In 1977, fans of the original Star Trek series received the best “incoming transmission” they could hope for. Even though NBC had canceled creator Gene Roddenberry‘s ambitious venture after three seasons of disappointingly low ratings, the show had gained a large and active cult following in the interim thanks to syndicated re-runs; Paramount executives knew an opportunity when they saw one.
After several failed attempts at reviving Roddenberry’s concept into feature films (in an evil mirror universe, Star Trek: Planet of the Titans was the first movie), Paramount instead announced a brand new series titled Star Trek: Phase II. The project would also serve as the flagship show of Paramount’s new Paramount Television Service Network, heralding a new era of science fiction television.
‘Star Trek: Phase II’ Had A New Five-Year Mission
In most attributes, Phase II intended to organically resume where The Original Series left off, and in minor ways, not as much. Although TOS chronicled three years of the Enterprise crew’s five-year mission, Paramount president Barry Diller set a new five-year exploration as Phase II’s underlying plot. Roddenberry would executive produce and almost all the original cast officially signed on to reprise the characters they left behind eleven years ago.
Almost all, save one conspicuously absent name. Leonard Nimoy declined to play Spock again due to the character’s extremely reduced role. In retrospect, a continuation of TOS without the most enduring, integral, and representative character of the franchise is reason enough for fans to rejoice that Phase II never hit the airwaves. Audiences may never have known differently, but trying to imagine Star Trek without the esteemed gravitas, charm, and integrity of Nimoy feels fundamentally wrong.
The screenwriting team, led by Roddenberry, added new Starfleet officers to the main cast. Xon, a twenty-two-year-old Vulcan, was designed as Spock’s youthful replacement, with actor David Gautreaux in the role. Xon’s defining point of difference was being the child of two Vulcan parents and seeking to understand human emotions, not ignore them. As the writers’ bible put it, Xon’s quest was to “find the emotions that his society [had] repressed for thousands of years so that he will have some basis for fully understanding his Human associates.”
Another newcomer was first officer Will Decker (Stephen Collins). The extremely loyal but wise-cracking right-hand man would act as Kirk’s direct protégé with the dynamics of a surrogate father and son. Decker survived Phase II’s cancelation but in a much smaller role in The Motion Picture. Rounding out the new generation was Illia (Persis Khambatta), an intelligent, empathetic, and sensual lieutenant from the Delta V planet and likewise featured in The Motion Picture. (And if the characteristics of both characters sound familiar, more on that later.)
Ships, Sets, and Props, Oh My
Designer Matt Jeffries took extreme care in creating new, bigger, higher-budget sets for the Enterprise interior and intricate models for the exterior shots. Many of Jeffries’ sleeker changes were incorporated into the Enterprise seen (many times) in The Motion Picture. The production team also upgraded most props (a phaser with batteries included!). Roddenberry and the creative group wrote a two-hour pilot called “In Thy Image,” and Paramount set a premiere date for early 1978.
Pre-production for Phase II continued in earnest for months, but as history demonstrates, neither the series nor Paramount’s new network happened as originally conceived. Executives doubted a new Star Trek would interest advertisers enough to earn a significant profit. The follow-up to a canceled series was risky, and despite the amount of time, effort, and (most importantly) money invested in Phase II, plans for a full series shifted into a made-for-TV movie version of “In Thy Image” less than two months after the studio had announced Phase II.
Not long after, a little independent movie forever changed the media landscape. Star Wars: A New Hope was such a runaway success that Paramount adjusted Phase II yet again, this time approving the feature film Roddenberry had initially wanted. He revised Phase II‘s pilot script for a third time, into the spectacle fans know as The Motion Picture.
‘Phase II’ Influenced Future ‘Star Trek’ Many Times Over
Over a decade later, Phase II‘s unrealized legacy still echoed across the canon. The characters of Decker and Illia served as blueprints for Star Trek: The Next Generation crew members Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). Even the concept of an original Paramount network evolved into UPN, whose flagship series in 1995 was none other than Star Trek: Voyager.
Although reception to The Motion Picture was, and still is, polarizing, five more films with the original cast followed in its wake. The Next Generation elevated Roddenberry’s concept to new narrative heights, introduced Trek to modern culture on a wider scale, and spawned four films of its own and three additional spin-offs. Phase II never gracing television screens was fated for the better, it seems. Those kernels of ideas from 1977 secured the future of Star Trek as a beloved property and multi-billion dollar franchise — something better than every fan from 1966 onward could dream of.