George ”Sulu” Takei thought it was over in 1969, when the USS Enterprise, her warp drive sapped by lackluster ratings, docked two years short of her five-year TV mission. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Ten years later, Star Trek: The Motion Picture—boldly over budget and boldly flown unfinished to its Dec. 7, 1979, premiere—set a course for the pop-cultural cosmos.
”We’d been doing conventions. But to be working together as actors again, that was really wonderful,” recalls Takei, 64, of the production. ”You don’t have that opportunity very often.” Indeed, few properties have gotten the opportunities afforded Trek, which built most of its phenomenal fan base after cancellation. Then, in 1977, the Star Wars supernova made a Star Trek reprise nearly inevitable, at least to creator-producer Gene Roddenberry and his supporters at Paramount.
”First we were coming back as a series. Then it was a [TV] movie of the month,” says Takei. ”There were so many cries of wolf, when they actually said we were going to be filming a feature, I thought, Yeah, sure. But then they announced that Robert Wise was going to be directing it.”
Wise—the director behind The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music (”I don’t have a preferred genre,” the two-time Oscar winner says)—was intrigued when Paramount offered him the film. There was just one hitch. ”I wasn’t familiar with [Trek] at all,” he admits, and he nearly let a devastating omission slip by in the script’s first draft. ”It didn’t have Spock. And I didn’t know the difference,” he laughs. As Wise soon learned, Leonard Nimoy himself was behind the un-Vulcanized version. ”Leonard had said, ‘I’m fed up, I’m not going to put those ears on again,”’ he recalls.
After Wise persuaded Nimoy to return, offering him more room to explore his character, filming began. The budget on this tale of mankind’s reunion with the Voyager probe warped to more than double its original $20 million estimate. When the film was released, critics let loose with phasers set on harsh, but the fans buoyed it to solvency—and an $82 million gross. A dynasty was born, spawning four major spin-off series, beginning with Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987. A 10th big-screen flick, Star Trek: Nemesis, may beam down in 2002.
Wise’s Trek tour of duty may have been brief, but the fans haven’t forgotten him, as he learned at his first—and last—fan convention a few years back. ”I was introduced to tremendous howls of applause,” the now-retired 87-year-old remembers fondly. ”It’s an incredible thing, isn’t it, what Gene created?”