Monday, June 18, 2007

Saving Star Trek from Gene Roddenberry: The Legacy of Harve Bennett

by Jack Klause.
Television producer Harve Bennett had been on the Paramount lot for barely a week when he was summoned to chairman Barry Diller’s office. Bennett, known best for The Six-Million-Dollar Man, The Mod Squad, and The Bionic Woman, expected a “debriefing” of sorts. Hopefully, he thought, they would give him something meaningful to work on, since he had just finished a made-for-TV movie about former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. All hopes aside, Bennett likely had no idea what to expect. His next project could be a dramatic and tearful mini-series or perhaps something involving bikinis and volleyballs. A television producer’s career is notoriously unpredictable.

When he entered Diller’s lavish office, he found himself suddenly cornered by Paramount’s top-brass: President Michael Eisner, television head Gary Nardino, and the legendary Gulf & Western chairman Charles Bluhdorn. After a few seconds of uncomfortable chitchat, Bluhdorn asked, “What did you think of Star Trek, the movie?” Bennett’s heart began to race. He had long hoped to move into feature films, but his success as a television producer had worked against that goal. Were they, he thought, about to hand him the keys to Star Trek, a product that brought the studio 100 million dollars in profit the previous year? Were they really asking him to produce the sequel?

“I thought it was boring,” Bennett responded bluntly.

Bluhdorn nodded in agreement, while chiding Eisner for the botched job. He then turned back to Bennett: “Can you make a better movie?”

“Yes,” Bennett answered, “I can certainly make a better movie.”

“Can you make it for less than forty-five fucking million dollars?”

“Where I come from I could make five or six movies for that.”

“Fine, do it.”

Harve Bennett then left the chairman’s office thinking, “I’d better watch some Star Trek.” He had never watched an episode on television. His familiarity with Kirk and crew amounted to carrying his sleeping children out of a movie theater in 1979. He knew Gene Roddenberry as a producer who kicked him off a television set in 1965 after calling him a “meddling network executive.” Otherwise, he hadn’t worked with Roddenberry, and he was not a Star Trek fan.

At the time, it was unclear to Bennett what role Roddenberry would play. When he later asked about it, Eisner clarified, “Just consult with him; give him that to do.”

Studio execs had decided the Great Bird’s fate behind closed doors: Roddenberry was out. He was difficult to work with, and his role as executive producer on Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been detrimental. A coup d’├ętat in the Star Trek franchise was in order. Considering that Paramount wanted to make the next film for a fraction of the first film’s budget, Harve Bennett was a good choice. Yet, they couldn’t simply fire Gene Roddenberry. The fan reaction would be brutal, and the publicity could be increasingly negative. So, Roddenberry was given the title of “executive consultant,” implying that he had tremendous input on the script and production process. He did not.

When Bennett sat down to watch a sampling of original Star Trek episodes, he began receiving the infamous “Roddenberry memos.” Rarely did they speak face to face. Instead, after exchanging awkward greetings in parking lots, Roddenberry would fire off memo after memo to Bennett, who responded politely in writing. Over the next few weeks, the memos became increasing bitter and confrontational. “Gene cast me immediately as an interloper,” Bennett reflected in Joel Engel’s unauthorized biography of Gene Roddenberry. “There wasn’t a single issue… that was not resisted in memo by Gene… He thought I was trying to do a revisionist Star Trek, whereas I perceived it as trying to replicate what had worked in the show, and thereby pay homage to the founder.”

When Bennett latched on to “Space Seed” as the basis for a new film, Roddenberry objected, promoting his own idea of a time-travel movie in which Kirk and Spock attempt to stop the Kennedy assassination. The idea seemed ridiculous to Bennett, but he responded kindly while thanking Gene for his input.

After Roddenberry read the script for The Wrath of Khan, he was livid. He accused Bennett of militarizing Star Trek and glorifying violence. Bennett had to remind Roddenberry that Starfleet was clearly a military organization in the original episodes. Adamantly, Roddenberry also protested the death of Spock. It would kill Star Trek, he asserted.

While Bennett worked to placate Roddenberry, something unexpected happened: Word of Spock’s death leaked out to fanzines, and Star Trek fans everywhere were up in arms. Nimoy’s fan-mail turned into hate-mail with many fans blaming him for the imminent death of Star Trek: “Good for you. Do not return to Star Trek… I look forward to your wrecking the greatest show of all time with you fucking tactics. Big man, big money, big book, I Am Not Spock… I hereby put a curse on your miserable future career. May 100 million hands turn dials when you appear on the TV screen!”

There was no proof, but many people suspected that Roddenberry leaked the script to fans. Having little official control over Trek, he resorted to underhanded tactics while happily collecting his paychecks. Meanwhile, Harve Bennett gained a reputation for ignoring fan criticisms, because he turned a blind eye to Roddenberry’s most vocal “agents.”

Pushed out of the creative process, Roddenberry could do nothing but stew and scheme, using the fans to do his own bidding just as he had done in 1966-68 with the letter-writing campaigns and the “spontaneous” student march on NBC’s Burbank headquarters. It must have irked him to no end that The Wrath of Khan became the most beloved of all Trek films, while his former contribution earned the nickname of “The Motionless Picture.”

When Gene Roddenberry read the script for The Search for Spock, he bitterly objected to the destruction of the Enterprise. Almost immediately, the details of its destruction leaked out. Paramount knew that Roddenberry was the culprit, because his script had been secretly coded. It is unclear if Roddenberry was threatened or reprimanded by the studio, but he stopped leaking the details of new scripts.

Despite his silence, the Great Bird grew convinced that, with each new film, they were making Star Trek worse. Piece by piece, he felt, they stripped it for profit and mass consumption. According to long-time friend Richard Arnold, Roddenberry was “just fighting as hard as he could to preserve what was left.”

In 1987, as Roddenberry began working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, he became determined to undo the "damage" that Harve Bennett had done. Consequently, TNG was Roddenberry’s open rejection of the Star Trek films. It was not surprising that, in the process of jealously protecting TNG as his “sole” creation, he alienated many Trek insiders, such as D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold.

In 1991, Harve Bennett met Gene Roddenberry for the last time.

“Gene, can I say something to you?”

“Sure,” Roddenberry replied.

“I’ve been a sharecropper in your plantation for almost ten years. I’ve had a great time, but I’m leaving now. In ten years I have never, ever, said anything in public that would in any way distress you or reflect badly upon our relationship.”

“That’s true,” Roddenberry admitted.

“I have listened to everything you had to say. I have honored you and respected you. I know how much money in profits I’ve put in my pockets and yours these ten years… I really would love to see somewhere that Gene Roddenberry said Harve Bennett did a good job. As I leave, I would really like to feel that I was a member of the Star Trek family – and that only comes if you say so.”

“Absolutely, of course,” Roddenberry promised.

The Great Bird never uttered a kind word about Harve Bennett, who has become one of the least celebrated torch-bearers of the Star Trek franchise. Praise is long overdue. Without Bennett, Trek may have flopped into oblivion with Roddenberry or someone else at the helm. Although it is probably a good thing that Paramount never ran with his script about Kirk and Spock’s academy days, Bennett still deserves much credit for saving Star Trek from the abyss. Under his leadership, Trek became hugely popular in the 1980s, breaking into the mainstream with much beloved movies, especially The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home.

Throughout all of his triumphs, he stood by graciously as fans and the press congratulated Gene Roddenberry while attributing the strength and profitability of Star Trek to him alone. It must have infuriated Bennett, particularly when Roddenberry took credit for others’ contributions. Yet, just as he had done amidst the onslaught of vicious memos, Bennett remained professional and respectful. And, in his own way, he must have felt that he was honoring Roddenberry’s Star Trek by ignoring and resisting Gene Roddenberry.

*For a more complete account of these events, see Joel Engel's 1994 Gene Roddenberry: The Man and the Myth behind Star Trek. The contents of this article were constructed with Engel as a main reference text.

**Other sources consulted: Shatner's Star Trek Movie Memories and James Van Hise's History of Trek.