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The Lost History of 'Star Trek: The Beginning,' The Gritty Prequel Film That Never Was

June 5, 2020 8 items

Over 50 years into its existence, the universe of Star Trek continues to grow, with the TV series currently streaming on CBS All-Access (Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discovery, and upcoming series like the animated Lower Decks) and the movie franchise set to expand with a 14th installment to be directed by Fargo creator Noah Hawley. Still, it wasn't that long ago that the Star Trek franchise lay dormant, a victim of changing tastes, corporate instability, and a string of underperforming films. In that fallow period, Star Trek's reigning mastermind, Rick Berman, sought to chart a new course for the film franchise, going back to the past to craft a Trek adventure unlike any other. He and fellow producers Jordan Kerner and Kerry McCluggage approached Band of Brothers writer Erik Jendresen to bring Star Trek into the 21st century by going back to the fictional 22nd. It was not to be, and 2009 would see the release of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek, but the journey of the road not taken was just as interesting as the one that was. Here is the story of the Star Trek: The Beginning script, and the reason why it never saw the light of day.

  • In 2005, 'Star Trek: Enterprise' Was Canceled

    In 2005, 'Star Trek: Enterprise' Was Canceled
    Photo: UPN

    Debuting in 2001, mere weeks after the events of September 11, Enterprise was an attempt by Rick Berman and co-creator Brannon Braga to reboot and refresh the Trek franchise on TV. After seven years of The Next Generation, seven years of Deep Space Nine, and seven of Voyager, it seemed that it was time to give the series a fresh coat of paint. That meant Enterprise would be a prequel in which the Federation didn't yet exist and humanity was still a newcomer on the galactic stage. It allowed the show to be grittier, more visceral, and more indicative of the current state of humanity instead of focusing on the polished, evolved humans of the 24th century.

    Despite a talented cast led by Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap fame and a significant budget, the show never caught on with viewers or critics and the show was canceled after four seasons. Three years after Star Trek: Nemesis, the final film adventure for the Next Generation crew, had flopped at the box office, Star Trek was now completely off the screen for the first time since the late 1970s.

    At the same time, Viacom was planning to split up its entertainment properties between TV and film. Star Trek had benefited from corporate synergy within Viacom. Star Trek's TV and film franchises both operated under Paramount Pictures, but when CBS and Viacom split up to become separate entities in 2005, that meant Star Trek's TV rights went to CBS and the film rights went to Paramount/Viacom. One year after Enterprise was canceled by UPN, the future of Star Trek was both uncertain and divided.

  • 'The Beginning' Could Have Been Star Trek's Version of 'The Dark Knight'

    Film critic Glen Oliver, who wrote a favorable review of the script for The Beginning in 2008, looked back on the script in 2016 and said, "It would've become Trek's equivalent of Nolan's Dark Knight films, for better or worse." So, how did it come to be, and why did the studio pass on it?

    With producer Rick Berman still under contract with Paramount, he was given the first crack at sorting out what the future of the franchise would be. Berman was firm that Star Trek needed a break from TV due to the fan fatigue of three spinoff series over 18 years. Plus, the TV rights to the series now resided at the newly independent CBS, making the situation more complicated than before. The decision for what would happen to Star Trek on film rested first with Donald De Line, Paramount's president of production, who was hired by studio chief Sherry Lansing in 2003 under the promise that De Line would be top of the list to replace her when she left.

    Lansing had been the chairperson and CEO of Paramount Pictures since 1992. Under her guidance, the Star Trek film franchise successfully transitioned from the Original Series crew to the Next Generation cast, which starred in four films, starting with 1994's Star Trek Generations.

    Lansing's fruitful history with Star Trek meant she was a natural supporter of staying the course with Berman at the helm. The new Trek film would be produced by Berman, Mighty Ducks producer Jordan Kerner, and Paramount Television executive Kerry McCluggage. McCluggage was a key figure in the development of Star Trek on TV, from Deep Space Nine to Enterprise. That made him a natural to participate in this rethink of the series. 

    That rethink would eventually involve Eric Jendresen, who made his name as the writer of the hugely successful HBO WWII miniseries Band of Brothers. In the oral history book, The 50 Year Mission, Jendresen describes the call from his agent that led to him initially taking over writing duties. His first instinct was to say no, as he was not a fan of science fiction. "I'm kind of an odd purist that way. If it's not Jules Verne or H.G. Wells or Edgar Allen Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle, I'm not that interested," he said in an excerpt posted in The Hollywood Reporter. Kerner convinced him to consult on the project, which led to a fateful meeting with Paramount brass.

  • 'Star Trek: The Beginning' Was Going To Be The First Installment Of A Prequel Trilogy

    Jendresen came to Paramount and laid out his vision: a prequel set in the time between the end of Enterprise and the initial 1965 Star Trek pilot episode, "The Cage." For the first time ever, Star Trek would dramatize the pivotal Earth-Romulan conflict that paved the way for the creation of the United Federation of Planets. "It was sort of like having an encyclopedia. This encyclopedia is missing the letter T. There's a gap," Jendresen said. Most crucially, The Beginning would be the first installment of a trilogy telling the story of Captain Kirk's distant ancestor, Tiberius Chase (which explains Kirk's wacky middle name), an Earth Navy officer who desperately wants to be accepted into the new exploration organization called Starfleet. 

    To find a way into the material as a non-fan, Jendresen looked to classic heroic literature. Speaking of the early stages of development, he recalled:

    I'd ever so loosely fashion the first one on The Iliad. And the sequel would be ever so loosely based on The Odyssey. I would love to leave the hero and his crew stranded and having to make their way slowly back to Earth having no idea whether Earth exists or not. It's going to take them years to get back on this crippled ship. 

    The film would be set in the more militaristic world of the prequel future first hinted at with the creation of the MACO space marines in Enterprise. The MACOs would be brought back for The Beginning, befitting the gritty tone of the movie.

    Jendresen would have to sell his ideas to Berman, McCluggage, Kerner, and top executives at Paramount, including De Line. What he would encounter in that meeting was not what he expected. Berman was, in Jendresen's eyes, "perfectly pleasant, but he seemed vaguely disinterested." Everyone else did, too. "I've never been in a more preternaturally dead room than this one," Jendresen recalls. 

    At the end of his vibrant pitch, De Line asked how long it would take to write the script. Jendresen said "eight to 10 weeks," to which De Line explained that he needed it fast. With an executive shuffle on the way at the new Paramount Pictures, the careers of everyone involved would be at stake.

  • The Story Would Have Been Told Through A Series Of Voiceovers

    Taking inspiration from classic documentaries like Ken Burns's The Civil War, Jendresen devised a narrative device in which the protagonist, United Earth Space Navy officer Tiberius Chase, would read letters home to his girlfriend, an Iowa school teacher named Penelope Gardner. When Earth is attacked by a mysterious Romulan armada seeking to wipe out all Vulcans on the planet, Chase is called into duty to help defend the homeworld, despite the misgivings of Starfleet brass (including Gardner's admiral father) who know of Chase's less-than-savory family history.

    His family has been involved in xenophobic, anti-alien hate groups based out of a secret hideaway in Antarctica. But Chase is different. He flees his prejudiced father, Otto, and commits to charting a new course of diversity and inclusion for his family in Iowa.

    The voiceover letters deftly give us a glimpse into Chase's mindset and nods to the history of the franchise. In a letter home to Gardner, Chase says, "Penelope, I am going where so many have gone before - to the place where all paths lead, and all journeys end. Please know, my love, that if I do nothing else... that at least... I go there boldly."