This article was originally published on December 5th, 2019.
After my first work of scholarly sparkliness, Ponyville Confidential: The History and Culture of My Little Pony, 1981-2016, was published in March 2017, an old itch returned: a desire to write a book about Robert Wise's Star Trek —The Motion Picture. (No, not Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I’ll get to that.)
The next book I was under contract to write was about the history of film credits, a seemingly banal subject which had fascinated me ever since I watched Robert Altman's M*A*S*H on VHS for the umpteenth time as an 8 year-old in 1981. Aside from the occasional age-appropriate Peanuts movie or Michael Schultz's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the only tape I asked my parents to rent from our neighborhood video store more than the M*A*S*H movie was the first Star Trek movie. This was the theatrical cut, mind you, two years before the Special Longer Version and two decades before the Director’s Edition.
In 2014, I began but never completed a proposal about Star Trek—The Motion Picture for the BFI Film Classics series, knowing damn well that nobody but me considered it a classic. But in 2017, my publisher proved willing to push back the deadline of the screen credits book and allow me to scratch that old itch, and it was published in October 2019 as The First Star Trek Movie: Bringing the Franchise to the Big Screen, 1969-1980.
I decided to tell the story of Star Trek’s resurrection from the ground up using primary sources, meaning that with very few exceptions The First Star Trek Movie is based on the facts as they were recorded at the time, not how they were remembered offhand decades later. As existing books go, this meant “yay” to using Preston Neal Jones’ 2014 oral history Return to Tomorrow: The Filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, since the interviews were conducted by Jones with people who worked on the film from mid-1979 through early 1980.
This also meant “nay” to Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman’s The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years, because the timeframe of a given quote is unknown, and the book is full of secondhand rumors and anecdotes. Don’t get me wrong, The Fifty-Year Mission is a great read if you enjoy Trek-related snark and acrimonious axe-grinding — and don’t we all? — but as a history book? Not so much.
The majority of The First Star Trek Movie’s sources turned out to be digitized periodicals from the 1970s such as Variety, Starlog, non-fiction fanzines, and countless local newspapers. I must also give a shout-out to Star Trektennial News, the newsletter edited by Gene Roddenberry’s right-hand woman (and my own personal hero) Susan Sackett for twelve issues from 1976 through 1977. It’s the second-best $40 I’ve ever spent on eBay!
My journey through Trek’s past coincided with an unexpected renaissance in the present, beginning with Justin Lin’s 2016 Star Trek Beyond. Rewatching The Motion Picture was the first time since the Voyager finale that I’d watched something which felt like Star Trek, and since I’ve always considered the third film of the original movies to be the first to get Star Trek right, I hoped it meant history was repeating itself. While it didn’t end up tantalizing me in the way I’d expected, Rihanna’s “Sledgehammer” was my jam that summer (with all due respect to Beyoncé’s “All Night”), and the poster which paid homage to The Motion Picture was a nice touch.
By halfway through the first season of Discovery in November 2017, the impossible had happened: Star Trek wanted me to like it again! The First Star Trek Movie is full of Discovery references as a result (for all things on the mycelial network are connected) and in an act of unmitigated gall I refer to myself in the book as “this wayward Burnham.” (But Worf admires gall, so that’s okay.)
Something I noticed early on during my research was that Paramount’s official title for the film was not Star Trek: The Motion Picture with a colon, but Star Trek—The Motion Picture with an em-dash, as demonstrated in this college of 1979 press materials. It was little things like this which made me realize how much of the true story has been forgotten.
Star Wars and Jaws are often considered the beginning of the blockbuster era, but after researching and writing The First Star Trek Movie, I now believe it truly kicked off with the release of The Motion Picture.
It’s well-known that the unalterable December 7, 1979 release date resulted in a rushed post-production period and what can be charitably described as the “uneven” final product. What is less discussed is that the product which premiered that day across the United States and Canada did not unspool in American states which had passed anti blind-bidding legislation. I didn’t have space to properly discuss the mess that is ‘Blind-Bidding’ (selling multiple films from the same studio, often unseen by the theatre owners, to a single theatre as a unit, outlawed via supreme court decision in the 1930s) in The First Star Trek Movie, let alone here, but what matters for our purposes is that the movie did not open in Alabama, Ohio, Louisiana, South Carolina, or Virginia until December 21. Further, I’ve found no evidence that it opened in Alaska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or West Virginia at all in 1979.
This means that of the 850-odd prints which opened on Pearl Harbor Day, at least 13 of them were in Canada, and the rest were spread out among 39 American states in mostly single-screen theaters. That doesn’t sound like much now, but this sort of massive nationwide, same-day release for a movie based on long-canceled television show was big news.
Part of what made the film news irresistible was that Star Trek fans were a source of near-morbid curiosity in 1979, often discussed in terms reserved for religious cults. It had been a little over a year since the Jonestown tragedy; Gene Roddenberry had said “I'm not a guru and I don't want to be” in a 1976 AP article about “the near-fanatical cult that continues to follow the series”; and as seen in Amy Rose and Ryan Estrada’s wonderful comic “My First Contact: Connected to the Truth” on this very site, at least one capital-C Cult really did form around the franchise.
The point is, if The Motion Picture had been just a huge day-and-date release, or if it was just a film based on a television show which conventional wisdom said was only enjoyed by children and weirdos, it might not have gotten so much coverage. In my research, I found about 45 locally-sourced articles about the film’s opening from newspapers in 18 different states. For example, there were articles in five different papers in New Jersey, another five in Minnesota, four in New York state, three each in California, Kentucky, Florida, and so on.
I’m glad local newspapers were on the job, because many of them printed pictures of the lines, and those images of fans standing outside movie theaters from forty years ago this week fill me with joy. Again, lines outside of movie theaters for big premieres were nothing new in 1979. There was media coverage of such things as recently as the unexpected hit Star Wars in 1977, but it had more often been for expected-hit pictures such as Robert Wise’s own The Sound of Music in 1965, Mary Poppins in 1964, The Ten Commandments in 1956, and at least as far as back as The Wizard of Oz in 1939.
Those crowds tended to be red-carpet affairs in major markets, however. But, Battle Creek, Michigan, was not a major market.
Nor was East Lansing, Michigan, where the long-shuttered Campus Theater has my undying respect for putting Nichelle Nichols on the marquee where she belongs.
There were lines in Binghamton, New York…
…and Poughkeepsie, too.
In Santa Maria, California, the audience didn’t have to worry about whether the film would have the Original Crew—and, hey, someone brought an Omicron Ceti III spore plant! That’s very neighborly.
Ponder your cosmic insignificance outside the monolithic, neon-lit Showcase Cinemas in Louisville, Kentucky, where some people were turned away due to lack of seating.
The first showing at the Paramount Theater in St. Cloud, Minnesota, was at 7 p.m., but which time the temperature was below 20F. As a lifelong Californian, I cannot even imagine.
The biomass often got closer to its Schwarzschild Radius once inside, such as these lines in the Southtown Theater in Minneapolis…
…or the West Mall Theater in Sioux Falls, South Dakota…
…or this claustrophobia-inducing huddle at the Somerville Circle Theater in Somerville, New Jersey, in front a lobby standee which makes the Original Crew look like Your Action News Team. This is the joy of primary-source research: I had no idea these existed until I started scouring newspapers.
A closer look at one of those lobby standees at the nearby Cherry Hill Cinema. I always imagine Walter Koenig saying, “Really? That’s the picture you went with?”
If I could hop through the Guardian of Forever to attend any of these premieres, it would be Miami. First of all, unlike most of the rest of the country, the weather didn’t suck. Secondly, I so want to attend the Star Trek Party at the Longshot disco in Hialeah that night.
Sealing the deal is the picture from the party run in the Miami News.
The headline “Trekkies in their Glory” was probably sarcastic, but it all looks like so much fun, y’know? On the one hand, I have no truck with long lines and packed theaters; as I write this I’ve already reserved my favorite seat at my favorite theater for the 9 a.m. showing of The Rise of Skywalker on Christmas morning, which I’m hoping will be relatively under-attended. On the other hand, my brother and I camped out overnight for the premieres of the fifth and sixth Star Trek movies in 1989 and 1992 as an excuse to hang out with dozens of other fans, and the process of writing The First Star Trek Movie has brought back that old familiar glow.
Sherilyn Connelly (she/her) is a writer and a youth librarian from San Francisco, and was the head film critic for SF Weekly from 2013 through 2019. She's on Twitter at @sherilyn, and her books Ponyville Confidential: The History and Culture of My Little Pony, 1981-2016 and The First Star Trek Movie: Bringing the Franchise to the Big Screen, 1969-1980 would have had even lengthier titles if she could have gotten away with it.