Ralph McQuarrie & The Canceled Star Trek Movie

A lot has been said about McQuarrie’s work on Star Wars since his passing this week but in 1976, he was also part of a failed attempt to make a big screen version of Star Trek.

Amarpal Biring

Contributor

A lot has been written since the sad passing of Ralph McQuarrie on the 3rd of March this year. He’s the artist who is credited with coming up with the designs for Darth Vader, Chewbacca, C3PO & R2D2 to name a few. It has been said that without him, there would have been no Star Wars at all as it was his illustrations that convinced 20th Century Fox to give Star Wars the green light.

His designs for Star Wars are immediately recognizable if you are a fan of science fiction or not, and are now part of our societies pop culture. His images from Star Wars represent science fiction to the general masses and because of this, they are exploited to sell everything from cars to mobile phones. Rest assured that if the images of Vader or C3PO weren’t burnt into your conscience, no advertising company would consider using them.

A lot has been said about McQuarrie’s work on Star Wars but he created designs and illustrations for other films and TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica, The Golden child and E.T. But in 1976, he was also part of a failed attempt to make a big screen version of Star Trek.

Star Trek: Planet of the Titans was the brainchild of British writing team Chris Bryant and Allan Scott (Don’t Look Now) In the directors chair was Phillip Kaufman who went onto direct the excellent remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy. Production designer was Ken Adam who had previously worked on various James Bond films as well as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Ken Adam hired Ralph McQuarrie to do the design work for the film and adding Gene Roddenberry to the mix, you have to agree that its an impressive list of talent at the helm for Star Trek’s first big screen adventure.

McQuarrie’s design for the Enterprise included a saucer section that could separate and land on a planets surface. Also his designs for a shuttlecraft and interior of the Enterprise.

Phil Kaufman was very excieted to be part of the project. He told a reporter;

‘’George Lucas is a good friend of mine, he told me before he made Star Wars to be bought. I thought George had a great thing going. When I was asked if I would be interested in doing Star Trek, well…I felt I could go through the roof’’

Having a director who is very excited about a project is obviously a bonus but if you are planning on making a Star Trek movie, fans would expect the original cast to also be on board. All signed up but Leonard Nimoy proved stubborn. After the show was canceled in 1969, Nimoy had spent a lot of time distancing himself from Star Trek due to the fear of being type cast. As the image of Mr Spock become more and more iconic, he found it difficult to separate himself from the character in the eyes of the public. Also, he was not happy with the way Gene Roddenberry and the marketing team at Paramount exploited his image for which he felt he was not properly compensated. An example being the famous Heineken billboard poster that showed Spock’s ears being aroused by beer.

Eventually the entire original cast signed up and any remaining issues were smoothed out. A story was agreed and ‘’Star Trek: Planet of Titans’’ played out as follows.

The enterprise receives a distress signal from the USS DaVinci.  By the time they reach the sector the distress signal originated, the USS DaVinci has disappeared.  While the Enterprise investigates, Kirk is hit by an electromagnetic wave that causes him to behave erratically and steal a shuttlecraft.  He pilots the shuttlecraft towards an invisible planet and the shuttlecraft disappears.

Three years later, Spock leads a team back to that area of space and discovers the planet.  The planet turns out to be the home world of the Titans, a highly advanced race that is believed to be extinct.  The Klingons also turn up because they are also interested in the knowledge of the Titans.  But a more serious problem is that the planet is being drawn towards a black hole and it now becomes a race between the Federation and Klingons to acquire the knowledge of the Titans before its too late.

Spock finds Kirk who has spent the last three years living in the wild.  Spock managers to restore Kirk to his normal self and they both discover that the planet is populated an evil species known as the Cygnans.  The Cygnans, it is revealed, were responsible for the death of the Titans. Kirk in an attempt to destroy the Cygnans, orders the Enterprise into the black hole. The black hole destroys the Cygens and throws the enterprise in to the orbit around earth……earth of the past.  Kirk and crew beam down and realize they are witnessing the dawn of man. They teach the Cro-Magnon man how to make fire and come to the realization that they are the Titans…..

 

I will admit right now that even though I am a huge Star Trek fan, I would have struggled with the plot of this film and in many ways im glad it didn’t get made. Paramount canceled project in order to start production on a new Star Trek series called ‘Star Trek Phase II’ instead. After the success of Star Wars, Paramount changed its mind again and morphed the series into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the rest is history.

The Enterprise entering a Spacestation inside an asteroid.

Director Phil Kaufman’s reaction to the cancellation of the film -

‘’We were dealing with important things, things that George [Lucas] has a smattering of in Star Wars. We were dealing a lot with Olaf Stapledon. There were chapters in Last and First Men that I was basing Star Trek on. That was my key thing. Gene and I disagreed on what the nature of a feature film really is. He was still bound by the things that he had been forced into by lack of money and by the fact that those times they were not into science fiction the way they are now. Gene has a very set way of looking at things. My feeling always was that he was anchored in a 10-year-old TV show which would not translate for a feature audience, ten years later with all that had been done and could potentially be done in a feature scope. For years I had walked around San Francisco with George Lucas talking about what he was doing. I knew what the potential of this kind of stuff was.’ Perhaps most shocking to him was the feeling that Paramount canceled the film because of the success of STAR WARS, which was released in May of 1977, and the belief that they had blown their opportunity at the box office. ‘They didn’t even wait to see what Star Wars would do,’ Kaufman said incredulously. ‘I don’t think they tried to understand what the phenomenon of Star Trek was.’’

It is clear that Kaufman had a passion for the project but it might have blinded him to the obvious flaws in the storyline.  He was trying to make a much deeper science fiction film in the same mould as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and he might have succeeded but its difficult to see how as the story isn’t very good. After Paramount pulled the plug on the Titans script, Kaufman came up with an idea for a Star Trek film that would have had Spock in command of his own ship and going head to head against a Klingon played by Japanese star Toshiro Mifune. But Paramount shelved that idea too, just weeks before the release of Star Wars.

Kaufman explains -

‘’My version was really built around Leonard Nimoy as Spock and Toshiro Mifune as his Klingon nemesis… My idea was to make it less “cult-ish”, and more of an adult movie, dealing with sexuality and wonders rather than oddness; a big science fiction movie, filled with all kinds of questions, particularly about the nature of Spock’s [duality]-exploring his humanity and what humanness was. To have Spock and Mifune’s character tripping out in outer space. I’m sure the fans would have been upset, but I felt it could really open up a new type of science fiction.’’

Again, I cant see this idea working or being popular with anybody although Mifune would have made an awesome Klingon.  And the idea of Spock ‘’tripping out’’ (be it actually or metaphorically) isn’t very appealing.

Going back to where I started, Ralph McQuarrie did come up with some amazing illustrations for how the Titan film might have looked.  Most notably is the design of the new Enterprise, which clearly has been drawn with a Star Wars pencil and wouldn’t look out of place in that universe.  A couple of study models were made of McQuarrie’s designs for the Enterprise and ended up being used in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock as well as in TNG’s Best of Both Worlds and Unification Part 1.  Because of this, they became officially part of Star Trek cannon.

The Enterprise entering space dock. Note the shape of the Enterprise is not too dissimilar to the Enterprise D from TNG.

Model of MQuarrie’s Enterprise. In storage for over a decade, it was eventually used in Star Trek III and TNG.

Ralph McQuarrie did go on to work on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. His design work for the film included the alien probe and the whale tank inside the Klingon Bird of prey.

So it would have been interesting (if that’s the right word) to see a film like this actually get made and even though im sure it would have been a success simply because it had the name Star Trek, I think we can all agree that it wouldn’t have been the best choice for the first big screen outing of the crew of the Enterprise. But that still doesn’t stop us admiring the amazing art and design work by

Ralph McQuarrie.
RIP