“Each of us, at some time in our lives, turns to someone – a father, a brother, a god – and asks: Why am I here? What was I meant to be?”
This scene from the Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is meant to convey the existential crisis that V’Ger (and to a lesser extent Spock, Kirk, and Decker) is experiencing. The same can be said about the film, which was pulled in many different directions from the beginning and, due to numerous outside forces, struggled to find itself.
That struggle is brought together in vivid detail in Return to Tomorrow, an oral history of the film from author Preston Neal Jones and publisher Creature Features.
Working from an unpublished manuscript originally intended for publication in the classic SF film magazine Cinefantastique, the book is an incredibly detailed chronicle of the film’s production, from its beginnings as the pilot for the canceled Phase II series all the way through it’s harrowing post production and theatrical release. It’s an extraordinary deep dive into the nuts and bolts of making an effects-driven film in the late 1970’s and illustrates the unique challenges inherent in trying to revive a classic television show for the big screen. The book is an absolute treasure trove, and will appeal to both Trek and film fans alike.
Virtually all of the key players involved in the production are present, including then-Paramount executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, Gene Roddenberry, and many of the cast and crew (the notable exceptions being visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull and the man he replaced, Robert Abel).
The book is presented as it was intended to be published in 1980, and as such is a remarkable snapshot of an era before Star Trek became a giant multimedia franchise, when all there was were three seasons of a cult tv show. There is speculation throughout the book about the film’s chances and whether potential success could portend a sequel or a new series. This complete lack of hindsight makes for a very charming read.
No aspect of the production is left unexplored. Details range from the cast reaction to returning to Trek (Shatner didn’t believe it was truly happening until he was standing on the bridge on the first day) to the ingenious way the Enterprise’s “intermix chamber” effect was achieved, to the various drafts the script went through during production.
There are wonderful little nuggets, like Gene finding the new uniforms too militaristic(!), to the extraordinary cost of the main Enterprise miniature (over $1 million), to paths not taken (Gene initially wanted Ilia to survive the meld with V’Ger and return to the Enterprise). There are gems like these, both big and small, throughout the book.
Because this is a book about TMP, much of it is devoted to the film’s myriad problems, particularly in post production. It was clear to many people early on (including some of the actors) that Robert Abel & Associates, the FX company contracted to do the film, were in over their heads. Paramount, already laying out huge sums to Abel, resisted entreaties from Doug Trumbull to take over the work. By the time he was brought in to consult on and ultimately take over the job, months had passed, and the production had little more than one year to get the effects ready, resulting in a mad dash to meet the film’s locked-in release date.
One figure who emerges as a true hero is director Robert Wise, whose superhuman effort made sure the Enterprise got out of dry dock. He did everything he could to make Trek into a true cinematic experience, all the while trying to hold together a very difficult production which continually resisted order (and which, by the way, never had a definitive budget). Throughout the book, Wise is lauded by virtually everyone for his great skill and his extraordinary grace in dealing calmly with problems that seemed to grow bigger by the day.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I loved this book. The story contained within is as much of an odyssey as the journey the Enterprise takes in the film, and I give it my highest recommendation.
SPECIAL BONUS! A few weeks back, our colleagues at The Digital Bits published a roundtable discussion about TMP that featured many Trek illuminati, including the Okudas, Mark Altman, Robert Meyer Burnett, Jeff Bond, Neil Bulk, Daren Dochterman, David Fein, Mike Mattesino, and Scott Mantz. It’s a great discussion and serves as a perfect companion piece to this book.
JULY 2020 UPDATE
The first print runs of Return to Tomorrow sold out years ago, however, a digital version was released in July of 2020. You can pick it up now at Amazon for $7.95.
Keep up with all the Star Trek books news and reviews at TrekMovie.com.