At first, it was going to be a return to the small screen. "Star Trek II" was the name of a TV show. And as they're putting it together, they're starting to realize that it's not a TV series like they thought at first but, instead, should be a big-screen big-budget motion picture to compete with "Star Wars." Because LOOK AT ALL THE MONEY!
So they make a movie instead in 1979, and they spend a lot of money on it and they hire a huge famous director... but they really don't do anything like "Star Wars" at all. And that's to their credit. They decided that they weren't going to imitate it in terms of structure or style or storytelling. They made a "Star Trek" movie, definitely... although I'd argue that Wise is also sort of obviously madly in love with "2001" to some extent. And that movie, that film that is sort of uncompromised and a best-effort and genuinely sort of ambitious and daring... tanks.
Relatively speaking. It wasn't so embarrassing that people were fired, but it wasn't the cultural sensation Paramount was hoping for. Gee, can you imagine a summer where a "Star Trek" film came out and made $250 million? Crazy, right? Never happen. But at Paramount, they had to be thinking that Lucas was doing something right, and it was something they were doing wrong.
Because "The Empire Strikes Back" came out, and it was another monster hit. So you'd better believe that when they went to camera with a second "Star Trek" movie, they were a lot more open to the idea of turning up the space opera and turning down the Roddenberry. Literally, with the replacement of the show's creator by new producer Harve Bennett, who was the one who picked the episode "Space Seed" and suggested creating a sequel to it, bringing back a villain from the show so that they could play off of an established history. Sort of like having an Empire that... you know... strikes back.
The result is what gave them the rest of the franchise. It was a turning point, and at the moment they absolutely had to do it, they stuck the landing.
[more after the jump]