, The Questor Tapes): Gene showed me that treatment, which was much more daring than Star Trek: The Motion Picture would be. The Enterprise went off in search of that thing from outer space that was affecting everything. By the time they got into the alien’s presence, it manifested itself and said, “Do you know me?” Kirk said, “No, I don’t know who you are.” It said, “Strange, how could you not know who I am?” So it shift-changed and became another image and said, “Do you know me?” Kirk said, “No, who are you?” It said, “Strange, how could you not know who I am?” So it shift-changed and came up in the form of Christ the carpenter, and says, “Do you know me?” and Kirk says, “Oh, now I know who you are.”

POVILL: It probably would have brought Star Trek down, because the Christian Right, even though it wasn’t then what it is now, would have just destroyed it. In fact, Gene started the script under one Paramount administration and handed it to another … to Barry Diller, who was a devout Catholic. There was no way on Earth that that script was going to fly for a devout Catholic.

RODDENBERRY: Actually, it wasn’t God they were meeting, but someone who had been born here on Earth before, claiming to be God. I was going to say that this false thing claiming to be God had screwed up man’s concept of the real infinity and beauty of what God is. Paramount was reluctant to put that up on the screen, and I can understand that position.

Over the decades there were reportedly a number of attempts to novelize The God Thing; among the potential authors were Susan Sackett and Fred Bronson, Roddenberry official biographer David Alexander, Trek star Walter Koenig and, in the version that came the closest to fruition, Michael Jan Friedman’s adaptation for Pocket Books.

MICHAEL JAN FRIEDMAN (author): Gene had written a script for the first Star Trek movie. Certain elements showed up in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but most did not. So there was this mysterious script floating around that people talked about as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls. After I had written several successful Trek novels, Trek editor Dave Stern asked me to turn Gene’s efforts into a novel called The God Thing. To the best of my recollection, I received both the script and a short narrative version of it. Naturally I jumped at the chance to translate and expand it. Gene was — and still is — one of my heroes, for God’s sake, no pun intended. As he had already left the land of the living, this was a unique opportunity to collaborate with him. But when I read the material, I was dismayed. I hadn’t seen other samples of Gene’s unvarnished writing, but what I saw this time could not possibly have been his best work. It was disjointed — scenes didn’t work together, didn’t build toward anything meaningful. Kirk, Spock and McCoy didn’t seem anything like themselves. There was some mildly erotic, midlife-crisis stuff in there that didn’t serve any real purpose. In the climactic scene, Kirk had a fistfight with an alien who had assumed the image of Jesus Christ.

So Kirk was slugging it out on the bridge. With Jesus.

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The original cast in 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture'

DAVID STERN (former Star Trek editor at Pocket Books): We worked up an outline, [Roddenberry’s lawyer] Leonard [Maizlish] and [Roddenberry’s wife] Majel looked at it, and said the things Friedman added to make it novel-length were not reflective of what Gene intended. And that got frustrating, because we weren’t getting specific enough feedback to know which direction to go in. And the manuscript — Gene’s treatment — definitely needed more.

FRIEDMAN: This was, of course, Majel’s prerogative. After all, she was Gene’s widow. And I could have tried to do what she was asking — just stretch out the scenes to take up more pages. Certainly, it would have been a healthy payday for me. The print run was slated to be enormous. But public scrutiny of this story in anything approximating its original form would not have put Gene or his legacy in a good light. It would not have put me in a good light. And it would not have put Pocket in a good light. In the end, after discussions with Majel and after entertaining the possibility of using one other writer, Pocket agreed with my assessment and scrapped the project. I wish it had turned out otherwise. But you know, all things considered, it’s probably better this way.

POVILL: Gene went to work on The God Thing in May of 1975, and it was his first attempt at a Star Trek feature. By August it was shitcanned by Paramount president Barry Diller. Gene, who had gotten to know me pretty well by then, suggested that I take a crack at writing a treatment, which I did. Then he and I worked on a treatment together.?? Treatment One was a spec story that I did after Gene told me that the studio had turned down The God Thing — which was not the actual title of his script, just what the script has come to be called since then. So, Gene told me it’d been rejected and told me that if I wanted to come up with a Star Trek movie story of my own, he’d be happy to look at it and to pass it along if he thought it was worthy. What I didn’t know at the time was that about 700,000 other writers had been told the same thing and that some of them (I think) were being paid to come up with their ideas. Amongst them … not sure, but I think there was Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, John D.F. Black, Richard Matheson and Ted Sturgeon. And probably others from outside the Trek universe. 

In this story, planet Vulcan passes through an area of space in which they had previously released a “psychic cloud” that — they believed — would fill the enemy with distrust that would break down all military discipline and create chaos within the enemy ranks. They had done this in the final war that they’d fought, a war in which things were going so poorly that they were forced to release the cloud prematurely, without full testing that would have revealed the damn thing only worked on Vulcans. But as with most weapons, it’s only a matter of time before whatever you came up with winds up being used against you — only in this case it was more a matter of the movement of star systems bringing Vulcan into this area of space. Interestingly, in order for Spock to be free of the influence of the cloud, he has to focus himself totally on the human half of his being — and he remains human and quirky for the majority of the story.  ?

Ultimately, the Enterprise must go back in time to the final Vulcan war in an attempt to prevent the release of the cloud.  When they fail to do so, Spock uses the equipment to send out a psychic cloud of his own — of logic, trust, restraint and respect that effectively counteracts the effects of the initial cloud. And the Enterprise turns the tide in the war against the ancient foe so that Vulcan is not conquered or destroyed. I gave it to Gene sometime in late August or early September of 1975. He read it and said it would have made a swell episode, but that he didn’t think it would work as a feature.

In December of 1975, he called me and said he had a new idea for a feature, would I like to work on it with him? I still remember standing in my kitchen and hanging up the phone after I said, “Yes,” and then whooping so loudly that my neighbors came running over to see what the hell was going on.

The result of that call was Treatment 2, which certainly seemed at the time was my “big break.” It was my first work for a studio — yes, I took over Gene Coon’s old office (for the first time — I’d lose it and get it back again many times in the next four years) and Paramount paid me for my efforts on it. The story has numerous elements in common with Treatment 1, which at the time led me to believe that Gene’s “new” idea had been inspired by my spec story, though he never said as much to me and so I have nothing to go on but my own presumption. In this one, rather than Spock being responsible for the change in Vulcan personality from hot-blooded warriors to peaceful beings ruled by logic, Scotty is responsible for wiping the Earth out of the Federation. The Enterprise and all aboard it had been destroyed by a black hole while Spock and Scotty, in smaller research vessels without the gravitational disrupting issues of warp engines, had managed to escape. Scotty, in a desperate attempt to go back in time and prevent his precious ship and crew from slipping into the event horizon, miscalculates, winds up in 1937 and triggers changes with a snowball effect. 

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His efforts to stop the snowball only make things worse for his original time period, though they do make things considerably better between 1937 and 1964. World War II is avoided, Kennedy is not assassinated, medical science advances substantially and a whole bunch of other boons make it impossible for world leaders to agree to help Kirk set things right for the future by plunging the 20th century back into the horrors stored in the Enterprise’s history records.  Kennedy, however, recognizes the greater good and helps Kirk destroy his world to create the better one. There’s also a cool bit of stuff as Einstein along with Churchill, Kennedy, Hitler and others tour the Enterprise.  

As I read the two treatments, I felt like both of them had merit to the concepts. Treatment Two had a really great way of reintroducing most of the main characters — who are dead as the movie starts, but are literally resurrected by a mysterious process in some way related to the black hole. Both stories needed a lot of reworking, but there was potential there. If the studio had any real sense of what Star Trek was about and why it worked, they might have shown more patience, but the plug was quickly pulled and Treatment Two was rejected by the studio.

The road to Star Trek‘s rebirth was still to be a long one. Between Paramount rejecting The God Thing in August 1975 to the Dec. 7, 1979, release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there would be a minimum of six additional attempts at a feature film and the aborted television series, Star Trek Phase II.

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