Kirk Lives Again

June 21, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

Spring 1967. As the original series of Star Trek was moving toward the conclusion of its first season on television, the passionately vocal fan base waited to learn whether the series would be renewed. It was, although NBC was less than enthused with Star Trek’s overall performance (it finished 52nd in the 1967-68 ratings). For a variety of reasons, however, the network went forward with second season, although it was shifted to Friday nights at 8:30. The ratings continued to erode and, by January 1968, rumors of cancelation began to circulate. Fans undertook a massive letter-writing campaign. NBC was inundated by more that 100,000 missives. Star Trek was again renewed. (NBC claimed that they had never considered canceling Star Trek; if they had been, the letters might have changed minds.) The third season was given the so-called “death slot” – Friday night at 10:00 when most viewers in their 20s and 30s would be doing something other than watching TV. Star Trek continued its decline and cancelation occurred in early 1969. This time, the ratings were so poor that no number of letters made a difference.

Over the years, various post mortems have been offered to explain why Star Trek fared poorly in the ratings yet became a runaway hit in syndication. NBC knew at the time that the show was more popular with younger viewers (under age 40) than older ones and that it found greater traction in urban/metropolitan areas than rural ones. In the end, however, the network was forced to drop per-minute advertising charges and, once Star Trek’s ratings dropped low enough, the executives decided that a new show would likely perform better. The series’ success in syndication was a surprise to everyone, including the cast, crew, Gene Roddenberry, and Desilu/Paramount.

Unwilling or unable to backtrack but wanting to milk Star Trek for additional revenue, NBC commissioned a “fourth” and “fifth” season but, instead of being live-action programs, they were animated (or, as we called them, “Saturday morning cartoons”). The half-hour programs retained a sense of legitimacy, however. Although the animation was crude, the voices were provided by the live-action series regulars, with only Walter Koenig not participating. Many of the original series writers returned to work alongside the new talent (Koenig, although not providing a voice, wrote one of the episodes). At the time, many fans were so happy with the prospect of new Star Trek that they overlooked the animated series’ many deficiencies. Today, those 22 episodes are regarded as a curiosity and there are debates about their canonicity.

If anything, the animated series only exacerbated the hunger for new Star Trek and, by 1976, Paramount decided to pull the trigger, although it wasn’t clear what they were pulling the trigger on. Would it be a new series or a movie? The pendulum swung in one direction and, by mid-1977, everything was in place to begin Star Trek Phase 2 as the flagship show for a new Paramount network. Then came Star Wars, the pendulum swung in the other direction, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture was born.

For a while, it looked like The Motion Picture would be a one-and-done reunion. The film’s mediocre reception with critics and (some) fans made Paramount leery of moving forward with a sequel. But the box office returns were too strong to ignore. The film made $82M ($280M in today’s money), or 2.3x its budget (a budget that was inflated because it included costs for the abandoned TV series). Star Trek II was eventually commissioned but with a TV movie budget. For a while, Paramount couldn’t decide whether The Vengeance of Khan (as it was initially named) would be shown on TV or open in theaters. Once the final decision was made, the marketing started. The film’s success ensured more movie installments and the growing popularity of Star Trek resulted in four additional TV series and a phenomenon that didn’t peter out until several years into the new century.

When Paramount decided to reboot Star Trek, they recast the original crew and brought along Leonard Nimoy to provide a connection and touchstone. Star Trek (2009) was a wonderful homage to the first series but that’s all it was. By the time Paramount moved forward with the sequel (Star Trek Into Darkness), it started to feel like there were imposters on the bridge. This was most evident in Star Trek Beyond. The audience must have sensed that something was amiss – the third “JJ-Verse” (so named after J.J. Abrams) movie was a box office disappointment and put the possibility of the further adventures of Kirk and Company on hold…but for how long?

Talk to a long-time Star Trek fan for long enough and you’ll learn that the Holy Grail of lore is what the never-happened live-action fourth season might have offered. For fifty years, this has been a dream. But at least some dreams have a path to reality.

William Shatner wants back in. While Leonard Nimoy’s love/hate/love relationship with Spock has been widely documented, Shatner’s feelings about Kirk have gotten less play. Many thought it was always about the money and, if offered enough, Shatner would come back to the role. He did this in Generations to his (and most fans’) dismay. Yet there was more to it than that. Shatner continued to relish being associated with Kirk, even playing the role during the opening of the Oscarcast hosted by Seth McFarlane. As the years passed, the desire to once again don the Starfleet uniform became a pressing one. But J.J. Abrams didn’t want him so, even though Nimoy came back for two encores, Shatner remained on the sidelines (despite a scene having been written for him as a cameo opportunity in the 2009 film). Bad blood? Abrams and Shatner deny it, but read between the lines…

Shatner, however, has never been one to take “no” for an answer. With an eye toward possibly appearing in the proposed new Quentin Tarantino iteration of Star Trek (which is by no means guaranteed to happen), Shatner had taken a radical step forward. Publicly acknowledging that he can’t play any version of Kirk the way he currently looks, he has partnered with a digital imaging company and is actively working to create a synthetic Kirk – one that could replicate the way Shatner appeared in decades past. By all accounts, the early results, although not yet “ready for prime time,” are promising. We could be only a year or two away from having access to the William Shatner version of Kirk as he looked in the late 1960s (or, if preferred, at any time during the ‘80s or ‘90s).

We’ve seen a primitive version of this technology used in Rogue One. The Peter Cushing doppelganger was eerily real (no so much the Carrie Fisher one), to the point where some who didn’t know that Cushing was dead didn’t realize that Grand Moff Tarkin was the result of the merging of a body double with a digital mask. In only two years, imaging has improved by leaps and bounds and I have seen samples where it is impossible to tell that scenes aren’t played by a flesh-and-blood actor.

Software programs have lowered costs to the point where amateurs can afford to play around with the technology. A new fetish that is now flourishing on darker channels of the web involves splicing famous actress’ faces onto bodies in porn scenes. In the past, when things like this were done, the results were laughably bad, but no one is laughing now because the level or verisimilitude is striking. I haven’t seen any of the hardcore scenes but I have found a few “proof-of-concept” clips and it’s next-to-impossible to determine that the intended actress isn’t doing the scene. Ethical considerations aside, it’s remarkable.

The expectation is that the technology will be perfected within five years, although it could potentially be used in a limited fashion (as with Rogue One) before then. If Tarantino’s Star Trek gets a green light and the director decides he wants to feature the Shatner Kirk in some fashion, the tools will be available to him. It also raises possibilities with respect to Star Trek: Discovery, which has just introduced the Enterprise. A Nimoy Spock cameo isn’t beyond the realm of possibility and wouldn’t strain the show’s generous budget.

Which brings us to Season Four. By 2023 (or thereabouts), there won’t be any technological barriers to bringing together the crew of the Enterprise as they looked in 1969 and allowing them to embark on new adventures. Assuming that the surviving actors (and the rights-holders for the dead ones) give their okay, the adventures denied to viewers 50 years earlier by NBC’s cancelation of their favorite show could come to life by means of this newest wave of special effects.

And, as for the big screen, think of the possibilities… A young Han Solo movie with Harrison Ford. A fifth Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall film. Classic stars sharing the screen with new ones. When I think about things like this, it’s with a mixture of excitement and dread. Excitement, because I can imagine the kind of storytelling that could evolve from this sort of thing. Dread, because in Hollywood money will always trump creativity, which could turn this into an ugly exploitative gimmick.

One thing’s for sure, though. If this comes to pass, Star Trek truly will live long. We’ll have to see about the “and prosper” part.