Is Star Trek “Too Much of a Good Thing”? An Interview with Nicholas Meyer
From roughly 3,000 miles away in Cape Coral, Florida, I am on a Zoom chat meeting with a man whom I’ve always wanted to meet and talk with. He’s one of my idols in writing and filmmaking as well as the person largely credited with saving the Star Trek franchise in the early 1980s – writer and director Nicholas Meyer.
At present, the Star Trek franchise officially includes eleven television series and thirteen films. There are more projects on the horizon, including an upcoming Ceti Alpha V project, with which Meyer is involved. Where the franchise was once a rare gourmet dish, its current state often feels more like an all-you-can-eat buffet. “There can be too much of a good thing,” offers Meyer. “One might make the argument that the ‘all-you-can-eat buffet’ version of Star Trek is not as exciting somehow. You start to take it for granted. Familiarity breeds contempt. These are things I worry about. I don’t worry about them the way I worry about the drought, but I worry about them. I understand that the purpose of a company is to make money. It doesn’t matter what their business is, their purpose is profit. So, if you can make money with something called Star Trek, they’re going to beat it to death, for sure.”
That said, however, if Paramount gave Meyer the opportunity to write and/or direct a Star Trek feature film again, he probably would. “As long as I had something like the control I had over the three films I worked on,” he adds.
Getting Started on Star Trek
As a large Great Dane named Gabby affectionately jumps on him, I find myself feeling as though I’m a guest in Meyer’s Los Angeles home. Gabby isn’t even his dog! She’s the neighbor’s dog with whom he has “grandfather privileges.” “It’s like being hugged by a Sherman tank,” Meyer laughs.
Feeling more at ease, I find myself expressing adoration for his work and the Star Trek franchise in general, starting with how much I loved the first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. “Well… I didn’t love it,” Meyer admits. “But I did appreciate what Robert Wise accomplished, and I learned a lot. I learned what I did not want to do.”
Star Trek was completely under Meyer’s radar during its initial run back in the 1960s. It simply didn’t interest him. After a successful debut with 1979’s Time After Time, Meyer was looking for another project to add to his directorial resume. Friend and Paramount executive Karen Moore suggested he meet Harve Bennett, who had been assigned to executive-produce the second Star Trek feature film (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year). Meyer followed the advice purely out of his trust for Moore rather than any excitement over doing a space movie. Nevertheless, he was glad he did.
“We got along like a house on fire,” Meyer comments, still holding fond memories for Bennett, who passed away in 2015. “I thought he was great! And I miss him. And I’ve been missing a lot of them lately.” This moment of sentiment no doubt stems from the recent passings of Nichelle Nichols, famous for the role of Uhura, and David Warner, with whom Meyer worked on both Time After Time and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Like Meyer, Harve Bennett knew nothing of Star Trek going into the assignment but had done plenty of homework by the time he had met Meyer. He showed some of the episodes to him, most notably “Space Seed”, which had introduced the character of Khan, played by the late Ricardo Montalban. Bennett had already decided he would be the villain to return to strike back at Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew.
“I still didn’t get it,” Meyer said, “but it did start to remind me of something that I did like a lot!” Meyer found himself thinking of the Captain Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester as well as the film The Enemy Below, which starred Robert Mitchum as a battleship commander chasing a submarine. “This is Hornblower in outer space!” Meyer happily exclaimed. “I could totally get off on doing that.”
Weeks went by and Meyer began to wonder what was going on with the Star Trek II project. He called Bennett, asked for a script, and received a fifth draft not long after. Meyer immediately understood why Bennett had been hesitant to share it. It wasn’t very good.
To make matters worse, when Meyer inquired about the other drafts, Bennett replied that each of them was a completely different attempt at Star Trek II – they were not drafts of the same story. On top of that, the project was going to fall apart if they didn’t have a workable script within the next twelve days. Industrial Light & Magic already had a timetable to deliver special effects shots for the already-locked release date of 4 June 1982. “You booked the movie for June, and you don’t even have a movie?!” Meyer reflects. “That sounded pretty peculiar to me.”
Meyer then came up with the idea of taking every significant idea that Bennett and co-screenwriter Jack B. Sowards had come up with and weaving them together in a single narrative. “I was young and stupid… and said, ‘Oh, I can do this in twelve days.’” Aghast, Bennett replied, “We couldn’t even make your deal in twelve days!!” Recalling this situation, Meyer quotes Thomas Gray: “Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise.”
Without any modifications to his contract that would have given him additional credit as a writer, Meyer turned in a new draft which incorporated all the best elements of the previous five: the return of Khan, Kirk discovering a son he never knew, the Genesis Device, the character of Saavik, and the fact that the Enterprise crew was getting older. Friendship, old age, death, and implacable hatred were the themes Meyer went with. “There was no point in trying to pretend that the crew of the Enterprise hadn’t aged. Why not turn that ‘weakness’ into a strength? Have it be about grappling with mortality and age.”
Aging and death were themes very much on Meyer’s mind from an early age. His grandfather died when he was five and he lost his mother to Ovarian cancer only a few years later. “I was forced to think about things which in a better world you wouldn’t think about until you’re much older.” And he would force fans to start thinking about it with the controversial decision to kill off their beloved Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). “It’s not whether you kill off a character, it’s whether they die well,” Meyer said. “If it comes off as the fulfillment of a clause in Leonard Nimoy’s contract, then they’ll be right to be incensed.”
Meyer also took the opportunity to imbue Star Trek II with the kind of naval-themed adventure he had seen and loved in The Enemy Below, albeit in a spaceship. “The Enterprise [on the show and in the first film] reminded me of a Holiday Inn,” Meyer explains. “When you see footage taken aboard a space station, it doesn’t look like a Holiday Inn. Now, maybe in the 23rd century, it will look like a Holiday Inn, but that isn’t cinematically interesting to me. Ships like that aren’t built for comfort, they’re built for maximum efficiency to do what needs to be done. It should all look like destroyers and submarines. On the theory that claustrophobia and confined spaces encourages a certain kind of acting and performance, nuance, and intensity, I wanted that! Less ‘living room’ and more ‘closet.’ So, I tried to keep things smaller and less ‘comfy.’ I really wanted the pants on the crew to have pockets!”
The nautical look of the maroon Starfleet uniforms worn by the Enterprise crew was also a sharp contrast to Khan and his people, who were dressed in tattered rags and looked like a group of space pirates who had hijacked the USS Reliant. Some of the extras who portrayed Khan’s crew were Chippendale dancers, a fact that comes as news to Meyer. “I don’t know about that,” he admits. “They were largely ex-military or gymnasts; people who were very comfortable with their bodies and could move around quickly and precisely.”
All the elements came together brilliantly. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan became one of the highest grossing and most classic films of 1982.
So pleased was Paramount with the success of Star Trek II that Meyer was asked back to direct Star Trek III. He declined, as that film (which went on to be directed by Nimoy) undid a lot of what Meyer had accomplished in his film, most notably by bringing Spock back from the dead.
Once the beloved Vulcan character was back, however, Meyer had no problem returning to the Trek fold again, to assist Harve Bennett as co-screenwriter of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Doing so afforded Meyer an opportunity few filmmakers get: the chance to exploit notions and ideas that had been cut out of his previous work. “Harve said, ‘We’ll bookend it. I’ll write the parts that take place in outer space, and you write the parts where they’re back in time in the 20th century.’ I realized… this is the same movie as Time After Time, except instead of coming from the past, they’re coming from the future, though we’re still in San Francisco!” Although he couldn’t relocate the film out of San Francisco, he was able to use scenes and ideas that had previously been cut out of Time After Time, resulting in a film that played really well in terms of a fish-out-of-water story and a goofy offbeat romantic tension between Kirk and Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks). Good-natured humor flowed naturally and helped the theme of environmental concern – and the threatened extinction of the Humpback Whale species – feel less heavy-handed. “It was my chance to be funny,” Meyer smiled. “I like to think I am, and I insist to my children that I am.”
Meyer’s final work with the original cast of Star Trek would be their last time together as well. At that point, Star Trek: The Next Generation was a huge ratings hit. And with the franchise’s 25th anniversary rapidly approaching, Paramount wanted to send the original crew out in style. Meyer was brought into the fold once again, this time by star and fellow Trek movie director Leonard Nimoy – who was now executive producer (Harve Bennett having left the franchise after 1989’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier). Given that the Cold War had recently ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and that Star Trek’s Cold War allegory villains – the Klingon Empire – were the Federation’s allies on the Next Generation series, it seemed clear to Nimoy, Meyer and co-screenwriter Denny Martin Flynn that Kirk and company’s final mission together would be “the Wall coming down in space.”
This time, the themes would be overcoming prejudice and fear at our “reaching the end of history.” Originally, Meyer wanted Saavik to be the co-conspirator on board the Enterprise. Ultimately, this was changed to a new character in the person of Valeris (Kim Cattrall). The intention was to show that the people who succumb to those fears and prejudices could be ourselves or those close to us. “When we were writing VI, we definitely wanted Saavik because we wanted the ‘traitor’… to be someone we loved, somebody that we trusted, in the same way we wanted Admiral Cartwright [the sympathetic admiral from Star Trek IV, played by the late Brock Peters] who turns out to be a racist – or alien xenophobe – to be played by an African-American actor; the thesis being that anybody can be a racist, given the right set of circumstances. We are all capable of doing things that, when seen from another light, can be unquestionably wrong or morally repugnant.”
“It is a confusing world sometimes,” Meyer states, “and Star Trek VI is an interesting film to back now…. In many ways, it’s one of my favorites, but – like many attempts to prognosticate – it also comes out wrong. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we all thought we were headed for a better world. Kirk is rather smug; he says, ‘Some people can be very frightened of change.’ The story of Star Trek VI was that there was a conspiracy between the Federation and the Klingons [read: the United States and the Soviet Union] to prevent disarmament, because they thought it was better to be eyeball-to-eyeball with something called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) than to have a bunch of wild-eyed radicals running around with atom bombs in suitcases, which is now what we’re fast approaching.” Meyer’s hindsight truly hits a raw nerve when one looks at the politically charged world of today. “And we said, ‘Oh, these people are wrong. It’s better to have a brave new world.’ Well… it turns out maybe they knew what they were talking about and us not so much. Circumstances prove you wrong.”
Meyer goes on to explain why he feels the timely message of The Undiscovered Country has caused it to age “more strangely” whereas The Wrath of Khan’s message is ultimately more timeless. “Khan is unlikely to date as long as people are forced to gasp with aging, mortality, death, and friendship. Those themes are relatively timeless in ways that the political aspects of VI are not.”
Following the Films
Meyer eventually returned to Star Trek years later, as a Consulting Producer on the series Star Trek: Discovery for its first season, though he was not invited back for the second. “My involvement with Discovery was complicated. It wasn’t in a way I had worked on Trek before. Working on the feature films, I was working as director or with another writer, so it was a different experience. There were a lot of people in the room.” As for how that season turned out… “I looked at it as a work in progress,” Meyer says fairly.
Regarding the possibility of directing a Star Trek feature film again, Meyer explains, “I’m not sure that I’m great in a sort of art-by-committee thing. The thing I worry about is… I can’t make movies ‘for the fans.’ I can’t tell you a joke that I don’t think is funny and expect you to laugh. I can’t try to second-guess millions of people whom I’ve never met. I have to work from a different assumption, which is, if I think something is good or something is funny, then I am within reasonable expectation that other people will find it good or funny, which they don’t always do. But at least that’s an operating principle, a place to start from. If it had been up to the fans, Spock wouldn’t have died. I know that because we got the letters.”
One of Meyer’s last observations really spoke to me as an aspiring content creator. “Once you start looking over your shoulder, the fans don’t know what they want… until they get it. And then they’ll recognize it.”
As for the much-anticipated upcoming Ceti Alpha V project, Meyer smiles with a massive grin. “You’ll be hearing about it soon.”
A freelance writer, Douglas has several years experience writing newsletters, sales copy and movie reviews. He is also the author of the screenplays Supralight and Bloodstone: The Sorceress and the Warrior. His reviews of Star Trek films (as well as a DS9 retrospective) have been published on the TrekSphere website.