Yesterday, Harve Bennett discussed how he joined the Star Trek franchise and recounted his memories of producing The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. Now, in the second half of our exclusive interview, Bennett looks back at the far less successful film The Final Frontier, explains why he passed on producing The Undiscovered Country, reveals what could have been had his proposed The Academy Years script been realized, and contemplates his place in Star Trek history.
You went from producing arguably the most popular Trek feature, The Voyage Home, to the least popular, The Final Frontier. Was it as bad as people seem to think? And what did you make of William Shatner’s directing?
It is an unpleasant memory. I had a wonderful relationship with Bill. I could handle him and so forth, but as chief of the set it was going to be very difficult. More importantly, he had story approval. He came to me early on in the game and said, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” I said, “What is it?” He said, “In this Star Trek, we’re going to find God.” I said, “We’re going to find God? Who’s God, Bill?” He said, “We’re going to find God.” I said, “Try to think of it this way. TV logline: ‘Tonight on Star Trek, the captain and crew find God.’ Can you see how difficult that would be?” He said, “No. No. I think it’s the ultimate final frontier.” And so went the argument.
In the end, the studio persuaded me that if he would bend I would bend. We came to an agreement which was, “OK, we will never really find God. The journey to try to find God will be the picture.” That’s the premise on which we proceeded, but the fact of the matter is it was still a shaggy-dog story. It was a story that could not reach a climax because you could hint at God, you could present an abstraction, but it wouldn’t be satisfying dramatically. So we delved into the innards of everybody’s psyche and it became a kind of celebrity therapy session.
The standard story is that the studio wouldn’t provide the necessary dollars for a special effects-laden finale and that if Shatner had gotten that money to work with then The Final Frontier would have been much better.
Absolutely not true. The ending, you simply have to s—t or get off the pot. Are you suggesting that this is Muhammad? Are you suggesting that this is a Buddhist concept? Is this an orthodox Catholic concept? It just boggles the mind as to who you could probably offend and how few you could probably please.
Sean Connery was supposedly courted to play Sybok. How close was he to joining the production?
You ultimately passed on producing The Undiscovered Country. Any regrets about that decision?
You’d actually hoped to produce a script called Star Trek: The Academy Years…
It was the best script of all and it never got produced. It was at the end of my run. Ned Tanen, who was Paramount’s head of production, had green lighted it before he left. We even had location scouts and sent feelers out for the cast. I had an eye on John Cusack for Spock, which would have been great. Ethan Hawke could have been Kirk. There were so many possibilities. But basically it was a love story and it was a story of cadets, teenagers. And, in order to get Shatner and Nimoy in, we had a wraparound in which Kirk comes back to address the academy and the story spins off of his memory. At the end, Kirk and Spock are reunited and they beam back up to Enterprise, which would have left a new series potential, the academy, and a potential other story with the original Trek cast. All the possibilities were open, the script was beautiful, and the love story was haunting, but it didn’t happen.
Later, in the mid-90s, (then-Paramount head) Sherry Lansing called me and said, “Come on in and tell me about this script we didn’t do.” We had a meeting. She was enthused and so was I. Then a couple of weeks later she called to say they couldn’t go forward because the television department was going to do a pilot that was a prequel. That turned out to be Enterprise. That prequel had very little to do with The Academy Years, but it smashed the revival of the script.
You moved on without Trek and Trek moved on without you. The franchise recently returned to the big screen with a bang thanks to the J.J. Abrams film. Your thoughts?
I did see it. I’m not the audience for that. Rapid cuts. Explosions. Gore for the sake of gore. Either that makes me a dinosaur or there’s a generational problem, but that’s not J.J.’s fault.
Following your departure from the franchise you produced other projects and retired after the series Invasion America in 1998. These days, we know you’re basically relaxing and writing your memoirs. At the end of the day, though, what would you like to think are your most significant contributions to Star Trek?
I resurrected the franchise (at the time). That would be my contribution. There might not have been another Star Trek and certainly there would not have been spin had not Star Trek II been such a very viable hit. The Motion Picture was like a last memorial to a great franchise, but it was not the kind of a thing that would stimulate people to come back and see more of the same. My friends say I have something called the Lazarus syndrome because of the number of times I’ve brought someone or something back from the dead. It started with The Bionic Woman. We killed off Lindsay Wagner, but Six Million Dollar Man fans wanted Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers together. Because it was science fiction, and you can do a lot of weird things in science fiction, we put her in cryogenic freeze and then brought her back for a series of her own. So, Lindsay was my first back from the dead. And then there was a fellow named Spock…
When I first took the Star Trek assignment, one of the problems was that Leonard Nimoy had already written his book I Am Not Spock. He had publically put it out there that he’d never do Spock again. And one of my first challenges was to convince Leonard that he should come back, because it wouldn’t be Star Trek without him. I finally convinced him with a very simple, actor-proof argument. I said, “Leonard, if you come back, I’m going to give you the greatest death scene since Janet Leigh in Psycho. One third of the way into the picture, we’re going to kill you. The audience will be shocked. It will be the end of your problems with Spock and we will go on to complete the story.” He said, “That’s good. I like that.” So he signed on. For a variety of reasons, including Gene and the 100,000 letters the studio received from fans after it got out that we were going to kill off Spock, we couldn’t do it the way we planned. Hence a rewrite and when Nick Meyer, God bless him, came on board we found a way to extend Spock’s role. And it was much better, because I think Wrath of Khan might have been a failure if Spock had died one third of the way through it. So we got Wrath of Khan done, Nick Meyer was brilliant, and the rest is history.