In the wake of the success of Star Wars, Roddenberry, an atheist, now pushed for a film revival of the franchise, first with a 1975 treatment entitled The God Thing. This evolved into a new story entitled Planet of the Titans, which (like some original series episodes) displaced its critique of religion into Greek mythology. A full script was produced, only to be abandoned in 1977.
At the time, Paramount sought to create its own TV network, and it decided that a revived Star Trek series would serve as the network’s headliner. Star Trek: Phase II was thus announced on 17 June 1977 and was expected to start filming in May 1978. Sets were built, and fifteen scripts (including two two-parters) were completed. Leonard Nimoy did not plan to return, due to various objections (including what he believed were unpaid royalties on the Spock character). All other core cast members would have returned, with Chekov promoted to chief of security. New characters included first officer Willard Decker (son of Matt Decker from the original series episode “The Doomsday Machine”), who would command away missions; Xon, a young and brilliant Vulcan, designed in part to replace Spock; and Lt. Ilia, a Deltan, a species with shaved heads, empathic powers, and a pro-sex culture.
Paramount abandoned its plans for its own TV network, cancelling Star Trek: Phase II. But the success of 1977′s Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had demonstrated that movie audiences had a renewed taste for science fiction. Paramount proceeded with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, adapting the script for the two-part first episode of Star Trek: Phase II, “In Thy Image.” Nimoy agreed to return, Xon was written out. Willard Decker and Lt. Ilia were preserved, although they were lost at the movie’s end. Implicitly, the Enterprise’s crew began a new series of adventures at the end of the film, paralleling plans for Phase II.
The Motion Picture, released at the end of 1979, did well at the box office, despite lackluster reviews. Paramount decided to produce a sequel, and Roddenberry planned a time-travel story in which the Enterprise must restore the timeline after the Klingons use the Guardian of Forever (from the celebrated original series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”) to undo John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Paramount saw it as a continuation of the plodding, cerebral pace of The Motion Picture and rejected it. Blaming Roddenberry’s many rewrites for the expanding budget of The Motion Picture, which had risen to $46 million, Paramount removed Roddenberry’s control over the sequel.
The sequel, produced for a mere $11 million, acknowledged how much time had passed since the original series. (The Motion Picture had occurred just a few years after the conclusion of the Enterprise’s five-year mission under Kirk.) This allowed the film to address aging and death, culminating in the death of Spock, which actor Leonard Nimoy had desired. The film was intended to be the final one, but Nimoy had so much fun shooting the film, however, that Spock’s death was rewritten to allow his resurrection, should the opportunity present itself.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, released in the summer of 1982, made less at the box office than The Motion Picture but was far more profitable, due to its much lower budget. It was also critically acclaimed, especially because of its memorable villain: Khan, a character introduced in an episode of the original series (“Space Seed”) and bent on revenge against Kirk. Paramount green-lit a sequel the day after the film opened.
After Nicholas Meyer, director of The Wrath of Khan, dropped out of directing the sequel, Nimoy agreed not only to return but petitioned successfully to direct the third film. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock opened in the summer of 1984 and returned Spock to life. It was not as well received as its predecessor, although it performed almost as well.
Nimoy returned as director for the next film, now granted greater creative control by Paramount. William Shatner was initially unwilling to return, causing Paramount and Nimoy to consider a prequel set around Starfleet Academy, before Shatner signed for $2.5 million, the same amount Nimoy was paid. In addition, as a condition of Shatner’s return, Paramount promised that he could direct the next film.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home took a lighter tone, after the darker tone of the previous two films. Opening in late 1986, the film was well-received both critically and commercially. It outperformed the past two films (although not The Motion Picture) — a rare feat for sequels in the 1980s.
Leonard Nimoy, who had resisted appearing in Star Trek: Phase II and only appeared in The Wrath of Khan to give his character a final, irreversible death, had now guided the franchise through its last two, successful films. He also had become a director of other films, beginning with the hit comedy Three Men and a Baby, released in 1987, the year after The Voyage Home.
The increased salaries of Shatner and Nimoy — perhaps a quarter of The Voyage Home‘s $21 million budget — spurred Paramount to consider a new series, starring relative unknowns who could be paid less. This led to the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted in 1987. That show, overseen by Roddenberry and set a century later, would use many elements from the abandoned Star Trek: Phase II. William Riker and Deanna Troi bore a great resemblance to Willard Decker and Lt. Ilia, while Data’s quest to understand humanity paralleled the all-Vulcan Xon’s. Two scripts written for Phase II (“The Child” and “Devil’s Due”) were directly adapted for The Next Generation.
Star Trek V: The Voyage Home, based on a story initiated by Shatner and directed by Shatner, was released in summer of 1989. It was a critical and commercial flop, achieving a lower box office ($63 million) than any Star Trek film to date, even amid generally booming box office revenues. Criticism was especially heavy for Shatner, both as an actor and as the film’s director. The film series that had been riding high after The Voyage Home now seemed in jeopardy.
For a sixth film, planned in time for Star Trek’s 25th anniversary in 1991, Paramount revisited the Starfleet Academy prequel idea, originally suggested for the fourth film. A script was written, although strong negative reaction, from insiders and from fans, led to its cancellation.
Walter Koenig, the actor who played Chekov, then proposed a script in which the crew, except for Spock, would be forced into retirement for failing fitness tests. After aliens capture Spock and his new crew, the old crew would proceed with a rescue mission — and would all be killed, except for Spock and McCoy. (McCoy had already been featured on The Next Generation.) Paramount rejected it but kept the idea of using the film as a swan song for the original cast, which had not only become expensive but had grown older. Leonard Nimoy, asked for ideas, came up with the notion of using the fall of the Berlin Wall, continuing the parallel between the Klingons and the Soviet Union.
Paramount was determined to keep the film no more expensive than the previous installment. Shatner and Nimoy accepted lower salaries, in exchange for a greater percentage of the film’s revenue. Roddenberry hated the script’s military aspects and the presence of racism or bigotry within the Federation, but he was largely overruled.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country debuted in late 1991, receiving generally positive reviews and succeeding at the box office, taking in about a third more than The Final Frontier but not as much as other installments (such as The Voyage Home).
The Undiscovered Country would indeed be the final Star Trek film with the original cast. It was also the final film seen by Gene Roddenberry, whose health had been deteriorating for some time. He died on 24 October, just days after seeing a near-final cut of the film.
Of course, the film series would continue — only starring the Next Generation crew. That TV series would soon spawn its own, multiple spin-offs, vastly eclipsing the original series in terms of number of episodes. By the time the story of the original crew came to a close, Star Trek’s own future was already well underway. And when Paramount decided to relaunch the franchise, it was this first, classic crew that would be recast, culminating in the 2009 film, simply titled Star Trek.