Nicholas Meyer on Star Trek, and Why You Don’t Need to Be a Fan to Save a Franchise

Star Trek’s fandom is legendary. It saved the show from cancellation, and had Paramount planning a sequel despite an expensive debut film – 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture – that turned out to be less than stellar.

But Nicholas Meyer wasn’t thinking about all that when he met with Harve Bennett to talk about a Star Trek sequel. He just wanted to make a movie. Bennett showed him the first Trek film, which cost $45 million and asked, “Do you think you could make a movie twice as good for half the money?”

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Meyer’s response: “Well, I don’t know if I could make anything as good much less twice as good, but I do know they’ll never give me $45 million, so I could definitely do it for half the money.” He actually did it for even less than that, making Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for about $11 million, as Meyer details in his book, The View From the Bridge.

Becoming the savior of the beloved franchise, as he is considered by many, was the furthest thing from his mind. “I had never seen Star Trek, so saving it, the importance of saving it the possibility of saving it, were not what I was concerned with,” he said. But Meyer did know from franchises, and sci-fi: He had already earned an Oscar nomination for his Sherlock Holmes story, The Seven Per Cent Solution. And he had written and directed Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells chased Jack the Ripper from 1800s London into ‘70s San Francisco.

Meyer gave Star Trek a future by looking to the past – to the Hornblower novels he loved as a kid, and to lessons of his Oscar-nominated Sherlock Holmes story, The Seven Per Cent Solution, and Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells chased Jack the Ripper from 1800s London into ‘70s San Francisco.

Because he wasn’t too wedded to what Star Trek had been, he was able to reimagine it as something richer. Our conversation:

Some highlights, from Hornblower to script challenges, to taking his heroes seriously:

On the influence of the Hornblower adventures on Star Trek:

There was a whole series of novels that I read when I was a teenager, along with Holmes, about an English Navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars. … Hornblower has all these adventures, and there was a girl in every port. Star Trek seems like Hornblower in outer space – which I later learned, no surprise, was one of Gene Roddenberry’s inspirations. I always wanted to make a movie about submarines, and destroyers and I thought, “I know how to do this.”

On the challenges of coming up with a script, when multiple attempts just weren’t working:

I found myself ultimately cobbling together elements from these five scripts, which I insisted on reading. Why can’t we take this from this and that from that and this and the other and make a little laundry list of the things we like regardless of whether it’s the major plot, the minor plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a person, a line of dialogue, I don’t care. And I’ll just try to make a screenplay that will accommodate all this.

He had just 12 days to make the script work, or else miss an effects deadline – and the premiere date:

I said, “You booked this puppy into theaters and it’s not even made?” I didn’t know. In the end, I sat down and we used Kahn from Space Seed, one script had Kirk meet his son, another had the Genesis Project, another had Lieutenant Saavik, and I just put them all together like a Rubik’s Cube and wrote my own dialogue. And we kept revising it after 12 days, but ILM basically had that template, and that’s what became the movie …. [and] we put someone’s name on it.

What is he most proud of bringing to the Star Trek characters (and Holmes, and Wells):

I tried to take them seriously. A hero without doubts is not a very convincing hero. And Kirk, especially in the second Star Trek movie, is a hero with real doubts. … He says at the end of the movie, “I know nothing,” and his son says, “That’s a good place to begin, that’s the beginning of wisdom.”

– Stephanie Reid-Simons