There are a lot of people to credit for the Star Trek phenomenon: Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, Ira Steven Behr, J.J. Abrams, Robert Justman, Gene Roddenberry, of course, and many more. But the truth is that without the efforts of one other seminal Star Trek figure those men might never have gotten the chance to make TNG, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise or the 2009 Star Trek reboot feature. That man is Harve Bennett.
Bennett was a television producer who’d enjoyed tremendous success with The Mod Squad, Rich Man, Poor Man, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Soon after the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Gulf & Western boss Charles Bludhorn and Paramount Pictures chairman Barry Diller summoned Bennett into a meeting. They solicited his opinion of the lucrative but critically derided TMP, and Bennett deemed it “boring.” Bludhorn then asked if Bennett could make a better movie and do so for less money, prompting Bennett to reply that he could make four or five such movies. Satisfied, Bludhorn said, “Do it.” Bennett went on to produce and co-write the story for the pivotal next feature, The Wrath of Khan, which scored financially, critically and with Trek fans. Bennett then produced (and co-wrote the stories for) The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home and The Final Frontier, paving the way for the myriad subsequent Star Trek projects.
Bennett left the Trek fold after The Final Frontier, when Paramount nixed his concept for a Starfleet Academy-style sixth film; the studio sought a 25th anniversary original-cast feature instead and released The Undiscovered Country. But by then he’d helped secure the franchise’s place in entertainment history and ensure its future. Today, at 80, Bennett is happily retired and living out west with his wife. StarTrek.com caught up with Bennett recently for an extensive interview about his Trek experiences. Part one follows below, and be on the lookout tomorrow for part two.
Other than a passing awareness of Kirk and Spock and the knowledge that TOS had broken ground in terms of casting and stories, you knew little about Trek when you started developing Wrath of Khan. How did you familiarize yourself?
Bjo Trimble’s Star Trek Concordance became my first reading, the next day, and for three months thereafter I went into the dusty old 16-millimeter screening rooms at Paramount and watched the 70-something episodes of Star Trek. I watched the entire three years. I found myself fascinated. I found that one third of the episodes were brilliant, that one third were good and that one third were eh-eh; I didn’t like them. Now compare that to baseball batting averages. If you’re batting .333 you’re a hell of a hitter. If you do that percentage of strong episodes you’ve got a great series. I felt that. I also came to love the triangle between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and that became the basis of what I wanted to do with Star Trek. Somewhere along the way I ran the episode “Space Seed,” and it was like God had sent a present down to me. “Space Seed” ends having deposited Khan (Ricardo Montalban) on some desolate planetoid and Kirk, I think it was, saying “If we came back in 25 years, I wonder what he’d be like.” And Spock says, “Hmm.” I jumped up out of my seat and said, “Thank you, God! Thank you. That’s it. That’s my story.”
OK, there are two questions Trek fans always ask about Wrath of Khan, so we’re going to put them to you. What was that black arm guard thing on Khan and why wasn’t the Kirk-Khan showdown done with them face to face?
(Laughs) Well, let me answer the second question first. If you watch “Space Seed,” Khan is a superman. He was cryogenically engineered to be invulnerable. That would have given him a tremendous advantage if we’d chosen to put him in the same place as Kirk. We just felt that if they never saw each other, except on screens, it’d work better. You had the distance of time – the 25 years since they’d seen each other – and the physical distance of space. If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was a novel way to have the protagonist and antagonist fight through two hours of a movie.
The arm band, when I first saw it in wardrobe, I didn’t even ask Ricardo about it. It looked like what you see on rappers now. It was a masculine thing, like a wrist brace. That was Ricardo’s choice, and I thought it worked. Certainly, people are still talking about it now.
Let’s move on to Search for Spock. How did Leonard Nimoy end up in the director’s chair?
Leonard came to me after Wrath of Khan and after his death scene and he said, “This is a lot of fun.” And it was. We all said it was a very jolly set. He said, “I’m game for another one, but I’d like to direct.” I said, “Terrific. I know what the next one has to be, and you got it.” So, with Leonard as director it became obvious that the next chapter in what turned out to be a trilogy would be bringing Spock back to life.
Leonard then directed The Voyage Home as well. How had he evolved as a director from III to IV?
I think Leonard put it best, actually. He said, “On Star Trek III, Harve had training wheels on me and on Star Trek IV, the training wheels came off.” Leonard didn’t have a lot of experience directing, so I spent a lot more time on the set than I would normally have, and certainly more than I had with Nick Meyer. But I think Leonard handled it very well. He got a little more resentful during Star Trek IV because he figured he had proved himself. So we had a little friction there, but we resolved it and he went on to do a magnificent job on IV. His emergence as a director was his skill triumphing over his lack of experience.
The Voyage Home was the most financially successful of the original-cast features and it’s widely viewed as the most entertaining of the bunch. Did you think it was the best of the films you produced?
My instinct is to say, “You bet, IV is my favorite,” but then I have to stop and say that I love IV, but II will always have a special place in my heart for the reasons we discussed and more. By the time we got to IV we were confident. Going back to the present (1986) created something that nothing else could have done, which is it presented Star Trek to a non-Trek audience. All you have to do is remember those scenes in the San Francisco streets. People didn’t relate to the characters as Star Trek stars, but kind of as another San Francisco crazy. I adore the lady reacting to Chekov when he asks her “Where can I find the nuclear wessels?” That whole scene presented Star Trek contemporaneously to people who’d never heard of it. That’s why it was the biggest hit and in many ways the most popular of the ones I did.