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Back to the Future

When the lights finally came up in the Washington, D.C., movie theater, Leonard Nimoy sat still, silent, and a bit shaken. He could scarcely believe what he had seen--and what he had not seen. The movie was beautiful, but beneath the surface sheen, there was no heart, no soul. It had been hard enough for Nimoy to once again don Mr. Spock's pointed ears--among the reasons he signed on to rejoin the crew of the Starship Enterprise was simply because he didn't want to read in the press about how Mr. Spock hated Star Trek. Now, sitting in the theater a day before Star Trek: The Motion Picture's release in December 1979, all he could think about was how big a mistake he might have made.

What Nimoy witnessed that night sitting with the film's director, Robert Wise; Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry; and the cast bore only slight resemblance to the television series with which he had been so closely identified since 1966. Yes, there was Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Spock, Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and the rest of the crew aboard the sleek, redesigned Enterprise, reunited on screen for the first time since NBC canceled Star Trek in 1969. But the film felt as though it was made by Nimoy's Vulcan: Filled with excruciatingly long sequences of actors staring into the void--or, more accurately, blue screens that would later be filled with gorgeous, but often tedious, special-effects sequences--the movie was emotionless, stoic, static. Somewhere in there was a story about how a machine--in this case, the Voyager space probe, known as V'ger--had come back to earth seeking its creator, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture contained none of the charm, humor, and warmth that made the old show a legend after its demise. The film was as cold and empty as space itself.

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture was closer in vision to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey," Nimoy says. "It wasn't like Star Wars. That movie had action, adventure, fun, a sense of humor, great characters, mythology--all that stuff that makes for an exciting movie adventure. The audience laughs and cheers and applauds, and there was none of that watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

If NBC hadn't managed to kill Trek in 1969, maybe Paramount Pictures had offed it a decade later. That's what Nimoy thought that December night.

Of course, Trek would survive and thrive. Eight subsequent films and three more series based on the original show would render Star Trek a billion-dollar franchise for the studio, and even the first film turned an enormous profit. Since its release, it has grossed almost $160 million worldwide, a fortune considering its $45-million budget. But to this day, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is considered by the filmmakers, the cast, and the series' fans as a best.

Perhaps that will be rectified later this year, when Paramount releases on DVD Star Trek: The Motion Picture Director's Edition, the film as Robert Wise intended it to be seen in 1979. Wise, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1941 for his editing of Citizen Kane, never had a chance to complete Trek, which was yanked away from him by the studio and plopped into theaters in hopes of cashing in on the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Paramount wanted the movie in theaters for the holidays, even though the special effects weren't even completed till, literally, the last minute.

Wise possesses the sort of résumé that guarantees immortality. In 1961, he won his first Academy Award for directing that year's best picture, West Side Story; in 1965, he again took home the dual honors for his work on Sound of Music. And among the 38 other movies in his filmography, one will find a litany of brilliant and beloved films, among them The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Somebody Up There Likes Me ('56), Run Silent, Run Deep and I Want to Live! (both in 1958), and The Sand Pebbles ('66).

But for years Wise refused to even talk about ST:TMP (as it's known among fans), and in any book by or about Wise, the movie receives only scant mention, as though eradicating it from the text will erase it from memory. Of his involvement with the picture, he would only say--and often say--it was "disappointing," but what he refused to say said more than enough.

"At the time I made it, I was pretty unhappy," the 86-year-old Wise says now. "There were some unfortunate things going on. We had problems with the script--we were rewriting the script all the way through--and I got along well with the actors, but it was not one of my happiest experiences, so I always had a bit of a downer on it. There were so many things taken out I don't think should have been taken out, so when I had a chance to go back belatedly and put some of those scenes back in, that made me much happier about the film. With all my other films, everything went fine--I got my cut on them and got along with the studios. This is the only one I had this experience with."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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