This has been a tough time for us Star Trek fans. Not only did we lose Leonard Nimoy, we lost Harve Bennett, one of the important creative personalities behind Trek in the 1980s. It should be particularly surprising, as they were both very old men in poor health, but death has a way of always sneaking up on us. For a period in the 1980s, Nimoy and Bennett were partners in crime, building their vision of what Star Trek could be on the big screen, distinctly different from the vision Gene Roddenberry had for the series. Roddenberry, for his part, was developing The Next Generation, a show much closer to his original concept of Star Trek, while Nimoy and Bennett, along with some other key collaborators like Nicholas Meyer, were building a parallel take on the show.
Bennett came to Star Trek fairly late in life, only discovering it when he was assigned, having recently been promoted from Paramount Television to Paramount Film, what was presumed to be a moribund and short-lived film series in the early eighties. His instincts were those of a television producer, and he never lost that approach. Cost-cutting, re-using sets, marketing campaigns, building series continuity, containing actors’ salaries – this was Bennett’s world. And he loved it. You can see it in his face in documentary footage, even in his last Trek project, the unfortunate Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Here was a man who loved to own his role.
Today, we all know what a “showrunner” is, having raised several of them (Joss Whedon and JJ Abrams, to name two) to the status of pop culture Gods. But back then, TV was a closed and decidedly unglamorous world, the poor cousin of feature film. TV was produced cheap, and fast, under industry “checks” that reflected the medium’s roots in radio. We can see the DNA of this still operating today, even in Netflix series that are designed to be watched in a marathon. The episode lengths are still around an hour, even though in theory they could be any length, and there are credits at the beginning and end, just like a broadcast TV show, there’s an opening theme song and sometimes you can even spot where the commercial breaks could be placed. (That was always part of the TV writer’s mindset, so it makes sense that some industry veterans still think in terms of teaser, act breaks, commercials, etc, in that relatively rigid way. Where they could, in theory, abandon all those conventions in the modern era.) Harve Bennett was trained in that system, and managed to brings shows like The Six Million Dollar Man to great success.
One difference people always notice about Star Trek II-VI that makes them different from Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that, while the initial film is 100% “film school”, with careful wide-screen compositions, slow moves, majestic shots with textured lighting and made-up actors with clean faces, the later films look more like TV shows, with big faces filling the frames, relatively even lighting, some dodgy-looking sets and TV actors in character roles. It’s not just the look. The whole mentality of those films were “We’re making the next episode” rather than “We’re making a movie, so let’s go for broke.” Star Trek III, for example, starts with footage from II. And footage from III is shown in IV. That’s the influence of Harve Bennett, the TV man.
As a great Producer, part of Bennett’s talent was arranging and grouping other talent. It was he who had the genius to hire novelist and sometimes-filmmaker Nicholas Meyer to helm Star Trek II, even though Meyer knew nothing about Star Trek. It was Bennett who fought for Leonard Nimoy to have the Directorial position on III and to “take the training wheels off”, giving him more artistic freedom on IV. He was also smart enough to involve Nicholas Meyer in the writing of that fourth film, even though he knew Meyer was opposed to bringing back Spock in the third. Bennett had worked with writers and directors for years and knew that they came and went, and could always be tapped when needed, but the producer is the person who stays with the show.
His understanding of Star Trek was that of a dramatist, not a science fiction visionary. If you really think about it, in the films considered central to the series, II, III and IV, the crew of the Enterprise doesn’t “seek out new life and new civilizations,” “explore strange new worlds,” or “boldly go” anywhere they hadn’t been before. (The tentative exploration of the Genesis planet in Star Trek III is the closest they get, and that’s handled by another ship, the Grissom.) Bennett didn’t seem interested in those stories. What interested him was the characters, specifically the three characters at the center of the show, Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Under his guidance, the films became about those characters as people, rather than what those characters actually do. The difference is not absolute: Trek’s themes are still very much in operation in The Voyage Home, which emphasized non-violent conflict and ecological responsibility. But on the whole, these were films about the characters themselves, their relationships, and most of all their loyalty to one another. This was, of course, always a part of the original show, but in Bennett’s hands it became the main focus.
And it was clearly the right decision at the time, because those three central films are considered the best of the series (although I’ll always make an argument for the first one), and were certainly financially successful. More importantly, they showed that the original characters had life and entertainment value beyond the small screen, and kept Trek in the public eye throughout the 1980s.
The Bennett era really came to an end in 1987, with the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After that, a new Trek film simply didn’t seem as special: we could watch perfectly good, new Star Trek on TV every week. The new show was much closer to the first film than any subsequent film, and Roddenberry was the guiding force there, so the emphasis was more on ideas and society in the future than digging into the characters’ personal lives. Bennett worked with William Shatner on Star Trek V, even though Leonard Nimoy stated his many objections to that film early on. Enthusiastic as ever, he predicted it would be an even bigger hit than The Voyage Home, but clearly he didn’t see the writing on the wall. Star Trek V was the worst of the series, and the least successful. Bennett bowed out, returning to television in the 1990s, while Leonard Nimoy, in some ways his professional protege, stepped into his role on Star Trek VI in 1991, bringing back Nicholas Meyer to write and direct, focusing on the characters and throwing in just enough space politics to make it a good way to end things for the original cast. Even though Harve Bennett was not involved with The Undiscovered Country, that film would not exist without him.
Bennett and Nimoy were almost the same age, and maintained their good natured presence with the fans for as long as their health would allow them. Bennett was never heard to say a discouraging word about Star Trek and gracefully accepted that his time with the series was at an end. What he thought of the passing of his old colleague last week is unknown, but it’s hard not to think that they’re somewhere exploring the final frontier together.