A canceled Star Trek show from the '70s quietly shaped every sequel since

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Sep 27, 2017, 1:30 PM EDT

As we commemorate the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation this week, let's look back at the Star Trek series that was almost there first.

The show was called Star Trek: Phase II, and had it gone into production (see concept art here and elsewhere peppered around this article), it would have hit the airwaves almost a decade before Star Trek: The Next Generation -- and might have changed the course of the franchise's history to this day.

It was back in 1972 that the idea of bringing back Star Trek was first mooted by executives at Paramount, the studio that owned the property. Then, seeing how well the original series' 79 episodes were doing in endless syndication reruns, and how active and large the fan base was, Paramount brass proposed a low-budget Star Trek motion picture.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry signed a contract to produce a film with the tentative title Star Trek: The God Thing, based on his original story idea. But after numerous scripts were pitched and discarded, the project transitioned into another concept, Star Trek: Planet of the Titans, this time with well-known director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) on board.

But that proposed picture was killed in May 1977, just two weeks before the release of Star Wars. The Paramount suits believed that the market for sci-fi wasn't big enough to support more than one movie (not realizing that they would be proven wrong by Close Encounters of the Third Kind just a few months later), so they left the big screen to Star Wars and decided to take Trek back to television. Thus began the strange and murky saga of Star Trek: Phase II...


Phase II was supposed to launch a 4th TV network

Part of the reason Paramount decided to relaunch Star Trek on TV instead of as a movie was so that it could be the flagship offering of a new Paramount-operated television network that would compete with the big three (CBS, ABC and NBC). The network and the series were announced with great fanfare in June 1977; by August 1977, the network idea was dead due to insurmountable financial obstacles. But it would come back to life more than 15 years later as the United Paramount Network (UPN), using Star Trek: Voyager as its debut offering.


The initial plan: showrunners and writers

Gene Roddenberry was once again in charge of the show, and hired Harold Livingston and Robert Goodwin (who later went to work on The X-Files for many years) as his co-executive producers. The plan was to launch the new series with a two-hour pilot, followed by 13 one-hour episodes. Livingston met with a number of writers to hear story pitches, including sci-fi luminaries like Theodore Sturgeon and David Gerrold who had written for the original series. Also pitching a story? Walter Koenig, aka Pavel Chekov.


The old familiar faces

William Shatner (Captain Kirk), DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Walter Koenig (Chekov), George Takei (Sulu), Majel Barrett (Chapel) and Grace Lee Whitney (Rand) were all signed to return at substantially higher pay than they had received for the original series. But Paramount execs were worried that Shatner would become too expensive to keep the longer the series stayed on the air, so they asked for a contingency plan in which he would eventually be killed off and replaced with a younger commander. And what about a certain science officer...?


The new guys

In case Kirk had to be nuked, the producers created the character of young executive officer Will Decker -- who was never cast for the TV series but would eventually be played by Stephen Collins in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. More problematic was the status of Spock. Leonard Nimoy refused to return, even for limited appearances, partially over an ongoing legal dispute with Roddenberry. So the character of Xon was conceived: a full-blooded young Vulcan who would take Spock's place as Science Officer. Cast in the role was David Gautreaux, who more or less walked in off the street and auditioned against seven other actors to win the part.


The new woman

Also cast in Phase II was Indian actress Persis Khambatta as Ilia, an exotic -- and totally bald -- inhabitant of the planet Delta. Paramount execs balked at the idea of a bald woman on the bridge (just as they would complain about a bald Captain Picard 10 years later -- what is their hair issue?) but Roddenberry stood firm. Ilia was conceived as part of Roddenberry's attempt to have more women in positions of authority on the Enterprise bridge, and although the character was retained for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that aspect of her character was seemingly left behind. Some elements of Ilia also later showed up in Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), the ship's counselor on Star Trek: The Next Generation.


The pilot episode

With 13 scripts in various stages of pre-production, the one chosen as Star Trek: Phase II's two-hour pilot was "In Thy Image" by sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster. Based on an idea from Roddenberry and fleshed out by Foster (with a final teleplay by Livingston), it told the story of a NASA probe that returns to Earth centuries after it vanished into interstellar space, only now it's merged with an artificial alien intelligence. If that sounds like something you've seen, that's because it is: not only was the same idea used for the original series episode "The Changeling," but "In Thy Image" was eventually transformed more or less intact into the screenplay for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.


Reuse and recycle

"In Thy Image" wasn't the only Phase II story that was turned into something else. Two more scripts commissioned for Phase II's first season later became episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The first, "The Child," dealt with Lieutenant Ilia becoming mysteriously pregnant and giving birth to a baby girl. The story ended up as the second season opener for TNG with the focus changed to Deanna Troi. A second Phase II script, "Devil's Due" -- about a mythical creature who turns to be real and the "owner" of a planet that the Enterprise has just arrived at -- was later revised extensively and surfaced as the 13th episode of TNG's fourth season.


Surprise! You're cancelled

Although pre-production on Star Trek Phase II -- including casting, writing, costuming, the construction of sets and the design of visual effects -- continued through the summer and early fall of 1977, it was August of that year that the idea of the Paramount television network was scrapped...and Star Trek Phase II along with it. Executives kept the decision a secret from all but a few key personnel, concerned that bad press could damage the prospects of what they had already decided was going to be a Star Trek feature film instead. Finally, in November 1977, the news was made official just weeks before shooting was scheduled to start on Phase II: the show was dead, and all the work done to that point was being converted over to what became Star Trek: The Motion Picture.


Upgrading to the big screen

Transforming Star Trek: Phase II into Star Trek: The Motion Picture wasn't as easy as a quick shuttlecraft ride over to the Enterprise. Harold Livingston and Gene Roddenberry both rewrote "In Thy Image" as a feature film script -- which caused bad blood when Paramount chose Livingston's version over that of the Great Bird of the Galaxy. Many of the sets, models and costumes were upgraded to feature film quality at considerable cost. Pilot director Robert Collins was dismissed in favor of Robert Wise, the legendary director of The Haunting, West Side Story and The Andromeda Strain. The good news was that Leonard Nimoy was coaxed back to play Spock -- although that meant that poor David Gautreaux was consigned to a minor human role and the character of Xon -- played by another actor -- was glimpsed only briefly in the movie before being killed in a transporter accident.


The legacy

The DNA of Star Trek: Phase II could be found in succeeding iterations of the franchise through Star Trek: Voyager. The basic foundations of the Phase II sets were kept in place and used for the movies and portions of the next three TV series, with the underlying structures finally changed in 2001 for Star Trek: Enterprise. Aspects of the young Vulcan science officer Xon showed up in Lieutenant Saavik in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and even the android Data, while the one-time romantic partners Decker and Ilia transformed into The Next Generation's Riker and Troi. Even certain elements of the Klingons that were first explored in a Phase II script called "Kitumba" found their way into the franchise later on. Of course, as we mentioned earlier, the idea of a Paramount TV network finally came to fruition in 1995 with UPN and Star Trek Voyager.

Harder to ascertain is whether Star Trek: Phase II would have been a hit or even lasted more than one season. If Phase II had not been a success and was cancelled, it could have stopped the franchise in its tracks. There might have been no movies, no Star Trek: The Next Generation, no Deep Space Nine... nothing. On the other hand, the seeds planted via Phase II did lead to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which relaunched Star Trek beyond what even Gene Roddenberry himself might have hoped for. So while Star Trek: Phase II never did boldly go where no one had gone before, in a way... it's still going.

Documentary - Phase II - The Lost Enterprise

For more information on Star Trek: Phase II, check out Star Trek Phase II: The Lost Series by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, an invaluable source for this article.