Film

From Thinking Steaks to TITANic Mistakes: The 'Star Trek' Films They Almost Made

If not for “The Guardian of Forever” and other unworldly phenomenon, our next Star Trek film, starring Eddie Murphy, might have been a cross between Police Academy and The Jetsons.

It's a matter of Hollywood lore that the even numbered Star Trek episodes are the best. The odd numbered entries, on the other hand, range from also-rans to space holders to complete wastes of time, no matter who was at the helm.

You laugh, but the first film was directed by the guy who brought us The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Who better to deliver a... “Space Opera”? While 2009's Star Trek reboot (the 11th theatrical film) seemed to disprove this theory, it remains to be seen whether Star Trek into Darkness will completely invert the trend.

Love or hate the odd (or even... even) numbered Star Treks, you've got to see what Trek creators almost produced, instead. Some of these attempted films even make the William Shatner-directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier look like a better movie. Sound impossible? Set your Phasers on FUN and see for yourself!

1. Star Trek: The Cattlemen (1973)

Four years after the cancellation of the “Original Series”, Star Trek was already starting to show the new life that would eventually lead to its franchise resurrection, given the right vehicle. Comic strips on both sides of the Atlantic were telling new stories based on the original five year mission and conventions everywhere showed fans chomping at the bit. Knowing the iron was hot enough to strike, Gene Roddenberry approached Paramount with this pitch for the first Trek feature film. You may question the... taste... of this proposal.

What was it about?

Based on the original Star Trek pitch to NBC, specifically in a proposed episode synopsis called “A Question of Cannibalism”, the proposed Roddenberry-penned feature reads like a vegan's worst nightmare. The Starfleet crew was to encounter a race of “cow-like creatures” being raised and slaughtered by ranchers for food and the profitable meat and leather empire surrounding this industry. The catch is that the “cattle” is an intelligent species that raises the title “question”.

Why was it never made?

Surprisingly, Paramount was actually keen on making the “thinking steak story” into a movie and this was almost our first foray into big screen Star Trek. Fortunately, Producer Herb Solow indicated the script needed heavy rewrites because “it did not foreshadow an enjoyable night at the movies” (especially for those who had already eaten hamburgers on the way to the theatre). It was actually Roddenberry who turned off the grill on this feast. Dissatisfied with Paramount's offer for screenwriting pay, “The Great Bird” walked away from the negotiating table. Paramount wasn't willing to wait till the cows came home (and they feared fan backlash if they made the film without Trek's creator) so they let the project quietly die.

What got made instead?

Star Trek the Animated Series started in 1973 and lasted two seasons but beyond that there wasn't much meat on the bones of Star Trek for a while. Still, at least we avoided a first Trek that would inspire the phrase “You want FRIES with that?” at the box office.

2. Star Trek: Planet of the Titans (1976 -1977)

Unlike The Cattlemen, Planet of the Titans (also known as Planet of Titans) went beyond the pitch stage, past negotiations and straight on into pre-production. With the syndicated ratings for Star Trek proving franchise potential, Paramount gave Roddenberry millions to develop a new script, but it was Chris Bryant and Allan Scott's script that Paramount greenlit.

Directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Wise were considered for the director's chair before Philip Kaufman (who would later direct Leonard “Spock” Nimoy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) sat down. James Bond's production designer Ken Adam and Star Wars' conceptual genius Ralph McQuarrie even contributed concept artwork for the film to be. Clearly this one was launching at way more than merely “impulse power”.

What was it about?

If the title doesn't clue you in, this space journey was to feature the original crew (on their newly refitted and now triangular Enterprise) seeking out the home world of the mythical Titans. Kirk and company then have to face off with both the Klingons and a new race called the Cygnans in a battle that sends them through a black hole and back in time to primitive Earth. Thus, Kirk, Spock and McCoy are actually revealed to be the Titans themselves. The sequel could have been called “Planet of Contrivances”, if it had gotten that far.

Why was it never made?

But that never happened, so we never got to hear DeForest Kelley say “Damn it, Jim, I'm a Doctor, not a TITAN!” Why not, especially when so much work had been done?

The Bryant/ Scott script was rejected, which put the re-write pen into Kaufman's hands. Kaufman's concept refocused the script on a less-Titanic match between Spock and a Klingon (whom Kaufman wanted uber-famous Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune to portray). Ultimately the budget ballooned to over ten million dollars, and Paramount pulled the positronic plug for good.

What got made instead?

Paramount's focus shifted to the proposed TV spinoff, to be entitled Star Trek: Phase II (which ultimately led to Star Trek: The Motion Picture). In addition, Ralph McQuarrie fans have noticed more than a little resemblance between the triangular refit of the Enterprise and the ultimate design for Star Wars' Imperial cruisers known as “Star Destroyers” (which McQuarrie also did concept work on). If this similarity is no coincidence, take note that decades later on UPN's Star Trek: Enterprise, spherical planet destroying spacecraft that resembled the “Death Star” more than a lot debuted, so we'll call it even.

3. Star Trek: The Motion Picture II (1979 – 1980)

Ultimately the success of that same Star Wars film helped shift Paramount's gears from the television-based Star Trek: Phase II to the big-screen epic Star Trek: The Motion Picture which more closely resembled Roddenberry's (semi-) original idea “The God Thing”, than it did Titans. It was a success at the box office, but fans and critics considered the film to be somewhat slow and plodding.

The Guardian of Forever

What was it about?

Remember “The Guardian of Forever”, that groovy, psychedelically glowing rock structure from the Original Series that sent Kirk, Spock and (a quite insane) McCoy way back in time? In this proposed second feature, the Klingons get ahold of it and use it to go back in time and prevent President John F. Kennedy from being assassinated. The Enterprise crew then have to go back in time to repair the corrupted timeline... and thus, kill Kennedy.

Following the Klingons' logic in this case is almost as difficult as following Roddenberry's own. Wasn't Kennedy the President who insisted we go to the moon before the end of the 1960s, thus laying the groundwork for the future of Starfleet? While only Paramount insiders who have read the original treatment truly know how this worked, irrationally (unless Kennedy was a secret Klingon spy), JFK's survival ensures a future where the Klingons are the dominant military force in the galaxy... somehow. If the Klingon Empire truly wanted to go back in time to prevent a travesty and ensure their own longevity, perhaps they should have stepped in to prevent the cancellation of Star Trek instead. The thought of Captain Kirk walking around with a "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Nixon" button is too much to bear.

Why was it never made?

You mean besides the fact that the concept of our interstellar heroes theoretically beaming to “the grassy knoll” to wipe out one of our most beloved presidents being in even worse taste than that whole “Cattlemen” debacle? Roddenberry's constant meddling and rewrite demands were blamed for Star Trek: The Motion Picture's eventual budget which hit $46 million (remember the previous film was shelved largely for hitting the $10 million mark). Paramount wanted Roddenberry's control over the franchise like they wanted Tabasco sauce on their ice cream, so Uncle Gene was “kicked upstairs” to the largely ceremonial position of “Executive Consultant”.

What got made instead?

Harve Bennett (a Paramount Television producer) was brought in to produce the next Star Trek film in the hope that he could make a big screen feature on a small screen budget. Like Roddenberry's never-made sequel, Bennett brought in a major icon from the original series and explored what would later be known as The Wrath of Khan (or, more accurately, “Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!”).

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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