In August 1977, science-fiction author Alan Dean Foster submitted a story for the two-hour premiere of the new Star Trek television series, Phase II. It opened with the Enterprise receiving a Starfleet communication detailing the appearance of an enormous metallic shape moving to Earth. Kirk is given the task of intercepting whatever it might be. All they know is that the thing is 30 kilometers across, 70 kilometers in length and emits a radiation that causes sensors to go “crazy”.
As the Enterprise approaches, the Vulcan science officer, Xon (replacing Spock), comes to the conclusion that it is some kind of ship. They pull up close to it and “the general effect is some monstrous cathedral lying on its side. Against that gleaming leviathan, the Enterprise is a tiny shape.”
The intruder attempts communication and Uhura puts it on speaker. The vessel is the servant of a God known as N’sa (pronounced “en-sah”). Xon checks with the computer and finds no reference to a god named N’sa. The metallic voice explains that it is on its way to Earth, the home world of its god.
N’sa showed the chosen people, we of the Wan, the existence and magnificence of the universe. In return, we of the Wan wish to return this gift by clearing N’sa’s world of the festering disease N’sa indicated was poisoning its surface.
Kirk’s first officer, Decker, is confused by this and questions the other vessel. Suddenly the metallic voice refers to him and the others as infestations. Kirk orders photon torpedoes to be fired, but they have no effect. He orders the Enterprise to warp speed, but again nothing happens. The ship is being held in a tractor beam of enormous strength.
Decker is trying to figure out why the Wan has not destroyed them, even though it has the power to do so. Kirk deduces that it only wants to kill the crew but save the ship, perhaps to learn more about the Federation and its capabilities. To prevent this from happening, Kirk orders Scotty to overload the engines so the vessel will self-destruct. He gives the order, but the computer refuses to carry it out. “I have been ordered,” it relates, “not to allow self-destruction, because it would not be to the greater glory of the great god N’sa.”
Probes of light appear on the Enterprise, examining various aspects of the ship. A battle ensues and the probes eventually leave. At that moment, the computer begins to feed information to the Wan and ignores override commands. “They’re hunting for a weakness,” Decker warns.
Elsewhere on the ship, there are reports of a tiger, a pack of wolves, an army of ants, alligators, eagles, elephants and lions. A swarm of bees materializes on the bridge and they are killed in phaser fire. Xon picks up one of the “dead” bees and discovers it is actually a mechanical device. So are the other creatures that suddenly appeared on board.
They attempt communication with the alien ship and are shocked to realize that the ship is actually a single machine lifeform. Xon comes to the conclusion that the Enterprise was not destroyed, because Wan considers it a smaller version of itself and the crew a disease known as organic life.
Kirk does his best to convince the Wan that they are all intelligent creatures, but it wants no part of this. The alien ship will continue on its path to Earth and cleanse it of the parasitic units. The Wan explains that “they knew nothing of the universe beyond until one day the god N’sa came down to them.” N’sa told them of the universe beyond and the world it came from. This great vessel was built to return the body of N’sa to its home and to exterminate the organic life that enslaved N’sa’s companions.
Kirk, Xon, Decker and McCoy are transported aboard the alien spacecraft and appear in a huge vaulted chamber. Robot reproductions of their own crew wheel a mobile cart into the room with a clear dome cover. They discover that the god N’sa is actually a space probe launched by NASA in 1973. Apparently the Wan accepted the probe as a god and misinterpreted the information in it.
Through pleading for man as a species, and a plan in which the Enterprise crew had constructed a robot version of Xon equipped with a photon bomb, the Wan admits defeat. The bomb, it points out, is not the reason, but rather the fact that the superiority of intelligent life has been proven. The officers are transported back to the Enterprise.
Out of curiosity, Decker asks the ship’s computer whether man or machine is superior. “Man is superior, naturally,” the computer responds, much to Decker’s relief.
“Don’t be too sure of yourself, commander,” says McCoy. “We’ll always have to keep one eye on our machines.”
“What do you mean?” Decker asks. “You just heard it admit that we’re its superiors.”
“That’s what it said,” smiles McCoy, “but how do we know for sure that it isn’t lying?” With that said, the Enterprise warps into space.
Upon reading Foster’s treatment, Gene Roddenberry issued a total of six pages of comments, noting that the “principle problem… is certainly not lack of imagination. Rather, I believe most of my comments will bear upon control and selective use of imagination.
Most of our story problem seems to boil down to getting to know our alien characters better… It should then be much easier to build a tale which rises steadily in excitement and jeopardy (to the starship and to Earth) to a very exciting and satisfying climax.
Producer Harold Livingston was pleased with the treatment, although he agreed with many of Roddenberry’s criticisms. He wrote that he thought they had a “very, very workable story and, assuming the writer shares our enthusiasm, I do believe we’ll come out with a very good script.”
Alan Dean Foster recalled in an interview with Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman that was published in The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years that Roddenberry had got in touch with him, because he had authored the novelizations of The Animated Series, called the Star Trek Log series. “He felt I was comfortable with the Star Trek universe and familiar with the characters.”
Roddenberry told me to develop the story for “In Thy Image” into a full-scale treatment. After my treatment was turned in based on Roddenbeny’s page, it was decided to open the series with a two-hour movie-for-TV, which is fairly standard procedure when they can manage it. It was decided that of the treatments they had at hand, mine was the best suited to carry two hours. So I went home and developed a 37-page outline.
The revised treatment, dated August 12, 1977, differed primarily in the way it opened. After the destruction of the Klingon vessels, we move to Starfleet Headquarters where Admiral Kirk is reviewing a tape which details information on the refitting of the Enterprise. A Captain Adams, who is to command the ship, enters the room and suggests that the admiral join him for the final precommissioning tour. As they leave the room, they are called to an emergency meeting.
Starfleet has detected a large metallic object on a direct course for Earth. Enterprise is assigned to intercept, but Adams worries that the ship isn’t ready. He asks Kirk to take command.
Kirk reunites with his old crew, with the exception of Spock, who is now president of the Vulcan Academy of Sciences. His replacement is Lieutenant Xon.
The rest of the draft is pretty much like the original. It diverges again in the end, when the alien ship decides to spare Earth and the Enterprise crew. Kirk’s demonstration of human creativity touches something in the alien, which is going to take word of this creativity back to Wan; new information that requires much study. Perhaps if machines have helped man to achieve such creations, one day man might help the Wan do likewise.
“This is it”
What Foster didn’t know is that the studio had already decided to turn his story into a movie.
At an August 3 meeting attended by Roddenberry and Paramount executives, Robert H. Goodwin has pitched “In Thy Image” as the Phase II pilot. CEO Michael Eisner was so excited by the story that he said, “We’ve been looking for the feature for five years and this is it.”
Goodwin recalled years later that Eisner slammed his hand on the table — “and that was when it happened.” Star Trek: The Motion Picture was born.
But Phase II couldn’t be pronounced dead yet. New deals would have to be negotiated with the cast, with producers, with Gene Roddenberry himself. New budgets would have to be calculated. If, for whatever reason, a movie could not be made after all, Paramount would face the embarrassment of needing to publicly reverse its decision yet again.
The higher-ups knew that Phase II was finished, but it would be another five months before everyone else found out.