What we now call “Star Trek: The Original Series” (formerly just “Star Trek”) ran for 79 episodes across three seasons, briefly becoming a cultural phenomenon, and attracting a legion of die-hard fans, before — like so many beloved genre shows — it struggled to keep its ratings up, and eventually got canceled, arguably too soon.
But here’s the thing: There were plenty of successful multi-season television shows in the 1960s that never became a blockbuster franchise, unless there’s a “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” extended universe that somehow flew under our collective radars. (Okay, okay, there was a 1988 TV movie called “Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis,” but are you really happy now?)
Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” survived and thrived in second-run syndication. It may have been canceled but it never went away, and audiences continued to watch and explore the universe with the crew of the Enterprise for over a decade before “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” finally came out.
The story of how “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” arrived on the big screen is long and convoluted and involves several abandoned projects (one of them was about fighting Jesus), a failed attempt to create a sequel series, and even a feature film that was allegedly put on ice because “Star Wars” was coming out, and surely audiences wouldn’t be interested in more than one sci-fi/fantasy franchise, right?
Anyway, when it finally did premiere in 1979, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” found itself struggling with a world that suddenly had a very different idea of what a space opera should look like. Instead of dashing adventures with sexy young stars, wacky robots, and laser swords, Robert Wise’s film was a mature, serious science fiction drama about middle-aged men mulling over the ineffability of the universe and their tiny place within it.
And that wasn’t necessarily what everyone was in the mood for.