See The Unmade Star Trek Series That Launched The Film Franchise

The unmade series Star Trek: Phase II helped lead to the creation of the motion picture franchise.

By Chris Snellgrove | Updated

william shatner

Even for the casual fan, the history of Star Trek seems pretty straightforward: it went from being a televised cultural phenomenon with Star Trek: The Original Series (now streaming on Paramount+), and after that show completed its third and final season in 1979, the cast came back ten years later for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That led to future films that helped Star Trek bring in new audiences, eventually ushering in the iconic Star Trek: The Next Generation starring Captain Picard and his famous crew. Back in the day, most people assumed the franchise pivoting to film was solely due to the massive success of Star Wars, but another thing really helped this crew “boldly go” into cinematic history was an unmade series called Star Trek: Phase II.

Star Trek: Phase II started development in the late 1970s, and it might surprise modern fans to learn that a new show was being developed so soon after the unceremonious end of Star Trek: The Original Series. That was a series that always struggled in the ratings, but it became a hit in syndication, especially among demographics such as college students. In fact, the Star Trek franchise grew to be so popular that it got two short seasons of an animated series that began in 1973, effectively paving the way for a live-action return of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and the rest of the iconic crew.

However, not all of the crew were planning to return to Star Trek: Phase II. Even though he had returned to the franchise in the animated series, Leonard Nimoy had legal disputes with series creator Gene Roddenberry and refused to return to live-action, so he was going to be replaced with a Vulcan named Xon. There were even plans to introduce a new captain, Decker, that might eventually replace William Shatner, whose high salary demands naturally made the network nervous.

Why, then, did we never see Star Trek: Phase II, especially after the actors were hired, sets were built, and scripts were written? In 1977, the same year that this new show was officially announced, a little film called Star Wars blew audiences away. And between the success of that movie and the sheer grandeur of the Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Paramount now realized that the new televised Trek wouldn’t be impressive enough and decided to pivot to film.

Fortunately, pivoting to film was quite easy because of all the work that had already gone into Star Trek: Phase II. Star Trek: The Motion Picture ended up using an old Phase II script named “In Thy Image,” and it prominently used two characters created for that show: Captain Decker and Ilia (and yes, if you were wondering: she was always written as a bald bombshell). It was easy enough to modify sets built for the show into film sets, Leonard Nimoy reluctantly returned (only after settling a lawsuit with Paramount), and William Shatner definitively replaced Decker as captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise in one of the franchise’s most “meta” moments.

Even when it first premiered, some critics dismissed that first film by jokingly calling it Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, and the film, while stunningly beautiful, suffered from the pacing issues of adapting a Star Trek: Phase II script into a feature-length movie. But that film helped launch a successful series of movies that led us to the present day, where fans have more Trek shows than they can shake a bat’leth. In that sense, we probably wouldn’t have any modern Trek at all if not for the unmade Phase II, something we like to think Spock would dub “fascinating.”