BOOK REVIEW: ‘Return To Tomorrow’ Takes Us Inside The Making Of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

“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Working from an unpublished manuscript originally intended for publication in the classic SF film magazine Cinefantastique, the book is an incredibly detailed chronicle of the film’s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.


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

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Nice review Brian. Thanks for the other link too.


I think it is unnecessarily confusing to name the book after a completely unrelated (and lousy) TOS episode. :)

Other than that I’m sure it will be an extremely interesting read.

Super book. More information than can be digested in one reading — at least for me. It’s mostly interviews, with some excellent sections by the author — also very informative — that puts everything in context. I recognized some info (from Starlog and others over the years) but mostly it’s new stuff — FX in incredible detail; too many on-set nuggets to mention — like the actor’s emotional reaction to TMP’s first scene — the bridge as Kirk comes aboard ( Hint; they needed new makeup). This ranks with Whitfield’s Making of Star Trek, in my opinion. Still want to see the Memory Wall footage, though. Glad they did this.

In this modern day of ebooks, i don’t know why they just don’t have digital downloads.

As far as not talking to Abel and Trumbull, I know Abel died a few years ago, but Trumbull is still alive. They should have contacted him before publishing, imho. With Nimoy and Bennett’s passing, our Trek family is getting older and who knows who will be next.

I remember reading in either the Dec ’79 or Jan ’80 Starlog that Trumbull reportedly said that he would deliver effects on time for the movie’s premier as promised. BUT, if he had a Jan release, he would deliver BETTER fx and a March opening, he would deliver the BEST POSSIBLE fx. I would’ve liked to know just what scenes he was referring to looking back. We know of the Director’s Edition’s new shots but the extras don’t have him commenting on his alleged statement.

As far as the the $1M cost for the Enterprise, I don’t doubt it a bit. I’m wondering if they are also tacking on the cost of the Phase II Enterprise as well, since they charged its production to TMPs final budget tally.. and these are ’79 dollars! But look at the details. The loving attention to detail especially the ‘skin’ of the Enterprise that upon close inspection looks as if the ship has thousands and thousands of ’tiles’ ala the old space shuttle. Its a shame ILM spray painted over the model when they took over the FX because of the reflective nature of the model.

On another Trumbull note, I recall him stating his FX co bid less for the work on Star Trek II but Paramount chose to go with ILM even though they charged more. Not to detract from ILM’s work, they did great work, but Trumbull (and Dykstra) saved Paramount’s behind by coming through and delivering TMPs FX on time pretty much saving that movie. Thats thanks for you.

Just my thought, but I think Paramount should’ve stuck with Trumbull. His FX work is distinctive and he works with 65mm. It would’ve given the Trek features a distinctive nature to them rather than to have ILM work on it and have the inevitable Star Wars comparisons critiques come.

Another Trumbull plus is that of all the Star Trek films, TMP was the only film (aside from the JJ reboot) to be Oscar nominated for VFX.

Re: Memory Wall footage. The sequence was finished and was supposedly too long and unexciting. Coming off of the also ‘long’ Vger maw/chamber travel scenes, both scenes would’ve induced comas. It must exist somewhere for a future BluRay Ultimate or FINAL edition. :)

“Gene finding the new uniforms too militaristic(!)”

Many people did at the time. Go look up old Starlogs or Best of Trek or the like. People said the same about Goldsmith’s march.

#4: Memory Wall; Just wanted to see Kirk trapped by those little sensors and see Spock rescue him with the phaser; it would have added some physical action to the movie. The stills of it look pretty good. As stated in this review, one notable exception is Robert Abel’s side. From my read, he had good intentions; not enough time. Any new footage would make a great addition to any new release; make that a must buy.

The Memory Wall sequence is one of the holy grails of Trek. We know it exists – not sure why it’s never seen the light of day as an extra on a home video release. The little bit featured in the TMP: DE set is nice, but there’s a great deal more.

For those who might not know, ST: TMP Memory Wall pictures:



You might want to check out Cinefex’s Optical podcast, which has an interview with Trumbull reminiscing about his experience working on TMP.

I don’t know why folks keep claiming the memory wall/trench stuff was finished. There’s not much indication I’ve found that more than about 3/4 of it was actually shot to anybody’s satisfaction, and that’s not counting all of the post work that would be needed to make it play.

This is a pretty good review; I’d put a link in to mine, but ICG didn’t put it on the website, just in the magazine’s March issue. They also used a couple of pics of the ship that look to be HEAVILY photoshopped, to the point where it looks like CG recreations of shots, of the ship in dock and the sunrise shot as it orbits.

Quick question –

Does anyone know why the spacesuits worn by Spock and Kirk in these ‘memory wall’ scenes were totally re-designed for the ones seen in the final movie? (although I prefer the final ‘wider-helmet’ suits used in the movie, I’m just curious why these original ones were changed, as they look pretty good too I reckon)

Trumbull thought the original suits would be laughed off the screen, as did most of the folks on production. Plus they were nightmares in terms of reflecting the camera and crew, and if the original footage had been used, there would have been insane optical bills painting out reflections on each frame (which was a much bigger deal in the pre-digital era believe me.)

It’s a wonderful book. The content is terrific, but so is the layout and design; the typography is beautiful. I’m about halfway through and am enjoying every page.

Kmart –

Thanks. Would love to read your review when it finally hits the interwebs.

I never said the Memory Wall stuff was finished, but you and I both know that there’s much more footage out there than has been seen. What was included on the DE dvd was pretty limited. Hopefully we’ll see that material eventually.

B Kramer –

That link is incredible. There’s even more stuff out there an I thought!

@1: I did the fan-made hi-def remater of the “Director’s Edition” trailer. Let’s hope Paramount would commission CBS Digital to recreate the standard-definition “Director’s Edition” VFX originally created in 2000 and finalize some VFX seen in the theatrical cut–not counting the ones replaced in the original “Directior’s Edition” for the upcoming hi-def “Director’s Edition” as part of the “Collector’s Edition” Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD that would also include the original theatrical cut.

OK, I am going to have to buy this now. I already learned one thing that completely turns my world around. I have mistakenly always thought that Wise was beyond his prime and going through the motions…obviously that was not the case.

@ #13 kmart –

Thanks for your answer. I had just assumed it was purely a decision by the director Robert Wise. Interesting to see that Trumbull and others wanted those suits re-designed.

@17 Absolutely fantastic job DDP1. Agree 100%. Best.

@16 Brian for sure, and glad you liked it. Best.

As originally conceived, the spacewalk would have been ungainly and slow–TMP certainly didn’t need more of that–as well as a blatant ripoff of a similar scene in FANTASTIC VOYAGE, with Kirk and Spock being swarmed by Vejur’s defensive “antibodies.”

Doug Trumbull’s impact on TMP went a ways beyond producing the visual FX in spite of the enormous challenge in getting them completed on time for the film’s release. In addition to having the spacesuits redesigned he actually re-wrote the dialogue for the shortened Spock spacewalk sequence (perhaps the most lyrical and beautiful in the film), and proposed a coda where Vejur disgorges the digitized Klingon cruisers as it “evolves” to its higher plane, which the Enterprise must then fight to its near-destruction.

He’s a genius, but I gather that his making no secret of his awareness that he’s the brightest guy in the room may have something to do with his career in Hollywood being less fruitful than it ultimately should have been.

The book is ‘OK’. No photos or artwork from the film. The definitive book on this and the other TOS films is now being written by Marc Cushman. Look for it to be richly illustrated and very comprehensive. It’ll have updated interviews (this book soley consists of interviews taken at the time, before perspective from a distance was possible).

It’s worth purchasing, however. But the story is sad. Because it’s obvious that many people put their all into making TMP a great film. The writing was it’s downfall, not the restrictive production schedule.

@ 23 Anthony Thompson–

Oh God, I can already feel kmart’s impending response, like the wind from an onrushing freight train. :-)

@ Anthony Thompson

“(this book soley consists of interviews taken at the time, before perspective from a distance was possible).”

Sure, to have a full understanding, one would want to read material cover both perspectives — “a the time” and “from a distance.”

The truth would like somewhere in-between in most cases.

I didn’t know about this! I’ll have to pick it up! This is my favorite era of Trek.

How can i get worked up over Cushman rewriting history again with shoddy scholarship when we’ve already got most of it in down in black-and-white with RtT? Coupled with other existing texts, most of the story IS out there at this point … and the stuff that isn’t, is mostly with dead people. I’ve talked with a lot of TMP alums over the last 25 years and it’s amazing how vague the recollections were even by 1990 in most cases.

As for ‘richly illustrated’ … it’d be interesting to see what kinds of images can be licensed for free, that’s for sure. In order to ‘richly illustrate’ THE INVISIBLE ART, the definitive book on matte painting, the author had to pay out something like six figures in royalties to the studios, in dollars and in trade (he had a vfx shop at the time), to get the photo rights.

Well said, kmart. I could not agree more.

17. DonDonP1 – March 18, 2015

I’ve seen several people online say the same thing about wishing CBS-Digital would be commissioned to recreate the Director’s Edition CGI in HD. Why CBS-Digital? The team who made the FX for the Directors edition still have all of the original project files sitting on a Hard drive waiting to be updated and re-rendered in HD. There is no need to re-create everything from scratch.

The complete “filmed” Memory Wall test footage was lost when they went to creating the home video on dvd release. Only a portion remained intact. Apparantly the guy assigned to take the footage out of archived storage and transfer it messed up big time. Trying to recall the text onscreen during the featurette that mentions this horrible incident as the film being subjected to a unfortunate accident, and that this footage was the “only” copy, hopelessly lost forever!

The dvd home video version had a limited feaurette showing the very brief memory wall footage known to exist. The guy who had been given the only surviving remaining test footage of what was shot…was charged with taking that footage to transfer it to video for the dvd release and the onscreen text stated an accident through neglegence ruined this footage and was lost forever unfortuantely.

31 Michael watch it pop up somehow for the HD version. ;^)

#32. B Kramer – March 20, 2015

“…watch it pop up somehow for the HD version.” — B Kramer

So we are now counting on the obsessive compulsive nature of fans to save every Trek thing to “save” Paramount’s hide? Actually, stranger things happened in the saga to resurrect the lost footage that was THE CAGE and the original second pilot; not to mention the Doctor Who episodes’ lost footage. Sounds like a plan.

Okay, we’ve only got 475 days and 8 hours until the next movie’s out and there’s been zero promotion (there weren’t even posters in the subway station this morning — there aren’t even bootleg copies torrenting yet) so why are we wasting precious time talking about a book about a movie that was released 12,887 days ago?

This is a disaster.

*Not trying to be a total dick. The first day of spring has me feeling a little punchy!

# 34. Jack – March 20, 2015

” This is a disaster.” — Jack

“This” is typical when you move into the “blockbuster” arena:

In other words, if you want your Treks with maxi-sized budgets, get used to the fact that third leg of the stool often never materializes.

And I’m not sure exactly what to make of this:

but it appears as if JJ threw Orci’s first directing gig under the bus so that he could save Chris Alender’s?


Thanks for those links. That second link is certainly Interesting, but how you possibly make that jump from that article to your comment on JJ throwing Oric under the bus?

I see absolutely no relationship indicated here between the two events? What in this article supports this theory?

# 36. Prodigal Son – March 20, 2015

” I see absolutely no relationship indicated here between the two events? What in this article supports this theory?” — Prodigal Son

Which is why I said “I’m not sure.”

However, the facts are that Paramount was dragging its heels on two of Bad Robot’s first time director projects pretty much simultaenously for some reason. One, Paramount is “persuaded” to let go to another studio [Sony] to potentially make money in direct competition against them in the theater exhibition marketplace at a time when Paramount is churning its president position to get more movies made. Paramount doesn’t let their production deals go to other studios without getting something significant in return [see:Paramount’s crowing over negotiations with Disney for IRONMAN and THOR]. Bad Robot is no Disney so persuading Paramount with cash was out. Ergo JJ had to give them something else they wanted. It is clear they weren’t happy with Orci’s scripts so it isn’t that big of a leap to see that they probably weren’t taken with his “vision” as a director for whatever it was they wanted. Thus I concluded with no certainty that the easiest maneuver given the circumstances and the known outcome was to jettison director Bob in deference to Paramount in spite of an ongoing valiant attempt to keep him in the chair, so that Bad Robot could get their shot with Alender and his project at another more fertile field.

If this is indeed what happened, it would be a very clever move on Brad Grey’s part. This way he get’s JJ to get Bob to cave and Paramount doesn’t have to taint their Trek with any significant “bad” PR aura for being the guys that “fired” Bob.

OK, I have to admit, even though what you say is 100% conjecture, its pretty compelling, and logical to boot.

27. Kevin Martin

Pretty sweeping statement from one who has NOT read the Cushman books. Myself? I’d rather take the word of Leonard Nimoy, David Gerrold and many others who were associated with TOS who have clearly stated that the Cushman books are the definitive story of that series.

Er, I was kidding, guys. It’ll be fine.

I didn’t know about this! This is my favorite era of Trek.

Something I’ll have to pick up. It would be esp. interesting to read about contemporary perspectives. We all know what was to come, but it’s be nice to read interviews and so forth where they had no idea what the future holds.

TMP is my favorite Star Trek film (I know I’m very much in the minority there). It’s not that I don’t see that it had it’s faults, but it was probably the purest Star Trek in the sense of sci-fi. It also had a sense of “bigness” that most of the movies that followed didn’t always have. It ended up having fantastic special effects for 1979 that IMHO still hold up even today and I have to say, Jerry Goldsmith did the best job with his music on Star Trek. Not to say the non-Goldsmith films didn’t have good scores too, but for me Goldsmith seemed to capture the essence of Star Trek the best, the sound of boldly going forward.

And at the end of the day, it was sometime in 1986 when I finally rented out TMP that a Trekkie was born (I only remember the year because I saw it a few months before TVH came out). I had seen TWOK and TSFS, but it was TMP that turned the corner for me. I then saw TWOK and TSFS in a new light, as a Trekkie, and was excited to see TVH. But for me it began with TMP and that will forever be my favorite Star Trek film.

37–I see it more as Bob Orci dropped out of the director’s chair (or maybe he was encouraged) because it appears his script may have been rejected. That is not uncommon in the movie business. It may not be a slam necessarily on Bob, JJ or anyone else. Just maybe that Paramount didn’t like Bob’s draft and everyone decided to move on in a different direction.

But this too is also conjecture, but it does happen a lot in Hollywood so I wouldn’t be surprise in either event.

#41. Damian – March 21, 2015

You don’t seem to have a a clear grasp of the meaning of the word “slam” as a rejection after initially getting the gig is rarely an IDIC experience in Hollywood. That the process was NOT a smooth mutually arrived at decision by all the parties involved seemed self-evident in the fact that Orci, still raw from the experience, went on to violate is own personal professional standards and attacked a fellow writer and his work right here in public at TrekMovie. And it’s not as if we who observed that were totally taken by surprise as he warmed up to it by making snide indirect innuendo laced comments about another writer, David Gerrold, which he excused by claiming that as Bad Robot’s resident Trek expert he had total amnesia about who Gerrold was to the point that he could not even recall him as a very active member of his own union or his contribution to the Trek comic that Bob was consulting on.

And as a final coda before turning over the reigns in a largely ceremonial act here, he repeated a move of borrowing an epithet which became a source of much bad press for him when he did it with, oddly enough, fellow scriptwriter Simon Pegg’s “bon mot” prior and he told commenters here to metaphorically “drop dead” with “Just hold your breath.”

Whether we take all of Bob’s comments skeptically or at face value, I just don’t see any of it as reflecting the Kumbaya moment in your conjecture.

Bob’s a passionate man. It’s the sort of passion I would have much rather had channeled into the next Trek movie’s directing but, unfortunately, that was not to be.

@44. Disinvited,

Perhaps some day in the future, Empire magazine will run a feature about the troubling shooting of ST XIII similar to the one they made about Alien 3.

The similarities between the two productions are so bizarre.

Alien3: Set Visit To A Troubled Sequel
A first-hand account of David Fincher’s Alien effort

The third movie in the Alien series was a hot ticket at the time. The Bond films were halted and locked in a bitter legal battle that eventually took six years to resolve. So Alien had suddenly become one of the world’s biggest franchises and was camped […] on Pinewood’s giant 007 Stage.

There had been much gossip about what was going on — or, rather, what wasn’t going on. The endless takes, a cast mystified by a script that was being written as they filmed, and a crew forced to work late, night after night. Yet it had already taken two years to get to this point, from the days when Renny Harlin announced he would like to follow in the footsteps of Ridley Scott and James Cameron, and make an Alien movie.

Enter David Fincher…

Fincher had just celebrated his 28th birthday. The only entries of note on his CV had been a couple of Madonna videos a few years before. Hopes were not high, and the budget was already drifting up to $50 million.

Weaver, 41 at the time, does not even attempt to cover up the production problems. They said, with Alien, you can’t hear a scream in outer space. But you certainly can on the ground in deepest Buckinghamshire. “We have had to make a lot of changes in the script as we’ve gone along,” she says. “We were building the sets before we had a script and having to cast it quickly, because of time concerns. That was not the way that Fincher wanted to do his first film.

39, Thompson,
I correspond with genuine Trek scholars, dude, the ones who now realize every correction to the record they make is immediately appropriated in the next edition Cushman pops out. It’s actually possible that he will hurt the historical record overall, since the information will actually only be found by those who dig it up AND THEN ALSO accurately report what they find, while the rest of us will only have this shaky accounting.

I used to say that if a copy of one of these TATVs turned up at Goodwill for a couple bucks, I’d buy it, that way I knew my money wasn’t going into the wrong person’s pocket for shoddy research and questionable ethics regarding the various photo issues. That’s no longer true; now I wouldn’t read these even if they were free.

Did anybody ever figure out who TREKSTER really was?

#45. Ahmed – March 21, 2015

I’d probably read it. BTW there is absolutely no reason why this should or would be of concern to you but as a window into the workings of my inner voice: I’d have gone for the doble entendre with an opening line of “Perhaps some day in the future, Empire magazine will run a feature about the trouble shooting of ST XIII similar to the one they made about Alien 3.” and meant both meanings.

Sounds super interesting but that’s a hefty price! And no ebook which is an additional bummer.

46. Kevin Martin

Again, I’ll take the word of folks like Nimoy, Gerrold, Koenig and others who were actually there over so-called Trek “scholars”.

As for the photo issue (which only you seem to give a whit about) I suggest that you advise any aggrieved parties to sue Mr. Cushman or JacobsBrown immediately. But they won’t. You know why? Because they don’t own the copyrights to those images any more than Mr. Cushman does. Paramount owns them. Mr. Roddenberry may have sold many film trims from TOS, but he did NOT sell the copyright to those images. Paramount owns the right to those images (restored or not). And I haven’t heard a peep of protest from the studio. Have you?

46. Kevin Martin

‘Return To Tomorrow’ won’t need any corrections. Because it’s just a regurgitation of very old interviews. I hope Preston Neal Jones didn’t break out a sweat. ; )